This collection of conference papers began in 1997 at the Virtual Burkeian Parlor, created by David Blakesley, and has since been moved to KB Journal so that people can continue to draw from this work and continue to build the archive. To submit a conference paper for inclusion in the archive, email it in HTML format to the Kenneth Burke Society's Editor of Publications, David Blakesley (email@example.com).
Presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication
Atlanta, April 1999
Typically Burkeian, the phrase is one of Burke's "Flowerishes" (i.e., "flourishes") and captures an essential characteristic of his work and his methodology. We might use it to rewrite a familiar phrase: "In the End, there was the Word." While we often think of first words as beginnings, Burke will have us think of them as endings, as conclusions to tangled chains of meaning, significance, and motivation. The word as the sign of a world, or the word as a sign of the world. Whereas Protagoras would say, "Man is the measure of all things," Burke might say that "a word is the measure of all things." Or perhaps, "Our words choose us." What does he have in mind?
Burke sees it as his duty to track down the implications of a given terminology (even while writing from within its implicit structure). He also does not resist the impulse to consider himself involved in the process. That involvement and the understanding that it generates requires, for Burke, tracking down "the kinds of observations implicit in the terminology you have chosen, whether your choice of terms was deliberate or spontaneous" (LASA 47; italicized in the original).
I want to suggest that we consider, for a moment, the value of inventing backwards, or at least of exploring the possibility that our ideas are not always the seeds of new insight, but germs of the unending conversation of history that has preceded them. We tend to think of invention as a generative process, but I want to consider the utility of teaching students to think not like traditional inventors--formulating hypotheses, testing them out, resituating them, etc.--but like "de-generators" or, if you will "degenerates." We find precedent for such behavior in Plato, who nearly always presented Socrates's conclusions as first principles, working backwards from them to generate the dialectic that would end up where he began.
I have found no better representation of how this process might work than in Angelo Bonadonna's 1997 CCCC's paper, "The Burkean Legacy and Composition; or Five Dogs in Search of Meaning." (Still available, by the way at the Burke-L Repository on the WWW.) The process involves, in essence, tracking down a term's "unconscious" with reference to the various ways that terms take on meaning. In addition to having students consider at some length and over time the "primal dog," the "jingle dog," the "lexical dog," the "entelechial dog," and the "tautological dog," I ask them to turn their "unpackings" of a term themselves into the object of reflection, in open essays, two-act plays, dialogues that aim to show that "it's more complicated than that." The result can be a sharpened sense of the ways that our terms have from the very start leapt to conclusions that are ideologically situated, contestable, derivative, and dependent. In other words, that from the moment we're born into language, we're rhetorical beings.
Presented at The Triennial Conference of the Kenneth Burke Society
Iowa City, May 1999
The weeks upon weeks of impeachment hearings through which we recently suffered have provided a plethora of rhetorical treasure. This is no less true for Burkeians than for other rhetorical scholars. In fact, Burke offers us some unique ways of understanding what happened and perhaps why the attempt to overthrow Clinton failed.
One of the most striking phenomena of the impeachment cycle was the absolute hatred evinced by the Clinton foes. Indeed, Clinton has always managed to arouse in his detractors something more than a rational spirit of critique. In 1993, driving into school on a rural Texas highway, I saw a bumper sticker on a pickup truck: “Impeach him, hell! Get a rope!” At the time I saw this slogan as a comment on our violence-ridden society, where fruitful democratic disagreement was endangered by people who responded to political setbacks with assassination threats. Now I tend to think that the bumper sticker was another manifestation of Clinton’s special ability to draw out in certain people the lowest angels of their nature.
University of Chicago professor Jonathan Lear offers a Freudian explanation for this phenomenon. Lear remarks that “no one is interested in sex, though each party thinks the other is, and somehow the nation seems to be talking about nothing else” (25). He also remarks on other aspects: for example, that the “rule of law” rhetoric employed by the House managers undercut itself because, in fact, it was used to justify the way in which Ken Starr singled out the President for special treatment (25). Lear urges that we explain the feeding frenzy by looking for “a mythical structure in which we are all unconsciously participating” (26). He believes that the grounds of the myth he intends to explicate are more “primordial” than “the Christian myth of sin, human sacrifice, and redemption.” These foundational grounds are “the conditions of civilization itself” (26).
In Lear’s reading, Clinton’s sin is that he acted as if he believed himself above the laws governing the human interactions that make civilized cooperation possible:
Freud posits a pre-civilized state in which an all-powerful leader--the “primal father”--rules over the tribe. He has sexual access to all the women, and he subjugates the men or drives them out. The defining moment of civilization occurs when the sons band together, overthrow the father, and form a civilization by instituting strict rules of sexual access. . . . [These rules guarantee] that no one man can possess all the women--and thus threaten a return to a pre-civilized state. (26)
Lear concludes that “Clinton must die as primal father in order to be reborn as repentant son” (29). The religious cast to the drama, for Lear, is an overlay on the more basic act of patricide.
Lear himself points out one immediate problem with his reading: that Clinton, as the first baby boomer to attain the high office of president, is more of a brother than a father (29). He also reminds us that the president’s efforts at self-flagellation were never enough for his tormenters, who insisted on depicting him as beyond redemption (26). I would point also to the failure of the American public to join in the demand that their “father” be cut down. If we were living out an unconscious mythology, it would seem to be one especially cogent for the press and conservative Republicans.
Burke offers us a reading of the impeachment process that braids together some of the loose threads of Lear’s analysis. Like Lear’s, Burke’s explanation taps the depths of subconscious motivations to which we may not always have full access. I suggest that the assault on Clinton is an example of Burke’s scapegoat paradigm.
For the record, explaining the impeachment as an attempt by Republicans to make Clinton their scapegoat does not imply a moral exoneration of Clinton. Like many others, I am torn between my awareness that I could not have voted differently in those two elections and my concern that in so voting I may have contributed to the ascendancy of an immoral man. But I think that this is a dilemma with which many Americans are grappling, and perhaps Burke will offer an explanation of why so many of us finally acted as we did.
As we know, Burke posited that language is our most fundamental human capacity and that language imposes on us certain ways of dealing with our worlds. Central to these linguistic impositions is the concept of a hierarchical Order (41; RM 191-92).* As a ladder of ever more inclusive generalizations, language drives us to imagine a culmination, an all-inclusive perfection in which every antithesis is subsumed and every contradiction tamed (25-26, 277, 299). In Burke’s theory, this perfect Order entails within itself the concept of Disorder; since the Order is a construct of language, it contains within it and is susceptible to that hallmark of the linguistic capacity, the negative: the ability to say no to Order, to disobey (181, 187). Moreover, we can never achieve this perfect Order because we can never incorporate all the differences and divisions that plague us into a perfect whole (303). “Divisiveness is in itself a ‘fall,’” Burke tells us (279). We respond to our role of disrupter of Order with guilt (210, 285).
Burke sees this relation between Order, division, and guilt as far more primordial than any father-son conflict, since it is intrinsic to our defining characteristic, language, and is the condition of any such divisiveness as that which allows us to name a hierarchical relationship between a father and a son. Burke also believes that our unconscious myths are paeans not so much to power as to form. A fall is a dramatic act that must end. If the end is stasis with the Order destroyed, the comforts of form itself are denied us; the perfection implicit in language is gutted. To destroy form, for Burke, would be to destroy language. There has to be a conversion, a return of the fallen to its rightful place in the Order. With perfection restored,the cycle can begin again (191).
But to achieve this return to Order, what we must cast out is the “no,” the disobedience that marks us as capable of resisting the commands of Order and thus as separate from it; we must negate our original negation (218, 290, 294). In actuality, we, as the language-using animal, are the “no.” So to eliminate the demon of “no” would necessarily be to eliminate language--or ourselves. Some do choose mortification or self-destruction, which can take the form either of suicide or martyrdom (208). But more commonly, we choose a substitute, a symbolic offering in our place (294).
This substitute--the sacrificial scapegoat--is a special creature. The most effective scapegoat, as one who can repair the “perfect” sin, that is, the total disruption of perfection that must result from one flaw, must him- or herself be “perfect”--either, as Burke says, the perfect enemy or the perfect innocent (191, 200, 217). By combining both sacred and accursed in one symbol (192), the perfect scapegoat can erase, or in Burke’s word, bridge, the division between them (304). This is its function: to somehow enable the purifying reabsorption of the fallen into the whole. Burke points out that scapegoats are often chosen from among those who are “set apart”--for example, priests (200). They are always those who embody or personify difference or division, either the fomenters of divisive acts or the possessors of a trait or identity that is seen as disrupting an otherwise unified whole.
Moreover, the ability to say “no,” Burke says, is an aspect of personhood; it is what makes us persons capable of acts rather than objects capable only of passive or mechanical motion (187-88, 202-03, 286; LSA 11). Thus our “sin” is bound up with who we are, with the choices that we make within the window of freedom provided by the power to disobey. “[M]ortification,” Burke writes,
does not occur when one is merely ‘frustrated’ by some external interference. It must come from within. The mortified must, with one aspect of himself, be saying no to another aspect of himself. . . . [He is] seeking a sacrificial vessel upon which he can vent, as from without, a turmoil that is actually within. (190-91)
Thus, the scapegoat must, in some way, be consubstantial with us because what it must take with it when it goes must be some aspect of us, our sins. The scapegoat’s principle role is not to redeem itself. Rather, it serves to purify or redeem the group that has chosen it as a sacrifice because of its power to represent the group’s defining sin (GM 406).
Clearly the Christian cycle of sin and redemption is a forceful exemplar of the scapegoat paradigm. In a Burkeian reading, the Christian story becomes far more primordial than the Freudian father-son drama because the redemption pattern is inherent in language. The question of atonement is central, not an overlay. But it is not Clinton whose redemption was actually at stake in the impeachment proceedings. Instead, it is the atonement and purification of the most vocal of Clinton’s critics, the conservative Republicans and their religious allies, that was at issue. Clinton was in fact their scapegoat, the one they set apart, burdened with their sins and labeled the perfect enemy, and tried their best to cast out.
This claim entails that Clinton represents some flaw in some overriding Order that these foes wanted to protect. They themselves most often named this Order “the rule of law”; thus, this rule of law with which Henry Hyde and other moralizers equated themselves must contain within it a central flaw that, like the “no” in language, cannot be cast out in actuality because of its defining importance and therefore must be cast out symbolically. How can Clinton--a Democrat, a quasi-liberal, a draft-dodger, a marijuana-experimenter, a fornicator--represent something intrinsic to the conservative, moralistic, “rule of law” and the group that mantles itself with that phrase? My answer lies in an essay, “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism,” written 28 years ago by a sociologist named Daniel Bell.
In a 1978 foreword, Bell describes himself as a “socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture” (xi). Not all of Bell’s arguments about twentieth-century culture are relevant to this inquiry. The book is a plea for a retreat from what Bell sees as the ravages of an unrestrained modernism. Much of what frightens Bell is the set of conditions that he and innumerable others after him label the “postmodern.” Modernism itself is to blame for much of the disruption that he laments, especially three characteristics he points to: its “rage against order, and in particular bourgeois orderliness” which results in an “emphasis . . . on the self, and the unceasing search for experience”; its “effort to achieve immediacy, impact, simultaneity, and sensation by eliminating aesthetic and psychic distance”; and finally, its “preoccupation with the medium,” which for Bell translates into “expressions of the self” by shifting attention away from communication about content onto the artist’s ability to manipulate materials (xxi-xxii). Timothy W. Crusius writes about Burke’s suspicion of the concept of unfettered “free play” in some postmodernisms and his focus on the contribution of the “social, the historical, the traditional in everything we do and say” (83), so there might be some interesting points of comparison between Burke and Bell among the important differences, but such an analysis is beyond the scope of this paper. What is interesting about Bell’s argument in relation to Burke is Bell’s recognition that the emptying out of meaning and moral content that arises from unrestricted reduction of all reality to the free play of interpretation was set in motion and blindly abetted by the very people who call most loudly for a return to moral values. Bell claims that capitalism created the excesses of modernism and in the process exposed its own central flaw.
Here, in Bell’s words, is his proposition:
The basic American value pattern emphasized the virtue of achievement, defined as doing and making, and a man displayed his character in the quality of his work. By the 1950s, the pattern of achievement remained, but it had been redefined to emphasize status and taste. The culture was no longer concerned with how to work and achieve, but with how to spend and enjoy. . . . On the one hand, the business corporation wants an individual to work hard, pursue a career, accept delayed gratification--to be, in the crude sense, an organization man. And yet, in its products and in its advertisements, the corporation promotes pleasure, instant joy, relaxing and letting go. One is to be “straight” by day and a “swinger” by night. This is self-fulfillment and self-realization! (70, 71-72)
Bell sees this contradiction in values as inherent in the complex interactions within American culture: “the claim of the American economic system was that it had introduced abundance, and the nature of abundance is to encourage prodigality rather than prudence” (75). But prodigality overturns the “theological and sociological foundations of nineteenth-century Protestantism, which was in turn the foundation of the American value system” (75). Such a divided society--and perhaps even current iterations of capitalism itself, Bell worries--cannot long thrive.
My purpose here is not to explore or critique Bell’s theory but rather to show its power to explain the impeachment hearings if linked to Burke’s scapegoat paradigm. Quite simply, the economic and religious conservatives who most loudly expressed their enmity toward Clinton are the ideological heirs of Bell’s ascetic Protestants--hence, their championship of moral values, self-discipline in the face of temptation (which Clinton did not practice), and the bourgeois orderliness symbolized by the rule of law. Yet in the very values they would promote are the seeds of Bell’s hedonism: the laissez-faire markets, where one’s ability to make money, a visible testament to moral merit, depends on one’s willingness to push people to buy anything, including sex.
In what follows, I collapse distinctions among varied groups who characterize themselves as conservatives. But despite differences--even tensions--among members of these groups, I think the ones from whom we heard most, the most morally inflamed, largely tried to speak in one voice and to project an epideictic of blame that emanated from what they wanted people to see as a common center. Not only did they want this center to be defined as the place where the rule of law reigned, they also wanted it to stand for all that was supposedly once good about America and could be again if Clinton and the corruption he represents could be expunged.
In this traditional American landscape, capitalism occupies ambiguous coordinates. In a recent review of works by a number of self-identified conservatives, Alan Wolfe contends that “conservatism began as a protest against modern capitalistic democracy,” with its insistence that the masses have the reason and right to rule themselves rather than succumb to strictures handed down by self-appointed elites (39). Conservatism has failed to take hold in America, Wolfe believes, because when it tries to “assert its true agenda” of tradition, aristocratic rule, and foundational Truth, it is irrelevant to modern life, but any attempt to render it relevant dilutes it until it “eventually transform[s] itself into the very liberalism it claims to detest” (39). Capitalism, with its evocation of rational choosers, is properly a capital-L Liberal phenomenon, but in recent American history, it has associated itself with conservatism, to some extent because of conservatives’ championship of limited government, but also because of the belief embedded in the Protestant ethic and echoed in the justice-as-desert strain in both old and new conservatism (Wolfe 37) that material success is an indicator of virtue. In this view, the sober, moderate, and hard-working deserve to be rewarded, and generally are. The successful entrepreneur makes visible the efficacy of conservative values and thus becomes the conservative hero, and anything that maximizes the rewards accruing to those values and thereby makes people more likely to observe them should be encouraged. Yet it is this veneration of the successful achiever that portends the very slide into closet liberalism (or even libertarianism) that Wolfe predicts and Bell laments. Like Wolfe, Bell sees this slide as inevitable given the degree to which capitalism has insinuated itself in, and now drives, the American system. Both Wolfe and Bell take conservatives to task for their inability to detect this slippage. Burke contributes the analytical tools by which we can make visible the conservative House Managers’ efforts to disguise, both from the public and from themselves, their complicity in the Disorder represented by the capitalist contamination.
To sum up, the central flaw Bell locates in capitalism--particularly the capitalism that sets itself up as the arbiter of moral merit--is its conjunction of production and consumption. This flaw is the irreconcilable tension between the creation of abundance and the hedonism that puts abundance to use. This contradiction cannot easily be banished: an entire economic system depends on it. Unless they constantly create freewheeling, hedonistic consumers whom they would actually like to despise, the capitalists implicitly glorified by Clinton’s attackers cannot practice the production from which their virtue supposedly derives.
If Burke is right, when one person, especially one already set apart, already a little bit different, can be seen to embody perfectly the thing a group would like to deny or banish, that person becomes fodder for the scapegoat machine. I submit that for champions of the capitalist system, Clinton is such a person. Certainly he has been cast by his foes as the embodiment of hedonism, as many commentators recognized when they described the impeachment as an outgrowth of the culture wars in which Clinton stood for the 1960s culture of free sex and drugs. At the same time, in several ways, he has also come to represent much that the House Managers would have liked to retain for conservatism--for example, the triumph of the American system. He has come to stand up as a icon of material success. Not only is there his personal success story, there is also his ability to coax from the wayward capitalist system a totally unexpected, tenacious economic prosperity that has left his detractors with very few tangible failures to snipe at. There is his usurpation of Republican themes, his redefinition of himself as the champion of policy (if not personal) morality, the one who wants to take care of families and save children from tobacco and make America into a truly unified society by healing its divisive wounds. In many ways, as his leftist critics have charged, he has succeeded in out-Republicaning the Republicans, leaving them struggling to define him as outside their ranks.
Just as importantly, Clinton rose to power because of his appeal to the very consumers capitalism found itself forced to create, people who perhaps recognize his history and his abandonment to self-gratification in themselves. He is not only capitalism’s chieftain, he is its child. As Burke points out, one’s child is an ideal scapegoat: “slaying a beloved and only son would contain two elements: by thus ‘killing himself” vicariously, the father could simultaneously be destroyed and be saved” (RM261).
The degree to which Clinton represents an internal conflict for conservatives and capitalists becomes even more striking when we look more carefully at the implications of the order that he is supposed to have violated, the system described by that sonorous phrase, “the rule of law.” On the one hand, capitalism is supposed to succeed if its practitioners abide by an asceticism of self-discipline, self-control, frugality, and attention to rules. Yet paradoxically the central tenet of capitalism is the necessity of an apparently anti-conservative freedom, as embodied in the “free” market and “free” enterprise. A constant complaint of both conservatives and capitalism is that rules like government regulation stifle the freedom the market demands. Capitalism as appropriated by conservatism justifies this wayward insistence on freedom by distinguishing between people and their capital-creating capacity. People should follow rules, but the production of capital and commodities should remain unfettered. Giving producers of capital freedom from regulation has been justified in many ways--for example, in the name of competition, which, for conservatives, carries ethical weight. Free competition, in which no rules limit the options open to those creative and bold enough to discover and use them, is supposed to be the force that separates the elect and deserving from the sluggards and wastrels. Such allegedly ennobling competition is also justified by invisible-hand theories like supply-side economics, which tries to derive ethical results from amoral processes--that is, the good for all of society is assumed to follow from the unleashing of the money-making impulse. Enabling the winners on the competitive field by getting out of their way is cast as a means of raising all boats and thus doing maximum good for the most people. So for captains of acquisition, morality is actually associated with the absence of rules.
One irony in this ambivalence about rules is that it is arguably in their public behavior that capitalists are supposed to be free of rules, if one can somewhat reductively define “public” as behavior that affects other citizens’ lives. Private citizens, meanwhile, defined as those who simply come to work everyday and thus don’t have such profound public influence, must be ever ready to submit to their freewheeling masters’ rules. The Clinton scandal made visible this confusion between public and private and their relationship to morality. The perjury charge could be read as an attempt to hold Clinton publicly responsible for private acts. But in contrast to the public acts of capitalists, which are supposed to be unfettered, Clinton’s public acts were those for which he was to be sanctioned. The conflation of public and private via the act of perjury--which, of course, Clinton himself enabled--made it possible for the House managers to punish vicariously, through Clinton, a cultural resistance to the rules circumscribing the sober, hard-working, early-to-bed-and-rise organization man. They were able to assert symbolically exactly which free behavior was to be permitted and which was to be proscribed. Rhetorically, the Order symbolized by the rule of law was able to display its ability to ferret out and mete out punishment to violations of the distinction between self and capital-producing capacity--the very distinction that Bell would say capitalism, of necessity, blurs. That the capital-producing capacity, for the House Managers and their colleagues, was to remain unaffected is manifest in the fact that Clinton’s acts in this capacity, his actual public acts like policy decisions and fund-raising strategies, have never been and probably never will be presented for judgment in the well of the Senate. I am not the first to suggest that if they were, the actual scope of the rule of law--whom and what it really covers--would become achingly plain.
Finally, what exactly does the rule of law in capitalist culture most often protect? I would suggest that it most often protects private property. It seems designed to put burglars, embezzlers, and the ultimate transgressors of property, murderers, in jail. But, again, Clinton played out this function of the rule of law in such a way as to cast doubt on the apparent order it is supposed to guarantee. Intrinsic to the idea of hedonism is the ability to free oneself to experience everything, and the ultimate actualization of such freedom is to break down the rules that mark certain pleasures and experiences out of bounds. What is most likely to mark such boundaries and put some pleasures off limits are rules about property and personal space. As Lear points out, Clinton seized the women. His trespass in claiming them as objects of possession derived directly from the power given him by capitalist society and from the license to ignore rules of ownership built into the capitalist gestalt. This license prevails because the actual laws that govern capitalism are the “natural laws” of the market, which, at their purest, are ultraDarwinian, endorsing a survival-of-the-fittest mentality that the very word “competition” implies. Such natural laws make ownership a function of power. In such a system, the Order behind the rule of law is really anarchy: a Hobbesian war of all against all, an ironic transformation of a concept into its opposite that Burke teaches us especially to appreciate. Thus Clinton’s seizure of the women, which was perfectly legal, fell well within the logic of free enterprise, which at its purest states that anything you can get and hold onto is yours.
So, finally, Clinton’s foes demonized him in an effort to mark him as repugnant to their sense of Order because he represented, in stark detail, that Order’s contested grounds: its ineradicable tensions between production and consumption, between freedom and control, between public and private, between free enterprise and morality. His apologies were dross to his attackers because his personal redemption was never at stake. For the managers, what counted was their own integrity and purity, an obsession that drove them to differentiate furiously Clinton’s sexual misconduct from that of Hyde, Barr, Gingrich, and Livingstone. Though Clinton was a child of their own making, they had to define him as special, as set apart from other, ordinary sinners, a project that was made easier by his high office: as Lear notes, it was because he was so exalted that his accusers were able to cast his sins as especially evil and to demand prosecution that no one else would have been required to submit to. As an ideal scapegoat, he could have been either especially pure or especially sinful; as a tainted president, symbol to the nation, he was perfectly both at once.
A final enigma in the impeachment drama was the public’s general refusal to be caught up in the blood lust. Some commentators subscribed to the possibility that the public worried just a bit that the judgment being visited on Clinton might one day be directed at them. But some members of the public blamed neither Clinton nor themselves but the “culture”--that is, they suggested that Clinton was playing out a story embedded in our assumptions and values, and they seemed to hint that these assumptions and values could stand some work. Another way of looking at this reaction is to say that the public shifted the pentadic focus from the agent, Clinton, to the scene, ameliorating not only Clinton’s guilt but their own, and thus dulling their need for a scapegoat.
At first glance, such a shift of focus looks like a refusal of responsibility, and indeed it may be. But recall that scapegoating is one of the deadliest of our rhetorical strategies. Its fullest manifestation is violence. Clinton’s expulsion, though at one level only symbolically violent, would have done actual violence to another order that many explicitly saw as competing with the rule of law: the orderly handing over of power in the electoral process. The public’s ability to step out of the scapegoat process allowed them to defer its inherent violence until the next election, a strategy that reduced it to an “orderly” reversal, a decision about blame in a less virulent environment.
Burke tells us that the scapegoat process is cyclical; no sooner will we banish one victim than we will begin looking around for the next (233-36). He also tells us that it is rhetorically necessary and therefore its real violence is at some level ineluctable. But as Crusius reminds us, he leaves open the possibility that we can critically assess the rhetorical pressures our language and our obsession with perfect Orders place upon us (172). It is worth asking whether the kind of deferral enabled by the American public’s scenic shift might not be a strategy for dealing with the implacability of the process. What might a world be like where, in a spirit of irony, we recognized but deferred dealing with at least some of our villains. Deferral, in the Clinton case, gave people a chance to look at events from more than one perspective and thus develop, perhaps, the more ironic perspective that contributes to critical reflection. This is not to say that delay in some moral crises does not carry its own dangers. But I can see in deferral a subtle kind of redemption in that it may serve, in some small way, to weaken the bonds of our rhetorical essence, freeing us just a bit from the need to simply obey our trained incapacities (PC 6-10)--our tendencies to be ruled by orientations that don’t always serve us well.
Bell, Daniel. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. 1976. New York: Basic-Harper, 1978.
Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. 1945. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1969.
---. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966.
---. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. 1935. Los Altos, CA: Hermes, 1954.
---. A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1969.
---. The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. 1961. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1970.
Crusius, Timothy W. Kenneth Burke and the Conversation After Philosophy. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1999.
Lear, Jonathan. “Freudian Slip.” The New Republic 28 Sept. 1998: 25-29.
Wolfe, Alan. “The Revolution That Never Was: Why Conservatism is a Tribute to Liberalism.” The New Republic 7 June 1999: 34-42.
*All references are to The Rhetoric of Religion unless otherwise noted.
Presented at the Triennial Conference of the Kenneth Burke Society
Iowa City, May 1999
The college core curriculum is the one place where most college students will learn the basic foundations for critical thinking and the rhetorical processes necessary to it. Here is the territory where they will discover or not discover the profound importance of responsible dialogue through interpretation, logical persuasion, and argument beyond the generic competitive I win/you lose metaphors that our culture places upon them. Because culture is, itself, a matrix of diverse perspectives and attitudes, it offers a parallel structure to the college core curriculum which supplies the various foundational references to a general understanding of an academic culture all too alien to our students who subscribe to the primary tenets of popular culture outside of the realms of a "pure" education. Yet, if we see the very real and influential pop culture domain in the same way that Kenneth Burke sees college curriculum, as "so many different terminologies: that construct a "whole picture" (Language 5), we can see the profound importance of a rhetorical approach to core curriculum as a way to reveal to our students that an academic culture and popular culture are convergent parts of their whole cultural being. Because of rhetoric’s overarching importance across the curriculum, it is imperative that we introduce first-year college/university students (our 13th graders) to their own culturicity Dialogic theory and practice is a means to their personal involvement in a participatory learning experience that works to join rather than divide the two cultures they must learn to balance and assimilate.
James Berlin offers that one of the best places to promote a cross-curricular, dialogic rhetoric is in the English classroom and especially in the first-year college writing course. Observing that "Humans create the conditions of their experience as much as they are created by them" (Culturesxviii) Berlin suggests that cultural experience is equal to textual experience, that we can read and interpret it, revise it, or if passive, simply be controlled by it. Because of cultural hegemony’s textual quality, then, we might be able to read/interpret/revise it in the place where texts are traditionally studied: the English classroom. It is here, Berlin offers, that students (and their teachers) can "recover the view from rhetoric" as "a perspective that reveals language to be a set of terministic screens that constructs rather than records the signified" (Cultures xvii-xviii). Berlin’s use of the Burkeian position-words, perspective and terminism implies another Burkeian term, attitude, which offers yet another implication that our basic response to experience depends upon the place/position from where we see it—the ontological thing is static, never changing, while our view of it from an ever-evolving attitude is the basis of what we witness as change. This spatial metaphor for knowing shows how Burke, himself, comes to the conclusion that education is both seen as and purveyed as a set of terminologies based upon the purveyor’s purpose and intent which, in turn, must be defined in terms of perspective, terminism, and attitude which are further determined as the cultural dialectic moves on. The perspective of a traditional core curriculum then derives from the institutional attitude that students need a sound foundation of general knowledge upon which to build a more focused knowledge within a chosen specialty. And this, of course, is good.
Yet, in our zeal to design an efficient (and economical) core curriculum or gen-ed program, we tend to forget that First Year Composition (FYC) is a major player in a foundational education designed to address both objective and subjective communication-across-the-curriculum and on into the streets beyond. But, to be successful, the students (and the teachers) need to see the parallels and relationships between all core coursework in their first two college years. They need to understand the synaptic connections that take place across the boundaries of implied specialization and the varied pedagogical signals and dialogic nuances too often obscured in institutions that see FYC as, in many ways, remediatory and less important than upper-level specialization.
A traditional core curriculum offers the cursory "factoids" deemed necessary to cultural and social development, "hard" information about history, mathematics, psychology, the soft sciences, and language. Yet, without the ability to selectively weave these necessary facts into a useable knowledge, students too often step into their majors with the idea that each of their core courses exist in a vacuum, literature without history, economics, psychology; history without literature, psychology, sociology, and so on. This mindset is even more evident in the mandatory introductory science courses, with their scantronic, fill-in-the-blanks mentality instead of the narratological writing-intensive assignments that compel students to braid discrete facts into a useable knowledge set. Because the real purpose of a core curriculum is to promote critical thinking and the students’ ability to synthesize and place into responsible dialogue the discrete pieces of a specialized, isolated facts, we need to understand not only how we see what it is we teach and why we are teaching it; we also need to address the students’ attitude toward their own education relative to the "other" more real culture "outside." Expanding upon Ann Berthoff’s dictum that, "How a teacher sees language is how she will teach it" (42), how any teacher sees his or her subject is how it will be taught. As well, how students see their learning experience is how it will be "placed" in the larger picture of their cultural being. The attitude door swings both ways.
Core curricula can set up a value system much more relevant than many of our colleagues might believe. First-year college students (or 13th graders) are still at a very moldable stage. Already entrenched in what Freire refers to as "a fear of freedom" (Pedagogy 31) and what Burke refers to in Veblen’s terminology as "trained incapacity," they come to us not so much as seekers of a truth that will free them as much as they come from a sense of cultural obligation. Some come to us as resistant learners, others to gain grace (and grades) through piety, intent on pleasing their newest taskmasters. Because of our students’ skewed perspective of authority and the institution, the desire to please for grace is a cultural phenomenon that gen-ed teachers need to address first and foremost. The sooner our entry-level university students discover that academic and intellectual success come of personal involvement and cross-disciplinary application of fact through purpose/intent rather than intra-disciplinary fill-in-the-blank testing, the sooner they will "assume the attitude" from which they will see their education and their success as their own responsibility. Until this happens, the necessary braid of core curriculum can not take form. But, our 13th graders need a healthy push in the right direction in order to comprehend the dialogic nature of a full education; yet, we see in too many core classrooms a dangerous absence of both theory and praxis necessary to this realization. Because we hold the authorial title of professor these children attach a great deal of faith in what we show and tell them both verbally and tacitly If they understand that success depends upon the short-term memory of final exams or an arbitrary point system, clever youth will find a way to address the homestretch and, in so doing, will neglect the dialogic process that leads beyond the "scoring position." in favor of simply "navigating the system" of instructors who teach "by the book" rather than from books. Thus, the way a class is presented, how it is taught, the reading list, the instructor’s attitude, all influence a student’s foundational attitude toward language, critical thinking, and rhetorical processes both inside and outside the classroom.
To promote and validate teaching/learning that recognizes the dialogic transaction between classroom fact and personal intent, we can turn to the more productive and complex rhetorical applications alive in modern theory but often neglected in classroom practice. Concepts like Kenneth Burke’s consubstantiation, Paulo Freire's conscientizacao, and Edward O. Wilson’s consilience. These three con words can "con" our students into their own sense of knowing by insisting that they join critically their various strands of knowing into rhetorical responses relative to each situation at hand. The further implication here is that all experience is textual, all situations rhetorical, and that through rhetorical strategies, they can control the dialectic of their own cultural being to their advantage. The con prefix here informs, primarily, the necessary dialogue of learning by joining rather than separating differences or oppositions as means to power.
Burke’s consubstantiation insists on a rhetoric of identity in order to achieve a sort of dialogic parity without risk to either party’s own substantial identity and thus generate a third truth relative (and acceptable) to each previously polarized side. Consubstantial identification is, for Burke, "necessary to any way of life" As an individual one acts—has substance. Yet, because we are never fully alone, the way of life is acting together, and, as Burke further observes, "in acting together, men have common sensations, concepts, images, ideas, attitudes, that make them consubstantial." (Rhetoric21). Identification, then, is neither singular nor objective; rather, it is dialogic and dialectic. Plural in nature, identification involves transaction—an action that always serves to answer for both sides the question, "What’s in it for me?" with the identificatory offerings from both sides of the "Mending Wall" that both separates and joins them dialectically. Each new responsible transaction will always result in new transitive paradigms that can do nothing less than strengthen their very complex relationship. Consubstantial rhetoric generates collaboratively the questions we wish to ask and discuss more so than the answers/truths we will abide by inasmuch as both rhetors must realize that complete closure is, quite simply, the end of dialogue and thus, total isolation. In this sense pure identification (or for the purpose of this essay, overt academic specialization) would be consubstantial with an ultimate truth, a false combination which would stop the whole dialogic/dialectic process and destroy the healthy sense of strife or ambiguity (25) necessary to a cultural truth-system. In his call for a rhetoric of identity through consubstantiation, Burke sets up a binary overlap between a collaborative, dialogic truth system where one is able to maintain both a social identity as well as the personal substance that drives it and an unattainable static truth system based upon a pure identity (ultimate closure) which must be the product of ultimate answering. In the terminology of Composition studies, consubstantiality joins traditionally the polarized concepts of process with product dialectically to maintain that products serve, mainly, to generate new processes—answers engender further questions. Because, as Burke observes of Aristotle, rhetoric "proves opposites" (25) and because humans are rhetorical beings, a pure monologic identity is simply impossible in a dialogic world.
Freire’s con word, conscientizacao, brings Burke’s con word into the sphere of political, democratized education. Conscientizacao is best defined as:
a process by which a learner moves toward critical consciousness . . . by breaking through prevailing mythologies to reach new levels of awareness--in particular, awareness of oppression, the process of conscientization involves identifying contradictions in experience through dialogue and becoming a "subject" with other oppressed subjects--that is, becoming part of the process of changing the world. (Theological)
Conscientizacao insists that humans enter into a dialogic relationship with their cultural and political situation, that they comprehend "the active role of men in and with their reality," that they see "culture as the addition made by men to a world they did not make (The Adult 403). For Freire, to see and comprehend these things is the foundation of literacy. Parallel to Burke, Freire’s con word offers humans the right to their own substantial identity and the privilege to a consubstantial cultural identity of which they are an integral part.
The bridge between Freire’s democratic and liberatory adult educational philosophy and the American university’s core curriculum program lies in its metaphorical application to our own students’ lives to show them as victims of the very culture they have come to embrace in terms of their own individuality. Ross Winterowd suggests, and rightly so, that we can place a Freireian grid over our own students’ lives. Caught up in what Winterowd refers to as Kultur, "a given, stable, immutable" hegemonic prison of "unquestionable value" (29), our students learn to live by the canonical codes of school, societal norms, and nationalistic codes. Products of a school-world of standardized teaching methods and evaluative tools, students come to learn how to map the administrational maze in lieu of a responsible learning experience. All the while these students become more and more the resistant learners, in large part, because they need to maintain the personal substance of their own identity which is all too often associated with a reductive academic evaluation model, i.e., grades. Real cultural literacy, implies Winterowd, is the ability to recognize kultur for what it is. In a very telling quote, Jim Berlin concurs with Winterowd when, discussing the goals of his own cultural studies course, he offers: "I don't want to make [my students] believe that they can be individual; I just want them to understand that they are coded" (Transcript 10). Berlin’s attempt to deconstruct his students’ flawed definition of the individual rests in their understanding Winterowd’s kultur as the ability to see the previously invisible hegemonic parameters of a market-driven existence and to comprehend that the only way to their individuality is through a dialogic relationship with one’s cultural "other." Thus the rest of Berlin’s cultural studies course addresses the hows and whys of codedness/kultur and the importance of his students’ participation in the master-texts of their own cultural existence.—not so much to become a part of it as to become a part of the process by which it "becomes" historically.
By entering critically into the process of their own (unavoidable) cultural dialectic, students’ come to discover the other side of Winterowd’s kultur: culture. True culture (designated by its true English spelling) is the "always becoming always being made" dialogic situation within the liberatory, dialogic classroom (29). Culture brings with it the positive identity (Burke’s substance) of a creative agent, not merely a partaker, but an active participant in political/cultural existence. The truly illiterate, observes Winterowd, "stand in awe of kultur," while the literate smother kultur in honest dialogic inquiry placing human action on what would otherwise be a sort of unquestioned "natural" motion. And, although we can’t change the weather (yet!), we can "beat city hall" and thus put asunder one of the more dangerous aphorisms of our time. Thus, Freireian illiteracy begins with an individual’s inability to see and understand his cultural situation and his inability to "effect a change in his former attitudes, by discovering himself to be a maker of the world of culture" (The Adult 403). In our own students’ existence, Freire’s "world of culture" depends on their ability to see and read the world-as-text and the text-as-world and to take responsible action in its interpretation and revision. From this attitude, they can gain a consubstantial relationship with the "world of culture" and in this process, join in their own future-making. From here, Burke’s concept of the sociological criticism of literature can just as easily become a literary criticism of society in his view of literature as "equipment for living" (Philosophy 293) ) This observation takes on very serious implications, especially when we, as teachers, discover that all writing, even student writing, is, indeed, literature, especially when we view students from a perspective of Freireian literacy standards.
Our third con man, Edward O. Wilson offers the con word, conscilience, a term that works to rejoin knowledge separated from itself by what he sees as a move away from the Enlightenment’s dialogic bid for the unification of knowledge to the postmodern deconstruction of unified meaning –or meaning at all (40-44). Succinctly, conscilience is the "jumping together of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation" (9). Wilson’s consilience is, he claims, "the key to unification" (8) between the natural sciences and the liberal arts (the basis of a core curriculum) and has much to say regarding one’s attitude toward teaching in general. Though a scientist himself, Wilson sees conscilience not as a science but as more of a metaphysical world view—or, in Burke’s terminology, an attitude, a perspective, a terministic screen—shared by only scientists and philosophers. To continue in Wilson’s own words:
[Conscilience] cannot be proved with logic from first principles or grounded in any definitive set of empirical tests . . . Its best support is no more than the extrapolation of the consistent past success of natural sciences. Its surest test will be its effectiveness in the social sciences and the humanities. The strongest appeal of conscilience is in the prospect of intellectual adventure and, given even modest success, the value of understanding the human condition with a higher degree of certainty. (9)
Wilson continues with examples of a general problem-model that has its roots in social, environmental, biological, and ethical concerns. While each of these concerns could appear in specific ratio to give the problem a substantial identity – say the ethical concern of deforestation or the biological concern of the same action, or the economical concern of the same action--each of the four (and many more) points must exist in a consubstantial relationship in order to meet the problem at all angles in order to "finish" with regard to its primary concern relative to the "culture" of its dialogic constituents. Wilson’s ratiocination of given parts (or agents) in the problem solving process has much to say regarding Burke’s pentad and dramatisim, yet the primary attitude here is consubstantiation. If all experience is elemental, then all of the elements relative to a problem must be considered in a ratio specific to the nature of the problem’s solution and, as we discover in Burke’s pentadic approach to experience, both problem and solution are defined terministically. Consilience, along with Burke’s con word addresses the importance of dialogue to knowledge and the reductive impossibility of a pure identity and thus the non-existence of one ultimate truth-system. Wilson’s con word meets Freire’s con word on equal ground as well. Conscilience as means to collaborative problem-solving depends upon questioning a problem from all sides rather than from the static perspective of cold-hearted science or liberal-humanistic considerations, both of which maintain the attitude necessary to Freire’s indictment of the "banking method" of teaching wherein a dominant paradigm holds forth over honest, creative dialogue in the classroom. The seeking of a collaborative balance is imperative to sound pedagogy. If applied with Wilson’s Freire’s and Burke’s goal of consubstantial dialogue in mind, the concept of conscilience can, as Wilson offers, humanize the sciences while scientizing the humanities to bring a sort of whole knowledge into play, a knowledge that is neither specialized nor diluted. A collaborative model of whole knowledge can exist both productively and aesthetically in the face of postmodernism’s reluctance to recognize the fact that we can both regain and reform our grand naratiffs. And, in this process, we might reestablish the dialogue lost in the Balkanization of knowledge in our present core curricula
Our con men are a few of the great persuaders on the contemporary academic landscape. Yet their suasive trade is not in answers, but in merging the purpose and intent of sophistic and Aristotelian ways of knowing. We can see the sophistic side of consubstantial truth as a cultural concern that can be proven only in our own sphere of understanding. We can see the Aristotelian side as "provable" through the enthymematic truth systems we have built into our ideologue over the millennia. Pure logic simply is not logical within the human sphere of understanding. Until an auditor sees what we refer to as logic in rational, personally gratifying terms, a rhetorical identification with the speaker simply cannot occur. Thus the only way into logical conclusions is through contextual relationships intent upon consubstantiation. Ideas, like people, cannot stand alone; they need sounding boards, collaborators, friends, enemies, and when two substantial identities meet in a consubstantial situation both will be changed, if ever so slightly, forever by the birth of the tertiary truth they will engender. The basic components of these three rhetorical attitudes, consubstantiality, conscientizacao, and consilience, all have one thing in common: the insistence that we all must join in the dialogue of our own experience in and with the world, to maintain a voice in our own cultural/political environment and that this environment depends upon dialogic convergence of various specialized knowledge systems to both discover and [re]present new knowledge.
Burke’s consubstantiation and the rhetoric of identity are pivotal in the development of a dialogic pedagogy. Though we find no references to Burke in the work of the other two con men, it is obvious that these thinkers meet in theory and form a common braid of rhetorical philosophy, political education, and science that has influenced such American educators as Jim Berlin, Peter Elbow, and Ira Shor, each of whom understands and encourages the political and cultural implications of a dialogic, liberatory education, especially in the undergraduate general education curriculum. But, how to put Burke and company into the classroom? Theirs is a highly sophisticated and complex path into better learning and thus their ideas are well beyond the ken of our 13th and 14th graders. The solution is, I believe, to view Burke and the con men from the attitude of teachers who need to learn rather than students who must learn. As Tim Crusius observes, "Younger students will most likely not understand theoretical abstractions or be able to apply them." But, as they develop, students will need theory to "bring to fuller consciousness their own half-articulated notions and to question ideas they have acquired from a too limited experience or from the quirks of a teacher" (109). Crusius’ implication here is that entry level college students run the risk of a partial education due to inefficient curricular development or teachers that might "shoot from the hip," and that the introduction of theory later in the their career will give students the tools to become involved, through critical inquiry, in their own learning process and be able to [re]define their place in the university. Hence, theory allows students to become, in many ways, their own teachers through application. The cultural overlap allows a healthy perspective from both sides of the teaching/learning wall. Teachers who see themselves as continual students (those who see teaching as a learning experience) will become equally involved in what must happen in the gen-ed classroom: the consubstantial identity between student/teacher, the open dialogue between academic-culture/pop-culture, a sound understanding of the self/other conversation, and, through these understandings, the necessary weaving of all the discrete strands of core-curriculum coursework into a durable fabric of useful, applicable knowledge. Yet, we cannot simply teach our 13th graders the theories behind our goals. Rather, students will learn through example, tacitly gleaning the policies and ideals of good teaching and learning practices until such time that they enter the theoretical part of their education to discover that they have been living these theories in practice for quite some time. But, in order for this epiphany to occur, we who teach entry level courses must have an abiding comprehension of dialogic theory and pedagogy to begin with.
Understanding the subtleties of dialogic theory and learning to consubstantiate them into useable teaching approaches will allow us to teach like Burke, Freire, and Wilson instead of teaching Burke, Freire, and Wilson per se. A good example here is Burke’s Pentad. Various colleagues in class and in prescriptive textbooks have tried with little success to use the Pentad right out of the Grammar of Motives as a tool to teach composition or speech with little success. One of the reasons for this failure is the teachers’ view of teaching. The terministic screening of education as the retention of formulae for success and teaching as the offering of these formulae works against the hermeneutical purpose upon which the pentad is based. "Teaching" the pentad as a way to write or outline a FYC text is simply reductive. Using it as an evaluative tool for the products generated by this approach is equally reductive. Because the instructor presents the pentad as a means to an end in what Crusius has referred to as a "too limited experience," the young writer too often will see writing as formulaic and then, because of the failure of the pentad (and the teacher) to improve her writing, she will see her shortcoming as a failure to apply the formula correctly. Hence, a faith-in-formula rather than faith-in-self view of writing will follow the student throughout her college career and into the world-at-large. However, if these teachers could apply a close reading and a deeper, philosophical understanding of the Pentad, they might realize that the model, itself, really can’t be used to generate and maintain FYC level performance. The teacher-as-student model addresses this problem. As Richard Coe observes too many unread teachers are willing to use the very confusing or overly simplified version of the Pentad offered in various textbooks rather than actually going to the source and learning first hand what Burke’s dramatistic model really is: a philosophy of knowing, a hermeneutics of interpretation that take us into writing as a psycholinguistic, sociocultural process (Beyond 368).
Richard Fulkerson’s views on using Toulmin in the FYC composition class bears out my views on teaching Burke’s Pentad as a way to generate/evaluate a text. Like the Pentad, Toulmin’s rhetorical model (or at least his model as presented in commercial writing textbooks) implies that there is a formulaic pattern for a successful argument essay and that if this pattern can be learned, the rest of the process will come almost automatically. This whole implication of utilitarian formalism relates directly to Winterowd'’s kultur, the immutable situation in which a student works toward a static, systemic prize with the promise of a successful product if only all of the formulaic rules are followed. If we see teaching writing as the teaching of structure and form, we risk our students’ move toward consubstantiation. Because these children are yet in the throes of institutional hegemony, they will work largely toward the answerable and less toward the ambiguous identity necessary to true to process. As Fulkerson observes, "students taught the model largely by itself are not likely to construct effective arguments" (22). By demonstrating that writing is a product relative to a static process, specific models for writing remove students from the dynamic processes of their own work. Even though a Toulmin type essay often is successful and a Pentadic essay, if done "correctly" will work, good writing without these formats will be as efficient because of the fullness and logical progressions all good writing requires. If students are forced to follow prescribed rules, they might too often forget their own creative way into their own textuality. It is important to observe here that, though Fulkerson does not see the Toulmin method as a good teaching tool, he does see it as possibly a good analytical tool, a grid to place over after-the-fact writing to check for logic and efficacy. The general consensus of Burke’s Pentad leans toward its use as analytical tool as well. Thus, to reverse the process by offering an analytical tool as a generative tool reduces dialogue and process in the name of a pre-named product all too often designed to facilitate its own evaluation as in the traditional five paragraph essay where formal concerns prevail.
Coe observes that it is Burke’s explicit wish that more of us would use his work rather than simply admire it (Critical) But, as Coe further observes, many of us have trouble reading Burke and thus run the risk of misapplying his theories in the classroom. In fact many of us who claim a Burkeian perspective might well be using Burke to our students and our own disadvantage. In the same way Peter Elbow discusses, in his very thoughtful "Pedagogy of the Bamboozled," how the American university gives lip service to Freire’s theories while maintaining non-Freireian standards in the individual classroom and general curriculum, we need to discuss and evaluate our use of Burke in our own work. Do we work from a truly Burkeian attitude? Do we work for a consubstantial, rhetorical classroom/curriculum? Do we promote literacy as a metaphor of poetic dramatism? Or do we "bamboozle" our students by simply "teaching" his stuff secondhand from mass-oriented textbooks and hope the kids get it? As teachers, we need to look inward for an honest appraisal; as theorists, we need to promote an attitude of faculty development and maintenance so that our less-read colleagues and apathetic administrators can discover for themselves what our dialogic con men so fervently advocate. Theory without practice is useless; practice without theory is impossible. While theory can happen outside of the classroom, practice is what does happen in the classroom; and a firm understanding of theory will engender efficient practice. Elbow’s indictment in "Bamboozled" is not so much an attack on the university’s conscious neglect of Freire as much as it is an indictment of its understanding of Freire. A Burkeian approach runs this same risk: Teachers thinking they are doing well simply because Burke is visible in their syllabus and reading list may forget that teaching like Burke is much different than just teaching Burke.
Though Burke’s work is not formally directed toward teaching per se, his theories have large implications for classroom practice. Burke-oriented educators like Freire, Shor and Berlin insist that dialogue is essential to education and freedom because a true sense of cultural literacy (not necessarily Hirsch’s) will reveal the fact that no one of us can actually be free any more than we can maintain a pure identity. The closest one can come to this mythological freedom is to become aware of the cultural/hegemonic boundaries that surround us all and learn how to expand them relative to our own purpose and intent through dialogue. Thus, a core-curriculum’s real goal must be the opposite of specialization. It must work to set up the various interlocking pieces necessary to broader and more textured conclusions as our students’ fact-base grows. By emphasizing cultural—and here, I include the classroom--experience as text, we can become our own con men and "con" our students into becoming visible participants in the cultural and political forces that might otherwise control them and thus realize Burke’s ideal of "literature as equipment for living" and its logical reversal of living as equipment for the literature that is our cultural life. The sort of critical thinking required of this sort of education can best occur in the English writing/reading classroom where culture and personal experience can come to terms through honest, critical dialogue and the enabling rhetorical and stylistic strategies that will help students to add their voice to Burke’s "never ending conversation."
If a reigning theory of communication and new rhetoric is good for the teacher, it goes, as well, that this sort of foundational thinking will be good for the student too. However, passing on theoretical concepts to new undergraduate students is at best a difficult task, especially if we try to do it in a task-oriented, top-down pedagogy. Because a new-rhetorical classroom setting is, in itself, nontraditional, teaching strategies will have to move beyond tradition as well. For example if we are to promote Burke’s rhetoric of identity or Freire’s generative theme model, we must necessarily avoid the jargonistic, theory-biased approach and simply offer through example and dialogic assignments the cooperative behavior necessary to our goals. Thus, bringing Burke into the core curriculum might mean leaving his terminology in our offices while we carry into practice the concerns this terminology addresses to the classroom.
Based in the concerns of how we teach over the traditional concern of what we teach, a student-centered portfolio system based on strong revision and personal choice will promote a Freireian democratic classroom and, by extension, the sense of Burke’s consubstantiation, his poetic metaphor (Permanence esp. 263-272), merger and division, (Grammar 403-406) and the concept of the corporate I. This sort of dialogic evaluative system offers the student the privilege of and the responsibility for her own grade by allowing her to revisit and revise her work and control what it is the "grader" will see at the moment of truth at semester’s end. FYC, itself, offers a well-constructed learning environment, a cultural community, based not only in formal but theoretical concerns designed to promote, in plain talk, a deep seated comprehension of things like dramatism, consubstantiality, rhetoric of identity (indeed, a concept of rhetoric in general) without actually using exclusive terminology.
Likewise a dialogic reader-response approach—to all texts from print and screen to personal—will serve to instill a primary comprehension that literature and, by extension, culture is, indeed, equipment for living and open to interpretation from all possible perspectives. This privilege to interpret at all levels reinforces in our students that active participation is required of all experience, that a healthy sense of inquiry is what makes their own life "come to life" through responsible critical transaction. Again, all of these high-theory approaches must be brought to students in the students’ own terminology not the teacher’s or the primary theorist’s. Relative to Burke’s rhetoric of identification, this is one of the main points behind Freire’s "generative themes" approach (Pedagogy 92-118): In order for the student to move into the world, she must begin from her cultural, terministic home-base. The step in her path to higher understanding will emerge from her present understanding. To throw our students into a malaise of new terminologies and expectations beyond their present understanding opens a dangerous gap between the self they know and the self they feel they must become. And in this process, a lot of kids simply put up the vectors and hope to wait out the academic storm in what Ira Shor has referred to as a self-imposed Siberia of resistance (When Students 61-66) whose physical manifestation is the area in the classroom farthest from the teacher. A dialogic classroom will work toward [re]assimilating these "Siberians" by questioning and dynamic becoming rather than answering and static being. It will address savoir faire over simple savoir through active culturally aware application rather than a static, rote-memory reward system, through experiential learning directed toward long term memory and future goals rather than short term memory and present achievement . But, most importantly, a dialogic attitude will allow previously conned students to become their own con men in their ability to as join and [re]join the ever-evolving interpretation within their own experience.
Often, the Burkeian perspective can be offered, switched, changed, without ever mentioning Burke or his theories per se. Through the instructor’s example or through well-designed reading/writing assignments, we might compel young thinkers to actually approach the world, experimentally, from alternate attitudes where they can discover for themselves a new rhetorical propriety that will remain with them as they move across the curriculum and later, into the workplace. By working to have our students see the world from a Burkeian poetic attitude rather than simply seeing Burke’s theories in a big scary book or in an equally scary test-situation where they will be castigated if they fail to recall, we can actually do what Burke probably wanted in the first place—to actualize a world that sees itself through the lens of a new ontological metaphor, a poetic metaphor for living that works through dialogue (he would call it dialectic) and an attitude of consubstantiation. In a world (or classroom) as such, students would see rhetoric from Burke’s perspective of dialogic identity rather than falling tacit prey to hegemonic prescriptivism.
It is Burke’s dialogic nature that compels him to embrace rather than suspect ambiguity. Because human action in the world is essentially the playing out of epistemology upon an ontological stage, we must necessarily live within the tenuous relationship between purpose/intent and the always already world that precedes us. Nothing is stable, truth is contextual and, thus, Burke concludes that "the ultimate metaphor for discussing the universe and man’s relations to it must be the poetic or dramatic metaphor" (Permanence 263) This metaphor is dramatism itself, the playing out of intent/purpose through a multifaceted, ever-shifting dialectic movement. And, although, as I suggest above, there is no real place for a static application of Burke’s Pentad in a core-curriculum classroom, the idea behind it has much to offer. The reigning idea here is that the world of human action is a readable text and that this text has certain recognizable structural codes that work together in ratio-specific patterns to bring a unique contextual meaning. The poetic metaphor depends upon this structural understanding of human action; and although the concept is difficult in depth, a cursory comprehension of human symbolic action (both as language and as culture) will allow students to see that we can, indeed, change (or revise) human action and the products of human action through a fuller understanding of the textual dialectic of self and other in the world, a concept parallel to both Burke’s and Freire’s dialogic theories that to understand what it is to be human is "at least implicit in any writer’s comments on cultural matters" (Language 3), that "all educational practice implies . . . an interpretation of man and the world" (Freire, The Adult 398).
In the core-curriculum writing course (FYC), we can see a comprehension of Burke’s poetic metaphor as a move toward process orientations. Like the reigning theme of our con men, the poetic metaphor is dialogic, it works to further Burke’s dialectic through merger and division of ideas to achieve consubstantiation. Offering that "our thoughts and acts are influenced by our interests" (Permanence 262) Burke’s metaphor brings together the interests and ideals of his fellow con men and allows us to understand that we can do what we want, that we are free, but only to the extent of our own sense of purpose which is, itself, inextricably tied to our cultural community. Thus, even if we choose to rebel against this community, we still recognize the community in our realization that we are being anticommunal; and through seeing the world as a dialogic, ever-evolving text, even as anti-voives we can remain as active participants (rather than seeing resistance as alienation) in the conversation until the dialectic and the substantial individual are able to re-center themselves within the expectations of the community-at-large. If culture can be seen as poetic/dramatic, our students can come to see themselves in a state of "being as" in the world they have a part in making and maintaining rather than being of a nonnegotiable hegemonic motion. This active position of being as will necessarily generate the terministic screens through which they will act on and in their always already environment. If life is art, they will act artfully; if life is war, they will act militantly; if life is a readable text, they will act textually – that is they will realize that they can write and [re]write themselves into the world through various social revisions of the culturally well-read self.
Thus, the dialogic writing course, especially the FYC, allows a sort of practice session in social self-control. When students realize that the writing course is their domain and not the teacher’s; when they realize that their texts are their property, and not the school’s, they will come just that much closer to "thinking locally and writing globally" secure in the knowledge that a dramatistic world allows (requires!) revision relative to a strong sense of other – or, in Burke’s terminology: persuasion depends upon identity. Offering a college core curriculum through the lens of a poetic/dramatic attitude toward human action in the world is a means to further understanding the nature of knowledge in the very process of acquiring the new facts delivered through the foundational course work in the first years of higher education. Burke's view of the poetic metaphor’s offering "an invaluable perspective from which to judge the world of contingencies" (Permanence 266) will work well in [re]joining the discrete threads of college core curriculum and the contingencies fostered by an ever widening gap of specialization well before the time when upper-level course work will focus on specifics before a backdrop of interrelated general knowledge necessary to a well rounded professional career. Whether or not we agree with Burke’s aestheticist attitude, we can agree with the idea that the text of a sound core curriculum can and should be revised and edited for a lifetime of use and application if we view it through the dialogic poetic metaphor espoused in the theories of our three con men .
Berlin, James. Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures: Refiguring College English Studies. Urbana: NCTE, 1996.
--- . "Transcript" Composition and Resistance. Eds. C. Mark Hurlbert and Michael Blitz. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1991.
Berthoff, Ann. The Making of Meaning: Metaphors, Models and Maxims for Writing Teachers. Boynton/Cook, 1981.
Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.
--- . Language as Symbolic Action. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966.
--- . A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.
--- . The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973.
--- . Permanence and Change. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.
Coe Richard. "Beyond Diction: Using Burke to Empower Words—and Wordlings." Rhetoric Review 11 (1993): 368-377.
--- . "Critical Reading and Writing in the Burkean Classroom: A Response to Salibricci." To be published in Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 1998.
Crusius, Timothy, W. Discourse: A Critique and Synthesis of Major Theories. New York: MLA P, 1989.
Elbow, Peter. Embracing Contraries. "Pedagogy of the Bamboozled." New York: Oxford P, 1986
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1989.
--- . "The Adult Literacy Process as Cultural Action for Freedom and Education and Conscientizacao." In Perspectives on Literacy, edited by E.R. Kintgen, Barry M. Kroll, and Mike Rose, 398-409. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1988.
Fulkerson, Richard. Teaching the Argument in Writing. Urbana: NCTE, 1996.
Shor, Ira. When Students Have Power: Negotiating Authority in a Critical Pedagogy. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996
Theological and Pedagogical Praxis: Revolutionary Theories of Social Empowerment and Political Oppression. http://126.96.36.199:10021/C/crpendle/glossary.html#top.
Wilson, Edward. O. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1998.
Winterowd, W. Ross. "The Drama of the Text." In Encountering Student Texts: Imperative Issues in Reading Student Writing. Edited by Bruce Lawson, Susan S. Ryan, and W. Ross Winterowd, 21-32. Urbana: NCTE, 1989.
Presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication
Chicago, April 1998
This paper starts from my own recognition that I speak better when someone is really listening. Often, this is a problem. I am so overly attuned to my audience that it alters not only how I talk, but also what I say. Unlike the polished rhetor, I can’t always use this to my advantage. Too often, I let the auditor’s wandering attention get the better of me. I cut myself short, unwilling to plague my hearer with what I know he or she doesn’t care about. Obviously, this is a professional hazard. Coming to this career after success in other arenas, I have a heightened awareness of the extent to which many academics are capable of speaking—even without any audience. And yet, call it stubborn self-preservation, but I am convinced there is something to be gained from my sensitivity to audience. This conference calls us to consider the connections between our work and cuentos, stories, and shortly after the announcement arrived, I began to think about my experience with storytelling. I have attended many storytelling festivals and I have written an annual report linking the benefits of counseling and other social service programs to storytelling. I know that like rhetoric, storytelling is a speaking art. Yet it is also a listening art. Working within an oral tradition, the storyteller must be ever-ready to adapt and adjust what she tells according to her perception of immediate, changing needs. She gathers her material from the sources that surround her, listening for stories, for what might become lesson or leisure for her community. She listens in order to tell.
This description of the storyteller’s art may sound like many of our conceptions of rhetoric. And yet most theories of rhetoric don’t incorporate approaches to listening. In fact, many rhetorical theories actually discourage listening, and even present such disruption as essential to the rhetor’s success. I would like to spend some time today thinking about the problems with listening in the theories of two prominent rhetoricians, Aristotle and Kenneth Burke. These are theorists whose works continue to offer me applicable, pertinent models of communication. For this very reason, I feel it’s important to locate the attitudes toward listening implied in these theories. What I am working toward is a project to conceive of rhetoric as an art of listening, and I’ll begin by outlining some ways in which Western rhetoric, represented here by Aristotle and Kenneth Burke, neglects or displaces listening. Then I will quickly offer some possible models of listening rhetors.
In "Discourse in the Novel" Bakhtin calls attention to the fact that rhetorical discourse is oriented toward the listener but that usually this manifests as a concern for comprehensibility and clarity. Bakhtin sees this as a one-sided and limited approach that is "deprived of any internal dialogism, that take[s] the listener for a person who passively understands but not for one who actively answers and reacts" (280). Our response might be, "Not true. The enthymeme is the crucial ingredient of rhetorical dialogism." While we’ve been debating the precise meaning of the enthymeme since Aristotle left us with some very vague guidelines, the currently prevailing definition sees the enthymeme as a formally incomplete logical construction regarding something probable and based on shared premises between audience and speaker. This definition emphasizes intimate relations between a speaker and audience who jointly produce enthymemes and thus jointly produce persuasion. I don’t mean to suggest that our attempts at definition can or should come to a rest here, but I do think we’re pretty happy with this interpretation, since it offers a view of persuasion that doesn’t simply set out to change an audience—an uncomfortable notion in light of current concerns over identity and appropriation. Instead, the enthymeme allows us to see persuasion as a two-way process in which the presence of a particular audience also changes the rhetor’s speech.
But then why does the enthymeme often make me uneasy? Because while the enthymeme enfranchises the listener, it simultaneously precludes listening. As an abbreviated syllogism, the enthymeme exerts persuasive force not through its logical construction, which must nevertheless be present, but through what it does not say. When part of the syllogistic premise is left unstated, Aristotle says in his Rhetoric, "the hearer supplies" what is missing, and through cognitive participation, the listener completes the communicative circle (1357a). This participatory dynamic is attractive. But I am tormented by one question: when the "hearer supplies" enthymematic closure, is she listening? Not necessarily. When the audience participant perceives that a logical connection has been left out, she fills in the gap with something generated by her own mind. Hence, persuasion is self-created. Instead of the speaker persuading us, we persuade ourselves. For Aristotle self-persuasion is especially effective because of the pleasure we take in our own involvement in the exchange. We are pleased with our ability to make connections for ourselves—to "get it" without handholding.
The problem is that the self-persuading listener might or might not supply what the speaker intended. There is always a possibility that the hearer will fill in the enthymematic gap with something the speaker never considered, and in so doing introduce to the equation a host of new, "deviant" associations. In "White Mythology," Derrida’s description of the metaphoric process might also apply to the enthymeme: "No reference properly being named in such a metaphor, the figure is carried off into the adventure of a long, implicit sentence, a secret narrative which nothing assures us will lead us back to the proper name" (243). To the extent that the enthymeme reflects a similar instance of "bottomless overdeterminability," each listener participates in his or her own persuasion by refusing to listen (243).
Rhetorical theory is full of suggestions for how a rhetor can bring listeners to this nonlistening and malleable state, and how to corral potential meandering so that it best coincides with the speaker’s aims. For example, Burke suggests that form is a great way to close people’s ears as well as their minds. Devices like antithesis, gradatio, or asyndeton have a "universal" rhythmic attraction, Burke says: "You will find yourself swinging along…, even though you may not agree with the proposition that is being presented in this form." Despite disagreement with an opponent, "you might ‘help him out’ to the extent of yielding to the formal development, surrendering to its symmetry as such" (Rhetoric 58; emphases added—see below). Hence, according to Burke, the successful rhetor exploits the general instinctive human response to rhythmic form at the expense of attending to unique, individual insights. Aristotle also prescribes attention to general inferences rather than listening to particular beliefs. When using maxims, an abbreviated enthymeme, he suggests that the rhetor doesn’t need to engage in conversation with particular members of her audience, but rather, "one should guess what sort of assumptions people have and then speak in general terms consistent with these views" (1395b). If Aristotle’s listener is not consulted, Burke’s listener hears from a position of subjugation, as revealed in the militaristic terms Burke uses to describe what listeners do: yield, surrender, and in the same passage, collaborate. Despite the listener’s devotion to her own unique insights, for a brief time at least she is "carried away," metaphorized from her commitments by a formal process that instead of intellection relies on threatened violence and biological affinity with rhythmic patterns.
Being "carried away" can bring miscommunication, but it also suggests open-minded flexibility. I never cease to wonder at Aristotle’s 4th century B.C.E. comprehension of both the good and bad associated with being "carried away," and his belief in the positive potential of a listener’s meanderings. Aristotle offers a theory so grounded in invention that even the listener is potentially generative. But the irony of being "carried away" is that the listener is not brought away into contact with others but rather, further into the self. According to Aristotle, enthymematic meandering works so well in persuasion because it leads to a perception of likeness, and seeing likeness is a fundamental human pleasure. In an extended enthymeme in Book I of the Rhetoric, Aristotle indicates that at the heart of mimetic appeal is seeing a likeness to ourselves: Since "all things that are related and similar are, for the most part, a source of pleasure," and since likeness and relationship are pleasurable, and we like most what is like ourselves, then "all are more or less lovers of themselves" (1371b). In Book II he explains how the proficient rhetor can benefit from this observation about self-love if she understands that people feel pity, fear, and anger when things are perceived as potentially applicable to themselves. Read alongside his theory of the enthymeme, this explanation of mimesis demonstrates the extent to which Aristotelian persuasion is grounded in self-love as well as self-persuasion, both processes that capitalize on our attentiveness to ourselves rather than others.
Burke’s theory of identification also acknowledges the appeal of self-love and its reliance upon inattentive listening. Identification joins people through their recognition of likeness; if I perceive that you are like me, your efforts to persuade me will be more successful since I will assume that what benefits you will also benefit me. Self-love is the underlying motivator. While identification highlights likenesses, it simultaneously masks (but for those in the know, marks) the inevitable division that must exist between two separate beings. As Burke says, "[T]o begin with ‘identification’ is, by the same token, though roundabout, to confront the implications of division…. Identification is affirmed with earnestness precisely because there is division" (Rhetoric 22). Division means that since the two can never completely know one another (they can be identified but not identical), an element of mystery is always present in the rhetorical relationship.
In other words, Burke feels that we are fundamentally alone, and that rhetoric bridges the divide. In this respect, rhetoric is what makes listening possible. But identification by itself is incomplete; it relies, dialectically, on division as well.
By encompassing division, Burke’s discussion of identification makes more explicit the implications of Aristotle’s theory of persuasion, especially as it pertains to listening. The effectiveness of a rhetorical appeal will rely on an identification that is simultaneously an exploitation in the sense that in order to succeed it must obscure the corresponding division at work. Rhetoric involves a division that must be glossed over to enact persuasion. In order to win a point, the rhetor must intentionally not listen—to division, difference, otherness—and she will call upon her skills to get the audience to listen equally inattentively. In the final analysis, listening to one another (or, to an other) is highly problematic in both Aristotelian and Burkean rhetoric.
"I have listened; you have spoken . . . "
And so we are left with an understanding of enthymematic persuasion as an enfranchisement of the listener that comes at the expense of listening, and in which listening is discouraged and displaced by self-persuasion, self-love, ever-present division, and metaphoristic meandering. I have two qualifications. First, these theories distinguish between the rhetorician and rhetor. Both Burke and Aristotle describe a rhetor who can benefit by taking advantage of disrupted listening. Yet having these very descriptions also supplies us with the theoretical sophistication to recognize when listening has been elided—and to make necessary amends. In other words, the rhetorician should notice what the rhetor has glossed. Second, it is quite possible that these theories simply offer a nuanced and honest understanding of what listening is, or can be, between humans. Communication and the knowledge it engenders is necessarily partial, collective, and based as much on forgetting as hearing. "Enthymeming is simply what people do," Jeffrey Walker concludes in a recent article (61).
Still, I yearn (of course) for "perfection," and so I strive for other ways around this listening problem. Recall that the word cuentos in our conference title means stories in Spanish. The noun cuento is a cognate of the verb contar, which means to tell, and of cuenta, which means account. An idiomatic Spanish expression reveals the link between these words, between stories and their telling, between speaking and hearing: tomar en cuenta is to take into account. My hope is that when we think about speaking, we take listening into account—that we theorize about rhetors and rhetoric as listening subjects. And so I’d like to tentatively sketch what a listening rhetor might look like.
I have two models in mind. First, there are rhetors who remind us of the contingencies of listening, who think of their audience as "standing," to use Roland Barthes’ term, and of themselves as standers-to-be. Barthes says that the discomfort of the "standing position" reminds listeners and speakers of the value and "vanity of [their] own speech" (203). Consider talk show host Tom Snyder in the guise of the uncomfortable, "standing" rhetor. Amid the plethora of television talk shows that substitute soundbyte banter for conversation—even while purporting to employ storytelling techniques—Snyder’s guests on The Late Late Show appear in spots lasting longer than 20 minutes, and conversation genuinely flows and drifts. Callers—listeners—share in the interviewing, a technique more common with radio broadcasts. Guest Kate Mulgrew recently drew attention to the awkwardness of the caller contribution in a visual medium when she acknowledged how difficult it is to listen to the voice from a black box but respond to a blank camera.
Such rhetorical dilemmas are precisely what Tom Snyder’s show underscores. Snyder doesn’t allow his viewers to forget that they are listening to spontaneous discourse. He continually points to his own flubs and gaffes, effectively highlighting the delicate role of a listening speaker, a role the talk show host necessarily assumes. Snyder regularly shares things like the embarrassment of teleprompter misspellings, the headache of dealing with a last-minute guest cancellation, how mistaken facts threw a wrench in the conversation on the preceding night, and a replay of a disastrous 20-year-old interview with a recalcitrant rock star. In his opening spots—I do not call them monologues—he interrupts his awkward renditions of bad jokes to acknowledge an off-camera staff member’s reaction. Telling jokes to an empty studio, in which punchlines are followed by silence, Snyder’s own excessive laughter, or a backstage guffaw reminds us that we are listening to "live" rhetoric. I am arguing here that it is precisely these awkward moments and flubs that make such rhetoric successful. Calling attention to the packaging of television rhetoric positions its usual flawless form as manufactured and insincere, enabling Snyder, the awkward rhetor, to come out ahead.
My second model is a more venerable awkward rhetor: Moses. Moses is a speaker who resists speech, instead drawing authority from what and whom he hears. The events of Exodus are sparked by listening: God hears the Israelites’ cries and remembers their plight in Egypt (Ex 2:24, 6:5; Authorized Version). The rhetorical implications are abundant; God hears, remembers, proclaims, and commands Moses to speak to and for his people. In the Jewish tradition the exodus itself is repeatedly re-enacted through a ritual retelling, the seder, a word which connotes order, or arrangement. Moses’ pleas to Pharoah to let his people go conform to traditional uses of rhetoric as a means of asserting political rights toward liberatory ends. And yet while the Bible often reads "Moses said…," we can’t be sure it’s Moses who actually does the pleading. When God originally taps him for the task, Moses protests, "I am not eloquent…I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue" (Ex 4:10). Despite God’s exhortations, Moses sticks his ground, so God finally works out a deal. Aaron will be spokesman. God tells Moses, "And thou shalt speak unto him, and put words in his mouth: and I will be with thy mouth, and with his mouth, and will teach you what ye shall do" (4:15). Exodus blurs the distinctions between speaking and hearing. Moses speaks as God, yet Aaron does the speaking. Aaron says what Moses hears, with Moses, the listener, in the exalted position: "[Aaron] shall be to thee instead of a mouth, and thou shalt be to him instead of God" (4:16). Moses may be our first documented listening rhetor, one who frets about his audience’s refusal to hear (4:1, 6:12), protests his inadequacy, pleads a speech impediment, and is a self-proclaimed man of "uncircumcised lips" (6:12). Such a rhetor of sealed mouth must rely on sensitive ears.
This is my preliminary sketch of the awkward rhetor as an entry point for conceiving of rhetoric as listening. I will close by considering the negative effects of non-awkward, smooth, professional rhetoric. In his ethnographic study of Texas storytellers, Richard Bauman describes the effects of professionalization. "Professional" storytellers perform at the increasingly popular festivals such as those I’ve attended. At one such festival, a performer who honed his storytelling skills at a fishing camp no longer has to attend to the needs of listeners anxious to get up and fish as soon as the weather clears. He also no longer need compete with other tellers around the campfire. Such an environment where listeners are no longer expected to become speakers reduces the need for speakers to carefully listen—dialogism is absent. This suggests the problems inherent even when an audience "really listens" if rhetoric operates as a professional, contrived, and polished performance of speakers who need not hear. In its stead, I offer the awkward, self-effacing, and reluctant rhetor who joins her audience in the "standing position." Such a speaker is one who might close her speech by adapting Aristotle’s words: "I have listened; you have spoken; you have [the facts]; you judge" (see Rhetoric 1420b).
Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Trans. George A. Kennedy. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
Bakhtin, M.M. "Discourse in the Novel." The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.
Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.
Bauman, Richard. Story, Performance, and Event: Contextual Studies of Oral Narrative. Cambridge UP, 1986.
Bitzer, Lloyd. "Aristotle’s Enthymeme Revisited." Quarterly Journal of Speech 45.4 (December 1959): 399-408.
Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.
Connors, Robert J., Lisa S. Ede, and Andrea A. Lunsford, eds. Essays on Classical Rhetoric and Modern Discourse. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984.
Derrida, Jacques. "White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy." 1971. Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. U of Chicago P, 1982.
Gage, John T. "An Adequate Epistemology for Composition: Classical and Modern Perspectives." Connors, Ede, and Lunsford 152-169.
Lunsford, Andrea A. and Lisa S. Ede. "On Distinctions between Classical and Modern Rhetoric." Connors, Ede, and Lunsford 37-49.
Ratcliffe, Krista. "Listening to Cassandra: A Materialist-Feminist Exposé of the Necessary Relations Between Rhetoric and Hermeneutics." Studies in the Literary Imagination 28.2 (Fall 1995): 63-77.
Raymond, James C. "Enthymemes, Examples, and Rhetorical Method." Connors, Ede, and Lunsford 140-151.
Walker, Jeffrey. "The Body of Persuasion: A Theory of the Enthymeme." College English 56.1 (January 1994): 46-65.
Presented at the National Communication Association Convention in
New York City, November 1998
For many Burke scholars, KB's appearance at the First Writers' Congress in 1935 is in itself symbolic of a union between theorizing and political action--a union which makes quite a few contemporary critical/radical theorists nostalgic. The significance of Burke's address, however, goes beyond the issue of labeling KB as a Marxist, a Marxoid, or a non-Marxist literary maverick. It is not my purpose here to expose or criticize the academic establishment's softening of Burke's radicalism or Burke's own political trajectory after the 1930s. Instead, I would like to discuss how Burke's address to the leftist intellectuals of the Popular Front era is still instructive for today's post-Marxist discursive theory and politics.
The First American Writers' Congress, an organizational meeting for the League of American Writers, gathered under the sign of the "fight against the prevailing dangers of war, fascism and the extinction of culture" (Congress 10). The event marked a transition from the militant communist rhetoric of the so-called "Third Period" to a more inclusive tactic of the Popular Front, aimed at forging a broad coalition of progressive forces under the aegis of the Communist Party.
Contrary to the more "popular" tone of the Congress, however, its organizers did not alter their orthodox Party line regarding the historical role of the proletariat in revolutionary transformation. Most speeches affirmed, directly or implicitly, that the workers have a distinct understanding of their identity as a revolutionary class and that leftist writers' task is to reflect the rise of revolutionary consciousness. Literary intellectuals were thus urged to take the position of the proletariat if they wished to contribute to the united front's effort. Since most left-leaning writers came from "bourgeois" backgrounds, the "proletarian" quality of their work was to emerge from identification of the author with the world view of the working class. "The man with the revolutionary mind and approach can write a revolutionary book," announced Michael Gold (Congress 166). Earl Browder reassured those who had misgivings about the Party control over literature: "Within the camp of the working class, in struggle against the camp of capitalism, we find our best atmosphere of free give and take of a writers' and critics' democracy, which is controlled only by its audience, the masses of readers, who constitute the final authority" (Congress 68-69).
Despite its ostensibly broad meaning, "the masses" carried a connotation of ideological unity, not heterogeneity, of the readers. A portrait of such an audience was presented in an address to the Congress by Hay Jones, the editor of Marine Workers' Voice. Speaking "in the name of the marine workers," Jones invited professional writers to "come down" and discover the material for their art among workers:
Today the only thing that's alive in capitalist society is the working class. The day in the life of a man who spends nine hours in front of a punch press or on a ship has more reality, more beauty and more harmony than you will find in all Park Avenue with its boredom, its waste of time and its quest for joy that doesn't exist. (15)
This invitation from the working-class audience was amazingly similar to the appearances of "the mass reader" at the Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934. In his coverage of the Congress, Moissaye Olgin related to his American colleagues how the Soviet Writers were shown that "they are part of life, that their word is anxiously absorbed by millions:" "those joyful sessions . . . were continually invaded by delegations from workers, Red-Army men, students, aviators, scientists, collective farmers, Young Pioneers expressing their collective recognition of the achievements of the writers and demanding better and truer literature" (Congress 49). Both the "invitation" from the Marine Workers and the "joyful" encouragement from the representatives of the Soviet readership suggest that the proletarian identity was taken for granted. In sum, revolutionary identity was assumed to be an inevitable condition which only needed recognition and faithful reflection in literature.
Burke addressed the Congress on the topic of "Revolutionary Symbolism in America"--a title that must have sounded heretical to an audience of materialists and internationalists (Lentricchia 22). Admitting his "bourgeois" bias, Burke however did not lament the loss of artistic individuality under Communism as Max Eastman had done earlier in his Artists in Uniform. Burke's assessment of American letters centered on the issue of the identity of the mass reader and addressed the respective rhetorical value of the terms "the worker" and "the people." In what is perhaps one of his most lucid passages, Burke urged his literary colleagues to imagine the political and aesthetic effect of substituting the strictly proletarian symbol by a more inclusive term "the people."
Because the goal of a revolutionary writer is to appeal to the unconvinced, Burke reasoned, this goal would be better suited by pointing out the shared and the desirable in the image of a revolutionary world view: "The symbol of the people . . . has a tactical advantage of pointing more definitely in the direction of unity (which in itself is a sound psychological tendency, for all that is now misused by nationalists to mask the conditions of disunity). It contains the ideal, the ultimate classless feature which the revolution would bring about--and for this reason seems richer as a symbol of allegiance" (Congress 90).
According to Burke, "the people" is aesthetically more powerful than "the worker" since the latter is capable of only inducing our sympathies while the former embodies a desirable ideal: "there are few people who really want to work, let us say, as a human cog in a automobile factory, or as gatherers of vegetables on a big truck farm. Such rigorous ways of life enlist our sympathies, but not our ambitions. Our ideal is as far as possible to eliminate such kinds of work, or to reduce its strenuousness to a minimum" (89). Though indirectly, Burke pointed out that in America, the type of proletarian literature promoted by the likes of Michael Gold was working against the radical project by allowing the dominant ideology to seduce the masses. He urged his fellow critics and writers to recognize the subtlety of symbolic inducement displayed by Hollywood and the culture industry:
Hollywood knows all too well that the people engaged in such kinds of effort are vitalized mainly by some vague hope that they may some day escape it. "Adult education" in capitalist America to-day is centered in the efforts of our economic mercenaries (our advertising men and sales organizations) to create a maximum desire for commodities consumed under expensive conditions-and Hollywood appeals to the worker mainly by picturing the qualities of life in which this commercially stimulated desire is satisfied. (89)
Burke's insight is directed at cultural and linguistic problems associated with the use of the "proletarian" symbol. Not only it is alien to "our folkways," and hence fails to organize diverse cultural elements under its aegis; it also promotes a split between the symbolic world of the working class and the rest of the populace, thus ceding to the political right the suasory power of "nationalistic conditioning" lodged in the term "the people."
Burke's appeal to take symbols seriously met with unanimous resistance. Ironically, Burke was accused of thinking like Hitler, because "Hitler knew enough to use this ideological device [das Volk] as a supplement to his blackjacks and machine guns" (Congress 168). Joseph Freeman, who "alone seemed to catch the drift of Burke's remarks" (Aaron 291), opposed the symbol of "the people" on the grounds that it had become "a reactionary slogan" and that it would obscure the "reality" of class struggle. For many in Burke's immediate audience, "the people" appeared not as a politically productive symbol that was up for grabs but as a term permanently marked by its affiliation with bourgeois false consciousness.
Many of Burke's radical contemporaries, at the time so confident in the ultimate victory of the working class, did not suspect that this very confidence could eventually result in the growing isolation of the American left. Nonetheless, the story of the uncompromising construction of the class-conscious subject has a few things to teach those intellectuals who desire to revitalize the practice of social criticism. To these lessons, we now turn.
From a rhetorical standpoint, the basic weakness in the CPUSA's analysis of its readership resided in the idea that there is a direct, transparent--albeit often obscured by bourgeois myths--relationship between one's material conditions and political identity. The American Communists during the early Depression years and the less militant Popular Front used the following logic: oppression makes the proletarian see the reality of class antagonism beneath the bourgeois myth of classless society conveyed by the symbol of "the people." The greater economic oppression of the masses, the higher is their revolutionary level. That is why the dispossessed lower middle-class, whose identity may still be influenced by the bourgeois myth of classless society, must follow the revolutionary proletariat. Hence, the symbol of the worker, as an accurate reflection of the reality of class struggle, should be used in building the reader's identity. We Communists "are not interested in myth," Joseph Freeman declared in response to Burke's suggestion, "we are interested in revealing the reality" (Congress 168-69).
In Burke's opinion, by their refusal to defend the symbol of "the people" as inclusive of "the worker," the Communist rhetors were committing not just a rhetorical mistake; they were allowing their ideological enemies to win the discursive war by pitting the two terms against each other (Congress 171). Furthermore, the Party put itself in the position of constantly proving that its audience was, indeed, class-conscious. To that end, the Communist press engaged in the construction of a persona of the class-conscious subject, while the Party-supervised organizations engaged their members in perusing Marxist literature. The vinegar of orthodox Marxist theory was believed to possess a sobering effect on the former consumers of the capitalistic honey.
In 1935 Burke alone, it seems, perceived the importance of boring from within the discursive territory of the dominant class. To reach a wider audience, radical writers needed to be attuned to the rhetoricity of their radical ideas as well as to their audience's cultural conditioning. In his analysis of the "proletarian" symbol and his admonition to "encompass as many desirable features of our cultural heritage as possible," Burke anticipated a number of issues of abiding significance for contemporary theories of ideology criticism.
To begin with, Burke's insight suggests that critical rhetoricians--of academic or artistic variety--should not be looking in the mirror, but should attend to heterogeneous cultural elements within their audience. As McKerrow's "Critical Rhetoric" essay put it, "the acceptance of a critical rhetoric is premised on the reversal of the phrase 'public address'-we need to reconceptualize the endeavor to focus attention on that symbolism which addresses the publics" (101). In other words, the emphasis on the rhetor-agent is replaced by the tension between the rhetor's critical performance and the audience. However, as we have seen, there is a danger of indulging in shaping an artificial audience to justify one's political purpose, even if the practice of social criticism is carried out for the benefit of that audience. The audience's political identity, furthermore, should be posed as a problem rather than a self-evident a priori fact.
Political identity, contrary to the Commintern's position, is not a mirror-image of one's conditions of material existence. Rather, as Burke suggested, political identity belongs to "a secondary order of reality," the reality of discourse. As such it does not spontaneously arise from economic structure--it is constituted rhetorically. It is important to emphasize that Burke does not deny the existence of "material reality;" he is rather pointing out that the way one perceives lived experience--of work, leisure, pain, or pleasure--must be symbolically framed to be meaningful. As "the verbal parallel to a pattern of experience," the symbol "provides a terminology of thoughts, actions, emotions, attitudes, for codifying a pattern of experience" (Counter-statement 152, 154). Symbolic constructions, therefore, do not displace material conditions but make them intelligible.
By assigning symbols and myths a privileged status among the tools of leftist dissemination, Burke created a turmoil among his colleagues. His implicit criticism of the orthodox base-superstructure model was received then as heretical and downright reactionary. Sixty years later, one would think, his critique would hardly raise an eyebrow. Yet there are quite a few critical theorists, suspicious of symbols and discursivity, who would benefit from revisiting Burke's assessment of the leftist rhetoric in the thirties. Tired of the discursive turn's obsession with textuality, some scholars are groping for something more solid upon which to produce a critique of the dominant order. "Today when reduction of politics to language and spectacle is an article of faith on the left, it is more crucial than ever to insist upon the existence of material needs," demands Aune in his recent book Marxism and Rhetoric (145). Dana Cloud, in an attempt to steer the project of ideology critique in the direction of "material reality," berates her colleagues for "idealism" and "relativism" which supposedly underlie much poststructuralist critical oevre: "A politics of discourse, even where the project is grounded in the critic's commitments, assumes that those who are oppressed or exploited need discursive redefinition of their identities, rather than a transformation of their material conditions as a primary task" (157). Cloud proposes that by attending to "the voices and realities of people who are, in some real way, oppressed" the critical rhetorician partakes in the de-mystification of "prevailing constructions of 'reality'" (157).
Although assault on the cult of textuality in contemporary academe is justifiable, it also tends to oversimplify and trivialize the construction of political identities. For instance, Cloud's call to privilege the experiences of the oppressed as a starting point of ideology critique postulates an unproblematic relationship between one's material conditions of oppression and the political consciousness of this oppression. The identity of subject is thus a material, pre-discursive effect. Further, only those who are oppressed in "some real way" can count as true agents of social change. Voices of the oppressed, in this view, are authentic and transparent; they only need amplification in order to become powerful enough to displace the false discourse of the dominant ideology. If only we could make these authentic voices stronger than the ideological fabrications of the powers that be, Cloud seems to suggest, a transformation of the material conditions will follow. The spreading of areas of allegiance, to use Burke's phrasing, would thus consist in seeking out and making widely available "counter-ideological information and perspectives" (Cloud 157). Should the radical project fail in transforming material conditions, its shortcomings could be explained by the organized resistance of the structures of power through censorship and other forms of oppression.
There is no denying that mechanisms of censorship and repressive institutional power do exist. However, radical political action aimed at satisfying material needs of the oppressed depends on more than quantitative prevalence--if such prevalence is indeed plausible--of counter-ideological voices. What Cloud and other critics of the discursive turn in postmarxism leave out is the need to forge symbolic allegiance among "the oppressed" in order to make widespread resistance and social change possible and effective. For the purpose of building a broad coalition which will bind those who are oppressed "in some real way" as well as those whose grievances are "symbolic," a unifying, not divisive, vision is required. Herein lies the import of Burke's insistence on the realistic work of "myths," their "very real and necessary social function in organizing of the mind" (Congress 88).
Burke rejected the dichotomy of true and false consciousness--the split which informed the leftist cultural politics in the 1930s and, as we observed, still lurks behind some criticisms of discursivity. In shifting his focus to the rhetoricity of identity, Burke called attention to exploiting "bourgeois" symbols of allegiance in the interests of the oppressed. Quite apart from our physical and economic conditions, we form our self-conception as members of a collectivity through an ongoing discursive process of identification with enduring symbols of authority: "We spontaneously identify ourselves with family, nation, political or cultural cause" (Burke, Language as Symbolic Action 301). We give allegiance to symbols of authority not because they adequately reflect our material existence, but because giving allegiance is, in Burke's words, a "wholesome" tendency (Congress 88). How, then, do we distinguish among various symbols of allegiance in the absence of a clear-cut difference between "true" and "false" discourse?
Is there a particular rationale in our spontaneous and non-rational identification with certain symbols over and against others? Poststructuralist social theorists, employing the insights of psychoanalysis, explain the impulse to identify as a fundamental social desire to escape the lack of meaning, to close the abyss of nothingness. As Laclau and Zac put it, "the acceptance of the Law--that is, the principle of organization as opposed to 'nothingness'--is the acceptance of the Law because it is Law, not because it is rational" (15). Similarly, in Burke's account at the Congress, "the people" is conducive to our identification with it because it tends towards universalization, towards totality, even if its "mythical" totality is veiling the partiality of the rhetor's cause. Burke usefully complicates the discussion of identification by addressing the rhetorical effects of sympathy and ambition produced by the strictly proletarian symbol "the worker" and the Janus-faced term "the people." Implicit in these terms are not only subject positions, but historical attitudes.
As I have mentioned at the beginning of my talk, Burke's objection to "the worker" as the symbol of authority resided not in the term's inadequacy in reflecting material conditions of the Depression era, but in its historically particularistic orientation towards negation. "The people," on the other hand, contains "the ideal, the ultimate classless feature that the revolution would bring about" (Congress 99). In Attitudes Towards History, published two years after the American Writers' Congress, Burke further specified attitudes of "acceptance" and "rejection." Importantly, he pointed out that "acceptance" does not involve "passivity": since strategies of acceptance "name both friendly and unfriendly forces, they fix attitudes that prepare for combat. They draw the lines of battle--and they appear 'passive' only to one whose frame would persuade him to draw the line of battle differently" (Attitudes 20). Strategies that emphasize rejection--as in oppositional identity conjured by the proletarian symbol--tend to "lack the well-rounded quality of a complete here-and-now philosophy" (Attitudes 35). Even classic Marxist texts, Burke explained further, display the features of acceptance; while the authors of the Communist Manifesto were "stressing the no more strongly than the yes," Marx later compensated his rejection of here-and-now order by laying "the foundations for a vast public enterprise out of which a new frame of acceptance could be constructed" (Attitudes 26-27, 29). Discursive politics, if it is to have an effect on material conditions of existence, should therefore emphasize the desirable, the yes rather than the no, in its invocation of radical political identities. The emphasis on the desirable nonetheless does not entail falling back on the well-worn and quite problematic ideal of free individual agency.
Because we are socialized through the "affirmative" symbols of individualism, freedom, and choice, it is not a simple task to reshape them into the terms standing for radical, counter-ideological identity. The question arises: how shall a radical political identity be constituted if the dominant ideology is constantly seducing us with "the American dream," "freedom," "equality," and "justice"? Burke, I think, is likely to suggest that the rhetoric of identity should be able to fuse a particular political alignment with "broader cultural elements" embedded in these symbols, especially if the "kinds of cooperation" they had been promoting have lost their vitality. Indeed, one only needs to glance at the contemporary American cultural landscape to notice how many are abandoning "individualism" and "freedom" in favor of the prospect of symbolic brotherhood of one sort or another. In 1935 as well, we may recall, there were plenty of those who, though oppressed in no lesser way than most working Americans, rallied not behind the Communists, but behind Huey Long and Father Coughlin.
Yet these symbols of authority are politically productive precisely due to their ambiguity. Capitalism may still be using "the people" to "mask" the relationships of inequality, but it by no means owns the term. Nor does anyone, for that matter. Ideological discourse--though the mechanisms of its dissemination may belong to the ruling class--strives to appear as everybody's land. Hence it is in the power of a radical critic to intervene into the construction of political identities by "extracting" the symbols of allegiance from their traditional setting and rearticulating them on a different terrain. According to Frank Lentricchia, "a radical rhetoric of revolution, instead of attempting to transcend the historical terrain of repression, should--I appeal to etymology here--work at the radical, within the history it would remake 'at the root.' The way out, if there is a way out, can only be a way through" (33).
A recent example of a successful exercise of discursive political strategy is the triumph of Britain's Labor Party whose symbol--"radical center"--is in itself an ingenious perspective by incongruity. Articulated by Anthony Giddens, a veteran of English social thought, "radical center" became a term signifying a broad coalition of the New Left socialists of the 1960s and the young progressives disenchanted with Thatcherism. How profound a change in social conditions this radical coalition will effect remains to be seen, yet the significance of this victory of social thought as politics should not be overlooked.
We have taken an excursion into the 1930's to find out how literary intellectuals affiliated with the Communist Party imagined and constructed the identity of their readers. We witnessed a great deal of confidence placed into the ideal of the proletarian reader: the times seemed propitious for the revolutionary overthrow of decaying capitalism. It turned out that many artists on the Left were too optimistic or too short-sighted. But it would be passé to castigate them for their zeal: I did not intend this discussion as another obituary for American communism. The major lesson, as it comes to us through Burke and others who carefully read him, is as follows: the calling into being of a radical political identity is accomplished on the shifting--and hence rhetorically malleable--terrain of the dominant ideology.
Aaron, Daniel. Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism. New York: Harcourt, 1961.
American Writers' Congress. New York: International Publishers, 1935.
Aune, James Arnt. Rhetoric and Marxism. Boulder: Westview, 1994.
Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. Vol. I. New York: The New Republic, 1937.
_____. Counter-statement. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968.
_____. Language as Symbolic Action. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966.
Carleton, Greg. "The Figure of the Mass Reader in Early Soviet Literature: Artificial Interpretive Communities and Critical Practice." Critical Studies in Mass Communication 12 (1995): 1-22.
Cloud, Dana L. "The Materiality of Discourse as Oxymoron: A Challenge to Critical Rhetoric." Western Journal of Communication 58 (1994): 141-63.
Laclau, Ernesto, and Lilian Zac. "Minding the Gap: The Subject of Politics." in The Making of Political Identities. Ed. Ernesto Laclau. London: Verso, 1994.
Lentricchia, Frank. Criticism and Social Change. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.
McKerrow, Raymie E. "Critical Rhetoric: Theory and Praxis." Communication Monographs 56 (1989): 91-111.
Wander, Philip C. "At the Ideological Front." Communication Studies 42 (1991): 199-218.
As Carleton points out, the appearances of the "readers" at the First Writers' Congress in Moscow "were by no means simple speeches but were conducted in full regalia befitting each position. Thus, for example, as the representatives of the military, a delegation of soldiers from the Moscow garrison marched onstage in close ranks accompanied by music (likewise, railroad workers appeared to the sounds of the train whistle, and so forth). After a choral shout of welcome, one of them spoke closing with an exhortation to writers to describe the everyday soldier. They then marched off as one, singing and throwing flowers" (8).
At the Congress, as Wander suggests, Burke did not face a unified audience: to speak of "the Party" as one solid mass of like-minded individuals would be historically incorrect. While I agree with Wander's analysis of the differentiation within the Party during the 1930s, I insist on the leading role of the "Third Period" intellectuals prior to and during the formation of the League of American Writers. On the composition of the Congress, see Aaron (283).
Presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication
Chicago, March 1997
It seems we are left to do one of two things or both in a historical study: We can look at the material synchronically; that is, since it all exists right now, let's look at it all together, pretty much irrespective of the dates. Or we can do what I have seen Bob Connors do in his historical writing, and what makes perfect sense as the "other" alternative to "synchronic": we can look at the material diachronically. We can see it as a historical process--an evolution. In the first, we listen in; we sense a conversation--thinking we hear responses and finding meaning in dialectic as well as negotiation. In the second, we might imagine a time-line and a series of written lectures--each having improved or disproved the last, a process even more suggestive of dialectic and fully wrought with the agonism of Bloom's "anxiety of influence."
Burke's parlor metaphor engages each of these processes and allows for the assumption of both in concert. He claims:
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers: you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (Philosophy 110-111)
In this description, both elements I mentioned above co-mingle. Often, for participants, the conversation will have a history, but that history is, at times, atemporal: it is at once lost to memory (as epic pasts are and as exemplified in Burke’s phrase "the discussion had already begun long before any of [the current participants] got there") and it is also completely immediate (as in "You come late," so nothing can have a proper historical significance when you first encounter it). I think, then, that the "so what" of historical researchers is quite often to find parlors, to describe their walls, ceilings, and floor space, to listen to the current conversations and at the same time to hear the echoes of arguments long past as they bounce around the room. The job is to tell stories and to make something like little introductory pamphlets for hanging in a rack just outside the parlor door so the new people might make quicker sense of the discussion.
The interest in Burke by Compositionists has long existed. In only the second year of this Conference on College Composition and Communication, 1950, Burke was invited to present his talk, "Rhetoric--Old and New." He told his audience that he would proceed "On the assumption that writing and the criticism of writing have an area in common," and though he would speak from the standpoint of literary criticism, he hoped that his talk "may be found relevant to the teaching of communication" (60). In 1955, Burke's "Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education," argued for an education system that, like older systems, based itself upon language skills as its central area of study. My research has shown that more and more, compositionsists who use Burke tend to be going back to that essay as their starting point despite the fact that Burke does not really make room in it for a "composition branch." His focus is more on linguistics and literary theory as informed by his extensive treatment of other disciplines like anthropology, sociology, psychology, and history.
In 1952, Marie Hochmuth Nichols wrote the essay "Kenneth Burke and the 'New Rhetoric'" which was the first attempt to present Burke as a "systematic thinker" and which began what William Ruekert, editor of Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke, identifies as "a long and healthy relationship between Burke and students of modern rhetoric," including W. Ross Winterowd (286).
Edward P.J. Corbett, in 1967, called Burke "one of the seminal thinkers of our time" and identified that people were finding "a more promising basis for a new rhetoric" in Burke's writing ("Revived?" 171). Winterowd would go on to write a Burkeian rhetoric, Rhetoric and Writing in 1965, and all of his work since (including "Dramatism in Themes and Poem," College English, 1983: discussed below) has exhibited a commitment to Burkeian rhetoric. In 1971, Corbett claimed, in an address titled "Rhetoric—Old and New" to the CCC conference (a definite play on Burke's 1950 presentation title):
Burke seems to have had the greatest staying power and the most influence [of the major figures in the mid-60's]. Burke's insistence that the new rhetoric must avail itself of the findings and insights of disciplines like anthropology, psychology, psycholinguistics, general semantics, and communications theory, has considerably broadened the purview of rhetoric . . . (3)
During that mid-sixties period, the capital "C" was attached to Composition according to Stephen North (15). At the same time Burke was being recognized as a synthesizer of multi-disciplinary methods of inquiry, Composition was emerging and demanding "new kinds of knowledge produced by new kinds of inquiry" and that inquiry would gain its authority by being "modeled in method and rigor on research in the sciences" (North 17).
Corbett attaches historical significance to 1963 as well. He claims that in that year there was a "noticeable resurgence of interest in rhetoric among teachers of English--certainly among teachers of composition . . . [At that year's CCCC in Los Angeles], an unusual number of panels and workshops carried the word 'rhetoric' in their titles" ("Olden New" 1). During that time, much interaction between Compositionists and Speech/Communications scholars went on. And no doubt, as the influence of Nichols upon Winterowd, many other cross pollenations occurred. Winterowd would go on to write a Burkeian rhetoric, Rhetoric and Writing in 1965, and all of his work since (including "Dramatism in Themes and Poems," College English, 1983: discussed below) has exhibited a commitment to Burkeian rhetoric.
Corbett discusses two conferences held in 1970, of the National Developmental Project on Rhetoric. When Corbett discusses these two conferences in 1971, he admits that they may or may not be successful. And, really, for this project, that is inconsequential. What is consequential is that Burke is discussed by the participants, who come from diverse fields: Compositionists are exposed to Speech/Communications ways of understanding Burke.
Understanding Burke was not the simple task that Burke had hoped it would be. In a letter to Malcolm Cowley, Burke jokingly contested Cowley's criticism of A Rhetoric of Motives:
As regards review of Rhetoric as 'hard to follow.' (As attested by expert reader who has known author since age of three.) We cite (from review by Texas newspaperman in San Antonio Express): "The Rhetoric of Motives is a profound and rewarding book. Despite the newness of its concepts and its unconventional organization, it is not difficult reading.' Down with Babylonic ease; up with the vigor and wholesomeness of the cattleman. (297)
While this example shows a humorous side to Burke's attitude, he really was concerned that people have difficult time reading him. Richard Coe reports, "Though Burke gets upset every time I suggest this, many composition instructors have difficulty reading his work" ("Defining" 39). Of course, despite his annoyance with it, Burke has been consistently considered very difficult reading, even by Corbett, who claims, "like a good many other seminal thinkers, he is not a very lucid expositor of his theory" ("Revived?" 171). Because of this difficulty, many writers have worked to clarify Burke as much as possible so that others may approach him with some sort of grasp on his general principles.
Attempts to understand Burke have come in at least three forms. First, many essays and presentations attempt to focus upon one term or theme in Burke's work. In my own study, both Hassett's and Quandahl's essays on "mortification" and Rick Coe's "Defining Rhetoric and Us," an elaboration of Burke's definition of man, qualify as this sort of approach. Many essays outside of composition attempt this sort of explanation of Burke as do composition textbooks, which often contain sections which focus only on "form" or "the pentad."
Another method used to understand Burke is the attempt to systematize his work--sometimes completely, others across broad sections. The individuals who attempt these explanations often present arguments which cite from a broad range of Burke's terms and works in order to establish a working understanding of Burke's "big picture." Because of its importance to bringing attention to Burke, and because it is cited as influencing Winterowd, who in turn influences many later Burkeians, I have included Nichols "Kenneth Burke and the 'New Rhetoric'" in my study. Her essay is the archetype for systematizing Burke. Other essays in this category include Tilly Warnock's "Reading Kenneth Burke: Ways In, Ways Out, Ways Roundabout," Winterowd's "Dramatism in Themes and Poems," and Virginia Allen's "Some Implications of Kenneth Burke's 'Way of Knowing' for Composition Theory." Aside from Nichols' article, I have excluded most basic introductions to Burke because of my narrowed scope, which I will discuss later in this essay. However, many broad introductions to Burke exist, and I would encourage individuals interested in studying Burke and Composition to begin outside the articles in this survey and with the set of introductions in a book like the Landmark Essays on Kenneth Burke.
A third type of categorization that writers have tried with Burke is one which attempts to place Burke within a "school" or to associate him with some "father" of rhetoric. Michael Hassett, who identifies Burke with the Sophists in his "Sophisticated Burke: Kenneth Burke as a Neosophistic Rhetorician," uses the term "namebranding" for this process. While Hassett engages in namebranding in order, he claims, to keep "in the conversation as an important voice" (388), other attempts have been made to make Burke more accessible. Virginia Holland's book,Counterpoint: Kenneth Burke and Aristotle's Theories of Rhetoric (1959), attaches Burke to Aristotle because, Michael Leff claims, when Speech departments first became aware of Burke, "the field was dominated by an Aristotelian paradigm" and "Burke was too important to disregard, but both his idiom and his interests seemed remote from traditional scholarship." It was "comforting" to link "Burke with the then-unchallenged master of the field" (115-6). However, Leff's criticisms are made in an effort to link Burke "reciprocally" with Cicero. In "Burke's Ciceronianism," Leff's goal is to identify the two by citing "certain features (perhaps 'anecdotes') the two share in common and a rationale for classifying those features within the same cluster relative to a conceptual and not a chronological perspective on the history of rhetoric" (116). While each of these attempts to situate Burke in relation to another rhetorical viewpoint, each also leaves room for Burke's own individuality as a theorist.
Another approach to this same method of categorization has been to locate Burke in an "era." Some early attempts to explore Burke and his relationship to Coleridge suggest that Burke has "romantic" tendencies. However, a much larger body of work has explored Burke as a "modernist." Jack Selzer's recent book, Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village: Conversing with the Moderns 1915-1931 (1996), describes Burke's early years as often lost to contemporary theorists and as being extremely modernist. Typically, associating Burke with the modernists is a way of dismissing his importance today or of qualifying uses of his theory. Michael Hassett has been one of the primary voices in arguing for the usefulness of seeing Burke in light of postmodern theories. He claims, "Burke allows us to create a writer who writes with the new deconstructive reader in mind, a writer that finds a responsibility, hence an 'ethic,' within the nature, or principle, of the postmodern reader" (180). Branding Burke as either of these labels allows theorists to impute upon him the general assumptions of those movements. It seems that typical responses to his attitudes toward literary theory and history are somewhat "Modern" while his approach to language is often described with "Postmodern" terms.
Coming to terms with Burke--whether through defining specific terms or clusters, or by arranging his work into some larger system, or in attaching him to more familiar structures of meaning--has pre-occupied many of the guests to the Burkeian parlor. These attempts have moved from the solo province of Speech Communication scholars, like Nichols and Leff, into the territory of Compositionists, like Selzer and Hassett, as Burke has made that move.
When in 1967, Corbett said, as quoted above, that "many students of rhetoric" had detected a "promising basis" in Burke's work ("Revived?" 171), he had no idea where the discipline would take Burke. He speculated that:
If the same kind of topnotch people who turned their attention in the post war years to the development of semantics, linguistics, and literary criticism apply their talents to the development of rhetorical theory and practice, then we are likely to have a vigorous revival of rhetoric, and the revival will increase its chances of creating a valuable legacy for the profession.
Attention to the "New Rhetoricians" did, indeed, begin a "revival of rhetoric," and it seems Composition is sure to have a "valuable legacy." I am not asserting a direct causation between the "New Rhetoric" and Composition's solidification into a discipline, but the role of the "New Rhetoric" has been an important one.
James Berlin identifies the New Rhetoric as one of three pedagogical theories to arise in response to Current-Traditional practices. The other two include Neo-Aristotelian, or Classicist, and Neo-Platonic, or Expressionist. He identifies the New Rhetorical theories with those of Ann Berthoff'sForming/Thinking/Writing: The Composing Imagination and Young, Becker, and Pike's Rhetoric: Discovery and Change--each backed by the work of Burke and Richards (773). Berlin admits that he is "convinced that the pedagogical approach of the New Rhetoricians is the most intelligent and most practical alternative available, serving in every way the best interests of our students" (766). His observation is based largely upon the stress which the "New Rhetoric" places upon language play. He heralds the New Rhetoric's applicability to teaching by stating "we are not simply offering training in a useful technical skill . . . We are teaching a way of experiencing the world, a way of ordering and making sense of it" (776). Because of its placement of truth in socially contingent linguistic structures, the New Rhetoric best yields the results Berlin values. Using Berlin’s categories of contemporary pedagogical theories, Lillian Bridwell-Bowles connects the assumptions of the New Rhetoric with "qualitative" research methods. With that, we can remember back to the value Corbett placed upon Burke's use of anthropology, sociology, and other "human sciences," which traditionally use more qualitative approaches.
The importance of developing the assumptions, terminologies, and theories of the New Rhetoric, and hence of Burke, seems to be tied to the importance for developing Composition methods in general--especially if we agree with Berlin's labels and values (which might be harder to sell wholesale than I am pretending).
But even if we do not accept Berlin's assessment, the contributions which Burke's treatment of language have made in Composition pedagogy have been important in their own right. From the discipline come many of the members of the Kenneth Burke Society and at the CCCC special sessions are set aside for the Burke Special Interest Groups. Burke's A Rhetoric of Motives is mandatory reading in most Rhetoric-Composition programs. The recently formed Burke-L discussion list regularly treats matters of Composition pedagogy. And, perhaps most important, citations of Burke makes regular appearances in the discipline's journals, textbooks, and theoretical treatises. Burke's philosophies have made good on the promise that Corbett identified in them thirty years ago.
The scholars who focus most on Burke and who derive pedagogical and theoretical texts from his philosophies are engaged in a conversation with one another. And as the metaphor works in Burke's model, they expect new people to come in and engage in "heated discussion" with them. Many of the articles I examined invited more discussion. Mullican cites Winterowd's request for "a serious effort to make Burke teachable" (12). Coe chides his readers for "honoring North America's greatest rhetorician, Kenneth Burke, more than we use him," and his essay continues, explaining Burke's complex definition of Man so that others may be able to use it ("Defining" 39). Hassett notes that since Burke's death, more and more people seem to be focussing on understanding his rhetoric, and he optimistically suggests that "his influence on composition and rhetoric may actually increase with his passing" ("Increasing" 471). And, in discussing an on going debate with Charles Kneupper, Clayton Lewis suggests a sense of the Burkeian Parlor that I mentioned before: "Burke goes on to show us that, in more ultimate terms, my position, together with Professor Kneupper's, together with that of people fascinated by the secret--all are part of a single ongoing act which recreates again and again our consubstantiality" (312). The conversation invites those "fascinated by the secret."
For Lewis, the conversation and the understanding of whatever the topic is in the Burkeian parlor stems from a scene-act ratio. That is, the conversation is an atemporal synthesis--a constant new, but familiar awareness that is generated by the intense merging of viewpoints. Because of that, because a student entering the conversation for the first time will be greeted with a wealth of merged information, she should be prepared because the scene requires that soon after her entry, she contribute. A historical account of the legacy behind Burke would be helpful, if not necessary, for the students entering the conversation. My project is an attempt to create such an account.
Insofar as any study will admit its boundaries as it unfolds, the present one's boundaries can quickly be surveyed. I have limited my examination to disciplinary journal essays which discuss both Kenneth Burke and Composition. In this sense, one could say that I reduced the scope or circumference of my scene to a very narrow aperture. One could look at the entire corpus of writing on Burke, or at the textbooks, conference presentations, and theoretical books on Burke within Composition alone, or one could look at Burke and English Studies (as distinct from Communication Studies). Any of these could provide a fertile scene for extended examination. In fact, I would suggest, based upon the outcome of the current study, that a broader study would be more helpful and more truly informative in tracing trends from one area to another within the discipline.
I chose to focus only on the journal articles for several reasons. The most urgent, of course, was time restraints. Because I had only a semester to perform this study, I felt that looking at one facet of the discipline would be informative and would help me define my search parameters before I engage in another phase of the research. Too, attempting to abstract from specific textbooks their certain "Burkeian" influences would be an extremely difficult process--especially if divorced from the context of the journals since they would inform me of how people were using Burke in the public forum. Because of indexing, computer searches, and works cited pages, the method for searching journals proved to be much more efficient as well. More difficult would be the process of opening textbook after textbook and reading for hints of some use of Burke. Finally, the study of journals has been mounting more and more interest recently (Goggin 340, n5).
Maureen Daly Goggin claims in her recent essay, "Composing a Discipline: The Role of Scholarly Journals in the Disciplinary Emergence of Rhetoric and Composition Since 1950," claims "journals serve as an important locus of disciplinary power, shaping a discipline even as they are shaped by it. It is precisely this dynamic, powerful, reciprocal role played by journals in a discipline that make them important artifacts to study" (324). Of the eight journals her study focusses on, the majority of my articles come from five: College Composition and Communication, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Journal of Advanced Composition, Rhetoric Reviewand Written Communication. I also include College English and one article from the Canadian journal, English Quarterly.
My selection process was more or less open and driven by my search results. I performed a preliminary search on the computer indices of ERIC (both collections), EXAC, and the MLA. After locating the articles I found via these searches, I first examined their "works cited" and "notes" pages for further articles. Next, I searched the bibliographies provided in Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke and The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, which updates and amends the former. Finally, though the above mentioned bibliographies are quite comprehensive, I made a cursory check of the bound MLA Index for the years not included on the ERIC database. Though it was unnecessary given my findings, I had determined as criteria for inclusion that the journals must be "Composition" or "English" journals. The articles also were required to explicitly discuss writing or composition. I later became a bit more flexible on that criteria if an article seemed to be on the "fringe" of composition or if it was cited by several other articles.
I am positive that I missed articles that could be considered fitting for this study. As I copied an article, I would often look at the works cited for the articles just before and after. As a guess, I would say twenty or thirty percent of the articles adjacent to the selected ones included Burke. Of course citing Burke and being focussed on Burke and Composition are two different things, but so are explicit (read "keywordable") references to Burke and thorough, clearly Burke-driven, but implicit (read "non-keywordable") uses of his work. I am not sure how to remedy this problem in a search unless one were simply to sit down and scan every article in the published history of Composition.
After locating all of the essays my search revealed, I began reading through them. At first, I had nothing specific to look for, and admittedly, by the end, I was still not so sure what I wanted to examine. I finally decided on some relatively obvious and external fields. The essay dates, main theses, primary terms or themes from Burke, and references to other essays in the study. I also looked, though found this harder to identify, at the "type" of essays I had: "theoretical," "pedagogical," or "fringe/meta." While the first two categories are somewhat self-explanatory, the third contains essays that discuss circumstances around teaching composition. They are essays which employ Burke's terminology or approach to studying department dynamics or social structures without mentioning writing classrooms or composition specifically.
I am not entirely happy with my method, and if I move beyond this stage of the project, I will alter it; although, I still am not sure how. As will be obvious below, I did not really go far beyond the external factors. Finding inter-relationships and defining "influence" forever alluded me. I could see explicit, cited inter-relationships, and common uses of terms was obvious, but finding theoretical "development" was difficult. I am not entirely sure that what I would call "development" occurred. I went into the project assuming that I would find overlaying or branching in the articles as they proceeded through time--as if one or two key articles inspired two elaborations which inspired two more and so on. While I am not sure if my "method" would have accounted for that anyway, I am pretty sure that it did not occur so neatly.
I have shown, on Appendix B, a time-line of sorts. As can be easily seen, it is relatively bare. Not much work was done in any one year, except 1993 and 1995 (which, I am guessing is the year Hassett finished a dissertation on Burke--though I don't know). However, an essay on Burke and Composition appears just about every year. Certainly, that is not what we might consider a profound influence. I believe, however, that if one were to expand the scope in some of the ways I mentioned in my "Method" section, one would see that Burke is somewhat more pervasive than this project can claim.
The essays that appear in the first few years are relatively short and not terribly illuminating. Corbett, in 1967, simply calls an awareness of Burke; he does not attempt to use Burke in anyway at all. The next article, in 1976 comes from a Canadian journal, English Quarterly, which is certainly not one of the "biggies" in Composition. Philip Keith's essay, "Burke for the Composition Class" in 1977 provides the first look at an essay designed to examine Burke's "dialectic methods" in order to propose "a teaching paradigm for a composition course" (348). Keith explores several dialectic methods from Burke, including a study of "etymology," "Thesis as Dialectic," "The Complex in the Simple," "Expansion of Circumference," and "Translation." He describes how he uses each of these methods in various ways to open students eyes to "the thinking process rather than the form of the finished product" (348). Certainly Keith was not the first to use Burke in his discussion of writing, Bryant Fillion had completed a dissertation aimed at establishing a "Burkeian rhetoric" in 1968. W. Ross Winterowd had published Rhetoric: A Synthesis which he claims has a heavy "stamp" of Burke upon it. But it is with Keith's essay on Burke for the classroom that an emergence within the journal segment of the discipline begins.
In the next year, Joseph Comprone published an essay on Burke and teaching writing in which he suggests various ways which the pentad can be used to understand the relationships between teachers, students, and the projects they do. I would identify this as an attempt at a "meta-analysis." Comprone's examination is outside of pedagogy, and it anticipates other, more sophisticated articles such as Alice Roy's "The Grammar and Rhetoric of Inclusion" (1995) in which Roy analyzes the nature of "inclusivity" and "diversity" as employed in the discourse of postsecondary reform. Again, this is a use of Burke to examine discourse outside of composition pedagogy, but still effecting it.
In some ways, I saw articles such as the last two as "fringe" as much as they were "meta." Under that heading, I would also include Sheard's "Kairos and Kenneth Burke's Psychology of Political and Social Communication" and Kastely's "Kenneth Burke's Comic Rejoinder to the Cult of Empire." Each of these addressed issues concerning composition--a definition of the classic Greek term kairos and an approach to teaching and criticizing "ways of resisting a hegemony whose very success threatens a new disaster and even deeper forms of alienation" (Kastely 307). Not surprisingly, these articles, as Roy's, appear in College English. The articles are targetted for a broader audience; while at the same time, they draw upon the resources developed by their peers using Burke.
Articles such as these are important in the scope of Burke studies, and in fact, they may get more directly at projects Burke was interested in--criticism and understanding of language as its used in social structures. In his own essay, "Questions and Answers About the Pentad" (1978), Burke admits to his CCC audience that he did not have composition in mind when he discussed the pentad. He did not intend it to be a heuristic device, as it had been (and still is) commonly used. Burke suggested that Compositionists at least begin to incorporate "the ratios" and "circumference" in their teaching of invention through the pentad (333). This short essay is the only piece Burke published in a Composition journal. It's direct impact on Composition Studies was probably minimal. Since only four articles came before this one, no proper balance, or before and after, picture can be generated. However, Burke's words did not go completely unheeded. It is cited in three of the essays I have, and it is discussed in essays outside of Composition. Too, Burke was actually discussing the writers of textbooks, where the precedent had been set to include the pentad along side the five W's and other such devices.
Nonetheless, Burke's message comes through very clearly in the next essay published, Virginia Allen's "Some Implications of Kenneth Burke's 'Way of Knowing' for Composition Theory." She attempts to recontextualize the pentad in Burke's behaviorist-semanticist epistemology. She warns her colleagues:
Composition theory has had a prolonged academic infancy. As we learn to examine theories as theories and not just as pedagogical tools, we must begin by recognizing the relationship between the epistemology wihch underlines each of the theories we examine and the implications of the epistemology for the production of discourse. (20)
Her essay reinforces Burke's concern, not by repetition, but by explanation and exploration. Seconding Allen's comments is Charles Kneupper in his short essay, "The Relation of Agency to Act in Dramatism: A Comment on 'Burke's Act'" (appearing in 1985 along with Clayton Lewis' response to Kneupper, who was responding to a longer essay by Lewis--this is the vital parlor banter, no doubt). Kneupper claims that we must realize that "Burke and his followers have devoted comparatively little attention to the application of dramatism to the composing process" (306). An interesting study that needs to follow this one is an examination of teaching practices that focus on the pentad as invention heuristic. While the essayists do not really engage the pentad very much in Composition journals, it still makes it into the textbooks in its more or less watered down versions.
Essayists in the journals, however, picked up on a wide variety of topics from Burke's terminology. Tilly Warnock discussed Burke's textual playfulness with which he "invites his readers to participate in the symbolic action, in the dancing of attitudes" (62). Bill Karis discusses Burke's term "occupational psychosis" in light of how instructors approach collaborative work. Karis suggests that we develop less of a Rogerian and more of a Burkeian attitude toward collaboration. Virginia Anderson works with Burke's concept of "constitutions," and she argues that students must learn to see that constitutions possess gaps between what they promise and what they deliver. In some ways, she does as Hassett does in playing Burke's terms through postmodern assumptions. Her goal is to encourage teachers to help students see how they can "reconstruct democracy" by close exploration of the Constitution and other cultural documents.
As is obvious, Burke's work has gone in many different ways within Composition theory. Much of his work is yet unexplored; however, newer scholars like Michael Hassett, who published three essays on Burke in 1995, and Ellen Quandahl take new turns within Burke's work. Hassett and Quandahl both explore the term "mortification" within Burke. Mortification is the act of exposing "goads" which may potentially harm us or prevent us from keeping our terministic screens under our own control. Quandahl's essay follows Hassett's and both supports and questions it in light of postmodern culture theories. With work like this growing upon the work of previous scholars like Virginia Allen, W. Ross Winterowd, and Rick Coe, who all cleared away much of the "terminological underbrush" they originally found in Burke (a clearing away which is not so much a devaluing, as an exploring and interpretting), the field of Composition still stands to gain much from the work that Corbett identified as "promising" to the newly forming Compositionsists of 1967.
Berlin, James. "Contemporary Composition: The Major Pedagogical Theories." College English4.8 (1982): 765-77.
Bridwell-Bowles, Lillian. "Research in Composition: Issues and Methods." in An Introduction to Composition Studies. Ed. Erika Lindemann and Gary Tate. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. 94-118.
Burke, Kenneth. "Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education." in Modern Philosophies and Education. Ed. Nelson B. Henry. Chicago: National Society ofr the Study of Education, 1955. 259-303.
-----. The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley. Ed. Paul Jay. New York: Viking, 1988.
Goggin, Maureen Daly. "Composing a Discipline: The Role of Scholarly Journals in the Disciplinary Emergence of Rhetoric and Composition Since 1950." Rhetoric Review 15.2 (1997): 322-348.
Nichols, Marie Hocmuth. "Kenneth Burke and the 'New Rhetoric.'" Quarterly Journal of Speech 38 (April 1952) 133-44.
North, Stephen. The Making of Knowledge in Composition: Portrait of an Emerging Field. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1987.
Allen, Virginia. "Some Implications of Kenneth Burke's 'Way of Knowing' for Composition Theory." Journal of Advanced Composition 3.1 (1982): 10-23.
Anderson, Virginia. "Antithetical Ethics: Kenneth Burke and the Constitution," JAC 15.2 (1995): 261-279.
Arrington, Phillip. "A Dramatistic Approach to Understanding and Teaching the Paraphrase." CCC 39 (May 1988): 185-197.
Burke, Kenneth. "Questions and Answers about the Pentad." CCC 29 (1978): 330-335.
Coe, Richard. "Defining Rhetoric--and Us." Journal of Advaced Composition 10.1 (1990): 39-52.
-----. "Beyond Diction: Using Burke to Empower Words--And Wordlings." Rhetoric Review 11.2 (1993): 368-377.
Comprone, Joseph. "Kenneth Burke and the Teaching of Writing." CCC 29.4 (1978): 336-40.
Corbett, Edward P.J. "What is Being Revived?" CCC 18 (1967): 166-172.
Graves, Heather Brodie. "Regrinding the Lens of Gender: Problematizing 'Writing as a Woman.'" Written Communication 10.2 (1993): 139-163.
Hassett, Michael. "Sophisticated Burke: Kenneth Burke as a Neosophistic Rhetorician." Rhetoric Review 13.2 (1995): 371-390.
-----. "Constructing an Ethical Writer for the Postmodern Scene." RSQ 25 (1995): 179-196.
-----. "Increasing Response-ability through Mortification: A Burkean Perspective on Teaching Writing." JAC 15.3 (1995): 471-488.
Karis, Bill. "Conflict in Collaboration: A Burkean Perspective." Rhetoric Review 8.1 (1989): 113-126.
Kastely, James. "Kenneth Burke's Comic Rejoinder to the Cult of Empire." College English 58.3 (1996): 307-326.
Keith, Philip. "Burke for the Composition Class." CCC 28.4 (1977): 348-351.
Kneupper, Charles. "The Relation of Agency to Act in Dramatism: A Comment on 'Burke's Act.'"College English 46.3 (1985): 305-308.
Lewis, Clayton. "Burke's Act in A Rhetoric of Motives." College English 46.4 (1984): 368-376.
Lewis, Clayton. "Clayton Lewis Responds." College English 46.3 (1985): 308-312.
Mullican, James S. "Kenneth Burke's Dramatism and Rhetoric: Implications for Teaching."English Quarterly 8.4 (1976): 11-20.
Quandahl, Ellen. "'It's Essentially as Though This Were Killing Us': Kenneth Burke on Mortification and Pedagogy." RSQ 27.1 (1997): 5-22.
Roy, Alice. "The Grammar and Rhetoric of Inclusion." College English 57.2 (1995): 182-95.
Schiappa, Edward. "Burkean Tropes and Kuhnian Science: A Social Constructionist Perspective on Language and Reality." Journal of Advanced Composition 13.2 (1993): 401-22.
Sheard, Cynthia Miecznikowski. "Kairos and Kenneth Burke's Psychology of Political and Social Communication." College English 55.3 (1993): 291-310.
Warnock, Tilly. "Reading Kenneth Burke: Ways In, Ways Out, Ways Roundabout." College English 48.1 (1986): 62-75.
Winterowd, W. Ross. "Dramatism in Themes and Poem." College English 45.6 (1983): 581-588.
Presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication
Phoenix, March 1997
This paper is prompted by a commitment to two beliefs about the work we do. First, I believe that the teaching of writing should not be separated from the teaching of reading--in more general terms, that the practice of rhetorical production cannot be disentangled from the discursive practice of rhetorical response. Second, and more particularly, I believe that how a written text functions, its influence, effects, or consequences--more generally, the social function of a rhetorical act--is determined more by responses of those who receive it than by the intentions that produced it. I first articulated these beliefs in print some time ago, and would now like to use this occasion to sketch the shape of a pedagogy for the teaching of writing that draws upon theories of rhetorical criticism derived from the work of Kenneth Burke. Specifically, I want to examine the resources inherent in his notion of identification for providing us with ways to prepare students to use writing and reading to participate constructively in a wide variety of discursive interactions.
Burke offers identification as the "key" term in what he calls the "new rhetoric" and focuses his theoretical attention there rather than on "persuasion," the key term of the what he describes as the "old" ("Rhetoric--Old and New"). He formalized this focus first in 1950, in the introduction to A Rhetoric of Motives, having witnessed the contentious first half of the 20th century that culminated in the Nazi holocaust and the invention of nuclear warfare. Given that context, its not surprising that the position Burke took here relative to the rhetorical tradition and, particularly, to its tradition of rhetorical criticism, was both revisionist and utopian. Having concluded that the purposes of "invective, eristic, polemic" that lend propel the project of rhetorical exchange as traditionally theorized and practiced are no longer tenable--he describes the fulfillment of these as the act of the "kill," Burke begins a 333 page attempt to offer a survivable alternative. And while he ends his introduction to the Rhetoric with the claim that he does not "flatter" himself "that any one book can contribute much to counteract the torrents of ill will into which so many of our contemporaries have so avidly and sanctimoniously plunged" (xv), the transformed version of rhetorical practice he recommends in the pages that follow seems to aspire to do exactly that.
I once heard Burke say that he developed this revisionist rhetoric for the classroom--for his students at Bennington. My guess is that he did so in a utopian attempt to educate a new generation in ways of discursive interaction that are more constructive than had past generations when they find themselves enmeshed in potentially destructive conflicts. I make that guess prompted by his overarching pedagogical goal articulated in an essay on education in 1955: to teach people to "modify" their "intrinsically competitive . . . ambitions" by enacting a "methodic distrust." Specifically,
we would try, at least within the limited orbit of theory or contemplation to perfect techniques for doubting much that is now accepted as being beyond the shadow of a doubt. A mere inculcating of "tolerance," "good will," "respect for the rights of others," and such, cannot be enough. Such attitudes are all too airily positive. And the educational training here advocated would be in its very essence negative . . . . ("Linguistic Approach to Problems in Education" 272)
Burke's conception of a rhetoric in which identification rather than persuasion is "key," is a discursive exchange in which "the various voices, mutually correcting one another, will lead toward a position better than any one singly." More to the point, the motive that propels the kind of discourse he envisions is more cooperative more than competitive: "one does not want merely to outwit the opponent, or to study him, one wants to be affected by him . . . --in brief, to learn from him" (284). But it is also fundamentally defensive.
This is a variety of utopianism that does not invest hope in the efficacy of a particular ideology. Rather, it locates hope in the capacity of human beings to judge wisely and deliberately how they will interact with each other, and in the possibility that they might be taught the advantages of choosing to cooperate rather than to compete when they interact. In this utopia people choose a wary humility over ready hubris when they find themselves in conflict. Here people might learn to speak and write in ways that acknowledge the inherently partial and partisan character of their own fallible claims as conscientious objectors to the project of the rhetorical kill. But knowing that unless everyone chooses such renunciation, conscientious objectors are cast aside with a clear conscience and no capacity for influence, Burke asserts that people must learn to resist the forces of persuasion in order to judge and to choose for themselves. He recognizes that because the nature of language as well as human nature makes the cooperative utopia he envisions not possible, and presents his theory of identification in the form of an explication of the implicit and explicit elements of the persuasive appeals that people encounter in discursive interactions that he intends to enable people to defend themselves. This "new" rhetorical criticism exposes for explicit scrutiny and careful choice the usually implicit processes of identification that otherwise operate almost invisibly on those to whom an attempt to persuade is addressed. Teaching that kind of criticism seems to a pedagogical way toward support Burke's goal of purifying war.
By investing his utopian hope in the project of teaching rhetorical criticism, Burke fits into a pattern observable in the changing emphases of rhetorical education in the West during recent centuries. This is only an impressionistic generalization, but here it is. As nations became increasingly self-governing schooling became more widely accessible, and as schooling became more widely accessible more attention in the rhetorical curriculum seems to have turned to the teaching of critical reception and response. Perhaps this is because common sense says that for a genuinely self-governing society to sustain itself, its citizens must be capable of choosing wisely from among the many and constant attempts that are made to persuade them to collective attitude and action. Of course, modern educational purposes have been for some time propelled by the forces of a labor market that requires competency training and professional credentialing, but even now some elements of a typical "general education" (those that stress "critical thinking," particularly) and even specialized training in some disciplines (political and cultural criticism in literary studies, for example) still address this civic need. In his essay on education, Burke picks up on that need explicitly by envisioning an education that is "primarily admonitory" in its purpose rather than simply "promissory" of the kind of "insignia" that enable students to "'get ahead' as individuals" ("LAPE" 271). As he argues, "nothing less than a very thorough training in the discounting of rhetorical persuasiveness can make a citizen truly free" ( 285). Indeed, just a year ago, in our own College English, this civic vision of education in writing and reading was articulated again by James L. Kastely who suggests that Burke's kind of "linguistically skeptical education would renew patriotism not so much by providing positive models but by pursuing an approach that . . . seeks to make new and sophisticated citizens by constituting them as critical audiences and speakers who are self-conscious . . . users of language" (323).
Here Burke and Kastely and the rest of us who think about discourse and citizenship in this way stand squarely in the civic tradition of rhetorical education, which is itself founded on a faith in the capacity of people to judge critically and independently. Such faith enacts a hope that people can learn to resist the ideological forces that, for Kastely, following Burke's theological language, can possess us: "no one can escape this possession but one might be able to interfere . . . . The name for this interference is criticism" (308). For Burke, ideology takes possession of people through the mechanism of identification and, as William Rueckert puts it, life in language is "charged with highly symbolic identifications," both "overt and covert" (75). Persuasion happens when one person accepts the identifications that another presents, and both that presentation and its acceptance may or may not be intentional. In this process, then, the actions of both those who persuade and those who are persuaded are, in the words of Christine Oravec, "not by any means entirely conscious or self-contained" (178). As Burke summed it up in his introduction to A Rhetoric of Motives:
There is an intermediate area of expression that is not wholly deliberate, yet not wholly unconscious. It lies midway between aimless utterance and speech directly purposive. For instance, a man who identifies his private ambition with the good of the community may be partly justified, partly unjustified. He may be using a mere pretext to gain individual advantage at public expense; yet he may be quite sincere . . . . Here is a rhetorical area not analyzable either as sheer design or as sheer simplicity. And we would treat of it here. (xiii-xiv)
And in doing so, we must do the work of rhetorical criticism.
So how does all this fit into the writing classroom? In multiple places in his work Burke discusses identification in terms that suggest a teachable critical method. In his early Attitudes Toward History, he notes that it is "normal" to identify the self with "manifestations beyond" the self (263), that people require a "corporate identity" and are "enfeebled" when they avoid identifying themselves with collectives because identification is "the function of sociality" (266-7). Further, he describes the experience of sociality as one of shifting identifications: encountering "corruption" in a collective with which we identify, we tend not to give up on collectives altogether but, rather, to search for alternative identifications. Burke argues that the choice people face is not whether to identify butwhich identifications to accept. And he would have people make that process of choosing as fully conscious and openly accountable to those with whom they live and work as possible.
People use language in social life and identification is unavoidable. But because we can learn to choose from among identifications, some instances of persuasion can be avoided. Persuasion, Burke writes in A Rhetoric of Motives, is enacted in a transformation of one's perception and attitude, and the elements of that process of transformation are identifications (46). Consequently, we should learn to defer consent to the transformations that would render a particular discursive act functionally persuasive by first locating the identifications it entails and then choosing from among them which ones to accept. In his essay on education this becomes a method that takes the form of two questions: "you begin by asking yourself 'what equals what in this text?' And then, next, you ask 'what follows what in this text?'"
The first question, "what equals what," requires an examination of, in his terms, things like "what 'hero' is to equal " in a particular text, "what 'villain' is to equal, what 'wisdom' is to equal." Burke calls this mode of questioning a text a "study of equations" within it that, for a reader, enables "yielding without demoralization." This act of locating and understanding the identifications that a text presents ("even," Burke adds, "when a writer has no such intentions in mind") but then deferring their acceptance is a "yielding" because it "systematically let[s] the text have its full say, even beyond what the author may have thought he was saying . . ." (270), but the reader's consent to accept that "say" is withheld. That is why he describes this method of questioning as an approach to both texts and to "the human situation" that "makes methodical the attitude of patience" (271).
However, eventually a reader must respond. Burke's second question--"what follows from what in this text?"--designates the second set of equations. But because he offers little explanation of this step I feel licensed to read "follows" as a term for consequence and effect. Given this reading, while a study of the first set of equations can expose the identifications--stated, implied, and inferred--that a text invites its readers to accept, a study of a second set could enable the reader to consider the effects that might follow from accepting each identification that is offered. In this same essay, Burke offers--in his usual, complicating way--other terms for this two-step method. He describes the first step as one of locating "all significant correlations" and the second as choosing how to respond to them(276); the first as a "formal" approach to the text and the second as a "doctrinal" one (286); the first as aesthetic, enacting "appreciation," while the second as rhetorical, enacting counter-assertion (290).
And although Burke does not make this connection explicitly, I find his treatment of this second question suggesting a connection to another of his critical tools, the notion of the "representative anecdote" developed in A Grammar of Motives. In the Rhetoric Burke describes these two critical questions using the mathematical metaphor of "equations:" a reader begins by locating the identifications that a text both states and implies by asking "what equals what?" His earlier Grammar also uses mathematical terms when he describes the system of identifications that a text presents as "a given calculus" that "must be supple and complex enough to be representative of the subject matter it is designed to calculate. It must have scope, yet it must also possess simplicity, in that it is broadly a reduction of the subject matter" (60). In other words, a critical reader can judge the identifications--the equations--that would render a text persuasive by determining the extent to which together, as a system, they represent what the reader believes to be real or desirable. In still other words, a reader can counterbalance the claims of a text with an assessment of whether the concept they present corresponds with the reality he or she experiences or the ideal for which she or he hopes.
To make that assessment, critical readers must check for a problem inherent in the use of language: in Burke's terms, even if people intentionally "seek for vocabularies that will be faithful reflections of reality, . . . they must develop vocabularies that are selections of reality" which, in turn, will function "as adeflection of reality." If that vocabulary--that set of equations, of identifications that a text presents to persuade a reader that it corresponds to reality-- "meets the needs of reflection, we can say that it has the necessary scope. In its selectivity, it is a reduction. Its scope and reduction become a deflection when the given terminology, or calculus, is not suited to the subject matter it is designed to calculate" (59). Essentially, he continues, "one should seek to select as representative anecdote, something sufficiently demarcated in character to make analysis possible, yet sufficiently complex in character to prevent the use of too few terms in its description" (324). For example, "if our theme were Ôcommunication,' we should seek to form our terms about some typical instance of communication, rather than selecting some purely physical mode, as a highway system or telegraphic network" (326). Though stated here in terms of rhetorical production, this insight operates as a critical tool that can enables the kind of patience that can lead to responses that counter the kill by enacting Burke's moral dictum that "the progress of humane enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious but as mistaken"--indeed, "necessarilymistaken" as their "every insight" must, because of the nature of language, contain "its own special kind of blindness" (ATH 41).
As a teacher, I am interested in using some version of this method to integrate the acts of reading and writing--to render student writing an act of discursive response to the texts that they read. I am interested in using Burke's insights into the persuasive function of the processes of identification to prompt readers to write in ways that counter the intentions of texts they read in ways that enable them, and those who read with them, to choose whether those texts are persuasive. It seems to me that Burke's method of locating the appeals to identification that a text presents to enable a reader to assess more fully its intention, and then of judging the extent to which that intention represents a reality or ideality to which that reader can consent to enable a critical discursive response, suggests the shape of a pedagogy that embeds writing in reading and reading in writing and, as it does so, holds writers and readers alike accountable for what "follows." And that last is something important that I think we should teach.
Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History, 3rd ed. U of California Press, 1984.
---. A Grammar of Motives. U of California Press, 1969.
---. "Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education," 259-202. Modern Philosophy and Education, ed. Nelson B. Henry.
National Society for the Study of Education, Yearbook 54, part 1. U of Chicago Press, 1955
---. "Rhetoric--Old and New," 59-76. New Rhetorics, ed., Martin Steinmann. Scribners, 1967.
---. A Rhetoric of Motives, U of California Press, 1969.
Kastely, James. "Kenneth Burke's Comic Rejoinder to the Cult of Empire," College English (March 1996): 307-326..
Oravec, Christine. "Kenneth Burke's Concept of Association and the Complexity of Identity," 174-185. The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, ed, Herbert W. Simons and Trevor Melia. U of Wisconsin Press, 1989.
Rueckert, William. Encounters with Kenneth Burke, U of Illinois Press, 1994, p.75.
Presented at the National Communication Association Convention
Love, Knowledge, Authority: three basic ideals, variously embodied in structures of power, and all liable to such transformations that make them a mockery. As translated into the terms of social organization, they are necessarily somewhat at odds. But in moments of great exaltation, we may think of them as a trinity, standing to one another in a relation of mutual reenforcement (Kenneth Burke, GM, p. 124).
The abstractions and idealized connotations of "love, knowledge and authority" challenged Aristotle, as he grasped for words and chose philia for which there is no English counterpart to describe "love" as friendship: "It requires some degree of goodwill and mutual recognition," writes Terence Irwin, a recent translator of Nichomachean Ethics . "It includes the love of members of a family for one another [. . . ] It includes the favourable attitudes of business partners and associates and of fellow-citizens for one another." The terms remain an anomaly for us; yet, the "three basic ideals" allude to what we most require as social animals: orientation and affection.
Going-back-to-Aristotle seems to be a trend these days--when knowledge and authority are mere commodities of credentialing, and the political has been removed from Max Weber's hyphenated "political-economy." With paid politicians scurrying to fundraise for their re-election only days after assuming office, it seems that only philosophers and organization communication theorists are interested in the language of politics at the end of the century Weber introduced: From the domain of organizational communication we have Stan Deetz who has ridiculed Democracy in an age of corporate colonization , and Eric Eisenberg who wrote Jamming: Transcendence through organizing . From the domain of philosophy, we have Ludwig Wittgenstein who wrote that our only certainty for orientation resides in the shared agreement and understanding of our statements ("propositions") that are underwritten with the logic of syntax, and Richard Rorty who suggests that community exists solely through stories of "shared hope." Another philosopher, Walter Kaufman in his preface to Martin Buber's I and Thou wrote, "Modern Christian attempts to get back to a pre-Hellenistic Christianity are legion. They are also doomed. There was never any pre-Hellenistic Christianity" (p. 34).
Thus, in many ways we are back to Aristotle when we attempt to contemplate these Burkean god-terms. In his Politics and Ethics he strove to understand human organization--or otherwise stated, the purpose of interpersonal organization--from the family to the political system. The governments that he deemed "healthy" were monarchy (or "kingship"), aristocracy and timocracy (polity). Presently, as we strive to embrace the organizational mandate from paternalism to partnering (Center for the Study of American Business, 1993), not only do we find Aristotle's preferred patriarchy unsettling, but we also find a glimmer of hope: He tells us of the deviations from his stated healthy forms (aristocracy to oligarchy, kingship to tyranny and timocracy to democracy): "Democracy is the least vicious; for it deviates only slightly from the form of a genuine political system" since timocracy and democracy are related by concerns for equality and rule by the majority (Aristotle, pp. 226-7). Accordingly, in this time of global oligarchy, we should strive towards an Aristotelian mean--a "democratic polity." And Kenneth Burke's thoughts regarding both the "mockeries" of the ideals as misaligned in social organization, and potentially aligned in "moments of great exaltation" can assist us.
Ten years ago we were described as A Nation at Risk in a publication concerning our problematic potential for competing in a 21st Century global economy. There have been cultural signs since that could very well fall under the same title. Here I'm referring to the widespread popularity of the best-selling book, Who Will Tell the People and the hit song, Gangsta's Paradise . We are indeed a nation at risk when people of all ages recognize the sham of our democracy, identify with the lyrics "power and the money, money and the power, minute after minute, hour after hour," and see little or no hope for change.
But ironically things will change. Burke ( GM p. 517) writes that "we may state with confidence . . . that what arose in time must fall in time" and more precisely, "that the developments that led to the rise will . . . inevitably lead to the fall." He sums up this notion simply as "what goes forth as A returns as non-A." In our case, capitalism and democracy were spawned alongside the birth of our nation; our question becomes "what is, in terms of a political-economy, a desired non -A from the given in A?" How can we, as human agents, shape this Burkean inevitability rather than being passive victims to its (perceived) manifestation and revelation?
Now, more so than ever, tenets of democracy have taken a back seat to capitalism. In fact there are likely authors in Russia who would borrow Robert Cottrell's assessment, "Russia: The New Oligarchy" and write, "America: A Seasoned Oligarchy." Given the figures that Jason Epstein cites in White Mischief --that between 1977 and 1990 a mere 1% of the population received 79% of all income generated, "with much of that bonanza going to the top tenth of that 1%"--if it's not too late to deny a wealthy minority common rule, we'd best organize within our communities and lobby our legislators until curbs are placed on the liberties of corporations.
One place we're being asked to assume more responsibility, and thus are granted more voice, is in the managing of our public schools on a local level. Although the request is linked to the economic concerns of A Nation at Risk , an opportunity exists for us to consider the ideals of Love, Knowledge and Authority as we contemplate the kind of education we'd prefer for our children. After all, the ideals were first enacted in the domain of the family long before the organization of human communities who, through the years either voluntarily or non-voluntarily, conceded most of their power to a government. And in considering these ideals perhaps we can not only halt the reproduction of society as it is through the schooling process but also begin to educate a citizenry rather than continuing to foster a consumership.
Most of the educational reforms this century have been connected to the mental hygiene movement; the idea being that if children were only more rational, they'd be more moral. Yet Burke ( P&C , p. 274) makes a convincing case that attitudes and acts precede cognition and that we use our cognitve abilities in justification of an act; an attitude is a passive state of mind that may become active in a symbolic act in preparation for an act ( GM , p. 20).
Burke ( ATH , i) writes, "An attitude of Attitudes frames a point of view . . . [it's ideally] a manual of terms for a public relations council with a heart." But it needn't be and oftentimes isn't as Martin Buber (1970, p. 53) explains that there are essentially two kinds of attitudes--one of seeing things and people as "its" or objects of utility, and one of cherishing them as "thou's" in their uniqueness of form and/or knowledge. Although both men acknowledge that everyday life requires a move between one attitude and the other, they abhor the thought of people being seen as workplace commodities--as a means of production or service rather than ends (essences), in and of themselves.
Fortunately this kind of thought began entering the "managerial literature" a decade ago, followed by suggestions that we "democratize" the workplace. A difficulty with accomplishing such a feat is what Stan Deetz refers to as the corporate colonization of America , a close cousin to Burke's (borrowing from Thorstein Veblen) thought regarding "trained incapacities" and "the bureaucratization of the imaginative." All suggest that we have been so indoctrinated by the implementations and associations of order, hierarchy and bureaucracy that we no longer have the imaginative capacity to envision anything else. However Burke writes:
Bureaucracy and Hierarchy obviously imply each other. Logically, you can't have a Hierarchy without, by the same token, having a Bureaucracy (in the sense of an "organization"). But you might conceivably, have a bureaucracy without a Hierarchy. That is: there does not seem to be any logical contradiction in the idea of organized collaboration among absolute equals . But unless, in practice, authority is at least delegated, organized behavior as we know it becomes impossible (P&C, p. 282).
His reference to "delegated authority" suggests a lateral collaboration among "absolute equals" similar to that of Eric Eisenberg's in jamming , (an article he wrote in response to the failure of Total Quality Management prescriptions to adequately address the corporate demands for an immediate response when communications are a 'round-the-clock affair): "Jamming experiences provide us an opportunity to transcend the autonomy-interdependence dialectic, simultaneously allowing for the possibility of both." Not only is jamming "simultaneous" or improvisional in-and-of-itself as an athletic or musical form , but strengthening Eisenberg's thought is Burke's own when he analogizes the simultaneity of the trinity with love, knowledge and authority in The Rhetoric of Religion (pp. 27-33).
Burke was particularly interested in how humans became capable of maintaining socio-political hierarchies (or inequalities) in the first place. Of course he, like Max Weber, recognized several reasons why people submit to being ruled: (1) the authority of custom; (2) the authority of the exceptional, personal gift of grace or charisma demonstrated by a leader to whom one is personally devoted, and/or (3) by virtue of the belief in the validity of the legal statute itself; in such case, submission is not generally motivated only by fear or hope but by personal interests of the most diverse kinds, including a perceived elevation in status due to a loyalty to authority (Lassman and Speirs, pp. 311-312).
In The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology , Burke explores why we have such a deeply embedded custom of recognizing a higher authority and finds his answer in the first three chapters of Genesis. As a literary critic, he reads the chapters as a story of first principles, beginning with the primary theme of Order before any covenant is made between God and [hu]man. Furthermore, he explains how God's ordering of the natural naturalizes an already existing human socio-political order.
And as a logologer, a person who studies words about words, Burke recognized that our lexicon can only refer to three realms of what is around us: what's seen and can be pointed to in nature; those concepts from our socio-political lives, and whatever languages we've developed to talk about the use of words themselves. But because of our ability to abstract and idealize, humans managed to develop a way to talk about those things not in their presence--the transcendent or super (beyond)-natural. This means: humans took words from all three realms of an everyday vocabulary and imagined them in their most perfectly idealized expression. He calls these terms "god-terms" since they have been spiritualized in a dimension beyond human knowing--in the human imagination--and are returned, transformed, for continued use in everyday speech. God-terms show up in Burke's writings as capitalization's of words such as Love, Knowledge, Authority, Order, Hierarchy and Bureaucracy.
Buber (1970, p. 82) was one of the first authors this century to most emphatically and astutely remind us, "Our ordered world is not the world order." After the failed positivist quest of the Enlightenment to know the order of the natural world as physicists had hoped to but were stopped in their tracks when Heisenberg's work announced "uncertainty," numerous authors have echoed Buber's assertion. Consequently we are free to play around with Burke's god-terms of Love, Knowledge and Authority and see if we might just happen to stumble across some formulation of them, in "mutual reenforcement" of one another. Although I've mentioned their consideration as ideals both for our educational system and workplace, as ideals they are politically applicable, too. That's important since our political situation, as an environmental condition, not only determines what kinds of universal human experience we may know ( CS, p. 152) but also frames our motives since we derive "meaning" from the communication of our culture ( P&C , p. 19).
The interplay of the three ideals of Love, Knowledge and Authority would foster a political attitude or atmosphere which would contribute to Burke's notion of the scenic. I suggest a logical play with these three ideals in terms of attitude/motive and corresponding act; any act can be considered political, since by definition an act is public and can consequently be named as a political act or policy. In attempt to align these combinations with the political forms as named by Aristotle in his Politics , it seems as if in most cases a third term is omitted--perhaps demonstrative of Burke's notion of the lesser of two "equals" but probably more representative that all of the terms as they apply aren't really god-terms , infused with the human spirit. (I consider this extrapolation as a metaphorically useful way to enlarge our sense of scene as human agents since both attitude and motive are scenic terms, and I encourage those readers who disagree with my arrangement to play around with the idea since a trinity other than the two I've suggested may indeed exist.)
|Authority/knowledge||social control||Tyranny (Fascism)|
|authority/knowledge||love as violence (material)||Democracy|
|Love/Authority||speaking as Knowledgeable||Monarchy|
|Knowledge/Love||co-constructed Authority (therapy)||Republic (Polity)|
|Love/Knowledge||co-constructed Authority (spiritual)||Democratic Polity|
Each of these three ideals has (at least two) different frames of meaning. My intention is to show that the term is operative as a (capitalized) god-term only when both meanings are evident in the equation. For instance, Burke ( GM, p. 123) traces Authority as a god-term to its origin in the word auctor which can mean "originator" either in the sense of "progenitor" or "inventor/creator." He adds that from both of these senses comes our usual meaning of leader.
Likewise Burke ( GM , pp. 123-124) writes of the relation between faith and knowledge ( pistis and gnosis ) as he claims that they are both kinds of knowledge. Better still, he ( RR , pp. 184, 189) makes the distinction between faith and reason as kinds of knowledge as opposed to and separate from the senses and imagination as ways of knowing. As a god-term, Knowledge would necessarily incorporate all modes of knowledge including that derived from dialogue; Burke ( RR , p. 266) writes: "Language is the logological equivalent of grace."
With regard to Love, Burke ( GM , p. 122) imagines that "the natural, biological, tribal order of food and growth would seem to culminate in the emotion of love . . . but it is also to be seen . . . in the elder Breughel's engraving of Summer . . . " The latter reference includes an aesthetic realm and illustrates how "love" may have transcended the natural realm through an appreciation of art and beauty and become Love. In addition to the brief discussion of Love, Knowledge and Authority as ideals or god-terms, the "attitude/act and motive" arrangements as I have perceived them require some elaboration. I have drawn from Marsilius: Defender of the Peace (Lerner and Mahdi, 1972), a recent translation of Marsilius' political philosophy as based upon Aristotle's major writings.
Authority/knowledge. Tyranny as described by Marsilius is "a diseased government wherein the ruler is a single man who rules for his own private benefit apart from the will of his subjects (p. 461)." In keeping with Authority as a god-term, "Although tyrants were by definition rulers who usurped power by force rather than inheriting it like legitimate kings, they then established family dynasties to maintain their tyranny . . . [and] preserved the existing laws and political institutions of their city-states as part of their rule" (Martin, 1996, pp. 80-81).
Such rulers apparently recognize the power of authority both as progenitor (as they passed down their crown) and inventor (as they devised methods to maintain the status quo for their benefit). As motive, they "knew" from the situation of their culture ( P&C , p. 29) that they would be successful to gain control over the group, thus the "act" is one of social control .
(Note here I have included Fascism as a modern-day form of tyranny. With the aid of the "power" of mass media, physical force is no longer required.)
authority/knowledge. Democracy was also considered as a diseased form of government according to Marsilius: "[It is] a government in which the vulgar or the multitude of the needy establish the government and rule alone, apart from the will or consent of the other citizens and not entirely for the common benefit according to proper proportion" (p. 461).
Of course this wasn't the case when Americans embraced democracy as the aristocracy initiated the experiment. Here I indicated that neither Authority nor Knowledge ever materialized, although I believe our government began with an attitude of wanting to co-create (create is an Authority term) culture; consequently, the motive would've been generating cultural knowledge. However, our founding fathers had no idea of the fallout to be experienced from the Industrial Revolution. Their good intentions are evidenced only in "acts" of love as violence ; the aesthetic and imaginative sense was there but Love never materialized due to the attitudes of utility and competition within a free market economy.
Love/Authority. Monarchy was considered a "well tempered" government "wherein the ruler is a single man who rules for the common benefit and in accordance with the will or consent of the subjects" (p. 461). Kingly monarchy seems comparable to the authority granted to an elder in a community of villagers or tribe members. The chosen authority has a benevolent attitude (Love) toward his subjects and his motivation is to provide leadership and create harmony (functions of Authority) in his "act" of sharing Knowledge .
knowledge/Authority. Oligarchy , according to Marsilius, "is a diseased government in which some of the wealthier or more powerful rule for their own benefit apart from the will of their subjects (p. 461)." Burke (P&C, p. 179) writes that when a privileged group "controls the educational, legislative and class morality" and thus "fossilizes" a certain orientation, it is dangerous to society as a whole.
Such is the present-day scenario that both Deetz and Walter Nord (in Work and the political economy ) write of in terms of credentialing and managerialism and authors such as Ole Thyssen (in his title) have a response for: Second order morality and organizations . Additionally, notable authors in the field of education such as Neil Postman, Ivan Illich, Pierre Bourdieu and Henry Giroux as well as economists such as Robert Isaak have written on the inherent ills in the "reproduction of society" model.
In this rendition Authority is shown as a god-term and a purpose (motive) in and of itself: to create and order a political system that benefits a powerful minority. An attitude of knowledge (in the lower case) reflects a know-how to manipulate and utilize. The "act" can be none other than social violence.
Knowledge/Authority . As opposed to an oligarchy, an Aristocracy of "honorable ability" ( honorabilitas ) rules in accordance with the will or consent of the subjects and for the common benefit. Here because of their "abilities," their attitude is one of Knowledge and their motive is leadership in the sense of an Authority. The corresponding "act" is one of benevolence .
Knowledge/Love . Citing Marsilius (p. 461), "A Polity means in [one] sense a certain species of government, in which every citizen participates in some way in the government or in the deliberative function in turn according to his rank and with the will and consent of the citizens." Knowledge as a god-term is apparent here as an attitude since everyone as an agent is valued as a participant. The attitude spills over into the god-term of Love as a motive for the "act" of co-constructed Authority (for leadership). Borrowing from Carl Rogers and Martin Buber we can extrapolate the meaning of therapy to encompass both the tasks of parenting and education. As Buber writes so eloquently in Between Man and Man , the mission of such endeavors is having the uninitiated see from the other side, thus arriving at a form of mutualism.
Love/Knowledge . This is a category that isn't listed in Aristotle's Politics but may be a sound foundation for a Democratic Polity . Its basis is in an affirmation of dialogue. With an attitude of Love as a god-term and an ability to value the "otherness" in all things other than self, a motive (purpose) of Knowledge leads to an "act" of a co-constructed Authority . In this case Authority as a god-term designates both the origin and creation of some new, shared knowledge. And oftentimes such "new knowledge," because of its poetic nature, requires an imaginative use of language. Buber (1970) writes of three spheres of relation that correspond to cosmos, eros and logos: "life with nature, where the relation sticks to the threshold of language, life with men where it enters language [and] life with spiritual beings, where it lacks but creates language" (p. 124).
Burke ( GM , p. 324) selected the American Constitution as our representative anecdote--one from which we derive our "symbolic grounding," and thus our ultimate scene as agents. He reminds us that it was written as a response to what had been seen at the time of its drafting as agonistic to human action and agency--an oppressive monarchy. Our concern may become, "How well can it fare against a potentially oppressive Oligarchy" since the document heavily supports free enterprise.
It was written at a time when the world view was one of libertarian philosophy--a view that William Rivers (Peterson and Jenson, p. 69) describes as "the world as a vast perpetual motion machine, going timelessly on according to the laws of nature [and] men [sic] as creature[s] guided by reason, not passion or narrow self interest." (Yet most people in the world might sense that they're forced to continue playing a losing game of Monopoly.)
Of course this Newtonian metaphor of metaphysics has been replaced by Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle that has us "huddled together at the edge of the abyss." One of the foremost philosophers of this century, Ludwig Wittgenstein in composing On Certainty (1969) recognized, like Burke, that our use of language within a community provides us with our only empirical ground from which to act, since the logical and grammatical propositions of philosophy are inherent in our sentence formations.
Through language, we "order" our world. Although Burke's thinking predated what is called "second order cybernetics," his thought is consistent with this emerging literature that describes "dissipative structures" as displaying more complexly organized patterns than the ordered structures from which they are derived. Translated into terms regarding human learning and organization, we need the excitation (an outside energy source) of diversity and randomness--more human voices--for our continued development.
A more contemporary model of social organization would then not seek to impose unnecessary measures of social control but would look to expand the tenets of our Constitution to guarantee maximized expression from those silenced "parts" of our society as necessarily contributing to the "whole"--in apposition, not opposition.
We derive a sense of "the whole" by tracing the roots of the words "economy" and "ecology" back to their Greek origin, oikos , as both were used within the context of talk about "home." How removed we are from that meaning since Capitalism and its handmaidens of Christianity, science and technology have cast us into the scene of what Ron Arnett (1994, p. 229) calls "existential homelessness."
Burke explains how Christianity aided the spread of capitalism as a personal sense of superiority could be derived through a "paradoxical idea of lowly social election with regard to the afterlife" that translated into economic degradation ( RR , pp. 244-245). He adds that "the habits that would naturally go with such a way of life would be the kind that builds up the prosperity of the family--and thus the mores of early capitalism would eventually emerge" ( RR , p. 245).
As for science, Burke is not only concerned with the glut of information the discipline has generated at the expense of an appreciation of form but in its tendency to name and address only what it can offer a solution for ( CS , p. 144 & P&C , p. 125) In constrasting information with form, he explains that the details of information are in themselves interesting as they rely on a reader's ignorance; form relies on a reader's experience and common knowledge and thus, is communal. And an example of the latter case of "naming" could be found in the volumes of psychiatric disorders, for which medications can be prescribed for agitation and "indolence." Burke possibly would've asked, "Who wouldn't have Attention Deficit Disorder if situated in a public school classroom these days?"
And as regards technology, Burke ( P&C , p. 5) most abbreviatedly defers to Thorstein Veblen: "Invention is the mother of necessity." In an article from a recent issue of Harper's (May, 1997), we are reminded that machines will never develop "consciousness" or a sense of the aesthetic. Jaron Lanier speaks of communication as "an essentially mystifying act" and denies that the meaning of a conversation can be reduced to "objectifiable bits of information that are transmitted from one to the other" (p. 50). And David Gelernter inadvertently adds to Veblen's assertion as he says, "[P]eople don't feel the spiritual strength to turn down technology in the cases where it diminishes rather than makes better the texture of their lives" (p. 51).
On a positive note, partly because of the technology of the electric media (Gozzi and Haynes, 1992) and partly because of the mass of information (Said, 1983), we're rediscovering our roots as members of speech communities. In contemplating the epistemological differences between oral, written and electric media, Gozzi and Haynes (p. 220) warn that we are experiencing a "turbulent gap" in "striving to make the new media do the work of the old"--they specifically mention televised classrooms. "At its worst, the electric epistemology will produce negative empathy, leading to a society that is cynical, distrustful, impulsive and cruel" (p. 222). They conclude:
Wisdom in electric epistemology will require empathy [. . . ] yet an ironic distance from one's own empathy (p.226). Skills will be needed to "triangulate" information [. . . ] by discovering alternative versions, different ideological sources--yes, even the print [and interpersonal] versions (p. 227).
Stanley Fish (in Said, p. 142) concurs, in what he calls the need for interpretive communities. These are defined as "groups as well as institutions (principal among them the classrooms and the predagogues) whose presence, much more than any unchanging objective truth, controls what we consider to be knowledge."
In addition to rediscovering our oral roots, we need to heighten our aesthetic awareness. According to Weber (Lassman and Speirs, 1994), change won't likely be led by a paid politician since anyone who potentially might "charismatically" lead has entered the profession in service to "political lords" (p. 315). At best, he describes a political leader that sounds like Burke's (P&C, p. 195) description of a tragic hero: One who, with ethics of conviction and responsibility, says, "Here I stand, I can do no other" (p. 367).
Weber, Thomas Jefferson (see Letter to Peter Carr ) and Burke concur in saying that literature and art are ingredient to political action. The arts introduce us to the full range of human experience and enable us to voyeuristically experience life's universal tensions. Burke ( CS , pp. 71-2) writes that art stirs the imagination, introduces the "not-yet known" and provides the motivation for a grass roots political movement.
In what Burke ( P&C , p. 223) refers to as our Metabiological nature as "Bodies that learn language" ( P&C , p. 295), our ecological calling is to speak and move.
Again I suggest a good place to start is within our communities as participants in educational change. Burke ( CS , p. 49) addresses the problem with "bourgeois education" in that it reproduces the known--society as it is, and conformity. The root of the word "aristocracy" meant of "honorable ability." And that was a major concern of the Libertarians such as John Stuart Mill when he wrote On Liberty : that ability not be constrained by conformity P. 82).
There's one major obstacle to providing an education to a future polity in such a way that all may develop honorable abilities, and that is poverty. Impoverishment as "scenic" nourishes an impoverished attitude in viewing the world. Burke ( P&C , p. 213) writes that "any country can be branded as gross until its last slums are removed and their paupers are not given mere sustenance but the cultural equivalent of sustenance." He adds that "material needs are logically prior to ethical values" ( GM , p. 88); analogizes "predestination" as Heidegger's sense of "throwness," as we don't choose our parents or our circumstance ( RR , p. 268), and writes that "property" as a construct must include other such things as "jobs, homes and affection" ( CS , p. 216). It's part of our "trained incapacity" to blame the poor for their plight rather than the political-economy that has so ordered it.
In closing and as a final plea for the Arts that have been largely removed from our public schools, I'll return to Marsilius of Padua and his reasoning for a Polity to ingratiate all its members for governance:
By induction we can see that many men rightly judge about the quality of a picture, a house, a ship, and other works of art, even though they would have been unable to discover or produce them. [He cites Aristotle], "About some things the man who made them is not the only or best judge." It . . . does not follow that the wise can dicern what should be enacted better than can the whole multitude, in which case the wise are included together with the less learned. . . . For every whole is greater than its parts both in action and in dicernment (p. 481).
In "second-order cybernetics," Love is defined as embracing other complex minds (Keeney, p. 199); Mind is defined as an evolutionary process that involves perception, emotion, action and language (Bateson in Capra, p. 176), and Authority may be defined as the result of co-learning.
Love, Knowledge and Authority--a trinity and a tripod: From the three as mutually reinforcing ideals, we can focus in on a clearer picture of both a world and the world of human experience.
After all, as in any jamming session, we--in society--can only "play" as well as the least-skilled player among us: "[. . . ] The total knowledge that is usable by the entire group can only equal or slightly exceed the knowledge of the least informed (i.e., the least competent) member of the group" (Bastien and Hostager, 1988 in Eisenberg, p. 153).
The community of brothers is like a timocratic system, since they are equal except insofar as they differ in age . . . For [in friendship within a timocracy] the citizens are meant to be equal and decent, and so rule in turn and on equal terms (Aristotle, p. 228).
. . . It is presumably better to examine [the area of legislation] ourselves instead, and indeed to examine political systems in general, and so to complete the philosophy of human affairs . . . First, then, let us try to review any sound remarks our predecessors have made on particular topics. Then let us study the collected political systems, to see what sorts of things preserve and destroy cities, and political systems of different types . . . For when we have studied these questions, we will perhaps grasp better what sort of political system is best; how each political system should be organized so as to be best; and what habits and laws it should follow (Aristotle, p. 298).
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Said, Edward W. (1982). "Opponents, audiences, constituencies and community" in Hal Foster, ed. (1983) The anti-aesthetic: Essays on post- modern culture . Seattle: Bay Press.
Presented at the National Communication Association Convention
The first essay I remember reading on the post-isms and rhetoric was published in 1986. I was preparing a keynote address for Texas A&M's conference on communication and the culture of technology and trying to read widely. Smack dab in the middle of a book on the negative properties of technology was an essay by David Descutner and DeLysa Burnier. It was designed to blunt the critiques of poststructuralist thought rhetorically, by showing that rhetorical technique provides not only the destructive but also the constructive bases of human thought. They sought to draw a pro-rhetorical line from Protagoras to Marx to Nietzsche to de Man over and against another, anti-rhetorical line running from Plato to Derrida and the other poststructuralists.
Soon thereafter, my colleague Michael McGee began working on his by now famous essay on rhetorical textualization--famous in part because he invoked, albeit reluctantly, the label "post-modern condition" as an explanation as to why our understanding of rhetoric and rhetorical criticism must change. In his words:
However we got there, the human condition has changed. Put whatever adjectives you want in front of the concept "condition." (I grit my teeth and shudder as I say it, but I think the term post-modern condition is likely to prove best.)
Those changes in the human condition he described primarily in terms of the new media and technologies: direct mail, TV spots, documentaries, mass entertainment, and sound bits comprising the news, wherein "nothing in our new environment is complete enough, finished enough, to analyze--and the fragments that present themselves to us do not stand still long enough to analyze." McGee mentioned that this sort of thinking was influenced by "a voice with a French accent," with particular reference to Baudrillard's talk of simulacra.
Actually, his position and that of the Descutner and Burnier essay are united in Jean-François Lyotard. Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition was translated into English in 1984 and undoubtedly accelerated talk of poststructuralism and the postmodern condition. Lyotard's rewriting of modernist science and realistic aesthetics into a postmodern, narratively based theory of knowledge and a pastische-centered theory of aesthetics--and culture--was likely the most powerful articulation of the theory of poststructuralism and postmodernism in our time, bridging as it did epistemology, sociality, and artistic practice. In various of his recent conversations on the Internet, McGee by now seems more directly to embrace Lyotard than Baudrillard.
I will come back to Lyotard later, but, for now, I wish to posit his invocation as well as McGee's of the existence of a "postmodern condition"--the assertion of a fundamental shift in life circumstances following the destruction of the so-called modern condition--as my target in this paper. I will argue that there is no such thing as a postmodern condition, strictly speaking in an essentialist way. If there were, then public rhetorical processes would be essentially changed, even eviscerated: meaning-making would be utterly instable and human agency--the ability to set in motion collective action rhetorically--would be destroyed. In other words, I take the assertion of something to be understood literally as "the postmodern condition" to be an inherently anti-rhetorical act. And I don't like it. And that's why I agreed to do this convention paper. More specifically, the denial of rhetorical efficacy is a denial of the power of human discourse, of the social force of discursivity or symbolicity. And the denial of rhetorical agency is an attack on the effectivity of rhetorical performance--the very idea that human beings can symbolically affect on a large scale the beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors shared with others through dramatically realized action.
Let me make clear at the beginning that what I see at stake in talk about postmodern rhetorical critique is social life itself. The base of sociality, I believe, is rhetorical. Social relationships are constructed, maintained, repaired, and altered rhetorically, that is, through systems of discourse that human beings use to build reciprocal roles and power-laden hierarchies in collectivities. Without faith in discursivity, human bonds are destroyed. Without faith in discursivity, there are no foundations for not only institutional life--politics, education, economics, religion--but no fundament from which the idea of meaning itself can arise. And, without faith in the effectivity of human rhetorical transactions, life is reduced to mere motion, to a crude kind of stimulus-and-response version of association. I cannot accept the idea of life without the hope for mutual influence grounded in shared meaning structures, that is, grounded in rhetorical transactions.
All of this is not to say that I do not find the positing of a postmodern rhetoric, of a critique based on distintegration, important. On the contrary, as I will argue, it is a discursive practice or a realm of public talk with noble roots in the west. It has arisen in multiple forms historically--in forms that for me cohere in an interesting and important set of rhetorical acts that produce periodic corrections in the micro- and macroscopic domain of social life. The emptiness and dreariness I note in my title, therefore, I hope will be understood as descriptive rather than judgmental.
The brevity of a convention paper will force me to work with fewer examples and more constricted explanations than I'd like, but I hope you'll understand the three propositions that I am arguing: (1) Acts of rhetorical discourse are defining and hence constitutive of social life. (2) What many call the "postmodern condition" is actually but a set of rhetorical discourses. (3) The emptiness and despair typical especially of French postmodernism is a positive sign socially and politically, a portent of recovery, reaffirmation, and redirection of social and political thought in our time.
I begin with the simple idea that human behaviors always have been experienced in fragments of consciousness. Life does not come with continuities; rather, it is episodic, a series of moments etched upon the inside of individuals' skulls. As Wilhelm Windelband rearticulates classic Protagorean relativism, "Everyone knows things not as they are, but as they are in the moment of perception for him, and for him only." Or, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty put it a third of a century ago, "Perception is . . . paradoxical. The perceived thing is itself paradoxical; it exists only in so far as someone can perceive it." It is this very individuality of the perceptual and hence cognitive processes endemic to human existence, together with the capability of acquiring and sharing symbols, that warrants rhetoric. Rhetorical consciousness, as George Kennedy posited that concept and as Walter Ong expanded it, is foundational to shared, that is, social, life.
I would hope that such a line of thinking is acceptable to most everyone in this room. I draw from it a simple but important conclusion: our relations with others--both that which we feel together (sentiment) and that which we know together (sentience)--are recorded in discourses that foster and maintain those relations. Put otherwise, social life is managed through discursive arenas, which is to say, realms or spheres of language use--economic discourses, political discourses, religious discourses, social discourses, psychoanalytic discourses, philosophical discourses. What we understand as the world outside of our skins is jointly constructed rhetorically in various realms of talk.
From these seemingly straightforward ideas about rhetoric and sociality, then, I take as a significant implication that postmodernism is a discursive development within the great institutional discourses of collective life--within literary, philosophical (especially epistemological), architectural, social, and psychoanalytical arenas of shared thought. Postmodern critique I understand as the latest in a series of similar discourses developing throughout the twentieth century. It is related to the rise of dadaism, impressionism, and cubism around the turn of the last century, with their aesthetics of defocusing, fragmentation of perception, and conspicuous formalisms. The coming of existentialism in both its philosophical and aesthetic manifestations, producing both a nagging nihilism and a robust phenomenology, is another intellectual progenitor of postmodernism. The personalist poetry of the mid-19th century, the postmodernist architecture so typical of mega-shopping malls, and the emphasis on humanistic psychology and qualitative sociology in the 1960s are materializations of inquiries preceding and following upon existential thought in the academy.
Most--and arguably all--of these inquiries came as responses to a totalizing vision in some intellectual arena. Romanticism followed upon the heels of a scientistically intoned neoclassicism; the inward journey of such personalist poets as Gerard Manley Hopkins seems in part a reaction to the celebratory technodiscourses of the Industrial Revolution; the turn-of-the-century art movements attacked naturalism and mythic momumentalism; existentialism responded to the positivistic philosophies and sciences of its day; and postmodernism, in the hands especially of Lyotard, is what Fredric Jameson in his foreword to the book calls a paralogism, that is, a method for undermining or destabilizing the discourses of normal science, high modernist aesthetics, and universalist political or historical teleologies.
Jameson certainly sees Lyotard's master work as a discursive, even rhetorical activity. He's not at all convinced that Lyotard is actually articulating a postmodern condition or stage in human development; rather, he sees in Lyotard a line of critique that represents less a new epistemology, that is, a new way of knowing and acting, than a new ethic: a new language game, in Lyotard's phrase. The language game of denotation, the basis of scientific knowledge, argues Lyotard, must be replaced by the language game of narrative, the basis of humanly interested knowledge. Of particular interest to Lyotard is narrative knowledge with political implications.
It is for this reason, despite his citation of Baudrillard, that I see more basic connections between McGee and Lyotard. McGee's work is less like Baudrillard's, with its emphasis on the specular play of signs (as in In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities), electronic encephalization (as in The Ecstasy of Communication), or rhetorical manipulation understood as "a floating causality where positivity and negativity engender and overlap with one another, where there is no longer any active or passive" (as in Simulations). McGee's work is more like Lyotard's, less interested in the metaphysics of the human condition and more interested in the political delegitimation of cultural institutions and the destabilization of knowledge regimes. For me, McGee's version of postmodern critique, especially in the Internet discourses he proffers on the listservs Comgrads and Crtnet, are the political acts of a post-1960s academic who engages in what Douglas Kellner talks about as "theory wars":
The past decades of intense cultural, social, and political struggle since the 1960s also saw the rise of many new theories and approaches to culture and society. It is as if the tumultuous struggles of the era sought expression and replication in the realm of theory. The political passions and energies seemed to be sublimated into the discourse of theory and new theories were appropriated with the intensity that marked the assimilation and dissemination of radical political ideas and practices in the 1960s. The proliferation of new theoretical discourses first took the form of theory fever, in which each new, or newly discovered, theoretical discourse produced feverish excitement, as if a new theory virus totally took over and possessed its host. Then the proliferating theory fever took on the form of theory wars between the competing theoretical discourses, often reducing theory to the domain of fashion.
The theory wars that Kellner then discusses at greater length have produced a discursive politics--a series of rhetorics, rhetorics of race/class/gender, of critical and post-Marxism, of psychoanalysis and poststructuralism, of critical social theory and dialectics, of British Cultural Studies and transdisciplinary cultural studies, and, yes, of postmodernity.
What I am driving at is actually a dual hypothesis here: that talk of the postmodern condition is but the latest in a series of despairing and rebutting discourses of the last hundred and fifty years, yet that it is talk derived from and appropriate to its more particular historical contexts.
This brings me to my final argument: that the emptiness and despair I note in my title is descriptive, not judgmental--indicative, more particularly, of the presence in our time of a rhetorical practice (one might call it a genre) or set of practices that come to stir the epistemological, social, and political pots of the collectivity. The ancient Greeks had to deal with the relativism of Protagoras, the sophistic nihilism and emotional flights of Gorgias, the meta-phenomenalism or idealism of Plato, and dogged cynicism of Diogenes. Similarly, the western world of this century has had to contend with a series of posts--postpositivism, post-industrialism, poststructuralism, post-fordism, post-feminism, postmodernism. These and most of the other posts of our age form a conceptual fence seeking to surround, isolate, and then destroy practices variously identified as modernism, Enlightenment rationality, universalism and other epistemologies of the totality, and widely shared technologies especially of destruction, reconstruction, and communication.
If I dare reach for an essentializing, totalizing concept, I would say that for all of individual differences that can be seen when one compares a 19th-century Luddite with a 20th-century Earth First! activist, or one Frenchman such as Jean-Paul Sartre with another such as Jean Baudrillard, in fact their discourses have affinities. Those affinities may not be strong enough to produce what we quaintly identified as a genre a quarter-century ago, but they do seem to belong to a realm or sphere or arena or constellation.
Postmodern critique, like so many of its predecessors in my lifetime, seems to many to be destructive, to be cynical in a technical sense--a discourse, as Jeffrey Goldfarb has argued, seeking to legitimate disbelief. Striking with Lyotard at normal science, with Theodore Roszak at "data glut" and "the culture of information," with Bruno Latour at the political-economic bases of the knowledge industry, or with Noam Chomsky at the governmental-industrial conspiracy to create a totalizing "spectator democracy" in our time, one joins an army of disbelievers. Disbelief, for most preachers of the posts, however, is but preparatory to the acquisition of new beliefs. That is, central to most of the anti-science, anti-rationality, and anti-ideology centered movements are projects of social and political recovery, reaffirmation, or redirection.
And so, the followers of General Ludd sought to restore the workers' voice in the operation of the clothing factories of northwest England by smashing power looms. The personalist poets wanted to recenter human thought on interiority rather than exteriority. The philosophers of everyday life such as Michel deCerteau want to intensely interrogate subjectivity and not just demonize the objectivations within which we encounter ourselves. So, too, with postmodern philosophers such as Lyotard; he finishes his book on the postmodern condition by specifying a series of social-political reforms: renunciation of the terrorist use of language games, a preference for local rather than large-scale decision making, the continuing celebration of paralogy or destabilization to keep social systems alive, and finally a society where the ideal of consensus is replaced by the ideal of justice. In Barbara Biesecker's recent book on Burke and postmodernity, it is clear that she, too, sees in postmodern discourse an affiirmation, not of the "Idea of Nothing" but rather the "Idea of No"--the centrality of the negative, which for Biesecker produces "our willingness to rhetorically transform ourselves in the mirror of politics by actively choosing to become its new subjects." To Burke and to Biesecker, the linguistic negative reaffirms rhetorical force and effect.
The genre or realm of political discourse I am discussing, therefore, is strongly reformatory or revolutionary. Therein lies its strong sense of rhetorical efficacy and agency: performed public language is clearly presumed to make important differences in life, even among practitioners of the rhetoric of delegitimation and destabilization. Whether through the historical doxa that Aristotle posited as the engines of social action in premodern rhetoric, the scientistically colored demonstrations that Locke claimed were the essence of proof in modern rhetoric, or Lyotard's language games whereby we entice and identify with each other in postmodern discourses, the efficacy of rhetorical agents keeps the bête noir at bay.
Undoubtedly, what I've been arguing is incomplete, too grandiose to be developed in anything less than a book, probably picky, and possibly just plain naive. With David Descutner and DeLysa Burnier before me, with Robert Wess and Barbara Biesecker as my Burkean companions, and with Douglas Kellner as my favorite guide through the trenches of the theory wars, I seek to understand the politically driven social epistemologies of my time. The issues at stake for me are varied: everything from an anxious hope that normal science still is normal enough to guarantee that my pharmacist won't poison me when molding pills, to the desire to recoup enough rationality to sustain a healthy, accountable doctoral program, and on to the determination to save my job as rhetorician by reading the French epistemologists more for amusement than intellectual guidance.
 David Descutner and DeLysa Burnier, "Toward a Justification of Rhetoric as Technique," in The Underside of High-Tech: Technology and the Deformation of Human Sensibilities, ed. John W. Murphy, Algis Mickunas, and Joseph J. Pilotta (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 147-158.
 Michael Calvin McGee, "Text, Context, and the Fragmentation of Contemporary Culture," Western Journal of Speech Communication 54 (Summer 1990): 286.
 McGee, 286-287. He works from Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman (New York: Semiotext[e], 1983).
 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, foreword Fredric Jameson. Theory and History of Literature, Vol. 10. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. Orig. pub. 1979. Also important that year was Fredric Jameson's essay, "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Capital," New Left Review 146 (1984): 53-92.
 Pacem James W. Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989).
 The understanding of rhetorical effectivity and agency I offer here is heavily indebted to Kenneth Burke: especially the foreword to The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action (1941; rev. ed. abridged; New York: Vintage Books, 1957); the theory of action opening The Rhetoric of Motives(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950); and the scope of "Dramatism," in The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, ed. David L. Sills (New York: Macmillan, 1968), VII: s.v. "Dramatism."
 Wilhelm Windelband, A History of Philosophy, trans. James H. Tufts (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958), 92, qted. in Descutner and Burnier, 148.
 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), qted. Christ Jenks, ed., "The Centrality of the Eye in Western Culture: An Introduction," Visual Culture (New York: Routledge), 2.
 George Kennedy, The Art of Persuasion in Greece (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963), ch. 2; Walter J. Ong, "Rhetoric and Consciousness,"Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971), 1-22. Ong goes farther than Kennedy, arguing that sensitivity to rhetorical technique was key to development of consciousness itself; the human being could not shift from states of unconsciousness to states of consciousness without the capability of rhetorically derived oral discourse.
 I am working from an understanding of social constructionism that follows in the wake of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise on the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966). My understanding of "discourse" as a realm or region of talk--anepisteme as Foucault understood it--derives in part from Paul Bové, "Discourse," in Critical Terms for Literary Studies, ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 50-65.
 See Walter J. Ong, Hopkins, the Self, and God (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986).
 Richard Keller Simon, "The Formal Garden in the Age of Consumer Culture: A Reading of the Twentieth-Century Shopping Mall," in Mapping American Culture, ed. Wayne Franklin and Michael Steiner (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992), 231-250.
 For a look at the battleground, see Peter L. Berger, Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963).
 See esp. pp. xii-xix, in Lyotard.
 Lyotard, sec. 7-8 (pp. 23-31).
 Lyotard argues that narrative knowledge comes in two forms, one political (which delegitimates grand narratives and destabilizes normal science) and one philosophical (which tends to celebrate the totalizing and universalizing dimensions of life's lessons). Philosophical narrative knowledge to Lyotard is unremittingly Germanic--certainly non-French. See sec. 9 (pp. 31-37).
 Respectively, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, or the End of the Social and Other Essays, trans. Paul Foss, John Johnston, and Paul Patton (New York: Semiotext[e], 1983), esp. 10; The Ecstasy of Communication, trans. Bernard and Caroline Schutze (New York: Semiotext[e], 1988), esp. 17; andSimulations, esp. 30-31.
 Douglas Kellner, Media Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity and Politics Between the Modern and the Postmodern (New York: Routledge, 1995), 20.
 Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, The Cynical Society: The Culture of Politics and the Politics of Culture in American Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), esp. 1.
 Theodore Roszak, The Cult of Information: A Neo-Luddite Treatise on High-Tech, Artificial Intelligence, and the True Art of Thinking, 2d ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).
 Bruno Latour, Science in Action (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987).
 Noam Chomsky, Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda (1991; rev. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997).
 Michel deCerteau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Randall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
 Barbara Biesecker, Addressing Postmodernity: Kenneth Burke, Rhetoric, and a Theory of Social Change (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997), 102. A different route to Burke's theory of agency is offered by Wess. Working from Burke's final rethinking of the nature of constitution(s), he follows the theory of the two constitutions to suggest that constituting acts form or condition--ultimately giving agency to--later rhetorical acts. See Robert Wess, Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, Subjectivity, Postmodernism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), esp. 251-254.
 It is precisely this reading strategy, I think, that gives Martin Jay's concluding arguments their force in Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
Presented at the National Communication Association Convention
On April 8, 1994, one of the dominant forces in 1990s youth subculture put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Kurt Cobain, lead singer and guitarist for the punk/grunge band Nirvana, thereby ended not only his own seemingly successful career and life, but also one of the great rock and roll anti-movements of the century. Certainly, Cobain was not the first overwrought rock star to take his own life. However, nearly three years after the act, his death (as well as his life) is still a topic at the heart of youth subculture. As the unwilling spokesperson for a subculture with nothing to claim for its own but angst, fear and disaffection, Cobain’s music and lyrics spoke (loud) volumes about the troubled society we live in. His musical career was a cry of anguish; his suicide stands as an exclamation point.
For those of us who claimed membership in the "disaffected youth" subculture so commonly labeled "Generation X," (I wish I had time to unpack all the baggage that name brings with it, but that would be another paper) Cobain’s death has taken on a significance far beyond his corpus of work. Four albums worth of new material and two sets of rereleases does not guarantee a place in the rock and roll canon; however, Cobain has claimed a place, all the while having claimed that he didn’t really want it. This tension, between his words and his acts, may lie at or near the heart of his suicide at age 27. Popular music critics and social pundits certainly seem to think so. I think, however, that there may be more to it than that. A look at the scenes in which Cobain lived, played, worked and suffered suggests that the scenes had a significant impact on his life and its end.
Those interplays between Cobain’s scenes make naming them difficult. There was the Generation X youth subculture, much of whose lore emanates from Seattle in the early 1990s. There was the world of popular music, which Nirvana made a huge mark on with the success of their 1991 release "Nevermind." There was the mass culture of the early 1990s, which paid Cobain and his band, as well as his troubled family, a great deal of attention. Finally, there was the man himself, struggling with his fame and his goals. These layers intersect at many points, one of which represents the crossing-over of alternative, youth subculture into the mass culture. Nirvana was the first of a new generation of "punk" or alternative bands to achieve mass commercial success.
Nirvana’s short stint in the spotlight of popular music and youth culture was filled with fame, money, drugs, anger and resentment. Cobain’s impact on Generation X is undeniable. In the wake of Nirvana’s first major-label release, "Nevermind," in 1991, several bands began waving the "grunge" banner. Bands like Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Seaweed, Tad (the list goes on and on) began playing dissonant, angry rock music with lyrics filled with self-hate and disempowerment. Like Nirvana, several of these bands hailed from Seattle, which quickly became the center of the popular music/youth subculture universe. In fact, the Seattle scene became such a focusing point for the subculture that it began sucking people into it. Bands and punk kids from all across America were moving to the Emerald City, hoping to meet the right people and get their piece of the action.
With some measure of fame and influence in his pocket, Cobain’s suicide appears especially bizarre. Other musicians had died at the peak of their careers (Jim Morrison, Keith Moon, Jimi Hendrix, Sid Vicious, Janis Joplin, etc.), but few had assumed the almost messianic (to those who paid any attention to him) position of the down-and-out, heroin-addicted, divorced/remarried, ulcer-ridden product of a depressed and depressing blue collar town (Aberdeen, WA). In the months after Cobain took his life, psychoanalysts, music writers and social critics worked overtime to explain his final act, but their explanations all seem incomplete. As a member of Kurt Cobain’s generation, I am not convinced that any of their explanations provides a motive for his suicide. Certainly he was a sick man, both physically and mentally; certainly the demands of his fame conflicted with his artistic instincts. There seems, however, to be much more to the situation than any of these thumbnail sketches.
One way of unlocking the depth of Cobain’s motives for suicide is to look at his life and death through the dramatistic pentad. Burke’s theory, rooted in the concepts that all rhetoric is action and that all acts are rhetorical, lets us consider Cobain’s band, his music, his style, his scene and his impact as aspects of his motivation. In fact, I would suggest that, given the pentad’s structure, this theory suggests that we look at his suicide in a different way. Applying Burke’s pentad and circumference models to Kurt Cobain’s suicide may help explain the event and its significance in a way that both scholars and students can find useful. For scholars, applying an academic method to a mainstream culture artifact helps us connect with the larger society we work in, as well as with our students. For students, this kind of project shows them that their teachers are human beings as well, and, more importantly, that their experiences are valuable in the academy. Beyond that, both teachers and students can learn more productive ways to be critical of their cultures.
Burke’s system of ratios gives us a way of talking about Cobain’s suicide that goes beyond standard popular press sophistication. I find two ratios especially interesting to look at: scene-agent and scene-agency. Ultimately, I believe, the motives for Cobain’s suicide come down to a question of whether the Seattle/alternative/punk/pop-music/mass culture scene in which he existed subsumed his agency. If so, then we might say that he was no longer an agent when he made music, since what he did was, at least to some degree, unwilling.
As a starting point, I would begin by assigning details of Cobain’s suicide to places on the pentad. The act, clearly, is the suicide itself. He killed himself in his house in Seattle; the house, then, is the most immediate scene; a long look at the notion of circumference will complicate that idea a little later in the paper. Cobain is the actor, although there are conspiracy theorists out there who suggest that his death might be a murder (they argue that he couldn’t possibly have held the rifle and shot it at himself as their key piece of evidence). Purpose is a difficult term. His suicide note, which we’ll look at in some detail, claims that he felt his usefulness had come to an end. He wasn’t creative; he wasn’t satisfying his fans; he wasn’t satisfying himself. Therefore, we might say that his purpose in suicide was to fix what was broken about his life - everything. Agency is another complicated term. For Burke, agency is the power/authority by which the agent commits the act. In the most immediate sense, the agency of Cobain’s suicide is the rifle. This sense, however, doesn’t really help us understand the event. All we know from this sense of agency is that the gun was powerful enough to kill him - not a very revealing insight.
We can make an interesting issue of agency, however, by taking a step back from the scene itself, and looking at the event in different contexts. To explain the usefulness of these different looks, Burke has developed the term "circumference." In keeping with Burke’s unwillingness to define terms clearly, there is no explicit description of the term in his work. The concept seems to be centered around this idea:
The word [circumference] reminds us that, 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. (Grammar 77)
In other words, any discussion of scenes, acts or other parts of the pentad will be imbedded within a certain circumference. Changing the circumference changes the ratios of pentadic elements, thus affecting our readings by changing our terministic screens.
Our terministic screens provide us ways of reading events; however, they also preclude our reading events in certain ways:
Even if any given terminology is areflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be aselection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as adeflection of reality. (Action 45)
Herein lies my complaint with most attempts at explaining Kurt Cobain’s life and death. Too many writers have not looked through other terministic screens, i.e., not looked outside their circumferences, for motives. To a psychologist, any aberrant act is motivated by aberrant psychology; to a music critic, the fate of any musician is at the whim of a fickle marketplace; to a social critic, the demise of any person is explainable in terms of the collapse of civilization as we know it (I know that not all social critics are so pessimistic, but the ones who chose to write about Kurt Cobain certainly were). The point, to paraphrase the adage, is that when you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail.
We are doing a disservice to the life and work of Kurt Cobain to write him off as just another psychotic freak who could play a guitar. We are doing a similar disservice to include him in the long list of celebrities who couldn’t handle the pressures of stardom. I think we can begin to get to the heart of the matter by looking at Kurt Cobain from a variety of perspectives: rock star, twenty-something, and perhaps most importantly as the voice of a substantial portion of American youth subculture. For this group of kids and young adults, Cobain may be the most influential figure of the decade.
I want to start my analysis by establishing some personality traits of Cobain-as-agent. Writers who covered the troubled musician during and after his career probably were not surprised by his suicide. After all, some two months earlier, Cobain had been hospitalized in Rome, Italy; he had been discovered in the bathtub of his hotel room, in a coma apparently brought on by mixing heroin, barbiturates and champagne. The popular music press raged with debates over whether he had attempted suicide. The only comment Cobain made came out as soon as he came out of the coma. He looked around at the crowd of press and fans in his hospital room and said, "What am I doing here? Get these fucking tubes out of my nose" (Handy).
After his recovery from the Rome incident, the short remainder of Cobain’s life appeared to be going well. In his last interview, he claimed to have kicked his heroin habit, stopped drinking and cured himself of chronic stomach pains that had troubled him for years. Also, his marriage to Courtney Love, an original "Riot Grrl" and lead screamer for the band Hole, looked to be relatively stable. ("The Riot Grrls" are feminist punk rockers.) The couple had been plagued by drug abuse and purported physical and verbal abuse (going both ways) throughout their two-year marriage, which hit rock bottom when a Seattle social-worker took their daughter Frances Bean away from them, declaring them unfit parents. All of those problems appeared to working themselves out, however. "I’ve never been happier in my life," Cobain claimed (Fricke, "Kurt Cobain," 37). His own words paint a picture of a man who is in control of his life for the first time in a long time, maybe ever. He seems happy, content, and ready to get on with his business. Ironically, it was during that same interview that he talked about his gun collection (from which the suicide weapon comes) publicly for the first time. He explained that he liked to shoot targets, but could never shoot a human being (39). Sometime after January of 1994, I guess he decided he was no longer a human being.
Such a self-concept would not be surprising coming from the man who penned lyrics like these from Nirvana’s first hit song, 1991’s "Smells Like Teen Spirit":
Load up on guns
And bring your friends
It’s fun to lose
And to pretend
She’s over bored
Oh no, I know
A dirty word
(see Appendix I for complete lyrics)
This stanza, along with the vast majority of Cobain’s lyrics, is packed with negativity. Perhaps Cobain thought "It’s fun to lose" because he had never really experienced winning. The idea that "self-assured" is a "dirty word" is not especially positive either; people with self-confidence are "dirty." I also cannot help but notice the references to guns. The first line is obvious, but "She’s over bored" is a very subtle double entendre. At first, I took the line to mean that "she" is a woman who is simply too bored to be any fun. This characterization of a woman, who is unnamed and may therefore suggest any woman, is no shock given Cobain’s antisocial nature. However, if we insert a hyphen between "over" and "bored," the resulting adjective describes guns that may be too powerful for their casings, possibly exploding in the shooter’s hands.
Along with the negative impressions these lyrics create, there is also an air of passivity that pervades Cobain’s work as well. The starkest example is from the 1993 release "In Utero," which featured the song "Rape Me." Cobain repeatedly screamed the chorus of the song: "Rape me, rape me, rape me again!" Probably the most famous example is the chorus of "Smells Like Teen Spirit":
With the lights out
It’s less dangerous
Here we are now
I feel stupid
Here we are now
In this chorus, Kurt Cobain has provided us with the lines that may have become an anthem for the 1990s: "Here we are now. Entertain us." Cobain, in fact, may very well have encapsulated the feelings of much of so-called Generation X. Cobain did not really seem to think that this small part of a song would become the slacker/grunge/punk mantra; in fact, he wrote it to describe his own feelings about going to parties:
"That came from something I used to say every time I used to walk into a party to break the ice. A lot of times, when you're standing around with people in a room, it's really boring and uncomfortable. So it was 'Well, here we are, entertain us. You invited us here'." (Fricke, "Kurt Cobain," 38)
Of course, part of the reason that these lyrics have become the catch-phrase they have is that they are the most comprehensible in the whole song (I must have heard this song three hundred times, but until I actually read the lyrics, I had no idea what most of the words were).
Cobain-as-agent has said much here about the generation (scene) to which he belongs. The primary message is the sloughing of responsibility, even in so mundane a context. The point is that when he goes to parties, he does not want to take an active role in the situation. He would prefer to have the fun brought to him. If a situation is "boring or uncomfortable," it must be because the host of the party is not working hard enough. In other words, the situation is bad because somebody else made it that way. This forfeiting of agency (he could have been active at parties if he’d wanted to), captured in a simple song lyric, may ultimately reflect the tension Cobain felt in his own life. There is something to be said for the idea that his suicide was the most active role he ever took in anything.
I am not arguing that Cobain was the kind of person who sat and let the world pass him by without comment. Clearly, he wrote songs that angrily described his perception of dark hopelessness. While he may have been crying loudly over the pain and anguish of America’s youth, he did so with an edge that made people listen. Music critic Alexander Star suggests:
Cobain’s music was both more melodic and more abrasive than the grunge norm. He usually eschewed the therapeutic vignettes of the ‘recovery rock’ bands, and vented his spleen directly at the audience . . . . (42)
I do need to clarify two points about Star’s analysis. First, Nirvana essentially established the "grunge norm"; any comparison should be made against them. Second, the "recovery rock" bands to which he refers are socially conscious bands like Fugazi and the Rollins Band, who seek to redeem themselves from what they see as the darkness of the times. Cobain, conversely, did not mince words when it came to expressing his despondency. He had given up hope long ago and did not hide that fact from his audience. In terms of the agent-agency ratio, we might say that Cobain’s agency (music) signifies his loss of agency. He seems to consider himself an unwilling agent.
In addition to his lyrics, Cobain’s music similarly mixes moods. The vast majority of Nirvana songs follow a pattern of moving from hard power-rock riffs to softer, slower melodic sections during verses. The dynamic of the music suggests the same passive-aggressiveness that the lyrics do, i.e., switching back and forth between anger and depression. Music and social critics describe the effect in a variety of ways. Dick Dahl, in theUtne Reader, says:
Like the Replacements, Nirvana describes a world of youthful alienation. Sometimes the music broods, sometimes it swaggers. But it does so in a dark intellectual valley walled off on one end by mindless adolescence and on the other by the empty, spirit-killing world of adulthood. (42-43)
In this passage, Dahl has located Nirvana in a scene that few could hope to live in happily. He has placed Kurt Cobain at the crossroads between his unhappy childhood and his hopeless adulthood, a condition that many young adults claim to find themselves in. A less analytical but nonetheless interesting observation about Nirvana’s sound comes from Chris Mundy ofRolling Stone, who says, "If guitars could talk, Cobain’s would scream, melodically and irreverently, ‘What are you looking at?’" (Mundy 39).
I’ve claimed that Cobain’s work paints bleak pictures; there is also a way to look at them, and his personality in general, that suggests a dark sense of humor. The fact that he would pun on guns in "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is one example. This story (I apologize for its length, but the writing is too good to pass up) is another:
Blood is pouring onto the floor of Nirvana’s dressing room. To make matters worse, the source of the bleeding - a fan with a hole in his head where his front tooth used to be - has gone into shock and is convulsing uncontrollably
Only a few minutes earlier he was just one in a stupefied throng of 900 fans in . . . Belgium, fanatically watching the carnage. Nirvana lead singer-guitarist-instigator Kurt Cobain followed a headfirst dive into the crowd by clawing his way back on-stage and systematically spitting on members of the audience . . . Cobain then took violent offense with the drums . . . splintering the kit like firewood. Next stop, a Marshall amp, which Cobain stabbed repeatedly with the neck of his guitar before he and [bassist Chris] Novoselic put the finishing touches on their instruments by smashing them together five times, the final impact shattering the bass and sending hunks of lumber into the crowd, striking the aforementioned fan flush in the face. The show, at this point, was over, Nirvana having done nothing if not put danger back into rock and roll. Cash from chaos . . . Oh, well, whatever, nevermind.
Backstage, Novoselic is kneeling next to the convulsing fan, trying to console him, as paramedics strap him to a chair and wheel him away. [Drummer Dave] Grohl has walked back into the empty hall, found the dislodged tooth, intact, in front of the stage and is making plans to turn it into a piece of jewelry. And Cobain is wandering through the wreckage. "Hey, everybody," he says repeatedly. "Why so glum?" (Mundy 38)
The point of this story is not to show that Kurt Cobain was a comedian; instead, I am suggesting that his personality was one that at times took some kind of dark pleasure in the angst that it, at other times, cried out in pain from. Again, I must resist the temptation to psychoanalyze him. I can, however, say with some degree of comfort that Cobain’s personality was at best unstable. Even he described himself as, "as schizophrenic as a wet cat that’s been beaten" (Fricke, "Kurt Cobain," 36).
The story of the Belgium concert illustrates another important point about Cobain’s personality. At times he was willing to wear the hat of the "punk," the destructive (of both self and property), nihilistic angry young man. His diving into the crowd and smashing instruments was not original. Pete Townshend, guitarist for the Who, had been smashing guitars on stage since 1965. Slam-dancing and crowd-surfing had been popular since the late 1970s, as punks’ badge that they were willing to trust even their bodies to each other while they disclaimed membership in any other social group. Cobain’s adoption of these punk idioms indicates that he was at least sympathetic to certain punk ideologies. In an obituary in theNew Yorker, Alex Ross, one of legion commentators on Cobain’s death, writes, "Cobain was at once irritated and intrigued by the randomness of his new audience. He lashed out at the ‘jock numbskulls, frat boys and metal kids’ who jammed clubs and arenas for his . . . tours. But he liked the idea of bending their minds toward his own punk ideals and left-leaning politics . . . " (104). Cobain was a punk, but he resented the misappropriation of his "punk ideals" by the mainstream youth culture. He seems to have perceived mainstream youth culture as having latched onto something in his music other than its message of pain.
This idea of misappropriation raises a key set of issues in understanding Cobain’s life and death, which we can examine in terms of the scene-agency ratio. While Ross claims that Cobain "liked the idea of bending their minds," Cobain himself disclaims the role as the voice of a generation. In his own words, "'I never wanted to sing . . . . I just wanted to play rhythm guitar -- hide in the back and just play'" (Fricke, "Kurt Cobain," 35). Simon Reynolds and Joy Press, in their analysis of underground rock movementsThe Sex Revolts, suggest:
Commentators described Nirvana's constituency as the 'slacker' generation, twentysomethings who were directionless, incapable of personal or political commitment. Similarly, Cobain talked about feeling 'disgusted with my generation's apathy, and with my own apathy and spinelessness'. Nirvana's music quakes with the frustration of the slacker who wants to become vertebrate. But . . . Nirvana couldn't shift from dormant to militant because, like most of the American underground, they were sceptical about attempts to politicise rock and marshal it into a movement. (Reynolds and Press 98)
If Reynolds and Press are correct, then perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Cobain was not unwilling to speak to his generation; rather, we might say that he thought he was unable to do so (more to come on that idea). Although this reading provides some interesting food for thought, I’m not convinced that Reynolds and Press are correct; neither is David Fricke in aRolling Stone obituary:
Never mind all the standard-issue babble about Generation X. There was nothing blank about the way Cobain articulated his broken dreams and wrapped up his discontent and, by extension, that of his audience, in roughshod song. When the shit hit the fans, they knew it for what it was -- the plain truth. ("Heart-shaped" 65)
Suffice it to say, nobody can say for certain what Kurt Cobain’s motivations were for writing the songs and assuming the persona that he did. At best, we can see influences competing for his energy: the desire to live a private life and the desire to be a celebrity. At worst, we can see a man whose indecision ultimately cost him his life. This tension between his desire to be a musician and the youth subculture’s desire to label him a messiah may be at the root of his demise.
As this discussion continues, I want to begin paying more attention to the effect of changing circumferences on our reading of an act. Therefore, I begin with a comparatively narrow circumference - the 1990s punk/disaffected youth subculture. Earlier, I pointed out some of the key terms within this circumference: the "Seattle scene" and the "grunge (anti)movement" are two particularly important phrases.
Through this lens, we can say that the "scene" consisted of a number of bands and their fans. The focus was loud, abrasive, self-deprecating music, along the attending fashions and attitudes. Alex Ross, in his aforementioned obituary, explains:
In the deep dusk of the Bush Administration, some segments of the nation’s youth undoubtedly identified with Cobain’s punkish world view, his sympathies and discontents, and yes, the diminished opportunities of an entire generation. Others just got off on the crushing power of the sound. (104)
Ross’ description touches on the mood of many teenagers and young adults in the early 1990s. Because he uses the word "identified" in this passage, here we need to look at another of Burke’s key ideas, the concept of "identification." Again, there is no clear definition of the term inA Rhetoric of Motives, so I will try to construct one to work with. The concept of identification, for Burke, is rooted in the notion of "substance," which indicates that which underlies any two ideas. In other words, two ideas share some of the same substance (are "consubstantial") if they derive from the same principle. Burke suggests that rhetors use consubstantiation, i.e., identification, as rhetorical strategy:
All told, persuasion ranges from the bluntest quest of advantage, as in sales promotion or propaganda, through courtship, social etiquette, education, and the sermon, to a ‘pure’ form that delights in the process of appeal for itself alone, without ulterior purpose. And identification ranges from the politician who, addressing an audience of farmers, says, ‘I was a farm boy myself,’ through mysteries of social status, to the mystic’s devout identification with the source of all being. (Rhetoric x)
In general, then, the point is that rhetors seek to identify with their audiences so that the speakers’ messages share certain connections with the ideas of the audience members. But what happens when the identification is unintentional on the part of the speaker? Cobain said he didn’t intend to be a spokesperson (although he also indicates in his suicide note that he feels like he’s failed his fans - his psyche is certainly difficult to untangle).
We know, however, that many of his listeners looked to him for certain messages. In other words, his audience identified with him, perhaps much more than he identified with them. The outpouring of media coverage in the weeks after Cobain’s death provides a wealth of examples; two articles are representative, both in tone and in content. The first is a letter to the editor ofTime, in which the writer claims:
Many think Cobain was selfish and crude, but he spoke to many young people around the world. His extremely personal songs exposed the inner pain each one of us hides. Luckily he shared some of his heartache with us, so we didn’t feel so alone. (Wickerham 8)
Nirvana fan Julie Wickerham believes that the angst of Generation X is so widespread as to be universal. At the same time, in one of the great paradoxes of Generation X, the angst and "heartache" are "extremely personal"; herein lies another source of tension for this generation. The "twentysomethings" feel pain and fear that are very intensely private and personal, but at the same time know that everyone else feels them too. As a result, to people like Julie Wickerham, Kurt Cobain’s greatest contribution to society is that he was willing to externalize and share the pain. Her repeated use of first-person plural pronouns, especially in conjunction with negative emotions, clearly indicates her identification with Cobain’s message.
The second example comes from an obituary in theNew York Times. Music writer Lorraine Ali suggests that the cause of Cobain’s personal pain may arguably have been the cause of his success:
Kurt Cobain was one among a league of kids raised by 60’s parents who shuffled their children from relative to relative in a quest for personal freedom. Courtney Love (Cobain’s widow) of Hole, Bill Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Moby are just a few more. They suffered the fallout of free love, and as adults, they sell millions of albums to peers who can relate to their rootless anger and dysfunction. (C28)
I believe Ali is correct when she connects the success of these musicians to the decay of the traditional American family. Kurt Cobain, Bill Corgan and others are especially articulate when it comes to expressing the pain of family breakups, the loss of goals and what some twentysomethings consider the end of the American Dream. Cobain was a product of a divorced, relatively poor family, and that background, especially as it became more publicized, helped create the identification that drove his career until his death.
The point I’m working towards in this part of the discussion is that Cobain’s audience looked to him for hope/relief/catharsis that he only partially wanted to provide for them. I suspect that, ultimately, he liked the identification that was happening, but he didn’t like the constant demands for more from his fans. In Burkean terms, the scene was asking too much from the agent, and the agent couldn’t or wouldn’t comply; but at the same time, he felt bad about it.
If we widen the circumference beyond Cobain’s music and its audience, and look at Nirvana’s larger cultural impact, the scene becomes even more dominant. The youth subculture’s identification with the grunge anti-movement became manifest in more ways than simply buying Nirvana records. Throughout history, people have shown a tendency to emulate the styles of their heroes. In doing so, they may believe that they are in some way emulating the substance of those heroes as well. Whatever the reason, Nirvana popularized a look that became intimately connected with the meaning that we attach to the band. The image of the "grunge" fan is very different from the traditional "punk" image of the 1970s. Gone is the fear appeal of swastikas tattooed on foreheads, safety pins worn through the nose and ears, and bondage clothing. Instead, beginning from the top of the body, we see hair that is commonly long and unwashed; grungers often strive to look like they have not bathed or taken any time whatsoever to consider their appearance. The goatee is a trademark of the neo-punks also, but only among those who are willing to take the time to shape them. Others do not shave their faces, or their legs, or their underarms, etc. Often their jewelry and clothes come from thrift-stores. The goal is to look destitute, as if to suggest that this position in society is the best they can achieve.
A typical grunge uniform consists of a flannel shirt around the waist and another one worn normally, with a dirty or ratty T-shirt underneath. Legs are kept warm on those cold winter nights and those hot summer days by torn jeans (often black) or fatigue pants. On the feet are old hiking boots, Doc Martens’ or canvas hi-top tennis shoes. Knit ski caps are common. In an article fromBusiness Week in May 1993, Christina Thompson, a graduate student at Columbia University, described her standard daily attire: two flannel shirts, torn Levi’s, a T-shirt and a pendant. The total price of her outfit was $26 (Tilsner 39). The grunge uniform, when constructed and worn successfully, may evoke feelings of pity from those who observe it.
The popularity of the look, causing it to show up in as mainstream a publication asBusiness Week, makes two points. First, the scene had grown large enough to make an impact on the mass culture. The grunge look had moved from being a subcultural badge of identification, into being a style that middle class American might consume, which is the final point of Tilsner’s article. Christina Thompson is a voice of subversion in the article, bemoaning the sale of L.L. Bean flannel shirts to suburban teens who wanted to look poor. Second, this trend feeds the idea of misappropriation. Although my research doesn’t show Cobain addressing the clothing issue directly, I can speculate as to what he thought when he saw kids dressing up to dress down: he would, I think, tell those kids that they were wasting their/their parents’ money trying to look poor. Instead, he might say, they should try their damnedest to avoid being like him.
But they didn’t. They kept buying the clothes, and perhaps more importantly, they kept buying the records. Michael Goldstone, an Artist and Repertoire executive with Epic Records, explains, "I think there’s a subculture that was building, and that ["Teen Spirit"] was the right song to break it open . . . Other bands paved the way for it, and ["Teen Spirit"] was the right song to take it over the top" (Neely, "Nirvana Tops," 16). And take it over the top they did. From the time that "Nevermind" hit its peak in February and March of 1992, however, Kurt Cobain’s position in the scene became tenuous. To some members of the subculture, he was a hero; on the other hand, some members begrudged his success, claiming that he was violating the punk ethic (sometimes known as the DIY, or Do-it-yourself ethic), by working with a major label to promote his band. The clear, professional and obviously expensive production of the record provided these naysayers with their evidence that Cobain had "sold out." Whether Cobain did sell out or not, my point is that, in the immediate wake of his success, the scene was beginning to turn against him.
Cobain himself expressed some of the tension between selfish, nihilistic "punkness" and capitalist, greedy celebrity when asked after a late 1993 concert in Chicago why the band had not played "Smells Like Teen Spirit." He responded, "I don’t even remember the guitar solo on ‘Teen Spirit.’ It would take me five minutes to sit in the catering room and learn the solo. But I’m not interested in that kind of stuff" (Fricke, "Kurt Cobain," 35). He seems here to have been expressing the punk side of his mentality. He was "not interested" in playing the band’s most famous song, the song that probably drew most of the crowd, simply because those fans might want to hear it. However, later in the same interview, he suggested some willingness to play to the crowd when he claimed, "We have failed in showing the lighter, more dynamic side of our band. The big guitar sound is what the kids want to hear" (40). At this point, I hear him saying that he was willing to sacrifice the artistic integrity of his band for sales. These conflicting positions are emblematic of his professional career, and encapsulate the paradox of his existence. A talented but very private and unstable young man was set up as the conductor of a youth subculture primal scream orchestra (note the passive voice). He wanted the money and the fame, but not the attendant power and responsibility.
In the acts that lead up to his suicide, then, we can see what we might generously call competing purposes. Until April 8, 1994, Cobain seemed willing to give in to the demands of celebrity, i.e., to subordinate his purposes to the scene in which he was located. In one aspect, we might say that he subordinated his agency as well; he had an agenda to pursue as a musician, but was willing to put it aside for the sake of what he thought his audience wanted from him. Something changed, however; the Rome incident may have been a suicide attempt (somebody with as much experience with drugs as Kurt Cobain would know better than to mix alcohol and barbiturates). Whatever the cause of his change of heart, or his quest to regain agency, I submit we can see it culminating in that final day. His suicide note (Appendix II) speaks to this change of heart at length. For example, he wrote:
I haven't felt the excitement of listening to, as well as creating music, along with really writing something for too many years now. I feel guilty beyond words about these things, for example when we're backstage and the lights go out and the manic roar of the crowd begins. . . The fact is, I can't fool you, any of you. It simply isn't fair to you, or to me. The worst crime I can think of would be to pull people off by faking it, pretending as if I'm having one hundred percent fun. Sometimes I feel as though I should have a punch-in time clock before I walk out on-stage.
Here was a man looking at a double-edged sword. On the one hand, he felt guilty for having lost his enthusiasm for writing and playing music. He seemingly understood how closely his fans identified themselves with him, and needed him. On the other hand, he felt guilty for continuing this charade, or "playing rock star," when he clearly had lost his energy. He would either lie to his fans or lie to himself. Ultimately, tragically, Cobain saw suicide as his best way out. His note says:
But since the age of 7, I've become hateful towards all humans in
general. Only because it seems so easy for people to get along and have empathy. Empathy only because I love and feel for people too much I guess. Thank you from the pit of my burning nauseous stomach for your letters and concern during the last years. I'm too much of a neurotic moody person and I don't have the passion anymore, so remember, it's "Better to Burn out, than fade away."
Kurt Cobain’s suicide note paints a clear picture of a man who was tortured by his loss of agency. He didn’t have anything left to say to his fans; he kept trying to talk to them only because he thought they wanted him to. Oddly, the quote at the end of his note ("Better to burn out . . .") is from a Neil Young song describing the demise of the Sex Pistols, one of the canonical punk bands of the 1970s, and a band against which Nirvana was often compared to argue Nirvana’s punkness or lack thereof. If I might speculate for a moment - I want to believe that he ended his life on this note as a way of claiming his place in the punk canon, along with the Sex Pistols.
Cobain’s descent into his final state had a long (relative to the rock and roll world) and storied history. His career in music began as a roadie for the seminal Seattle punk band the Melvins. He played in garage bands that nobody cared about until Nirvana formed in 1986. Up until that point, Cobain was nothing if not a punk kid. With the formation of his first relatively stable band, and especially after the release of their first record, 1989’s "Bleach," the scene began to change. As his music (his agency) began to affect larger audiences, his own intentions as a musician (purpose) became steadily less important. Of course, he acted willingly as he played music that was less and less his own (he could have quit), but his suicide, viewed from within the circumference of the punk/grunge scene, was intended to stop that trend; he tried, paradoxically, to regain control by removing himself.
But what happens to this explanation if we expand the circumference in which we place it? If we look at Cobain’s suicide through the eyes of a record-label executive, or any other pop music businessperson, the picture changes considerably. The gist of the story is the same. Cobain’s personality does not appear any more stable when we take more destabilizing factors, such as money and pressure from his record label (industry giant DGC Records), into account. He still was trapped in the limbo between DIY punk and rock star. But by 1994, the popular music scene had changed considerably, and Cobain’s status as pop icon had diminished. Nirvana’s own record sales, after "Nevermind’s" overwhelming success, were not nearly as impressive. Also, other bands began following in Nirvana’s wake, capitalizing on the inroads Cobain’s work had made into the mainstream.
Several events indicate the shifts that were taking place. To begin with, the sales figures for Nirvana’s next release after "Nevermind," called "Incesticide," were incredibly disappointing. The record was a collection of B-sides and covers, many of which had been recorded before "Nevermind." Most of the band’s new fans were not prepared for the raw punk energy of this record, and it sold fewer than 100,000 copies. David Geffen of DGC records, the label which released both "Nevermind" and "Incesticide," took a beating in the industry for allowing the band to release such unpolished work on the heels of their early success. At the College Music Journal showcase/conference in October of 1993, Geffen indicated that his rationale was to give the band a chance to show its "true colors" to the mainstream music-buying audience. Apparently, the reaction to "Incesticide" was so bad that Geffen tried to assert some control over the band’s next project, 1993’s "In Utero." During the last few months before the record came out, the popular music press published article after article claiming that Cobain and producer Butch Vig were engaging in screaming matches and even fist-fights over the sound of the album. The band tried to fire Vig, but Geffen would not let them. Eventually, Vig and Cobain worked out their differences, and in hisRolling Stone interview from January 1994, Cobain claimed to be satisfied with the product (Fricke, "Kurt Cobain," 37).
Unfortunately for Cobain, the damage had been done; many fans of the band saw such squabbling over the production value of a release as unfit behavior for a punk rocker. We can cast this idea also as a conflict between two powerful scenes to which Cobain belonged: the punk subculture and the pop music mainstream. Although the sales of "Incesticide" were disappointing, the music-buying public still seemed to have latched onto the "punkness" of Nirvana. On the other hand, the industry spokesperson for the band (Geffen), was concerned (and rightly so from his point of view) about record sales.
Their own problems were not the only problems they faced trying to stay at the top. The scene, as it grew, began to support other bands, who would quickly become competition. Pearl Jam and the Stone Temple Pilots, in particular, soon carved out their own niches in the grunge/punk market, and every record they sold was a Nirvana record left on the shelf. A fierce rivalry developed between Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder, lead singer of Pearl Jam, over who was the "leader of the pack," and between late 1992 and early 1994, Vedder began to emerge. In addition, not only were other grunge bands beginning to find success in mainstream youth culture, but other types of "punk" bands were beginning to make their marks as well. Two bands, Green Day and the Offspring, spearheaded the return of more traditional punk to the scene; both of these bands showed clear influences of the Ramones, the Clash and the Sex Pistols - the bands that defined 1970s British and American punk rock. I can understand why Kurt Cobain might not be happy with this new development. This more 70s-styled punk appropriated the angst and discontent of the 1990s from Cobain, and combined it with more melodic songs to create a more listenable misery.
At the same time, these bands began to mix the angst that drove them with a silliness and humor that blunted their edge. For example, Green Day’s first hit record, "Dookie," features a very comic-bookesque cover, depicting "dookie bombs" falling on a mass of people ranging from cavemen to politicians, all running amok in the city of Oakland (the band’s home). The back cover is a blurry photo of a crowd of slam-dancers, with an Ernie (from Sesame Street) puppet being thrust up into the air. It’s hard to take the band very seriously when their first impression is so frivolous. In the last couple of years, this trend has continued, as even grunge bands like the Stone Temple Pilots have developed a pop sensibility that changes their impact radically. For whatever reason (I could do another paper just on this issue), the music scene and the larger scene of our mass culture that supports it has taken a turn away from serious, dark, brooding music.
In simplest terms, then, we can say with some degree that the scene changed significantly over the course of just a few years. Nirvana reached their peak in early 1992, and by April of 1994 Kurt Cobain was dead. Cobain’s band was the first band of the 1990s to bring punk ideology back into the mainstream, but pretty soon their accomplishment outgrew their ability/will to sustain it. As an agent, Cobain saw his power diminished by the adoption of new heroes from the ever-growing scene. The same scene was demanding an energy from him that he decided was finally beyond his agency. At the same time, he was so attached to the scene (it was responsible for the happiest days of his life) that he couldn’t face the idea of leaving it and living.
Almost three years after the death of Kurt Cobain, those of us who follow popular culture and youth subcultures still look at his career and his suicide as representations of the early 1990s’ youth subculture. The mood seems to have improved since 1994 as more and more people in their twenties have begun to reject the "Generation X" label, and very possibly, Cobain’s suicide has something to do with that. Those who were captivated by his songs saw their leader take himself out of the rat race, and the world did not end. Some saw his suicide as a betrayal; he represented a significant slice of America’s youth on the public stage, and chose to give up that position. To some, his suicide was a tragedy; a man with the world in the palm of his hand let it all go because he could not handle the pressures of fame. Whichever way we read the suicide of Kurt Cobain, we should not underestimate his influence on the youth culture of this country; neither should we understate his influence on the mainstream culture of the times. While he was not independently responsible for the changes in youth subcultures that we saw in the early 1990s, he was certainly a major figure. If posterity remembers anything about the popular music culture of this decade, I believe it will be Kurt Cobain and his band.
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---.Nevermind. DGC 24425, 1991.
Reynolds, Simon and Joy Press.The Sex Revolts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Ross, Alex. "Generation Exit."New Yorker 25 April 1994: 102-106.
Star, Alexander. "Teen Spirit."The New Republic 2 May 1994: 42.
Tilsner, Julie. "From Trash Can Straight to Seventh Avenue."Business Week 22 May 1993: 39.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit"
Load up and guns and
Bring your friends
It's fun to lose
And to pretend
She's over bored
And self assured
Oh no, I know
A dirty word
Hello, how low? (several times)
With the lights out it's less dangerous
Here we are now
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now
My libido, yeah
I'm worse at what I do best
And for this gift I feel blessed
Our little group has always been
And always will until the end
hello, how low? (several times)
And I forget
Just why I taste
Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile
I found it hard
It was hard to find
Oh well, whatever, nevermind
hello, how low? (several times)
* taken from Nirvana, "Nevermind." DGC Records 24425: 1991.
Kurt Cobain's Suicide Note
This note should be pretty easy to understand. All the warnings from the Punk Rock 101 Courses over the years, it's my first introduction to the, shall we say ethics involved with independence and the embracement of your community has been proven to be very true. I haven't felt the excitement of listening to, as well as creating music, along with really writing something for too many years now. I feel guilty beyond words about these things, for example when we're backstage and the lights go out and the manic roar of the crowd begins. It doesn't affect me in the way which it did for Freddie Mercury, who seemed to love and relish the love and admiration from the crowd, which is something I totally admire and envy. The fact is, I can't fool you, any of you. It simply isn't fair to you, or to me. The worst crime I can think of would be to pull people off by faking it, pretending as if I'm having one hundred percent fun. Sometimes I feel as though I should have a punch-in time clock before I walk out on-stage. I've tried everything within my power to appreciate it, and I do, God believe me, I do, but it's not enough. I appreciate the fact that I, and we, have affected, and entertained a lot of people. I must be one of the narcissists who only appreciate things when they're alone. I'm too sensitive, I need to be slightly numb in order to regain the enthusiasm. But, what's sad is our child. On our last three tours, I've had a much better appreciation of all the people I've known personally, and as fans of our music. But I still can't get out the frustration, the guilt, and the sympathy I have for everybody. There is good in all of us, and I simply love people too much. So much that it makes me feel too fucking sad. The sad little sensitive unappreciative pisces Jesus man. I have it good, very good, and I'm grateful. But since the age of 7, I've become hateful towards all humans in general. Only because it seems so easy for people to get along and have empathy. Empathy only because I love and feel for people too much I guess. Thank you from the pit of my burning nauseas stomach for your letters and concern during the last years. I'm too much of a neurotic moody person and I don't have the passion anymore, so remember, it's "Better to Burn out, than fade away." Peace, love, empathy, Kurt Cobain.
Presented at the National Communication Association
New Orleans, November 2002
Is midwifery the practice of medicine? Cartographic mapping of the trial transcript of a midwife convicted of practicing medicine without a license and child endangerment demonstrates that while the professions of obstetric medicine and traditional midwifery both assist women during childbirth, the differences in what each health care system defines as appropriate are predicated upon different mental processes and reflected in different patterns of discourse. Pentadic cartography provides a means for analyzing marginalized paradigms such as midwifery on their own terms and for translating with equanimity between seemingly incommensurate systems of thought, discourse, and behavior.
In a recent QJS article entitled "Pentadic Cartography: Mapping the Universe of Discourse," Floyd D. Anderson and Lawrence J. Prelli note that a wide range of twentieth century social critics agree that "advanced industrial society is so pervaded with a technological rationality that it fosters a closed universe of thought and discourse that stifles and silences all other points of view" (73). Anderson and Prelli recommend Kenneth Burke's critical method for its utility in opening up that closed universe by directing "attention to particular terministic features of texts and, from those features, [the] implicit associations or underlying systems of terms that those features imply" (77). Anderson and Prelli call their Burkean approach "pentadic cartography." The job of the pentadic cartographer is to locate the "pivotal sites of ambiguity" that allow the critic to transform one ideological system's vocabulary into the terms of another, with the goal of legitimizing marginalized discourse otherwise excluded from expression when constrained to the dominant discourse of technological rationality (80, 82).
Although my doctoral dissertation was all but complete by the time Anderson and Prelli's article appeared, pentadic cartography was precisely the method employed in my study, and I can personally attest to the efficacy of this approach. My dissertation, entitled "The Rhetoric of Childbirth: A Burkean Analysis of Medical Demarcation in the Trial of a California Midwife," examined the discourse of physicians and midwives who testified at the 1997 criminal trial of midwife Abigail Odam. Odam was charged with seven felony counts and one misdemeanor arising from her attendance at five births in 1993 and 1994; the most serious charges against her were practicing medicine without a license and child endangerment. The object of my study, the transcript of the trial of The People of the State of California, Plaintiff, v. Abigail Odam, Defendant, brings the tension between obstetric medicine and traditional midwifery into sharp, adversarial focus, with the obstetric approach clearly aligned with technological rationality and, not coincidentally, the state's prosecution of the case.
Kenneth Burke tells us that the particular choice of terms used to describe an act reveals the speaker's personal view of the symbolic nature of the act. As he states in Language As Symbolic Action: "much that we take as observations about 'reality' may be but the spinning out of possibilities implicit in our particular choice of terms" (46). The trial of People v. Odam presents the voices of competing health care professionals describing the same observable phenomena while using different vocabularies arising from different underlying assumptions, employing different theoretical hypotheses, and arriving at different conclusions and treatment protocols. These variant testimonies provide the "pivotal sites of ambiguity" called for in pentadic cartography.
For obstetricians, birth is a medical event, fraught with hazards held at bay through well-timed and necessary technological intervention. Midwives, on the other hand, view birth as a natural, normal event imbued with profound personal meaning, and their professional vocabulary is rich with emotional, social, and spiritual references. The midwives, who came to the trial as a marginalized group, were further hampered by the structural imposition of rules of discourse that tended to undermine their rhetorical style and non-scientific worldview while simultaneously privileging the conventional medical worldview. Odam never disputed attending the births in question, but whether or not these were medical events and whether or not she functioned as an obstetrician or a midwife at those births entirely hinged on the experts' characterization of those births. Therefore, rhetoric pertaining to professional demarcation provided the sole evidentiary foundation for Odam's guilt or innocence. The jury would ultimately judge the case based upon their assessment of these conflicting rhetorical representations of "fact."
The mechanics of the trial itself displayed the government's official cultural sanction of the highly rational, technological discourse of physicians over the narrative, non-technological discourse of midwives. During the trial, Judge Zvetina's rulings sought to limit testimony regarding the midwifery model to scientific quantification, thus establishing conditions that largely precluded midwifery's modes of thought and discourse, forcing the defense witnesses to employ the dominant paradigm's philosophical and discursive style. While it undoubtedly appeared perfectly reasonable to Judge Zvetina to insist that any information regarding the midwifery model of care first pass through the sieve of scientific objectivity, this belief itself reflects the Court's consubstantial relationship with the medical and scientific hegemony. Throughout the trial, the Court's dismissal of midwifery's alternate knowledge system and narrative discursive style would serve as a political endorsement of the medical model of birth.
The defense's battle was entirely uphill and ultimately unsuccessful, for they were forced to express their position in terms of the dominant style of discourse. Anderson and Prelli put it this way: "Whenever we are induced to see things or interpret experiences 'in terms of' some particular vocabulary, we are constrained by its circumference of motives" (80). As my cartographic mapping of obstetrics and midwifery discovered, it is literally impossible to defend the ancient art of traditional midwifery in terms of the modern medical model; the defense's attempts to do so simply upheld the dominant paradigm, causing the midwives to appear the ignorant, bumbling, incompetent and illogical women medical men have historically taken them to be.
In A Grammar of Motives, Burke presents an analytical framework combining rhetoric and the poetic as a means for sorting out human relations and motivations which he calls the dramatistic pentad. Burke identifies five dramatic elements common to human relations: scene, agent, agency, act, and purpose. Any human endeavor may be identified by where it occurs [scene], who does it [agent], the means by which it gets done [agency], what it is that happens [act], and why it occurs [purpose]. These five elements are related to one another as "principles of consistency" that bind pentads together in certain "ratios" (Motives, 9). Burke's principle of consistency states that any particular description of "scene" carries within it the implications of how the other elements will be defined; a hospital scene, for example, implicates the physician as agent, consistent with the scene:agent ratio, whereas the homebirth scene implicates the birthparents as agents. The pentad also asks for a definition of the "God term" that serves as the ultimate motivational ground for human action under any particular schema.
Most of the analysis performed on the trial transcript centered on one of the five births involved in the case--the birth of Nicholas Annerino. The scope of the analysis was further constrained to testimony offered only by physicians, midwives, and birthmothers. The testimonies of other witnesses, such as state investigators and firemen, were read and set aside. I then identified and labeled recurring topics and themes that were common to both sides' renditions of the Annerino birth, though expressed in different terms. Some of these topics arose from the particular physical exigencies of the Annerino birth itself, such as the midwife's subcutaneous administration of pre-partum Pitocin and the baby's shoulder dystocia complication. Other topics emerged as general themes that ran throughout the trial, such as issues involving standards of care, the proper role of technology, and the nature of authoritative knowledge.
Once the emerging topics and themes were identified, I reviewed the transcript again, searching for more instances of these identified categories. In this manner, I was able to compare each witness's take on the same topics and themes. Doing so confirmed my suspicion that the testimony of each witness reflected their personal identification with either the culture of obstetrics or midwifery. As I had suspected, there was a clear distinction between the foundational beliefs and practices of the obstetric and midwifery models of care. These distinctions held true for practically every identified topic and theme and constituted the manner by which members of each profession demarcate themselves. As a final methodological step, I sorted these recurrent topics and themes according to Burke's pentad and discovered the pentad's elegant utility as a means of distinguishing between the obstetric and midwifery models of care. In this manner, I was able to locate and identify in the trial transcript 35 unambiguous examples of purely medical dramatistic elements plus 31 examples of necessary medical ratios, and 57 examples of midwifery elements plus 25 examples of necessary midwifery ratios.
The testimonies offered by physicians and midwives at the trial of Abigail Odam clearly demonstrate that obstetricians and midwives attend different symbolic events and these disparate symbolisms elicit disparate observations about the "reality" of the birth event--what Burke referred to as a "terministic screen." These differing symbolic representations of birth also require different physical actions on the part of birth attendants and different material preparations for the event, as the following pentadic mapping makes clear.
Medical Scene: The scene for a medicalized birth is the hospital delivery room, or, in extreme circumstances, the hospital emergency room or obstetric operating theater. The props that adorn this scene are technological; the lighting is bright; the atmosphere is noisy and hectic. In this scene, the birthmother is the central prop, for she is the object upon which the physician operates. The mother may be further objectified through the use of drugs that render her unable to physically participate in the birth. The unborn baby is the desired object the agents in this drama strive to acquire. The larger ideological ground of the scene is the mechanistic, rationalistic, scientific worldview.
Medical Agent: According to Burke's scene: agent ratio, by virtue of the fact that the scene is the hospital, the physician is the primary agent of the scene, because the hospital is the stage upon which he or she acts. The obstetrician is the star of this show; all of the ritualistic events surrounding hospital labor lead up to the physician's arrival on the scene and in the physician's absence the birth cannot proceed. The obstetric nurses function as co-agents supporting the needs of the physician. The agent status of physicians is largely based upon the deference accorded doctors as exclusive sources of authoritative knowledge in issues considered to be medical.
Medical Agency: Rationalism, as a key constituent of the medical god-term science, is the critical-thinking engine that drives medical agency (god-term: agency ratio). The means by which the birth is achieved is through technological intervention. This intervention is directed by the attending medical personnel (agency: agent ratio). The technology may be mechanical (scalpels, forceps, vacuum extractors, syringes, mechanized infusion pumps, IV drips), electronic (EFMs, ultrasound, blood gas readouts), or medicinal (Pitocin, anesthetics, narcotics). When the birthfather is present, his job is that of a tool for managing the birthmother, in order to encourage her cooperation with the medical management of the birth.
Medical Act: The act is the delivery of the child from the mother by the obstetrician. The mother, in this scene, does not actively birth the baby; the child is taken from her by the primary agent, the physician, who immediately severs the umbilical cord. The physician then hands the newborn directly to the co-agent, the nurse, who dries and wraps the baby at a separate work station.
Medical Purpose: The purpose of the hospital birthing scene is the safe delivery of the child and the comfort and safety of the mother (scene: purpose ratio). Successful accomplishment of these two primary goals serves an important secondary purpose of avoiding hospital lawsuits; hence, a "perfect birth" is the ultimate goal. The obstetric model on the whole is based on the presumption that any risk to a mother or baby is too great. The goal of the obstetric model is to reduce risk to as close to zero as possible--hence, the high frequency of interventions designed to prevent "what-if" scenarios. Efficiency is also a primary goal for, at any given time, laboring women may greatly outnumber care providers.
Even in their absence, the above classifications apply, and any deviation from this schema constitutes a grave emergency in and of itself. For example, giving birth outside the confines of the hospital is considered an emergency condition fraught with peril. If a physician were to encounter a woman laboring at the "wrong" scene--at home, for example--emergency transport to the nearest hospital is top priority (scene: purpose ratio). In the absence of an attending physician, those present are considered helpless in the face of the impending birth (agent: agency ratio). Even if a doctor is present, if the proper means of technological agency is missing--e.g., a power outage that idles the machines--the physician's ability to assure a safe delivery for mother and child is considered severely impaired (agent: agency ratio).
Midwifery Scene: The birthmother's home, surrounded by family, friends, neighbors. The birth may occur anywhere in the home, but most typically in the bedroom or living room. The larger ideological ground is nature and natural womanly processes.
Midwifery Agent: Because the scene is the birthmother's home, Burke's scene: agent ratio indicates the birth parents will be the primary agents of the scene. The midwife or visiting physician is only a "guest" in the home, there to bring about whatever it is those parents wish to bring about. The birthmother is the star of the show; it is through her actions that the birth will take place. The fetus is also considered a primary agent in this model, and his or her movement through and beyond the birth canal is sometimes referred to as the "hero's journey." The birthfather's presence reinforces the "natural" ideological ground of the bonded family unit. The midwife functions as the birthmother's co-agent and is motivated by the mother's and baby's needs rather than imposing her own agenda upon them (agent: agency ratio). Difficult decisions, such as whether or not to transfer to the hospital during the course of a long labor, are arrived at through conversation with the birthmother.
Midwifery Agency: The birthmother labors naturally and by her efforts the baby is pushed down the birth canal. In this model, in addition to being the birthmother's co-agent, the midwife serves as a tool used by the mother as primary agent (agent: agency ratio). Technological instruments are minimal (blood pressure cuff, DeLee suction trap, oxygen bottle and mask, Doppler device), while natural remedies are found in abundance (herbs, homeopathics, medicinal foods, hot baths, massage, body fluids, essential oils) (god-term: agency ratio). A midwife's agency may be difficult to identify because of its alignment with the natural course of events. Patience is a key attribute. Bodily awareness and intuition are abundantly employed as salient sources of knowledge. Prudential reasoning determines when, if, and how the midwife responds to the unfolding exigencies of birth. There are few, if any, fixed protocols.
My study demonstrates there are no hard and fast normative standards under the traditional midwifery model. A midwife intuitively responds to the unique exigencies of the particular case, occasionally deviating from textbook recommendations through a process of non-rational thought. This ability is developed through experience and practice, and often results in unexpected but efficacious responses. The standard of midwifery's prudential reasoning is the ability to successfully respond to exigencies on a case-by-case basis.
Midwifery Act: The baby is not taken from the birthmother as in the hospital model, but is birthed by the mother's active agency. Due to the birthmother's status as primary agent of this pentad, the birth proceeds at her pace and according to her individual physiology rather than predetermined time limits and mandated standards of care (agency: act ratio). After birth, the infant is either placed immediately upon the mother's bare breast, or is allowed to continue its own heroic journey from her crotch up to her breast. In addition to supporting the mother's labor, the father ritualistically cuts the umbilical cord after it stops pulsating.
Midwifery Purpose: The purpose of the homebirth setting is to respond to emerging exigencies in the most natural way possible, with the expectation that a natural birth is a good birth (god-term: purpose ratio). For the mother as well as the child, this natural birth implies a reduction in extraneous emotional stressors such as unknown agents in the scene and unfamiliar surroundings, in keeping with Burke's scene: purpose ratio. The homebirth is considered by its participants to be a physical demonstration and embodiment of the spiritual quality of familial love.
As was the case with the alternate, obstetric model's pentad, any violation of the schema outlined above constitutes a violation of the midwifery model. Because of the relationship ratio between the scene, agent, and agency, it is considered extremely difficult to have a truly "natural" birth in a hospital setting. For example, certified nurse midwives who practice in a hospital setting necessarily adopt a more medicalized approach to midwife-assisted birth that stands in tension with both the midwifery practiced by traditional, homebirth midwives, and the obstetrics practiced by physicians.
This exercise in pentadic cartography has demonstrated that while the professions of obstetric medicine and traditional midwifery may share the common boundary of assisting women during childbirth, the differences in the social institutions and patterns of interpersonal interactions, as well as the protocol of behaviors that constitute what each health care system defines as appropriate, are predicated upon different mental processes and reflected in different patterns of discourse. The mental processes that shape these distinctive cultures of care consist of different sets of values as well as reliance upon different modes of critical thinking.
Burke's dramatistic pentad has proven to be a useful tool that not only clearly maps the distinctions between the two systems, it is also a useful means of determining which behavioral manifestations are appropriate by employing the necessary ratios among the various pentadic elements. For example, obstetric medicine's god-term "science" not only explains but mandates technological agency, whereas midwifery's god-term "nature" discourages technological agency due to the god-term:agency ratio. Likewise, the scene:agent ratio of the midwifery model places the parturient woman as the primary agent of her homebirth scene, whereas the scene:agent ratio of the obstetric model designates the physician as primary agent of the hospital scene.
Because of the strong relationships implicated among pentadic ratios, it is difficult to maintain the integrity of a given system when these ratios are violated. For example, midwife-assisted birth in a hospital setting establishes a tension that threatens to violate a number of pentadic midwifery ratios, including scene:purpose, scene:agency, and scene:agent. Scene, in other words, exerts a powerful influence upon cultural systems, one that can, of itself, override other cultural elements. Agency is another powerful pentadic influence on a system, especially when agency is taken to include the critical thinking skills employed during decision making. Obstetric medicine's reliance upon rationalism falls under medical agency, which mandates that certain formulaic protocols and standards of care be employed in answer to particular exigencies. Midwifery's reliance upon prudential reasoning under midwifery agency allows for more inventive solutions to birthing exigencies that would be not be considered reasonable under obstetric's rule-based system.
This application of Burke's pentad is directly and immediately applicable to the ongoing national debate over the practice of traditional midwifery for it can be argued that critics of the midwifery model do not recognize the validity of midwifery's alternative pentadic schema. In Odam's trial, the midwifery scene, the home, was criticized because it was not the medical scene, the hospital. Odam was personally chastised by the judge for not exercising authority as the agent in charge, which would have been a violation of the midwifery agent:agency ratio; it is only under the medical model where the agent is the professional on the scene. Odam was excoriated by the prosecution for using non-technological agency in keeping with the midwifery model, as when she used her own body as an instrument to gauge an infant's heart rhythms or garlic to treat an infection. Odam was severely criticized by the medical experts for allowing a birth to proceed at a slower pace than the medical model's act element would allow, yet allowing a birth to proceed at its own pace is fully in keeping with the act under the midwifery model. Finally, the purpose of the midwifery model was criticized because the midwife on trial did not put safety first, risk reduction being a primary motivator of the medical model. These types of criticisms can only be levied against someone of a marginalized culture when the critic is so firmly entrenched in the dominant cultural schema that the critic either does not recognize, because of the terministic screen phenomenon, or recognizes but completely rejects the alternative paradigm and so holds the individual personally accountable for all deviations from the dominant model.
Odam was also greatly criticized for the unauthorized use of medical agency when she administered the drug Pitocin to stimulate uterine contractions. Interestingly enough, this is a valid criticism that does not violate the cultural integrity of either model. Pitocin is a medical intervention; it does not belong under midwifery agency, unless one rationalizes that Pitocin so resembles a woman's own natural hormones that Pitocin can be considered "natural." If a midwife believes it is necessary to administer pre-partum Pitocin, then she appears to be admitting that this birth is not proceeding "naturally" under the midwifery model and should be addressed under the medical model with medical agency. Such an admission would mandate an emergency shift of scene to the hospital where all other elements of the medical model are in place. So, while the pentadic mapping of the midwifery model provides a kind of ideological "shelter" for the practices of traditional midwifery, it provides an equally strong mandate for the obstetric model when medical conditions rule out the "natural" course.
Pentadic mapping has demonstrated that each healthcare system has its own integrity in keeping with the necessary ratios implied among its pentadic elements. Because these distinctive schemas were not made clear during the case at hand, it was not possible for the jury to tell which of the defendant's actions were fully in keeping with the midwifery model of care and therefore exempt from prosecution, which behaviors were actually medical interventions under the obstetric model of care and therefore a violation of medical licensing, and which behaviors were simply negligent under anyone's model of care and indictable as, for instance, child endangerment.
This Burkean analysis of the trial of The People v. Odam successfully employed pentadic cartography to "open up" the otherwise closed universe mandated by the rational, technological discourse of the Court and the medical model. As evidenced by the "Guilty" verdicts reached at the conclusion of that trial, when one is required to utilize the modalities of the dominant universe of discourse, it is impossible to fully articulate and analyze systems of thought and behavior that fall outside that ideological mainstream. Doing so reduces marginalized discourse to the terms of the dominant paradigm, thereby causing the Other to appear substandard as a by-product of that rendering. Pentadic cartography provides a means for analyzing marginalized paradigms on their own terms and for translating with equanimity between seemingly incommensurate systems of thought, discourse, and behavior.
—Cyd C. Ropp
Anderson, Floyd D., and Lawrence J. Prelli. "Pentadic Cartography: Mapping the Universe of Discourse." Quarterly Journal of Speech 87 (2000): 73-95.
Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: California UP, 1945.
---. Language As Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: California UP, 1966.
Ropp, Cyd Charise. Ph.D. Dissertation. The Rhetoric of Childbirth: A Burkean Analysis of Medical Demarcation in the Trial of a California Midwife. The University of Memphis. December, 2001.
San Diego County, North County Branch. Superior Court of the State of California. Reporter's Transcript of Proceedings, People of the State of California vs. Abigail Odam, SCN032741. San Diego County, Feb. and Apr., 1997.
* This essay began as part of a doctoral dissertation written at The University of Memphis, Department of Communication. An earlier version of this paper won the Kenneth Burke Society's Best Paper award at the 2002 National Communication Association convention in New Orleans
Cyd C. Ropp earned the PhD in 2001 from The University of Memphis, an MA in 1985 from Azusa Pacific University, and an MA in 1982 from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication
Denver, March 2001
Before I begin, I want to make sure everyone (especially James Kastely) knows that when I use “prophesying after the event” as my title, I’m not referring in any way to Jim’s terrific book. I chose this title because I believe there is an interesting paradox at the heart of our conception of rhetoric--in and as history—that might supplement or support Kastely’s argument in Rethinking the Rhetorical Tradition: From Plato to Postmodernism that Burke (along with Socrates) sees “an ongoing need for refutation, for a rhetoric that undoes past rhetorical acts” (228). “Prophesying after the event” is my way to examine this need.
My title refers to the concept that Burke invoked at strategic moments to explain the characteristic move of critics and poet-critics: "From inspection of the poem, the critic will formulate its principles. Then reversing the process, and prophesying after the event, he will test his formulations by "deducing" or "deriving" the poem from the principles" (Language as Symbolic Action 37). The question for the critic is whether the poem could be generated from the principles of composition that have been postulated. Burke doesn’t mean to suggest that a poem necessarily comes to be as a response to the explicit formulation of these specifications (LASA 36). However, we often act as if such principles were formulated prior to the event (of the poem), which Burke says is the “remarkable paradox” in the notion of “principles” (LASA 34). “Prophesying after the Event” involves specifying principles of development, such principles appearing to predict the future manifestation of the symbolic act but having been generated usually (and formally) after it came to be. Burke focuses our attention on Edgar Allan Poe’s essay on “The Philosophy of Composition” in which Poe describes the genesis of “The Raven.” Poe deduces the logical principles of the poem’s composition, then treats them in terms of essence, or temporal priority. As Burke puts it, “The principles of composition ‘come first’ in the sense of logical priority. Their priority may or may not, and most often decidedly does not, come first in the sense of temporal priority” (LASA 36). In more familiar terms, prophesying after the event is a variation of Monday morning quarterbacking, of hindsight being 20/20, a teleological rationalization of the act. The concept might also help us understand anew Socrates’s claim in the Phaedrus that writing serves merely as a reminder of what we already know.
One of the most familiar and consequential examples of prophesying after the event occurs in the opening of Aristotle’s On Rhetoric, where he notes that because some people are habitually persuasive and some not, there must surely be some exercise of principle in those who usually are, some habit of mind or turn of thought. The function of an art is to articulate those principles. The unstated implication is that knowing these principles will help one persuade more often than not, a core belief at the heart of what we might need to believe as teachers of writing and rhetoric. I want to follow Kastely’s lead by rethinking the rhetorical tradition and to propose that thinking of rhetoric as the expression of prophecy after an event can help us better understand the nature of rhetoric and rhetorical action, or what Kastely calls “rhetoricality.”
Our notions of reality are bound by the principle of prophesying after the event. Near the end ofLila, Robert Pirsig invokes William James’s point that in radical empiricism, subject-object relations are but categories imposed conceptually on raw experience, which James called a primary flux (364-65). I would take it a step further to say that that primary flux is itself of a secondary order (somewhat like a prophesy itself). We imagine what we want that primary flux to be, so raw sensory experience is actually coming to us after the event, the “event” being shaped in the mind prior to the act of perception or coincidental with the act of perception. Because of our capacity to imagine a future before we’ve experienced it, some critics, including Pirsig, suggest that believing is seeing, rather than the other way around. Déjà vu (the “already seen”) may be more common than we might have thought, occurring at the very moment of perception itself and in the gestational moment when attitude, an incipient act or precognition, comes into being as symbolic action (In this sense, postmodernism could be seen as the working out of the strange alliance between déjà vu and symbolicity, the always already seen.) On the perceptual level, we’ve already seen what we’re about to see, having preordained it conceptually or imaginatively. This is one reason why, I believe, Burke makes identification central to his conception of rhetoric and the ethic of consubstantiality. A identifies with B to the extent that A has imagined him- or herself to share ideas, sensations, feelings with B. The rhetorical act is an inducement to be and become a future self, with the sense of having been persuaded an expression of prophesy after that imagined identification is realized.
In Visual Intelligence: Perception, Image, and Manipulation in Visual Communication, Ann Barry cites the recent neurological research of Antonio Damasio, who argues that contrary to the Cartesian confidence in rationality as the basis for action, reason is founded on feeling. Barry also suggests that much of cognition is merely rationalization to make unconscious emotional response acceptable to the conscious mind (18). Damasio, for example, cites Spinoza’s belief that when we comprehend something, we automatically accept it as well. Barry explains: “The only choice, he [Spinoza] thought, is to reject an idea deliberately or not. Rather than a two-stage process of interpreting and then accepting or rejecting an idea, he believed that acceptance was part of interpretation” (23). Barry also cites the work of Daniel Gilbert, who points to our tendency to trust first perceptions as the ironic result of evolutionary efficiency (23). In times of crises, we habitually act first, think later. There is a will-to-believe, in other words. Benjamin Libet, a neurophysiologist, has conducted experiments that show, contrary to what we might presume, that there is a “discernable time gap between action and consciousness of action, with the conscious will to act coming only after action is initiated, not before. [. . .] Libet has shown that the brain begins to prepare for movement a third of a second earlier than the mind decides to act, and that the only real option the mind has is a last-minute ‘veto’” (Barry 24). Furthermore, under stress, the veto power (or “off-switch”) may never be used at all, so that what might be seen as obviously false under other circumstances may be believed as true or reasonable (Barry 24).
That the conscious will to act might follow the initiation of action I find astounding, even counter-intuitive. However, in this light, rhetoricality can be seen as a consensual prophesying after the event, an extendable rationalization of motive and act. Kastely’s critique of Althusser’s conception of ideology speaks to this possibility. For Althusser, ideology is an amorphous set of imaginary (or signifying) relations with a material ground in the means of production, in economic conditions. In Kastely’s view, which is supported alternatively by the concept of prophesying after the event and by the research in neuroscience that I’ve mentioned, ideology is imaginary all the way down. One of Burke’s key insights is that ideology functions rhetorically, not simply to assert itself hegemonically and for political ends, but at the point of conception and thus action. Rhetoric, in this view, becomes a form of ideological inquiry best exercised at the systemic and symbolic level. For Kastely (and Burke), a revitalized rhetoric would treat issues of justice, community, and equality, for example, not as abstract principles or ideals, but as forms of mystification or, I would add, rationalization. Rhetoric examines how our ideals as terminologies reflect, select, and thus deflect our attention from difference and division, the latter serving with identification to make rhetoric possible and necessary.
(1) Burke’s definition of form as the arousal and fulfillment of desire also has some relation to the paradox of prophesying after the event. Recall that in his view, a work has form to the extent that it gratifies the needs creates (Counter-Statement 138). When form is perceived, it comes as prophetic, an act of appeasement, desires having been formed in the past but only appearing recognizable as (fulfilled) desire in the present, in the Aha! reaction. In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke likewise speaks of “swinging along with the form,” the act of transference to subject matter occurring as the audience participates in the sequence (58). In both cases the feeling is primary, with the conscious will to act or to judge expressed later, as a rationalization. Form is important for Burke because it functions rhetorically in the nether world preceding and setting the stage for conscious action. In Kastely’s view, Burke’s conception of rhetoric gets to the heart of the problem of defining and seeking justice. It is a rhetoric based upon the central contention that our symbol systems enable and maintain divisions of class and difference. Rhetoric becomes, Kastely writes, “the continual attempt to negotiate mystery without reducing difference” (233).
(2) H. P. Grice uses this will-to-believe to establish one of his “cooperative principles,” under the heading of the “Maxim of Quality” in “Logic and Conversation.”
Barry, Ann Marie Seward. Visual Intelligence: Perception, Image, and Manipulation in Visual Communication. Albany: SUNY Press, 1997.
Burke, Kenneth. Counter-Statement. 1931. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968.
---. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966.
---. A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.
Grice, H. P. “Logic and Conversation.” Syntax and Semantics. Vol. 3. Ed. P. Cole New York: Academic Press. 41-58.
Kastely, James L. Rethinking the Rhetorical Tradition: From Plato to Postmodernism. New Haven, CT. Yale UP, 1997.
Pirsig, Robert M. Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. New York: Bantam Books, 1991.
Presented at the National Communication Association Conference
Chicago, November 1997
Kenneth Burke and Chaim Perelman are two of this century's greatest thinkers on rhetorical theory. Wayne Brockriede, for instance, has observed that they are the "two writers whom historians of twentieth-century rhetorical theory are sure to feature."1 Already, their theories of rhetoric have greatly influenced the work of scholars in communication,2 philosophy,3 literature,4 and the law.5
One essay inspired by their work, written by Walter Fisher and Brockriede, argues that Burke's dramatism and logology are philosophical variants of realism that may be called "linguistic realism."6 Fisher and Brockriede compare the philosophies of Burke and Perelman and conclude that they both create "social" rhetorics that are different in two important ways. First, they argue that Perelman rejects Burke's "linguistic realism" and instead holds that "language is an instrument rhetors use in their attempts to gain adherence."7 Second, they note that Perelman's theory focuses upon argumentation whereas Burke's theory "does not feature logic."8 I advance a third distinction in this essay. Burke and Perelman utilize different senses of "social" rhetoric in that: Perelman's theory of rhetoric is social as a transference of ideas, whereas Burke's theory is social as a transformation of identity. This distinction is important for appreciating the contribution that their works have for the study of rhetoric. In this essay, I examine four aspects of the rhetorical theories of Burke and Perelman. First, I review their definitions of rhetoric. Second, I illuminate their sociological assumptions about the nature of human beings and interaction. Third, I examine their view of the process of rhetoric. Fourth, I discuss their conceptions of an ultimate rhetoric. From this examination, I draw implications for their theories, for rhetorical theory in general, and for the fusion of their theories.
The rhetorics of Perelman and Burke reveal their theories of "socialness." Perelman's thesis is that "all argumentation aims at gaining the adherence of minds, and by this very fact, assumes the existence of an intellectual contact"9 and that this contact of minds creates a "community of minds."10
Burke goes beyond a community of minds engaged in intellectual contact. Rhetoric, for him, is "the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols."11 Rhetoric’s concern is "the state of Babel after the Fall."12 Rhetoric is the ambiguous combination of identification and division that leads us beyond intellectual contact "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 Logomachy, the onus of ownership, the Wars of Nerves, the War."13 In a nutshell, Burke focuses on the entire human condition whereas Perelman is interested in the intellectual judgment a community uses.
Perelman and Burke's definitions of rhetoric exhibit their unique conception of what it means to be "social." Fisher and Brockriede have called Perelman's rhetoric "'social,' as evidenced by his emphasis on audiences."14 Specifically, Perelman views socialness as constituted in the interaction of arguers and audience members.
Perelman was influenced strongly by the teachings of his professor, Eugene Dupreel, who argued that social relationships exist "between two individuals when the existence or activity of the one of them influences the acts or psychological condition of the other."15 From his view, individuals are conceived as part of groups which "sometimes cooperate and at other times oppose each other."16
From this tenet of Dupreel's theory, comes Perelman's view of social. For him, rhetoric is a necessary social force to ameliorate tension between or among groups. Rhetoric provides a dialogue for "reasonable compromises" on conflicting views.17 Such compromises are necessary to achieve philosophical pluralism. Philosophical pluralism sees human beings as belonging to many social groups. It refrains from giving any group of people absolute power. And, it searches "for moderate, and thus well balanced, solutions to all conflicts."18
Perelman's view of being social is worked out in The New Rhetoric essentially as the "study of audiences."19 A rhetor must consider the culture, social functions, and differing characteristics of people.20 The rhetor is "justified in visualizing each one of his listeners as simultaneously belonging to a number of disparate groups."21 Hence, rhetors comes to understand themselves, their relationship to the audience's multiple groups, and their ability to gain the audience's adherence to their thesis.
Kenneth Burke's rhetoric has also been called "social."22 Burke's "social" is distinct from Perelman's for Burke's theory goes beyond the assessment of and adjustment to audience. Burke conceives of socialness as the rhetorical interconnection of the very substance of human beings. Daniel Fogarty has argued that Burke's rhetoric is "man’s" device "for survival by social balance with his inner self and with his world."23 Burke believes rhetoric reconstitutes who people are as well as what they believe.24 Burke exhibits this approach toward sociality in two ways.
First, Burke views humans as the symbol using animal. As the symbol using animal, Burke, "derives the human subject from language and language from an environmentally grounded human organism."25 In this, Burke argues that life is a drama, humans may be explained by the paradox of substance,26 and that human action can be explained by the pentad.27
Second, these conclusions about the nature of humans inevitably lead to the reorienting nature of rhetoric. Burke's emphasis upon the importance that symbols play in reconstituting who people are fits "squarely in a tradition that exists in the social sciences that includes Dilthey and Weber, George Herbert Mead and the Symbolic Interactionists, and the more recent influences of Alfred Schutz, the ethnomethodologists, and the renaissance of the Idealist view of how knowledge is achieved or constructed."28
Given their views of sociality, it is not surprising that the processes of rhetoric for Burke and Perelman differ. Burke views the rhetorical process as the conjoining and separating of selves. Perelman views the rhetorical process as the use of argument to allow "communion" among peoples.
Burke's rhetorical process revolves around the dialectic between identification and division. Division, the separateness of people, gives rise to identification, which conjoins interests among people so as to unite what was separated. The conjoining makes people "both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another."29 In being consubstantial, humans act together and separate from other humans. Hence, consubstantiation begets new division. The process can be viewed as division, therefore identification leading to consubstation, therefore new divisions. In this process, rhetoric becomes a social entity. As Burke put it: "Since identification implies division, we found rhetoric involving us in matters of socialization and faction."30
Burke identifies three different conceptions of identification. First, there is accidental, mechanical associations. These are the "mysterious," innate senses of what the world is as in "the child gets a 'mysterious' sense of class distinction . . . long before understanding their occupational logic."31 Second, there are analogizing associations. Here "terms are transferred from one order to another,"32 as in a business conceives of it's "'value' as an estheticized equivalent of 'price.'"33 Third, there are specialized expressions. These require no transference because the terms embody the generalized principle from which they are derived. Here, Burke brings identification to the ideological and theological, where a unitary principle, like the "bourgeois-Bohemian antithesis" generates conflicting terminologies that permeates their cultures.34
Perelman, on the other hand, views the rhetorical process as involving the use of argument as a means to achieve a just society, not as a means of reconstituting the very members of that society. Indeed, in assessing Burke's concept of identification, Perelman makes this sparse assessment:
(what) . . . Kenneth Burke terms identifications are, in our view, simply connections and rejections of connections, for the associated and dissociated concepts appear, after the operation, to remain as they were in their original state, like bricks saved intact from a building that has been pulled down.35
Here Perelman exhibits his emphasis upon the argumentative nature of even Burke's work.
This emphasis is epitomized by The New Rhetoric's concern with the topoi and structure of argumentation. In the book, Perelman outlines his view of the rhetorical process. He sees initial starting points of argument as facts, data with which "we can postulate uncontroverted, universal agreement,"36 truths, "more complex systems relating to connections between facts,"37 and presumptions, statements or expectations of "what is normal and likely."38 From these universally agreed upon constructs, values, the ideals contained within argument,39 hierarchies, which rank in superiority values,40 and loci, "which affirm that one thing is better than another"41 can be used as tools for a rhetor to gain the audience's adherence to his or her thesis.
For Perelman, the social community which this rhetorical process creates is embodied in the "communion" among peoples. Communion has to do with the linguistic style of a culture.42 Values can constitute the ideals bonding a community. As Perelman argues: "The existence of values, as objects of agreement that make possible a communion with regard to particular ways of acting, is connected with the idea of multiplicity of groups."43 In addition, language that appeals to values can bond. He notes that "The terms 'right,' 'liberty,' 'democracy' can bring about communion in the same way as the unfurling of the flag."44The linguistic connection is made up of adherence to these terms of value. Yet, unlike Burke, it is not the language in and of itself that constitutes the communion. Rather, it "is the needs of argument which explain the tendency to form into a group and so band together all those who are seen to share the same attitudes, the supporters and opponents of a certain viewpoint, a certain person, or a certain way of acting."45
Burke and Perelman's differing conceptions of the process of rhetoric lead them to different conceptions of "the ultimate" rhetoric and to different evaluations of their ultimate rhetorics. By ultimate, I mean, their conception of the apex of their vision of rhetoric. Ultimately, Perelman is concerned with the making of the best arguments with the finest contact of minds as embodied in the universal audience.46 Burke, on the other hand, regards the ultimate exemplar of rhetoric with concern. He is troubled by the social implications of complete identification, what he calls "pure persuasion."47
For Perelman, the ultimate criterion of rhetoric is embodied in the Universal Audience. Fisher has said, "Perelman's avowed ultimate criterion of quality in argumentation was a 'historically grounded conception of the universal audience.'"48 The universal audience is a construct in the rhetor's mind that embodies the most rational and reasonable persons or groups.49 Arguments addressed to the universal audience, are "of a compelling character, . . . they are self-evident, and possess an absolute and timeless validity, independent of local or historical contingencies."50 This does not, however, mean that these arguments meet such standards, for again, the universal audience is constructed by each rhetor. As Perelman argues:
Instead of believing in a universal audience, analogous to the divine mind which can assent only to the 'truth,' we might, with greater justification, characterize each speaker by the image he himself holds of the universal audience that he is trying to win over to his view."51
Hence, a rhetor's arguments are as good as the universal audience which he or she can conceive. Still, the universal audience encourages the contact of minds to go beyond the pure sophistry of the appeal to the particular audience. The rhetor attempts to present arguments which "they think that all who understand the reasons they give will have to accept their conclusions."52
Burke's conception of the ultimate identification, "pure persuasion," is different. Pure persuasion is, he says, "the farthest one can go, in matters of rhetoric . . ."53 Here, like in "sexual ultimateness," rhetors are pure in their purpose, do not seek an advantage over others, and check their carnal desires.54 As Burke argues, "the indication of pure persuasion in any activity is in an element of 'standoffishness,' or perhaps, better, self-interference, as judged by the tests of acquisition."55 The self-interference can lead to "freedom," yet it also restricts action that serves the self. Pure persuasion "comes quite close to the origins of the Human Comedy" and it reflects "the 'rationality' of homo dialecticus, of man as a symbol-using animal whose symbols simultaneously reflect and transcend the 'reality' of the nonsymbolic."56
This ultimate identification, however, is not something that Burke advocates. Pure persuasion can overly restrict the self and may become the vehicle of "private ambitions, guilts, and vengeances."57 As he says:
We are not saying that there 'should be' pure persuasion, or more of it. Or that 'human frailty' is forever making persuasion 'impure.' We are saying that, as the ultimate of all persuasion, its form or archetype, there is pure persuasion. If you want, we are even willing, for the sake of the argument, to take the opposite moralistic position, and say that there 'should not be' pure persuasion, or that there 'should be less of it.'58
His conclusion is based upon the inherent biological nature of humans "to desire" and to be "sated."59 Hence, transcendental conceptions like pure persuasion ignore the self and become "so universalized as to have no assignable physical object."60
My discussion, hopefully, has revealed that Burke and Perelman conceive of rhetoric in different ways. For Perelman, rhetoric is a way of gaining an audience's adherence. Its socialness is derived from an understanding of the relationship between speaker, audience, groups within the audience, and the thesis for which the speaker seeks adherence. For Burke, rhetoric is the reconstituting of speaker and audience. With each new rhetorical act, "speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea" are made consubstantial among people.61
I believe my discussion of the rhetorical theories of Burke and Perelman to be important in three ways. First, the discussion makes it clear that Perelman's rhetoric does entail a social logic, not just techniques of argument.62 Above all, while Perelman views the techniques of argument that he and Lucy Olbrechts-Tyteca carefully outlined as important; they are subordinate to their social workings as means with which rhetors may gain an audience's adherence. The ultimate usefulness of rhetoric is realized in the quality of audience that adheres to the argument and in the contact of minds of those engaged in argument.63
Second, this essay reinforces the important social contribution that Burke can make to rhetoric. For Burke, symbolic inducement is grounded upon the desire of human beings to overcome division, as well as to create division. It is in this almost paradoxical nature of rhetoric that both resolution and revolution are bred. For, if we understand that identification, even at its apex as "pure persuasion," can sow the seeds of peace as well as hate and war, we can be more wary of the hope and dangers of the division that identification implies.
Third, this discussion reveals the beginnings of a way to integrate the theories of Burke and Perelman. Perelman's theory can add to Burke's theory of persuasion by offering a practical way of social reasoning. Perelman's focus on the contact between minds via techniques of argument and the attempt to gain the adherence of the universal audience offers ways for sociality to be both a rational and reasonable affair. From the rhetorical contact of minds, communities dedicated to justice can be realized.
I believe Burke's theory can add to Perelman by giving a global perspective which points to the social implications and limits of the process of social reasoning. For Burke, when minds meet, so do motives and desires. As a result, the conjoining of minds enhances community only insofar as it reflects two concerns. First, it needs to reflect the fallibility of humans. Here, I am thinking of Burke's desire for the comic corrective and that humans transcend themselves by noting their own foibles.64 And, second, it needs to reflect that identification implies division. Here, the conjoining of minds can exclude, create animosity, and war.
My thoughts are obviously only a rough beginning. But they do reflect the sociality of the rhetorics of Burke and Perelman and that the two can be joined together usefully. The specific workings of this mixture, as Fisher and Brockriede have argued, awaits "a mind that can wed their theories."65 That mind, no doubt, will be one of the rhetoricians whom scholars remember as one of the greats of the twenty first century.
1. Wayne Brockriede, rev. of The New Rhetoric and the Humanities: Essays on Rhetoric and Its Applications, by Chaim Perelman, Philosophy and Rhetoric 15 (Winter, 1982): 76.
2. See, for example, Walter Fisher, Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1987); Marie Hochmuth NIchols, "Kenneth Burke and the 'New Rhetoric,'" Quarterly Journal of Speech 38 (April, 1952): 133-144; and Karl Wallace, "Topoi and the Problem of Invention," Quarterly Journal of Speech 58 (1972): 387-395.
3. See, for example, Henry W. Johnstone, Jr., Validity and Rhetoric in Philosophical Argument (University Park PA: The Dialogue Press of Man & World, 1978): 86-92; N. Rotenstreich, "Argumentation and Philosophical Clarification," Philosophy and Rhetoric 5 (1972): 12-23; Don Abbott, "Marxist Influences on the Rhetorical Theory of Kenneth Burke," Philosophy and Rhetoric 7 (Fall 1974): 217-233; and David Cratis Williams, "Under the Sign of (An)nihilation: Burke in the Age of Nuclear Destruction and Critical Deconstruction," in The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, eds. Herbert W. Simons and Trevor Melia (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989): 196-223.
4. Rene Wellek, "Kenneth Burke and Literary Criticism, " Sewanee Review 79 (Spring 1971): 171-188 and Louis Fraiberg, Psychoanalysis and American Literary Criticism (Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1960): 183-190, 199-201.
5. Eugene Kamenka and Alice E.-S. Tay, "The Traditions of Justice," Law and Philosophy 5 (1986): 281-313; George C. Christie, "The Universal Audience and Predictive Theories of Law," Law and Philosophy 5 (1986): 343-350.
6. Walter Fisher and Wayne Brockriede, "Kenneth Burke's Realism," Central States Speech Journal 35 (Spring 1984): 35-42.
7. Fisher and Brockriede "Kenneth" 42.
8. Fisher and Brockriede "Kenneth" 42.
9. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 14.
10. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 14.
11. Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (Berkley, California: University of California Press, 1969): 43.
12. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 23.
13. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 23.
14. Fisher and Brockriede "Kenneth" 42.
15. Chaim Perelman, "The Dialectical Method and the Part Played by the Interlocutor in Dialogue," in the Idea of Justice and the Problem of Argument (London, 1963): 161-167.
16. Chaim Perelman, The New Rhetoric and the Humanities: Essays on Rhetoric and Its Applications (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Company): 65; Hereafter referred to as The New Rhetoric and the Humanities.
17. Chaim Perelman The New Rhetoric and the Humanities 67.
18. Chaim Perelman The New Rhetoric and the Humanities 71.
19. Chaim Perelman and Lucy Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 1969): 20; Hereafter referred to as The New Rhetoric: A Treatise.
20. Chaim Perelman The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 21.
21. Chaim Perelman The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 22.
22. Douglas Ehninger, "On Systems of Rhetoric," Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (Summer, 1968)): 131-144.
23. Daniel Fogarty, Roots for a New Rhetoric (New York, New York: Teachers College Press, 1959): 56-72.
24. For a full description of this "magical" process, see: Jane Blankenship, "'Magic' and 'Mystery' in The Works of Kenneth Burke," in The Legacy 128-151.
25. Christine Oravec, "Kenneth Burke's Concept of Association and The Complexity of Identity," in The Legacy 182.
26. See Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (Berkley, California: University of California Press, 1969): 21-58.
27. See the entirety of A Grammar.
28. Joseph R. Gusfield, "The Bridge over Separated Lands: Kenneth Burke's Significance for the Study of Social Action," in The Legacy 31.
29. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 21.
30. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 45
31. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 134.
32. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 134.
33. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 134-135.
34. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 135.
35. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 413.
36. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 67.
37. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 69.
38. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 71.
39. See Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 74-79.
40. See Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 80-85.
41. See Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 85-99.
42. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 163-164.
43. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 74.
44. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 165.
45. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 323.
46. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 31-35.
47. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 267.
48. Fisher Human Communication 126, the interior quotation comes from Perelman The New Rhetoric and the Humanities 14
49. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 31.
50. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 32.
51. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 33.
52. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 31.
53. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 267.
54. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 270.
55. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 269.
56. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 275.
57. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 270-271.
58. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 273.
59. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 275.
60. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 275.
61. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 55.
62. For a "technical" view of Perelman, see F. H. van Eemeren, R. Grootendorst, and T. Kruiger, The Study of Argumentation (New York, New York: Irvington, 1984): 208-259.
63. Walter Fisher, "Judging the Quality of Audiences and Narrative Rationality," in J.L. Golden and J.J. Pilotta (eds.), Practical Reasoning in Human Affairs, D. Reidel Publisher, 1986, pp. 85-103.
64. Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1959) 171.
65. Fisher and Brockriede "Kenneth Burke's Realism" 42.
Presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication
San Antonio, March 2004
In “Cultural Bias” Mary Douglas comments on her goal as an anthropologist of discerning meaning:
We also believe that our work is to understand how meanings are generated, caught and transformed. We also assume that meanings are deeply embedded and context-bound. We are also stuck at the same fence that he balked. Like him, we cannot proceed very far without incorporating real live cultures into our analysis. For the cognitive activity of the real live individual is largely devoted to building the culture, patching it here and trimming it there, according to the exigencies of the day. In his very negotiating activity, each is forcing culture down the throats of his fellow-men. When individuals transact their medium of exchange is in units of culture. (189)
Douglas is referring to Aaron Cicourel, but she might as well have been referring to Kenneth Burke, for whom communication is always a part of the perennial social dialogue, demanding an analysis of context and motive. For both Douglas and Burke, context, motive, and purpose are often obscured for the communicator and receiver. Understanding our own social contexts and the implications of our communications is often counterintuitive, a situation that creates great potential for social violence. A synthesis of their common interests, reflected in Douglas’s Grid/Group typology of social cosmology and Burke’s concepts of scene, consubstantiality, and the social implications of discourse, reveals the dangers of our present social-rhetorical situation in which the threat of the violent dissolution of any social stability is all too real.
We know what Burke means by scene: the context of the act, which may spread out to include the whole present social milieu and the past from which it extends, but what does that mean? The context of culture is ill-defined. Douglas argues that this has led many theorists to give up “the sociological enterprise altogether” and “turn to a literary mode for thinking more profoundly on the human estate,” resulting in a “shift of sociology as a rigorous explanatory discipline into a richly evocative literary mode” (“Passive” 2). Douglas is not minimizing the humanities; she just wishes to remind us that this shift away from a social-sciences model “shirks the initial project of discovering and estimating the power of social pressures upon individual belief” (“Passive” 2). Douglas brilliantly accomplished a return to the original program of the social sciences with the creation of her Grid/Group typology, allowing a rigorous analysis of the “scene” of social cosmology that includes the personal level of individual will.
Scene becomes difficult as we enlarge the potential context. Discussing Burke’s analysis of “Road to Victory,” David Blakesley wonders if Burke was interested in a greater context than he initially reveals.
As is turns out, Burke was especially interested in the mural’s context. In “War and Cultural Life,” an as yet uncollected essay . . . he comments on this mural’s placement in the exhibition. [. . .] Formally, that mural comments dialectically and ironically on the other murals and on the wider social scene. [. . .] (20-21)
That “wider social scene” can be rather complex. The further back we pull our focus to take in more context, the more difficult it becomes to grasp that context in any rigorous way. The program of analysis is potentially overwhelming, and yet, the framework of possibilities is not infinite, since communication comes down to the individual at the moment. Douglas writes:
We will pick from the coral-reef accumulation of past decisions only those which landscape the individual’s new choices: the action is this afternoon, the context was made afresh this morning, but some of its effects are long, slow fibres reaching from years back. With such a view of the social environment we can try to make allowance for the individual’s part in transforming it, minute to minute. (“Cultural”190).
Individuals would not be able to make any sense of the context of their communications without principles that guide behavior “in the sanctioned ways” and are “used for judging others and justifying [themselves] to others. This is a social-accounting approach to culture; it selects out of the total cultural field those beliefs and values which are derivable as justifications for action and which [are] regard[ed] as constituting an implicit cosmology.” (“Cultural”190). Douglas creates, then, a matrix corresponding to the basic boundaries of the social scene of cultural production, adjudication and change.
It starts from plausible assumptions about the sociological effects of arguments going on in social gatherings of all kinds. In families, in churches, in boardrooms, in sports committees, there are discussions of what should be done, and allocations of responsibility. Such argumentation defines social categories. Its outcomes are enforcements or suspensions of rules. The method tried out is devised to trace these arguments to the fundamental assumptions about the universe which they invoke; its objective is to discover how alternative visions of society are selected and sustained. Its first simplifying assumption is that the infinite array of social interactions can be sorted and classified into a few grand classes. (Douglas, “Introduction” 1)
Once basic choices about group and constraint have been made, they naturally produce “a package of intricately related preferences and secondary moral judgments” (“Introduction” 6). Hence, cultural bias can be predicted for the various extremes of the matrix, giving boundaries from which to map and analyze contexts.
Decisions to stiffen the conditions of entry inevitably result in strengthening social compartments, just as the alternative decision to waive admission requirements results in free flows of people and free flows of wealth. Decisions to delegate result in hierarchy; decisions to separate result in fission. . . . Hierarchy once installed develops self-reinforcing moral arguments that enable more unequal steps in status to be tolerated. Fission breeds. If the swirling movements of individual choices were entirely haphazard, all institutions would long ago have become more and more alike. There would be no scope for recognizable typology. Yet one of the claims in favour of this form of analysis is that in any period or place the four extreme types in the corners of the grid/group diagram are recognizable, with their particular rules and justifying cosmologies. (“Introduction” 6-7)
The natural polarizing between individualism and group behavior in social transaction gives rise to the boundaries of local cosmology, analyzable along two interacting dimensions, one labeled Group, the other Grid. The Group line maps one’s dependence on the local group, and the ease of negotiating group membership. In High Group, one is completely dependent on group membership, so much so that exile becomes the greatest fear. In Low Group, one’s resources come from many sources and group membership is highly negotiable, making changes in affiliation easy. The Grid line maps to what extent social transactions are predetermined by social authorities in the form of hierarchies, roles, rules, customs, norms, and so on. High Grid is highly structured; in Low Grid all status is potentially negotiable in any social transaction. (Douglas, “Cultural” 190-2) These are the extreme defining parameters of cultural context, the implications of which are outlined in Douglas’s “Cultural Bias.”
When we attempt to communicate, we hope our context is consubstantial enough to the receiver’s that something like our intended communication occurs. My research students often have trouble with understanding the task of looking for assumptions in texts, or what Douglas would call, implicit meaning. Douglas argues that much more of cosmology resides in implication than in what is directly said (Implicit 3-4). All communications have assumptions. The assumptions with which one disagrees are the ones likely to be noticed. Failure of identification is the flag indicating differing cosmological assumptions, potentially mappable as relative points on the Grid/Group matrix.
Social transactions are mediated through symbols; meaning is always suspect, an attempt to represent with which others may or may not identify. In “Introduction to Grid/Group Analysis,” Douglas argues that one way or another, meaning comes down to our functioning typologies:
A famous social psychologist, when I mentioned the word typology, shrank in dismay. He sought to defend methodological purity against my concern to make sense of the larger scene. Typologies, he said, allow anything to be fitted into their boxes; they become an over-powerful interpretative tool. Wondering how one is even to make the smallest progress without developing any typology, I could have quoted from Katrina McLeod the Confucian rebuke to those who shirk their obligations in the name of purity. [. . .] If we eschew explicit typologies which can be criticized and improved, we may stay in a celestial harmony and escape from having to deal with the relation between mind and society, but the cost of our private purity is to expose the whole domain to undeclared, implicit typologies. Either way, behavior is going to be fitted into boxes. (2)
In a similar defense of the uncomfortable but necessary demands of relativism, Clifford Geertz inLocal Knowledge warns:
But a serious effort to define ourselves by locating ourselves among different others . . . involves quite genuine perils, not the least of which are intellectual entropy and moral paralysis. (234)
Nonetheless, he argues, we cannot escape these difficulties:
The double perception that ours is but one voice among many and that, as it is the only one we have, we must needs speak with it, is very difficult to maintain. [. . .] But however that may be, there is, so it seems to me, no choice. (234)
What Geertz says about intercultural perceptions is also applicable to the individual’s messy but unavoidable striving for identification in any social context. Blakesley comments:
The problem we face everyday is that we cannot be consubstantial. We cannot identify with one another in a absolute sense [. . .] since we are distinct bodies animated in our own ways even as we share some common sensations and experiences (Blakesley 16)
The social nature of human life makes the struggle for identification inevitable. We must interact, participating in social exchanges as complicated as buying real-estate or as simple as polite conversation. Herein lies the perennial tension in social cosmology identified by both Burke and Douglas. In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke says:
In pure identification there would be no strife. Likewise, there would be no strife in absolute separateness, since opponents can join battle only through a mediatory ground that makes their communication possible, thus providing the first condition necessary for their interchange of blows. 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. (25).
Identification and division, in the Burkean sense, can potentially be mapped on the Grid-Group matrix. Burke’s “characteristic invitation to rhetoric” is the perennial tension between competing cosmologies on the Grid/Group matrix. Persuasion entails movement along one or both axes. One’s relative movement in the matrix may be a free act, or it may result from external force or trickery.
Douglas asserts that down-grid societies, such as our own, are especially prone to contradictions: “The two worst are the dehumanizing (mechanizing) of personal relations and the disparity of status . . .” (“Cultural” 238). The enshrining of competitiveness in Low Grid drives discourse. The powerful hide behind smokescreen appeals to fairness and attempt to push others up-grid toward atomized subordination. Failure in the social market often leads to calls for more down-grid push, exacerbating the very problems that induce failure, driving a down-grid spiral toward the potential disaster of meaning negation and up-group factionalizing by the disenfranchised. Grid/Group reveals the problems associated with various cosmologies and offers strategies either for success in one’s chosen social sphere or methods to change the social contexts. Douglas notes that what “this analysis can do is . . . expose the normally invisible screen through which culture lets options be perceived” (“Introduction” 7). For example:
[D]own-grid rules [. . .] are designed not to segregate, but to give each individual a fair turn. These fair-comparison rules, as distinct from insulations, render their own segregating effects invisible. (“Cultural” 193)
These down-grid dilemmas can more easily understood by looking at the correspondence between the line of stable social cosmology (running diagonally from Low-Grid / Low-Group to High-Grid / High Group) and a parallel epistemological dynamic answering to what extent truth is either circumscribed by established authority or open for negotiation through logic and argumentation. These extremes define a dynamic tension because each approach produces the opposite problem cured by the other approach. High Grid social cosmology ignores social dissent, as High Grid epistemology ignores logical dissent from established authority. But move too far down-grid and epistemology becomes sophistry, either deceptive or ridiculous. Likewise, Low Grid cosmologycan become a sophist ‘smoke screen’ for the powerful, who use its worship of equality and fairness to ignore any responsibility inherent in their stations of power and, further, to justify their abuses of public power for private ends. This appeal to fairness and open competition inevitably must claim that there exist natural superiors and natural inferiors; as a result, those in power often violently impose definitions of inferiority on the powerless, driving them up-grid into the Atomized Subordination of High-Grid / Low Group (Douglas, “Cultural” 225). As Low Grid epistemology hides qualitative semantics in favor of quantitative logic, so Low Grid cosmology hides real social power behind a simplified rhetoric of equality and fairness defined by the powerful for the powerful. However, if one is cosmologically astute, one can refuse to accept these impersonal pronouncements on fairness and push one’s way into the VIPs’ private space (since insulation is not a cosmological right in Low Grid) and force them to face up to their real power and its implied social stewardship, a movement toward group stability in the High Grid / High Group corner of the matrix (Douglas, Cultural198-99). This, however, is counterintuitive and must be understood to be pursued.
Hence the worship of individualism in Low Grid allows secret insulation for power structures rarely challenged by the vast majority of the powerless, who, being pushed up-grid accept powerless insulation without group protection. The powerless who see the contradiction in Low Grid appeals to fairness must either accept groupless insulation or move up-group toward the factionalized small group arenas of Low Grid / High Group. A perfect example is the movement of the powerless into gangs in urban areas or survivalist militias in rural areas. For both, group identification is the only clear social marker, and the result is the perennial paranoia and betrayals of head-hunter culture. Similar failures can be seen in the factionalizing of the former Yugoslavia or in the violence afflicting much of Africa today. In general there is a tendency over time for societies to move counterclockwise on the matrix as High Grid / High Group societies increasingly find excuses for limiting power sharing and group protection for more and more of the population. Those forced into atomized subordination will in time clamor for the individualism and freedom of Low Grid. Low Grid / Low Group societies over time increase invisible segregation resulting in a factionalizing move up-group. We must be careful, then, with our rhetoric. The insistence on individualism, fairness and a level-playing field, so prevalent in modern Western society, is often most pushed by the struggling masses who are most punished by the down-grid spiral it creates (Douglas, Cultural 239). Reversing the spiral is counterintuitive and takes a tremendous amount of rhetorical sparring to educate people to the basic truth that power will be insulated, whether in secret or openly. We must understand the greater scene of discourse more clearly if we are to avoid the temptation of the prevailing down-spiraling cosmology and have any chance of avoiding the disasters of up-group movements toward factionalizing that loom as a perennial threat in Low Grid societies, a threat that is already setting much of the world ablaze and that threatens our own society with violent dissolution in the foreseeable future.
Blakesley, David. The Elements of Dramatism. New York: Longman, 2002.
Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.
Douglas, Mary. “Cultural Bias.” Occasional Paper no. 34 of the Royal Anthropological
Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. London, 1978. Rpt. in In the Active Voice.
Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982. 183-254.
---. Implicit Meanings; Selected Essays in Anthropology. 2nd ed. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1999.
---. “Introduction to Grid/Group Analysis.” Essays in the Sociology of Perception.
Ed. Mary Douglas. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.
---. “Passive Voice Theories in Religious Sociology.” Review of Religious Research 21.1 (1979): 51-61. Rpt. in In the Active Voice. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982. 1-15.
Geertz, Clifford. Local Knowledge. New York: Basic Books, 1983.
Presented at the Modern Language Association Conference
Toronto, December 1997
My purpose is to compare an approach to interpretation shared by Kenneth Burke and William Carlos Williams. The approach seeks an alternative to reductive oppositional strategies that are, as Burke puts it, "so ably suited to convincing the convinced, and so thoroughly unsuited to anything else" (qtd. in Crusius 358). I begin with Burke's hypothesis that there are no descriptions of "reality" independent of perspective. Next, I focus on Burke's diagnosis of commonplace "solutions" to relativism and pluralism and his alternative strategy of "perspective by incongruity." I then draw on Williams to extend Burke's insight that oppositional strategies limit the mind's capacity to explore a wider range of interpretive choices when establishing a particular set of relations with the external world. My particular interest is what I have come to call Williams's creative principle of apposition, an interpretive strategy that provides a means of modifying and enlarging viewpoints that would otherwise be determined by the less supple oppositional strategies Burke critiques.
In Permanence and Change Burke observes that the universe "would appear to be something like a cheese; it can be sliced in an infinite number of ways--and when one has found his pattern of slicing, he finds that other men's slices fall in the wrong places" (103). I take Burke's first point to be that the possibility of infinite slicing patterns is a felicitous condition for the human tendency to hit upon serviceable patterns of slicing. On the assumption that the purpose of our verbal acts is to effect "practical simplifications" of "reality," Burke argues that these simplifications are the product of linguistic associations that are prior to our observations; he demonstrates, further, how these "conclusions" are built into our daily practices--how they actively determine the selection and organization of data which constitute our observations. Anticipating Kuhn's insight into the ways patterns of inquiry determine relevant questions and problems, Burke concludes, "Not only does the nature of our terms effect the nature of our observations . . . but many of the ‘observations’ are but implications of the particular terminology in terms of which the observations are made--so that much of what we presume to be observations about the world may be no more than the spinning out of possibilities implicit in our particular choice of terms" (PC 46)
Permanence and Change examines not just how well our hermeneutic frames provide us with terms for ordering our world but how well these frames of acceptance can be extended to new situations. "Language," Burke explains, "is implicitly analogical inasmuch as we constantly apply the same terms to many different situations whereas no two situations are the same in detail" (Pre/Text 333). The impulse to extend one's classifications into new regions of inference is carried out by hitting upon "analogical extensions, or linguistic inventions, not sanctioned by the previous usages of [one's] group" (PC 103). Thus we have no choice but to "over-simplify a given event when we characterize it from the standpoint of a given interest--and we attempt to invent a similar characterization for other events by analogy" (107).
I take Burke's second point to be that serviceable patterns of slicing lead to missing other available patterns and to ruling out the efficacy of these alternative patterns.1 The problem is that workable explanations obtain the utmost importance in a world in which, Burke explains, "Certainties will arise, impelling men to new intolerances" (CS 113). It follows that "any terminology is suspect to the extent that it does not allow the progressive criticism of itself" (ROR303). Indeed, any argument by analogy is highly susceptible to error when "a similarity is taken as evidence of an identity'" (97). Burke calls on Thorstein Veblen's term "trained incapacity" to suggest a central mechanism for our interpretive errors--for although our associations with the word training "naturally suggest capacity rather than incapacity" there are good reasons to think otherwise (91). In other words, if one adopts measures in keeping with one's experiences and training, then "the very soundness of this training may lead [one] to adopt the wrong measures" (10). Or as Burke aphoristically puts it, "People may be unfitted by being fit in an unfit fitness."
The analytical technique "perspective by incongruity" is Burke's term for the attempt to transform the limits of trained incapacities into a virtue--of making a way of not seeing into a way of seeing. Burke develops the term "perspective by incongruity" in reference to the stylistic principle of Nietzsche that invokes metaphor to stress "a kind of vision got by seeing one order in terms of another" (CS 216). Burke adds that although Nietzsche exemplified the procedure, it was Bergson who came nearest to making incongruity a system by proposing to deliberately cultivate contradictory concepts (PC 94). In brief, a perspective by incongruity is a "deliberate misfit"; it "appeals by exemplifying relationships between objects which our customary rational vocabulary has ignored" (90).
The difficulty we might have accepting the concept perspective by incongruity is our habit of listening to the universe and awaiting what it will prove to us. We compound this problem, Burke adds, as "we have psychotically made the corresponding readjustment of assuming that the universe itself will abide by our rules of discussion and give us its revelations in a cogent manner" (99).2 Burke's explication of (and antidote to) this form of psychosis is worth considering. When the primordial impulse to believe that our relation to the world is (or should be) one of knowing comes into conflict with the recalcitrance of that which we presume to know3 we habitually seek refuge in the idea that our knowledge is certain. Burke argues that we need to abandon this habit. However, there are three interpretive strategies (or frames) that all too easily prevent us from doing so. The first strategy--the absolutist or polemical frame--rejects or rules out certain positions to support its own defense of the correct or true position; the second strategy, the euphemistic frame, seeks to cure material problems by proffering a supernatural scheme that "hides or covers up or misnames the real ills of life in society and promises a better life in the next world" (Rueckert 118); the third strategy, the debunking frame, as Burke explains, "discerns an evil. [It] wants to eradicate this evil. And [it] wants to do a thorough job of it. Hence, in order to be sure [it] is thorough enough, [it] becomes too thorough" (Philosophy 147).
Working within a closed system, each strategy eliminates possibilities, "whether the doctrine is religious, political, ethnic, or philosophical" (Rueckert 119). William Rueckert has reminded us that the debunker and polemicist have always been Burke's real enemies "because the first simply destroys without offering constructive or creative alternatives; and the second tends to eliminate freedom of thought and action" (119). My interest in Burke's insight into the limits of the euphemistic, polemical and debunking frames is his conclusion that we must do more than simply acknowledge relativism: "We must erect coordinates atop it, not beneath it" (ATH 229). Such Burkean coordinates would acknowledge that "relativism cannot be eliminated by the simple legislative decrees of secular prayer (as when one tries to exorcise it by verbally denying its presence)" (229). The coordinates would "make one at home in the complexities of relativism, whereas one now tends to be bewildered by relativism" (ATH 229).
The conceptual migration from bewilderment to feeling at home in the face of the relativism of thought and perception is predicated of abandoning the assumption that a failure to establish for certain a knowing of the world is a failure of knowledge.4 By way of transition, let me suggest that the philosopher in Burke and the poet in Williams agree that we necessarily limit our freedom of perceptual and cognitive association by invoking a rigid conceptual framework, problem, or set of questions; let me suggest, too, that Burke and Williams help us to see the ways ready-made conceptual contrasts repeat a structural cycle of establishing authority through conflict; and let me suggest, finally, that both Burke and Williams reject a form of criticism that merely seeks to confirm its pre-existing structure.5
Williams's principle of apposition constructs a generative alternative to the cyclical struggle of dominance and negation endemic to the ideology of opposition. He suggests , further, that if we do not limit our inquiries to the skeptical hypothesis of indeterminacy and inexplicability, then we can more effectively resist the conceptual habits which enforce limits on the imagination, on thinking, and thus on our continuing efforts to come to terms with the world. Thus Williams sees the project of poetry and poetics as not seeking answers or truths or consensus but rather as a way of modifying and enlarging viewpoints to these possible ends.
Williams first articulates the principle of apposition in Spring and All. His general argument is that habitual formulations of thought and static forms of knowledge merely project themselves on reality--using it, appropriating it, opposing it. Williams rejects the quest for immediate contact with the world by insisting that our relations with nature are mediate rather than immediate. This distinction is exemplified in a deceptive passage from Williams's Spring and All.
Nature is the hint to composition not because it is familiar to us and therefore the terms we apply to it have a least common denominator quality which gives them currency--but because it possesses the quality of independent existence, of reality which we feel in ourselves. It is not opposed to art butapposed to it." (I 121; my emphasis)
The "quality of independent existence" repeats Williams's contention earlier in Spring and All that there is "a constant barrier between the reader and his consciousness of his immediate contact with the world" (88). "Such a realization," Williams goes on to insist "shows us the falseness of attempting to ‘copy’ nature" (I 107). He underscores "the falseness of attempting to copy nature" in a later letter to John Thirwall, in which he writes "The first thing you learn when you begin to learn anything about this earth is that you are eternally barred save the report of your senses from knowing anything about it" (SL 330). It follows that any attempt to "recover immediacy" (the "reality which we feel in ourselves") will be no more or less than a "covering over," another fixed or inert truth claim--or, in Williams's words, another "dangerous lie." Williams concludes, "Measure serves for us as the key: we can measure between objects, therefore, we know that they exist" (SL 330).
It is important to italicize the terms opposed and apposed for the distinction is exemplified in Williams's later works. In each of these instances Williams points out that any alternative to interpretive positions which seek to control and dominate a field of inquiry must necessarily guide us to consider not only the adequacies but the inadequacies of our past and present measures of self and world. One such field of inquiry in Williams is historiography. In the American Grain is driven by the desire that we can reestablish a "ground" by breaking through "a dead layer" to see a "strange New World." On the one hand, the inquirer must "have the feet of his understanding on the ground, his ground, the ground, the only ground that he knows, which is under his feet. . . . This want, in America, can only be filled by knowledge, a poetic knowledge, of that ground" (213).6There is no question that the ground will be established; only this passage suggests the difficulty of reconstructing history given the "dead layers" of accepted readings.
The apposite strategy is especially evident in In the American Grain. Recall that Williams begins with the observation that the material ground of history has become , under successive interpretations, "nameless under an old misappellation" (v).7 Williams then challenges the received versions of America: "History, history! We fools, what do we know or care? History begins for us with murder and enslavement, not with discovery" (IAG 39). Finally, he points to the interpretive paradox of reading history.
What can we do? Facts remain but what is the truth? We can begin by saying: No opinion can be trusted; even the fact may be nothing but a printer's error; but if a verdict be unanimous, it is sure to be a wrong one, a crude rush of the herd which has carried its object before it like a helpless condoning image. If we cannot make a man live again when he is gone, it is boorish to imprison him dead within some narrow definition, when, were he in his shoes before us, we could not do it. It's lies, such history, and dangerous. Just there may lie our one hope for the future, beneath that stone of prejudice. (190)
With the words "just there" Williams suggests why there is no valid reason to say that we cannot know something, despite the difficulties of being certain about such knowledge in any particular case. This theoretical insights may be modest; but it cautions us against, in the words of Wlad Godzich, the ideological moment of the understanding: "The danger for the understanding is not so much the error of fact that methodologists are so concerned with, but with the isolation of thoughts and ideas and their conversion into autonomous objects of knowledge independent of their productive ground" (156). Indeed, it is at this moment of reification, Williams insists throughout Spring and All, that we lose the "productive ground"--that the "no" obscures "the common thing which is anonymously about us" (I 101).
The principle of apposition is evident in the essay "The American Background" as well. The essay is essentially concerned with the "the new spectacle and new conditions" experienced by those who sought to make a new culture in America. Here is how Williams describes the scene:
They found that they had not only left England but that they had arrived somewhere else: at a place whose pressing reality demanded not only a tremendous bodily devotion but as well, the more importunately, great powers of adaptability, a complete reconstruction of their most intimate cultural make-up, to accord with the new conditions. The most hesitated and turned back in their hearts at the first glance. (SE 134)
Here Williams recounts how difficult it is to enumerate a relation to new conditions. Many of the immigrants from England, Williams explains, had no ability to access what they "had never in their lives encountered." Strange and difficult, "the new continent induced a torsion in the spirits of the new settlers, tearing them between the old and the new" (134). One tendency was to look back to Europe, to confirm old frames of reference; the other tendency was to look forward, to make new ones.
The polarity between the old and the new was in no way satisfactory for the colonists. The residual primary culture produced the "exorbitant excesses" and "colossal appetite" of the colonial ascendancy. Williams writes, "Incredible, fairy-tale-like, even offensively perverse as it may seem, it is the fear, the cowardice, the inability before the new, which in America whipped the destructive false current on like a forest fire" (SE 152). As a consequence of such "fear" and "cowardice," the ascendancy of the secondary culture "secure in wealth, was gained not without results that were ludicrous as well as tragic." But the opposition between the old and the new also suggests something deeper , "a relation to the immediate conditions of the matter in hand, and a determination to assert them in opposition to all intermediate authority" (143).8 Thus Williams at once dramatizes the assertive power of determination or conviction to oppose "all intermediate authority" at the same time he reserves "a relation to the immediate conditions" as the prior condition--the apposite condition--from which "to appraise the real through the maze of cut-off and imposed culture from Europe."
In the larger project from which this essay is drawn, the concept of apposition links Williams's poetics with his commitment to poetry as a specific form of cultural practice. In each of the examples I have given, the function of apposition can be understood in the grammatical sense of placing one substantive alongside another substantive--that is, to attribute or to complement something. Similarly, in its rhetorical sense, apposition adds a parallel word or expression by way of description, explanation, or illustration. In the broader domain of cultural practices Williams helps us to see how conceptual and interpretive strategies that depend upon opposition are conditioned to replace one version of cultural homogeneity with another.
Thus Williams cautions that oppositional critique of "history" or "culture" is too often rooted in not simply the desire for certainty but the dangerous assumption that we are already competent to understand the ground words such as history and culture represent. And Williams is well aware how such assumptions are more likely than not to lead to successive attempts to authorize a version of the past at the expense of some other version. On the contrary, Williams's strategy ofapposition invites discontinuity and transformation, revision and reconstruction. The reorientation from the indeterminacy of reality to the partiality of our determinate judgments about that reality is the precondition for the strategy of apposition--a deconstructive and reconstructive moment of grounding the "truth" or "reality" on which "new" historical and cultural judgments are made.
The apposite stance leaves room for the power of the imagination to lead us to other ways of going on, rather than simply calling existing interpretations into question. Insisting on an alternative to critical discourses that seek to control and dominate a field of inquiry, then, Williams provides a method of considering more fully the adequacies and inadequacies of our past and present measures of self and world. The creative principle of apposition encourages a provisional interpretive position more open to possible reconfigurations of experience; and because it requires a course of inquiry into the consequences of the hypothetical situation that it suggestsmight be, apposition provides a potentially wider range of possible problems or questions to emerge prior to the deduction that something must be.
My case is that the apposite stance provides an interpretive strategy that abandons the desire for immediate contact for the more difficult task of constructing mediate relations. Hence Williams will say that "the new and the real, hard to come at, are synonymous" (143). Of course Williams, with Burke, is well aware of the difficulties people will have accepting such an interpretive strategy, as "the tendency of the race [is] to resist change violently" (143). As Williams reminds us, the conservative tendency of the mind is equivalent to the atrophy of the mind’s imaginative potential, as the mind is "lost in the confusion" which surrounds us and confines us to our predictable (as well as predictive) measures of the world. "So what can we do but retreat to some ‘standard’ which we have known in the past and say to ourselves, Beyond this standard you shall not go!" (SL 330-31).
Williams, with Burke, insists on a model of inquiry that is provisional, improvisational, resolutely hypothetical. Thomas Whitaker has shown us how history becomes less a result than a process in Williams’s poetics, less a will to completion than a continuing desire to reform the self and its relation to its historical ground (79). Burke and Williams make a similar case for methods in the arts and cultural criticism: our methods must not be ready-made, but rather we must be ready to remake our most enabling convictions and commitments. In a formulation that may at first appear counterintuitive, then, the continuity of method—by definition a way, or path of transit—is maintained by reducing the absolute to the contingent, the systematic to the messy aggregate of human knowledge. The logic of apposition is thus rooted in the incentive to return—to reread, to reinterpret—and to thereby reintegrate the self in our poetic restagings of history.
1. Attitudes Toward History extends this second point to the comic frame of acceptance and the necessary lesson of humility (41). If every person is "necessarily mistaken," Burke asks, there is reason to believe not only that "all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools" but that "every insight contains its own special type of blindness" (41). Burke rephrases the point in his 1965 essay "Terministic Screens": "if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must also serve as adeflection of reality" (Language 45).
2. The psychosis of the "culture wars" during the 1980s is the most immediate example of the kind of rhetorical drama produced when the assumptions underlying a term like relativism is given more than a passing look.
3. For an insightful summary of this problem, particularly in reference to Kant, see Stanley Cavell,The Senses of Walden. New York: Viking, 1972. For Cavell, the answer "does not consist in denying the conclusion of skepticism but in reconceiving its truth" (133).
4. But because systems of orientation do function according to Burke's principle of entelechy the heuristic value of "depriving yourself of familiarity," or of adopting a planned incongruity, must be "inclusive of error" (ATH 121-22). For "in periods of firmly established meanings, one does not study them, one uses them: one frames his acts in accordance with them" (162). But an interpretation can be wrong because the very concept of point of view introduces the possibility of error; and wherever there is the possibility of a wrong interpretation there is also the possibility of a right one: "the freedom to err argues a freedom to be right" (257).
5. My reading of Burke is deliberately in dissent from Burke's enlistment by Frank Lentricchia in his 1982 book Criticism and Social Change. In fact I would like to begin extricating Burke from Lentricchia's frame by urging you to consider the way William Carlos Williams shows us the problems with Lentricchia's oppositonal criticism. Lentricchia argues that criticism is not only the production of power but that the literary intellectual should embrace the political work of social change (11). Lentricchia's provocation, however, in retrospect, deserves close attention, especially his assumption that the intellectual has at his or her disposal "an intimate understanding of the mechanisms of culture" (7). So much so, that Lentricchia exclaims, "We know how culture works" and "we know, or should know, that culture does do work." One can readily explain this rhetorical claim by situating it historically, in the early 1980s, and contextually, in a department of literature. But to use Burke to support such a project is to eviscerate Burke's project of its greatest strength. Of course we can begin by agreeing with Lentricchia: oppositional criticism is functional; in fact, a closer reading of the implications of Lentricchia's book demonstrate the way the oppositional frame is too functional, as it limits criticism to the distinct possibilities (it is political) of a situation rather than the indistinct possibilities to which Burke was ever attuned. In brief, to say that culture is self-evident one must assume that one is always already competent to understand it--an assumption that is "both theoretically false and usually ethnocentric" (Berlant 7).
6. Williams does not accept the metaphysical position that there must be an incognizable reality. Williams does, however, accept the possibility of the real. Hilary Putnam points out that such a philosophical position is "not a view in which the mind makes up the world (or makes it up subject to constraints imposed by ‘methodological canons’ and mind-independent ‘sense-data’). If one must use metaphorical language, then let the metaphor be this: the mind and the world jointly make up the mind and the world." Hilary Putnam, The Many Faces of Realism (LaSalle: Open Court,1987), 1.
7. For the most developed consideration of the distinctive historiographical significance of In the American Grain, see Bryce Conrad, Refiguring America: A Study of William Carlos Williams's In the American Grain (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1990). An excellent account of Williams's method for literary and cultural theory is found in Vera M. Kutzinski, Against the American Grain: Myth and History in William Carlos Williams, Jay Wright, and Nicolas Guillen (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP,1987). For Kutzinski, these three authors offer experiments "in disorder that ultimately reveal a kinship much more significant than the genealogies they destroy: an order, and idea of order, that is based on the knowledge that, no matter what our ethnic or national origins, we are all, as Octavio Paz put it, ‘living on the margin because there is no longer any center’" (qtd. in Kutzinski 248).
8. These remarks on the distinctive necessity of an apposite strategy are consistent with the logic of apposition Williams articulated nearly ten years earlier in In the American Grain. Williams summarizes his thesis concerning the difficulties of America's settlement at the outset of the essay: "Thus two cultural elements were left battling for supremacy, one looking toward Europe, necessitous but retrograde in its tendency--though not wholly so by any means--and the other forward-looking but under a shadow from the first. They constituted two great bands of effort, which it would take a Titan to bring together and weld into one again. Throughout the present chapter, the terms native and borrowed, related and unrelated, primary and secondary, will be used interchangeably to designate these two opposed split-offs from the cultural force, and occasionally, in the same vein, true and false" (SE I35).
Berlant, Lauren. "Collegiality, Crisis, and Cultural Studies." ADE Bulletin 117 (Fall 1997): 4-9.
Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. Third ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.
---. Counter-Statement. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968.
---. "In Haste." Pre/Text 6.3-4 (1985): 329-77.
---. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of California P,1968.
---. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. Third ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.
---. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973.
---. The Rhetoric of Religion. Berkeley: U of California P,1970.
Cavell, Stanley. The Senses of Walden. New York: Viking,1972.
Conrad, Bryce. Refiguring America: A Study of William Carlos Williams's In the American Grain. Urbana: U of Illinois P,1990.
Crusius, Timothy. "Kenneth Burke's Auscultation: A `De-construction' of Marxist Dialectic and Rhetoric." Rhetorica 6.4 (Autumn 1988): 355-79.
Godzich, Wlad. The Culture of Literacy. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.
Kutzinski, Vera M. Against the American Grain: Myth and History in William Carlos Williams, Jay Wright, and Nicolas Guillen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP,1987.
Lentricchia, Frank. Criticism and Social Change. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.
Putnam, Hilary. The Many Faces of Realism. LaSalle: Open Court, 1987.
Rueckert, William. Encounters with Kenneth Burke. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1994.
Thirwall, John C., ed. The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1957.
Whitaker, Thomas R. William Carlos Williams. New York: Twayne, 1968.
Williams, William Carlos. Imaginations. Ed. Webster Schott. New York: New Directions, 1970.
---. In the American Grain. New York: New Directions, 1956.
---. Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1969.
---. The Embodiment of Knowledge. Ed. Ron Loewinsohn. New York: New Directions, 1974.
Presented at the National Communication Association Convention in
New York City, November 21, 1998
Burke believes that "all poets consciously or unconsciously pun all the time..." (Ruekert, 1982, p. 90). Agony is the first word that comes to mind when considering my first readings of Kenneth Burke. The choice of the word "agony" is a conscious pun. It is agonizing to read much of Burke's writing for one who is not as well read as he is. It is agonizing at first to become acquainted with Burke's vocabulary. It is agonizing (especially for a Christian) to deal with much of Burke's use of religion and Christianity. But it is this agonizing that makes Burke's writings so full of potential. For it is in the agonizing that one learns and grows. Burke stretches the mind of the reader and forces one to struggle, to agonize over the assumptions he works from and the theory he articulates. And while the first reading of Burke may be agonizing, each subsequent reading is bound to provide additional insights (and perhaps even more agony). For agony--or the agon--is central to much of Burke's theory.
The Ambiguity of Language
Burke in A Grammar of Motives (1969b) discusses the paradox of substance. He suggests that "though used to designate something within the thing, intrinsic to it, the word etymologically refers to something outside the thing, extrinsic to it" (Burke, 1969b, p. 23). He continues by stating that we "must endow the concept of substance with unresolvable ambiguity..." (Burke, 1969b, p. 24). Agony or struggle often develops out of ambiguity--doubtfulness and uncertainty. But it is this ambiguity that allows us to stretch our words (and our thoughts) in an effort to use and to transcend language. Thus, in critiquing Burke, what one needs to know is not so much the history of something, but how terms are used (or misused). The primary focus is on symbol systems. Symbols do not accompany; they create--they give one meaning and allow one to respond to meaning. So when first reading Burke, it is the agony--or agon--that helps the reader to develop meaning and then to respond to that meaning.
The Quest for Understanding
Reading and seeking to understand Burke's writing is a journey or quest. It is a journey (or quest) that takes one on many side trips, sometimes circling back several times before being able to move on—and moving on could mean forward, backward, Upward, or downward. Movement is part of the struggle. For if one is in agony, if one is in a dramatic conflict, movement is necessary. Struggle (or the drama) requires action. And in reading Burke it becomes apparent that the "act" is where he focuses much of his attention. Act is considered in relation to the other pentadic terms (scene, agent, agency, and purpose), but clearly the focus for Burke is on the act. Reading Burke for the first time requires one to act. It may only be a mental action, but one cannot remain neutral to Burke--a response is necessary in order to resolve (or at least attempt to resolve) the struggle inherent in the agon (in this case the reader versus Burke).
This journey which one takes with Burke has been illustrated by William H. Rueckert (1982) with the experience of enjoying a musical composition:
Since music, though obviously not meaningless, arouses and gratifies desire by non-cognitive means, one's involvement tends to be less localized and more purely formal; one's feelings are manipulated almost in the abstract by the formal harmonies of the piece; and as the theme is gradually complicated and then resolved, so is one involved and aroused, then resolved and appeased ending the journey in a state of rest. If one came to the work in a state of tension, or went to it because one was in such a state, the resolution of the work may indeed become the resolution of extra-musical tensions, no matter what their nature is. Where the work is more specific, as in literature, the purgative journey may in turn be more specific, more localized. Where, for example, the work deals with sin, guilt, expiation, and redemption, and where the auditor himself suffers from tensions caused by these things, the symbolic transference and merger is usually much more immediate, direct, and powerful. Again, the resolution of the work would produce a catharsis in the auditor which purged him, perhaps only temporarily of various extra-literary tensions (p. 26).
Reading Burke creates tension and forces one to struggle. Sometimes Burke may provide a rhetorical catharsis of sorts, but often the reader is forced to agonize over the structures and perspectives that Burke offers and come to a point of rebirth or regeneration of his or her own as the journey through the thick underbrush of Burke's assumptions continues. As one reads the writings of Burke, one is forced to struggle with the self. As Rueckert (1982) puts it "man in search of himself and a way toward the better life is, for Burke, the universal situation; and the almost unbelievably complex drama of this quest is a major subject of all Burke's work" (p. 43). Burke not only demonstrates this in his writings, but requires it of his readers.
The Comic Attitude
This focus on the agon, this struggle with others and with one's self is seen in the comic attitude that Burke takes. Burke (1984) tells us that "the comic frame, in making a man the student of himself, makes it possible for him to 'transcend' occasions when he has been tricked or cheated, since he can readily put such discouragements in his 'assets' column, under the head of 'experience'" (p. 171). This comic frame is dialectic and allows people "to be observers of themselves, while acting" (Burke, 1984, p. 171). Thus, "one would 'transcend' himself by noting his own foibles" (Burke, 1984, p. 171). So again, the "agonies" of life are points of growth and understanding.
One of Burke's major methodologies, of course, is dramatism. According to Rueckert (1982, p. 86), "sometimes Burke calls this the principle of the 'agon,' sometimes 'dramatic alignment,' and sometimes simply 'what vs. what.'" So Burke's concern with self-struggle itself becomes a concept with which the reader struggles and agonizes. Again Rueckert (1982, p. 87) tells us that "an agon analysis converts nature to protagonist, society into antagonist, and locates the drama in the self of the poet...." As one reads the writings of Kenneth Burke, an inner drama does develop as one becomes the protagonist to Burke's antogonist.
When one reads Burke, one is changed. The change may be due to what Burke writes or may be a response to Burke's ideas, but it is change nonetheless. According to Rueckert (1982, p. 125), "the motto of symbolic action is 'change or perish' and it may be interpreted in a number of ways: 'purge or perish,' 'transcend or perish,' 'alter the self or perish.'" When one is involved in an agon, change or transcendence is unavoidable, for the conflict demands resolution and resolution involves change of some sort, perhaps by way of transcendence.
Tragedy and the Dialectical Process
Thus, there is a dialectic of tragedy. "Stated broadly the dialectical (agonistic) approach to knowledge is through the act of assertion, whereby one 'suffers' the kind of knowledge that is the reciprocal of his act" (Burke, 1969b, p. 38). Reading the writings of Burke forces a dialectic--a suffering of knowledge--as one struggles with his journey through words. Rueckert (1982, p. 211) reminds us that "according to Burke, tragedies are purgative journeys which lead one 'from there [the swamp], through here [the work], to that place yonder [the state beyond catharsis]' (Poetics, 226)." On first reading Burke, one seeks a catharsis to release the tension that develops in mucking around in Burke's writings.
Rueckert (1982) suggests that:
One of the central ideas in Burke's theory of tragedy is that the tragic play persecutes the audience in order that it may be purged; that the tragic play, through imitation, actually arouses various tensions in the audience, individually and collectively, in order to release them (p. 220).
This is exactly what reading Burke does to the reader, especially the first-time reader. When one seriously considers the assumptions and perspectives of Burke, one cannot but help to be aroused. A tension develops as one mulls over the theories Burke articulates until eventually a purging or transcedence is necessary for the reader's peace of mind.
The rhetoric of Burke, then addresses the individual's motives in using language and in acting that causes a tension in the reader.
For rhetoric as such is not rooted in any past condition of human society. It is rooted in an essential function of language itself, a function that is wholly realistic, and is continually born anew; the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols (Burke, 1969a, p. 43).
So, in agonizing over the writings of Burke, one is responding to symbols. Symbols that have meaning--meaning that is different (at least to some degree) for each individual.
Man, qua man, is a symbol user. In this respect, every aspect of his "reality" is likely to be seen through a fog of symbols. And not even the hard reality of basic economic facts is sufficient to pierce this symbolic veil (which is intrinsic to the human mind). One man may seek to organize a set of images, another may strive for order among his ideas, a third may feel goaded to make himself head of some political or commercial empire, but however different the situations resulting from these various modes of action, there are purely symbolic motives behind them all, for in all of them there is "overproduction" (Burke, 1969a, p. 136).
Thus, as one reads Burke, especially for the first time, one is forced into a dialectic that involves the symbolic. This dialectic with Burke is tragic in the sense that it involves death. Either one's own ideas must die or one must kill off the ideas of Burke in order to transcend the tension that arises out of the interaction the reader must have with the writings of Burke. We must recognize, then, "that dialectically one may die many times (in fact, each time an assertion leads beyond itself to a new birth) and that tragedy is but a special case of the dialectical process in general" (Burke, 1969b, p. 39). The reader of Burke is thus forced into an agon in which a series of dyings is necessary. "The initial requirement for a tragedy...is an action" (Burke, 1969b, p. 39).
The reader of Burke is called into action in order to bring resolution to the tension which has developed.
Edward C. Appel (1993) argues that Burke is a theologian. Whether or not one buys into this claim, one still must agonize over Burke's logology--his systematic study of theological terms.
William Rueckert (1982, p. 236) suggests that "the shift from dramatism to logology is the shift from the smaller category (literature or drama) to the larger category (words) from which the smaller one derives." He goes on to say that:
as for the three essays that precede "Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven" they are masterful examples of Burke's relentless conceptual thoroughness and compulsion for symmetry. This is especially true of "The First Three Chapters of Genesis," where Burke works out the 'Tautological' cycle of terms implicit in the idea of order. It is one of the most masterful demonstrations available of how Burke's mind works on a text...theology has replaced poetry as the privileged act of language, theology being the "central science" to terms of which any given religion might be "reduced" (p. 239).
So Burke isn't concerned directly with religion per se, but the terminology of religion. He is not concerned with man's relationship to God, but to the word "God." For Burke "'words about God' reach the farthest man can reach beginning from the 'not-words,' or the ground of words in the body" (Rueckert, 1982 p. 240). One should not read Burke, then, expecting answers about religion, but simply about the words of religion. So one cannot but help to agonize over Burke's stance or use of Christian terms, at least if one is reading him from a Christian perspective. So the agony continues.
In The Rhetoric of Religion (1970) Burke writes that:
The Biblical myth pictures natural things as coming into being through the agency of God's Word; but they can merely do as they were designed to do, whereas with God's permission though not without resentment, the seed of Adam can do even what it has been explicitly told not to do. The word-using animal not only understands a thou-shalt-not; it can carry the principle of the negative a step further, and answer the thou-shalt-not with a disobedient No (pp. 186-187).
It is Burke's use of phrases such as "Biblical myth" that causes the Christian reader to cringe. However, if one can look beyond the use of such words to what Burke is suggesting about words, one can stretch one's mind and gain new insight and understanding about the word and symbol-using aspect of humans. Thus, one can begin to see not only the explicit, but also the explicit negatives that develop in the Agon (such as between God and Adam).
Agonizing as it may be for the Christian to read Burke's ideas of motives in Christian theology, one can learn much from his methodology. As Rueckert (1982, p. 264) puts it:
Logology may be described as a methodology for the study of symbol-systems which uses a kind of neutralized Christian theology as its paradigm. That is, everything in Christianity is reduced from doctrine to logological principles, as in the analogies, and the completeness and formal beauties of the Christian scheme are retained on the principle that one should keep and use a good, a perfect, thing when you find it.
Thus, on first reading Burke on may struggle with his use of theological terms, but one soon comes to realize that Burke is using theological terms as a way to study words and the motives involved. Again, Rueckert (1982, p. 265) is helpful:
The rhetoric of religion is language persuading itself to move all the way up to The Word, the principle of perfection itself. The rhetoric of religion is also the rhetoric of language (symbol-using) and the way rhetoric, religion, theology, and logology come together. Words create more words and The Word itself. And words are forever courting The Word
Yes, reading Kenneth Burke for the first time is agonizing, in more ways than one. But it is in the agon that we grow in our understanding. The reader of Burke will not always agree with him, but that is all the better. For as James W. Chesebro (1994, p. 88) reminds us:
We can appropriately follow the advice of Kenneth Burke when he recommends that sometimes we follow his lead but at other times it will be more useful to "reverse directions" or take "another direction." In other words, a critic's system of analysis is not justified because it invokes Burke's name or works. The distinguishing characteristics of a critic's system of analysis should be examined for its limits and biases, for, in the end, each critic must assume responsibility for the system of analysis he or she employs.
Burke (1973, p. 23) suggests that "the main ideal of criticism...is to use all that is there to use." So, on first reading Burke, one should use all that is there to use. Struggle with Burke--agonize over his ideas--but do not be confined by his system. The reader of Burke should use what he or she can, follow his advice when appropriate, and go his or her own direction when that seems best. Grow through the agon(y).
Appel, E. C. (1993). Kenneth Burke: Coy Theologian. The Journal of Communication and Religion, 16(2), pp. 99-110.
Burke, K. (1969a). A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.
---. (1969b). A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.
---. (1970). The Rhetoric of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.
---. (1973). The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press.
---. (1984). Attitudes Toward History. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Chesebro, J. W. (1994). Extending the Burkeian System: A Response to Tompkins and Cheney.Quarterly Journal of Speech, 80(1), pp. 83-90.
Rueckert, W. H. (1982). Kenneth Burke And the Drama of Human Relations. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication
Phoenix, March 1997
I begin with a word association exercise on the first part of my title, "The Burkean Legacy and Composition": the pentad; linguistic quizzicality; the comic attitude; logology; Dramatism; cultural valetudinarianism; perspective by incongruity; pure persuasion; (nonsymbolic) motion/(symbolic) action; entitlement; flowerishes; situations and strategies; dialectic; ad bellum purificandum. . . . Ultimately, of course, the legacy of Kenneth Burke must remain a matter to defy final naming or definition(despite the fine collection of essays that goes by that title, The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, published in 1989), but, reducing my scope somewhat, I propose to offer a catch-as-catch-can identification (there's another one!) of a useful idea Burke has left us teachers of composition in one of his more whimsical moments. The moment occurs after a rather probing discussion of Freud's concept of the unconscious, or rather, as we shall see, concepts in the unconscious of Freud's concept. It is a discussion of the "Five Dogs," one of Burke's more unusual terministic screens for his theory of the way words acquire multiple meanings.
One way to characterize the five dogs would be to call them atypically Burkean attempt to make "amends [for a difficult discussion] by reduction to a very simple anecdote" (RM 265). The essay that the dogs attempt to represent anecdotally--"Mind, Body, and the Unconscious"--takes Freud to task by indicating that the term "unconscious," as a dialectical counterpart to the term "conscious," can logically mean many more things than Freud addressed. Using Freud as a guide, Burke outlines the content and function of what we might call the "Dramatistic unconscious," a linguistic or formal kind of unconscious that Burke feels is endemic to the use of symbol systems in general.
Burke once described the reading of Freud "suggestive to the point of bewilderment" (PLF 258), but over the course of his career he quite clear-headedly indicated ways in which Freud's theories had a larger and perhaps more primary domain than that of psychology. In "Freud and the Analysis of Poetry" Burke took the lead in adapting Freudian principles to literary criticism by analyzing poetry in terms of "dream," "prayer," and "chart" (PLF 268). More to my point, in "Mind, Body, and the Unconscious," Burke suggests that everything that Freud said about symbolic action (his psychiatric study of "symptomatic action," "the symptoms of sick souls" [LSA 64, 72]) applied first and foremost to language in general, and then derivatively to human psychology. In the few pages of his essay, Burke extends the psychoanalytic notion of the unconscious as a repository for repressed meanings; he does so by outlining eight additional categories of the unconscious (the eighth being a "catchall category") that his study of symbolic action would add to the psychiatric analysis of symbolic action.
Where Freud speaks of forgetting and repression, Burke speaks of universal linguistic processes: "the universal incorporation of the past within the present"; "the recallable but not explicitly recalled"; "the 'entelechial' kind of 'futurity' (as certain kinds of observations or conclusions may be implicit in a given terminology, quite in the sense that a grammar and syntax are implicit in a given language)"; "error, ignorance, uncertainty" (LSA 72)--and so on. He also mentions the "unconscious aspect of sheerly bodily process" (such as the healing of a scab) (LSA 67). Overall, he is led to conclude "that we learn language 'rationally' only by much forgetting (which necessarily involves an 'unconscious' of some sort)" (LSA 75). We forget the conditions that give rise to our meanings, but yet there remains something" inexorably 'unforgettable'" about the experience (LSA 75). There in the periphery, in the "Dramatistic unconscious," lies much linguistic action, not only the meanings that the poet would draw upon and the critic explicate, but the entire range of meanings that form our educational experiences. Burke suggests that the linguistic unconscious is a significant source of poetic creativity and that it often functions in as devious and wily a manner as Freud's Id--but his primary effort is to demonstrate the necessity of some kind of "unconsciousness," however it be categorized, for the sane and routine operation of language and understanding.
The need for a linguistic unconscious stems from the fact that we use words in endlessly variable contexts. Indeed there would be something horrible about language if it required us to remember every detail of every context of every usage of every word over the course of our lives. If such a situation were thinkable, language would be a burden that accumulated; each word would forever be acquiring new meanings, each one the existential product of the unique circumstances of the individual usage. But mercifully we forget and abstract; through the linguistic powers of analogy and identification we wash over the particularities of situations, as we give them common names. In essence, we become "unconscious" to the worlds of possible meaning forever flitting about every word.
The five dogs represent categories of unconscious meaning that can flit about our conscious use of words. As psychiatric therapy recovers meanings buried and encoded in the psychological unconscious, Burkean analysis--his canine taxonomy--identifies linguistic meanings buried, forgotten-and-unforgotten, in the various contextual and formal "unconsciouses" natural to language and its normal operation.
Burke's Five Dogs
There is no substitute for a Burkean reduction, and his page and a half presentation of the five dogs is both sufficiently succinct and charming to justify a full direct quotation:
So much for our tentative categories of the Unconscious. But where problems of terminology are concerned, we must always keep on the move. So, for a windup, let's try a different slant, having in mind both the psychoanalytic and Dramatistic concepts of "symbolic action."
Animalistically, there are many species of dogs. But Dramatistically, these reduce to five (not a single one of which might meet the requirements of a dog-fancier--or should we say, a dog-man?)
For finish, I would propose this other cut across our subject:
First, along psychoanalytic lines, there is the "primal" dog, the first dog you knew, or loved, or were frightened by, or lost. It secretly ties in with what the anthropologist Malinowski would call "context of situation." For though many or all of the details that are associated with that dog may have been forgotten (and thus become "unconscious"), we now know that they are still there within you somehow (and can be disclosed by drugs, hypnosis or psychoanalysis).
Next, there's the "jingle" dog. It concerns the sheerly accidental nature of the word "dog, "what it rhymes with in English as distinct from what the corresponding word rhymes with in other languages, and above all, in English, we might well keep in mind Cummings' undeniable observation that the jingle dog is "God spelled backwards." (Or did he say it the other way round?)
Third comes the "lexical" dog. This is the one defined in the dictionary, "by genus and differentia." It is the most public, normal, and rational of all dogs--and the emptiest of all, as regards the attitude of either poets or neurotics. If that great, good, sound, healthy, public meaning for "dog" were all we had, I can confidently assure you that the world would be completely clear of poetry. This is the only definition that wholly makes sense, if the world is to be kept going. But along with the fact that this definition of "dog" is tremendously necessary, there's also the fact that "dog" as so conceived is totally inane. You know what I mean. But if you want documentation besides, just track down all the references to dogs in Aeschylus' Oresteia (or see the pages on "dog" in William Empson's The Structure of Complex Words.)
Fourth, there's an "entelechial dog." This is the "perfect" dog towards which one might aspire. I might give a roundabout example of this sort: Beginning with the material substance, bread, let us next move to the word "bread." Once we have that word, through sheerly verbal manipulations we can arrive at a term for "perfect bread." Having got to that point, we find two quite different kinds of resources open to us. (1) We may feel disillusioned about "reality" because the thing bread falls so tragically short of the ideal that flits about our word for "perfect" bread. Or(2) we might be graced with the opportunity to discern, all around us, evidences of way whereby even the worst of bread embodies, however finitely, the principle of an infinitely and absolutely "perfect" bread. Dogs endowed with "personalities" in animal stories would be a fictional variant of such an &qotentelechial" motive. In their way, they are "perfect" embodiments of certain traits. Lassie has been the Machinery's prime exhibit, as regards the entelechial dog.
Finally, there is the "tautological" dog. We here have in mind the fact that a dog involves a particular set of associations which, in a sense, reproduce his "spirit." For instance: kennel, dog food, master, the hunt, cat, protection, loyalty, slavishness, the place where the dog was killed, and so on. When I was young, I always had a dog, and I always thought of lions as big dogs. It was quite a blow to me when I first learned that lions are really big cats. Looking back, I incline to believe that I had a "cycle" or "ladder" of terms, running from dog, to boy, to father, to lion, to king (or generally, ruler or authority),to God. Here would be a "tautological" terminology in the sense I now have in mind.
Our five dogs overlap considerably, I concede. But there are terministic situations when each is most directly to be considered in its own right, though we should always keep the whole lot in mind, when inquiring into the relations between the overt symbol and its possible dissolvings into the "Where is it?" of the Unconscious. (LSA 73-4)
Brenda Kuseski has identified the usefulness of Burke's five dogs as a critical method for analyzing speeches that "are compelling, even superbly so, yet on grounds other than the cerebral" (324). Kuseski contends that "such speeches" as, for instance, Mother Teresa's Nobel acceptance speech "defy the usual tools of critical assessment, for argument and logical development do not account for their power" (324). Through analysis based on the linguistic principles of Burke's five dogs, Kuseski examines how Mother Teresa's speech--while possessing a form that "is rambling and seemingly unfocused, disjointed, and apparently redundant" (323)--nevertheless" reaches Burkean dramatistic completeness in its key term"--love(328).
My interest here considers the usefulness of the five dogs from he perspective of pedagogy, rather than critical analysis. Specifically, I wish to present an outline of a writing lesson I have used in connection with an assignment from William Covino's composition textbook, Forms of Wondering: A Dialogue on Writing for Writers. This textbook, perhaps the only one (besides those of Plato) written entirely as a dialogue, is probably our most thoroughly postmodern composition text. The book "presents writing and reading as ways to keep thinking, and wondering"--instead of as ways to "stop thinking" or to "close the subject" (ix). In asking the student to explore and write about the nature of writing, the book enacts a dialogue among a host of historical personages--Plato, Montaigne, and Tom Wolfe, to name a few--as well as a series of different voices that makeup the author's complex attitude toward writing (Covino the Sophist, Covino the Expediter, Covino the Epistemologist, Covino the TV Watcher, etc.).
At one point in the discussion Covino the Writing Teacher suggests that definitions are the "'building blocks' of dialectical writing"(118). As he attempts to explain this statement, an argument ensues about the nature of meaning: should definitions change and compete with one another or should we, as Covino the Administrator suggests, strive for common definitions, reflecting "shared stable standards" (119)? The Sophist "closes" the matter by providing impressive evidence that "uniform, common definitions" (119)are not possible--and the Writing Teacher caps off the dispute with a writing assignment, the "portfolio of definitions"--an assignment that requires students to define and redefine a selected ambiguous term over the course of several weeks.
The assignment requires students to add five new definitions a week to their portfolio, along with comments as to how they found their definitions and what they think constitutes the underlying motivation of each definition. After the students have spent three weeks or so interviewing sources, researching, and gathering definitions, I introduce the five dogs. Of a sudden, many students who felt they had reached the end of the line have at their disposal four additional types of definition (by then the lexical dog had been pretty much exhausted).
After a reading of Burke's five dogs and an explanation of them as categories of meaning, I illustrate how the dogs can be used for their portfolios of definitions by sharing with the class the definitions I've composed for my chosen term, "soft drink." With the aid of some examples, those students who had been mystified by Burke's unconventional style quickly come to see the commonsense validity of his five categories of meaning. In the spirit of such clarification, I present below something of a grab bag of exemplifications, teacher background notes, methods, and Burkology related to this lesson, dog by dog:
1. The Primal Dog: The difficulty of writing about one's primal "dog" (or "soft drink," or whatever term one investigates) is that, if it is a true primal dog, it resides in the unconscious and thus must be "retrieved" somehow into consciousness. Burke says the primal dog "can be disclosed by drugs, hypnosis or psychoanalysis"--none of which are viable classroom options. So as a compromise, I ask my students to explore their earliest memories of their chosen term. They readily grasp the notion that one's first encounters with objects and situations tend to color subsequent experience in a way that is both personal and meaningful. So I tell them about my primal soft drink, 7-Up:
I am a child of seven or eight, looking up at my grandfather as he grasped the green bottle, ready to pour. I have an indelible image of the bottle twisting and his carpenter's muscles flexing beneath a forest of curly white hair. The sense of expectation tingled as the (eventually-to-be-defined-as-) "un-cola's" bubbles danced in the air and lightly sprinkled my face.
But you must understand this was not any kind of expectation--it was expectation for satisfaction in an illicit, forbidden pleasure. For my parents didn't allow us children to have sodas just any old time, as "Nonno" did. So there we were, sealing the bond, drinking the ritualistic cup--setting ourselves in league against the others, as only grandparents and grandchildren can.
And even though 7-Up has lost the graphic charm of its ancient bottles, even though I've drunk many pale substitutes and even the ever-offensive Diet 7-Up, the primal magic is still there. I cannot drink a soda without the venerable spirits of this primal soft drink--and my grandfather, and our crime, and the scene of the crime (summers at Nonno's cottage in Pell Lake, Wisconsin)--rising up and dancing around the cup.
2. The Jingle Dog: Definition by way of the jingle dog often comes as a surprise. By nature the jingle dog is accidental. It involves meanings or effects that arise primarily not out of the lexical meaning or significance of the term but out of the sheerly accidental nature of the word's graphical or sound qualities. To put it in other Burkean terms, it is meaning that arises not out of the term's idea so much as its image. Earlier when I wrote "the five dogs represent categories" I fell under the spell of the jingle dog and almost interjected the word "dogegories" as the fitting substitute for "categories." This dog is subject to doggerel, indeed. But that is how it operates--it makes connections and transformations in the magical realm of poetry in general, and the pun in particular. The jingle dog also operates on a visual level, the clearest example being the artistic use of fonts and lettering to convey meaning (as when, for instance, a horror movie's title attempts to simulate fear with jagged and bloodied letters).
For Burkean examples of the jingle dog, one need but page through Burke's published letters to Malcolm Cowley. His unpublished letters, according to William Rueckert, are likewise a treasure-trove of jingle dog antics: "[Burke's] letters are usually written in a combination of standard orthography and Burke orthography, which is a phonetic manipulation that allows him to exploit every pun he can think of as he writes" ("Rereading" 255).
Throughout his career, Burke theorized about the linguistic effects that constitute the jingle dog, particularly in The Philosophy of Literary Form (51-66,258-271, 369-378) and in A Rhetoric of Motives (310). His most focused discussion of such effects is perhaps found in his essay, "On Musicality in Verse" (PLF 369-78). There, using Coleridge's poetry for illustrations, he defines the processes of "concealed alliteration by cognate" phonemes, consonantal acrostic, chiasmus, augmentation, and dimunition. The most noteworthy critical tool Burke developed as a result of his jingle dog speculations was the procedure he called "joycing"--"the deliberate and systematic coaching of [tonal] transformations for heuristic purposes" (RM 310)--the method whereby he made his infamous "discovery" that the final line of Keats' "Grecian Ode" could be rendered "body is turd, turd body." Burke was always quick to discount the "truth" of any insight achieved by such methods, but, citing the value of the lapsus linguae in Freud's work and the use of "ablaut" transformation in Hopkins as significant instances, he insisted that the resources of language as such encouraged the making of such meanings as well as the critical search for them.
Rather than take my class too deeply into Burke's theories of musicality and tonal transformation, I merely encourage my students to look for rhymes, puns, palindromes, and alliterations--any kind of word play they have heard or can create about their chosen word. The results may involve commentary (as Burke's dog-God example) or a series of fragments--a list of possible jingles on a theme. Often this dog proves most difficult for students, not only because it is so dependent on chance but also because it typically manifests itself in momentary snippets. The dearth of examples for my chosen word reflects the difficulties. But even so, we might ask just how much of Coca Cola's success is due to the jingle dog. From the start, this company has been shrewdly aware of the commercial benefits of alliteration, assonance, and rhythm--not to mention the right logo--and it is the jingle dog who is responsible for the pleasing syncopated rhythm of the "always Coca Cola" refrain in the recent musical jingle for the soft drink.
In passing we might note the presence of the jingle dog in the regional term "pop," and in the name for a highball made with Seagrams 7 and 7-Up, "seven-seven."
Ultimately, this category of meaning is dependent on the degree to which one is poetically inspired and to which one's materials possess some resonance. Despite its difficulties, it is the category for which a few students in every class write the most. And though it proves a difficult category to write on upon demand, it is one that all students, once instructed, readily recognize and identify spontaneously throughout the remainder of the semester.
3. The Lexical Dog: This dog requires no explanation to students. What might be highlighted to them is the fact that though this is the category for the "great, good, sound, healthy, public meaning for 'dog,'" it by no means, at least in most cases, provides a simple, agreed upon or "definitive" meaning for terms. In Forms of Wondering, Covino the Sophist indicates how difficult it is to come up with "a uniform common definition of effective writing" (119) by surveying the range of meanings in the dictionary for the word "effective." He points out that, besides the separate clauses, each word in each clause is subject to multiple meanings, producing various permutations of meaning. In its separate clauses, a dictionary definition layers meanings atop or astride other meanings, giving us side by side standard, non-standard, etymological, historical, special case, and archaic meanings, along with context, usage, and regional notes. Burke calls the lexical dog "the emptiest of all"--even so, any self-respecting dictionary is a multi-volume and quite garrulous document.
My students enjoy the break the lexical dog affords, for I instruct them merely to copy the definitions of their terms out of the dictionary, as below:
soft drink n.
A nonalcoholic, flavored, carbonated beverage, usually commercially prepared and sold in bottles or cans. Also called Regional: cold drink. Regional: pop1. Regional: soda, soda pop, soda water. Regional: tonic. (American Herit age Dictionary)
4. The Entelechial Dog: First, I should offer some explanation of Burke's use of the term "entelechy":
The term is a Dramatistic version of Aristotle's concept of "entelechy" and it increasingly played a prominent role in Burke's later formulations on the nature of language. In Dramatism and Development he explains that "by 'entelechy' I refer to such use of symbolic resources that potentialities can be said to attain their perfect fulfillment" (39). He refers to his "Definition of Man" which contains a "wry codicil" that describes humankind as "rotten with perfection." He explains the codicil as follows:
The principle of perfection is central to the nature of language as motive. The mere desire to name something by its "proper" name, or to speak a language in its distinctive ways is intrinsically" perfectionist." What is more &quo
. . . There is a principle of perfection implicit in the nature of symbol systems; and in keeping with his nature as symbol-using animal, man is moved by this principle. (LSA 16-17)
Efforts expended in realizing a "form" (a poem, a Euclidean proof, the telling of a joke), any striving toward completion (of a puzzle, of a quandary in life, of one's purpose in life), all attempts to act with propriety, to do the right thing, partake of the linguistic motive of entelechy in Burke's view.
Burke often cited Hitler, (who defined the Jew as the "perfect" enemy), as the "perfect" example of the danger ever implicit in the entelechial motive. Burke was a lifelong critic of demagogues and their perfectionist doctrines of world domination or personal salvation. But his main point about entelechy concerns its prevalence in human thought at all levels. So in helping my students compose entelechial definitions for their chosen terms, I bring to class a book by Kurt Andersen, The Real Thing, to provide models.
Anderson's book is "perfect" for the purpose of illustrating the prevalence of entelechial thinking, for the book is a dictionary of "perfectionist" definitions of very ordinary components of American culture. Andersen defines a "real thing" as "a species' essential type. It's the one thing that most manifests the thing-hood of a given category of things, a quiddity" (x)--in other words, an entelechial dog. But Andersen's book is more brash and playful than philosophical in the traditional sense. The Real Thing defines the entelechial thing in cars, names, desserts, Charlie Chans, proverbs, illegal drugs, boring countries, industrial food, mass murderers, festivals, unpleasant surprises, insects, liberal issues, specious historical analogies, television game shows, saints, days of the week, and so on. For instance, under his first entry, "Beers," Andersen writes:
Budweiser is the real thing . . . but Anheuser-Busch has it all wrong; Bud isn't the king of beers, it's more like the citizen or infantryman of beers. This is democracy! Our forefathers fought a war for freedom from the yoke of Old World opp
The real thing in soft drinks, of course, is Coke. Even Andersen says so, though grudgingly. "Pepsi wins on points. But not on essences" (39)--and so on. But it should be clear that the great fun in writing on the entelechial dog is the whimsy it invites. Students come to see that one individual's entelechy is another's rottenness. Students learn they need to make a case for this or that perfection; and the exercise--in its more perfect moments--provides students with an important opportunity to reflect on the arbitrariness of criteria.
5. The Tautological Dog: If the entelechial dog implies both Aristotle and Burke's theories of form, the tautological dog recalls Burke's logological reading of the first three chapters of Genesis in his Rhetoric of Religion, particularly his chart on page 184 depicting the "Tautological Cycle of Terms for 'Order.'" Burke explains that when we treat a cluster of terms (like those implied in the idea of "order") "philosophically," as opposed to "narratively," the terms can be said to mutually imply one another "cyclically"--in any "order"--as logical counterparts. Any term of the cluster, if one is thorough enough in tracking down its implications, will eventually lead to each of the other terms. Burke analyzes how the terms implicit in the idea of order--governance, sin, covenant, fall, act, will, redemption, victimage, dominion, and so on--all imply one another and thus are partial restatements (tautologies) for one another. Since the relationship of tautological terms is logical, they can be said to revolve around one another "endlessly" (RR 183)--whereas when they are translated into a particular narrative order they become locked in an irreversible sequence (as the "story" will only work narratively if the establishment of the covenant precedes the breaking of the covenant (sin), which then paves the way for redemption, and so on).
To approach the topic via a "perspective by incongruity," we might compare Burke's tautological dog to the science of cloning. The premise of cloning, as well as Burke's notion of tautology, is the idea that the part can contain enough implicit information for reconstructing a whole of some sort. Whether or not this is an appropriate metaphor for Burke's ideas about tautological cycles of terms, the literary version of cloning--the figure of speech having to do with parts and wholes, synecdoche--was so important to Burke's thought that he called it the "'basic' figure of speech" (PLF 26). Part and whole are "tautologically" related in Burke's dialectic, since either can stand for the other, and both partake of the same "spirit."
The tautological is perhaps the subtlest (most unconscious?)of the dogs since it involves a chain of associations, or "symbols" for the chosen term, that can range quite far. Tautologically for soft drink we get: refreshment, sweat, Mountain Dew commercials, condensation (which brings us back to Freud), vitality, death (both as the opposite of vitality and the slaking of thirst),soda jerk, the multinational corporation, Andy Warhol's Coke bottles (and thus "Pop" art in general), and so on.
In composing their tautological dogs, I invite students to pursue any possible "radiating" terms as opportunities for reflection or connection with other themes they have explored in their portfolio.
The Significance of the Five Dogs for the Composition Class
This assignment of course has its limitations. The student's chosen term should probably be a noun, and, considering the nature of the primal dog, it should be a noun that is part of a very young child's vocabulary. Ultimately, a well-done exercise in the five dogs is a tour de force. I have approached the assignment with a "let's see what you come up with" attitude. Students are always skeptical of this approach, but I have seen them produce some stunning definitions as a result of it, on a variety of terms, such as car, scissors, home, toy, door, mother, tree, story, pencil, and so on.
Training in the five dogs can lead to writing that is disjointed, fragmentary, and random. Or it can lead to polished essays. But that is not its primary purpose. I submit the dogs, essentially, as a composition exercise. Even so, I would stress its importance, as it is grounded in and suggestive of significant attitudinal and methodological considerations. Attitudinally, the exercise helps students become more comfortable with the inevitable ambiguity of meaning that attends the complex understanding of anything; methodologically, it offers a means of control by pointing out some typical directions into which the ambiguities can be channeled.
In all, the five dogs are a representative case of Kenneth Burke's lifelong project of "linguistic quizzicality," his bemused, skeptical, appreciative, and sometimes fearful investigation into the kind of things that happens when animals begin using symbols (GM 442-3). We might close quizzically enough with a final observation: often in his writings and everywhere in his attitude, Burke pled for a "many-termed view of reality"("FAT" 365)--for only could such a view accurately gauge the complexity of things. This was Burke's moralistic goal, or the way to his goal of ad bellum purificandum. The five dogs, however, remind us that even if we achieve that state of many terms, our work has just begun, for just what is the meaning of each of those terms?
Andersen, Kurt. The Real Thing. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980.
Burke, Kenneth. Dramatism and Development. Worcester, Mass.: Clark UP, 1972.
---. "Freedom and Authority in the Realm of the Poetic Imagination." Freedom and Authority in Our Time. Ed. Lyman Bryson, et al. New York: Harper, 1953. 365-75.
---. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.
---. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966.
---. The Philosophy of Literary Form, Studies in Symbolic Action. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973.
---. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.
---. The Rhetoric of Religion. Berkeley: U of California P, 1970.
Covino, William A. Forms of Wondering: A Dialogue on Writing, for Writers. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1990.
Kuseski, Brenda K. "Kenneth Burke's 'Five Dogs' and Mother Teresa's Love." Quarterly Journal of Speech 74 (1988): 323-33.
Rueckert, William. Letter to the author. 14 July 1994.
---. "Rereading Kenneth Burke." Simons and Melia 239-261.
Simons, Herbert W., and Trevor Melia, eds. The Legacy of Kenneth Burke. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1989.
Presented at the Triennial Conference of the Kenneth Burke Society
Iowa City, May 23, 1999
My paper today is part of a larger project that continues to evolve in unanticipated directions. In talking about Locke—specifically about his theory of property in his Second Treatise of Government—I’ll be returning to where the project began, but my discussion will be shaped by my efforts since then to position myself in a conversational context in the field of literary and cultural studies—emerging into prominence in the 1990s—around the term "ecocriticism."
This term itself is fairly recent, as Bill Rueckert is generally credited with coining it in an article he published in 1978 in The Iowa Review, "Literature and Ecology: Experiment in Ecocriticism." A number of recent texts signal the growing prominence of ecocriticism. Examples include Karl Kroeber’s 1994 book, Ecological Literary Criticism, and Lawrence Buell’s 1995 book, The Environmental Imagination, as well as anthologies such as The Ecocriticism Reader, published in 1996, and Writing the Environment: Ecocriticism and Literature, published in 1998. What the conversation about ecocriticism will amount to in the long run remains to be seen. But part of what attracts me to this conversation is that among the interesting issues arising in it is whether ecocriticism is compatible with postmodernism. Put simply, one can ask (1) whether ecocriticism is just one more "ism" to put under the umbrella of postmodernism or (2) whether ecocriticism is necessarily a break with postmodernism that can succeed if and only if it displaces postmodernism.
The main link between what I’ll be saying about Locke and my larger ecocritical project revolves around the topic of the earth. While puzzling over Locke’s theory of property, it occurred to me that his argument presupposes an earth that is different from our earth today, three centuries later. Part of what interested me about this side of Locke, moreover, is the extent to which one might (1) keep the logic of his argument, (2) substitute today’s earth for the earth of his day, and (3) by virtue of this substitution come to conclusions very different from or even diametrically opposed to Locke’s. In other words, Locke’s text might be read as changing its meaning in a fashion analogous to changes that Burke detects in the rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. As Burke observes in "The Dialectic of Constitutions," rights that were initially asserted against the monarch by individuals acting as a group became, when shifted to a context in which there was no monarch, rights asserted by the individual against the group (Grammar 364). In an earlier version of this example, in The Philosophy of Literary Form, in a long footnote on the page where his famous parlor conversation appears (110-11), Burke adds a third stage in which he suggests the possibility of "the super-corporations" assuming the dialectical position monarchy once occupied such that the rights would once be asserted by individuals acting as a group. The analogy with Locke would be the extent to which, by virtue of a change in the condition of the earth, the meaning his text had in his day would be transformed into a different meaning in our day. One might, moreover, either stick to the letter of Locke’s text in this analogizing, or, alternatively, stretch the analogy a bit by modifying Locke’s text in a way that I’ll propose in my conclusion.
Burke’s dialectic of constitutions rewrites his "Situations and Strategies" model, introduced at the outset of The Philosophy of Literary Form, in a fashion that frames a range of analytic moves. Applied to Locke, this dialectic directs our attention initially to two sides of Locke’s text. These are the two sides that Burke distinguishes in the Grammar as tactics basic to constitutions that he discovered while reviewing two books, Poetry and Anarchism, by Herbert Read, and Marxism: An Autopsy, by H. B. Parkes. A review of Burke’s introductory discussion of these two sides can serve to frame our consideration of Locke.
On one side, there is a text’s place in the agonistic struggle of history—Burke’s "unending conversation." Parkes illustrates this constitutional tactic in affirming capitalism against Marxism. Burke calls particular attention to this tactic in the section he entitles "Strategic Choice of Circumference for ‘Freedom.’" Parkes’s choice is the free market such that there is freedom inside such a market and no freedom outside it (354-55).
On the other side, there is the structure of the "oar" by virtue of which one enters the unending conversation. It’s the Read text that Burke uses to introduce the constitutional tactic involved in the structuring of the "oar"—that is, the "act." His discussion of Read shows how an act of constituting mediates tensions and contradictions among interests that can coexist in a visionary ideal but come into conflict in varying ways when that vision is brought down to the earth of concrete action (349).
It’s the second of these two sides that gets most of Burke’s attention. The "oar" entering the unending conversation of history is not for Burke a stage in a historical narrative with a predetermined structure from beginning to end, as in the kind of dialectic we associate with Hegelian and Marxist dialectics of history. Hence, Burke’s main concern is generally not to position texts at such stages. The main exception would be the "Curve of History" section inAttitudes toward History, Burke’s most Marxist text. The unending conversation of history displaces this earlier version of history. Exclusive attention to agonistic struggles such as Parkes’s affirmation of capitalism against Marxism tends to simplify the opposed terms, turning drama into melodrama. Attention to the "oar," by contrast, tends toward complexity rather than simplification as one focuses on how the "oar" mediates among interests coexisting in varying relations of tension and contradiction. Part of Burke’s interest in the constitutional model is that it readily theorizes multiple competing interests and is open-ended to accommodate the invention of new ones.
In the case of Locke’s Second Treatise, the agonistic struggle of history is between the principle of the divine right of kings that Locke rejects and the principle of bourgeois democracy that he affirms. I say "bourgeois" because Locke explicitly incorporates the protection of private property into his statement of the purpose of government (2.123). Locke’s individual in a state of nature is a property-owner—my initial interest in Locke, I might add, grew out of an inquiry into connections between his theory of property and Defoe’s hero Robinson Crusoe. Locke’s political philosophy is built around a core reversal whereby the divine right of a king to rule is transformed into the divine right of individuals, who act in accord with God’s will as they live freely and equally in a state of nature, and as they come together in a social contract. God defines Locke’s "circumference." Later, we’ll draw on the resources of the pentad to consider ways to define Locke’s God dramatistically. Pentadic analysis, in other words, will be framed by the dialectic of constitutions.
Complexities in the "oar" Locke puts into the conversation of his day arise from his efforts to square historical reality, with its varying inequalities, with a philosophical principle of freedom and equality. These efforts involve Locke in the ambiguities that Burke detects circling around the interplay between logical and temporal firsts whereby logics imply narratives and vice versa. For Locke, these ambiguities center on private property.
While Locke’s main interest is private property, he begins his chapter by quoting Scripture to posit that God gave the earth to humankind in common (2.25: Psalm 115.16). Squaring private property with Scripture is the burden of proof that Locke defines for himself. As an individual in Locke’s state of nature, one is free to appropriate private property by mixing one’s labor with the earth. There is, however, a principle of limitation built in to reconcile this appropriation with Scripture. This principle of limitation operates in two ways: (1) one can appropriate no more than one can use, and (2) one can appropriate only if one leaves for others resources of the earth that are equivalent in quantity and quality. Individual accumulation is thus limited by the needs of other individuals. Private property is indistinguishable from sharing property since one doesn’t conflict with the other. Private property is thus sanctified. Its accumulation is consistent with God’s commands.
Money complicates this idyllic picture. With money, it becomes possible to accumulate beyond one’s individual needs. The principle of use is a limitation when one is dealing with perishable items such as apples, since this principle limits one to picking no more than one can consume before they begin to rot. But a piece of gold doesn’t perish. With money, one can pick more apples than one can eat but exchange the excess for gold without violating the principle of use. With money, one can also buy land and hire labor. Money, in other words, sets in motion economic development.
With the introduction of money, Locke squares his text with historical reality and its inequalities. For Locke these inequalities are consistent with God’s purpose. Locke insists, "God gave the World to Men in Common; but since he gave it them [sic] for their benefit . . . it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the Industrious and Rational, (and Labour was to be his Title to it;) " (2.34). He gave it first and foremost, in other words, to people like Robinson Crusoe.
But in squaring his text with the historical narrative of economic development, Locke seems to undermine his philosophical principle of individuals starting out free and equal, especially when one thinks of this equality not just among those alive at one point in time but also among different generations stretched out over time. The rights to which all individuals are entitled from a philosophical standpoint would seem to be taken away from individuals who arrive on the scene of historical reality only to find private property signs all around them. In such a situation, the rights of some individuals would seem to trump the rights of others to an equal chance. A part would seem, in other words, to trump the interests of the whole in guaranteeing equality to all. Evidence of the tension here between logical and temporal ordering in Locke’s text appears even in John Dunn’s conservative defense of Locke against the Macpherson thesis of "possessive individualism." For Dunn concedes that while economic development betters the material conditions of a society, "it restricts for many their opportunities for economic initiative, most particularly in the areas where they are born" (118).
The 17th-century earth enabled Locke to translate his logical principle into temporal terms. The nature of this translation is implicit in Dunn when he says that opportunities for new development are limited for those born into areas of high development. For Locke effects this translation through frequent references to America, an underdeveloped area, throughout his chapter on property. America provides virgin land available for appropriation. Native Americans may use the land, picking fruit off trees, but that only entitles them to the fruit. That doesn’t bar colonizers from settling the land, cultivating it, growing their own trees, and building fences to protect their private property (2.45). As long as there is virgin land somewhere on the earth, in other words, the opportunity for economic initiative in the beginning remains in place in the present and the philosophical principle of equality remains intact.
We need also to note one additional way Locke uses America. We’ll return to this example from another standpoint later. Earth improved by productive labor, Locke argues, provides far more consumer goods than unimproved earth. "I think," Locke proposes, "it will be but a very modest Computation to say, that of the Products of the Earth useful to the Life of Man 9/10 are the effects of labour" (2.40). Again Locke turns to America to substantiate this point with the consumerist argument that there a "King . . . feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day Labourer in England" (2.41). Hence, even if there is a loss of originary freedom by virtue of economic development, the loss is more than compensated for by the gain in consumer enrichment.
Our earth today is, of course, very different from the earth on which Locke stages his narrative of economic development. Overpopulated and exploited to exhaustion, today’s earth questions Locke’s narrative of open-ended economic expansion. To transform the meaning of Locke’s text by re-situating it in the context of today’s earth, it will help to add a pentadic level to our analysis. The dialectic of constitutions serves to situate a text in history and to map the competing interests that must be put into some kind of hierarchical order to act in this situation. The pentad provides terminological resources to produce such orderings.
Considered from the standpoint of action, Locke’s text is ambiguous. In one sense, it privileges the part against the whole as it reasons from the standpoint of individuals pursing their individual interests. Yet in another sense, it privileges the whole against the part by indicating that if the interests of these individuals run counter to the interests of the whole, Scripture dictates that the individuals have to give way to the whole. Throughout the text, in other words, there is a potential conflict between the part and the whole. If this potentiality were ever actualized, there would then have to be a hierarchical ordering, privileging finally one or the other, based on some pentadic terminology. But this potentiality is never actualized in Locke’s text, and my argument is that it was the state of the earth in Locke’s day that enabled him to skirt this hierarchical issue. Our earth today, by contrast, forces the issue, and the pentad can help us to define it as we shift Locke’s text from the 17th century to the 20th. We’ll define it from the standpoint of Locke’s circumference, namely God. Defining the issue in this fashion, however, limits us to Locke’s terminology. Hence, in concluding, I’ll propose revising his text by altering his circumference.
Defining this issue in Lockean terms essentially requires us to translate the part/whole ambiguity in his text into two meanings, each based on a different pentadic conception of God. Dunn’s reading explicitly identifies in different contexts these two Gods, though to Dunn, as presumably to Locke as well, these two Gods seem to be one and the same, perfectly compatible with one another. One is the God of the great chain of being; the other, the God of the Puritan cult of industry. The pentad can define the difference that eludes Dunn and Locke.
"Christian theology," Burke reminds us in the Grammar, "did speculate about the ‘grounds’ of God’s act, as in the scholastics’ argument whether God willed the good because it is good or the good is good because God willed it" (71). The former—God willed the good because it’s good—privileges the scene, positing in the scene a goodness that constrains even God. The latter—the good is good because God willed it—privileges the agent. In Burke’s words, "The doctrine that ‘the good is good because God willed it’ points . . . towards the modern centuries of subjectivism and idealism, with their great stress upon the ‘ego,’ the ‘will,’ and finally the ‘libido’" (71).
The God of the great chain of being is the God constrained by the objective goodness in the scene. Dunn affirms that the great chain is the scene Locke’s text shared with its antagonist, Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha (87-88). According to Lovejoy, in his classic study of the great chain of being, the great chain attained its widest diffusion in the 18th century (183). Lovejoy cites the influence of Locke among others, noting that Locke can be distinguished from others in two ways: for him (1) the chain was "probable" rather than certain and (2) the plenitude and continuity of the chain need not be complete (354n1). This slippage in Locke’s commitment to the chain and particularly to its key principle of plenitude can be construed as a degree of textual slack that allowed him to incorporate an alternative God, albeit without altogether realizing it.
The principle of plenitude is the good in the scene that constrains God. God willed the good because it’s good, and the good He willed is the best of all possible worlds in the sense of 18th-century optimism, which defines the good from the standpoint not of the parts—the links in the chain—but of the whole. What makes this world the best is that it contains all possible modes of being—its plenitude.
The God of the Puritan cult of industry is God as agent. This God appears first when Locke invokes Him to distinguish his state of nature from Hobbes’s war of all against all in a lawless struggle for survival. In Locke’s state of nature there is a governing law of nature based on the recognition that, in Locke’s words, "Men being all the Workmanship of one Omnipotent, and infinitely wise Maker; All the Servants of one Sovereign Master, sent into the World by his order and about his business, they are his Property, whose Workmanship they are, made to last during his . . . Pleasure" (2.6). In short, God is a property owner of property owners. From this premise, Locke concludes that we do not have the right to end our own life or to take the life or possessions of another.
Locke’s privileging of the labor of property owners is crucial in his agonistic struggle with Filmer’s Patriarcha. It’s the property of industrious individuals that gives them their sovereignty in the political order. The industrious who make the earth more productive are doing God’s work. In effect, this God delegates to individuals the power to make this the best of all possible worlds in the sense of the consumer culture we live with today—the world of Don DeLillo’s contemporary classic, White Noise.
These two Gods do not conflict for Locke—nor for Dunn, whose book appeared in 1969—because the possibility of industry endangering the great chain was beyond his horizon. His text offers perhaps a glimpse of this possibility only in the passage quoted above that contrasts a laborer in England to a king in America to make the point that land improved through human industry is more productive than land in its natural state. For the passage can be read as saying that an earth improved by human industry is better than the earth God created. That’s the closest the text comes to recognizing a conflict between its two Gods, but it’s evident that Locke sees in economic development only an enhancement of our link in the chain, not a threat to the chain. Today, of course, this development threatens to break the chain and to end life on earth, but that’s a possibility beyond Locke’s horizon however much it’s within our own.
The 20th century earth, then, forces Locke’s text to address the issue that the 17th century earth allowed it to avoid. Given Locke’s indication that the part must give way to the whole when they conflict, his own text would force us to conclude that the equality of opportunity for expansion Locke affirmed must today be reread as an equality of opportunity for a fair share of limited resources, and these limitations become even greater, moreover, if one thinks not merely of those alive today but of future generations yet unborn. What will be left for them? History, from our standpoint in 1999, forces us to conclude that the theological debate behind the lines of Locke’s text must be decided against God as agent of industrial power in favor of the God who wills the good because it’s good.
To conclude, we can ask if we should revise Locke’s text by eliminating God altogether. The Copernican revolution that Newton completed for the Enlightenment decentered the earth, but subsequently our theological terminologies have tended to recuperate the Copernican decentering by making life on earth the center of the universe. Based on the evidence available, however, life on earth is the exception rather than the rule in the universe, maybe even the sole exception. Life on earth is radically decentered and deserves to be revered as such. Maybe the more we see life as rare and fragile, the more we’ll be willing to sacrifice to perpetuate it. Maybe some new form of paganism devoted to life on this planet rather than to immortal life elsewhere is what the 21st century needs. Maybe future generations on this planet should be immortality enough for any of us alive today. Narrowing the circumference of our scene to the earth and to the objective goodness of the life it supports, we can conclude by repeating Burke’s closing words in Permanence and Change:
for always the Eternal Enigma is there, right on the edges of our metropolitan bickerings, stretching outward to interstellar infinity and inward to the depths of the mind. And in this staggering disproportion between man and noman, there is no place for purely human boasts of grandeur, or for forgetting that men build their cultures by huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss. (272)
Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. 1945. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.
---. Permanence and Change. 1935. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.
---. Philosophy of Literary Form. 1941. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973.
Dunn, John. The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument of theTwo Treatises of Government. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969.
Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Ed. Peter Laslett. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.
Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being: A Study in the History of an Idea. 1936. New York: Harper and Row, 1960.
Presented at the National Communication Association Conference
Chicago, November 1999
Occupational psychoses are the result of trained incapacities related to one’s vocational pursuits or life’s work. Just as a hungry chicken, trained to come for food at the sound of a bell, may rush with equal passion to become Sunday dinner, those whose wont is to share critical understanding with others, when schooled in the thought of Kenneth Burke, risk harm’s way.
One exceptionally painful symptom of the Burkeian Occupational Psychosis (hereinafter referred to as BOP) is the tendency to conclude critical essays by exhorting one’s readers to undertake this course or that practice in yet one more futile attempt to take seriously that which, in the final analysis, simply isn’t--i.e.: broadly, the plight of Homo Symbolificus, and, specifically, the plight of those who would try to help everyone else understand the plight of Homo Symbolificus. I make this observation in the spirit of this open and free discussion, and I mean it sincerely as a goad to perfection. I offer the following observations (and no exhortations) concerning BOP:
In BOP, one is incapacitated by being denied the joy of passionate commitment to any mere system of beliefs--this through glimmers of understanding that such systems, being limited by the language of their expression, will never be fully encompassing. This incapacitation is intensified through denial of the ecstasies and comforts of religious dogma by virtue of occasionally recognizing how all religious stories are but variations on one inevitable story, all dogmas but variations on the dogma of perfection implicit in symbolic expression. What is more, one is still further incapacitated by being denied the hope of fulfilment that would come if only perfection of any kind could be achieved, by virtue of the nagging certainty that perfection is but a concept-in-vain. Were we not, as children, admonished by our parents: “Thou shalt not take the name of thy Lord God in vain?” And yet , how else can the Logos be taken?
We revel in the hymn of the Dialectician (1):
Hail to Thee, Logos,
Thou Vast Almighty Title,
In Whose name we conjure--
Our acts the partial representatives
Of Thy whole act...
Let the Word be dialectic with the Way--
Whichever the print
The other the imprint,
Thy name a Great Synecdoche,
Thy works a Grand Tautology.
Jehovah and Baal in one mighty All! And as if that wasn’t quite enough, our trained incapacity leads us to face the inevitable certainty that language implicitly places events into variations on the same plot over and over again forever, on and on up the topless ladder, blame it on them, blame it on us, it’s your fault, No, it’s MINE!
Our trained incapacity leads us to recognize that struggling for a fulcrum with which to ply the lever of truth is, of course, a fool’s errand. It is exactly as Burke notes of US territorial expansion, “Quite often a treaty that was made in good faith was broken for the simple reason that, even in the Capital, there was no one fixed authority to which such matters could be referred. The authoritative function did not reside in any personal office; it was in the pressure of the new technology and the waves of new settlers or promoters that came with it.” (2) Recognizing, as we do, the nomadic residence of authoritative function, leads us face to face with the paradox of absolutely denying absolute truth; but, as with any paradox, it’s hard to keep the whole thing in mind for long.
Such perplexities! Recall the fool in As You Like It: (3)
A fool, a fool! I met a fool i’ th’ forest, . . .
Who laid him down and bask’d him in the sun
and rail’d on Lady Fortune in good terms,...
“Good morrow, fool, “ quoth I. “No, sir,” quoth he
“Call me not fool till heaven hath sent me fortune.”
And then he drew a dial from his poke,
And looking on it with lack-lustre eye,
says very wisely, ‘It is ten o’clock.
Thus we may see.’ quoth he, ‘how the world wags.
‘Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one more hour ‘twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.’
A tale? A drama: the dancing of attitudes embodied in the telling of a thousand and one tales. We are nought but spinners of tales, tortured by recognition that the inherent limitations in all telling resulting from the terministic screens through which our sensibilities are converted to what we see and hear and feel as action. Even in the best of times, we feel our growing detachment from nature with the irritation of jet passengers asked to close their window shades so their fellow travelers can watch the movie. In the worst of times, like Peter Pan, we seek for our shadows as if, once found, some nymphet Wendy Darling could sew them back onto our feet.
It seems we are thus moved, like Peter leading his troop of lost boys to live in Never-never-land. Burke, precursing our current state of affairs, noted in 1976:
Regardless of whether the description and diagnosis of cultural frustrations, akin to the immobilized state of Sloth, help us to develop a practical remedy, the mere contemplation of human predicaments can perform a kind of cathartic function...(in other words) the puzzles of technology’s attenuatedly pandemoniac multiplicity attain a kind of ad interim quasi-resolution via the many works devoted to the discussion of its symptoms, the multiplicity of its situations thus being matched by the multiplicity of the studies that reflect it (4).
Oh, how gratifying that ad interim quasi-resolution! Yet no matter how fantastic our piratical adventures as we contemplate our puzzling predicaments, there are those moments when some needle of truth pricks our tender soles, chills our bones, and twists our stomachs: when we understand with cold clarity that catharsis will not heal us; that we are but instruments of our instruments, and that technology is the means to our perfection--our entelechial end and our final one. We are rotten with perfection; and perfection, increasingly denuded of nature, is slowly rotting.
But perhaps to achieve rotten perfection is the ultimate (perfect) fall. Burke notes that:
Henry Adams’ ‘law of the acceleration of history,’ by which he referred to the geometrically increasing pace of technological innovation and to which he would unresistingly abandon himself since the tide of history was irresistably flowing in that direction, could do service both as a synonym for what is now usually called an ‘exponential curve’ of society’s plunge into the future and as the analogue of what the “psychology” of a falling object would be if such a thing were involved in a personal rather than a sheerly physical mode of behavior, whereby Adams’ law of history’s acceleration would be a metaphorical law of falling bodies that are temperamentally jumping to a personal fall like Matthew Arnold’s Empedocles into Etna. (5)
KB suggests that we are guardians of a powerless vision and we can only strive to keep the vision alive, casting the tragedy in comic form, plying irony, facing technoculture with logoculture, striving to prevent our denaturing, keeping us in touch with the natural world that technology, in its drive to perfect us, strains to undo.(6) It rather reminds one of the Light Brigade, charging in desperate surety that we will achieve perfection before Sevastopol in spite of overwhelming evidence that our demise is imminent. We are not, alas, most of us, as facile with the wisdom of the ages as was Kenneth Burke; thus to carry on his brave work, especially as we are faced with the growing pressure of technological change, is an awesome task.
Burke understood this notion generally: He wrote, “Consider, for instance, what comparatively little damage an individual can do who has nothing but his body with which to be violent. Then consider what havoc he can do if he has access to a plane and an atom bomb” (7).
Further, mind that Burke was very much a creature of the age of literacy and that technology is increasingly dealing those media already their mutations. In order to popularize an understanding of humankind’s plight in the face of impending, if not looming, technological perfection, our facility must be with a new generation of media that use not figures and tropes nor even reason but the direct simulation of experience itself as their rhetoric. Not symbolic action but the fashion of its presentation--the means by which to alter predispositions to respond--has, in some sense, left Burke’s home arena. Welcome to the dazed and confused world of BOP.
For some years now, I have tried to assist students in coming to grips with their lives dramatistically by suggesting that language drives our frail egos to cast events always as tragedy or as comedy. We have thus a choice to see people as heroes and villains, or as fools and clowns, the latter pair being distinguished principally by virtue of the fact that the clowns know it. Thus I delight myself by imagining my Burkeian colleagues with bright red noses and cheeks, with bright white pancake makeup, with floppy shoes and ruffled collars much in the fashion that freshmen toastmasters may be urged to imagine their audiences in their underwear. I mean no disrespect, of course. After all, we have in mind trying to show physicists and mathematicians and industrialists and politicians how their strivings are leading the human race headlong to its own destruction. Is that not a clown’s errand?
A clown’s errand, or a jester’s or a fool’s--and here we are face to face with our own terminological dilemma, for, as Shakespeare had it: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool” (8)
Recently, on Burke-L, Ed Appel, after a somewhat impassioned plea for including even the likes of Pat Buchanan in the “full dialectic,” closed his commentary: “I remain your humble servant and court jester.” (9) I was brought, rather abruptly, to the startling realization that clowns and fools both “know it.” Who would dispute Ed Appel’s BOP credentials? Even without the initials, Ed, along with such notables as Bernie Brock and Barry Brummett and Barbara Biesecker, is indisputably a Big Bopper. Sometimes they clown, sometimes they fool, sometimes their irony and subtle wit wring our intellects dry, and sometimes, as do we all, they take themselves seriously. But in Burke’s wake, these folks are Big Boppers. Must they not suffer the Burkeian Occupational Psychosis to an extreme?
And if Ed Appel chooses to style himself as a jester, a fool, or a clown, then surely the Little Boppers--we common folk who plod along the halls of academe breaking out in hoots of laughter at the most inappropriate times--can joyously follow suit. None of us are all the time transcending life’s drama--and perhaps at the other extreme, every language user may well experience some moments of lucid doubt.
Just as cops and robbers are said to have similar psychological profiles (it takes a thief to catch a thief), heroes and villains, clowns and fools, have a great deal more in common with each other than they do with the other components of the drama: the supporting cast, the extras, and the audience.
Indeed, the critic’s choice--whenever the grip of BOP is flexed-- is to be hero, villain, clown, or fool. If we seize the dialectic, if we bunk or debunk, then we are alternately the heroes and villains of the play. We ripe and ripe and rot and rot, and as we pass, glimpses of eternity and visions of gobbling our very tails between our teeth dance in our heads. We are apt to be moved to irony, yet we find that irony is insufficient--irony aches--the agony of irony comes upon us like a fit of melancholy. We can express our wry understanding that black and white are ultimately the same color, face bravely the desperation with which our egos wish otherwise, feel agony at the inevitability, but ill feeling hardly heals the patient. Irony becomes a secret code for the initiated, but is it not a code of defeat? Ironic light shines to the rear, and thus indeed the vision we guard seems powerless.
And finally, Burke credits:
the essential ‘rationality’; of our inventions” with raising “much of the trouble. For mankind is in trouble indeed when the great accomplishments of human rationality raise more problems than can go well with Whitmanlike accents of the promissory. In technology we confront an objective fulfillment, since it is so rational in its essence, yet its very rationality is but a caricature of human reasonableness. When the implementations of rationality multiply our problems, we are conflicting with rationality itself. I would call such vexations the universal puzzle with which the Dynamo [modern technology] now Bicentennially confronts us (10).
As if all this is not disheartening enough, we must acknowledge that any urge toward healing the BOP–toward solving the universal puzzle--is nothing more or less than seeking to perfect the Bopper. Indeed, nota bene, the urge to perfect is the symbolic concomitant to the process of change over time: that is, evolution. Evolution involves survival of the fittest in the face of a changing natural environment. In the case of humankind, this survival depends as much on successfully adapting symbolic exchange as it does on the physiological adaptations of other species. While Darwinian evolution gives us the means to perfect our biological match with the environment, and technological evolution offers the means to simplify and control this process by reducing the complexities of the human-environmental interface, symbolic evolution gives us the means to adjust our notions of perfection accordingly. Isn’t that a laugh? Whether we take a humanistic or a technologistic tack in this enterprise (and a new wave of technologistical critics seems not unlikely in the dialectical progression of BOP) really doesn’t promise to matter all too much: the distress and angst of BOP will continue regardless. All we can do is strive to make the patient as comfortable as possible by giving him or her control of the codeine dispenser. Inasmuch as the multiplicity of situations is itself on the exponential curve, it is perhaps prudent to facilitate the practice of roping goads: by which I mean to cultivate among Boppers an intense practice of identifying any and every turn and aspiration toward perfection, implicit or explicit, in every communication. We must take these things out and expose them everywhere they appear. Note that the point is not to debunk but to de-perfect, to turn the goad into a comical non-sequitur. This is therapy, mind; something akin to doing crossword puzzles or chanting mantras. It is indeed as Arnold’s Empedocles had it:
I say, Fear no!. Life still
Leaves human effort scope.
But, since life teems with ill,
Nurse no extravagant hope.Because thou must not dream, thou need’st not then despair. (11)
Presented at the Modern
Language Association Conference
Toronto, December 1997
BURKE AND WILLIAMS CORRESPONDED PRIVATELY FOR 42 YEARS, beginning in 1921 when Burke was just 23; they occasionally reviewed each other's work in print; and importantly, they spent many days roaming Burke's farm in Andover, New Jersey, his retreat from what both men called the "tidal cesspools" of New York City (Williams wrote of Andover in his 1946 poem, "At Kenneth Burke's Place"). The relationship was one of mutual influence and empathy: Burke served as one of Williams's shrewdest, most infuriating, yet always receptive critics; Williams acted in less obvious ways as Burke's poetic conscience, Williams himself having managed to perform an aesthetic that Burke wished he had had the sensibility to enact in his own writing. In overly simplistic terms, Williams was the poet, Burke the critic, and while relationships grounded as such are common in literary history, they rarely have the vitality that this one did.
Williams scholars have, of course, paid the Burke-Williams connection considerable attention. Paul Mariani's biography, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (1981), is perhaps the first work to stress Burke's presence in Williams's life and thought. While interested less in the mutual influence of these two writers than in developing an alternative reading of Williams's poetry, Bernard Duffey's A Poetry of Presence (1986) reads Williams through the lens of Burke's pentad, his terminology in A Grammar of Motives for answering the question, "What is involved, when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it?" (xv). Brian Bremen's William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture (1993) argues that "Burke's 'damned theorizing' [Williams's way of putting it] is an essential means of understanding Williams's writing, just as Williams's writing provides an important critique of Burke's work" (62). Bremen offers by far the most thorough account of how Burke may have influenced Williams's aesthetics. Like Duffey, Bremen reads Williams via Burke, with the exception that the terminology is not limited to the pentad (which Burke and Williams hardly discussed) but encompasses specifically the ideas that Williams and Burke haggled over and that affected Williams most noticeably. Bremen doesn't really consider Williams's influence on Burke, but rather his understanding of Burke, with an emphasis on Williamss "critique."
I propose in this paper to exercise on a much smaller scale Bremen's strategy of reading the one through the other, though here the focus will be Williams's influence on Burke, not his understanding of Burke. That influence has not been discussed in any detail in the scholarship on either man. Although most of what I say today will focus on how Williams influenced Burkes understanding of rhetoric, I hope that it will nevertheless be of some interest to Williams scholars for what it reveals about his aesthetic(s) when translated and transformed in the work of a writer whose primary interest is theory. I propose to set aside for a time the philosophical permutations and paradoxes of ascribing literary influence and instead will point to one instance in their correspondence when Williamss prodding compelled Burke to reformulate his approach to and conceptualization of rhetoric, the element of Burkes work that Im most interested in.
It was serendipitous for me to discover, after poring over the hundreds of letters exchanged between the two, that the most spirited moments in the long correspondence came during the time when both men were at pivotal and very productive moments in their lives. Burkes A Grammar of Motives had just been published and Williamss first volume of Paterson would appear shortly, when Burke in October 1945 writes to Williams about bellyaching and philosophy, beginning with a gag and setting in motion a healthy exchange on the nature of the differences between poetic and philosophical orientations that would last several years:
A philosopher and a merchant [are] in a dreadful storm at sea. The merchant took it quite calmly; the philosopher was very agitated. Then, after the storm had been successfully weathered, the merchant began twitting the philosopher. "You, who are supposed to be an exemplar of philosophic calmlook how much more frightened you were than I was." And the philosopher answered: "True, but look how much more I had to lose." (Oct. 17, 1945; East)1
As he often did, Burke then complained to Williams about his struggles to begin his newest book, A Rhetoric of Motives, his sequel to A Grammar of Motives and the second volume in the planned Symbolic of Motives: "[A]ll is tolerable when Im moving ahead in my work. But at the moment Im lying sluggish sans breeze, not yet having got the new direction going for the next book. And at this stage, Im just a plain simple taker of my own pulse" (Oct. 17, 1945; East).
A few weeks later, Williams visits Burke at Andover, and their meeting not only prompts Williamss poem "At Kenneth Burkes Place," but also seems to help Burke plot the course for the Rhetoric:
I saw the beginnings of many valuable conversations between us sticking their heads up as we passed them by yesterdayI particularly liked your manner of explanation when you lowered your voice and spoke quietly of the elementals that interest us both, the humane particulars of realization and communication. I woke in the night with a half-sentence on my metaphorical lips[:] "the limitations of form." It seemed to mean something of importance and to have been connected with what we had been saying. (Nov. 10, 1945; Pattee)
Indeed. Burke had already written about rhetoric some 15 years earlier, in the section of Counter-Statement entitled "Lexicon Rhetoricae," which takes as its key term form and its permutations in poetics. But Burke wanted to broaden the range of rhetoric in this next book, which would ultimately take identification as its key term, something akin to what Williams had described in his letter as "the elementals that interest us both, the humane particulars of realization and communication."
Burke often spoke specifically about his difficulties writing the Rhetoric, admitting in a letter to Hugh Duncan that he hadnt appreciated Aristotles achievement in his book on rhetoric until Burke himself had tried to give the subject its full due in the twentieth century. "There goes Aristotle, stealing my thunder again," he would say. "That guy makes me tired." So Williamss prodding came at a critical juncture. He recognized early on that Burke was embarking on a project that mattered deeply to him.
So in early 1947, Williams reintroduces the topic that had always been a contentious one for them: the differences and resemblancesthe "investments"of poetry and philosophy. Williams mentions having read Wilhelm Reichs The Function of Orgasm: The Discovery of the Orgone and having been taken not only by Reichs clinical research, but also by his critique of Freuds idea that art was a sublimation of sex: "Art is NOT a neurosis," Williams writes (Jan. 9, 1947; Pattee). He writes another long letter the next day in response to a letter from Burke that describes a negative review of Reichs work. (Reich, by the way, was sent to a federal penitentiary in 1955 for having violated inter-state commerce laws and fraudulently marketed his Orgone Box as an orgasmic panacea.) Williams defends Reichs basic stand that "uninhibited (not profligate) sex freedom is the only way in which neurosis can be eliminated" (Jan. 10, 1947; Pattee). Burke responds a few weeks later: "Our trouble is, I suppose, what it always was. All your life youve been railing against philosophy. And all my life, Ive been saying, Listen to that guy philosophizing. Like Roethke, he thinks hes against philosophy; but all hes really against is good philosophy. He hands out bad philosophy by the barrel full" (Jan. 30, 1947; East).
Williamss interest in Reich clarifies for Burke what he sees as Williamss identification with poetry: "I used to think that your poetry was the rounding-out of your mediinating [sic] (sorta the grace atop nature). But now I think I see it all more accurately: poetry is for you the antithesis of your pills. Thats why you have to shout, every more urgently as ill creeps up, Poetry equals health" (Jan. 30, 1947; East). Burke here echoes his claim in The Philosophy of Literary Form that literature is equipment for living. But he also begins to formulate the stance hell take in the Rhetoric, specifically that a poetics should be subsumed in a theory of rhetoric, to the extent that literature is for use. Williamss poetry functions practically to alter his gauging of his situation and helps him formulate a response to it that functions as an adjustment to conditions brought about by symbolic transformation. (Burke will make such a claim in the opening pages of the Rhetoric with regard to imagery in Miltons and Arnolds poetry.)
Williams, of course, takes some exception to Burkes attempt to place him in this way:
I have nothing to say about philosophyexcept that it had better keep its hands off that which does not concern it. . . . Never in my life have I thought to equate poetry with health. All I said was that the tentacles of poetry are signs of a living tissue, perhaps comparable to the same thing in the best philosophy (i.e. the least interfering). (Jan. 31, 1947; Pattee).
In a second note written the same day, Williams writes the line over which he and Burke will haggle in many letters to follow: "It is impossible for me to contradict myselfexcept logically[,] which means nothing" (Jan. 31, 1945; Pattee). Williams concludes his letters that day by inviting further response from Burke, saying that he would "enjoy . . . analogizing my wit as poet with your wit as philosopher" (Jan. 31, 1947; Pattee).
Burke responds with a very long letter in which he tells the story of how the "G.D." (Grand Diagnostician) stirs up this controversy with "L.C." ("Logic-Chopper"), then leaves L.C. hanging with "an oath in the dark" (Feb. 1, 1947; East). Never at a loss for words, Burke goes on to explain how his Rhetoric would, if it turned out as planned, explore the many ramifications of property, beginning with the notion the "[t]he individual, to be moral, social, communicative, etc., identifies himself with property" (Feb. 1, 1947; East). We now know, however, that the Rhetorics key term is identification and that property becomes abstracted further--into essence and then substanceso that the aim of rhetoric, acting through identification and, of course, symbolically, becomes consubstantiality, a desire to share substance, however ambiguously that may be imagined or verbalized by interlocutors.
I have jumped ahead a bit to the content of the Rhetoric because I want to set in relief how Williams may have influenced Burke as early as 1947 to reconsider his plan for the book. Williams had already noted Burkes "quiet seriousness" when they had discussed "the humane particulars of realization and communication" and the "elementals that concern us both." (Williams envisioned their identification in "At Kenneth Burkes Place" as a common bond with "the earth under our feet.") The introduction of Reich into the mix and the ongoing dispute over poetic versus philosophic with combine to prompt Burkes reformulation of rhetoric so that it can account for not just struggles over property (the logomachy, the war of words) but for any strategic use of language, including poetry, since in Burkes view poetry is always "addressed."
Burkes urge to account for poetic principles in his system of rhetoric turns out to be most evident in the early and somewhat puzzling pages of the Rhetoric. It was Williams himself who gave Burke the idea to begin the book as he did. Those first 18 pages of the Rhetoric have always been puzzling to me, and Im sure to other Burkeians. Burke himself says in his introduction to the book that "readers who would prefer to begin with [the key term of identification], rather than worry a text until it is gradually extricated, might go lightly through the opening pages, with the intention of not taking hold in earnest until they come to the general topic of Identification on page 19" (xiii).
In addition to reintroducing Reichs notion of pleasure into their dispute over logic, Williams proposes in his long letter of Feb. 4, 1947 that he, Burke, Auden, and two other unnamed poet-philosopher get together some weekend to "discuss technical advances that had been made in the writing of poetry in modern times." Williams has high hopes for such a summit: "Reams of incompetencies could be wiped out in a day" (Feb. 4, 1947; Pattee). They would bring with them five texts for study, the first of which would be Miltons Samson Agonistes because of the amazing technical skill it demonstrates. Unfortunately, this meeting never takes place, but Burke does show us where he would go with Milton in those opening pages of the Rhetoric. Burke writes an essay called "The Imagery of Killing" for the Hudson review in 1948, then uses this essay to begin his book (the only essay in the book published previously). The essay begins with a discussion of Samson Agonistes and Miltons identification with Samson, who was in turn identified with God. "[S]electing texts that are generally treated as pure poetry," Burke explains, "we try to show how rhetorical and dialectical considerations are called for" (xiii). In Burkes view, "[T]he imagery of slaying is a special case of transformation, and transformation involves the ideas and imagery of identification" (RM 20). In those opening pages of the Rhetoric, Burke explains the "use" of Miltons Samson (for the poet), the suicidal motive, self-immolation in Matthew Arnold, the quality of Arnolds imagery, the imaging of transformation, dramatic and philosophic terms for essence, "Tragic" terms for personality types, and "imagery at face-value."
I believe that although Burke invites us to skip ahead in the Rhetoric, these opening pages make a fundamental link between poetry and rhetoric. Burke did not suddenly or simply abandon his earlier interest in articulating the principles of aesthetics (so evident in Counter-Statement). Like Dramatism in its early formulations, Burkes rhetorical theory is erected atop poetic principles, so that full appreciation of Burke as a rhetorician demands that we account for his interest in the alchemic moment that is the poetic process. Williamss steady and rigorous questioning of Burkes project forced him (if he was already not so inclined) to situate his understanding of the symbolic motive writ large in the context of what he called the "poetic metaphor" (see the closing pages of Permanence and Change). At critical moments in the development of his "system," poetry functions as Burkes terministic screen. It is perhaps one of his more remarkable achievements that he could mine the terminological resources of a poetics in such a way that his rather bold forays into areas of communication not normally thought poetic (in principle) led to conclusions that (only now, when the boundaries between poetry and theory have blurred) now seem inevitable. The unconscious element of persuasion which identification describes has its source in the poetic motive, something which Williams pressed upon Burkes sensibility for many years and which Burke had always to return.
1. Quotations from the Williams-Burke correspondence have been drawn either from James H. Easts unpublished 1994 dissertation, One Along Side the Other: The Collected Letters of William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Burke (abbreviated henceforth as East) or from the letters themselves, many of which are housed in the Rare Books Room of the Pattee Library at Penn State University under the curatorship of Charles Mann (abbreviated henceforth as Pattee).
Bremen, Brian A. William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture. NY: Oxford UP, 1993.
Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.
---. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. 1935. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.
Duffey, Bernard I. A Poetry of Presence: The Writing of William Carlos Williams. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1986.
East, James H. One Along Side the Other: The Collected Letters of William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Burke. Ph.D. Diss. U North Carolina, Greensboro, 1994.
Mariani, Paul L. William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.