Volume 2, Issue 1, Fall 2005

This issue features new articles by Jason Edward Black, Kathleen Vandenberg, and Erin Wais and new reviews by Nathaniel I. CórdovaDaniel L. SmithMaegan Parker, and Melanie McNaughton

Symbolic Suicide as Mortification, Transformation, and Counterstatement

The Conciliatory (Yet) Resistant Surrender of Maka-tai-mesh-ekia-kiak

Jason Edward Black, University of Alabama

Abstract: This essay explores how Maka-tai-mesh-ekia-kiak’s (Chief Black Hawk) surrender rhetoric unfolded through mortification and transformation devices, whereby he began to transition from chief to dependent and Native to American. The chief-as-agent committed a form of symbolic suicide—according to popular histories and narratives—to alleviate the Sauk’s guilt over having violated the authority of the U.S.’s Indian Removal Act (1830). While this assessment is partially apt, I alternatively argue that Black Hawk’s symbolic suicide simultaneously revealed a subaltern resistance shrouded in the ritual of surrender. He preserved Sauk sovereignty through a type of American/Native hybridity that allowed him to offer a defiant counterstatement in the forms of irony, moral certitude and self-identification. The essay proceeds by analyzing Black Hawk’s discourse through the frames of mortification, transformation and cultural hybridity. Finally, implications are offered to assess the role of symbolic suicide in identity transformation.

IN THE SPRING OF 1832, a band of the Sauk Nation—under the leadership of Maka-tai-mesh-ekia-kiak (Chief Black Hawk)—journeyed east from an Iowa reservation to their former Rock River, Illinois home. Violating President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, Black Hawk sought a reprieve from the disease, starvation, and spiritual separation suffered by his nation following its new life on the reservation.1 The return was instigated as a peaceful means of survival; that is, Black Hawk’s intentions involved neither symbolic protest nor physical assault on the white settlers already squatting on the land previously occupied by the Sauk.

Whites, along with frontier forces, however, viewed the homecoming as a sign of savage encroachment—the commencement of an “aggressive warpath.”2 Black Hawk recalls Major General Edmund Gaines asking one last time for the Sauk’s removal: “I came here, nether to beg nor hire you to leave your village,” Gaines exhorted. “My business is to remove you, peaceably if I can, but forcibly if I must! I will give you two days to remove—and if you do not cross the Mississippi within that time, I will adopt measures to force you away!”3 Two days passed, and still Black Hawk’s nation refused to budge. Following suit, President Jackson’s troops engaged the Sauk in a bloody battle that ended the following August with 300 Natives dead, hundreds wounded, and the nation permanently displaced from its spiritual home.4 The Black Hawk War, as it came to be known, lasted merely fifteen weeks, but impaired a centuries-old indigenous community.

According to popular reports, Black Hawk surrendered in early September 1832 under a veil of shame and despondence.5 He noted in his autobiography the gravity of the war’s end and significance of the Sauk’s defeat:

I surveyed the country that had cost us so much trouble, anxiety, and blood, and now caused me to be a prisoner of war…and recollected that all this land had been ours, for which me and my people had never received a dollar, and that the whites were not satisfied until they took our village, pride and graveyards from us, and removed us across the Mississippi.6

Sauk identity suffered a dismal fate following the Black Hawk War; the Nation was robbed of its land, heritage, and pride in one fell swoop. With America’s physical and social robbery eminent, Black Hawk delivered an address entitled, “Farewell to Black Hawk” to finalize his surrender.

Black Hawk’s tribulations did not end, however, with his departing speech. First, federal Indian agents forced him to sign the Treaty of 1832, which officially removed the Sauk Nation and “by which the tribe paid an indemnity for expenses incurred in this Black Hawk War.”7 Second, a buffer zone between the Sauk’s Iowa reservation and their Rock River, Illinois encampment was established to prevent Black Hawk from returning to his ancestral home.8 Third, after several months in isolation at Jackson Barracks near St. Louis, Missouri, the great chief was summoned, literally, to Jackson’s feet in Washington City. The purpose of the meeting was to issue a severe tongue-lashing, assuring that the Chief “learned his lesson” in the wake of the war. 9 Jackson then conducted Black Hawk “through some of our great towns” in order that the Chief experience “the strength of the white people” and see “that our [United States’] young men are as numerous, as the leaves in the woods.” He asked, “What can you [Black Hawk] do against us?”10 Black Hawk’s meeting with Jackson, his ensuing tour, his capitulation speech and his subsequent autobiography embodied the Chief’s surrender rhetoric.

Tales of American Indian demise and removal are not uncommon. As U.S. frontier history reveals, hundreds of American Indian nations were displaced. Moreover, General (and later, President) Jackson’s so-called “indian hunters” squashed dozens of Native insurrections generated in the years between the War of 1812 and the Indian Removal Act of 1830.11 The recovery and examination of American Indian oratory is important, though, and in the episode of Black Hawk’s surrender we find a rich sampling of Native leadership and voice. Black Hawk delivered his farewell address—upon his capture by white-friendly Winnebagos—and accepted (perhaps halfheartedly) Jackson’s admonitory talk and penalizing “trip” around the United States to complete the physical and symbolic end of Black Hawk-as-chief in September 1832.12 The following year, he published his autobiography. His speech, in particular, is noted as “one of the most touching of the recorded Indian speeches.” 13

Black Hawk’s farewell address and surrender rhetoric are best understood with the aid of Kenneth Burke’s system of rhetoric and conceptions of cultural hybridity.14 Black Hawk’s surrender unfolded through mortification and transformation devices, whereby he began to transition from chief to dependent and Native to American. According to popular histories, the chief-as-agent committed a form of symbolic suicide, in part, to alleviate the guilt over having violated the authority of Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, though that was but a legislative device designed to assert white control over the Sauk Nation. While this assessment is apt, I alternatively argue that Black Hawk’s symbolic suicide simultaneously revealed a subaltern resistance shrouded in the ritual of surrender. He preserved Sauk sovereignty15 through his newly-acquired Native/American hybridity that allowed him to offer a defiant double-tongued counterstatement in the forms of irony, moral certitude and self-identification. The essay proceeds by analyzing Black Hawk’s discourse, and revealing the entailments of the Chief’s symbolic suicide, through the frames of mortification, transformation and cultural hybridity. Finally, implications are offered to assess the role of symbolic suicide in identity transformation.

Black Hawk’s Symbolic Suicide

Black Hawk alluded to his own guilt throughout the many phases of his surrender rhetoric. The Chief chose to victimize himself instead of his nation, and blamed the Sauk’s defeat on his own lack of military leadership: “Farewell my nation! Black Hawk tried to save you and avenge your wrongs. He drank the blood of some of the whites. He has been taken prisoner, and his plans are stopped. He can do no more! He is near his end. His sun is setting, and he will rise no more. Farewell to Black Hawk.” 16 Black Hawk’s conciliatory surrender here—for he, indeed, bid adieu to himself as chief—is illuminated by Burke’s notion of mortification. According to Burke, with mortification

[w]e have in mind the Grand Meaning, “the subjection of the passions and appetites, by penance, abstinence or painful severities inflicted on the body,” mortification as a kind of governance, an extreme form of “self-control,” the deliberate, disciplinary “slaying” of any motive that, for “doctrinal” reasons, one thinks of as unruly.17

Black Hawk, in order to save his nation from blame and outright conquest, paid the ultimate penance with his life; he scapegoated, and thereupon destroyed, himself through a rhetoric of suicide. Consequently, Black Hawk “rises no more,” “his sun is setting,” and “his heart is dead and no longer beats in his bosom.” 18

Black Hawk seemed to have carried Burke’s order-guilt-purification cycle to its fullest consummation. Experiencing guilt over “keeping the Sauk band together” one last time, and violating Jackson’s Removal Act, the Chief was compelled to choose an act that restored order to American hierarchy and Sauk sovereignty.19 Rather than engaging in a victimage of his nation, he tied its fall to his poor decision-making. Accordingly, we find Black Hawk’s self-deprecating remarks in his autobiography: “I felt the humiliation of my situation: a little while before, I had been the leader of my braves, now I was a prisoner of war…[;] this was extremely mortifying.”20 The Chief’s symbolic suicide additionally established order within the Sauk Nation. For, if the Sauk were convinced that Black Hawk remained at fault, they might continue embracing the positive qualities of the nation, as “no coward,” “dutiful,” “true Indian,” and “commendable.”21 In sum, Black Hawk’s cycle fit into Burke’s conceptions of guilt and redemption. Burke writes, “if we are right in assuming that governance (authority) makes ‘naturally’ for victimage, either of others (homicidally) or of ourselves (suicidally), then we may expect to encounter many situations in which a man, by attitudes of self-repression, often causes or aggravates his own bodily or mental ills.”22 Indeed, Black Hawk demonstrated his own guilt and attempted to shed his “mental ills” by transforming his identity to meet the demands of the United States.

At the same time that the Chief’s mortification and transformation pointed to a conciliatory surrender, it also enacted a covert resistance. Rather than limiting or weakening Sauk empowerment through surrender, Black Hawk constructed the nation “as a more or less unrestricted actor in shaping (their) own life and a more general social destiny.”23 This enhanced view of tribal agency allowed the Sauk to “experience being a particular subject” for themselves instead of “becoming a subject” of the United States.24 In a word, Black Hawk’s surrender rhetoric manifested a hybrid double-vocality whereby “within a single discourse one voice is able to unmask the other” and create a self-sovereign voice.25

For instance, one of Black Hawk’s main epideictic motives in his “Farewell” oration (in addition to capitulating surrender) centered on memorializing his warriors and, more generally, the Sauk Nation. Though they had suffered defeat, Black Hawk remembered their stoic nature and strong will exhibited in battle. He claimed that when the Black Hawk War ended, the Sauk may have perished physically, but not spiritually; true, the Sauk were now prisoners of the United States and may have been beaten, enslaved, or exterminated. Regardless, though, Black Hawk exhorted: “He [the Sauk warrior] can stand torture, and is not afraid of death. He is no coward ... [he] is an Indian! He has done nothing for which an Indian ought to be ashamed!”26 Facing abuse and possible death, he harkened back to the past: remember, Black Hawk said, the Sauk are strong, proud and righteous.

Perhaps with this memory of their heritage, Black Hawk’s warriors could remain strong even in defeat, never buckling physically or giving in passively to the United States. Black Hawk continued, “The spirit of our fathers arose and spoke to us to avenge the wrongs or die…. He is satisfied. He will go to the world of the spirits contented. He has done his duty. His father will meet him there and commend him.”27 Black Hawk reminded the defeated Sauk of the reasons they fought, and the explanations as to why they might likely die. Invoking the “spirits of our fathers,” the Chief waxed nostalgic, connecting the Sauk cause with the past by way of a moral inheritance to the pride, sacrifices and legacies of the nation’s ancestors. Regardless of the war’s outcome he implied that the Sauk had done as their forebears would have done; Black Hawk’s warriors are then to be commended, they are righteous, and they will be rewarded. The Chief understood that the Sauk would never be the same, but that their defeat could not diminish the nation’s past. Hence, he memorialized them as valiant and fearless.

Ostensibly, Black Hawk crafted a “doubleness” that brought together, fused “but also maintain[ed] the separation” of concession and self-agency in one message. 28 The following two sections, therefore, elaborate on the Chief’s conciliation and resistance throughout his transformations.

Transformation from Sauk Chief to Dependent American

Paying a penance, or exacting self-atonement, forms the core act of the mortification device in ritual purification.29 The self becomes, what Burke contends, an empty cipher one fills with guilt and sin: “So we get to the ‘scapegoat,’ the ‘representative,’ or ‘vessel,’ of certain unwanted evils, the sacrificial animal upon whose back the burden of evils is ritualistically loaded.”30 Rather than killing himself literally, Black Hawk rid the Sauk Nation—and the United States—of his tainted Black Hawk-as-warrior persona by transforming himself into the quintessential “good Indian.” Such an oratorical transformation accomplished his symbolic suicide. Burke discusses symbolic suicide as an amalgamation of old identity and new identity. Consider his comments in Philosophy of Literary Form:

We should also note that a change in identity, to be complete from the familistic point of view, would require nothing less drastic than a complete change of substance…a thorough job of symbolic rebirth would require the revision of one’s ancestral past itself…. Hence, from this point of view, we might interpret symbolic parricide as simply an extension of symbolic suicide, a more thoroughgoing way of obliterating the substance of one’s identity—while, as we have said before, this symbolic suicide would be but one step in a process which was not completed until the substance of the abandoned identity had been replaced by the substance of a new identity.31

Symbolic suicide, here, involves a transformation of identity that alters “one’s ancestral past itself” and reconfigures “the substance of one’s identity.” Penance for Black Hawk arose in the form of such transformations.

Black Hawk first transformed himself from a paternal to dependent figure. Cultural critics argue that the parent-child relationship works, now and in the past, to move American Indian cultures away from the so-called “savage” realm and toward a more civilized (western) ethos. Dominance mounts, in part, when Americans employ naming to possess the other. Western law allows parents to control their children (a form of possession). Such power is encouraged as a socio-legal duty, and its abrogation is likewise punished, as when a court fines or jails parents for the illicit actions of “their” children. Labeling American Indians “children,” then, provided nineteenth century America the license to possess them as such. Todorov contends that custody comes about rhetorically. He harkens back to early Westernization of Native peoples wherein “others’ words interest him (the Westerner) very little…. He seeks to give things the right names. Nomination is equivalent to taking possession.”32 In the same way that naming a child symbolically transfers control to a parent, so too does the establishment of a parent-child relationship provide America with cultural possession.

Patriarchal metaphors, thus, permitted the United States to decide the interests of American Indians. When naming prompted the de-legitimization of Native identity as “child-like,” American Indians could no longer make decisions; they became cultures of the perpetual “underaged.” Given this construction, Morris and Wander argue that Natives’ “resources, intelligence and rhetorical capacities are limited; and, consequently, [their] values and interests are best determined by others who are in a better position to decide such things.”33 By convincing Natives of their fatherliness, Jackson and like-minded Indian agents seized control over the Sauk Nation and others. Paternalism, thus, spiraled into a justifiable form of dominance. 34

Black Hawk accepted this transformation, mainly by submitting to Jackson’s dominance during their meeting of 25 April 1833. Jackson greeted Black Hawk with an admonitory tone: “You will go to Fort Monroe and remain there until I give you permission to leave. Your captivity is conditional upon the Sac and Fox warriors and the diminution of all bad feeling which has led to the bloody scenes on the frontier.”35 Here we see the paternal strategy of granting permission and holding a ward in captivity. Such language paralleled a fatherly lecture that denied permission, say, to leave the house and instead “grounded” the “red child” to his room (or, in the nineteenth century case, the reservation). Black Hawk, admitting “[I] gave myself up to the American war chief, and died,” accepted Jackson’s instructional demands as atonement for his past violations of the white authoritarian order.36 All Black Hawk responded with was: “I concluded it best to obey our Great Father and say nothing contrary to his wishes.” 37

Black Hawk converted from chief to dependent during this first transformation. Jackson became paternal and gained the moniker “Great Father,” replacing Black Hawk’s earlier description of him as the brutal enemy, Jacksa Chula Harjo—the infamous “Sharp Knife.” 38 The Chief chose to listen to and behave for his so-called father; if Black Hawk failed to embrace his new reliant role, Jackson warned that he would “send a force which will severely punish [he and the Sauk] for [their] cruelties.” 39 Jackson continued, “Bury the tomahawk and live in peace with the frontier,” to which Black Hawk replied: “My Father, my ears are open to your words…. I did not behave last summer…. I will remember your words. I won’t go to war again.” 40 Within this exchange, we find the Chief fulfilling his augmented roles of the “good Indian” and the apologetic ward. Such compliance differed greatly from Black Hawk’s earlier war rhetoric of obstinacy and independence. 41 Overtly, he accepted Jackson’s power position as “patriarch” and communicated as a child to his “Great Father.” 42

Burke suggests seeing through such “structural analysis of the symbolic act, not only the matter of ‘what equals what,’ but also the matter of ‘from what to what.’” 43 Tracking the Chief’s identity from warrior-leader to America’s dependent helps determine his self-inflicted punishment. In his parent-child metaphors, we “detect, under various guises” the transformation “of an old self, in symbolic suicide.” 44 The reduction to “child-like” assisted Black Hawk in fulfilling his mortification and by reconfiguring his old roles.

In consummating his mortification, Black Hawk openly killed his own “Indian-ness” through a symbolic suicide. For instance, he agreed to take a tour of the United States sponsored by Andrew Jackson as both a fear and conversion tactic. The tour through “civilized white” cities such as Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Albany, Buffalo and Green Bay functioned as proof of American ingenuity and strength—a deterrent to future Sauk insurgences—and as a “vision quest” for Black Hawk in becoming “like the white man.” 45 Jackson explained to the Chief: “Major Garland will conduct you through some of our great towns. You will see the strength of the white people. You will see that our young men are as numerous as leaves in the woods…. You may kill a few women and children, but such a force would be soon sent against you, as would destroy your whole tribe.” 46 Black Hawk responded plainly, “I shall hold you by the hand.” 47 Perhaps Black Hawk viewed the trip as a rite of passage from Native to American. He took in the sights of America’s cities and was awestruck by the progress and automation he witnessed. He was so taken, that he agreed “to remember what he saw” and would later argue on behalf of adopting white ways.48 Ostensibly, Black Hawk altered his Native identity—which, in the past, had included avoiding American culture—and walked “hand-in-hand” with the U.S. government. 49

The Chief, additionally, became a bridge between the American Indian and European worlds following the tour. Jackson wanted him to report back to the Sauk and various other nations (e.g., the Winnebago of Iowa and Illinois) the strength of America. Hence, the Chief would spread not only fear of American authority, but also the word of civilization and technology. Black Hawk as a hybrid leader would then “infect” American Indians with his experiences. Burke argues that identity change must be sought by taking “it back into the ground of its existence, the logical ancestor that is its causal ancestor, and on to a point where it is consubstantial with non-A; then he may return, this time emerging with non-A instead.” 50 In this sense, Black Hawk diluted his “Sauk-ness,” but embraced just enough to enter indigenous cultures with his new experiences as a converted American. 51

The Treaty of 1832—the official document that transferred Sauk land to the United States—offers another glimpse into Black Hawk’s transformed character. In exchange for nearly 400 square miles of land along the Rock River, Black Hawk accepted Western gifts such as American money, “one additional Black and Gun Smith shop, with the necessary tools, iron, and steel” and a yearly allowance “of forty kegs of tobacco, and forty barrels of salt.” 52 Granted, Black Hawk had little choice in signing the treaty. What other alternatives did Black Hawk have to consider? 53 Still, Black Hawk’s acceptance and subsequent use of Western products and utilities demonstrated his movement toward accepting the cultural precepts of American culture. As Whitt argues, such acceptance of assimilatory materialism transformed nineteenth century identity from an old to a new self: “A form of oppression exerted by a dominant society upon other cultures, cultural imperialism secure[d] and deepen[ed] the subordinated status of those [Native] cultures.”54

Black Hawk’s transformations seemed visible following his tour-as-conversion and the signing of the Treaty of 1832. Though perceptible, however, transformations are never complete, uncomplicated or rigid. Rather, as Kohrs Campbell contends of cultural subject-positions: “they are, simultaneously, obstacles and opportunities, but they are shifting, not fixed, identities.”55 What makes identity so fascinating might be the Burkean notion of “permanence and change” that accounts for a critic’s ability to observe identities at a synchronic moment while concurrently tracking transformations of subject-positions diachronically and across rhetorical situations.

Hybridity, Counterstatement, and Resistance

Transformations of identity are translated and understood through discourse; after all, subject-positions are communicated through oral, textual, visual and performative means of expression. In the case of U.S.-Native relations, transformations occur through a type of cultural hybridization. According to Kaup and Rosenthal, “the encounter between indigenous peoples” and white Americans “represents one of the main cultural stages of…crossbreeding in America.” 56 Such encounters “are sedimented in identity changes (or hybridization) on the part of both partners in the exchange.”57 Hybridity involves a triangular relationship—reminiscent of Burke’s theory of identification—wherein identity is fomented as “a poetics of culture as in-between” or “between which” at least two mingling subject-positions.58

The prevailing academic stance on hybridity argues that bringing together dominant and less dominant identities consequentially forces the less powerful to assimilate and, essentially, “kill off” their original (authentic, germinal, generative) subject-positions.59 Recently, cultural and American studies traditions have begun to challenge this unilateral and monolithic understanding of hybridity. Scholars in this stream have asserted that hybridity can also be emancipatory, allowing the less dominant to constitute and secure new subject-positions by, and in addition to, resisting the dominant culture. 60 A middle-ground position articulated by Kaup and Rosenthal admits the empowering dynamics of hybridity for subaltern identity while also appreciating that the dialogic encounter “is asymmetrical, not parallel.” 61 That is, the process or existence of hybridity tends to be instigated by contact initiated and desired by the dominant group. Kaup and Rosenthal’s posture, here, seems to model Burke’s notion that authority sways the process of symbolic action (especially transformations guided by victimage) but that authority likewise assists in transforming, versus obliterating, altered identities.62

With this model of hybridity in mind, analysis next turns to how Black Hawk’s surrender rhetoric worked through his hybrid position—between the Sauk Nation and American culture—to defy American dominance. Analysis of the Chief’s discourse, especially through his autobiographical account of the Black Hawk War and the milieu surrounding his surrender, reveals how Black Hawk employed counterstatement in the forms of irony, moral certitude and self-identification to challenge (and complicate) his conciliation. In this way, the Chief’s double-tongued rhetoric inserted resistance shrouded in the ritual of surrender.

Black Hawk’s transformative movement toward U.S. dependence allowed the Chief an entrée into the American imagination. That is, his surrender and mortification—in lieu of his previous bellicosity or so-called savageness—made the Chief a “safe” subject for the American public to approach, learn about and ogle. Black Hawk’s objectification did not singularly harm him through embarrassment or a weakening of ethos, as historians have argued. 63 Rather, his widespread and passionately interested American audience also commanded a new kind of presence for the Chief. Seemingly, Black Hawk funneled his newly recognizable and popular agency into an opportunity to address the public outside the scope of the federal government. He accomplished the task of talking to the public through the publication of his autobiography. That the Chief bridged the worlds between the Sauk Nation and the American public allowed him to mold his new hybridity into a resistant counterstatement that helped preserve Sauk sovereignty.

To begin, Black Hawk employed irony throughout both his surrender rhetoric and autobiography to reconfigure the way that the Sauk Nation was treated by the United States. Irony, leveled covertly at the United States and its Indian policies, worked here as a veritable Trojan horse. The Chief, having secured the eyes and ears of the American reading public, cloaked his defiance in sardonic benevolence. For instance, in contrasting his present and past conditions, he related:

I am now an obscure member of a nation that formerly honored and respected my opinions. The path to glory is rough, and many gloomy hours obscure it. May the Great Spirit shed light on your’s—and that you may never experience the humility that the power of the American government has reduced me to, is the wish of him, who, in his native forests, was once as proud and bold as yourself. 64

On its face, his discourse appeared to be a sobering resignation accompanied by an apologia in the form of compassionate well-wishes for his conquerors. However, upon deeper exploration—and bearing in mind the influence of counterstatement—Black Hawk’s rhetoric revealed how dastardly the U.S. government functioned: it reduced character, weakened honor, dissipated respect and diluted pride. He drew his audience in empathetically by praying to the Great Spirit that his American audience would never have to suffer the disgraces and oppression imposed by the United States on the Sauk Nation. The irony of pairing his own kindness with the U.S. government’s tyranny allowed Black Hawk a chance to issue a counterstatement as to the aftermath of the Black Hawk War and his nation’s surrender. As Bhabha argues, such responsive (and resistant) discourse “enables a form of subversion” that “displaces the space” of a dominant power.65

Black Hawk also wove irony throughout his autobiography in less covert ways. In discussing the Sauk Nation’s displacement from, and subsequent return to, its own ancestral land, the Chief crafted a near-sarcastic invective against U.S. land squatters. In turn, Black Hawk reversed the roles of American settlers and Sauk members. He insisted, “The whites were complaining at the same time that we were intruding upon their rights! THEY made themselves out to be the injured party, and we the intruders! And, called loudly to the great war chief to protect their property.” 66 Referring to the Sauk’s proper ownership of the land and appealing to the U.S. public’s sense of reason and justice, Black Hawk called into question the evenhandedness of the Indian Removal Act and its related campaigns. He closed his ironic resistance by charging the Americans with lying and double-crossing: “How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong, and wrong like right.” 67 Black Hawk’s use of antithesis—the pairing and conflation of “right” and “wrong,” in this case—questioned whether U.S. Indian policies were, indeed, fair and proper.

The elevation of the Sauk Nation as morally superior also occupied a great portion of Black Hawk’s autobiography.68 As a strategy of counterpoint, the Chief’s semblance of “moral certitude” worked on both veiled and superficial levels. Covertly, for instance, Black Hawk contrasted his nation’s morality with the United States’ depravity:

It has always been our custom to receive all strangers that come to our village or camps, in time of peace, on terms of friendship—to share with them the best provisions we have, and give them all the assistance in our power. If, on a journey or lost, to put them on the right trail…and from my heart I assure them [Americans], that the white man will always be welcome in our village and camps, as a brother. The Tomahawk is buried forever! We will forget what has past[sic]—and may the watchword between the Americans and Sacs and Foxes ever be—Friendship! 69

The Sauk Nation’s outlook, here, is described as helpful and humane. In addition, despite being oppressed through removal and indignity, Black Hawk and his community were willing to forgive the past degeneracy of the United States. The United States’ regrettable treatment of the Sauk was probably a surprise to Black Hawk’s American readers. His implied criticism was confirmed by conspicuous invective when Black Hawk wrote: “I had not discovered one good trait in the character of the Americans that had come to the country! They made fair promises, but never fulfilled them!” 70 Black Hawk promoted the morality of his people above the impiety of the Americans.

More noticeably, Black Hawk issued several denunciations about the comparative moral certitudes of the Sauk Nation and the U.S. government, in particular. About his own imprisonment, he reproached the public saying, “I was forced to wear the ball and chain! This was extremely mortifying and altogether useless…. If I had taken him [President Jackson] prisoner on the field of battle, I would not have wounded his feelings so much, by such treatment—knowing that a brave war chief would prefer death to dishonor!” 71 Again, we witness here the counterbalance of cultural morality, with the Sauk’s innate humanitarian character trumping the Americans’ disregard for respect and cultural principles. Perhaps the most robust use of the moral certitude strategy came with Black Hawk’s censuring of the United States for its unashamed and impertinent acts of violence. He related to the public, for instance, “Our people were treated badly by the whites on many occasions. At one time a white man beat one of our women cruelly for pulling a few suckers of corn out of his field.” 72 Similarly, some of his peaceful scouts “were discovered by the whites, and fired upon” for no reason other than propinquity to white-owned cornfields, plots—Black Hawk reminded his American audience—that had been part of ancestral Sauk land for 300 years. 73 Also not lost in Black Hawk’s translation was the notion that “whites were not satisfied until they took our village and our grave-yards from us and removed us across the Mississippi.” 74

Under the aegis of moral certitude, Black Hawk’s rhetoric tendered a resistance by reconfiguring and revising the historical narrative of the Black Hawk War and the circumstances of the Chief’s surrender. Borrowing from Bakhtin, Black Hawk’s transformation to, and ability to speak as, an American dependent provided him the hybridized license to use, “within a single discourse,” one voice to “unmask another.” 75 Use of his new-found hybridity also helped him resist American domination through self-constitution.

Black Hawk’s appeals to the American public gave the Sauk Nation, more generally, a chance to refashion its self-identity—both to its own people and U.S. communities. It is no surprise that Black Hawk’s narrative opened with a singular, yet complex, motive: “Before I set out on my journey to the land of my fathers, I have determined…to vindicate my character from misrepresentation.” 76 The Chief aimed to resituate the Sauk Nation’s moral fiber and to recover its honor. 77 According to Black Hawk’s discourse, peace became the primary maxim of the Sauk Nation. He said, for instance, “I must contradict the story of some [American] village criers…. This assertion [that the Sauk murdered] is false…[;] my nation never killed a white woman or child. I make this statement of truth, to satisfy the white people among whom I am traveling.” 78 Even in the midst of removal and the subsequent battle with U.S. forces, Black Hawk said his people were willing to “remove peaceably” had it not been for American atrocities. He added that “[we resolved] to remain in my village and make no resistance…. I impressed the importance of this course on all my band, and directed them, in case the military came, not raise an arm against them.” 79 Eschewing the common mythic storyline of the Sauk Nation’s savagery and belligerence, that then was circulating within the American public sphere, Black Hawk countered that “[we] were determined to live in peace.” In fact, he argued, the only reason his nation violated the Removal Act of 1830 by returning to Rock River was that “the corn that had been given to us [on the new reservation] was soon found to be inadequate.” 80 Moreover, counter to what popular accounts suggested, Black Hawk reminded readers, his nation had never retaliated against American malice: “Bad, and, cruel as our people were treated by the whites, not one of them was hurt or molested by any of my band.” 81

As with irony and moral certitude, Black Hawk’s resistance through self-identification functioned to dislodge American dominance and, in the process, injected a heightened sense of Sauk sovereignty that “effectively [permitted] them to intervene in the course of history” by contributing Native agency to the story of Black Hawk’s surrender. 82

Implications of Black Hawk’s Symbolic Suicide: The Legacy of Moral Revenge

By and large, Black Hawk’s hybridity became an instance in which the dominance of American agency was weakened by Native voice. Such hybridity-as-resistance forced the United States (a “colonial authority”) to lose “its univocal grip on meaning” and to find itself “open to the trace of the language of the other.” 83 In the Chief’s case, his resistance crafted a powerful counterstatement that wedged its way into American consciousness. This essay has argued that Black Hawk’s surrender rhetoric proceeded through mortification and transformation, and that his apparent symbolic suicide simultaneously revealed conciliatory and resistive motives.

Black Hawk’s surrender rhetoric and its resultant symbolic suicide reveal a number of implications about the workings of discourse and its conveyance of cultural identity. First, the double-voiced nature of the Chief’s oratory and writing challenge the prevailing conception that Native identity suffered a complete erasure at the hands of American dominance and assimilation. 84 If Burke is correct, identity never vanishes. That is, a dominant authority rarely eclipses a “subaltern” or less powerful population. Rather, indigenous identities, in this case, undergo a transformation of sorts. Recall that Burke argues, “a change of identity (whereby [one] is at once the same man and a new man) gives him greater complexity of coordinates. He ‘sees around the corner.’ He is ‘prophetic,’ endowed with ‘perspective.’” 85 This essay does not argue that transformation is fair, equitable or welcome; indeed, the trajectory of U.S.-Native relations from contact to the removal era demonstrates the heinousness and inhumanity of white encroachment into Native cultures. 86 Instead, the analysis suggests that identity change—as reflected by discourse—is fluid, multivalent and, in a post-structural sense, not rooted in certainty. Or as Kohrs Campbell fittingly contends, “because they are linked to cultures and collectivities” subject-positions must “negotiate among institutional powers and are best described as ‘points of articulation’” rather than monolithic or unproblematic constructs. 87

Second, this essay implies that further work might be performed within American Indian rhetorical studies to examine the notion of “transformation” as a counter or complement to research on unidirectional identity change. “Seeing around the corner,” or what W.E.B. DuBois deemed “double consciousness,” is not equivalent to a complete eradication of one’s historical or traditional identity.88 That contact between cultures—according to Burke, Bahktin, Bhabha and Young—involves transformation on the parts of both dominant and less dominant groups intimates that more study might also be undertaken to assess how the U.S. government’s identity, as well as that of the American public, was transformed as a result of U.S.-Native affairs. 89 I point, particularly, to American identities shifting in the face of confrontation wherein conciliation and resistance undergird a rhetorical moment between cultures.

Finally, hybridity and the way it “challenges the centered, dominant cultural norms” with its “unsettling perplexities generated out of their ‘disjunctive, liminal space’” renders the possibility that the legacy of resistance can flourish over time. 90 When a counterstatement, such as Black Hawk’s, challenges an entrenched history on a popular scale, perhaps it leaves scars on the American psyche. Though Black Hawk’s identity was negatively impacted in the wake of the Battle of Bad Axe, 91 and though he committed a form of symbolic suicide through mortification and transformation, these are not the only legacies the Chief left behind. Black Hawk and his symbolic suicide reminds us today of the countervailing rhetorical power in even the most abject of physical defeats. His transpersonal identity and trickstering character transcend time and cultural space. The Sauk chief enacted a moral revenge that has helped construct our collective memories of the Jacksonian-era and U.S.-Indian relations more as genocidal stratagems and racialist machinations than as heroic fantasies.


1. Donald Jackson, “Introduction,” Black Hawk: An Autobiography, ed. Donald Jackson (Urbana-Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1964), 15.
2. Ronald N. Satz, American Indian Policy in the Jacksonian Era (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1975), 113.
3. Black Hawk, Black Hawk: An Autobiography, ed. Donald Jackson (Urbana-Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1964), 112.
4. Robert Remini, Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars (New York: Viking, 2001), 258.
5. See Donna Hightower-Langston, The Native American World (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons, 2003), 335-37; Jackson, “Introduction”; Remini, Andrew Jackson, 258-261; Satz, American Indian Policy, 113-14; and W.C. Vanderwerth (ed.), Indian Oratory: Famous Speeches by Noted Indian Chieftains (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1989), 90.
6. Black Hawk, Black Hawk, 142.
7. Remini, Andrew Jackson, 259.
8. For complete language of the treaty, see Treaty of 1832, Microfilm copy of original manuscript (Davenport, IA: Davenport Public Museum, 21 September 1832): 2. A secondary copy may be found in the appendix of Black Hawk’s Autobiography, ed. Donald Jackson (Urbana-Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1963).
9. Remini, Andrew Jackson, 260.
10. Black Hawk, Black Hawk, 142-147; Niles’s Weekly Register, “Black Hawk Tour,” Niles’ Weekly Register 8 (1833): 182; and Remini, Andrew Jackson, 260.
11. Donald Jackson, “Introduction”; Remini, Andrew Jackson; and Satz, American Indian Policy.
12. The address was recorded by a Potawatomi translator in attendance, and was later conveyed to Major General Winfield Scott, under whose guidance Black Hawk was delivered, literally, to the feet of President Andrew Jackson. Reports from Black Hawk’s autobiography note that he repeated a similar version to Jackson, whereby the President provided his infamous, heated lecture. See Jackson, “Introduction,” 1-24; and Remini, Andrew Jackson, 258-259.
13. Vanderwerth, ed., Indian Oratory: Famous Speeches by Noted Indian Chieftains (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1971), 87.
14. Hybridity is defined as a process of cultural intermingling (whether through discursive interface, material exchange or genetic intermixing) in which differing parties or social groups emerge following exchanges as changed subjectivities (May Joseph, “Hybridity,” in Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory, ed. Michael Payne [Cambridge, MA: Blackwell 1996], 251). According to Greaves, the defining quality of hybridity is the “ritual of transition when a noviate is neither the former nor the subsequent social category” (“Liminality,” in Payne, Dictionary, 251).
15. Sovereignty, here, is defined as the agency to: control one’s own destiny; remain close to ancestral, linguistic, familial and spiritual roots; self-identify as an independent political entity holding land; and cultivate and maintain a sense of group nationalism, oftentimes despite oppression (i.e., U.S. Indian policies considered detrimental to Native nations and enclaves). See Eva Marie Garroutte, Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America (Berkeley: U of California P, 2003) 88-89; 95-96; nn41; nn42.
16. Black Hawk, “Farewell to Black Hawk,” in Indian Oratory: Famous Speeches by Noted Indian Chieftains, Ed. Vanderwerth (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1989), 91.
17. Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (Berkeley: U of California P, 1970), 289.
18. Black Hawk, “Farewell to Black Hawk,” 90-91.
19. Black Hawk, Black Hawk, 118.
20. Black Hawk, Black Hawk, 142.
21. Black Hawk, “Farewell to Black Hawk,” 91. Black Hawk’s Nation revered the chief as a stoic leader, and embraced him despite his faults during war because he had proven to sacrifice himself to repent for the Sauk’s losses. As Jahoda argues, the Sauk Nation, understood that if “he [Black Hawk] could save his people, he would. It would be enough” for them. (Gloria Jahoda, The Trail of Tears: The Story of the American Indian Removals, 1813-1855 [New York: Wings Books, 1975], 136.) Though the Sauk’s loyalty to Black Hawk - notwithstanding his liability, seems to contemporary American standards confusing - the leader-centered structure of Sauk (and Sac and Fox) society was such that loyalty and faith in leadership trumped western logic. See William T. Hagan, The Sac and Fox Indians (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1958).
22. Burke, Rhetoric of Religion, 289.
23. Peter Brooker, A Concise Dictionary of Cultural Theory (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford U.P., 1999), 3.
24. Brooker, Concise Dictionary, 211.
25. Mikhail Bahktin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas P, 1981), 344.
26. Black Hawk, “Farewell to Black Hawk,” 90.
27. Black Hawk, “Farewell to Black Hawk,” 91.
28. Robert Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race (London: Routledge, 1995), 22.
29. Burke, Rhetoric of Religion, 289.
30. Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form (New York: Vintage, 1957), 34.
31. Burke, Philosophy of Literary Form, 36.
32. Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992), 27.
33. Richard Morris and Philip Wander, “Native American Rhetoric: Dancing in the Shadows of the Ghost Dance,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 76 (1990): 165-166.
34. Richard Morris, “Educating Savages,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 83 (1997): 152-171; and Kent A. Ono and Derek Buescher, “Deciphering Pocahontas: Unpackaging the Commodification of a Native American Woman,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 18 (2001): 23-43.
35. Niles’ Weekly Register 8 (1833); and Remini, Andrew Jackson, 259.
36. Black Hawk, Black Hawk, 139.
37. Niles’ Weekly Register 8 (1833); and Remini, Andrew Jackson, 259.
38. Remini, Andrew Jackson, 80.
39. Niles’ Weekly Register 8 (1833); and Remini, Andrew Jackson, 259.
40. Niles’ Weekly Register 8 (1833); and Remini, Andrew Jackson, 259.
41. Black Hawk, Black Hawk, 118-149.
42. Whether Black Hawk assumed his “red child” role in order to return to Illinois is not clear. No evidence suggests that he employed a rouse to placate Jackson’s anger over the Black Hawk War. The only extant rhetoric concerning Black Hawk’s mood, tone, and motivation spawns from his “Farewell” speech and, most overtly, his autobiography. As a critic, one must work within the limitations of the available rhetorical documents. See Black Hawk, Black Hawk; Remini, Andrew Jackson; and Satz, American Indian Policy.
43. Burke, Philosophy of Literary Form, 33.
44. Burke, Philosophy of Literary Form, 34.
45. Remini, Andrew Jackson, 260-261.
46. Niles’ Weekly Register 8 (1833); and Remini, Andrew Jackson, 259.
47. Niles’ Weekly Register 8 (1833); and Remini, Andrew Jackson, 259.
48. Black Hawk, 144-145; and Remini, Andrew Jackson, 260.
49. Black Hawk, 144-145; and Remini, Andrew Jackson, 260.
50. Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley: U of California P, 1969), xix.
51. Burke contends that symbolic suicide “(on the page) is an assertion, a building of a role and not merely the abandonment of oneself to the disintegration of all roles” (Burke, Philosophy of Literary Form, 34). The author interprets his argument as meaning that an old self never fully falls away, but consubstantiates with a different self to form a transformed identity, or put differently, “In being identified with B, A is ‘substantially one’ with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time he remains unique, an individual locus of motives. Thus he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another” (Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives [Berkeley: U of California P, 1969], 21).
52. Treaty of 1832, Microfilm copy of original manuscript (Davenport, IA: Davenport Public Museum, 21 September 1832): 2.
53. Cecil Eby, ‘That Disgraceful Affair’: The Black Hawk War (New York: Norton, 1973); Miriam Gurko, Indian America: The Black Hawk War (New York: Crowell, 1970); and Hagan, The Sac and Fox Indians.
54. Laurie Anne Whitt, “Cultural Imperialism and the Marketing of Native America,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 19 (1995): 3.
55. Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, “Agency: Promiscuous and Protean,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 2 (2005): 4-5.
56. Monika Kaup and Debra F. Rosenthal, “Introduction,” in Mixing Race, Mixing Culture: Inter-American Literary Dialogues, eds. Monika Kaup and Debra Rosenthal (Austin: U of Texas P, 2002), xiv.
57. Ibid. Though both cultures undergo identity transformations during cross-subjectivity interactions, this essay focuses only on the Sauk portion of the exchange between Chief Black Hawk and the U.S. government. Heuristically, a similar study might examine how American identity was constructed or figured alongside the transformations of Sauk identity.
58. Monika Kaup, “Constituting Hybridity as Hybrid” in Mixing Race, Mixing Culture: Inter-American Literary Dialogues, eds. Monika Kaup and Debra Rosenthal (Austin: U of Texas P, 2002), 205.
59. This stream of scholarly thought—rooted in structuralism and non-critical historical studies—can be found in classic works of U.S.-American Indian relations prior to the 1990s. Such pieces include: Brian W. Dippie, The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy (Lawrence: U of Kansas P, 1982); Donald L. Fixico, Termination and Relocation: Federal Indian Policy, 1945-1960 (Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1986); Frederick E. Hoxie, A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880-1920 (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1984); Francis Paul Prucha, The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1984); and William W. Savage, Indian Life: Transforming an American Myth (Norman: Oklahoma P, 1977).
60. See Frederick E. Hoxie, Talking Back to Civilization: Indian Voices from the Progressive Era (Boston: Bedford Press, 2001); Susan Scheckel, The Insistence of the Indian: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth Century American Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton U P, 1998); and Siobhan Senier, Voices of American Indian Assimilation and Resistance: Helen Hunt Jackson, Sarah Winnemucca and Victoria Howard (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 2001).
61. Kaup and Rosenthal, “Introduction,” xiv.
62. See above note 50.
63. See Eby, That Disgraceful Affair, Gurko, Indian America; and Hagan, The Sac and Fox Indians.
64. Black Hawk, Black Hawk’s Autobiography, ed. Roger L. Nichols (Ames: Iowa State U P, 1999), 7.
65. Homi Bhabha, Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 154.
66. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 52.
67. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 52.
68. Readers should bear in mind that the seemingly incongruous conciliatory and resistant discourse enveloping Black Hawk’s surrender milieu was not judged as such by the U.S. government. The “resistive” rhetoric analyzed in the ensuing parts of my analysis was published in Black Hawk’s autobiography (1833), one year after his official surrender (1832). Resistance, then, came about after Black Hawk’s construction of his surrender as conciliatory.
69. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 88.
70. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 21.
71. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 79.
72. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 52.
73. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 61.
74. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 79.
75. Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination, 344.
76. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 7.
77. Also not lost to observation, however, is the way Black Hawk’s ancestral “fathers” came to displace the “Great Father” of whom Black Hawk spoke in his surrender speech.
78. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 88.
79. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 58.
80. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 79.
81. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 88.
82. Brooker, Concise Dictionary, 3.
83. Young, Colonial Desire, 22.
84. For a countervailing conclusion, see S. Elizabeth Bird, Dressing in Feathers: The Construction of the Indian in American Popular Culture (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1996); Haig A. Bosmajian, “Defining the ‘American Indian’: A Case Study in the Language of Suppression,” The Speech Teacher 21 (March 1973): 89-99; and Morris and Wander, “Dancing in the Shadows.”
85. Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History (Berkeley: U of California P, 1984), 209.
86. Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire Building (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1997), xxi-xxx.
87. Kohrs Campbell, “Agency,” 4-5. Constitutive rhetoric, certainly, confers subject identity on an individual or group. As Jasinski argues, constitutive rhetoric “functions to organize and structure an individual’s or culture’s experience of time and space, the norms of political culture and the experience of communal existence (including collective identity)…” (James Jasinski, “A Constitutive Framework for Rhetorical Historiography: Toward an Understanding of the Discursive (Re)Constitution of the ‘Constitution’ in the Federalist Papers,” in Doing Rhetorical History: Concepts and Cases, ed. Kathleen Turner (Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1998), 75. But, the individual or group also possesses agency in defining the constitutive agent, or in the least reconstituting their identity if it is imposed from a dominant or central authority. See Maurice Charland, “Constitutive Rhetoric: The Case of the Peuple Quebecois,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 73 (1987): 222.
88. W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (Minneola, NY: Dover Publications, 1998), 7-15.
89. See Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination; Bhabha, Location of Culture; Burke, Philosophy of Literary Form; and Young, Colonial Desire.
90. Young, Colonial Desire; see also Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Chatto and Windrus, 1993), 406.
91. Bad Axe is the battle that officially ended the Black Hawk War in 1832.

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Sociological Propaganda: A Burkean and Girardian Analysis of Twentieth-Century American Advertising

Kathleen M. Vandenberg

Abstract: Advertisements provide constant opportunities for rhetorical analysis. As the twentieth century progressed, advertisements—which had previously resembled more traditional rhetorical texts—became far more propagandistic in nature. This essay asserts that the most appropriate way to approach these more recent advertisements is through the hybridization of a Burkean perspective with a Girardian approach. Doing so allows the critic to analyze the ways in which consumers and advertisers collaborate in the creation of advertising. Three advertisements are analyzed to highlight the ways in which such a hybridization is both necessary and desirable for a more comprehensive understanding of modern advertising.

The field of rhetorical studies is no stranger to advertising analysis; one of the most prevalent and obvious forms of rhetorical expression in the last one hundred years, advertisements provide constant opportunities for examination and explication. However, although there has been much written in rhetoric on the subject of American advertising, most of this work has been concerned with either the methods and techniques of such rhetoric (whether overt persuasive techniques or so-called subliminal manipulations) or its effect or impact on audiences. [1] Such an approach, this essay argues, is usually far more suited to the study of advertisements from the 1800s and early 1900s; in other words, it is more relevant to the examination of advertisements of the past, which, by and large, focused on the attributes of the product for sale. Many of these earlier advertisements more closely resembled traditional rhetorical appeals in that they were primarily textual, they were more or less equally dependent on the proofs of ethos, pathos, and logos; they were contextualized, and they spoke primarily to what people might actually need (or “merely” want) in terms of material goods, rather than appealing to abstract desires that might help them achieve a type of “spiritual” transcendence. As the twentieth century progressed, however, there were significant shifts in both American culture and in American advertising; advertisements, as has been widely noted in media studies, became far more propagandistic in nature—that is, they relied more heavily on images, emotions, and appeals to desires rather than reason. [2]

Such advertisements are evidence of a collaborative effort between advertisers and consumers; each is more than just a message sent from sender to receiver. As Twitchell notes of the relationship between advertisers and modern consumers: “The audience is never ‘over there,’ just out of sight. Rather, as in all lasting institutions, it actively anticipates and creates its own interactions” (51). Accounting for the rhetoric employed in these increasingly emotionally-infused and visual advertisements requires one to examine the complex societal relationships at work in their creation and propagation, and to accept contemporary advertising as sociological propaganda.

This essay asserts that the most appropriate way to approach these more recent advertisements, these manifestations of sociological propaganda, is through the hybridization of a Burkean perspective—based as it is in issues of motivation, identification, and symbol use—with a Girardian approach. As such, three advertisements—a 1947 Lifebuoy advertisement which exhibits characteristics of both much earlier and more modern advertising, a 1997 Calvin Klein advertisement which relies almost entirely on images and emotional appeals, and a 2002 Gap television advertisement which typifies much of contemporary advertising—are analyzed to highlight the ways in which such a hybridization is both necessary and desirable for a more comprehensive understanding of modern advertising.

Burke, in turning his attention to human motives and symbolic action, broadened the scope of rhetoric and opened the door to the type of criticism necessary to analyzing sociological propaganda. The most suitable way to build on and broaden his approach, this essay proposes, is through the methodology of a critical theory which focuses on the concept of mediated desire as does René Girard’s mimetic theory, or theory of triangulated desire. Most often used to account for and understand violence and desire in primitive societies, myths, and literatures, Girard’s mimetic theory, in illuminating the metaphysical and mimetic nature of human desire, can provide rhetoric with an invaluable perspective from which to further examine and understand the ways in which humans act rhetorically on one another. Mimetic theory is based on a communications triangle; however, it is a triangle notably different from the familiar classical model in that persuasion is both bi-directional and intrinsically connected to desire and imitation (Girard, Reader 33-44). Messages are passed not only from “model” to “imitator,” but also from “imitator” to “model,” as each shifts the relationship to what is desired. The mechanisms of mimetic desire work in the following way: a model (A) desires an object or individual (C) and, in doing so, signals to others the desirability of that object or individual. The imitator (B) copies this desire, believing his own desire to be spontaneous and automatic rather than mediated. In other words, imitator B wants C because model A wants C. [3]

Girard's theory of triangulated desire is, in fact, very similar to Burke's understanding of the basic nature of human symbol use or rhetoric. As is well known, Burke’s replaced “persuasion” as the key word in rhetoric with “identification,” identification occurring when individuals attempt to make shared beliefs, values, attitudes, or desires salient through consubstantiation, or the "sharing of substances."

Complete identification is, as Burke recognized, impossible; as humans we will always be separated from one another (and, as a result of the Fall, from God). It is, as Burke explains, this separation, this division between humans that makes persuasion perpetually possible, for if there were no division, there would be no need for identification, and thus no need for communication or rhetoric.

Girard also proposes that humans are inherently divided from one another and working towards union, but he believes that humans do not merely desire to share substances, they wish to become one another; their desire is metaphysical. While Burkean theory would suggest that a woman might buy a Chanel bag in order to identify with or be like her favorite Chanel-toting actress, Girard’s theory would suggest that woman does not actually desire to be like that actress; rather, she desires to be the actress and mistakenly believes that possession of said-purse will effect this transformation. The impossibility of ever actually being the “other” existing simultaneously with the metaphysical desire to be the "other" creates what he calls a “Double Bind”—it is the combination of invitation and repulsion: “Be like me; Do not become me.”[4] It ensures that division remains and, thus, persuasion is perpetuated (Things 291).

Such a double bind is frequently found in contemporary advertising, advertising which this essay argues is more accurately defined as propaganda than as classical rhetoric, for it exhibits many of the characteristics of propaganda; chief among these characteristics is a speaker’s reliance on self-interest (rather than the good of the audience), anonymity (or the suppression of ethos), the use of saturation or repetition of messages (rather than the delivery of formal speeches), and the employment of emotional appeals (rather than logical ones). Advertising meets these criteria insofar as it is, in the words of Twitchell, “ubiquitous, anonymous, syncretic, symbiotic, profane, and, especially, magical” (16)

To begin with the most obvious characteristic of propaganda, advertising is most frequently employed, of course, in order to produce profits for both the seller and the advertisers.[5] While many advertisements certainly claim to care about, among other things, readers’ smelly feet, bad breath, or frizzy hair, it is hardly likely that any consumer labors under the delusion that those producing the advertisement actually create the product or the advertisement out of any concern for the consumer’s well-being; rather, they understand that producers and advertisers are concerned with the bottom line.

It is impossible to know, in any case, what any particular manufacturer or advertisers “really” thinks about anything; however, because most advertising is anonymous insofar as the average consumer does not have any knowledge of which individual or individuals have actually created a product or an advertisement (not to mention the fact that texts do not embody intentions). At the very most, some consumers will have a sense of a corporate ethos, which is really the only kind of ethos one ever has access to through propaganda, suppression of ethos and reliance on anonymity or institutional ethos being one of the hallmarks of propaganda campaigns. This element of advertising alone makes it difficult to approach advertisements from a neo-classical perspective, insofar as such a perspective frequently depends on analysis of the role of the “speaker” and his or her construction of ethos. Or, as Twitchell points out, this anonymity is “the most distressing for academic types who need an author-text-audience paradigm in order to do their work,” which the neo-classical perspective certainly demands (18). However, although the critic does not have access, in most cases, to an analyzable ethos, he or she does have—in this age of mass production and mass media—hundreds, thousands, or even millions of pieces of “text”—evidence of the propagation of materials, one of the hallmarks, obviously, of propaganda.

These advertising “texts” became, over the course of the twentieth century, increasingly composed of images rather than words. Their appeals, therefore, were gradually directed primarily to the emotions rather than the intellect or logic, for it is impossible for an image to make a propositional claim.[6] An image, especially through its juxtaposition with other images, may suggest or imply a relationship, but its meaning will always be more vague or ambiguous than that of a textual proposition, though not necessarily less effective. As Neil Postman points out, this use of images to appeal to emotions was quite a change from the nineteenth century when it was understood that advertising’s purpose “was to convey information and make claims in propositional form,” and, in so doing, was “intended to appeal to understanding, not to passions” (60). In evolving into an image-based “vocabulary” and appealing to the emotions, the majority of twentieth century advertising evolved from what could be understood as “traditional” rhetoric to what is defined as propaganda.

Self-interested, anonymous, ubiquitous, emotional, and “truthful,” advertising in the twentieth century can be quite clearly categorized as propaganda, yet it is also quite clearly not propaganda in the sense that propaganda is usually understood; that is to say, it is clearly not political propaganda.[7] It is primarily sociological insofar as it represents rhetorical expression that is, in the words of Jacques Ellul, author of Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, “essentially diffuse [and] gets to man through his customs, through his most unconscious habits. It creates new habits in him; it is a sort of persuasion from within” (64). Ellul defines sociological propaganda as “the group of manifestations by which any society seeks to integrate the maximum number of individuals into itself, to unify its members’ behavior according to a pattern, to spread its style of life abroad, and thus to impose itself on other groups.” In labeling such propaganda “sociological,” he hopes to demonstrate “that the entire group, consciously or not, expresses itself in this fashion; and to indicate, secondly, that its influence aims much more at an entire style of life than at opinions or even one particular course of behavior” (62-63). Rhetorical agency, therefore, is diffused among the masses, with no one rhetor responsible for the movement of others, no one rhetor in sole possession of the faculty or power to act. The societal interactions producing sociological propaganda are necessarily collaborative. That is, this propaganda is created due to labors of both “producers” and “consumers.” As McLuhan observes: “[t]he continuous pressure is to create advertisements more and more in the image of audience motives and desires. The product matters less as the audience participation increases” (Understanding 226). In other words, the audience works, McLuhan suggests, in the consumption of the advertising. Perceiving advertising in this way is, for most, and especially for those in rhetorical studies, counter-intuitive, primarily because it refuses to assert the primacy of a given rhetor as “message-creator” and “message-sender.” It rejects, in other words, the “transmission” view of rhetoric and instead conceives of advertising as a “ritual” of sorts, one in which every consumer is simultaneously audience and participant (rather than either just sender or receiver). Unwillingness to accept a ritual view of the communication of advertising or understand the rhetoric of advertising as a collaborative effort has been common throughout the twentieth century. In fact, nothing, Daniel Boorstin argues, has been “more widely misunderstood” than advertising. As the images of advertising proliferated and rumors of manipulation, subliminal and otherwise, swirled in their midst, consumers became, in effect, conspiracy theorists. As Boorstin describes it, Americans reached a point at which they essentially looked for a scapegoat, and:

Daring not to admit we may be our own deceivers, we anxiously seek someone to accuse of deceiving us. “Madison Avenue,” “Public Relations,” “Organization Men,” and similar epithets have given us our whipping boys. We refuse to believe that advertising men are at most our collaborators, helping us make illusions for ourselves. (205; emphasis mine)

This hypothetical deception necessarily depends on a conception of oneself as a passive audience, acted on by aggressive, self-serving, manipulative rhetoricians who fool one with their clever images, and, in so doing, coax money from one, only to deliver to him or her meaningless objects that bring no permanent pleasure. If this were the case, however, why would Americans continue to be “tricked?” Once “educated” by the proliferation of studies (starting as early as the 1950s) on advertising detailing the many supposedly deceptive practices of advertisers, why would Americans continue to be motivated to consume, and, in fact, increase their consumption? The answer lies in collaboration and in the nature of desire. As Twitchell argues:

We were not suddenly transformed from customers to consumers by wily manufacturers eager to unload a surplus of crappy products. We have created a surfeit of things because we enjoy the process of getting and spending. The consumption ethic may have started in the early 1900s, but the desire is ancient. Kings and princes once thought they could solve problems by amassing things; we now join them. (11)

That is to say, while advertisers may work with consumers’ desires—they may direct them—they do not invent or create these desires. Their primary role in the collaborative effort of sociological propaganda is the creation of images, images that simultaneously acknowledge existing hierarchies and issue invitations to transcend those same hierarchies through the consumption of goods. Their role, in other words, is to create rhetoric or, as Burke sees it, make our unmet needs salient for us (Hart 275). The more goods that became available through consumption (due to the wonders of mass production) and the more opportunities to bring people in contact with these goods (borne of the advances in mass media), the more advertising could hold before consumers’ eyes a vision of what is and what they could be.

Approaching advertisements as evidence of sociological propaganda allows the critic to analyze the ways in which consumers and advertisers collaborate—with and through the mass media—in the creation of advertising through relationships of identification, imitation, concealment, and desire. Therefore, rather than examine these advertisements in an attempt to determine either their rhetorical effectiveness (something which, increasingly, ad agencies fear is all but impossible anyway) or in an attempt to account for the methods which enable or disable this effectiveness, this analysis views the existence and propagation of these advertisements as proof of their effectiveness insofar as their very existence is evidence of a (successful) collaboration. To account for this rhetoric, then, requires one to approach these advertisements from multiple angles, exploring the causes that invite their creation and sustain their propagation.

The advertisements selected for analysis in this essay are not examined from a neo-classical perspective—that is, they are not read as texts created by individual authors for the purposes of moving audiences. Instead, they are approached as the result of a collaboration between the “creators” and the “audiences,” and as evidence of certain interactions at play between consumers and those who create advertisements. Such an approach is in line with McLuhan’s belief that “[t]here is really nothing in…advertisements which has not been deeply wished by the population for a long time” (“American” 441). The first advertisement to be read exhibits characteristics of both earlier American advertisements, with their employment of textual and rational arguments and focus on product, and elements of more recent advertising, with its dependence on emotional appeals, use of images, and focus on social and spiritual transformation and transcendence. The reading—in revealing the means by which this advertisement emphasizes hierarchies while simultaneously issuing invitations to identification and transcendence—offers an example of the way in which hybridizing the work of Burke and Girard can illuminate some of the rhetorical dynamics at work in twentieth-century American advertising.

Ad for Lifebuoy Soap

In 1947 the ad to the right for “Lifebuoy” health soap appeared in Life magazine at a time when advertisers had discovered the profitability of both naming the effects of the many germs offensively invading the human skin and offering products to mask these effects. The terms “Halitosis” and “B.O.” were introduced into the vocabularies of the everyday consumer, and with these frightening terms came a slew of products to fend off these “new” threats. Advertisements for soaps, deodorants, mouthwashes, cosmetics and hair tonics flooded the market. Often these advertisements, in implying that what were formerly simple social imperfections should be understood as diseases, in employing pseudoscientific claims to boost the validity of their products, and in expressing these claims in sterile, clinical terms attempted to appeal to the rational nature of their consumers.

However, while the following advertisement does these things, the most striking difference between it and advertisements from the 1800s and early 1900s is the increase in space dedicated to images. Although this advertisement contains so much text as to offer a small but coherent narrative detailing the “heroine’s” “hygiene” issues, this text takes up little more than quarter of the whole advertising space. The first image—an artists’ sketch of an unnamed woman anxiously facing the audience as she carries a tea tray away from (but within hearing range of) the malicious whispers of her friends Helen and Grace—dominates the top third of the advertisement. Immediately below it readers learn—from a thickly bolded two-line quote— that she is anxious because of “that little whisper [that] left me worried sick.” Underneath these two lines, and constituting the bottom two-thirds of the advertisement, a series of five images interspersed with text and laid out in a two-column format (a format intentionally reminiscent of print-comics) dominate the text and offer portraits of the heroine first shocked, then concerned, then pleased, and, finally, positively ecstatic. These portraits and their accompanying captions are formatted in comic book style, and thus force readers to jump from column to column (as opposed to down, as in a newspaper article) until, with the last image of the Lifebuoy soap itself, the narrative ends.

The narrative can be paraphrased as follows: Unnamed woman is cleaning her house when her two friends, Helen (representative of “earthly beauty”) and Grace (“heavenly beauty”), unexpectedly drop by. As she leaves the room she overhears them deciding to leave due to the offensive nature of her body odor. While a male authority (in the form of her doctor) is happy to assure her that it is “normal and healthy to perspire,” he also advises her that there is simply “no excuse for having B.O.” After immersing herself in a bathtub foamy with Lifebuoy lather, she emerges the “same sweet and dainty girl” her husband once married.

Obviously, and significantly, this advertisement functions by playing on consumers’ anxieties, for anxieties, twentieth-century advertisers had realized, were the “American consumer’s Achilles’ heel” (Bryson 239). An understanding of how appeals to anxiety function can be most clearly illuminated by a Burkean perspective, and specifically by a reading informed by Burke’s concept of identification. Identification is necessary insofar as there is division; looking at the ad from a Burkean perspective thus requires the critic to not only point out the ways in which it invites consumers to share its values, attitudes, and belief systems, but also to recognize the hierarchies established implicitly by the ad—hierarchies which make salient the differences which invite the identification in the first place. This critic must understand, as Kirk explains, that identification is not only the means by which separated individuals invite cooperation; it is the structure that orders rhetoric, the “hierarchical structure in which the entire process of rhetorical conflict is organized” (414). The exact nature and dynamic of this structuring will be discussed when this essay turns to a consideration of the ways in which a Burkean perspective invites further Girardian analysis.

First, however, consider the social hierarchy implicit in the rhetoric of this ad—begin by noting the placement of the main “character.” In addition to being unnamed, unadorned, smelly, insecure, bound for the day to her housework and acting as food server to her unexpected visitors, she is placed outside the intimate circle of her friends who are named, free to socialize for the day, elegantly dressed, and whispering conspiratorially from their privileged seated and served position. She is, in other words, clearly at the bottom of this particular social hierarchy. It is also suggested that she places quite low in larger societal hierarchies, among them the one that includes the bespectacled family doctor, who, due to the prestige and power of his position is to be taken quite seriously when he asserts that “B.O.” is unacceptable. Alone in her position in this hierarchy for the majority of the ad space, she is finally permitted to transcend her place through the power of the “rich and refreshing” lather of Lifebuoy. That she has transcended is made evident in the willingness of husband (who bears a strange resemblance to her doctor) to embrace her closely and cease lying to her, as portrayed in the next to last image. It is clearly implied that Lifebuoy has literally “saved” this woman from, among other things, the toils and demeaning position imposed by patriarchy. Emerging from her “baptismal” dip in the tub of Lifebuoy suds, she even figuratively recovers her virginity, returning to an originary moment.

Were bad hygiene and social inferiority only the problems of this one unknown woman, little soap would be sold. Thus, it is crucial that consumers are invited to identify with this woman, place themselves in her lower and undesirable hierarchical position, and feel the need for the means of transcendence. In (“scandalously”) legitimizing the conspiracy of the other woman, the ad clearly situates the users of its product at the top of a social hierarchy; from this exalted position, invitations to identification are extended in several ways, all of them implicit. First, there is the positioning of the woman’s face. In four out of the five pictures, she is facing the consumer at eye-level. The implication is, of course, that she, though unable to converse with her superior guests, can still communicate with readers. They are her confidantes, with whom she is willing to reveal the most personal of hygiene problems and share her doctor’s advice. Her willingness to do so implies that they might be in need of this information—that they, unbeknownst to themselves, might also smell in offensive ways. The intimate nature of their relationship with her is furthered when they are invited into her bathtub; here she sits naked, covered only by a protective shield of Lifebuoy bubbles, and only a few feet from readers. Readers are, however, abruptly left behind after this bath, her gaze sealed off from them as she turns her clean, fresh face towards the loving look of her handsome, well-appointed husband and pulls her arm up to encircle him (and keep readers out). Situated at the bottom of the social hierarchy, abandoned by their transcending model, readers are, nonetheless, left with two things: one, a paragraph that, for the first time, addresses them directly and informs them that they “can build up increasingly better protection against ‘B.O’,” and two, a rather large picture of a box of Lifebuoy soap captioned with a command to “use it daily.” Here, in other words, readers are offered the means to overcoming the hierarchical differences (the ad has implied) they face.

The product in this ad is not pitched to readers as a physical end in itself; rather, it is portrayed as a physical means to a “spiritual” end. In Burkean terms, the soap provides a means of “ritual purification.” When humans are confronted with hierarchies, Burke says, they can acquire a feeling of guilt if they fail to maintain an acceptable place in the presented social order. In order to deal with the guilt engendered by this failure, they attempt to purify themselves, either through mortification or scapegoating. As a result of either a personal sacrifice (mortification) or transference of guilt to an “outsider” (scapegoating), individuals are “purified” and able to achieve redemption. This process repeats itself endlessly, for social dramas ensure the continual evolution, dissimilation, and re-establishment of hierarchies (Burke, Religion 5).[8]

Thus, this ad does not appeal to material desires—readers are not to be satisfied with the soap itself—but to metaphysical desires, or what the soap can do to transform them socially. While a Burkean reading reveals this ad’s suggestion that the use of Lifebuoy can effect a social transformation—a transcendence of hierarchies imposed by a society goaded by order and “rotten with perfection”—such a reading also invites further speculation into the motivation for such a transformation. A Girardian perspective assumes that consumers do not spontaneously and autonomously desire such things as transformation, cleanliness, “virginity,” and marriage, and questions how readers are persuaded to find these things desirable; it asks what effects their persuasion and to what final end their desire is directed. A Girardian reading provides the answer in that it emphasizes the presence of a model and the existence of metaphysical desire. This ad creates a model for emulation, and subsequent consumer emulation of this model—presumably undertaken through purchase of Lifebuoy—is, a Girardian reading suggests, motivated not by a desire to be like the model but by a desire to actually become her.

The advertisers construct this mimetic appeal by inserting a mediator/model between the consumers and the object for sale, creating a triangular relationship between the model, product, and consumer. In so doing, the ad focuses the audience’s attention less on the physical attributes of the soap for sale and more on the relationships between both the mediator/model and the soap, and the mediator/model and the consumers. It constructs, in other words, the mimetic triangle theorized by Girard in order to motivate consumption; it depends on rhetoric communicated through the mediation of another.

Hierarchies such as the one explored in the previous advertisement are reflected or established, repeated and spread through the proliferation of images. The advertisement just analyzed was created and consumed in a time when, while real advances and astounding growth were occurring in the technologies of mass media, television had not yet begun its steady march into the homes of American consumers. Certainly, as both Postman and Boorstin have argued, the “word” had begun to be superceded by the “image” at this point—billboards, posters, news magazines (e.g. Life and Look) and print advertisements had increasingly become the media of exposition consumed by the American people, but, as is evidenced by the previous analysis, textual arguments still had a significant place in advertising (Postman 74).

However, all this began to change in the 1940s, and, more dramatically, in the 1950s. At this time, as Bryson describes it:

American TV at last was unleashed. By 1947, the number of television sets in American homes had soared to 170,000 … As late as 1949, radio was still turning over profits of over $50 million, while TV was losing $25 million. But as the1950s opened, television became a kind of national mania. As early as 1951, advertisers were rushing to cash in on the craze.… By 1952, the number of sets had soared to eighteen million, 105 times as many as there had been just five years earlier. (230)

At least two things resulted from this explosion—first, there was a dramatic acceleration in the American evolution into an “image-culture,” with all the consequences such a shift entails. Second, and most significant for the purposes of this essay, although mimetic desire had always been in operation in advertising, advertisers seemed to become increasingly aware of its power to motivate the purchasing behavior of consumers.

As many media scholars such as Jamieson, Postman, Ewan, and Twitchell have argued, the first of these two shifts resulted in a society that thinks in images, speaks in sound bites, and pays attention only as long as it is entertained. In other words, what resulted was a public uniquely acculturated to the language of propaganda. Furthermore, they point out, concurrent with this evolution in thinking was an astounding expansion in advertising and public relations producing this “language.” However, this evolution does not suggest that the relationship between advertisers and consumers, as pointed out previously, should be understood to be a manipulative one, with the advertisers inventing and twisting the consumers’ desires. Neither, as Boorstin is quick to point out, should a reliance on images or pseudo-events be understood as an interest in superficiality or materialism. On the contrary, he says, they reflect a growing attraction to “shadow” over “substance,” and those who pitch these shadows to us do so, not to deceive us, but because they are “simply acolytes of the image” (204). Their focus on the images thus comes about because consumers have made it clear that what they are interested in buying is the image (204). Evidence of this became increasingly obvious as advertisements evolved over the last half of the century.

To understand this second characteristic of the television revolution, to understand why or how people would be interested in buying the image requires the perspectives offered by Burke and Girard. An inquiry into the ways in which a Burkean approach invites extension through a Girardian perspective can be found in Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives. In this work, Burke turns his attention to this question of motivation by acknowledging the need for a “meta-rhetorical” explanation that would clarify why there exists a “frenzied human cult of advantage,” which he defines as “the quest of many things that cannot bring real advantage yet are obtainable” (274). He believes that, while “institutional factors would account for its intensity” only a meta-rhetorical explanation could account for the origins of this seemingly mad desire (274). In other words, while the proliferation of images and advertisements may account for the spread of this feeding frenzy, it cannot and does not account for the original existence of the desire in the first place. Explaining this desire requires Girard’s mimetic theory, which proposes that the common belief that desire is spontaneous and object-oriented is an illusion, and that human desires are, at their root, mimetic (Things 295-297). Contrary to the concept of “romantic” desire, mimetic desire, Andrew McKenna explains, “is not ruled, governed, or mastered in any way by a value emanating from the object, the commodity, but controlled only by another desire” (Violence 106). Revealing the mimetic desire at work in advertising becomes, in one sense, easier as advertising shifts from “information” to “entertainment” (or from traditional rhetoric to propaganda) because such a shift entails a simplification in the invitation to imitation, thereby making the presence of mimetic desire more obvious. Consumers are no longer distracted by complex, logical arguments that try to reason with them by detailing the positive qualities inherent in a certain product; instead, the images employed simply evoke emotional reactions by associating the product with something the consumer believes is a positive quality potentially inherent in him or herself if only he or she had the means to become someone else.

At the same time that advertisements were evolving into sometimes witty and entertaining appeals to transcendence, they exerted a greater effort to conceal the presence of invitations to identifications behind this transcendence. These efforts were stimulated by a cultural reaction against 1950’s trends and advertisements, which were distinctly known for their appeals to conformity and conventionality. As Thomas Frank explains:

Conformity may have been a bulwark of the mass society, but in the 1960s it was usurped by difference, by an endless succession of appeals to defy conformity, to rebel, to stand out, to be one’s self. Advertising in the 1960s taught that the advertising of the 1950s had been terribly mistaken, that people should not consume in order to maximize their efficiency or fit in or impress their neighbors. Instead, consuming was to derive its validity from the impulse to be oneself, to do one’s own thing. (136)

This new consumer imperative was both deceptive and paradoxical—it implied that one should purchase to prove one’s individuality, yet one should only do so by purchasing the same goods everyone else was purchasing. As Burke explains, if we wish to influence an individual’s response, “we emphasize factors which he had understressed or neglected [the importance of “being himself”], and minimize factors which he had laid great weight upon [“fitting in”]” (Grammar 220). In explicitly espousing individuality while masking invitations to conformity, a person in effect redefines the situation itself, and thus alters another’s motives. Such redefinitions are examined in the analysis of a Calvin Klein advertisement to follow.

First, however, it is important to note that, as Twitchell correctly points out, “advertising does not invent or satisfy desires. It expresses desire with the hope of exploiting it. Over and over and over” (14). If it were truly dependent on the actual needs of an audience or if audiences were actually satisfied by material goods, advertising would falter in the twentieth century, for surely today’s most ardent consumers have more goods and fewer needs than ever before. Yet the reverse is true. Advertising remains a global, multi-billion dollar industry. As McChesney points out, “Advertising is conducted disproportionately by the largest firms in the world.… The top ten global advertisers alone accounted for some 75 percent of the $36 billion spent by the one hundred largest global marketers in 1997” (84).

What motivates consumers to consume? What motivates their desire for more images and thus more advertising? The answer, this essay argues, lies in Girard’s mimetic theory, and, significantly, the call for such a theory can be found in a rhetorical text, Burke’s own Rhetoric of Motives. In the third part of this work, Burke addresses the basic nature of communication, proposing:

In its essence communication involves the use of verbal symbols for purposes of appeal. Thus, it splits formally in the three elements of speaker, speech, and spoken-to, with the speaker so shaping his speech as to “commune with” the spoken-to. This purely technical pattern is the precondition of all appeal. (271)

What Burke describes here is, of course, the basic communications triangle, the metaphor that has structured the transmission view of communication from Aristotle to Jowett and O’Donnell. But Burke does not stop here; instead, he argues “the indication of pure persuasion in any activity is in an element of ‘standoffishness,’ or perhaps better, self-interference” (Rhetoric 269; emphasis original). It is this element, he asserts, that is responsible for the maintenance of any appeal. For, in the form of the triangle, the flow of persuasive messages could be maintained, “insofar as the plea remained unanswered” (274). Obviously if the plea is answered, “you have gone from persuasion to something else” (274). There is no need for further appeal if unity has been achieved; standoffishness is necessary because if man were completely unified with all other men there would be absolutely no incentive for appeal, no rhetorical exigency, or, as Burke puts it: “Rhetorically, there can be courtship only insofar as there is division” (271). If, therefore, persuasion is to be perpetuated (as it obviously is in advertising, which, since its inceptions, has only grown with each passing day), there must exist “something” which creates the exigency for its existence. This “something,” Burke calls “interference,” and he suggests that only “through interference could one court continually, thereby perpetuating genuine ‘freedom of rhetoric’” (271). This aspect of persuasion is particularly relevant when it comes to the pursuit of objects, the attraction to things. Burke explains:

We would only say that…implicit in the perpetuating of persuasion (in persuasion made universal, pure, hence paradigmatic or formal) there is the need of “interference.” For a persuasion that succeeds, dies. To go on eternally (as a form does) it could not be directed merely towards attainable advantages. And insofar as the advantages are obtainable, that particular object of persuasion could be maintained as such only by interference. (275; emphasis original)

Either the object must remain perpetually unobtainable or, if obtainable, obstacles must be placed in the way of the one hoping to obtain it. Internalized societal, cultural, and even religious obstacles or boundaries to desire have increasingly fallen as Western culture’s attitude towards consuming and upward mobility have shifted. Burke proposes, however, that interference must be supplied if the persuasion is to continue. It stands to reason, therefore, that with the lessening of internal interferences to desires (people no longer feel the need to keep their desires in check), individuals have the need for more external interferences—quite a paradox in this age of plenty. Resolving this paradox, however, is relatively simple. As Burke explains, “men can still get the result [of perpetual persuasion] by a cult of ‘new needs’ (with the continual shifting of objectives to which men are goaded by the nature of our economic system). By such temporizings, the form of persuasion is permanently maintained” (275). That is, as soon as any individual gets close to obtaining or actually obtains the “desired” object (thus eliminating the need for the persuasive appeal), he or she simply turns to other objects for “satisfaction.” In this way, the “constant shifting of purposes in effect supplies (as it seems, ‘from without’) the principle of self-interference which the perpetuating of the persuasive act demands” (275).

What Burke is describing, in effect, is the double bind as theorized by Girard. The simultaneous, mutually dependent yet contradictory movements inviting imitation and maintaining differences described by Burke are embodied in the dynamics of mimetic desire. The perpetuation of these movements, and thus the perpetuation of persuasion, is necessarily dependent on the transformation of the desired object insofar as it must continually appear to be both obtainable and unobtainable; it must, in other words, take on the appearance of the sacred. This transformation is equally dependent on the desires of consumers and the powers of advertising. Consumers sustain the persuasion because all humans, Girard asserts, are driven by a metaphysical desire to be the Other, and advertising seems to supply the objects by which this transfiguration may be effected. Advertising sustains the persuasion insofar as it provides a ready supply of images of the Other embodied in hierarchical relationships which invite and prevent imitation and identification and thus sustain desire by mediating it.

The following Calvin Klein advertisement—offered as an example of typical late twentieth-century and early twenty-first century advertising—exhibits the paradoxical consumer imperative mentioned previously and mediates desire by appearing to explicitly dismiss attempts at imitation while implicitly inviting such attempts through an artful juxtaposition of images and vague commands.

Ad for Calvin Klein perfume

One in a series of advertisements photographed by celebrity photographer Richard Avedon and featuring everyday “real” people plucked from the street by talent scouts and posed alongside professional models, this advertisement was published both on billboards and in magazines in 1997 to promote Calvin Klein’s newest perfume, “Be.” Featuring well-known waif Kate Moss and introducing two unknown models, this perfume ad is arresting both in its apparent simplicity and its confounding ambiguity. With no product immediately in sight, the consumer is faced with three consecutive black and white snapshots of sullen, underdressed models, under whose artfully posed torsos is found the following command in white letters, centered and superimposed on the black frame:

“be hot. be cool. just be.”

Although such a statement seems to coolly reject conformity and offers the impression of indifference—the impression of aloof disregard for the standards of others—this impression is quickly undermined by its exhortative nature. Its implied audience is consumers in a society thoroughly acculturated to the images of beauty, glamour, thinness, and superiority regularly associated with Calvin Klein. Often naked, perfectly sculpted, thoroughly absorbed in something unseen, Calvin Klein models of the 1990s can be found—frozen in classic black and white images—swinging in Edenic gardens, submerged in serene pools, or draped across elegant couches (they are thus bohemian and atypical). Products with such transcendent names as “Eternity,” “One,” and “Obsession,” usually hover in the corner of these photos, unnaturally juxtaposed against a bit of naked torso, exposed breast, or curved buttock. The messages of all these campaigns are clear—“Be like me” (by buying this product), but also, “You cannot possibly be me,” as the turned back or insolent gaze of the models indicates; thus, Burkean invitations to identification are issued while "standoffishness" is maintained. Hence, the Girardian double bind is established.

The command, “just be,” is neither possible nor desirable—the consumer’s metaphysical desire to perpetually be the Girardian “other” and the advertiser’s need to sell a product ensure that the contentment implied by such a statement is unattainable. In fact, it is the very impossibility of this contentment that makes “just be”-ing so desirable and ensures that Burkean "pure persuasion" remains in play. In the face of this, there is no need for Calvin Klein to even initially mention a product much less offer an argument in support of its desirability (though this particular series of magazine ads includes images of the product on the flip side, often with a scent envelope). In the end, both CK and consumers know that it matters little what the product is or how it fits or smells, and so this advertisement reveals as much about consumers and the nature of their desire as it does about advertisers and the nature of their rhetoric. It is the case as Twitchell asserts that “[a]dvertising is neither chicken nor egg…it’s both. It is language not just about objects to be consumed but about the consumers of objects. It is threads of a web linking us to objects and to each other” (13). This web is triangular; it is mimetic or metaphysical desire, “the source of fascination, hypnosis, idolatry, the ‘double,’ and possession” (Williams 290). It moves consumers; it motivates consumption through the endless interplay of Burke’s “standoffishness” and “identification,” the two marking the presence of perpetual or pure persuasion.

What the theories of both Burke and Girard suggest, therefore, is that human desire is not materialistic, that though people appear to continually desire new things, this appearance is deceptive. Desire for objects does not, therefore, precede desire to be otherwise (a desire that can never be sated and is thus responsible for the perpetuation of rhetoric); desire for objects is merely the way in which individuals can simultaneously sustain and conceal their other-directed desire, their desire to transcend metaphysical hierarchies. Humans are, in this way, intensely (and perhaps ironically) spiritual. In a culture that has become, in many ways, increasingly secular, they have, therefore, turned towards the act of purchasing in order to find redemption or salvation. Twitchell is one of the few media scholars to have noted this aspect of advertising. Employing the Burkean strategy of “perspective by incongruity” he points out what most individuals, in their trained incapacity as consumers, miss; he argues that while:

Mid-twentieth-century American culture is often criticized for being too materialistic…we are not too materialistic. We are not materialistic enough. If we craved objects and knew what they meant, there would be no need to add meaning through advertising … What is clear is that most things in and of themselves do not mean enough. In fact, what we crave may not be objects at all but their meaning. For whatever else advertising does, one thing is certain: by adding value to material, by adding meaning to objects, by branding things, advertising performs a role historically associated with religion. The Great Chain of Being, which for centuries located value above the horizon in the World Beyond, has been reforged to settle value on the objects of the here and now. (12)

Advertising performs its most important religious role, as Twitchell says, by “adding value to material, by adding meaning to objects,” and it does this, this essay argues, through the construction of a mimetic triangle.[9] Advertising presents models for consumers’ desires; each object towards which these models direct their attention and interest is transformed by their gaze. This dynamic is at work in most modern advertising and is especially obvious in the glut of recent advertisements employing celebrities. A recent television advertisement for Gap demonstrates, in a simple and straightforward manner, the power of the mediated gaze.

Shot in 2002 and directed by the well-regarded Coen brothers, this thirty-second commercial features movie actor Dennis Hopper and movie actress Christina Ricci clad in khakis and crisp white button-down shirts. Free of any dialogue, this "mini-movie" unfolds to the sound of the Beach Boy's "Hang on to Your Ego" and begins with a title in white font, "Two White Shirts," set against a black background. As the black disappears, the first scene appears, and the audience sees a black and white close-up of Hopper adjusting his sunglasses. The camera pulls back as a female hand bearing an iced beverage (lemonade, according to the producers) enters to the right of Hopper's face. The camera continues to pull back until the scene is complete: two lounge chairs, Hopper occupying the one to the viewer's right and facing the camera, are positioned in front of a beautiful swimming pool, which in turn sits beneath a clear open sky and in front of a large, well-manicured lawn. Set between the chairs is a small table with chessboard, over which the twenty-something Ricci, after handing the drink to Hopper, hovers, body oriented towards the camera, as she appears to ponder her next chess move. She then makes the move, settles into the lounge chair to the viewer's left, draws on her sunglasses, and poses coolly. The scene ends with Hopper, arms crossed, looking down at the chessboard.[10] Gradually this scene dissolves into a white background, and the familiar blue and white Gap logo appears in its center.

Entirely free of spoken arguments (if one ignores the soundtrack) and almost entirely dependent on visuals, this commercial is most productively approached through the hybridized Burkean-Girardian perspective proposed by this essay. It is clear that the makers of this advertisement are counting on their audience's collaborative efforts, their receptiveness to invitations to identification, and their desire to be something other than what they are, to make this commercial work. Employing no spoken or written claims, offering no evidence or supporting arguments, and making no attempts to persuade the consumer that their white shirt is in any way inherently better than any other white shirt on the market, the Gap relies entirely on the power of mimetic desire to move its audience towards purchase.

Dennis Hopper, a popular actor for years, who is known for being enigmatically "cool," indicates his superiority to the audience by ignoring them completely, the opening touch of his shades a reminder that they are "beyond" his gaze and attention. He does not "pitch" the product or otherwise ask for the attention of consumers. At the same time as his reputation and body language imply his superiority to his audience, his top position in the social hierarchy; however, his donning of the Gap's most popular (and common) products, khakis and a white shirt, invite both identification and imitation. These invitations are intensified by the presence of Ms. Ricci, an "indie" actress known for being hip, cutting-edge, somewhat quirky and independent. Completely absorbed in a leisurely game of chess with a man more than twice her age, she appears totally unaware of the presence of the camera or viewing consumers. As she glides smoothly through the pristine black and white beauty of this thirty-second scenario, her body language suggests familiarity and ease with the wealth and glamour of her settings and chess partner. Her beauty and ease endow her simple white shirt with magic, implying, as ludicrous as it seems, that her success and celebrity is partially a product of her apparel. These "Two White Shirts," it is suggested by the mise-en-scene, have the magical power to transform the lives of those who wear them. When consumers do the work of this commercial, respond to this suggestion and purchase the shirt, their disappointment at its failure to transform them will merely be transformed into desire for yet other objects.

The more objects people obtain, the more it became necessary to sacralize the objects; the sacred, as Andrew McKenna explains, “always being what must both attract and repel desires” (“Cool” para 6). Their desire is not for things, for, as Burke argues:

The principle of wanting is never satisfied with getting, since by its very nature as a principle it transcends all mere material things, even while being encouraged to think that material things are what it wants. So, no matter how much it gets, it will in the end be frustrated because it cannot get still more. (Religion 234)

As regards hierarchy or “the motive of the sociopolitical order,” Burke queries:

If, to seek its level

Water can all the time


What God or Devil

Makes men climb

No end? (Religion 42)

The answer, implied by Burke and supplied by Girard, is, of course, the metaphysical desire to be the Other—an end that is, as Burke suggests, “No end,” at all, and thus advertisements lead men to climb without end. This end sends consumers on a perpetual search for the material objects that will deliver transcendence and fuels advertising campaigns that are increasingly aware of the power of this search.


This essay comes out of the author’s dissertation, directed by Dr. Stephen J. McKenna at The Catholic University of America.

[1] In the field of rhetorical studies see, for example, Stephen McKenna’s “Advertising as Epideictic Rhetoric,” which examines contemporary forms of rhetoric against traditional ones and encourages further study of the intersections between advertising and culture in contemporary times; Richardson’s “Pulp Politics: Popular Culture and Political Advertising,” which explores the verbal, visual, and auditory rhetoric of televised political advertisements and argues for the use of genre analysis as a means of understanding their effectiveness; D’Angelo’s “Subliminal Seduction: An Essay on the Rhetoric of the Unconscious,” which surveys the history of subliminal advertising and applies a Freudian and tropological reading to two advertisements; and Kehl’s “The Electric Carrot: The Rhetoric of Advertisement,” which proposes analyzing advertisements in composition classes as a means to help students think critically and learn about rhetorical strategies. In the field of communication or media studies, see, for example, the following works which address the deceptive practices of advertisers: Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders; Preston’s The Tangled Web They Weave: Truth, Falsity, and Advertisers; Kilbourne’s Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising; and Key’s Subliminal Seductions and “Subliminal Sexuality: The Fountainhead for America’s Obsession.” With the exception of Packard and Key, these media studies works primarily address such concerns as subtle misrepresentations, the exploitation of gullibility, and the employment of legal falsities rather than focusing on more blatant deceptions like subliminal advertising (Packard) or embeds (Key).

[2] Although throughout the twentieth century there was a general trajectory from text-based to image-based advertising, as best described by Boorstin and Postman, it must also be noted that this trajectory was, at times, considerably more complex and recursive than either scholar suggests. For example, as Sivulka points out, during hard times, like those of the depression years, advertisers had to become more cost-conscious and cut down on use of color and illustrations. These advertisers also had to depend more heavily on the “hard sell,” employing pseudoscientific arguments and emotional appeals to persuade consumers who were struggling financially and were thus less likely to buy impulsively (199). Similarly, in the mid-1970s, advertising agencies increasingly employed textual arguments in attempts to combat growing consumer skepticism (339).

[3] Girard does not suggest that the model himself exhibits autonomous unmediated desire; on the contrary, he proposes that most models are also imitators in an endless chain of mimetic desire.

[4] It should be noted that Girard’s “other” is not the same as the “Other” theorized by such thinkers as de Beauvoir or Lacan. For Girard, the “other” is simply any other person whom one finds worthy as a model; for de Beauvoir the “Other” is women, whose existence is foreign, negative and marginalized. For Lacan, the term has many different meanings but is “basically a locus of forces which enables the emergence of the subject but, at the same time, leaves the subject permanently fragmented and in perpetual slavery to desire” (“Self/Other” 620).

[5] As this paper deals with consumerism’s relationship to advertising, such non-profit oriented advertising such as PSAs, service advertisements or political campaigns will not be treated.

[6] As Postman argues, “The photograph itself makes no arguable propositions, makes no extended and unambiguous commentary. It offers no assertions to refute, so it is not refutable” (73).

[7] I put “truthful” in quotations to emphasize its deviation from a conventional understanding of “truth.” Advertisements, as will be discussed shortly, generally became less and less propositional over the course of the twentieth century; therefore, they cannot be precisely labeled “truthful” or “untruthful” in any exact sense.

[8] Burke summarizes this entire process with a poem describing these “Terms for Order”:

Here are the steps
In the Iron Law of History
That welds Order and Sacrifice:

Order leads to Guilt
(for who can keep commandments!)
Guilt needs Redemption
(for who would not be cleansed!)
Redemption needs Redeemer
(which is to say, a Victim!)

Through Guilt
To Victimage
(hence: Cult of the Kill). . . . (Religion 5).

[9] In some ways this process wherein a commodity becomes imbued with a metaphysical value is very similar to what Marx called “commodity fetishism,” whereby a product of labor, as soon as “it steps forth as a commodity,” is changed into something transcendent and its value is consequently found in its place in a network of social relations rather than any inherent physical characteristic (Marx 82-83). See also Williamson’s Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising (138-151) for an extensive analysis of how advertising is both a “magical” process and an area of transformation, “a kind of pivot around which misrepresentations may be produced” (140). Arguing that “all consumer products offer magic, and all advertisements are spells” (141), Williamson analyzes advertisements to show how “images of nature…and of magic [in advertisements] do not ‘represent’ nature and magic but use these systems of reference to mis-represent our relation to the world around us and the society we live in” (144; emphasis original).

[10] At this time, this commercial can only be viewed by subscribing to ad-rag.com


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---. A Grammar of Motives. New York: Prentice- Hall, 1954.

---. The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961.

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---. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World: Research Undertaken in Collaboration with Jean -Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort. Trans. Stephen Bann (Books II & III) and Michael Metteer (Book I). London: Athlone, 1987.

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---. “Subliminal Sexuality: The Fountainhead for America’s Obsession.” Sex in Advertising: Perspectives on the Erotic Appeal. Eds. Tom Reichert and Jacqueline. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2003.

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McKenna, Stephen J. “Advertising as Epideictic Rhetoric.” Rhetoric, the Polis, and the Global Village: Selected Papers from the 1998 Thirtieth Anniversary Rhetoric Society of America Conference. Eds. C. Jan Swearingen and Dave Pruett. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1999.

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Trained Incapacity: Thorstein Veblen and Kenneth Burke

Erin Wais, University of Minnesota

Abstract: Recently, a leading sociologist claimed that the phrase “trained incapacity” does not appear in the works of Thorstein Veblen. Kenneth Burke, who attributed the phrase to Veblen in Permanence and Change, was later unsure of its origins. This essay shows that, indeed, Veblen did coin the term, using it particularly in reference to problematic tendencies in business. Burke, on the other hand, gave the term an expansive application to human symbol-using generally.  

IN A 2003 PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS to the American Sociological Association, Robert Stallings challenged conventional wisdom and charged that the widespread attribution of the term "trained incapacity" to Thorstein Veblen is erroneous. Stallings reported that he himself had spent a significant amount of time searching for the term in Veblen's works, to no avail; thus, he was comfortable in challenging anyone to "find the term 'trained incapacity' in any of the published works of Thorstein Veblen." Given his certainty that the term could not be located, he suggested that the connection of "trained incapacity" with Veblen was an example of misattribution in sociology (Stallings 1).

Kenneth Burke made good use of the term "trained incapacity," devoting an entire section to it in his book Permanence and Change. Here he typically attributed the phrase to Veblen, although he later admitted uncertainty as to its origins. As early as a 1946 letter to David Cox, Burke noted that he had tried to remember where he had first heard the phrase "trained incapacity," and even returned to Veblen's books, but was unable to determine where he had originally found the term (“Letter to David Cox” 1). Asked in the 1983 "Counter-Gridlock" interview about the term, Burke stated that he either took the term from Veblen or from Randolph Bourne, who Burke states he was reading at the time he was also reading Veblen (Burke, On Human Nature 336).

Veblen did in fact coin the phrase "trained incapacity."1 In this essay, I clarify its genealogy and explain Veblen's particular use of the phrase. I then compare Veblen's use of the phrase in discussing problems in business and organizations with Burke’s own use, which explored the concept within the broader context of symbol using generally. I argue that Burke drew upon Veblen’s initial idea, but teased out its larger implications for human symbol users much more thoroughly than Veblen.

Veblen’s Use of Trained Incapacity

Despite Stallings’ assurance that the term “trained incapacity” cannot be found in any of Veblen’s published works, Veblen did indeed coin the phrase. It appears first in his 1914 book, The Instinct of Workmanship and the Industrial Arts (IWIA), though the roots of the concept in Veblen’s thinking go back at least as far as his 1898 essay in the American Journal of Sociology. This essay, with the similar title of “The Instinct of Workmanship and The Irksomeness of Labor” (“IWIL”), was largely incorporated into his 1914 book. The essay considers whether humans are predisposed to loathe or to enjoy work. Veblen notes that most economists of his time assumed the former (187), while his essay makes a case for the latter.

Veblen’s argument draws upon evolution theory to suggest that it would hurt the survival of the species if humans loathed and avoided work. He attempts to explain how purposes of survival, goal-directed behavior supporting that survival, and habits of mind and thought have shaped humans as creatures with an “instinct of workmanship.” One of the consequences of this shaping is that humans have evolved to think easily and habitually about things that support this instinct of workmanship (and, thereby, our survival). The implications of this evolutionary imperative, Veblen argues, are significant for human action, thought, and social judgment:

What men can do easily is what they do habitually, and this decides what they can think and know easily. They feel at home in the range of ideas which is familiar through their everyday line of action. A habitual line of action constitutes a habitual line of thought, and gives the point of view from which facts and events are apprehended and reduced to a body of knowledge. What is consistent with the habitual course of action is consistent with the habitual line of thought, and gives the definitive ground of knowledge as well as the conventional standard of complacency or approval in any community. (“IWIL” 195)

On this last point, Veblen makes ethical judgment a product of this evolutionary process, insisting that “[w]hat is apprehended with facility and is consistent with the process of life and knowledge is thereby apprehended as right and good” (195).

Business people develop their own particular habitual lines of thought and action, leading to problems in their focus on business purposes, as Veblen shows sixteen years later in The Instinct of Workmanship and the Industrial Arts. He notes: “It is but a slight exaggeration to say that [business] transactions, which govern the course of industry, are carried out with an eye single to pecuniary gain,—the industrial consequences, and their bearing on the community's welfare, being matters incidental to the transaction of business” (351). Veblen insists that “an eye single to pecuniary gain” puts workers, the community, and business people at cross purposes. It is not simply that different interests are at stake; it is that businesspeople are trained to ignore larger concerns associated with “the industrial situation.” As Veblen explains it, coining the new phrase:

Of course, all this working at cross purposes is not altogether due to trained incapacity on the part of the several contestants to appreciate the large and general requirements of the industrial situation; perhaps it is not even chiefly due to such inability, but rather to an habitual, and conventionally righteous disregard of other than pecuniary considerations. (IWIA 347)

Here “trained incapacity” is distinguished from the “righteous disregard of other than pecuniary considerations,” but they actually function as two sides of the same coin, as the focus on pecuniary interests leads business people to ignore other concerns, such as “the large and general requirements of the industrial situation.”

That the singular focus on pecuniary interest is a type of trained incapacity is confirmed in the comments that follow this passage, where Veblen insists that even workers who are employed in modern factories may suffer from this pecuniary “blindness”—which he also calls “a trained inability”—though not quite as badly as their bosses:

It would doubtless appear that a trained inability to apprehend any other than the immediate pecuniary bearing of their manoeuvres accounts for a larger share in the conduct of the businessmen who control industrial affairs than it does in that of their workmen, since the habitual employment of the former holds them more rigorously and consistently to the pecuniary valuation of whatever passes, under their hands; and the like should be true only in a higher degree of those who have to do exclusively with the financial side of business. (347-48)

Four years later, in Higher Learning in America (HLA), Veblen complains about one kind of training that leads to blindnesses through the overall focus and specialization of business schools:

[These schools’] specialization on commerce is like other specializations in that it draws off attention and interest from other lines than those in which the specialization falls, thereby widening the candidate's field of ignorance while it intensifies his effectiveness within his specialty. The effect, as touches the community's interest in the matter, should be an enhancement of the candidate's proficiency in all the futile ways and means of salesmanship and "conspiracy in restraint of trade" together with a heightened incapacity and ignorance bearing on such work as is of material use. (HLA 152)

This concern over business students’ “widening…field of ignorance” is discussed in a footnote in a chapter concerning the larger, inherent problems with business schools being housed in universities. Although Veblen does not use the phrase that he coined four years earlier, he appears to be dealing with the same problem as the trend toward specialization in business schools sacrifices the breadth of knowledge that more traditional colleges attempt to impart, creating a kind of blindness in business school graduates that has negative consequences.

Although Veblen discusses trained incapacity as a way to account for problems in the modern industrial organization, Veblen’s concerns point beyond an interest in business. In part, this is because he perceives the impact of business practices as wide-ranging, since he holds that business is “a modern force upon cultural growth” (Theory of Business Enterprise vii). Additionally, Veblen’s sociological and cultural investigations led him to explore concepts related to or drawing upon trained incapacity. For example, Veblen’s discussion of human nature in The Theory of the Leisure Class (TLC) offers a broader theoretical backdrop for understanding how business people’s focus on pecuniary interests becomes a kind of trained incapacity. He argues that humans are agents “seeking in every act the accomplishment of some concrete, objective, impersonal end” (TLC 15). Veblen describes this need for accomplishment as a driving force underlying trained incapacity. It is the focus on a specific goal or end that causes the worker to perceive only what directly affects the specific goal. It is this “end focused” part of every human psyche that allows for humans to have goals, and also makes it possible for such a focus to become an incapacitation. More simply, if a population did not have a specific end to be trained to accomplish, it could not suffer from trained incapacity.

In addition to this need to work toward a goal, Veblen asserts that such goals are parts of a larger complex present in humans. The need for an end to work toward is not socially constructed or culturally imposed; a need for a goal is part of the human need for a “sense of purpose,” which Veblen highlights in Instinct of Workmanship. This sense of purpose is the part of the human condition that Veblen refers to as the “instinct of workmanship” (IWIA 27). This sense of purpose, which underlies human goal seeking, provides the impetus for “trained incapacity.” Because Veblen establishes purpose as something that is innately part of the human condition, he implies that incapacity, which is attendant to that sense of purpose, is also something tied to being human.

Veblen further attaches action (behavior) to instinct (thought) by stating that man has a purpose that is innate, and that this purpose is reflected in man’s behavior. For Veblen, recurring instinctual thoughts are reflected in recurring or habitual actions. This link between thought and action is key to “trained incapacity”; humans may be trained to value certain ideas which are then acted upon. As I noted earlier, Veblen’s “Instinct of Workmanship and the Irksomeness of Labor” argues that “a line of action constitutes a line of thought” (195). Frequent repetition of an action leads to a lack of thought in undertaking that action—a kind of incapacitation. A worker’s training includes ensuring his or her acceptance of preferred goals, leading that worker to take action in support of those preferred goals. It is those actions (and therefore those thoughts), to the exclusion of others, that causes incapacitation. Thus, for Veblen, human nature provides an impetus toward goal-seeking behavior, while specific training regimens (as in business schools) can build on those impulses to make particular goals and values preeminent in guiding human action. Such training, in turn, is the root of trained incapacity.

This thought-behavior link highlights the place of habit in trained incapacity. Without the initial thoughts, the behavior would never take place, but once these thoughts have been ingrained, behavior can cease being the result of a carefully considered process and instead occur automatically. Veblen states that “man is a creature of habits and propensities” (IWIA 193). Since a habitual action is easier and faster, it is preferred by both the trainer and the trainee, but, in switching from thoughtful action to action out of habit, incapacitation may insinuate itself. Action prompted by habit may be faster, but it does not take into consideration other incidents or actions that are not allowed for in the training.

A move away from habit is a move toward inefficiency. Once a regimen is learned, less thought is required to perform the task and less time is required to complete the task. The more thought that goes into an action, the more time the action will take. Whereas efficiency increases as the amount of thought and questioning decreases, there is also a concomitant increase in rate of incapacitation. Not only is inefficiency bad for assembly line work, for example, it is also “innately distasteful” according to Veblen (HLA 197). In fact, inefficiency goes against what it means to be human; according to Veblen, humans recoil from inefficiency. Thus, Veblen asserts, humans both seek accomplishment and shun inefficiency. As humans and human organizations become more successful at achieving efficiency, they become less aware of the unintended and unsought consequences of their actions. To the extent that “training” (e.g., education, work experience, socialization) supports this efficiency, it supports a blindness to broader concerns, a “trained incapacity.” Veblen, offers no solution to this problem, but he notes how it influences modern culture (Spindler 49). In fact, in keeping with his typical worldview, Veblen seems resigned to the fact that this training phenomenon is a problem that will always plague humankind.

The next section considers Burke’s references to “trained incapacity” and to Veblen, establishing how and when Burke gives Veblen credit for his ideas, and discussing how Burke works to take Veblen’s initial concept and to extend and adapt it to his own sociological theory.

Burke’s Extension of Trained Incapacity

Kenneth Burke speaks about trained incapacity in an entire section in Permanence and Change appropriately titled “Veblen’s Concept of ‘Trained Incapacity’” (7). While the phrase trained incapacity is mentioned only in Burke’s Permanence and Change, references to its author, Thorstein Veblen, occur throughout Burke’s many texts. Permanence and Change is the first place Burke refers to Veblen. Here Burke speaks of “trained incapacity” as a phrase he believes was coined by Veblen (7). Burke does not give a specific source or page citation, but instead simply attributes the phrase to Veblen. Burke defines the phrase as “that state of affairs whereby one’s very abilities can function as blindnesses” (7). Burke illustrates this concept with a modified Pavlovian example of training chickens, showing how training can “work against” any trainable animal. He notes that chickens trained to come for food upon hearing a bell may suffer trained incapacity when the same bell is used to call them for punishment (7).

Burke notes that Veblen “generally restricts the concept to the care of business men who, through long training in competitive finance, have so built their scheme of orientation . . . they cannot see serious possibilities in any other system of production and distribution” (7). Because he is exploring the concept, rather than simply deploying it to explain one aspect of business culture, Burke is more explicit than Veblen in asserting that trained incapacity “properly applies to all men,” not just those in business. Burke notes that this phenomenon is so predictable and evident throughout the population that it even “seems to be experimentally verifiable” (10).

Burke argues that trained incapacity is also a way to discuss “matters of orientation” without using the terms escape and avoidance (9). That is, Burke says that there is no need to assume that the chickens in his example “refuse to face reality” or that they are using an “escape mechanism,” if their illogical behavior can be explained as a form of trained incapacity (10). Finally, Burke notes that trained incapacity is identical to John Dewey’s notion of “occupational psychosis,” insisting that the terms are “interchangeable” (48-49).

While the term trained incapacity is only cited in Permanence and Change, Veblen and his philosophy appear in two other texts of Burke’s—Philosophy of Literary Form (PLF) and Rhetoric of Motives (RM). Burke refers to Veblen in his book, Philosophy of Literary Form, urging that Veblen, along with Marx and Bentham, consider “material interests” of both “private and class structure” (111). Burke notes that such interests are a part of the “contexts of situation.” These contexts significantly shape action, yet they are constantly in flux, giving rise to paradoxes. Thus, following Veblen, Burke asserts that contexts are “opportunities to get ahead [and] are also opportunities to fall behind” (PLF 247). Burke suggests adopting different perspectives on a situation to see the opportunities and pitfalls that various contexts offer.

By the time a more mature Burke wrote Rhetoric of Motives in 1950, he had moved beyond Veblen’s observations and was looking to construct a more comprehensive theory. At this point Burke insists that Veblen’s “terminology of motives” is too limited in scope, and that his tendency to rationalize wide areas of human relationships is a mistake (RM 127). More specific to our concerns here, Burke insists that Veblen’s distinction between pecuniary motive and instinct of workmanship is “neither pliant nor comprehensive enough” (RM 127). Burke sees Veblen’s “pecuniary motive” not as dramatistic, but instead as a “special case of linguistic motive” (RM 129). He also describes Veblen’s work as “a superficial rhetoric in human relations” (RM 129). Veblen’s psychology, according to Burke, is “not so much dramatistic, as dramatized” (RM 127). Finally, Burke urges that Veblen is “rhetorically bland,” using “satire masked as science.” Veblen uses partisan words, according to Burke, but then wants there to be “no partisan connotations,” something that Burke finds ludicrous (RM 132).

If Veblen failed to develop a comprehensive theory of human culture, he nonetheless laid important groundwork for Burke’s own work. And Burke gives him credit, though he is vague (and later, forgetful) about the sources from which “trained incapacity” was drawn. Specifically, Burke gives authorial credit to Veblen throughout the “trained incapacity” section in Permanence and Change. Not only does the title of the section indicate Veblen is the source of the idea of trained incapacity; the section begins with the statement “Veblen had a concept of ‘trained incapacity’” (7). However, since Burke failed to cite any specific page number or even a particular text of Veblen’s, we must reconstruct his sources.

When Burke discussed the concept of trained incapacity in his “Counter-Gridlock” interview, he obviously had in mind Veblen’s discussion of the concept in HigherLearning in America. As I noted above, Veblen discusses the situation of the education of business students in America in a footnote in Higher Learning. Veblen urges that because these students are taught business methods and are taught to be exclusively economically motivated, the students are unable to see larger social concerns (HLA 152). Veblen sees these students as unable to think beyond their training as business people.

Burke is also discussing Veblen’s Higher Learning example when he writes about “business men” in Permanence and Change (7). Burke’s reference to Veblen is not specific, but the content he discusses is unique to a footnote in Veblen’s Higher Learning. Additionally, Burke must have either read or been exposed to The Instinct of Workmanship and the Industrial Arts, where Veblen first used the phrase trained incapacity in 1914. Again, Veblen was describing the behaviors of those operating in the business community and industry, noting their failure “to appreciate the large and general requirements of the industrial situation” (IWIA 347).

One reason Burke might have been unclear about the origins of the term is that the source of Burke’s own notion of the meaning of trained incapacity is derived from Higher Learning, where Veblen does not use the phrase, but discusses the concept. It is likely then that after reading the Higher Learning passage Burke connected it with the phrase that he had read earlier in Instinct of Workmanship and the Industrial Arts.

In any case, Burke quickly leaves Veblen’s narrow use of the phrase behind, expanding it to include broad sociological and cultural implications. Veblen’s singular use of the phrase trained incapacity in The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts did not indicate that it carried more than a concern for business, business students, and a culture that relies on them. Likewise, his reference to the concept of trained incapacity in Higher Learning in America also appears to restrict the term to businesses and business students. Veblen’s larger body of work, however, while not using the term trained incapacity specifically, does support a broader application of the term. What is of value here to Burke scholars is that Burke manages to take this one phrase and one description and understand it in terms of Veblen’s larger sociological research, drawing his own conclusions about the broad potential for the concept.

Burke’s reference to chickens suffering from trained incapacity may sound absurd, but it clearly makes the point that trained incapacity is not restricted to business students, industrial workers, or even humans in general. Indeed, it follows on Burke’s opening example of a trout that learns a valuable distinction between “food” and “bait,” examining critical distinctions at the most basic level of meaning. Burke’s use of trained incapacity not only expands Veblen’s use of that term, but provides a fecund concept that probably contributed to Burke’s thinking about orientation, perspective by incongruity, terministic screens, and other concepts that make up Burke’s theory of the symbol-using animal.

The article is one of the results of a master's thesis completed at the University Of Minnesota Department Of Rhetoric under the advisement of Dr. Art Walzer. A related paper was presented at the Triennial Kenneth Burke Conference in 2005. The author would like to thank the editors and reviewers of KB Journal—particularly Clarke Rountree—for their aid in taking this manuscript from a bulky thesis to its present state.


1 That Veblen did indeed use this phrase was verified by John Gagnon, who successfully tracked it down in The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts after its "absence" was discussed on the Kenneth Burke discussion list.

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