Prophesying after the Event

David Blakesley

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.[1]

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.[2] 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.”

Works Cited

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.