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.

The Kenneth Burke Digital Archive Initiative

Ethan Sproat, Utah Valley University

Kenneth Burke developed his entire symbol-use project throughout the 20th century when our theories of communication were out-paced only by our means of communication. However, even though KB was one of the most influential theorists of human communication in a time of so many advances in communication technology, there is an apparent dearth of audio or video footage of KB. Yet such a dearth is only “apparent” because there actually are many existing audio and visual recordings of KB lecturing, performing readings, or participating in discussions or interviews. Most KB scholars have not seen or heard much of this footage for two basic reasons: first, the existing footage is not centrally accessible or cataloged in any one place; second, such footage is often in a medium that prohibits broad distribution (as with various analog recording technologies).

Accordingly, this seminar seeks to establish a Kenneth Burke Digital Archive Initiative with the following goals:

  • Coordinate efforts among KB enthusiasts to identify the current repositories of all existing audio and video recordings of KB.
  • Assemble historical notes and details surrounding each recording.
  • Catalog all these in one resource through the KB Journal.
  • Work with individual repositories to digitally transfer all existing KB footage that is not already digitized.

The first day of this seminar will provide an overview of some notable KB footage that has undergone partial or complete digital transfer. These include three projects that have received attention at previous KB conferences and one new project that is particularly apropos to this year’s KB Conference in St. Louis. This new project involves audio recordings of KB performing a reading and participating in an extended discussion (moderated by poet Howard Nemerov) while KB was the Visiting Hurst Professor at Washington University in St. Louis during the 1970-71 school year.

The second day of this seminar will address the array of logistical challenges facing a Kenneth Burke Digital Archive Initiative and some strategies for addressing them. Also during this session, seminar participants will begin actively participating in the Kenneth Burke Digital Archive Initiative. We will meet in a computer lab, and seminar participants will begin a coordinated effort to find additional repositories of audio or video footage of KB. Working from a list of universities and schools KB visited, seminar participants will scour special collections databases and online library resources for hints of currently-not-in-print KB materials (text, audio, video, etc.) that are either not yet digitized or not yet on the Kenneth Burke Society radar—i.e. materials that might be candidates for digital archive work.

On the final day of this seminar, participants will collect their findings and make plans for further online participation in the Kenneth Burke Digital Archive Initiative.

Identification Redux

David Blakesley, Clemson University

In naming identification an aim of rhetoric, Burke may or may not intend to valorize identification for its own sake:

identification is affirmed with earnestness precisely because there is division. Identification is compensatory to division. If [people] were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity. If [people] were wholly and truly of one substance, absolute communication would be of [humanity’s] very essence. (RM 22).

We are divided, and so we desire consubstantiality. We are identified, and so we desire division. In acts of identification or division, we imagine ourselves to be alike or different. And thus identification in the imaginary is a rhetorical process as well as the act of decoding and encoding signs. Burke saw identification—and with it, the corresponding situation of division—as both the condition and aim of rhetoric. The desire for identification, which Burke calls consubstantiality, is premised on its absence, on the condition of our division from one another. There would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim our unity, Burke says, if we were already identical. Consubstantiality, with its roots in the ambiguous substance (sub-stance), may be purely an expression of desire, an identity of attitude and act in a symbolic, visual, and (even) emotional realm, an assertion of or desire for identities and divisions in a limitless realm of ambiguity.

This seminar will focus on the familiar and often competing concepts of identification and division in recent scholarship, as well as their implications for rhetorical theory, critical inquiry, and Burke’s own (non)system.

  • What motives might we (or does Burke) associate with identification and division?
  • To what extent does Burke idealize or privilege identification in his understanding of rhetoric?
  • How might Burke’s conceptions of identification and division help us understand motives grounded in racial or gendered ethics?
  • Recent extensions and critiques (some of which seminar participants will read in advance) have argued that Burke valorizes identification and in so doing has minimized or ignored other motives for rhetoric. What critiques have most effectively challenged Burke’s concepts of identification or division?
  • What material bases for identification or division does Burke imagine?
  • From the identity politics of Facebook and social media to the virtual and augmented realities of Google Glass, in what ways do emergent technologies and interfaces extend or limit identifications or expose or increase division?
  • What is the visual basis of identification and division (e.g., in film, media, design, image)

Seminar participants will be asked to submit a short position statement (250-500 words) addressing one of these questions, or one they want to bring to the attention of others. A short list of reading suggestions will be distributed by mid-June or earlier.