Stylizing Substance Abuse as Ritualized Healing

Mark Williams, California State University, Long Beach


This paper examines Burke's incantatory and confessional styles as strategies to intervene in substance abuse. Invoking two of Burke's "conversations," honoring his aim to "coach" synecdoche for diseases and cures, and embracing his claim for a magical quality in rhetoric to disrupt facile binaries, I examine how Burke's reversible ideas of piety and impiety inform his discussion of an alcoholic. Burke's styles can also be seen in the Big Book as strategies to potentially reject abused substances.

Alcohol is a relative newcomer to inebriating substances, as cave paintings and plant evidence suggest that opium and marijuana were ingested 30,000 years ago (Gately 7-9). By about 10,000 B.C.E., fruits, barley, and other materials fermented in calorie-rich brews to be stored for consumption (Patrick), and alcohol became an increasingly important part of diet, ritual, and medicine. While moderate use usually enhances social and civic activity, and while wine and other spirits are much praised in ancient poetry, painting, and literature, abuse of the beverage creates interminable drama and trauma (Hanson; "Global").1 Recent epidemiological studies estimate that thirty percent of U.S citizens experience some form of alcohol-related problems during their lives, and tens of thousands die each year from alcohol-related accidents, disease, and violence ("Excessive;" Hasin et al.).2  Alcohol use and abuse has a long history with college life ("Fact Sheets;" Thoreson).3

Individuals unable to control their cravings for alcohol and other substances perhaps find recovery through psychoanalytic talk, verbal intervention by family and friends, and "conversations" among each other (Kurtz; "Starting").4 Kenneth Burke stirs interest in alcohol soon after the "'unending conversation,'" which grounds his dramatistic reading of rituals and texts, and where "material interests" affect our attitudes and orientations (PLF 103-11). After exploring how Coleridge's opium provides "material" to read his works (xi, 21-5, 73, 96-7), he questions the deterministic powers of things by asserting that they do "not 'cause'" our acts; language grants "different" alignments with physical elements as we "symbolically" realign our dramatic "rôles" (111-12).5 Offering "strategies" for changing circumstances and conjuring the magical decrees he sees in language (1, 4-7), Burke presents an alcoholic writer who might refuse booze by incanting "different" symbolic spells (120). 

Similar ideas sound in 1932, when Burke invokes an ongoing "conversation" to convey an inventive speaker who offers "different" ideas as cultures incorporate changed material interests. Grappling with Marxism's appeal during the Depression's depths, Burke sees contemporaries adopting literary ideals directly opposed to their previous perspectives, and he argues that "difference," not flat "antithesis," may best permit poetic innovations for "new matter" ("Auscultation" 100-03). Burke extends these concerns to wider desires when identifying how food, sex, and drugs provide pleasures otherwise lacking, but the "negativeness of our impulses" create problems. For instance, physicians tried to evade cravings for "the taste"of opium with needles, but veins disastrously replaced tongues as scenes for obsession (78-80). An imaginary community illustrates other evasions: unable to make fire, the group piously maintains pyres as sacrosanct, and prohibits stick rubbing because of a similarity with sex. Burke then offers a blaspheming fellow who violates such "magic taboos" to ignite wood on his own, which the tribe then uses to incinerate him. Eventually, the tribe invents a new term—"aboozle"— to sanction new ignitions (105-06).

The negative principles and magical implications surrounding Burke's two conversations combine with distinctions between "opposite" and "different" to fuel interest in his anecdote of the alcoholic. The drinker appears soon after Burke channels Mead's idea that individuals and groups can internalize the external through incantation and externalize the internal through confession (PLF 112-13). Burke's drinker mistakenly thinks that liquor and writing are "opposite" (120). Fearful of losing his symbolic skills, the lush must ironically see how booze and script are for him "parts of the same spectrum," must know how his prose "synecdochically" fuels his disease. Aware as well of the "magical incantations" that invite his "djinn," he losses control once booze is beckoned. He should thus avoid liquid spirits by writing with "a different incantatory quality," by not interpreting his texts and toasts as opposites (119-23). The anecdote thus conjures how substance abuse might end when flat oppositions are replaced with different relationships towards malign matters.

Many respond to Burke's "unending conversation," but not through the alcoholic. David Blakesley sees the conversation's puns informing post-structural aims (72-4); Timothy Crusius interprets it as a dialogic scene not reduced to nonverbal circumstance (Kenneth 193-94); Greig Henderson and David Cratis Williams label it Burke's "most famous topoi" (ix; see Lentricchia; Selzer; Wess).6 The 1932 analogy understandably receives less attention given its 1993 publication (Crusius; Hawhee; Henderson "Aesthetic").7 Meantime, despite Burke's bond with alcohol (Ruckert; Rountree and Kostelanetz), to my knowledge just two scholars briefly note the alcoholic anecdote (Bygrave; Hennig; see below). Although Robert Wess notes material interests in the "unending conversation," he sees such matters missing from the 1932 analogy (133n). Burke's earlier conversationalist does leave assertions "in the air," but Burke follows him with a sycophant who cultivates favors to advance his material standing ("Auscultation" 102). Speakers can revise terminologies to unify, divide, and alter ideas to engage changed material situations (101-03). For instance and as noted above, the tribe accepts a previously impious invention with the term "aboozle" to sanction flames.

Burke's imaginary fire maker and abuser of firewater share a satirical outlook; the former violates custom, and the latter writes ironically. This tone extends to Marx, whose "antithetical" methods may have converted "the 'esthetes' to Communism," but such binary thinking eliminates different possibilities. Burke thus questions ambiguities in Marxism, and Marx's neglect of human bodies, to rebut the German's "determinism" ("Auscultation" 62-3). The alcoholic's body remains addicted to the liquid, and his skillful parodic twists are then erased by more booze. Unlike the blaspheming fire maker, however, the alcoholic is offered to serve "the ends of freedom" (PLF 119-20). The drinker must "coach 'good' spells" by creating different texts and by writing without distortions (120). Because booze requires no faith for effect, the alcoholic inhabits an "indeterminacy" akin to historical ambiguities about transubstantiation, which were viewed as magical by some and as belief by others (121). The alcoholic must thus believe that "a different" incantation might alter his allegiances and relationships with liquid spirits (123-24).
  The alcoholic and blasphemous anecdotes enact Burke's negative principle as resource for revising roles among recalcitrant material interests. They also illustrate different relationships among magic, religion, and science to potentially ease antitheses of magic/religion, magic/science, and magic/rhetoric. The alcoholic can spell negative principles by saying "no" to liquor and saying "yes" to different kinds of writing. Such attitudinal turns imply Burke's valuing "tropes" more than "tropisms" to help discover and describe "'the truth'" for dramatic acts (PLF 114; GM 503).8 These powers partly emerge, I believe, through the "paradox of substance," whose ambiguities permit a kind of magic, or "miracles of transformations" (GM xix, 23-24, 51). The fire maker was doomed by static cultural values; the alcoholic might intervene his abusing scenes by confessing and incanting rather magical substances to convert "opposed" relationships between alcohol and writing with a "different" understanding. This symbolic action might end substance abuse.

I elaborate the previous points by first examining pious and impious incantations that perhaps permit different alignments with malign material interests. Burke's reversible, paradoxical substance gains salience through his three synecdochic principles—as representative, as "negatively," and as "otherness." These tropical resources admit identification with, division from, and revisions among verbal and nonverbal matters. I end by extending some of Burke's ideas to the Big Book, published in 1937 to help found Alcoholics Anonymous. When the desperately alcoholic "Bill" converses with a suddenly-sober friend, for instance, he is shocked to see more than sobriety: Bill's friend confesses to having miraculously "got religion." Now "inexplicably different," the friend radiates a new-found power originating not intrinsically, yet still from the "heart" (10-11). This indeterminate power helps the newly sober impiously say "no" to booze while piously saying "yes" to the divine. Although Burke does not name "dramatism" until 1942 (Wess 109), his dramatic or dialectical focus in Philosophy resounds in the Big Book: unable to control their desire for drink, alcoholics turn to the ultimate source: "hereafter in this drama of life, God was going to be our Director" (59-62). These writers also reject distortions, forge fellowships with others, and cultivate humility. Burke cites no fellowship for his alcoholic, aside from friends who worry about the boozer. Still, those "schooled in the experiences of alcohol" are equipped with apt styles to intervene with the debauched (PC 50). The negative principle permits pious and impious incantations and confessions as stylistic strategies for ongoing interventions with substance abuse.

Piously and Impiously Internalizing the External—and Vice-Versa

Burke's reference to the alcoholic may have been sparked by his work at the Bureau of Social Hygiene between 1926 and 1930. Debra Hawhee analyzes how Burke created there a different perspective for his literary pursuits when helping write Dangerous Drugs. Burke's ghostwriting of Colonel Woods's book perhaps aided Burke's shaping of piety and "efficiency" as he prepared "to 'sing' about" the body (Hawhee "Burke" 12, 17). Hawhee also credits synecdoche for permitting Burke to disrupt facile binaries (Moving 5). Jordynn Jack examines Burke's efforts at the Bureau to interpret piety through identifications that are difficult to alter: "the network of beliefs, activities, and emotions" developed over time. Jack also questions social and psychological dimensions of piety to argue that the concept works with perspectives by incongruity to integrate "poetic and biological factors" (452-53, 461). Other scholars briefly invoke Burke to engage rhetorics related to alcoholism (Daniell; Hedges; Kleine; Jensen; see below).

I next examine the alcoholic anecdote through the symbolic powers Burke attributes to Mead and malleable ideas of substance. Burke cites Mead's "vision" for the "unending conversation," and Burke lauds him for means to internalize the external and vice versa as writers craft alternative roles for material interests (PLF 111,117).9 Later, Burke praises Mead's pragmatic ideas as "philosophy of the act," which permits us to "adopt the 'attitude of the other'" (GM xxi, 236). The alcoholic anecdote ferments the need to identify with an other way of perceiving verbal and nonverbal substances: if the drinker is willing to believe in the power of "different" incantations, he might then not be induced to abuse booze. Such substantive changes in attitudes and behaviors towards material interests calls for internalizing different externals. This process might be nourished by a reversible substance which allays otherwise opposed pairings that can sustain habitual acts. In other words, Burke concedes how dialectical, political, and/or personal pressures are always present to turn the "other" back into "an antithesis" (PLF 77-8). Still, a reversible ambiguity of substance potentially makes malign matters benign. Although Burke continues to critique the "harshly antithetical" methods of dialectic (RM 189), he of course does not outlaw antithesis: the alcoholic needs different kinds of writing to discover a "truly oppositional" relationship with bottled spirits (PLF 123); he must, through difference, develop strength to oppose intoxicants. He must turn impious to Bacchus and so salvage health.

The alcoholic anecdote also exemplifies the negative principle's reversible powers, which permit turns from pious to impious and "opposed" to "different." Although metaphor is central to the "transformation" of orientations that incongruous perspectives provide (PC 69; Rosteck and Leff; Jack),10 synecdoche permits shifts between impiety and piety. For example, Burke examines how impiety arises from the oppositions poets feel when symbolic meanings are dismissed. Invoking a mighty tree, which synecdochically represents poetic, political, and artistic realms (PLF 26), Burke explores the deep significance when a grand trunk, limbs, and branches, slam to the ground. "Not only firewood, but a parent symbol, might be brought down in the crash" (PC 71). A poet's "magical" attitudes might thus be felled without a corresponding ritual to signify the loss (72). With pragmatic aims remaining ascendent, though, no "symbolic overtones" might ever emerge. The parricidal implications of a downed oak or other organism might then exemplify "a direct antithesis between artistic and practical responses" (72). Nevertheless, piety is not necessarily opposite or antithetical to impiety; the latter recognizes and reorganizes the former through different experiences (80-81). The alcoholic, meanwhile, must reorganize his pious, symbolic "twists" and the material warps of liquor. He must become impious to both. This task trends back to Burke's tropical aims: he hopes "to 'coach' the concept" of synecdoche for diseases and cures (GM 508-09). Synecdoche conveys relationships "outside of poetry" and permits conversions from "representative" to "antagonistic" (PLF 26n). The alcoholic, who knows the magic invoked by his comedic texts, cannot control the magical powers his satire inspires; "hence, let him not summon it" (PLF 123). This claim conjures the "magical decree" inspiriting all words (PLF 4); it may also invoke the negative principle that empowers us to reject malign material interests.

These possible powers appear in pages between the "unending conversation" and the alcoholic, where Burke codifies key points of Philosophy of Literary Form: the "inconsistency" of dramatic readings admit "both determinism and free will" (116). This idea perhaps grows out of Burke's dispute with Marx's antithetical thinking, and is later elaborated through the paradox of substance whereby inside and outside convert (GM 21-4). The alcoholic externalizes the internal by confessing his "fears" about alcohol's powers; he internalizes external matters by ironically conjuring "forth a djinn" with his satire, so he must write differently (PLF 119-20, 122-23). These strategies gain salience from Burke's "irony-dialectic" pair: again noting Mead's ideas of how selves are informed by others' attitudes, Burke argues that reductive, dualistic, and relativistic perspectives might be revised with a "humble irony" growing not from flat oppositions to alternative perspectives. Rather, potential enemies, or "others," might become "consubstantial" through perception of a "different quality" (GM 236,511-14). Identification and division thus exist "ambiguously together" as rhetoric "'proves opposites'" (RM 25). By turning a simple binary between booze and writing into a different kind of relationship, Burke's alcoholic potentially proves opposites: he might affirm an alternative incantation to reject booze.

Mutably Magical Substances

Revising relationships with powerful material interests might call for miraculous acts. Burke partly provides them through versions of magic, which remain "outside the realm" of strict binaries; magic is "itself a subject matter belonging to an art that can 'prove opposites'" (RM 44). As we know, Burke embodies a seemingly magical power with liquor. As William Rueckert notes, Burke had "an amazing capacity . . . and obvious need" for alcohol (xxi). In a 1932 letter, Malcolm Cowley suggests that Burke "go on the wagon for a year," and Burke responds by confessing the "damage done me by drinking" (qtd. in Jay 202-03). Admitting to throwing away his booze-influenced prose, Burke confessed the need "to go easy on" liquor from time to time. "But, it made me feel as though I had sinned. I was ungracious to a kind thing" (qt.. in Rountree and Kostelanetz 9; see Hawhee, Moving 134-35).

I return to magic below. Next, though, while the alcoholic metaphor in Philosophy may imply some experiences in Burke's life, and while it compliments Burke's discussions of Coleridge in the same text, as far as I know the metaphor receives just two readings. Stephen Bygrave briefly notes how the alcoholic represents rituals that potentially purify acts. Writing and alcohol are "alike 'conjurings,' better seen as respectively spiritual and material versions of the same power" (39). Still, for Bygrave, the anecdote remains a "banality," albeit one with seriousness (39). Stefanie Hennig cites the alcoholic when suggesting that symbolic action potentially trumps physical motion: "the rhetorical act . . . outranks the physical act." Moreover, she asserts, "symbolic action does not cling to a certain form."

I reformulate the alcoholic anecdote through Burke's recollection of working with Woods on Dangerous Drugs. When introducing the 1966 edition of Philosophy, Burke acknowledges how most of his research material with Woods vanished. He then quickly shifts to recalling how Coleridge's addiction manifests in the Mariner's "confession." Reversible images of sun and moon form parts of the poem's "spell" (x-xii). While Burke warns of reductively interpreting the poet through "observable simplification," the poet's complexities are enhanced by awareness of his onus—how opium may be evinced as snakes convert from cursed to redeemed (22-24). Although Coleridge's addiction is "private," the guilty implications of his acts are available to discerning readers (25). We can, for instance, chart the synecdochic principles that permit the snakes' "transubstantiated identity" (28-29).

These consubstantial powers might imply the "magical decree" constituted by all symbolic actions (4). The reversible, transubstantiating process may also permit shifts from "opposed" to "different" as well as enable internalizing the external and vice-versa. Again, immediately after the "unending conversation," Burke invokes Mead's ideas of internalizing the external and its reverse. Although confessions and incantations carry cathartic and fictive extremes, these acts are means to "make ourselves over" (PLF 117). Origins for such revisionary agency and attitude perhaps emerge from etymological ambiguities of "substance," which fund "alchemic moments of transformation" (GM 23; RM 22). Discerning motives means engaging ambiguity, where an "alchemic center awaits" (GM xix), and some symbolic alchemy might emerge during the engagement. Blakesley interprets the internalizing powers as "developing the language of the other" (93). Wess contends that Burke's incantatory and confessional strategies theorize "the rhetorical constitution of the subject" (134). My aims might enact what Wess calls "rhetorical idealism"—how language seemingly trumps recalcitrant matter (133). However, we might recall Burke's assertion that drama is "physicalist-plus" (PLF 116). In other words, Burke sums up the 1966 introduction to Philosophy by claiming that we can incant "non-symbolic" matters "with the spirit" of language (xiv-xv). Otherwise put, nonverbal motion is recalcitrant to words, but terminologies can affect our attitudes towards the physical world. We thus might "become piously equipped" to ponder how language "so often 'transcends'" nonverbal motions (xvi). Stubborn material interests do not necessarily "cause" our acts: language provides stylistic agencies to create different relationships with malign substances.

Reconstituting Scenes Through Reversible Substances

One means for addressing deterministic scenes appears when Burke repeatedly mediates reductive either/ors that he encounters in behaviorism, Marxism, and other orientations (see Crusius, "Kenneth;" Henderson; Wess).11 Rather than flat oppositions between magic and science or sobriety and drunkenness, rhetoric's reversibility provides means to ameliorate the polarities. In 1950 and before, as contemporaries saw magic and science as a "simple antithesis" of primal and advanced vocabularies, Burke recovers rhetoric's role across discourses (RM 41). Poets can confess and incant foul matters like incest and sadism, and journalistic "efficiency" can reductively sensationalize and sentimentalize (PLF 115-17). Between these extremes are stylistic means to partially reverse relationships with recalcitrant scenes.

A reversible substance emerges early in Burke's works to internalize the external and vice versa. These agencies, as Rueckert, Hawhee, and others examine, include reincorporating the "mind-body" continuum. Burke offers this corporeal/conceptual spectrum when summing up Permanence and Change. Historical phenomena can be understood "to 'cause' our frameworks," yet histories can also be glimpsed through "the externalization of biologic, or non-historic factors" (228). This corporeal perspective might dissolve reductive binaries between materialistic and idealistic orientations. For this aim, Burke identifies a "fundamental substance" that is both conceptual and material (229). In other words, Burke later writes that situations have "endless variety," but they share "a common substance"—language. Thus, proverbs and spells, curses and prayers, are publicly available means to style scenes (PLF 1-2). Words authorize conversions of inward and outward, as with Joyce's "narcissistic" imagery and scapegoats' "delegated" shame (42-5). Confessions permit individuals and groups to divide from the previously identified while aligning with the previously opposed; incantations might create or reinforce different identifications and divisions.

An ambiguous substance also appears just prior to the "unending conversation" to complicate relationships between different and opposed. Continuing his "cluster analysis" to identify dialectical means to read the U.S. Constitution, Burke first reviews Plato's dialectic as a ritualistic means to develop "competitive collaboration" as well as "incantatory" devices among tribal societies that enhance consubstantial relationships. He then cites the U.S. Constitution as a "strategy for encompassing a situation" (27, 107-09). The text must be interpreted through oppositional, different, and agreeable exchanges emanating from the scenes where it emerged—what Wess calls a transformation of "the Hegelian antithesis into the Burkean agon" (63-4). Burke then footnotes "positive" terms, which denote tangible things, and "dialectical" terms, which require opposites for meaning. The U.S Bill of Rights emerged from "different situations" than did its antecedents, and thus should be interpreted through different perspectives. The British Bill of Rights, for instance, pitted the people versus royalty. Consequently, the "Crown . . . was a necessary term in giving meaning to the people's counter-assertions" (110n). The U.S. Bill of Rights had no royalty to oppose, but oppositional perspectives appeared when some individuals sought protection from majority rule. Stated alternatively, the U.S. Bill of Rights gave voice to the "individuals or minorities against a government" (110n). Over time, corporations converted into "the new Crown," which a majority then opposed. Hence, we should consider a range of different perspectives: question the forces "against" a particular text in certain times, ponder the document "as an act in a scene outside it," ask about "the Constitution beneath  . . . above  . . . or around the Constitution" (111n). Each reading would require a pliable idea of substance that admits how an agreement among some conversants may be a disagreement among others.   

Admittedly, the preceding passages perplex Burke's treatment of "antithetical" and "different," as the two strategies intertwine. Still, given the rhetorical resources for ambiguity, we might note how oppositions differ across historical epochs. A constitution, thus, should be read not by simply by those "against" the document, but by and through the "different" socio-scenic elements around it (110n). When reflecting on the Constitutional passages from Philosophy in A Grammar of Motives, Burke writes that participants in conversations might reject alternative readings as impious. Constitutions "involve an enemy" (357). Furthermore, a constitution should "substantiate an ought," which necessarily turns away from "what should not be" (358). Synecdoche is one strategy to convert such interpretations; it designates how "some part of the social body . . . . is held to be 'representative' of the whole" (508). While participants might argue about which material interests represent general values and perspectives, some apt part eventually stands in for a whole (362-64). An entity or idea first identified with a group's wishes may eventually become divisive, as a scapegoat, to represent what a group opposes. A "yes" becomes a "no" as values convert.

Returning to Burke's anecdote of the alcoholic, we see the drinker needing to reconstitute his understanding of prose to then oppose liquid spirits; by seeing his satire sharing the same psychic world as the distorted perspectives inspirited in bottles, he might create different interpretations of writing, might find different means to alter scenes. This incantatory magic partly aligns with rhetoric's potential to reverse relationships through symbols. Although rhetoric "is no substitute for magic" (RM 44), Burke's magic works across texts: there "is not a choice between magic and no magic . . . but a choice between magics that approximate truths" (PLF 6; GM 65-66).

Because magic is generally antithetical to post-enlightenment epistemology, a few more passages from Burke may allow a different, perhaps more accepting perspective of the magical to conceivably alter relationships with recalcitrant material interests.

Magically Internalizing the External to Alter Attitudes Towards Material Interests

Burke's aim for the alcoholic to incant different spells to end his addiction perhaps illustrates the "magical decree" of ritual, prayer, and curse (PLF 4-5). Burke offers complicating ideas for these means when intersecting his alcoholic metaphor with a brief treatment of historical changes in sacramental rituals. The alcoholic shares an "indeterminacy" found in "transubstantiation"—how Christ's body "really" was "transubstantiated" in early times. Theologians later converted those magical beliefs by aligning "[t]he 'scientific magic' of paganism" with belief in transubstantiation (PLF 121). The alcoholic, pious to distorting liquid and distorted prose, must find faith to confront his malign substances, must transform his understanding of how writing and drinking intermix.

The incantatory qualities the drinker might then conjure partly align with magic, which has long associations with rhetoric. Among "traditional" groups, magic is a "rhetorical genre" (Kennedy 139). As we know, in Encomium of Helen, Gorgiascelebrates the enchanting means of language; he offers an "incantation" to enhance power and reduce pain (10). Such magical connotations of course become antithetical to religion and science (see Covino; de Romilly; Stark). For my purposes, Burke's most salient reference to magic appears in A Rhetoric of Motives, where he extends rhetoric to anthropology, where magic has traditionally been examined. The magical can be seen "as 'primitive rhetoric'" (43), but rhetoric is more than a sheer manipulation of motion, as magic attempts to be. In words reverberating from the "unending conversation," where language provisionally intervenes in deterministic material interests, Burke writes: "Rhetoric . . . . is rooted in an essential function of language itself." This function may create cooperative acts among symbol users—for the good of some and the bane of others. There remains a reversible, perhaps magical "wavering line" among conversants whereby we identify with one while dividing from another (RM 44-5). This alchemy may provide some agency. 

Burke values magic in part because of the increasingly powerful agencies of science and behaviorism. He early on asserts how symbols may have affects "like the magic formula of a savage" (CS 61). In Permanence and Change, he explores orientations developing from "magic and religion" (3, 44). Magic figures in the first "scapegoat," or "unburdening" of sins (PC 16). In his 1953 "Prologue" to the same text, Burke again reflects on relationships among magic, religion, and science. Language makes the three stages '"forever born anew'" (lix). In Attitudes Towards History, Burke notes how the "elegiac" creates a "spell" that can inaccurately read situations. Homeopathy and allopathy also cast a "spell" that accepts and or rejects meaningful perspectives (44-5). By the time Burke publishes Philosophy of Literary Form, a "magical decree is implicit in all language." Instead of ridding rhetoric of magic, "we may need [a] correct magic" (4). Writers might meet readers' needs with "formal devices," which fall "within the sphere of incantation, imprecation, exhortation, inducement, weaving and releasing of spells" (282).12 Burke also offers magic to aptly read situations and so counter religious abstractions and scientific reductions.13 Burke's work with Woods was one of "three stretches of magic" (On Human Nature 348; Blankenship).14

The above passages intimate different relationships among magic, religion, and science to potentially question the flat oppositions of magic/religion, magic/science, and magic/rhetoric. These aims are apparent when Burke reviews James's ideas of creation: magic, Burke writes, works "in the area of more-than-matter that we call action." Further, "magic, in the sense of novelty, is seen to exist normally, in some degree, as an ingredient of every human act" (GM 65). In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke casts how Marxist critique uncovers the rhetorics otherwise obscured by '"material interests'" (24). Division ironically accompanies identification as private property provides opportunities for spellbinders to cooperate with and exploit each other. God can be lauded for "worldly" aims, and science can be praised for "unscientific" ends as rhetoric '"proves opposites'" (23-26). Communicators can thus incant idealistic and realistic acts not "as strictly true-or-false" claims but to '"prove opposites'" (41, 44-46). Or, a few pages later, Burke contends that "simultaneous identification-with and division-from" are marks for choosing scapegoats; readers are encouraged to see how rhetoric relates to "witchcraft, magic, spellbinding, ethical promptings, and the like" (RM 46; "The Rhetorical" 263).   

Variants of this ambiguous yet potentially powerful magic figure in the alcoholic anecdote: Burke prefaces the drinker by exploring how authors might revise their characters' roles to identify with and divide from others. He does so by channeling Mead with an illustration from Shaw, whose character simplistically transforms herself by incorporating the mannerisms of a higher social class. Joyce, meanwhile, transforms readers with his "individualistic" words (PLF 112). These seemingly elliptical claims are central to Burke's "'orthodox' statement" for Philosophy, whichcelebrates strategies for "internalizing . . . the external" and vice versa. Whereas alcohol works materially, writing requires some kind of faith for effect. Because the alcoholic is pious to the distorting style, he must thus reject Bacchanal genres and "refuse to write" awry to then invite malign spirits (121-22). "He may know the magical incantations that summon it; but he does not know the magical incantations that compel it to obey him" (123).

Versions of this magic emerge when Burke reverses relationships between words and things to contend that language works synecdochically to inspirit or entitles matter as "gods" (LASA 361, 379). These inspiriting powers might then be invoked for different relationships with debilitating material interests: because the synecdochic principle permits conversion of parts/wholes and vice-versa, it may be a symbolic means to shift between limited selves and more expansive wholes; the "ruts" of a potentially debilitating piety (PC 77-8) might be disrupted. While not addressing the alcoholic anecdote, Blakesley reads Burke's "comic and pragmatic skepticism" in Permanence and Change to assert how perspective by incongruity permits key reversals: there is value in being "purposely impious" (83). Michael Feehan examines analogous conversions when examining how Burke confesses to "secularizing" Christian Scientist ideas. Comparing Mary Baker Eddy's tenets with selected sections of Burke's Permanence and Change, Feehan argues that Burke's perspective by incongruity works analogically to suggest conversions to new orientations (220). These ideas include a "pliant piety," which may disrupt the potentially harmful ruts that devout behavior can create (206, 209-10). Blakesley and Feehan's ideas direct attention to the negative principle and agency that Burke sees in synecdoche. In his 1941 "Forward" to Philosophy, Burke reflects on relationships between vocabularies of "power" and '"substance'" to note the nearly magical "permutations" that synecdochic principles permit (xxi-xxii).

Before ending with a brief examination of the Big Book, I next turn to synecdoche as strategy to possibly reverse relationships with malign matters.

Burke's Three Synecdoches for Pious and Impious Acts

This section adds Burke's "negatively synecdochic" and "synecdochic otherness" to the representative powers the trope typically conveys. The negative principle at work in three synecdoches assent to a reversible substance, whereby scapegoats are means to turn pious ideas of "what goes with what" into impious ideas of "what does not go with what." Synecdochic otherness also ironically yet humbly allows perspectives of different ideas, which emerge from empathizing with "the other." These three synecdochic dimensions are means to represent or identify with some and to negatively divide from previously identified others. Perhaps by coaching good spells through the almost magical conversions that synecdoche concedes, conversants might revise unproductive binaries to constitute a more healthy relationship with verbal and nonverbal substances.

As we know, synecdoche is "the 'basic"' representative power of words which connotes salient part/whole relationships (PLF 26). Wess sees among other ideas how synecdoches "rhetorically qualify one another as they question and modify one another" (118; see Gregg).15 We might also recall how the "unending conversation" has synecdochic elements: when presenting one of his "outlines" for dramatic works, Burke notes how "the acts of other persons become part of the scenic background" for our acts (PLF 115). Synecdoche can "represent" important parts of sensations, arts, and politics (26-7). Identifying things with names is a kind of synecdochic spell, which Burke elaborates by examining possible motivations for Coleridge's works. One motive is opium. The drug transubstantiates across texts, in some sections representing malevolent influences and in other sections benevolent influences. Perhaps foreshadowing the alcoholic anecdote, Burke notes how Coleridge encodes snakes as "synecdochic representatives" of opium, which convert from malign to benign and back again (96-7).

Burke's 1932 conversation provides a reintroduction to synecdoche through the negative principle, which provides transformative ideas of the divine to perhaps help act against the malign. Readers see the fire-making "recidivist" acting in direct opposition to social pieties, which ban stick friction as too representative of sex ("Auscultation" 105). The fire maker's culturally criminal acts echo in Burke's subsequent treatment of scapegoats. First identifying the symbolic "criminality" that might be obscured in texts (PLF 51-52), Burke again discerns a reversible substance that revises simple binaries between pious heroes and impious scapegoats. He does so through ambiguities concerning "sacer." For instance, when examining forbidden names and taboos, Burke notes a "negatively synecdochic" dimension. It functions in and outside of texts to represent "some forbidden impulse," or "certain unwanted evils" (PLF 30, 39). In rituals, scapegoats are "felt to have and not to have" characteristics projected upon them (45). A variant of these negative principles emerges when Burke sums up how puns may express taboos, how prayer may permit the expression of otherwise "'unutterable'" monikers, and how the "sacred" and the profane may be reversed (54-5). Burke then offers reversible strategies for addressing the divine. At one time, Burke writes, "Jehovah was 'unspeakable'" because the name "represented the Almighty Power." Later, as ideas of the Almighty shifted from "a 'power god'" to a "kindly" God, the divine again became utterable (56-57). Ideas of the divine transform across times and cultures. Then examining the "internal" workings of texts, Burke sees how concepts of divinity convert from representative to divisive. For instance, Coleridge casts Prometheus as "'the Redeemer and the devil jumbled together.'" However, in Milton, Burke sees how Lucifer becomes "divisively" representative of the divine (59). In other words, as religions develop, ambiguities of power can be resolved or reduced through either/or principles of good versus bad. Yet ideas of the divine share common grounds with their ostensibly polar opposites, and ambiguity returns: ancient ideas of Lucifer introduced a divisive part of God to humans, "as an offense to the gods;" subsequent theologies recast Christ "as an unambiguously benign Lucifer, bringing light as a representative of the Godhead." As Milton then offered a rebelling angel, Burke writes, the disavowed part can then be understood as"negatively synecdochic"(59-60). The reversible substance underwriting these shifts is funded by the negative principle, which might stir some to negate booze by affirming a differently configured divine, which I explore below through the Big Book.

Next, however, a third dimension for synecdoche helps address Burke's alcoholic. As noted above, the drinker's relationships with writing and booze correspond to some degree with historical debates about the sacrament. These relationships can be approached through "synecdochic otherness." Burke introduces this idea when reviewing Hegel to recast concepts of "the 'other.'" In language echoing the engagement of Marx and Hegel in "Auscultation," Burke in Philosophy reviews how Hegel provides "a polar kind of otherness," as a particular type of villain may imply a particular type of hero and the reverse. In contrast, "synecdochic otherness" conveys how any thing or idea might represent some other thing or idea. Whereas Hegel's binary otherness can unite elements "opposite to one another; synecdochic otherness unites things that are simply different from each other." Over time, though, pressures from dialectical, political, and/or personal experience might reverse "the 'other' back into "an antithesis" (77-78). Nevertheless, perhaps foreshadowing the strategy of proving opposites, Burke's "synecdochic otherness" implies listening to enemies, cultivating the "competitive collaboration" required for developing apt strategies across changing situations (107). The alcoholic needs to alter his scene for writing, where satiric twists represent alcohol. He must thus turn what he thinks as a divisive, or negative relationships, into representative ones. Revising his mistaken opposition between satire and brew, the drinker converts the synecdoche of representation to the synecdoche of otherness and negativity. He might then create a different relationship with writing that grants power to negate his djinn.

The Big Book exemplifies principles of Burke's reversible, seemingly magical substances, the part/whole conversions of synecdoche, as well as pious and impious internalizing of externals and vice versa.

Pious and Impious Magics in the Big Book

Some scholars examine rhetorical dimensions of A.A. through Burke's ideas of identification (Daniell; Hedges; Jensen; Kleine),16 but none note Burke's alcoholic anecdote. I return focus to the drinker through Burke's "substance" and its sibling, "constitution," which connote fleshy and written matters (GM 341-42). Corporeal constitutions also imply ancestral sources of being (26-28). Some individuals might thus be piously aligned with alcohol through attitudes emerging from the body: the Big Book admits how a few drinkers are "constitutionally incapable" of the honesty that recovery requires and so find no help with A.A. "They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way" (58). To potentially regain sobriety, then, drinkers must reverse booze from substantiating the good to substantiating the bad—an act requiring a reconfigured understanding of how the person fits within secular and divine communities.

While Big Book editors admit that most shifts to sobriety are not sudden, thetext's miraculous conversions imply the pious/impious pairing that figures in changed attitudes and perspectives towards material interests. Burke's alcoholic, by perceiving liquor and satire as representing each other, might negatively identify with the bottle by writing differently, without distortion. He also must become impious to Bacchus cults while altering relationships with the material contexts that shape his alcoholism. Big Book writers likewise compile lists of people whom they have wronged, work to right those wrongs, and recognize that other drinkers are sick too (63-9). Some make amends for past mistakes by stressing how alcoholics can ally with drinkers "when no one else can" (89). Still others confess bad behavior while incanting alternative visions of the divine. Big Book writers internalize a divine external by enlarging their understanding of God; they amend distorted views of family and friends to potentially turn malign materials benign.

Bill begins the Big Book by recalling how alcohol transformed his perception. "Liquor ceased to be a luxury. . . it became a necessity." Realizing after much pain that he was not able to have just one drink, Bill prefaces his conversation with a friend by confessing to have always "believed in a Power greater than myself" (10). However, Bill parts company with the pious when they claim "a God personal to me"— an idea to which Bill's mind "snapped shut." Admitting disgust of the conflicts so frequently motivated through theological disputes, aggrieved that God had not prevented World War 1 and many other calamities, Bill admits a negative Almighty. "If there was a Devil, he seemed the Boss Universal, and he certainly had me." Then, during the surprise conversation with his ally, Bill wonders how the man miraculously gained agency over liquor. "Had this power originated in him?," he asks. "Obviously it had not" (11). Bill sees that his friend "was much more than inwardly reorganized . . . He was on a different footing. His roots grasped a new soil" (11-12). Even though Bill's friend soon after relapses and dies a drunk (Kurtz 8), he temporarily reconstitutes his alignment with the divine. Bill then suddenly accepts his friend's potentially impious advice to "choose your own conception of God" (Big Book 12). By accepting unorthodox ideas of the divine, Bill internalizes a newly configured external to discover an empowered position. "Scales of pride and prejudice fell from my eyes. A new world came into view" (9-13). Bill's conversion implies how recovering alcoholics might miraculously say "no" to a habitual abuse of booze by affirming a new, different piety: only "God as we understood him" can restore health (59). The material effects of liquor eventually become "a great persuader," and drinkers turn to the previously rejected or neglected divine (48).

Big Book writers also stop scapegoating; they accept responsibility for past wrongs and appeal to forgiveness from those wronged. Perhaps most importantly, drinkers also recount a need for humility: Bill confesses to "a humble willingness" for God when fighting in World War I, but his openness was "blotted out" by his own selfishness and fear of combat (12-3). About fifteen years later, after having conversed with his friend, Bill "humbly offered myself to God." This humility embraces a need for divinity: "I admitted for the first time that of myself I was nothing" (13; see Kurtz).17 Long pious to drink, other Big Book writersat first reject the "leveling of our pride" that recovery requires (25). Eventually, drinkers decline alcohol by accepting "a Spirit of the Universe . . . underlying the totality of things" (46). Some Big Book writers develop humility and tolerance by caring for "others . . . even our enemies" (70); in fact, assisting "others is the foundation stone of . . . recovery" (97). For instance, as a child, "Doctor Bob" was required to attend church. Yet years of alcoholism began when, after leaving home and becoming liberated from dominating parents, Bob realized he "would never again darken the doors of a church" (172). Bob eventually recovers through spirituality and speaking with recovered drinkers who "talked my language" (180). Bob thus revises his pious role with alcohol in part by identifying with a fellow alcoholic; language helps him incant a spell that reverses his unhealthy role with material interests. Synecdochic principles inspirit these conversions: once divided from family and spirituality, Bob identifies with the previously rejected fellowship with other mortals and with the divine. 

The humility that fellowship might encourage among Big Book writers includes "otherness," or difference that is not necessarily binary. When summing up irony as one of the four "master tropes," Burke argues that "humble irony" requires "the enemy," or the other. A character's "rôle" is enhanced by humbly seeking "consubstantial" relationships among opponents (GM 511, 513-14). This perspective may avert the fragmented, either/or thinking that Burke sees in discussions about magic and science, poetics and behaviorism; humble irony informs "the strategic moment of reversal" (517). Bob and others seem to live such humility by turning an opposition into a difference, by transforming their antithetical views of spirituality into different appreciations of material and ethereal spirit

Unending Struggles with Malign Material Interests

This paper begins with two conversations. It ends by noting the need for antithesis and difference. The drinker, unlike the blasphemer, can revise attitudes towards material interest in a "different" rather than "opposed" method. He might realign with nonverbal matters to find  "a happier kind of spell" (PLF 118-19). Nevertheless, the drinker also needs opposition—a strength to reject the bottle.

One means for both difference and antithesis emanates from the ancient community in "Auscultation," which Burke presents to poke fun of Marxist's antitheses. The blasphemer's invention, which impiously opposes ideas about fire, must eventually be incorporated into the group. Tribal elders thus create the term "Aboozle" to sanction rubbing wood for sparks (105). Later still, as "profane fires" burn, children soon get scalded. Parents thus warn the young to be wary of flames. This hortatory "was 'antithetical;'" it served a "regulating" end, not a "furthering" of the blaze (106). Stated otherwise, fire making called forth a new terminology, "Aboozle," which sanctioned revised acts towards material interests. As Burke asserts, "our vocabulary" reveals matters in term of our orientations. "The entire universe can thus become a crowd of becoming symbols" (102-03). Revising our language may lead to "a whole new world," because our classifications "of 'things' determines our conduct toward them" (101). Burke perhaps deliberately deploys "determines" here to parody Marx, but cultivating attitudes that honor the power of language might provide new agencies for dangerous material interests. By thinking and talking differently about the symbolic acts that lead to drinking, the alcoholic might develop more healthy attitudes towards liquor—might be able to say "no" to the firewater. Perhaps not coincidentally, too, "aboozle" is close to "booze;" Burke's 1932 anecdote perhaps prefaces his later dramas regulating and furthering drink.

Everyone ultimately is determined by the "unanswerable opponent" (PLF 107), the nonsymbolic world of motion, but we might meanwhile believe in rhetorical spells to potentially reverse damaging relationship with material interests. Such conversions might be engaged through different rituals and conversations with ourselves as well as with others; strategic styles for incanting and confessing perhaps spell healthier relationships with unending material interests.


1. As Iain Gately notes, alcohol is praised in Gilgamesh and subsequent Greek and Roman texts (5, 12-8). David Hanson examines historical research on alcohol to underscore how moderate drinkers create few problems. The intemperate disrupt decorum, are violent towards themselves and others, and thus prompt legislation across cultures. The World Health Organization concludes that alcohol abuse is a leading causes of "disease, disability, and death" worldwide ("Global").

2. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 88,000 people in the U.S. die each year from ingesting too much alcohol ("Excessive.") Deborah Hasin and colleagues interviewed 43,000 adults between 2001 and 2002 to extrapolate that "the total lifetime prevalence of any alcohol use disorder was 30.3%" (833).

3. The CDC reports that binge drinking occurs "commonly" among college students, and that 16% of adults consume "eight drinks per binge" up to four times per month ("Fact Sheets"). Richard Thoreson acknowledges that rates of alcoholism are likely lower among the professoriate than the general population, but the relative autonomy among some faculty make the academe "a veritable mecca for both scholarship and alcohol abuse" (56).

4. Ernest Kurtz identifies 1931 origins of Alcoholics Anonymous in "conversations" among drinkers and physicians (7-8, 33).The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH) encourages parents to have "conversations" with their children about marijuana ("Starting"). The NIH also cites residential treatment and medication along with "counseling" and "[m]otivational interviewing" ("Drug Facts").
5. All emphases in quotations are the authors'.

6. David Blakesley sees the analogy presenting rhetors as "social actors," as "producers and critics of orientations" (87). The analogy stylizes how rhetorics construct and reconstruct ideas, how particular identities are composites, and how plural "voices . . . populate a language" (92-3). Timothy Crusius compares the analogy with Gadamer's hermeneutics to argue that Burke "rejects economic determinism" in a kind of "dialogic sense of history" (Kenneth 193-94; "Kenneth" 372). Frank Lentricchia asserts that the conversation is "[t]he primal scene of rhetoric" (160). While not referring to the 1941 analogy, Jack Selzer identifies "conversation" as a "key metaphor" to locate Burke among the moderns. The metaphor has "agonistic" connotations for controversial issues (17-18, 206n). Robert Wess claims, among other ideas, that conversants "share" and "struggle" with definitions in conversations (153-54).

7. Crusius reads "Auscultation" as early logological proof of Burke's fluid dialectic, with its varied yet limiting vocabularies. "Burkean difference is the sociocultural counterpart of Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty" ("Kenneth" 356-62). Debra Hawhee cites Burke's reference to drug addiction in "Ascultation" as proof of pious links with bodies ("Burke" 21-2). Greig Henderson sees "difference" in "Auscultation" as more rhetorically effective than antithesis (180).

8. In a 1981 interview, Burke states that we "use tropes which are innovative, allowing us to develop new twists" (Rountree and Kostelanetz 13).

9. Here is a representative passage from Mead: "The internalization in our experience of the external conversations of gestures" engages us with others. These social processes are "the essence of thinking; and the gestures thus internalized are significant symbols because they" correspond with communal or social significance (47). When reflecting on Mead in A Grammar of Motives, Burke credits him for animating new and different attitudes: by "studying the nature of the object, we can in effect speak for it; and in adjusting our conduct to its nature as revealed in the light of our interests, we in effect modify our own assertion in reply to its assertion" (236-37).

10. Thomas Rosteck and Michael Leff examine the metaphorical basis of piety: "pieties reflect our varying interests and perspectives, and the disorder caused by the inevitable conflict of pieties can be resolved only by reference to strategies that realign old perspectives into new orders of propriety" (331).

11. Crusius examines Burke's work with dialectic and rhetoric in "Auscultation" to read his earlier and later texts. "Since 'the general muddle' cannot be adequately grasped by antithesis, Burke proposes . . . difference" as key term in Permanence and Change; "if new matter is thought of as just 'different from' rather than 'antithetical to' the old, the sharp, dramatic alignments of the Hegel/Marx view of history are spoiled" ("Kenneth" 360-61). Henderson reads "difference" in "Auscultation" as "less threatening and less alienating than antithesis" (180). Wess interprets "difference" as a "more spacious" strategy, which provides means to include language historically located far from "a privileged antithetical opposition" (63).

12. Burke deploys the same language when detailing how Lucretius mixes poetic and semantic aims to argue for a world void of divine influence. The Roman poet "has tried, by the magic of his incantations, to get analgesia (perception without emotion); but he builds up, aesthetically, the motivation behind his anesthetic incantatory enterprise" (PLF 153). Later in the same text, Burke contends that writers can shape "a magic incantation" to break a spell (431). As children, "we discover the 'magic' that words can do" (qtd. in Rountree and Kostelanetz 12).

13.  In Rhetoric of Motives, Burke writes: "In Hollywood, hierarchies of motives, such as "the magic of class relations," can be occulted by "the images of private property . . . . from low dives. . . to classy night clubs" (223-4). When discussing other hierarchical orders, Burke argues that a "magically endowed" individual might transcend his role as an isolated being (277).

14. Blankenship examines how Burke entitles situations as a form of magic, and she cites one of Burke's personal letters, in which he calls Coleridge "a 'truly magical writer'" (130-31).

15.  Richard Gregg examines negative principles in Burke to assert "that the principle of reversibility" corresponds with "unmasking" (195). Synecdoche acts thusly: "while the symbolic part must stand for a larger symbolic whole, the discount—the negative—must be at work" (193).

16.  Beth Daniell notes Burke's ideas of identification and language as a means to name recurring situations when examining how women gain health through therapeutic communities of literacy (77-85). James Hedges equates Burke's identification with potentially therapeutic practices in Alcoholics Anonymous. He also notes the importance of confession (51, 62-3, 280, 289). Michael Kleine explores how, as an alcoholic, he and other participants in A.A. meetings enter Kenneth Bruffee's "conversation of mankind" to forge consubstantial relationships (152-55). George Jensen refers to Burke's metaphor of "the kill" as a transformative means to alter identities (114-16). Other scholars do not mention Burke when examining discourse about alcoholism. Stephen Strobbe analyzes narrative strategies in Big Book for nursing implications. Maria Swora sees metaphor and "confessional practice" extending the power of memory to potentially heal alcoholism (59, 66). Jane E. Hindman identifies embodied agency through critical narratives of A.A.

17.  While not noting Burke, Kurtz's history of Alcoholics Anonymous presents complimentary readings. For instance, drinkers seeking recovery must admit that they are "not God" as well as tolerate "difference" in spiritual experiences (3-4, 24).

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