KBS 2014: Seminars

Currently, we have planned for the conference the following seminars:

Kenneth Burke and New Materialisms

Steven B. Katz
Pearce Professor of Professional Communication
Clemson University

It is well known in Burke circles that KB was vitally concerned with questions of “substance”—material vs. rhetorical, motion vs. motive, causality vs. free will—and the effects of scientism and determinism on our understanding of the human animal as a symbol using being. What Diana Coole and Samantha Frost in their anthology have labeled “New Materialisms” are emerging in the twenty-first century—but across the entire curricula, from computer engineering and life sciences, through social and political sciences, to posthuman philosophies and rhetorics. What all these movements may have in common might be simplified and called an ‘animated empiricism’ in which objects and artifacts, long neglected in “the situation,” are increasingly recognized as having their own, powerful agency (what Levi Bryant dubbed A Democracy of Objects).

Can Burke’s discussion and analysis of “substance”— as dramatistically rather than mechanically motivated, as casuistic rather than universal categories, as the result of rhetorical deliberation and persuasion rather than mere fact and sheer force—help us grapple with and understand new materialisms? For instance, what might Burkean rhetoric reveal about the similarities, distinctions, and relations between objects as ‘actants’, and the symbolic of the human body? Between classical literacy and what Ulmer in Avatar Emergencies calls “flash reason”? Between “speculative realism” (Harman) and pentadic screens? How might Burke deal with the philosophies and sciences of new materialisms, e.g., informatics, cybernetics, actor-network theories, object oriented ontologies, digital and virtual realities, and other metaphysical empiricisms, as well as some of the physical products of new materialisms, e.g., radical (prosthetic/technological) enhancement, genetic modification, synthetic biology, nanotechnologies, and biosocial engineering (as eagerly anticipated by George Church and Ed Regis in Regenesis)?

All of these questions have profound implications not only for philosophies and rhetorics of agency, but also for political and environmental sciences, as Vibrant Matter (Bennett) and Ecology without Nature (Morton) demonstrate; for gender, queer, and race studies; and for the rhetoric and ethics of our relations to each other, to our machines, to our avatars, and to “the Other.” In light of the new materialisms, what are our definitions of symbolic action, “community,” the “individual,” human consciousness itself?

In this seminar, we will ecstatically together explore some of the questions and issues raised above by consulting and applying selected Burke scholarship (TBA) to a sampling of readings representing some of these new materialisms (to be distributed to seminar participants prior to the conference).

The Problem of Substance in Kenneth Burke’s Corpus

Bryan Crable, Villanova University
Clarke Rountree, University of Alabama in Huntsville
Richard Thames, Duquesne University
David Cratis Williams, Florida Atlantic University

Substance has been a central term in Burke’s theory of human symbol-using at least since A Grammar of Motives, where its paradoxical nature is connected to the problem of motives. This emphasis on substance continues in A Rhetoric of Motives, where consubstantiality is the aim of identification, making separate entities substantially “one.” And, less well known, Burke promised to consider substance and identity in A Symbolic of Motives (a version of which was published recently, so that commentary on it has scarcely begun).

Marie Hochmuth Nichols called Burke’s analysis of substance and its connection to identification “his most basic contribution to the philosophy of rhetoric” (Marie Hochmuth, "Kenneth Burke and the 'New Rhetoric,'" Quarterly Journal of Speech 38.2 [1952]: 137). Weldon B. Durham, who published an essay in The Quarterly Journal of Speech in 1980 on Burke’s idea of substance, notes that “Burke appropriated a term in philosophical disrepute and spun out of it half a life’s work” (Weldon B. Durham, "Kenneth Burke's Concept of Substance," Quarterly Journal of Speech 66.4 [1980]: 354).

Although most Burkeans have a working knowledge of Burke’s paradox of substance and of consubstantiality, there is much more to be scrutinized in this important concept.

This seminar seeks to explore Burke’s conception of substance and its place in his theory of human symbol using. It will revisit some of the thinkers in Burke’s day whom he charged with banishing the word substance from philosophy, and try to better understand his assertion that “in banishing the term, far from banishing its functions one merely conceals them” (Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives 21.) Generally, then, the seminar will address the following questions:

  • Which thinkers banished the term substance, particularly in Burke’s day, and why?
  • Why do the functions of terms for substance persist, even if the terms for it are not used?
  • Without terms for substance, how have theorists “worked around” the problem of substance?
  • How does Burke define substance?
  • What role does substance play in Burke’s theories?
  • Is substance a central, if unacknowledged term, in contemporary theories of symbol-using?

Readings will include excerpts from theoretical texts that use, eschew, or dismiss the term substance; Durham’s and others’ essays on Burke and substance, and Burkean texts that examine the concept.

Given the complexity of the issues surrounding this central and disputed concept, the seminar will feature four co-leaders to ensure a variety of perspectives and a depth of insights into these issues.

Kenneth Burke and the Digital Archive

Ethan Sproat, Utah Valley University

This practice-oriented seminar will work through the complexity and challenges and rewards of digital archival work.Full description to follow.

Identification Redux

David Blakesley, Clemson University

Identification is still a contested term surround by ambiguity radiating from its common sense status as an ideal. But what if Burke did not see it as such. This seminar asks this question, and others, working through key issues in rhetoric (including visual rhetoric), neuroscience, and more.