"At the Very Start, One's Terms Jump to Conclusions": Kenneth Burke, Rhetoric, and Ideological Inquiry (A Position Statement)

David Blakesley

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.