“Rhetoric, Cybernetics, and the Work of the Body in Burke’s Body of Work," by Jeff Pruchnic

Pruchnic, Jeff. “Rhetoric, Cybernetics, and the Work of the Body in Burke’s Body of Work.” Rhetoric Review 25.3 (2006): 275-96.

Reviewed by Drew M. Loewe, Texas Christian University

Canonization is a peculiar phenomenon. As soon as a rhetorician becomes canonized enough to warrant concern for assembling and preserving his or her work, the spirit of hierarchy that goads all humans—and scholars perhaps more than most—shifts the ground for arguments about canonization from the rhetorician’s body of work as a whole to his or her individual works as against one another. Which works are most important? Which are more (or less) useful in approaching different problems? Which are the “mature” works and which are lesser, preliminary works?

Jeff Pruchnic takes up these questions in his recent Rhetoric Review essay, “Rhetoric, Cybernetics, and the Work of the Body in Burke’s Body of Work.” Among Pruchnic’s aims is to refigure the place of Burke’s early works Counter-Statement (CS) and Permanence and Change (PC) in the Burkean canon. Pruchnic sets out to build a case for Burke’s early work not as a preliminary, immature pathway to some larger, more essential goal, but instead as important in its own right for understanding one of the many inquiries to which Burke applied his critical stethoscope: the relationships between rhetoric, affect, and the body, or, as Pruchnic puts it, “how corporeality affects rhetoric” (293). Pruchnic’s evaluations of the place of Burke’s early works within the Burkean Canon serve as a kind of frame narrative for an argument nested within the frame. If rhetoric is an essentially human art and practice, then this nested argument addresses the environment within which characterizations such as “essentially human” carry significance and consequences. Phrasing the matter in one of Burke’s own terms from his definition of human beings, what difference does it make that we are “Being bodies” (qtd. in Coe 332-33)?

As Pruchnic points out, Burke’s long “struggle against the machine” and his efforts to define what makes human beings human, complicated as these efforts were by advances in technology, carry implications for understanding what—and where—the core differences between humans, machines, and animals are (276). These are not idle questions or mere grist for escapist fiction. Burke’s lifelong examinations of how rhetorical form works, how identification and persuasion can be built, and how the nonsymbolic motion and symbolic action differ entail the need to understand the qualitative differences between bio-organisms, machines, and their environments.

Pruchnic begins by drawing out some of Burke’s arguments for these qualitative differences. For Burke, even though humans, animals, and machines share obvious similarities, only (embodied) humans have the capacity for sophisticated emotions such as humor, shame, malice, and the like (277). Pruchnic argues that, although Burke himself consistently attended to human embodiment and its implications for “affective and asignifying corollaries,” critics have often treated the role of the body in Burkean rhetoric as marginal rather than as central, with the symbolic playing the role of the Sacred and the body relegated to the role of the Profane (277-78).

To challenge this treatment, Pruchnic puts Burke’s earlier works into conversation with cybernetics, a scientific movement that arose in the 1940s. Cybernetics is an interdisciplinary inquiry that, like rhetoric, yields as many definitions of its scope as there are practitioners of its art; however, some useful contours can be mapped. From its inception in the 1940s, cybernetics sought to examine similarities between living systems and machines (Heylighen and Joslyn 156). In brief, “first-wave” cybernetics, as Pruchnic points out, was largely concerned with understanding the functional similarities between organisms and machines in terms of control and communication and concerned with “transforming human perception and response” (278, 280). Pruchnic highlights the rhetorical origin of the term cybernetics as a term Norbert Wiener coined from Wiener’s reading of the Gorgias (289). Pruchnic cites second-order cyberneticist Satosi Watanabe’s description of the similarities between rhetoric and cybernetics: both are “flexible and adaptive methods” for shaping internal and external worlds (qtd. in Pruchnic 289).

Pruchnic acknowledges that Burke consistently resisted cybernetics (278). See, for example, Burke’s insistence on a “qualitative empirical difference between mental action and mechanical motion” in the context of his dismissive characterization of cybernetics appearing in the (much later) Rhetoric of Religion (40, 188). Nevertheless, argues Pruchnic, Burke’s work shares certain affinities with cybernetic inquiry (278). These include its very interdisciplinarity, an attempt to transcend mere behaviorism while avoiding the swamps of depth psychology, attention to both internal and external persuasion and control, and a focus on the similarities and differences between “human and machinic cognition and symbolicity” (278).

Pruchnic usefully brings in Eve Kokovsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank’s notion of the “cybernetic fold” (278). The cybernetic fold is an attempt to map the effects that the possibility (today, the actuality) of immensely powerful computers has on theorizing about the human brain, consciousness, and biological processes, based on a model with more than two but less than an infinite number of components (infinity>n>2) (278). This “infinity>n>2 calculus,” argues Pruchnic, “demands that a theorist work immanently within an established system (though aware of its limitations) toward a given aim” and avoids, on the one hand, the reductions of crude binaries and, on the other hand, the loss of utility and explanatory power occasioned by infinite regress (279).

As Pruchnic points out, Burke’s writings are replete with such systems­­­­--what Burke characterizes as “scope and reduction”; witness the pentadic (hexadic) elements, the master tropes, and the like (279). This pragmatic, heuristic orientation opposes the reductions of both biological behaviorism and informatic message/signal formulae and yields, in Pruchnic’s words, “highly differentiable capacities for response,” through, as Burke describes in CS, artistic manipulation of affective responses of the “blood, brains, heart, and bowels” (qtd. in 279). Thus, the body is more than just a mechanistic behavioral receptor or a site where some higher, purer rhetoric (regrettably, grudgingly) takes effect. Instead, affective forms such as tropes resonate along dual physiological and symbolic vectors (284-85). The “conditioned” response that a trope evokes entails the possibility of, in Burke’s terms, “restatements with a difference”:  in short, conditioning makes a space for “reconditioning” (285). What, then, of the human subject, individuality, reason, the mind?

Pruchnic begins to answer these questions by examining Burke’s “Metabiological” concept of human communication. Like the early cyberneticists, Burke explored (in PC) the interconnected and interdependent nature of body and environment and of the relationships between individuals (286). Among the payoffs of this cybernetic perspective is a richer and more useful understanding of the interrelationships between the biological and the affective; in this view, the biological is not to be merely “subsume[d]...into a subject to be either cognitively interpreted or dismissed as a social construction” (286-87). For Burke, the value of metabiology is “’avoiding the oversimplified reduction to a blunt choice between ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’” (qtd. in 288).

Pruchnic carries Burke’s refusal to traffic in a simple binary of rational vs. irrational forward into an examination of Perspective by Incongruity, which Pruchnic describes as “a singularizing technology for altering structures of interpretation by working by the same logic that creates and sustains these structures” (288). Noting the influence of both Nietzsche and Henri Bergson on Burke’s development of PBI, Pruchnic focuses on Burke’s readings of Bergson’s work on metaphor and on humor (289-91). Metaphor and humor are two human responses that, operating outside of (but not wholly divorced from) the logics of rationality, multiply perspectives. Thus, the payoff of Perspective by Incongruity, argues Pruchnic, is that “Burke gets us much closer to the forces shaping structures of thinking than any deliberation on the process could achieve” (292). Examination of how extra-rational forces shape human action is, Pruchnic notes, “perhaps the most consistent topic” of Burke’s writings (292). With Metabiology, argues Pruchnic, a moment arises where Burke’s efforts to provide the richest interpretive schema (aesthetic form, dramatism, logology) “leads us instead to the creation of tools for cultivating singular and differentiating shifts in interpretation” (292).

The concluding paragraphs of Pruchnic’s essay dilate perspective back to his frame narrative of the place of early works in the Burkean canon. Pruchnic contends that Burke’s earlier works on “the power of form and habituated structure to shape perception” could provide different and potentially more valuable tools for the projects of “contemporary rhetoric” than do more well-used tools such as “humanist rationality, dialectic, or social-constructivism” (294). Rationality, dialectic, and social constructivism resonate strongly with what N. Katherine Hayles has described in another context as information losing its body. Overall, Pruchnic invites us (as his conclusion’s heading reads) to “see differently,” not only in terms of these works’ place in the Burkean canon, but also in terms of a richer reading of the consequences of our “Being bodies.”


Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. 1961. U of California P, 1970.

Coe, Richard M. “Defining Rhetoric—and Us.” JAC Online Archive. Online journal archive. 1990. 15 Aug. 2006. <http://www.jaconlinejournal.com/archives/vol10.1/coe-defining.pdf>

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.

Heylighen, Francis, and Cliff Joslyn. "Cybernetics and Second-Order Cybernetics." Encyclopedia of Physical Science and Technology. Ed. R.A. Meyers. 3rd ed. 17 vols. New York: Academic P 2001. 01 May 2003 <http://www.nomads.usp.br/pesquisas/design/objetos_interativos/arquivos/restrito/heylighen_Cybernetics%20and%20Second-Order%20Cybernetics.pdf>.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 License.