Review: The Rhetoric of Intention in Human Affairs by Gary Woodward. Reviewed by Raymond Blanton

Woodward, Gary. The Rhetoric of Intention in Human Affairs. New York: Lexington Books, 2013. Print. 160 pages. $80.00 (hardcover); $79.99 (eBook)

Raymond Blanton, The University of Nebraska-Lincoln

"A motive is not some fixed thing, like a table, which one can go and look at. It is a term of interpretation." —Kenneth Burke

"Fantasy, imagination, and projection provide imperfect but useful frameworks for studying acts of indefinite construal. Each assumes a level of subjectivity that must be embraced if we are to plumb the deep enigmas of communication" (134). Embracing the subjectivity of the imperfect but useful within indefinite construal is our charge. Woodward's stark words, drawing from the rhetorical work of Walter Fisher and (utmost) Kenneth Burke as well as from the psychoanalytic and social constructivist work of Kenneth Gergen, mark the end (and beginning) of Gary Woodward's The Rhetoric of Intention in Human Affairs.

To make clear the end from the beginning, Woodward's notion of "imperfect but useful" marks the strength and area of most want in the book. Put differently, Woodward's work is most useful in broaching the subject and providing varied and interesting approaches to the implications of intention in human affairs. It is (naturally) imperfect in its implementation of balance as it pertains to the means of "imperfect but useful."

More specifically, emphasizing intention as an "assumed purpose behind our acts," Woodward notes that we "usually make our way in life with the belief that we are the authors of our actions: that intentions are the markers of our values, and they can be known" (x). For these reasons, Woodward details the means by which humans "guess" at motivations and offer "air-brushed reasons" as tonal indications of said imperfections. On one hand, merely emphasizing the imperfections of human motives is unremarkable. However, on the other hand, when taken into consideration with the representative case studies that Woodward utilizes, all in all, the work is a worthwhile and essential venture into the underworld of why.

Contextually, Woodward's Rhetoric of Intention extends the work he began in The Perfect Response: Studies of The Rhetorical Personality (Lexington, 2010), where he sought to isolate "traits of character" to designate the substance of "rhetorical personality" (xiii). Here, Woodward expounds upon such ideas with a particular focus on the "acute inference-making skills" of adept rhetors.

Specifically: "We will take discourse about intentional action on its own terms: not necessarily as representations of "the truth"—if that is even possible—but as a revealing window that helps us see how we make sense of the world" (xii).

Through this window, Woodward details our compulsive quest to "join purpose to acts," which is present in essentially all human exchanges, where "sociality provides the impetus" and "language provides the means" (129). Generally, The Rhetoric of Intention is a "broad map" for the various categories of naming intentions that so easily drift across narrow boundaries. Particularly, using a wide variety of examples from fiction, popular journalism, film, theatre, painting, political rhetoric, television, cultural analysis, and personal experience, Woodward makes a valuable contribution to beginning a broader conversation about motive. It's a good start, in other words. In his own words, the why of Woodward's aims are:

"Whether looking inward or outward for the springs of motivation, what sets this study apart from other discussions is our focus specifically on how it is named. Where most theorists of intention treat the idea as arising in thought and existing behind a dense fog of alleged first causes, the approach here places emphasis on how we express it. Our interest is not primarily on tracing the interiority of intention within an agent or author, but its forms captured in moments when we are addressing others." (x)

In light of Woodward's self-described aims, I will assess the book, first, structurally, followed by an argumentative and stylistic assessment. Then, I will situate the book's contributions to the work of Kenneth Burke and conclude with some critical reflections.

Structurally, I found The Rhetoric of Intention to be accessible and concise, modest in length (at 144 pages) while also being thorough and clear. Woodward's rendering of the mercurial nature of the human impulse to know why—a human propensity that we are inundated with but perhaps think very little about—makes Intention both a worthwhile and meaningful contribution to the subject of intention and various realms of disciplinary and critical thought.  

Woodward develops his perspectives across six chapters. The first chapter, "How We Know What We Can't," argues for the centrality of narrative as the archetypal form of reconstructed experience (52) by delineating a simple tiered approach to understanding the rhetoric of purpose. This is foundational to the work. Woodward's tiered approach to contemplating the process of "locating intention," whether in self or others, lists towards either taking the strangeness out of behavior, giving context to an action, or constructing meaning and identity (xiv). More specifically, Woodward's offers three tiers for describing intention:

First Tier:       What someone says about their own intentions.
Second Tier:   What someone says about another's intentions.
Third Tier:     What someone concludes about representations of intentions issuing from other parties.

Each of the subsequent chapters adumbrates specific contexts for exploring the nuances of these tiers via conspiracies, theatre and performance, journalistic writing, legal theory, and a "super-agency implied in belief in a higher power," respectively.

The second chapter, "Them: Conspiracies, Disasters, and Presumed Culpability," draws out the nuances of intention in conspiracy theorists who identify design within random events. For Woodward, conspiracy fantasies are difficult to overcome because they are, partially, "self-fulfilling." In the third chapter, "Theatre, Acting, and the Sources of Motivation," Woodward explicates how a character's motivation evolves—namely how theatre functions as an "all-encompassing idea: metaphor, model and mode" for conveying the "durable mandates of our nature" (53).

The fourth chapter, "The Telepathic Journalist," works to juxtapose the realms of reporting with the proclivity of critiques to frame behavior within a given community's norms of conduct. Woodward's image here is of a pilot flying a plane through fog without the benefit of instruments (72). The fifth chapter, "Legal Benchmarks for Establishing Intent," argues for the fundamental basis of motives in the establishment of proof of guilt in a criminal act. In short, humans tend to believe that accounting for the why is necessary in the cause of justice (93). The sixth and final chapter, "God's Plan: Agency, and the Quandary of Divine Intention" addresses how the devout constitute perspective with regards to divine intervention. How do we account for the visceral pain and suffering so evident in human experience with the idea of an all powerful and omniscient deity (114)?

Argumentatively, though Woodward is adept at offering a multiplicity of perspectives or representative cases from which to consider motives, I found the work wanting in its ability to render the sentiment of the book's final sentence apparent. In other words, when Woodward emphasizes the "imperfect but useful" framework for studying intention, I found the work to stress the former rather than the latter. To be fair, his aim was to offer a "revealing window" into how we make sense of the world of why. In short, the window mixes panes of opaque and transparent. Stylistically, The Rhetoric of Intention in Human Affairs is highly accessible. It is erudite and colloquial, thorough while pithy, and selective while versatile. It is likely to appeal to a broad contingent of scholars and thinkers across disciplines.

Perhaps most applicable to KB Journal readers is Woodward's extension and exploration of Burke's foundational rhetorical work on motives. From the outset, Woodward draws upon the "symbol using" elements of Kenneth Burke to conclude, along with Walter Fisher, that we are the "species that needs to know why" (ix). Susan Foss states the case simply as addressing an important issue that is widely ignored by rhetorical scholars.

Perhaps one of the most useful elements of Woodward's Rhetoric of Intention can be found in the corpus of Kenneth Burke. To be more plain, what I intend to suggest here is that perhaps the imperfections of intention can be illuminated more broadly by giving attention to overarching signatures across works or time rather than only in isolated instances. For instance, what Burke's method of textual criticism reveals is that his method is subservient to his methodology. More specifically, the critic seeks to develop not only a method but also a methodology that is formed by reference to the "collected revelation" of accumulated critical lore (Philosophy of Literary Form, 67-68).

How do we make sense of Burke's potential motives? We comprehend Burke's overarching signature. Particularly, Burke's work emphasizes: an art of living (Permanence and Change 66); equipment for living (Attitudes Toward History 5); strategies for living (Attitudes Toward History 43); recipes for wise living (Philosophy of Literary Form 293); strategies for situations (Philosophy of Literary Form 296); and campaign for living (Philosophy of Literary Form 298). Additionally, William Rueckert writes of Burke's fiction, "The White Oxen (1924)," as having, despite its variety of methods, a curious unity; that though his hands move incessantly, sliding through various tricks, his attitude from start to finish remains unchanged. In short, Burke's work helps us size up interpretations of reality and identify a "pattern of experience as representative of social" by critically excavating particulars, perhaps by conjecture in Woodward's sense, to find a general assessment. To be Aristotelian, we have only those means of persuasion that are available. But they are available.  

In essence, Burke's method of textual criticism notes that all questions are leading questions, selecting and deflecting attention to a particular field of interest and away from others (Philosophy of Literary Form). In other words, every ontological and methodological question of the critic (in this case Woodward) selects a field of "battle" that forms the nature of our answers. Hence, Woodward's reflections are both selections and deflections, with his selections providing a much-needed framework for consideration.

On the other hand, his deflections weaken the force of the book. Namely, while Woodward considers the rhetorical and psychological habits we exhibit with regards to motive, I found the concluding chapter, "God's Plan: Agency, and the Quandary of Divine Intention," wanting for religious or theological credibility. To be fair, Woodward disavows any claims to expertise in these areas of representative consideration and the cases are useful in considering the means by which we make sense of intention in expression. Woodward notes: "Kenneth Burke wisely noted that those who would simplify the relation between man and God are justifiably going to hear the rejoinder: "It's more complicated than that." I concur.

Overall, The Rhetoric of Intention in Human Affairs offers a versatile and accessible account of the habits that we possess and exhibit in the quest to understand the versatility of human action. What becomes clearly evident is that though we may desire clarity in differentiating motives, disentangling motives is rarely if ever a simple and straightforward process. What is most evident in Woodward's work is that our rhetoric is filled with motives-talk that assesses and often disputes inferences made by others about why someone did what they did" (6). We imperfectly reach: we "search in vain to find the most useful ways for expressing contingent attribution"; "have no similar linguistic depth that would give us a lexicon of personal will"; "describe action in an endless variety of available verb forms…no exact counterparts for what should be the complementary "whys"; and we "insert imprecise qualifiers in front of clumsy and inexact representations" (133). On these grounds, our ability is limited but we can utilize only what is available.

All in all, The Rhetoric of Intention is a most useful foray into the realms of human intention, where in the post-Babel concerns of rhetoric, where identity is "change of identity" (Attitudes Towards History, 268) and identification and change are emboldened as the "permanence of change" (Grammar 329), we work to "persuade" others insofar as we can talk their language by "speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying" our ways with theirs (Rhetoric of Motives 55). We "plumb" and "embrace" the deep enigmas of communication.

For further consideration, in addition to the aforementioned The Perfect Response: Studies of The Rhetorical Personality and the work under consideration, Woodward has also written: Persuasive Encounters: Case Studies in Constructive Confrontation (Praeger, 1991), Perspectives on American Political Media (Allyn and Bacon, 1997), The Idea of Identification (State University of New York Press, 2003), and Center Stage: Media and the Staging of American Politics (Roman and Littlefield, 2007).

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. 1945. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.

—, A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.

—, Attitudes Toward History. 1937. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.

—, Permanence and Change. 1935. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.

Rueckert, William H. Encounters with Kenneth Burke. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1994.

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