Volume 13, Issue 2 Summer 2018

Contents of KB Journal Volume 13, Issue 2 Summer 2018

Embodied Rhetorics: Writing Rides from the Seat of a Bike

Janice Chernekoff, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania


This essay connects Burke’s concept of a mind-body dialectic with studies of embodied rhetorics to explore connections between bodily vocations and the writing linked to them. Randonneuring, a form of endurance bicycling, and the ride reports written by participants, provides a case in point.


I remember Roc’h Trevezel as the name of an endless climb at the end of an endless night.

As I climb in the blue gray light that comes before the dawn, I notice the crucifixes that appear along the road like distance markers. Each one unique but appearing regularly along the road we ride.

I remember climbing a steady moderate grade from one crucifixion scene to the next. As I ride past these potent symbols of sacrifice and redemption, these stations of the cross, I realize that I am on my own secular pilgrimage: [I am] one of many who have come from afar to visit a place that only exists for a moment, to share a transformational experience created by the faith, sacrifice and effort of many.

Tired and weak, I approach the peak of Roc’h Trevezel. Then the sun rises and reveals the world to me. The peak is not a peak as much as a plateau. The lower peaks of the valley are islands afloat above the low-lying clouds. (Greene 18)

Like pilgrims embarking on the five-hundred-mile Camino de Santiago walk in Spain, randonneurs come to France once every four years to attempt the seven-hundred-fifty-mile Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP). In the passage above, Nigel Greene, having completed the 2015 PBP in under ninety hours (the time allowed for an official finish), characterizes his attempt as a “secular pilgrimage” requiring “faith” and “sacrifice” to succeed. PBP is the equivalent of Mecca for randonneurs, long-distance cyclists in a French tradition established more than a century ago.¹ The ride report is also a well-established tradition: riders describe preparing for an event, the trials and tests encountered during the event, and the lessons learned from it. News reports from initial editions of PBP, as well as ride reports by cyclists from the UK, Australia, Canada and the U. S. essentially take the same form. This is a stable genre because the riding and the writing are connected in ways that point to the “chemical sort of rhetoric” that Debra Hawhee says Kenneth Burke locates in his study of endocrinology (Moving Bodies 86). The ride report is a deeply human expression of material rhetoric, a response to an embodied rhetorical situation, such that the genre of the response and its enduring nature can be explained using Burke’s concept of the mind-body experience (Burke P&C 229).

Rhetorical Bodies

We should take seriously the embodied rhetoric of which we are constituted and the genres it manifests. I use “embodied rhetoric” literally, building on Burke’s mind-body term that he argues is a way of signifying the material basis for human symbolic behavior; all symbolic behavior, according to Burke, “is grounded in biological conditions” (P&C 275). Burke adds that this is not to suggest that rhetorical behavior is reducible to biology (P&C 275), but that human bodies are the kind of bodies that learn language (P&C 307). Other scholars have also worked to clarify this productive term and what it allows us to consider regarding rhetoric. Hui Niu Wilcox, for example, writes that embodied knowledges are revealed and expressed through “lived experiences, cultural performance, and bodily intelligence” (106), a view that brings attention to the rhetorical intelligence of bodies at the level of muscle and bone. A. Abby Knoblauch as well says that embodied knowledge is “knowing something through the body” (52), which is another way of saying that at least some of what we know and the way in which we express it emerges from the inextricably linked mind and body. The ride report and similar kinds of stories — for example, the stories of long-distance trail runners, marathon runners, ironman triathletes, and other endurance athletes — provide concrete instances of embodied rhetoric, supporting my claim that while genres generally respond to changes in “audience and circumstance” (Schryer 208), and are consequently only temporarily stable at best (Schryer 204), the ride report melds riding and writing into a more enduring genre that evidences a symbolic dialogue regarding an enduring human rhetorical situation.

Recent scholarship on embodied rhetoric builds on Burke’s arguments and extends them into other fields, providing convincing examples of materially embodied rhetoric. Jack Selzer claims that Celeste Condit, for example, uses DNA coding to model “how material rhetoric might be understood to incorporate both gross physical corporeality and the social and material act of ‘coding’” (13). Condit, who claims that Burke can usefully be thought of as “an idiosyncratic American post-structuralist (Brock)” (331), argues that “language as used by human beings does not operate without regard to the material realm, [so] it is better to say that language users constitute objects out of matter/​form relationships, or, more technically, that language essentializes (by selection and identification) material/​form patterns and relationships into perceived objects” (332–33). Condit sees Burke’s relevance to contemporary discussions of material and embodied rhetoric and relies on Burke to argue that rhetoric emerges from “complex and shifting material/​energy/​relationships” (333). Embodied rhetoric engages human energy as generated within the body and expressed in language forms appropriate to the experience. Jay Dolmage approaches the issue through the lens of disability studies, arguing that, “our own and our students’ bodily differences [are] meaningful and meaning-making” (“‘Breathe Upon Us’” 119). In support of his argument, Dolmage discusses the Greek God Hephaestus whose disability, Dolmage argues, was his ability, informing his intelligence and his way of seeing the world (122). The various disciplinary approaches to embodied rhetoric demonstrates the idea that bodies and bodily energies interpolate discourse. As Debra Hawhee notes about Burke, his “engagement with bodies from a variety of disciplinary vantage points foregrounds the body as a vital, connective, mobile, and transformational force, a force that exceeds — even as it bends and bends with — discourse” (Moving Bodies 7). If the body is a rhetorical agent, what does the body prompt us to ask and explore? And what are the effects of experience on genre, on forms of discourse?

Rhetorical Riding and Writing

Bodily questions inspire rhetorical responses that inform and create intelligence. The question of how far we can push ourselves physically is one bodily question that has inspired not only randonneurs, but a wide range of endurance athletes as well as religious pilgrims who walk the Camino de Santiago or fast for extended periods or engage in other activities that take them out of their physical comfort zone. To a significant degree, it is the body that experiences the question, endures the trials, and experiences the answers to the question. It makes sense, then, that the writing about such experiences will have a similar form; the experience influences the form of the reflection on it. Not every person is an endurance athlete or religious pilgrim, but people who are ask some of the same questions. How far can I go? What will I learn by pushing my body and mind to the limit? What are the limits? Endurance runner Kilian Jornet, who has completed ultra-distance races world-wide writes, “I want to challenge myself, give the best of myself, and try to discover what my thresholds are, to know myself better” (153). Jornet is inspired by bodily exigencies that involve pushing himself to his limits in order to comprehend and physically live the responses to the mind-body questions. Endurance sports athlete Rebecca Rusch similarly claims that accepting physical challenges helps us define ourselves. She writes that “every moment is an opportunity to outlast and overcome the odds that threaten to either paralyze us or tether us to fear and doubt. The moments when we endure define us and mold us into the people we want to be, as athletes, leaders, or partners” (270). According to Rusch, taking up these bodily-generated questions is critical to who we are, how we act, and what we think. Brian Crable’s analysis of Burke’s ideas on bodily rhetoric echo the arguments of the above athletes. Crable writes,

According to Burke, the foundation of human existence is organic — we are embodied, which means that certain permanent needs and ‘purposes’ cannot be denied. Further, these needs and purposes, which drive our earliest behavior, form the foundation for symbolic activity; sociality, with both ideal and material/​economic dimensions, is a biological outgrowth. At the same time, the symbolic realm that is thereby constituted is not reducible to biology. (123)

Some of these permanent needs and purposes underlie all symbolic behavior, according to Crable, but they also form the basis for enduring genres; patterns in symbolic responses may not be biological but the patterns respond to and satisfy biologically inspired rhetorical exigencies.

One feature of ride reports, indeed of many stories about physical challenges, is an explanation of how and why the writer accepted the challenge. People less athletically inclined may think that randonneurs are crazy to ride long distances in rain, without sleep, or over mountains, but even randonneurs feel the need to understand and explain why they undertake these challenges. The explanations point to a faith — a secular faith — not only in the ability of body and mind to overcome hardship, but also in the rightness of taking on the adventure. In the epigraph to this essay, a piece titled “Living the Dream,” Greene notes that PBP is a “transformational experience created by the faith, sacrifice and effort of many” (18). Randonneurs who train and show up for PBP do so in part because they accept that it is a good and human thing to show up for this 750-mile ride, no matter the results. Indeed, all along the route of PBP, local people come out to support riders with food, drink, music, and places to rest; so spectators in France also see the value in the efforts of the riders. And the riders hope (and have faith) that the mind and body will work together to make success possible, but even if the adventure goes awry, they will emerge more fully the human beings that they want to be. Long-time randonneur Laurent Chambard, writing about another 750-mile ride, The Gold Rush Randonnée through more remote areas of Northern California, explains his reasons for wanting to attempt this epic ride:

The Gold Rush Randonnée (GRR) has been on my list of targets for a good while. I find the description of the ride . . . simply fascinating. The promise of 1200km of cycling through some of the last unspoilt parts of California, in what was once Gold Rush country, and over a route where altitude varies from sea level to nearly 2000 metres [6500 feet], has left me dreaming over the map a good few times.

Chambard embraces the challenges presented by the “unspoilt” parts of Northern California in a ride that includes mountains, heat, desert, lack of shade, and long stretches without any services. Chambard dreamed of doing this ride, his mind and body, even in his sleep, wondering if he was up to the challenge.

Randonneurs often frame their induction into randonneuring, and especially an interest in PBP, in quasireligious terms, indicating the depth of their feelings about and commitment to their sport. In a 1975 PBP ride report, American Harriet Fell explains how she became interested in randonneuring when French work colleagues convinced her to extend her limits and accompany them on a two-hundred-kilometer ride, a distance that she had done once before so she was “willing to give it a try.” Her description of the ride includes the fact that they started before dawn on a day with “terrible, freezing rain.” The weather was so terrible that “Marvelous crystalline structures formed on the beards of [her] friends.” She notes that she was a lot faster after lunch and that the group finished together “in eleven hours and ten minutes.” Fell’s description of this ride, which amounts to her introduction to randonneuring, shows her pride in having faced physical and mental hardships with success — so much so that she agreed to ride a three-hundred-kilometer ride with these same colleagues a few weeks later. Also visible in this story, as with Chambard’s story, is an orientation to the world that includes a desire for challenges. Fell acknowledges that what they are doing is a little crazy, but she is pleased to find that she can endure, despite the “crystalline structures” on her friends’ beards, and despite the fact that she had only once before covered this type of distance. Sacrifice and faith: two key terms in religion, appear frequently in ride reports as well as in the stories of other endurance athletes signifying the importance to them of these activities.

A disposition for challenges may be viewed as an orientation or bias toward the world, and according to Burke, a disposition has biological roots:

Our calling has its roots in the biological, and our biological demands are clearly implicit in the universal texture. To live is to have a vocation, and to have a vocation is to have an ethics or scheme of values, and to have a scheme of values is to have a point of view, and to have a point of view is to have a prejudice or bias which will motivate and color our choice of means. (P&C 256–57)

If we embody vocations and related biases, and those predispositions affect our interpretations of events, including how we frame them, it is not hard to understand that endurance cyclists have written similar stories about their adventures since the inaugural running of the Paris-Brest-Paris. After all, the creation of this event was simply another iteration of a vocation or set of values embodied by some people. An endurance cyclist is likely to seek out, see and understand the experiences of, not only other endurance cyclists but also other endurance athletes as inspirational, while someone with a different orientation to the world might view these people as a little wacky. In another 2015 PBP ride report, Bob Hayssen recalls signing on for a 2014 200-kilometer ride “on a whim.” During the ride, there was much anticipatory talk of PBP 2015. Hayssen says that “it sounded like a great adventure. I was quickly hooked” (16). Hayssen already embodied the values required for endurance cycling when he was introduced to randonneuring; that is, he was predisposed not only to do PBP but to write the ride report he wrote before he signed up for the event. Condit argues that a fully materialist view of language “recognizes both the reality of forces in the universe and the way in which motivated human action objectifies those forces through language into more or less durable relationships with more or less intensive presence and visibility” (334). Some “motivated human action” is intense, deeply engaging the body and mind together in satisfying and durable relationships. Burke explains that our minds select certain linguistic concepts or relationships as purposeful, and that these “relationships are not realities, but interpretations of reality” (P&C 35). I’ve been arguing that such is the case with ride reports, and these “relationships” are visible in the way that ride reports are written. Additionally, some of the writing actually mimics bodies in motion (on bicycles).

The rhetorical intelligence of the body posited by scholars such as Hawhee and Jennifer LeMesurier is evident in writing about riding in which the author attempts to use language to describe the mind-body experiences of riding a bike over long distances. The problem is always, as Bryan Crable points out, identifying and characterizing the nonsymbolic “from within symbolicity” (126). However, in the following passage by French cyclist and writer Paul Fournel, he captures well the ineffable connection between cells, muscles, mind and words, and how the rhetoric of maximum effort can be circulated throughout the body:

I can’t determine precisely the instant in which my thought escapes its object to become a thought of pure effort. The moment the rhythm speeds up, the moment the slope becomes steep, the moment fatigue gets the upper hand, thought doesn’t fade away before the ‘animal spirits’; on the contrary, it’s reinforced and diffused throughout my entire body, becoming thigh-thought, back-intelligence, calf-wit. This unconscious transformation is beyond me, and I only become aware of it much later, when the lion’s share of the effort is over and thought flows back, returning to what is ordinarily considered its place. (128–29)

Fournel argues that during intense physical effort, “thought” flows through one’s entire body, so that the body — thighs, back, calves — takes control, and only later, after the physical effort has been completed, does thinking become primarily an activity of the mind. Even then, while the mind may seem to control thought, the memories and knowledge of the physical effort completed are stored in the body. The body, writes LeMesurier, is “a conduit for remembered knowledge” (363). In the middle of an intense activity, the body often seems to take the lead; indeed, athletes interested in improving performance train until the moves or actions that they expect of their bodies are “automatic.” It is as if the training and the experience makes one into the kind of person — in both body and mind — who does the kind of activity for which one is training.

Figure 1. Featured in the poster is Maurice Garin, winner of the 1901 Paris-Brest-Paris as well as the inaugural Tour de France in 1903.

Shaping and reshaping the body and mind through repetition and a focus on rhythm was practiced by the Sophists, according to Hawhee. She writes that they used rhythmic gymnastic exercises, repetition of movement and music to train young rhetors properly (“Bodily Pedagogies” 147). According to Hawhee, the Sophists believed that “the forces (people, music, movement) one subjects oneself to will necessarily shape and reshape body and soul” (“Bodily Pedagogies” 152–53). It may also be true then, that a body and mind intensely trained to particular rhythms will seek them out, see them in experiences, and finally express them in language. Endurance cyclists experience most obviously the rhythms of turning wheels and pedals. They also experience the cycles of preparing for, doing, and then resting from intense physical efforts. In the following passage, Christine Newman effectively uses repetition of the phrase “I learned” to suggest the need to keep pedaling, even through pain and deep fatigue, to finish her ride:

I learned that mental toughness will allow you to ride for 300+ miles with two knees that are begging you to stop. I learned to pick the food which fills you up and keeps you going even if you can’t stand the sight of it after three days. Ninety miles from the finish, I learned that it is possible to be more tired than you have ever been in your life, so tired that you cannot stand up let alone ride a bicycle safely. I learned that I could fall asleep, in spite of a deep panic that my ride would fail not due to a lack of training but from a lack of sleep. (22)

In this description of the last part of her 2011 PBP ride, Newman uses the phrase “I learned” four times in as many sentences; the rhythm of the sentences suggests the rhythm of pedaling. While she tries to describe how she was feeling, Newman also tries to structure her sentences to suggest her meaning. Quite literally, this writing is embodied in the sense that Hui Niu Wilcox is referring to when she writes that embodied knowledges are revealed and expressed through “lived experiences, cultural performance, and bodily intelligence” (106). Newman’s lived ride experience is materially linked to her writing about it; her experience is written in, on and about her body, with the ride report being her best effort to reflect that experience.

Newman and Fournel, quoted above, also implicitly suggest that they engage in endurance cycling events because they anticipate that a tough ride, like PBP, will force them to function in a way that combines mind and body beyond logic and daily thought. The cycle and rhythm of such rides (or similar events) may then become familiar, and those wonderfully challenging moments may become something that one craves. That is, the process of an event can be ritualized, much as a religious ceremony, with each aspect of the ceremony holding meaning for the celebrant. Particularly in the writing of riders who have done events like PBP more than once, there is anticipation as well as the embodied knowledge of what it is required, and this is reflected in the way a person speaks and writes about the event. The ride and telling the story of the ride constitute a vocation in the sense that Burke uses this word — one’s “ethics or scheme of values” infuses one’s being as well as one’s speaking and writing. Lois Springsteen, who has completed PBP seven times so far, anticipates the event with joyful memories, with hopes for a decent performance in the next iteration of the event, and an eagerness for the wash of experiences that PBP brings. After the 2015 PBP, she reflects:

But why go back? It’s hard to describe the wonderful feel of PBP. At times it is more a festival than a grueling challenge. Cheering crowds and street parties, bicycle art, impromptu roadside coffee/​snack stands abound. There were six thousand cyclists on this special, quadrennial 1230K/ 90 hour pilgrimage with red taillights glowing as far as one could see during that first night. While I have not ridden many other 1200K randonnées, I will venture to say that this one is the most unique of all due to the sheer number of participants. Even though I have become one of the oldest female riders, I still wanted to be part of it. (9)

Springsteen returns to PBP and writes about her experiences because she yearns for this familiar “pilgrimage.” Physically and mentally, rhetorically, Springsteen responds to the PBP call with the same questions that prompted her to show up for her first PBP thirty years ago. Can I complete this ride again? What will I learn this time? Now, the call elicits a response from her at the level of what Hawhee calls “learning-performing” memories (“Rhetorics” 156). Being tuned into a set of patterns and rhythms provides comforting familiarity as well as purpose in our work to understand and more deeply embrace our lives.

For many randonneurs, the ride report is the last part of the cycle of the event, providing an opportunity to reflect on one’s experiences and convert them into words, for oneself and to share with others. The ride report effectively transubstantiates the body-mind experience of the ride into a narrative that typically pays close attention to the call to ride, the ride and the difficulties endured, and the redemption earned through the ride. The report, that is, follows the contours of a spiritual body-mind experience. Vickie Tyer, in a middle section of her 2015 PBP ride report, illustrates the difficulties riders have when they begin to deal with sleep deprivation and fatigue. She describes the need to “dig deep” to make it through a second sleepless night to get to Brest according to her plan: “The skies got foggy, and the night got chilly and lonely. I had to dig deeper. I was determined to see Brest before sunrise, no matter what” (15). While the phrase “dig deeper” is typically used as a metaphor, here it is intended almost literally, as if her mind and muscles together are reaching deeper into her being for the willpower to keep turning the pedals. The end of her ride report describes the finish: “ . . . then I was crossing the finish line, with a crowd of wonderful people cheering for little ‘ole me. What a blast. What a sense of accomplishment. What redemption. What a ride. Words cannot describe it.” (15, emphasis added). I take Tyer literally. I think she did struggle to put into words the “learning-performing” memory — the sense of release — stored in her body by her PBP experience. The redemption earned completes the cycle and the narrative, written for herself and shared with others, allows people with the same set of values to see how they, too, might earn a similar sense of satisfaction. Ride reports like Tyer’s cause me to search within myself for the courage and will to attempt this ride, and I know that narratives like this may initiate similar forms of action and thought in others. I agree with Hawhee that there is a “curious syncretism between athletics and rhetoric” (Hawhee, “Bodily Pedagogies” 144), and this amalgamation of bodily matters with rhetoric inspirits body-mind journeys.

Endurance cycling, including randonneuring, is a vocation by Burke’s definition for Tyer and many others. Devotion to this vocation is deep and enduring because its adherents clearly see their experiences as spiritual, judging by the language and metaphors of ride reports. Piety is the attitude of a vocation; Burke notes that, “Where you discern the symptoms of great devotion to any kind of endeavor, you are in the realm of piety” (83). I would add that when we are operating in the realm of piety, we are by definition thinking and acting in a realm that is to some degree beyond language. As noted, Tyer is literally stumbling for words in the above passage to describe aspects of her experience. In a 1995 issue of Australia’s randonneuring magazine, Checkpoint, the editors also reference this phenomenon: “Many of the stories that found their way into Checkpoint over the past year reflected the self-confessed amazement by ordinary folk who actually achieved incredible feats. Little do they realize that they are capable of (sic), and some will attend PBP in 1999” (3). Awe and wonder, feelings associated with experiences that cannot be put into words infuse the attitude present in many ride reports. Writers are often amazed by their accomplishments; Australian Trevor King’s 1999 PBP report tells of his discovery after returning home that he had fractured his pubic bone during a fall, and that he had completed the last nine hundred kilometers with this injury (12). American Lois Springsteen writes in her 2015 PBP report of finishing the last forty miles with a broken wrist (8), and British journalist J. B. Wadley, in his 1971 ride report, writes about riding through mind-numbing and hallucination-creating fatigue. Finally, from a short 1921 Le Mirroir des Sports article comes this short quote from Louis Mottiat, winner of the event that year²: “I wanted to sleep, I felt bad sitting on my saddle, and I was thirsty, but I stayed strong” (trans. mine). A vocation is a calling or a mission that textures one’s life and gives it meaning. In the experiences summarized above, the rider-writers use available language and a familiar form to articulate transformative moments in life.

Embodied Rhetorical Genres

I’ve been the editor of American Randonneur, the official quarterly publication of Randonneurs USA, for four years, and in that time I’ve read hundreds of ride reports. Before that, it was reading ride reports that spiked my interest in randonneuring. Riding a lot, writing reports occasionally, and reading and editing others’ ride reports, I understand that writers shape and relive their experiences in their narratives. Shannon Walters sums up Aristotle’s notion that rhetoric belongs “to the genus of dynamis” with the claim that rhetoric, “like other arts, is produced by a transformative ‘coming into being” (32). Rhetoric is more skill than product, according to Walters, and in this case it is the skill to translate the “ thigh-thought, back-intelligence, calf-wit” mentioned by Fournel (128–29) into something intelligible. There are genre conventions that ride report writers abide by, probably mostly unconsciously, but somehow in rhythm with other ride report writers. My interest in and study of ride reports led to questions about arguments expressed by scholars of Rhetorical Genre Studies (RGS). Why do ride reports all seem to say the same thing? And what then to make of Catherine Schryer’s claim that genres are only “stabilized-for-now or stabilized-enough sites of social and ideological action” (204)? I’m citing Schryer’s often-used quote, but Carolyn Miller, Charles Bazerman, and many other noted RGS scholars argue that genres are rhetorical actions that respond to changing rhetorical situations and contexts, and as such, they constantly change. Schryer goes so far as to say that a “stable system,” including a stable genre, would have to be rhetorically unsound “because a stable system cannot respond to changes in audience or circumstance” (208). However, what I am suggesting in this essay is that if we allow that the body is a rhetorical agent, it may be possible that some embodied rhetorical situations present themselves again and again, because the answers are temporary or never entirely satisfactory.

Every time I try to put into words how and why the rhetoric of the ride report is deeply, materially, literally, embodied, I reach, almost as if into my body, for the right words. I am trying to pinpoint a practice, a form of moving-thinking-feeling-languaging that engages the whole body — body, mind, spirit — and is represented in the ride report as well as in related forms of writing about other kinds of life-intensifying challenges. Endurance runner Kilian Jornet writes, “I know that when I am running and skiing, my body and mind are in harmony and allow me to feel that I am free, can fly, and can express myself through all my talents. . . . Running provides my imagination with the means to express itself and delve into my inner self” (176). Jornet states that endurance running and the making sense of his experiences in language engage his whole being; he points to a form of life-affirming rhetoric that makes itself known in and through physical challenges as well as in his verbal explanations of those efforts. In an article from Le Petit Journal about the 1901 edition of PBP, Simon Levrai reports on Maurice Garin’s amazing ride: “1200 kilometers covered in 52 hours and 11 seconds, without stopping to sleep, almost without taking a breath, this is certainly one of the most magnificent tests of human endurance” (trans. mine). This brief news report celebrates the human potential that Garin’s effort exhibits, the willingness or desire of the human body to face and endure the “impossible.” The implicit awe and respect is directed not only toward Garin but toward humanity in general.

Embodied rhetoric can be a practice that allows people to creatively explore and better understand their rhetorical-biological selves, a point made by Jornet near the end of his book, “Perhaps I run because I need to feel creative. I need to know what is inside me and then see it realized somewhere outside me. . . . A race is like a work of art; it is a creation that requires not only technique and work but also inspiration to reach a satisfactory outcome” (177). Fournel, in the eloquent passage quoted earlier in this essay, and Jornet point to a biological-rhetorical impulse to engage in activities that demand a mind-body response to a bodily exigency. Both the physical effort and the thoughts and words formed around the effort are part of the creative act because we are a kind of being that makes sense of everything in language.

The existence of genres evidencing a deeply embodied rhetoric suggests that our bodies create and respond to rhetorical exigencies. Here I echo a conclusion drawn by LeMesurier: “The moving body as both responder and creator can be considered a material rhetorical device that . . . uses its own knowledge and forces, ever shifting in the albumen of bodily encounters, to yield rhetorical effects” (378). Rhetorical questions and exigencies exist in that “albumen,” a point suggested not only by the relative stability of the ride report across time and space, but also by the idea that the ride report responds to the same rhetorical questions as other quest stories including those I’ve cited as well as a host of others found in literary works, popular movies and religious stories. What is a person — mind and body together — capable of doing? What are our limits? Can we handle the exploration of those limits with grace and perhaps a little humor? What will we learn about ourselves and what it is to be human by testing ourselves? These questions haunt us, in part because they cannot be answered once and for all even for one person. And they continue to exist through time and across cultures. Bitzer argues that some well-established forms of discourse come to have a “power of [their] own,” so that the traditions endemic to these discourse forms “function as a constraint” upon any new possible responses (13). The ride report, a version of the quest or hero story, continues to exist and to draw creators and audience, in part because it has existed for so long and new writers and readers are steeped in its traditions. Additionally, however, it continues to exist because the exigency that inspires it continues to motivate people to bodily-rhetorical action.

Concluding Thoughts

I’ve noted my interest in ride reports and how they appear to defy basic precepts of Rhetorical Genre Studies. I’ve implied that Paris-Brest-Paris, Mecca for randonneurs, attracts because its history and everything about it is solidly grounded in the quest myth. That is, the ride report taps into a rhetorical situation that is “in some measure universal” and enduring (Bitzer 13). What my study offers, then, is not so much a counterpoint to the main ideas of Rhetorical Genre Studies but a reminder that the foundations of rhetoric are inexplicably and materially bound to our bodies. At the beginning of this essay, I said I wanted to take seriously the “embodied rhetoric of which we are constituted” (2), and this discussion has shown that the body can be a creative rhetorical agent, establishing and responding to rhetorical situations, sometimes with the cooperation of our minds, and sometimes in spite of what might seem like good sense. Like Condit, I believe we can see “an active biology in conversation with an active social coding system” (351). This study then suggests that the sources of and responses to rhetorical situations may take place at a fully embodied level, and this matters because it means that to be human is to be profoundly rhetorical.

As profoundly rhetorical beings, we create and use genres not only in response to situations encountered in our academic lives and in the business world, but just as importantly in situations where our bodies as well as our minds are equally and actively engaged. Or, this discussion also suggests our bodies are involved, to some degree, even in genres originating in professional contexts. That is, to explain and make use of a more fully embodied rhetoric, we must first accept that “embodied” literally means in the body. These conclusions raise questions for further studies of embodied rhetoric. The focus of this study, however, has been on the body as rhetorical actor, as thoroughgoing and intelligent rhetorician. What is to be learned from an endurance challenge, whether that challenge be a 750-mile bike ride, a fifty-mile run, or a three-month trek along a mountain trail? In each case, one is enticed by an activity that the mind and body together — working together — find engaging and meaningful, and we wonder how and why this is so. A bike ride might be so much more than just a bike ride. It may be a response to an embodied rhetorical situation the answer to which is ephemeral, individual yet universal, and reverently human.


1. “Randonneuring is long-distance unsupported endurance cycling. This style of riding is non-competitive in nature, and self-sufficiency is paramount. When riders participate in randonneuring events, they are part of a long tradition that goes back to the beginning of the sport of cycling in France and Italy. Friendly camaraderie, not competition, is the hallmark of randonneuring” (Randonneurs USA website).

2. PBP was a professional race until 1931, according to the Audax Club Parisien website.

Works Cited

Bazerman, Charles. Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science. U of Wisconsin P, 1988.

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Analyzing Warrants and Worldviews in the Rhetoric of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton: Burke and Argumentation in the 2016 Presidential Election

Emma Frances Bloomfield, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Gabriela Tscholl, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign


Combining a dramatistic analysis with the Toulmin model productively contributes to a rhetorical understanding of the 2016 presidential election and locates Burke as an integral component of political communication criticism. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton's rhetoric differed not only on policy arguments, but also on their rhetorical vision for America. Trump's campaign arguments privileged the agent and thus invoked identification with an idealist worldview, while Clinton's rhetoric privileged agency and thus invoked identification with a pragmatic one. Warrants and worldviews are interconnected parts of campaign rhetoric that contribute to both persuasion and identification.

The 2016 presidential election has prompted commentary about the controversial rhetoric of President Donald Trump. His brash style and uncompromising assertions have caused scholars to renegotiate their conceptions of successful political rhetoric. While Trump lost the popular vote, he did win the presidency with an unconventional rhetorical style (Jacobson). Trump evoked populist arguments that promoted distrust of the establishment and called for change by "drain[ing] the swamp" (The American Presidency Project 2016, October 17, par. 30). Trump's appeal at least partially stemmed from his lack of political experience and his subsequent ability to claim an ethos untarnished by current political cynicism. Instead of attempting to explain the election result, we focus on the underlying worldviews evoked and promoted in the 2016 presidential election. The competing worldviews at stake in the election are best understood as rhetorical dramas that Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton constructed about America's future. This perspective opens opportunities for viewing worldviews as functioning to legitimize argument structures and for exploring voting as a meaning-making activity.

To analyze how political arguments serve as rhetorical visions, we employ Kenneth Burke's dramatistic theories of terministic screens, the pentad, and identification. We argue that Trump and Clinton's campaign arguments are discursive remnants of the candidates' guiding ideologies and terministic screens, or worldviews (Burke, LASA 45). Political arguments, therefore, either fail to carry or succeed in convincing audiences based on adherence to those guiding ideologies. Burke's pentad, as a five-faceted model of determining motives, enables us to compare the differences between Trump and Clinton's rhetorical dramas that were told through their campaign arguments. Identification further enhances our examination of the candidates' political discourse by emphasizing the dynamic relationship between speaker and audience in persuasion. Political arguments function as"a symbolic means of inducing cooperation" in voters to support the candidates' visions of what is best for the country (Burke, RM 47). These interrelated concepts afford different analytical opportunities than approaching political rhetoric through argumentation or dramatism alone. By combining dramatism with the Toulmin model's argument mapping, we illuminate how Burke's theories are integral components of political criticism and how warrants and worldviews are intertwined in political rhetoric.

Dramatism and Persuasion

Don Parson proposed that dramatism and argumentation can be productively combined when he summarized Burke's ideas on ideologies: "in choosing a vocabulary of action, humans necessarily select a part of reality and reason from that part" (146). Our ideologies, and thus the vocabularies we use that reflect those ideologies, provide the foundation for our reasoning processes. Barry Brummett expanded on this point by noting that "ideologies motivate and guide political rhetoric and give it purpose" (251). How people make sense of situations at least partially explains their "core" ways of thinking and making decisions (Brummett 252). When Trump and Clinton proposed solutions to the nation's problems, their ideologies served as inventional resources that justified the reasoning behind those arguments. Political arguments, as rhetorical markers of a person's guiding pentadic ratios and terministic screens, resonate with voters in different ways.

Alignment with those underlying ideologies and worldviews implied by those arguments create the opportunity for identification between voter and candidate. Without identification, Burke theorized that persuasion could not occur because there was no point of similarity from where persuasion could originate. He argued, "You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his" (Burke, RM 55). While this statement indicates a sequential relationship between identification and persuasion, Burke also invited the consideration of the two as co-constitutive acts. Burke noted that the process of identification can occur between people "even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded to believe so" (RM 20, emphasis added). Thus, identification and persuasion are not fully sequential or separate acts but are instead components of a dynamic constellation of symbolic interactions that bring people into a state of being "consubstantial" (RM 25). Viewing identification and persuasion as intertwined rhetorical actions expands the potential application of Burkean theories for communication scholars and complements existing work on pentadic ratios and argument forms.

Scholars have turned to Burke's pentad to explain the reasoning behind the assigning of blame and the discovering of motivations within dramatic events. Burke highlighted that much can be learned from a person based on which parts of an event they emphasize and which they do not. He described events as containing an act, an agent (who performed the act), agency (how the act was performed), a scene (the situation containing the act and agent), and a purpose (why the agent performed the act). For example, a person who emphasizes the "scene" might argue that a potential criminal, or an "agent," was in the wrong place at the wrong time, resulting in a scene-act ratio, where the circumstances held more control over the act than the agent themselves (Tonn et al.). The same crime may be described differently as being the sole responsibility of the criminal who had complete control over their actions, resulting in an agent-act ratio. These ratios can also be seen in political ideologies. For example, Emma Frances Bloomfield and Angeline Sangalang argued that conservatives often support the autonomy of the individual in economic situations because they tell agent-act narratives where individuals can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and succeed regardless of any situation in which they might find themselves. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to argue for supportive policies, such as entitlement and assistance programs, because they embrace scene and agency-focused narratives that take environmental and structural limitations into consideration of an agent's ability to perform actions (Bloomfield and Sangalang). The pentad helps us understand the underlying worldviews and guiding narratives from which people interpret, respond to, and argue about situations. Different ratios make available different ideologies, vocabularies, and resources to create arguments.

If we consider the formal components of the Toulmin model, we can see more clearly how worldviews, ratios, and identification are enacted within political arguments. Toulmin's model of argumentation maps out how an argument is made with three primary parts: claim, grounds, and warrant. The argument claim is the "conclusion whose merits we are seeking to establish" (Toulmin 90). The information that supports this claim is the grounds or "data" (Toulmin 90). Toulmin defined the warrant as answering the question, "How do you get there?" because it serves as the often-unstated logical link that connects the grounds to the claim (90). In their article explicating the Toulmin model, Brockriede and Ehninger posited the claim, "Russia would violate the proposed nuclear ban on nuclear weapons testing," because of the grounds, "Russia has violated 50 out of 52 international agreement" (45). While unstated, the logical link that connects these two statements is that "past violations are symptomatic of probable future violations," or, in other words, past behavior predicts future behavior (Brockriede and Ehninger 45). The Toulmin model also contains a secondary component called the backing, which is a statement of data, facts, or ideology that adds strength to the warrant by "certify[ing] the assumption expressed in the warrant" (Brockriede and Ehninger 45). Toulmin described the backing as a series of "assurances," because without them, the warrants that linked our grounds to the claim "would possess neither authority nor currency" (96).

If we view campaign arguments as having an underlying claim that the public should vote for one candidate over opponents (Bloomfield and Katula 140), campaign promises become grounds on which that claim rests. A candidate's ideology, worldview, and pentadic ratios can thus be viewed as backing for warrants that justify campaign promises as rational criteria on which to vote. Bruschke called presidential campaign arguments "episodic," whereby they unfold periodically over a series of events (60). While each individual argument is important, it is also important to consider how political arguments function as "part of a much larger superstructure" that connects them (Brushke 60). We argue that Burkean theory provides insight into these superstructures by analyzing the underlying ideologies that legitimize Trump and Clinton's political arguments as part of a unified claim that they deserved the presidency. A warrant thus functions based on the audiences' adherence to the warrant's backing, which is the part of the argument where we find guiding ideologies and worldviews.

Through analyzing the public campaign speeches of Trump and Clinton, we concluded that Trump and Clinton differed in the pentadic ratios they expressed in their descriptions of America and their candidacy during the campaign. Those ratios served as backing for their arguments, through which their arguments resonated or failed to resonate with voters. Trump primarily employed arguments backed by an agent-focused, idealistic worldview. Without a belief in agents or agreement with an idealist perspective, the inferential leap that justified Trump's promises is left unsupported. Trump makes frequent authoritative arguments, which rely on "the quality of the source from which the data are derived" (i.e., Trump himself) to validate his claims (Brockriede and Ehninger 51). Clinton's vocabulary echoed an agency-agent ratio, which afforded arguments based on the mechanisms of change, the power of compromise, and the ability to find solutions to shared problems. Clinton's arguments rest on a worldview that considers the tools used and how acts are performed as more powerful than agents, thus subsuming individual desires under what is best for the system.

We use the pentad, identification, and the Toulmin model as analytical vehicles for considering the political vocabulary of the 2016 presidential election and how political ideologies are enacted in arguments. In combining dramatism and argumentation, we take seriously the implications of ideological orientations on politics and how argument warrants are legitimized and backed by underlying worldviews and ratios. While Burke rarely addressed argument (Levasseur), we argue that dramatism is naturally suited to analyze political logic and naturally-occurring argument because it is concerned with "equipment for living" (Burke, PLF 304). Indeed, Burke does offer "strategy" and "maneuver" as descriptions of dramatism's method, hinting at an orientation toward argumentation (PLF 298). Dramatism is an important component of contemporary argument studies and an active integration of the two offers insights into how campaign rhetoric is performed and can be understood. After explicating the argument structures of Trump and Clinton, we conclude by examining the implications of Trump's use of idealistic arguments for political communication.

Trump's Agent-Scene Arguments

Trump entered the 2016 presidential campaign as an outsider. With business experience and celebrity status, he seemed well-poised to enter an arena where political leaders had universally low approval ratings (Pew Research Center, "Campaign 2016"). Our characterization of Trump's political arguments as idealistic, and thus agent-focused, is based on two emergent themes: Trump describing himself as the controlling, dominant agent and describing the political scene as a corrupt enemy of the people. The warrants that "authori[z]e" Trump's arguments rely on an idealist backing that agents are powerful and, thus certified, serve as "bridges" from his campaign promises to the conclusion that people should vote for him (Toulmin 91).

I Will Build a Great, Great Wall

In Trump's political narrative, he is the only person capable of fixing the errors of the previous presidency. Burke argued that "idealistic philosophies think in terms of . . . the ‘self,'" in that they emphasize the individual mind in the performance of acts (GM 171). By aggrandizing the "self," there are no claims too wild, outrageous, or unreasonable. In his announcement address, Trump made a series of promises that functions as grounds for why people should vote for him: "I beat China all the time," "I will stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons," and "I will immediately terminate President Obama's illegal executive order on immigration" (The American Presidency Project 2015, June 16, pars. 5, 197, 198). These grounds can be viewed as legitimate voting reasons if voters believe in the power of individual agents to accomplish such tasks. In his campaign rhetoric, Trump frequently used these "authoritative arguments" where the implied warrant that Trump can complete these tasks "affirms the reliability of the source from which these are derived" (Brockriede and Ehninger 51). If someone does not trust "the quality of the source" making the claim, then the argument lacks a "factual point of departure" (Brockriede and Ehninger 44). But, if voters believe in Trump and his appeals to ethos and that he can accomplish those tasks if elected, they can be carried easily from the given grounds to the claim.

One of Trump's oft-repeated campaign promises was his assertion, "I will build a great, great wall" (The American Presidency Project, 2015, June 16, par. 191). With 70 percent of Americans listing immigration as a very important factor in their 2016 vote (Pew Research Center, "Top Voting Issues" par. 2), Trump's claim of dominance over immigration issues likely resonated with voters. Even if audiences were not fully convinced that Trump would be able to build a wall and "have Mexico pay for that wall" (The American Presidency Project 2015, June 16, par. 191), they could still identify with his confidence that he could bring about change. Trump did not promise incrementalism or compromise; he promised swift and complete transformation of the current political system based on his intrinsic qualities as an agent. Without specific examples or evidence, Trump backed his wall-building grounds by saying, "nobody builds walls better than me, believe me," again relying on warrants only backed by the source making them (The American Presidency Project 2015, June 16, par. 191). In the same speech, talking about rebuilding American infrastructure, Trump noted, "It will be done on time, on budget, way below cost, way below what anyone ever thought," the "believe me" this time implied (The American Presidency Project 2015, June 16 par. 206). As backing for his wall-building ability, Trump relied on voters' shared belief in his own assurance that he could have complete control over these issues if elected.

In many assertions, Trump paired "I" with words such as "alone" and "only," highlighting his unique capabilities. He argued, "I alone can fix [the system]" (The American Presidency Project 2016, July 21, par. 42), "I am the only person running for the Presidency who understands this problem and knows how to fix it" (The American Presidency Project 2016, April 27, par. 22), and "I know these problems can all be fixed . . . only by me" (The American Presidency Project 2016, June 22, par. 8). Trump frequently raised his own capabilities above others, using superlative statements. For example, Trump declared, "I will be America's greatest defender and most loyal champion" (The American Presidency Project 2016, April 27, par. 173) and that he would be "the greatest jobs president that God ever created," (The American Presidency Project 2015, June 16, par. 68). Trump positioned himself as a "super-agent" with complete control over the political environment, unlike his opponents (Burke, GM xxii). Even if voters did not view themselves as powerful individuals, by establishing consubstantiality with Trump they could vicariously become powerful by believing in and voting for him. Consubstantiality can thus be viewed as a self-fulfilling prophecy in the sense that people may act in accordance with what they wish to be instead of finding commonality with what they currently are.

Trump frequently referenced himself as outside of politics, despite running for political office. In his announcement speech, Trump argued, "Politicians are all talk, no action. Nothing's gonna [sic] get done" with more politicians in charge (The American Presidency Project 2015, June 16, par. 36). Trump positioned himself as a different kind of candidate, saying, "I am proudly not a politician" (The American Presidency Project 2016, August 31, par. 150) and "I want to be an outsider" (The American Presidency Project 2016, July 16, par. 25). This seeming contradiction can be explained by turning again to consubstantiality, which highlights the acts of identification and division as compensatory (Burke, GM). In claiming to not be a politician while running for office, Trump occupied a dynamic position between his then non-politician status and a vision of what a non-politician politician might look like. Drawing on idealism, Trump emphasized that his business experience and non-politician status would be the sole change needed to overhaul the current political scene. Trump argued that voters could dismantle the current system by electing him and rejecting traditional candidates. Trump encouraged voters to consider whether they would want to live in an America "ruled by the people, or by the politicians," where Trump becomes identified with the people and not the politicians (The American Presidency Project 2016, June 22, par. 25). For voters feeling separated from politicians, Trump painted a rhetorical vision where the stereotypical, untrustworthy politicians were replaced by someone who shared the voters' faith in the power of the individual and a commitment to change.

Instead of thinking of voting as a political act, Trump recast voting as a moral one. Trump's use of judicial metaphors framed the election as a national trial where the people could convict those who they perceived to have wronged Americans. Parson noted that metaphors are one of Burke's master tropes and easily serve "as a vehicle for argument" (147). When Trump asserted that he was "the law and order candidate," he used the justice metaphor to claim that he was powerful enough to serve not only as president but also as judge, jury, and executioner (The American Presidency Project 2016, July 11, par. 21). Trump argued that by voting for him, Americans had the opportunity to make "the politicians stand trial before the people" (The American Presidency Project 2016, June 22, par. 139). Trump's law and order rhetoric was "restorative," intending to right the inverted system, make politicians work for the people once again, and create a world "that is more faithful to [voters'] longings and aspirations" (Oliver and Rahn 190). These arguments constructed voting as an urgent act to restore an ideal political order and placed power and agency in the hands of voters to enact change in the political system.

Burke associated justice with idealism because the law's "essential feature is in its derivation from the attitudes of human agents" for the purposes of self-governance (GM 175, emphasis in original). Trump ignited these beliefs in his supporters, frequently leading chants of "Lock her up!" towards Clinton at rallies. Trump characterized Clinton as thinking that "she is above the law" but argued that "come November, the American people will show her that she is not" (The American Presidency Project 2016, July 11, par. 153). Extending presidential power beyond its limits, Trump asserted that he could perform these judicial functions as the head of state. Trump changed the deliberative frame of politics to a forensic one, where Clinton's "crimes" (The American Presidency Project 2016, July 16, par. 15) required a guilty "verdict" from the voting "jury" (The American Presidency Project 2016, June 22, par. 140). Trump argued that voting in the 2016 election was not simply what was best, most prudent, or most efficacious for the country, but was also an ethical and moral obligation to punish the guilty and reward the politically innocent. In voicing the "idea of justice," Trump made "possible some measure of its embodiment" (Burke, GM 174). The agent is the creator and manipulator of reality, so the agent's thoughts and ideas have material implications.

In support of his claims to the presidency, Trump offered multiple grounds based on his ability to accomplish tasks no one else could, which may seem on their face, unbelievable. As Dow noted, many people did not take Trump's arguments "seriously," because they seemed impossible for any individual to accomplish (137). Trump's supporters, however, did take his assertions seriously, because they viewed them not as specific promises, but as arguments for change that hinged on the power of individuals to control their situation. Toulmin argued that while grounds often serve as specific reasoning in support of the claim, warrants are often "general," thus "certifying the soundness of all arguments of the appropriate type" (92, emphasis in original). In making warrants backed by appeals to the authority of agents, Trump not only made an argument about himself but also proffered an idealistic worldview about the power of individuals, in general, to fight back against corrupt scenes and to enact change.

We're Going to Make America Great Again

In addition to lauding the power of the individual, Trump's arguments cast a negative light on current scenic features such as the political system and the media. The powerful agent needed enemies to attack and to overhaul once elected. Trump characterized current politicians and their policies as making "disastrous trade deals," slashing salaries, and "trapping kids in failing schools" (The American Presidency Project 2016, June 22, pars. 13–17). Previous decisions were made by politicians who have "rigged [the system] against you, the American people" for their own benefit (The American Presidency Project 2016, June 22, par. 18). The term "rigged" modified "system" to describe the political scene as manipulative, elitist, and structured purposefully to exploit the public. Trump noted that the rigged system is in place because "insiders wrote the rules of the game to keep themselves in power and in the money" (The American Presidency Project 2016, June 22, par. 12). In an age of "massive . . . voter discontent with the governing classes," Trump's message likely resonated with voters who saw themselves as being disadvantaged by the current political system and who aligned with the idealistic hope that change was possible with a replacement at the head of government (Oliver and Rahn 189).

Unlike other players in the political scene, Trump argued that he was "not behold [sic] to any special interest" (The American Presidency Project 2016, August 31, par. 150) and was thus not burdened with "crooked" monetary commitments (The American Presidency Project 2016, July 16, par. 18). In his announcement address, Trump noted, "I don't need anybody's money. . . . I'm really rich" (The American Presidency Project 2015, June 16, pars. 115–16). The repeated phrase "Nobody owns Trump" (The American Presidency Project 2016, August 31, par. 150) served as grounds that portrayed Trump as a candidate uniquely positioned to accomplish tasks despite the influences of the corrupting scene that had affected others. Conversely, people enmeshed in the political scene were described as "controlled fully by the lobbyists, by the donors, and by the special interests, fully" (The American Presidency Project 2015, June 16, par. 48).

In addition to attacks on career politicians, Trump also made arguments against the media. Trump argued that the media seek to withhold information from the people as a means to control them, a claim carried into his presidency. During the campaign, he said, "The truth is our immigration system is worse than anybody ever realized. But the facts aren't known because the media won't report them" (The American Presidency Project 2016, August 31, par. 13). Trump claimed that it is only he who "will tell you the plain facts that have been edited out of your nightly news and your morning newspaper" (The American Presidency Project 2016, July 21, par. 19). Burke argued that idealism grounds knowledge "in the nature of the knower" (GM 172, emphasis in original). In other words, idealism enables a type of relativism where truth, knowledge, and facts are contingent upon agents' belief in them. Trump, therefore, made frequent attempts to rewrite reality for voters and denounce those that hold a different version of reality.

Although Trump might not have told voters the truth, he did repeatedly express a commitment to honesty and to peeling back what he portrayed to be lies in the system. In other words, even if the statements Trump made were not extrinsically true, they might still "ring true" for his voters and thus gain their adherence to his political drama (Fisher 362). Burke argued that lies are a "creative aspect of idealism, since an ideal may serve as standard, guide, incentive — hence may lead to new real conditions" (GM 174). Trump's alternative facts, stretching of the truth, and blatant mischaracterizations produced a version of reality that supported Trump's candidacy and thus aligned the idealistic with the realistic. In characterizing the power of agents, Trump constructed a clear narrative whereby his election would overthrow the polluted scene and restore order.

Perhaps the most memorable phrase of Trump's campaign, the "Make America Great Again" slogan, refers directly to the rehabilitation of the corrupt scene, where "the decades of decay, division and decline will come to an end" (The American Presidency Project 2016, July 11, par. 154). Often referring to vague time periods of America's previous greatness, Trump argued, "The years of American Greatness will return," a predictive statement contingent on his election to office (The American Presidency Project 2016, July 11, par. 155). Trump created a powerful enthymeme, where the time America was once great is filled in by the audience, thus resonating with them because the full drama unfolded from them. However one defined greatness or whenever people thought America was previously "great," Trump implied that all of those powerful visions could be realized in a Trump presidency. Trump argued that he could "return us to a timeless principle," where "the interests of the American people," however varied and numerous, would be fully achieved (The American Presidency Project 2016, April 27, par. 4). Trump asserted that the damaged, weak, and vulnerable scene of corrupt politicians and lying media would soon be overthrown with the help of idealistic voters who believed in his power to enact his promises, in the need for change, and in the political story that a forgotten, yet undefined, greatness was just on the horizon.

Clinton's Agency-Agent Arguments

In contrast to Trump, Clinton's campaign arguments were guided by pragmatism, emphasizing compromise and cooperation within the system. Clinton removed Trump's powerful agent from focus and placed it as the antagonist of the current political climate. In Clinton's political drama, it is the stubbornness and overconfidence of agents that pose the biggest threats to democracy, while compromise and incrementalism engender success. Clinton's political arguments were legitimized by "motivational" warrants, where the claim is supported based on whether the warrant is "accepted as valuable or rejected as worthless" (Brockriede and Ehninger 51). When Clinton asserted that she was the best candidate based on her experiences and willingness to compromise, her grounds only supported her claim if the audience believed the unstated warrant that experience and compromise were valuable characteristics to have in politicians and that she had those characteristics. A pragmatic, practical worldview emphasizes achieving goals in the most prudent and efficient way possible, in some cases sacrificing the individual for the good of the whole. The two primary features that constitute Clinton's agency-agent ratio are her emphasis on agency and her devaluing the agent as the primary driver of political acts. Clinton's campaign rhetoric serves as a useful foil for understanding the differences in political dramas offered by Trump and Clinton and how agency-focused arguments are employed in political rhetoric.

America's Basic Bargain

Clinton's rhetoric emphasized agency, or the means by which agents act, as the guiding feature of pragmatic rhetoric (Burke, GM 275). Even when faced with obstacles, Clinton argued that people can overcome those obstacles through compromise, hard work, and pragmatism. Clinton frequently noted that while change is possible, it is not something that will come easy. Clinton argued, "I am a confident optimist [but] that doesn't mean I'm not aware of how difficult it is. I'm going into this race with my eyes open about how hard it is to be president of the United States" (The American Presidency Project 2015, May 18, par. 54). Instead of highlighting her power as an agent, Clinton positioned herself as a humble agent, fully aware that she faced a formidable task. Clinton noted that she could overcome this difficulty not because of her intrinsic status as an agent but because she had "both the experience and the understanding to deal with the complexity of the problems that we face" (The American Presidency Project 2015, May 18, par. 55). Clinton focused on the tools necessary to perform the job and proposed that only when agents are armed with those tools and a recognition of the problems ahead can they make real change.

Clinton defined the relationship between the American people and government as "a partnership," where both sides work together towards a common goal (Hopkins par. 9). Clinton stated, "Presidents don't do it alone. They do it with the American people" (Hopkins par. 9). A focus on agency privileges how people work together to "serve one another," acknowledging that "cooperation is necessary for the development" of society (Burke, GM 277, 280). Clinton argued that partnership and cooperation are parts of "America's basic bargain" where hard work enables people "to get ahead" (The American Presidency Project 2015, June 13, par. 11). She stated that the American people have held up their end of the bargain: "you worked extra shifts, took second jobs, postponed home repairs [and] you figured out how to make it work" (The American Presidency Project 2015, June 13, par. 24). Prosperity is something earned through effort, not something guaranteed as a quality of individuals qua individuals. Instead of asserting the power of the agent to accomplish incredible feats, Clinton focused on the means by which an agent might overcome problems and the principles of exchange and bargaining inherent in politics. Clinton was not a powerful agent unto herself; she required the cooperation and support of the people to achieve her campaign promises.

Clinton lauded the collective ability of individuals to work together to overcome their problems:"We don't hide from change, we harness it," (The American Presidency Project 2015, June 13, par. 57). In Clinton's worldview, the strength of the country comes from everyone, not just the president. She noted that it is the"choices we've made as a nation, leaders and citizens alike " that have"played a big role " in the success of the country (The American Presidency Project 2015, June 13, par. 55). Clinton focused on how people can come together and achieve the goals set out before them. When she praised the American people, Clinton praised their drive and commitment: "People have made a lot of sacrifice. . . . And they did everything that they could think of to do to get back on their feet " (The American Presidency Project 2015, May 18, par. 10). It was their actions and the tools by which they accomplished those actions, thus displacing agents as inherently valuable.

It's Not About Left, Right or Center

Clinton's agency-agent political arguments relied on the grounds that certain agents were responsible for the nation's problems. Clinton argued that the system is a workable one, but agents inside of it have created a political climate "so paralyzed by gridlock and dysfunction that most Americans have lost confidence that anything can actually get done " (The American Presidency Project 2015, June 13, par. 54). In this quotation, Clinton is praising the act of getting things done and decries agents who have prevented those acts from being performed. This rhetorical move upends Trump's ratio by placing agents as antagonists in the narrative instead of its heroes. In another speech, Clinton called the inability of agents to compromise "poisonous " to "the long-term needs of our country" (The American Presidency Project 2015, July 13, par. 103). Clinton noted that some politicians work "to pit Americans against each other and deepen the divides in this country" instead of focusing on the common good and becoming "stronger together" (The American Presidency Project 2016, September 19, par. 8). Clinton also laid blame on "powerful interests [in business] fighting to protect their own profits and privileges at the expense of everyone else" (The American Presidency Project 2016, October 3, par. 16). Furthermore, Clinton pointed to how businesses "are aided and abetted by the rules and incentives in our economy [that] actually encourage people at the top to take advantage of consumers, workers, small businesses, and taxpayers" (The American Presidency Project 2016, October 3, par. 16). With a tax code "riddled with loopholes," Clinton acknowledged that it is tough "for the well-meaning CEOs to take the high road" (The American Presidency Project 2016, October 3, pars. 18, 17). In this speech, Clinton repeatedly emphasized agents as being subservient to the opportunities available to them and the means by which they can act. In Clinton's political drama, agents may not make rational choices or act in the best interests of the nation, again undermining the idealist perspective that agents are in full control over their situation.

Clinton offered reasonable, rational, and practical decision-making as a solution to stubborn agents. Burke argued that pragmatism is suited to compromise because pragmatism is an idea that "all philosophies have in common, quite as the instructions for operating a machine are the same for liberal, Fascist or Communist" ideologies (GM 276). It is through cooperation that agents become strong, regardless of an agent's identity or political affiliation. To remedy loopholes and gridlock, Clinton argued that "Our next President must work with Congress and every other willing partner across our entire country. And I will do just that" (The American Presidency Project 2015, June 13, par. 56). Clinton equated the president's success with their ability and willingness to work with others.

Clinton's campaign arguments were not based on her personal qualities or ethos, but the actions she would take. Clinton argued that political affiliation, loyalty, and identity should not overpower the willingness to compromise and work together toward common goals: "It's not about left, right or center; it's about the future versus the past," advocating for the abandonment of individual needs and party loyalties in service of cooperation and progress (The American Presidency Project 2015, July 13, par. 105). Politicians should focus on "principled and pragmatic and progressive policies that really move us forward together" (The American Presidency Project 2015, July 13, par. 101). These policies are possible when agents "use the power to convene, connect and collaborate to build partnerships that actually get things done" (The American Presidency Project 2015, July 13, par. 103). In Clinton's political drama, the president is not the sole, driving force behind change but is only a component of change dependent on their actions and commitment to compromise.

Clinton argued that she did not want to be "a wet blanket on idealism," but did want to focus on "what we can achieve now" (Flores par. 5). Her pragmatic worldview deflected idealism because she viewed idealism as potentially impractical and an impediment to real change. Clinton described herself as "a progressive that gets things done" who believes "that standing still is not an option" (The American Presidency Project 2016, February 1, par. 4). While a subtle difference in weighing between agent and agency, Clinton's rhetoric promised to find ways to make things better, instead of positioning herself as the agent of change who will make things better. This small shift in emphasis reflects her pragmatic rhetoric where "what we are capable of doing" is the defining feature of agents (The American Presidency Project 2016, February 1, par. 4).

In a speech at Wake Forest University, Clinton defined her identity through the philosophies and policies she stood for: "Remember, it's not just . . . my name that's going to be on the ballot. So much of what we care about — so much that's at stake in the election is, too" (The American Presidency Project 2016, October 27, par. 5). Instead of highlighting herself as a reason to vote, Clinton enumerated the issues on the ballot and positioned herself as someone who would work within the system to advocate for those issues. Perhaps tired of and cynical towards a "politics as usual" mentality, Clinton's pragmatic ratio failed to carry for voters, or as Toulmin might have said, her ratio was a "[mis]step" between grounds and the claim that voters did not follow (104). Clinton did not guarantee success in her political arguments; she argued that agendas, planning, and compromise will open doors for willing agents and produce the opportunities for success.


Trump and Clinton's campaign arguments reflect inverted pentadic ratios, the former agent-scene and the latter agency-agent. Policies were not the only voting issue; voters were also attending to the political dramas enacted by candidates, where one offered the hope of the individual and the other the belief in the current system and its mechanisms. Now established in office, Trump has continued his idealist rhetorical style and has continuously relied on his own authority to support his claims. Trump's rhetoric goes against political norms that note "the existence of justifiable argumentative claims is of vital importance in democratic politics" (Ball 128). The significant shift away from appeals to fact and towards appeals to blind authority should prompt concern for the future of deliberation and political argumentation (Ball 128). Trump's vision of America is the guiding narrative of the moment and his rhetorical style is quickly becoming a hallmark of his presidency.

One immediate consequence of Trump's idealism is his reliance on executive orders (EOs) that enable presidents to chart a policy without confirmation or approval from other political entities, such as Congress or the Cabinet. The EO is an act that privileges no "co-agents" and relies solely on the power of a lone agent (Burke, GM xxii). Mere hours after his inauguration as the 45th President, Trump issued an EO to begin the process of repealing the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare (Lee and Luhby). The EO is a notable exception to the U. S. government's system of checks and balances that makes it near impossible for presidents to act in a vacuum. Instead, the presidency typically requires cooperation with multiple stakeholders, the opposing political party, branches of governments, and the public. In the spirit of Brushke's call that argument scholars and rhetorical critics engage "normative" standards for argument (63), we can say that Clinton's pragmatic rhetoric more closely reflects the reality of the president's political situation, whereas Trump's rhetoric attempted to create a new political reality. Brummett, summarizing the ideas of Edwin Black, noted that politics "offers to its audience a view of who they are" (261). Given the political rhetoric of successful and unsuccessful candidates, the 2016 presidential election gives us a view of who America's voters are and what we value as a nation. Voting is not simply an act of support for a candidate and their policies, but also one that legitimizes a resonating worldview.

This blended Burkean and argumentation approach provides added dimensions to the rhetorical differences between Trump and Clinton's campaign rhetoric. Furthermore, this research establishes concrete ways that Burke and argumentation can coexist in rhetorical analysis and sheds light on the importance of worldviews in constructing and carrying out political arguments. Toulmin argued that the backing of warrants "is something which [researchers] shall have to scrutini[z]e very carefully," because the backing's "precise" relationship to other parts of the model is incomplete and ambiguous (96). In pairing dramatism with the Toulmin model, we provide deeper scrutiny into warrants as backed by worldviews that legitimize grounds-claim relationships. In that the warrants and backings "to which we commit ourselves are implicit," we propose that we can analyze and evaluate these argument components through a Burkean focus on pentadic ratios and their corresponding ideologies (Toulmin 93). Either method would have provided an interesting analysis of the 2016 presidential election, but we believe that it is only by combining the two that we get a more complete perspective on how political campaigns function not only persuasively, but through identification to create compelling political dramas. The Toulmin model enables a look into the structure of an argument, while dramatism drives how its structure functions as a symbolic inducement of community-building and meaning-making. We encourage future scholars of political argument to use this analysis as inspiration to include dramatism as an integral component of their analysis to uncover the nuances of language and the narratives that emerge in campaigning.

Trump's rhetoric represents a change in norms for political argumentation; one that emphasizes the lone agent and unbridle idealism over the common good. But, even though a single agent rules in the White House, it has not stopped other agents from gathering and acting together as a rejoinder to Trump's political statements. With marches, protests, and increased activism, we can see that the seeds of pragmatism, collaboration, and democracy are still alive. Neither idealism nor pragmatism itself is worrisome, but when either is wielded against the common interests of the public, productive deliberation can be stifled. Thus, we end by turning to Clinton's words that "our constitutional democracy demands our participation" and the idea that it is with both politicians and publics that we create democracy (The American Presidency Project 2016, November 9, par. 24).

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Othello: An Alternative Dramatistic Analysis

Henry King, Malmö University, Sweden­­


Kenneth Burke’s reading of Othello in terms of “the disequilibrium of monogamistic love” is both perceptive and puzzling, ignoring the issues of scene (Venice and Cyprus) and downplaying Othello’s racial otherness. This essay situates it within the wider story of his attempts to think about issues of race, and proposes a Burkean reinterpretation of the play emphasizing the agent-scene ratio and the dialectic of merger and division. The play is then related to the politics of its period of composition and the present day.

Kenneth Burke’s interpretation of Othello, discussed in A Grammar of Motives and fully expounded in “Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method,” is both perceptive and puzzling. In brief, he argues that the play is a tragedy of possessiveness, in which “mine-own-ness is . . . dramatically split into the three principles of possession, possessor, and estrangement (threat of loss)” (167), represented by Desdemona, Othello, and Iago respectively. This “dramatic split” alludes to his most challenging and characteristic claim, that possessiveness is intrinsically threatened by loss because “La propriété, c’est le vol. Property fears theft because it is theft” (167). Othello’s fears that he has lost (or never truly possessed) Desdemona “arise from within, in the sense that they are integral to the motive he stands for” (166), because having and not-having are dialectical complements; but in the play they are ‘split,’ dramatically embodied in Iago. As a result, Iago can function as the katharma — “that which is thrown away in cleansing; the off-scourings, refuse, of a sacrifice; hence, worthless fellow” (166) — primarily because “in reviling Iago the audience can forget that his transgressions are theirs” (169–70), seeing envy and dispossession as an external threat rather than an internal instability. As the allusion to Proudhon suggests, this has wider political implications. Although the overt topic of the play is “the disequilibrium of monogamistic love” (168), Burke states as a point of method that “[i]f the drama is imitating some tension that has its counterpart in conditions outside the drama, we must inquire into dramatic analysis of this tension, asking ourselves what it might be” (179), and finds this in changes to property ownership: as in British history “[t]here were the enclosure acts, whereby the common lands were made private; here is the analogue, in the realm of human affinity, an act of spiritual enclosure” (169).

Typically insightful though his reading is, one finds, on consideration of what it does not cover, that Burke ignores significant issues that his critical vocabulary is well suited to disentangle. For one thing, Burke never discusses the play’s settings (Venice and Cyprus), a strange omission given his close attention to the significance of scene in plays at the beginning of his Grammar. More controversially, he only briefly discusses Othello’s racial difference. Although he mentions “the social discrimination involved in the Moor’s blackness” (167), he minimizes its significance within the framework of his proprietorial interpretation, arguing that Othello’s social ennoblement through marriage into Venice’s governing class is actually symbolic of “the lover’s sense of himself as a parvenu”: “in contrast with the notion of the play as the story of a black (low-born) man cohabiting with (identified with) the high-born (white) Desdemona,” Burke argues that “we should say rather that the role of Othello as ‘Moor’ draws for its effects on the ‘black man’ in every lover.” (181–82) He thus approaches the kind of reading occasionally proposed — most recently by Joyce Carol Oates, in a controversial tweet — that “‘Othello’ is a great enough work of dramatic art that, if the racial element were entirely removed, the play would still be a profound accomplishment. That Othello is a ‘Moor’ could be made — almost — irrelevant.” Burke’s reading may be called salacious if we bear in mind not only the word’s primary meaning but also its root in the verb ‘to leap.’ (As Iago says at II.i.289–90, “I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leap’d into my seat.”) Burke leaps over the obvious political dimension in pursuit of a more recondite erotic interpretation.

To understand this omission within the broader study of Burke and racial politics, it should be noted that the essay first appeared in the summer of 1951. This was a pivotal moment for Burke, not just because he had only the previously year published A Rhetoric of Motives and was now commencing his projected A Symbolic of Motives, but also in his relationship with Ralph Ellison. As Bryan Crable has reconstructed the events, the publication of A Rhetoric caused tension between the two friends, since Burke briefly quotes “[t]he Negro intellectual, Ralph Ellison” when discussing “improvement of social status” as “a kind of transcendence,” especially with regard to Black Americans — a similar issue to that of Othello’s social ennoblement gained by marrying Desdemona. Ellison, however, was unhappy with the reference, feeling that he had been misrepresented. Ellison and Stanley Edgar Hyman planned to visit Burke at home late in 1950 to discuss the matter, but did not manage to do so until August 1951 (Crable 99); while they were in Andover, Burke recorded Ellison reading the “battle royal” scene from Invisible Man, which was published the following year. Given that this was presumably the same period during which Burke wrote the Othello essay, it seems likely that these circumstances were in the back of his mind as he worked; we may therefore take it as an aside (one which Crable ignores) within that discussion. And if, as Crable argues, “we can use Burkean concepts to identify a fundamental fault in Burke’s own perspective” (125), then we can also use his techniques to complement his interpretation of Othello, correcting his devaluation of the play’s racial themes, as I aim to do in what follows.

* * *

In the Othello essay’s third section, on the characters of the play, Burke takes up his pentadic terms and argues that “[f]irst, as regards the rationality of the intrigue, the dramatis personae should be analyzed with reference to what we have elsewhere called the agent-act ratio” (179). This is no doubt a sound procedure for dramatistic analysis generally; but with regard to Othello in particular, even before we reach the list of persons we should be struck by the play’s full title: The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Here, the modifying clause orients us squarely along the agent-scene ratio (which Burke totally disregards in the essay) and invites the reader to consider the tensions between these terms in Burkean ways. By “experimentally shifting the accent” (Grammar 46–47), we may look for where in the play the emphasis falls on the agential part — the Moor of Venice — and where on the scenic — the Moor of Venice; we may look at how this points up the paradox of substance in Othello’s identity.

We see these issues addressed early in the play, if not in Burke’s reading of it. In the second section of the essay, he identifies the business of the first act of Shakespearean tragedy as:

Setting the situation, pointing the arrows, with first unmistakable guidance of the audience’s attitude towards the dramatis personae, and with similar setting of expectations as regards plot. Thus we learn of Cassio’s preferment over Iago, of Iago’s vengeful plan to trick Othello. . . . Also we learn of Desdemona as the likely instrument or object of the deception. (170)

“Setting the situation” may include setting the scene, but Burke does not elaborate the specific instance: Venice, whose society and culture form the background against which the action takes place, and (remembering the scene-act ratio) conditions it. Thus we find Iago and Roderigo on their way to the home of Brabantio, whose daughter Othello has just married — an event that does more to set the plot in motion than “Cassio’s preferment over Iago,” yet which Burke ignores in this summary. Desdemona’s marrying Othello is crucial, however, not only for the action it entails, but because of its influence on the agent-scene ratio: although Othello is, as the first act makes clear, a trusted general in the Venetian army, it is by his marriage that he becomes a member of the ruling class. In short, by marrying him, Desdemona makes Othello consubstantial with Venice.

It might be argued that Othello was already identified with Venice through his role as general; but Brabantio’s outraged reaction demonstrates that, in marrying one of the city’s daughters, Othello has crossed a symbolic line, and thereby (in Brabantio’s view) threatens to corrupt the free, Christian nature of the state: “if such actions have their passage free,” he reasons, “Bondslaves and pagans shall our statesmen be” (I.ii.98–9). If Desdemona’s marriage, enabling Othello’s identification with Venice, is the event that begins the story (in the narratological sense of the events told), then the play’s discourse begins with a corresponding dissociation on the part of Brabantio, Roderigo and Iago, all of whom emphasize Othello’s otherness by consistently referring to him as ‘the Moor’ or even more pejorative terms — his actual name is never mentioned in the first scene. Brabantio puts his case in the third scene, believing the bonds of consubstantiality between himself and the Senate to be so strong that “the duke himself, / Or any of my brothers of the state, / Cannot but feel this wrong as ’twere their own” (I.ii.95–7), but is defeated by a double blow: Desdemona’s confirmation of her love, and the Senate’s acceptance of Othello as her legitimate husband. The first act therefore works to establish Othello as the Moor of Venice.

This leads us to a very different understanding of the play from that which Burke advances. His essay describes the play’s theme as “the disequilibrium of monogamistic love”; similarly, in A Grammar of Motives, Burke situates “the ‘identity’ of Othello in the theme of jealousy” (413). But if we follow Burke’s logic, according to which “an identity like the theme of a play is broken down analytically into principles of opposition in which their variants compete and communicate by a neutral ground shared in common” (413), yet identify the play’s theme not with jealousy but with identification itself, then we must conclude that the fundamental opposition is between the dialectical principles of merger and division. Desdemona represents the former, merging Othello’s otherness with her Venetianness. Brabantio drops out of sight after Act One, and Roderigo plays a minor role, leaving Iago as the primary representative of division — as in the pivotal episode of Act Three Scene Three, when he plays upon Othello’s sense of his difference in “clime, complexion and degree” (III.iii.232) until Othello sees himself in the same terms, convinced that Desdemona is not his:

                for I am black,
    And have not those soft parts of conversation 
     That chamberers have, or for I am declin’d
     Into the vale of years[.] (III.iii.265–8)

Othello is, therefore, that “ground shared in common” which Iago and Desdemona contest. This may be read ad litteram: the name ‘Othello’ is neutral, hence the use of punning slurs like “his Moorship” in Act One Scene One; when Desdemona uses the term ‘Moor,’ she notably emphasizes their consubstantiality, as when she called him “my noble Moor” (III.iv.25, emphasis added).

If the action was set in motion by Desdemona drawing the pendulum towards merger, the development of the play is the swing back towards division. Burke takes up the Aristotelian term “peripety” (172), usually translated as “reversal,” and identifies this with the “mounting series of upheavals” (173) in Act Three Scene Three. The completion of this reversal is marked by the tableau of Othello and Iago kneeling together and exchanging vows — an appropriate symbol, Burke argues, “for they are but two parts of a single motive — related not as the halves of a sphere, but each implicit in the other” (196). The same image, however, is susceptible to a different emphasis. Othello’s marriage to Desdemona (and the merger-principle) was the initiatory act; here we see the counter-action, a symbolic inversion of the marriage ceremony — “I am your own forever,” as Iago says (III.iii.480). From this point on, Othello is wedded to the principle of division. This might seem paradoxical — a merger with division — but even here, we see Iago’s motivation of dissociation from Othello at work. Othello famously smothers Desdemona, and the image of him straddling her in her death-throes is often read as inverting the consummation of the marriage. But it is worth remembering (shifting our attention briefly to the agent-agency ratio) that this suggestion actually comes from Iago, who dissuades Othello from his first proposal: “Do it not with poison,” he says; “strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated” (IV.i.182). What makes this significant is the fact that Iago frequently associates poison with words: he encourages Brabantio, on discovering Desdemona’s elopement with Othello, to “poison his delight, / Proclaim him in the streets” (I.i.72–3), and says of his insinuations, “The Moor already changes with my poison” (III.iii.368). Although the symbolic logic (or as Othello puts it, “the justice”) of smothering Desdemona certainly “pleases” the critic as well as the murderous husband, Iago has his own reasons for not wanting Othello to use poison: because Iago is himself, by his own admission, a poisoner. For Othello to use poison would put them on the same level, a form of identification that would undermine Iago’s self-image.

The reversal results in Othello’s murder of Desdemona, which would translate as division vicariously eliminating its opposite principle. With the representative of merger killed, the play would then conclude with division triumphant; but as a dialectician would expect, opposites are not so easily got rid of, and what is destroyed in the flesh returns in a spiritualized form. So, once the truth of his deception has emerged and Othello has punished himself, he throws himself down beside Desdemona on their marital bed, and the chiasmatic structure of his final words — “I kissed thee ere I killed thee; no way but this, / Killing myself, to die upon a kiss” (V.ii.363–4) — indicate a posthumous reconciliation. Not “till death us do part,” but till death us do bind. It is the posthumous, spiritualized nature of this reconciliation that makes Othello, unlike its comic counterpart Much Ado About Nothing, a tragedy.

But I have myself leapt over the dramatic climax of the final scene, Othello’s suicide. The play has been, I have argued, a shifting of emphasis between the Moor of Venice and the Moor of Venice. The dramatic triumph of Othello’s final speech consists in that, having identified himself primarily as a Moor through images of Oriental otherness — the “base Indian” and the “Arabian trees” — he concludes by identifying himself as both “a malignant and a turban’d Turk” and the upholder of Venetian dignity who “smote him — thus” (V.ii.358–61), as if simultaneously stressing both sides of the equation in the play’s title, the Moor of Venice. Rather than transcending the antitheses and producing a stable equilibrium, however, the strain results in a violent implosion.

* * *

If, as I hope, this agential-scenic reading of Othello is persuasive, it is not yet complete. From Act Two onwards the location shifts to Cyprus, and we see no more of Venice. This poses a problem: why the change of scenery? Specifically, what does this contribute to the play with regard to our chosen theme of identity? Burke has nothing to say on this point: although he describes the second scene in Shakespearean tragedy as metaphorically “analogous to the definite pushing-off from shore,” giving the audience the sense that “the bark had suddenly increased its speed” (176), he never discusses the literal journey to Cyprus and its implications. We may first consider this in relation to Othello as the common, contested ground between the opposing forces represented by Desdemona and Iago. If we bear in mind that there must be a “correlation between the quality of country and the quality of its inhabitants” (Grammar 8), we can see that the tragedy must logically take place somewhere other than Venice, because the setting must be contested just as Othello’s identity is. Cyprus is perfect for this, being a Venetian colony closer to North Africa and the Levant, and so in constant danger of being divided from Venice. The fact that, by the time of the play’s composition, Cyprus had been taken by the Ottoman empire should be taken as foreboding for Othello’s fate (as in another way should its punning association with the funereal cypress). And although the Turkish fleet is wrecked by storm, the threat it represents returns, as with the killing of Desdemona, in a spiritualized, internalized form: in place of the outward war of Christian against heathen, the removal of the Turkish threat leaves the stage clear for the war between merger and division within the Venetian society on the island and within Othello himself.

There is another function performed by the Cypriot setting, which leads us towards the issue of the play’s wider implications. We have focused till now on the paradox of substance in Othello’s nature: his identity as “the Moor of Venice” is substantiated by things external to him, including his marriage to Desdemona, his position with the Senate, and the Venetian culture which underlies those. But shifting the scene to Cyprus suggests that Venice itself is equally embroiled in such paradoxes. “Venice,” here, is not just the Italian city-state on the Adriatic: it is an imperial power, and as such is defined by its possessions; it is also defined by its rivalry with the Ottoman empire. Desdemona and Iago symbolize two sides of Venetian culture: the will to assimilate what is external and other, and the contrasting drive to reject it and define oneself by contrast. It may seem ironic that the expansionary motive is represented by a woman hitherto occupied by “the house affairs” (I.iii.146), while a soldier who has fought “At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds, / Christened and heathen” (I.i.26–7) represents the isolationist motive; but even this can be developed with reference to Burke’s reading. Commenting on Othello’s ‘occupation’ speech, Burke argues that “the audience is here told explicitly what the exclusive possession of Desdemona equals for Othello, with what ‘values’ other than herself she is identified” (195). Despite her domestic history, Desdemona represents for him the expansionary motive, “the plumed troop and the big wars / That make ambition virtue” (III.iii.351–2). Instead of remaining a “moth of peace” (I.iii.254), she metamorphoses into a “fair warrior” (II.i.179) to compete with Iago, the foul one. Othello is, therefore, the victim of the struggle between these two impulses, both of them aspects of Venice as a scenic complex of motivations.

Besides its internal coherence, my agential-scenic reinterpretation of Othello ought also to cohere with “conditions outside the drama” specific to its context of composition. I have argued that the fundamental opposition in Othello is between the principles of merger and division, and more specifically the drives to assimilate of the other or reject it. We need not look far for a circumstantial analogue, requiring only a slight widening of the scenic circumference from Britain’s internal politics (the enclosure acts) to its global position. During the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods, contact with non-Christian and non-European ‘others’ was increasingly common and contradictory. On the one hand, otherness was officially rejected, as in the “Privy Council order in 1596 concerned with ‘the great numbers of Negroes and blackamoors’ in the realm” and “a royal proclamation of 1601 authorizing that ‘those kind of people’ should be ‘sent out of the land’” (Pechter 130–31). Yet at the same time there was “a Moorish retinue representing the king of Barbary at Elizabeth’s court during 1600–1601,” and under her rule “the Turks and the English became partners in the highly profitable enterprise of the ‘Levant trade’; in fact, the English were displacing the Venetians as the chief beneficiaries of this trade” (Pechter 134–35). Edward Pechter’s comparison of English and Venetian trade in the Levant indicates that the Venetian society of Othello is a substitute for England, and the play a means for its English audience to work through the tension between engaging with the Muslim kingdoms of the Mediterranean and establishing their difference. It is the same dynamic made familiar by Edward Said and others: on the one hand, the exotic other is desirable, a source of intrinsic fascination and extrinsic enrichment; on the other, it is despised, perceived as a threatening contaminant. This ambivalence is dramatically split into the Desdemona/​Iago pair, allowing the audience to indulge both aspects: the audience is given a chance to indulge their fascination and revulsion vicariously through Desdemona and Iago respectively; to feel vindicated by the spectacle of Othello as threat, killing Desdemona, as well as his atonement through suicide, and to feel pity for him in his symbolic redemption.

It might appear from the fact that, in the play, Desdemona is characterised as good and Iago as evil that I am imposing modern liberal values upon the play, whereby acceptance of the other is always a virtue. Leaving ethics aside, this is not quite what I have in mind regarding Othello’s “topical” element. I have described Desdemona as the representative of assimilation and noted her frequently militant characterization. This should suggest that the motivation she embodies may actually translate, in the world beyond the play, into conquest; her attraction to the exotic world Othello described to her is of a piece with the incipient British empire, and its legacy of violence and exploitation. (“She might lie by an emperor’s side,” Othello laments at IV.i.179–80, “and command him tasks.”) Though the audience is manoeuvred towards sympathizing with Desdemona’s view of Othello, doing so implies cathartically offloading the moral complications of imperialism onto Iago. For contemporary audiences, this should sound a note of moral caution. Although it is easy to identify Iago with our current mouthpieces of racist discourse — one thinks of Donald Trump’s denigration of “shithole countries,” or the tropes of the anti-immigration pro-Brexit campaign in the UK — one should remember that, as Burke argues, his cathartic function is to represent a part of ourselves we would disown.

* * *

How does this reading of Othello reflect on the Burke/​Ellison relationship? On the one hand, Othello’s position as ‘the Moor of Venice’ is very different from that of Richard Wright or Ralph Ellison, as Burke understood it. Although Othello has experienced slavery, as he tells the Senate, he is not an upwardly-mobile member of a large underclass within Venice: he has not recently climbed free of “a basket of crabs,” as Burke quotes Ellison, that would pull him back down, nor does he appear to “feel as ‘conscience’ the judgment of his own class” (Rhetoric 193); Othello is not personally concerned with the amelioration of black people’s class status. As such, Othello may seem quite inapplicable to the debate with Ellison in which Burke was then haltingly engaged. In Burke’s reading, however, the play does deal with a bone of contention between them: the relation between the universal and the particular, especially with regard to racial inequality. Ellison’s resistance to Burke, voiced in a letter of November 1945 and again after the publication of A Rhetoric of Motives, concerned what he saw as Burke’s “preference for an ethic which is ‘universal’ rather than ‘racial’” (qtd. in Crable 63). As Crable explains, “[f]or Ellison, the problem is not the quest for the universal; rather, the problem lies in the attempt to disguise racial bias behind a “universal” ethic, in seeking to “transcend” racial identity by ignoring race-based privilege” (64). Simply put, Ellison understood as Burke did not that a white American faces no bar to transcending her racial identity, as does a Black American continually defined in terms of their colour (e.g., as a “Negro intellectual”) instead of their humanity. This imbalance ramifies in Burke’s reading of Othello. Burke associates Othello’s blackness with a universal sense of personal ennoblement through love; but this ignores the extent to which Othello is beset by Iago and others specifically as a black man. Just when he appears to have transcended his social position, Iago manipulates him back into defining himself in terms of “clime, complexion and degree.” To state it crudely, it is easier for the white critic to identify himself with “the ‘black man’ in every lover” than for the Black person to identify himself with “every [i.e., the universal] lover” — a race-based privilege Burke appears not to see. All this goes to support Crable’s claim that although “Burke credited Ellison with spurring him toward greater racial sensitivity . . . in 1950 this process had not yet been completed” (77).

* * *

This interpretation is not intended to disprove or displace Burke’s. Its purpose is complementary, insofar as it responds to Burke’s acknowledgment that “[t]his essay is not complete” (201) by demonstrating how much more can be said about Othello when starting from a different pentadic ratio. But the complementary shades into the corrective, in that the very brilliance of Burke’s analysis might tempt us to see it as exhaustive. It would be a pity if Burke’s essay were to limit readers’ sense of the play’s polysemous potential, the illimitable complexity of its structure and responsiveness to circumstances. I hope to have shown that by bring Burke’s techniques to bear on what he overlooks, their flexibility and power may be more amply demonstrated. Furthermore, I hope that this has advanced in a small way the discussion of the racial politics of his work, to which Bryan Crable made such an important contribution, by showing that Burke’s vocabulary gives us the resources to analyze texts in such terms even when Burke himself downplays them. If this essay has achieved that much, it will have done the play, and Burke scholarship, some service.

Works Cited

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

 — . “Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method.” The Hudson Review, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Summer, 1951), pp. 165–203.

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

Crable, Bryan. Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke: At the Roots of the Racial Divide. U of Virginia P, 2012.

@JoyceCarolOates. ““Othello” is a great enough work of dramatic art that, if the racial element were entirely removed, the play would still be a profound accomplishment. That Othello is a “Moor” could be made — almost — irrelevant. (Disagree?)” Twitter 26 Dec. 2017 6:51 a.m., twitter.com/​joycecaroloates/​status/​945668312171798530. Accessed 14 Aug. 2018.

Shakespeare, William. Othello: Authoritative Text, Sources and Contexts, Criticism, edited by Edward Pechter, Norton, 2004.

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Freeing the Lockerbie Bomber: Cultural Constraints on the Construction of Motives

Clarke Rountree, University of Alabama in Huntsville
Simone McGrath, Independent Scholar


Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi, who was convicted as the notorious Lockerbie Bomber, was freed by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill on humanitarian grounds. The justification MacAskill provided in a speech on the release was widely criticized as cover for alternative motives. This essay uses MacAskill's speech as a case study of a failed construction of motives to reveal cultural constraints on the construction of motives. It illustrates the function of what Clarke Rountree has called "specific dimensions" of pentadic relationships (as opposed to "general dimensions") and how that shapes constructions of motives.

On December 21, 1988 Pan Am flight 103 was making its way from London to New York City when it exploded over the small town of Lockerbie, Scotland, just twenty miles north of the English border. Eleven people on the ground died as huge chunks of the jet rained down, along with the bodies of 243 passengers, including 189 Americans and 16 crew members. The cause of the explosion was a bomb that punched a hole in the fuselage and caused the plane to quickly disintegrate.

British authorities worked with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation for three years before identifying two Libyan suspects. Ten more years passed before one of the suspects, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi, was tried and convicted in a special Scottish court. That court had been set up in a neutral country, The Netherlands, by agreement with Libya. The court sentenced Megrahi to serve twenty-seven years in a Scottish prison. But, a few years into his sentence, Megrahi developed terminal prostate cancer. He appealed for release and Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill announced on August 20, 2009 that Megrahi would be freed on compassionate grounds (K. MacAskill). Two hours later, the Libyan emerged from prison and flew to Tripoli where he was greeted by an enthusiastic throng of supporters. On May 20, 2012 he finally succumbed to the disease that had given him a three-month life expectancy (“Lockerbie Bomber”).

American officials, US and British media, and a skeptical public in both countries discounted MacAskill’s explanation for the release. Rumors of secret oil deals, of a botched original investigation of the case, and of outright corruption on the part of government prosecutors cast a cloud over MacAskill’s noble explanation of the decision to release Megrahi. In this sense, MacAskill’s construction of his motives and those of his government in the release failed. This essay examines that failure in order to better understand MacAskill’s discourse, the audiences of this discourse, and cultural constraints on constructions of motives.

Constructing Motives

In A Grammar of Motives, Kenneth Burke explains how people construct motives. He explores the question: “What is involved, when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it?” He explains that constructions of motives answer several questions: What was done? Who did it? When and where was it done? How was it done? Why was it done? These questions reflect the terms of Burke’s dramatistic pentad, respectively: act, agent, scene, agency, and purpose (Grammar xv). Sometimes, Burke suggests, we can add a sixth term, attitude, to answer “In what manner?” the act was done (Grammar 443).

The rhetorical construction of motives takes advantage of the various characterizations one may make of these five or six pentadic/​hexadic terms (i.e., answers to the questions they present), as well as the relationships among them, which shapes an overall understanding of motives. Thus, as David Ling showed in his classic pentadic analysis of Senator Edward Kennedy’s construction of his actions following the accident at Chappaqquiddick, the junior senator from Massachusetts described a dominating scene, featuring a narrow, unlit bridge; cold, rushing water; and his exhaustion from fighting these elements in trying to save his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy constructs that scenic explanation to account for his lengthy delay in reporting the accident that killed Ms. Kopechne (Ling).

Constructions of motives can become quite complex, as the first author has demonstrated in his own work, when such constructions involve multiple acts placed in strategic relationships with one another (Rountree, Judging the Supreme Court and “Instantiating ‘The Law’”). For example, MacAskill’s compassionate release decision is intimately tied to medical judgments about Megrahi’s life expectancy; therefore, constructing the act of diagnosis as objective and accurate was key to MacAskill’s justification for the compassionate release of this “terminal” prisoner.

This analysis demonstrates the complex constructions of MacAskill’s motives by MacAskill himself, as well as by political leaders and the news media. Ultimately, this essay explains why MacAskill’s speech releasing Megrahi was a failure at constructing appropriate motives for release, partly because of his own vacillations in that construction, and partly because the news media and its audiences are cynical about government and the claims of its officials.

Freeing the Lockerbie Bomber

MacAskill’s announcement of the release of the Lockerbie bomber on compassionate grounds is a grammatically complex discourse. First, it involves the construction of more than a dozen distinct acts including the bombing, the prosecution and conviction of Megrahi, legal appeals, actions by the UK and US governments, their officials, and citizens; and numerous actions by MacAskill in deliberating and reaching a final decision in this case. As the first author has noted elsewhere, such multipentadic constructions are often found in judicial opinions which grapple with the facts of a case, enacted law (constitutions, statutes, and regulations), and precedent decisions, as well as the judges’ own acts of decision, which they typically explain (Rountree, Judging the Supreme Court). But, of course, such constructions are found in other discourses as well (Rountree, “When Actions Collide”), as the MacAskill statement illustrates.

MacAskill’s construction of actions also is complex because of the strategic ways in which acts are related to one another. Typically, one set of acts reinforces another set of acts, as when he enumerates various meetings he had with interested parties in deliberating over this decision. Other times, his constructions set acts on a collision course, such as when his recounting of this heinous act of terrorism is directly contrasted with his decision to offer compassion to this convicted terrorist.

The complexity of MacAskill’s discourse required him to interweave multiple acts into a web of inter-pentadic connections to support the decision he reached. At the same time, that complexity provided multiple points of attack, as those who criticized the decision could tinker with this or that pentadic set in an effort to bring down the whole web of “grammatical” support. We will examine each of these various pentadic sets constructed by MacAskill, beginning with the oldest acts involving the bombing, investigation, and prosecution, before turning to MacAskill’s actions in deciding to grant a release to the Lockerbie bomber.

The Guilty Act

In the second paragraph of MacAskill’s speech, he describes the events of December 21, 1988, when “a heinous crime was perpetrated . . . [that] claimed the lives of 270 innocent civilians.” The act was heinous because those “innocent civilians” were “cruelly murdered.” The evil and cruelty of the act was enhanced by the scene within which the murders took place — “four days before Christmas” — and the innocence of the victims, who were “going about their daily lives.” This evil act was undertaken by an evil agent (or agents) with an evil attitude. But MacAskill does not name the evil agent in this initial construction. The effect is to suggest a mysterious villain, like Harry Potter’s “Lord Voldemort,” whose name is not to be spoken lest one invoke an evil spirit or somehow humanize one that should be demonized. Of course this choice of words could simply reflect the fact that the identities of all those involved in the bombing were never discovered, though MacAskill never raises that concern. A view of the entire speech, however, demonstrates that this is a pattern in MacAskill’s speech that creates a sense of “mixed motives” or unresolved constructions of actions. Whether this is strategic or rhetorically clumsy we will consider in the conclusion.

MacAskill next characterizes Megrahi as “[t]he man convicted of those offences in the Scottish courts.” This construction portrays Megrahi as a passive agent (one “convicted”) instead of an active perpetrator of this crime. Yet at the end of the speech, MacAskill makes the Libyan active, charging that “Mr. Al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion.” The passive construction seems to open the door for questioning Megrahi’s guilt, while the closing construction presumes guilt and paints Megrahi with a cruel attitude towards those he victimized.

MacAskill’s stress on the act of conviction moves the action from the bombing to the trial, and may imply that others found guilt where the Scottish minister had not. Rumors of a faulty or corrupt conviction were circulating, but MacAskill rejects them. Turning to the acts of investigation, prosecution, and conviction, he bolsters the agents involved in those acts, asserting:

Let me be quite clear on matters on which I am certain. The Scottish police and prosecution service undertook a detailed and comprehensive investigation with the assistance of the US and other authorities. I pay tribute to them for the exceptional manner in which they operated in dealing with both the aftermath of the atrocity and the complexity of a world-wide investigation. They are to be commended for their tenacity and skill. When Mr Al-Megrahi was brought to justice, it was before a Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands. And I pay tribute to our Judges who presided and acted justly.

Here, the acts of the investigators and prosecutors were thorough, despite the complexity of case. Their “exceptional manner” and “tenacity and skill” reflected the commendable means they employed and attitudes they evinced in the process. The “just” actions of the judges were the result of their evenhanded and fair attitudes and the appropriate means they employed in the act of presiding and reaching a conclusion. Yet, he limits his endorsement of legal process to “matters on which I am certain,” implying that there are other matters on which he is not certain.

After praising authorities, MacAskill returns to a construction that lets others say that Megrahi was guilty: “Mr. Al-Megrahi was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of 270 people. He was given a life sentence and a punishment part of 27 years was fixed. When such an appalling crime is perpetrated it is appropriate that a severe sentence be imposed.” Megrahi again is a passive agent here (“was sentenced”; “was given”). Instead of saying he deserved that sentence, MacAskill describes a justified sentence under generalized conditions, namely, “[w]hen such an appalling crime is committed. . . . [emphasis added]” (see a discussion of generalized actions in Rountree, “Coming to Terms”). He could have said: “Because Al-Megrahi committed such an appalling act, he deserved this punishment.” Instead, he again refused to say himself that Megrahi is guilty. He leaves his audience with a sense of mixed motives.

Perhaps MacAskill’s refusal to stress more emphatically his belief that Megrahi is guilty in the bombing of Pan Am 103 is because of his position as Cabinet Minister for Justice. His position is not equivalent to that of US Attorney General in the United States. He is not involved in prosecutions on behalf of the state; the Lord Advocate handles those. Instead, he oversees criminal law, the police, public safety, liquor licensing, witness protection, and other duties, notably, the prison system (“The Scottish Government”). His role makes the maintenance of an objective stance in such matters of justice more important, as he holds the prosecutorial and judicial departments of the government at arm’s length, taking their determinations as starting points without having to commit himself personally (as, say, a US Attorney General would be committed in US prosecutions). MacAskill would become more personally invested in the next set of acts, where he was confronted with deciding whether the man found guilty in the terrorist bombing deserved to be released from Greenock Prison.

MacAskill Constructs Himself: The Prisoner Transfer Agreement Decision

In discussing his own decision in this case, MacAskill begins by building a wall between two potentially connected acts. He notes that

Al-Megrahi has . . . withdrawn his appeal against both conviction and sentence. As I have said consistently throughout, that is a matter for him and the courts. That was his decision. My decisions are predicated on the fact that he was properly investigated, a lawful conviction passed, and a life sentence imposed.

Again, we have the emphasis on what was done to the passive Megrahi on his road to prison, with an emphasis on propriety, if not clearly on justice. But added is an active Megrahi who makes decisions about his appeals. MacAskill’s emphatic separation of his own deliberations in the request for release and Megrahi’s decisions is notable. “He protesteth too much,” one might conclude, in suggesting that there was no coordination or consideration between Megrahi’s actions and those of the Scottish minister. On the other hand, building a wall between himself and the investigators, prosecutors, and courts in this case is consistent with his refusal (in most places) to say explicitly whether or not he believes Megrahi is guilty, since that is not really his proper concern as minister over the prisons. MacAskill’s earlier tip of the cap to his counterparts in this case skirts the issue of whether the outcome was correct by focusing on the agents, their agencies, and their attitudes. Thus, he provides some support for setting aside concerns over corruption or incompetence in the prosecution of Megrahi, while standing apart in a way that narrowly circumscribes his role as agent to one working in a limited scene (certainly not in that place “between [Megrahi] and the courts”) for limited purposes (deciding on a release request).

MacAskill draws one more distinction between his own act of deciding on the release and the issue of the bombing and how it should be dealt with. Here he does not simply invoke a division of labor between himself and the investigators, prosecutors, and courts, but he makes the issue bigger than himself and even the people involved in bringing the bomber to justice, noting:

This is a global issue, and international in its nature. The questions to be asked and answered [in the Lockerbie bombing] are beyond the jurisdiction of Scots law and the restricted remit of the Scottish Government. If a further inquiry were felt to be appropriate then it should be initiated by those with the required power and authority. The Scottish Government would be happy to fully co-operate in such an inquiry.

This odd statement places any ultimate decision in the Lockerbie bombing case above the pay grade of the Scottish minister charged with making a decision over the release of the only person convicted in the bombing. Although MacAskill will shortly turn to “matters before me that I require to address,” he distinguishes out this larger “issue” that he refuses to elaborate upon. Again, this seems to point to questions unanswered which “further inquiry” would be needed to address, feeding speculation that there are skeletons in the closet of this case. In any event, by MacAskill’s reckoning, this unnamed issue appears to overshadow the smaller question before the Scottish minister. This may serve as a preparation for the disappointing news he is about to deliver, though it does so at the costs of throwing off responsibility to unnamed others and of providing fodder for conspiracy theories.

In distinguishing what he is doing from what the investigators, prosecutors, and courts have done and what unnamed global agents might do, MacAskill limits his own field of action. He need not concern himself with the correctness of the outcome of Megrahi’s case (only the process), nor with larger issues of international justice. Within this confined space (or as Burke would say, a narrowed circumference [Grammar 77–85]), MacAskill embodies the open-minded, thorough, thoughtful decision-maker. He also assigns blame, for the first time, to others whose actions directly touch on his decision-making process.

MacAskill had two questions before him: whether Megrahi should be released to the Libyan government under a Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA) and whether he should be granted a release on compassionate grounds in light of his terminal illness. He notes that the Libyan government applied for a transfer of Megrahi on May 5, 2008. The negotiating agent was not the Scottish government, however, but “the United Kingdom Government.” That government signed a PTA with Libya despite “the Scottish Government’s opposition.” Scottish authorities wanted UK negotiators to exclude anyone involved in the Lockerbie bombing from the provisions of the PTA with Libya, especially since Megrahi was the only Libyan in the Scottish prison system. That exclusion “the UK government failed to secure,” making Megrahi eligible for transfer.

In weighing the decision whether to transfer Megrahi, MacAskill “recognized that a decision on transfer would be of personal significance to those whose lives have been affected . . . [therefore, he] decided to meet with groups and individuals with a relevant interest.” Here MacAskill uses descriptions of each of those acts of reaching out for input to demonstrate his attitude of concern and interest, and the thoroughness of his deliberations. He reports that he spoke to families of victims, to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to US Attorney General Eric Holder, to Libyan Minister Alobidi and his delegation, and even to Megrahi himself.

He evinces compassion by noting his concern for the victims’ families, for whom the subject “is still a source of great pain,” and specifically mentions a meeting with “a lady from Spain whose sister was a member of the cabin crew.” He met with Lockerbie families “whose kinfolk were murdered in their homes,” as well as videoconferencing with US families. In meeting with Libyan officials, he sought “their reasons for applying for transfer” and conveyed “the objections that had been raised to their application.” He met with Megrahi because of a promise made by UK Secretary of State for Justice Jack Straw, who negotiated the PTA and assured Libya that if the prisoner did not submit the PTA himself, he “must be given the opportunity to make representations.” Because of those promises, MacAskill insists, he “was duty bound to receive [Megrahi’s] representations.” MacAskill notes that American officials and victims’ families objected to the transfer because they were assured, before the trial, about the venue for the incarceration of anyone found responsible for the terrorist bombing, an assurance that gave them “comfort . . . over the past ten years.”

When MacAskill reached out to the UK government for feedback, “[t]hey declined to [make representations on the case].” Nevertheless, MacAskill did hear from them that there was no legal barrier to the transfer and that they had made no promises to the Americans on the case. Beyond that, MacAskill reports, “[t]hey have declined to offer a full explanation as to what was discussed [with the Americans] during this time, or to provide any information to substantiate their view,” which the Scottish minister found “highly regrettable.”

The silence of the British was the clincher for MacAskill in his own interpretation of motives in this case, where he concluded:

I therefore do not know what the exact nature of those discussions was, nor what may have been agreed between Governments. However, I am certain of the clear understanding of the American families and the American Government.

Therefore it appears to me that the American families and Government either had an expectation, or were led to believe, that there would be no prisoner transfer and the sentence would be served in Scotland.

Based upon those understandings, MacAskill rejected the request for a transfer of Megrahi under the PTA.

MacAskill’s decision-making here embodies the man who believes one’s word is one’s bond. He is not narrowly legalistic — the fact that a written prisoner transfer agreement allows the transfer is insufficient. Oral promises to the Americans, whose details were recounted for MacAskill in his meetings with families and officials, created a duty to keep them. Going back on one’s word would be a travesty here. And, obviously, MacAskill is dubious about the UK government’s account, given their lack of forthrightness.

MacAskill constructs himself as a paragon of virtue, especially through the contrast with the UK government, which negotiated an agreement for one person, pushed MacAskill to ignore entreaties from the Americans, and stonewalled when he asked for details. The UK government comes across as manipulative and their motives are thrown into question. Little wonder that conspiracy theories about secret deals quickly followed MacAskill’s speech.

MacAskill Constructs Himself: The Compassionate Release Decision

MacAskill next turns to his deliberations over the compassionate release request. In this narrative he is hemmed in by constructions of two different groups of acts: legal and medical. The former provides his means and the latter his ends in granting the request.

First, MacAskill establishes that he has the authority under Scottish law to grant a compassionate release. He notes that “[s]ection three of the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act 1993 gives the Scottish Ministers the power to release prisoners on licence on compassionate grounds.” The requirements for such grants of release are somewhat general, he reports:

The Act requires that Ministers are satisfied that there are compassionate grounds justifying the release of a person serving a sentence of imprisonment. Although the Act does not specify what the grounds for compassionate release are, guidance from the Scottish Prison Service, who assess applications, suggests that it may be considered where a prisoner is suffering from a terminal illness and death is likely to occur soon. There are no fixed time limits but life expectancy of less than three months may be considered an appropriate period. The guidance makes it clear that all prisoners, irrespective of sentence length, are eligible to be considered for compassionate release. That guidance dates from 2005.

Three acts are concisely spliced together in this account of the law which guides MacAskill: the 1993 Act of Parliament, the 2005 act of “guidance” from the Scottish Prison Service, and the generalized act of compassionate release which the parliamentary act and its later clarification describe. Laws always deal with generalized acts inasmuch as they are developed to apply to future situations involving unknown particulars. In this case, the convicted agent eligible for release might include one with a terminal illness nearing its conclusion and that agent may have any number of days or years remaining on his or her sentence. MacAskill efficiently highlights elements of the statute in question so that they potentially fit Megrahi like a glove. It was left for him to establish that, indeed, Megrahi had but a short time to live.

Relying on medical authorities, MacAskill shows that these expert agents have concluded that Megrahi is dying. He develops a timeline that establishes the progression of Megrahi’s illness and his deterioration. He notes that the Libyan “was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer in September 2008.” Following the application for compassionate release, MacAskill notes, “I have been regularly updated as to the progression of his illness.” He references “numerous comprehensive medical reports” from “consultants who have been treating him,” “medical experts,” “the doctors and prison social work staff,” “a range of specialists,” “other specialists and consultants,” and “Scottish Prison Service doctors who have dealt with [Megrahi] prior to, during and following the diagnosis of prostate cancer . . . [and have seen him] during each of these stages. . . .” Their conclusions, MacAskill notes, are that “[i]t is quite clear . . . that he has a terminal illness, and indeed that there has recently been a significant deterioration in his health,” “that his clinical condition has declined significantly.” After undergoing “several different trials of treatment,” the doctors determined that Megrahi’s illness was “’hormone resistant’ — that is resistant to any treatment options of known effectiveness.” His prognosis, therefore, “has moved to the lower end of expectations” to the point that recently “the Director of Health and Care for the Scottish Prison Service indicates that a 3 month prognosis is now a reasonable estimate.”

This construction of a throng of doctors engaged in a series of ongoing tests and treatments over a year’s time conveys a sense of certainty about Megrahi’s prognosis. Expert agents using multiple agencies seeking to diagnose and treat Megrahi implies that MacAskill is working with the best assessment possible. Nevertheless, MacAskill admits that Megrahi “may die sooner [than three months] — he may live longer.” Delegating the medical assessment to medical experts, as he delegated the prosecution and conviction of Megrahi to the legal experts, he insisted: “I can only base my decision on the medical advice I have before me.”

MacAskill draws on one last set of experts to reject an alternative plan for compassionate release, noting:

It has been suggested that Mr Al-Megrahi could be released from prison to reside elsewhere in Scotland. Clear advice from senior police officers is that the security implications of such a move would be severe. I have therefore ruled that out as an option.

MacAskill’s constructions of the acts of others has fairly hemmed in the decision he must make, limiting the reach of what now could constitute reasonable action on his part. The web of grammatical constraints was first fixed with his description of the statute’s requirements, which deserves closer scrutiny of its language at this point: “The Act requires that Ministers are satisfied that there are compassionate grounds justifying the release of a person serving a sentence of imprisonment” (emphasis added). The term grounds is commonly thought of as an agency of argument, whereby one argues a proposition and provides support, or the grounds, for it. However, there is a scenic quality to grounds reflecting its foundational connotations, an image of drawing from or sinking into something substantial, unmovable, earthly. MacAskill’s phrase highlights this scenic element, because in his formulation, either “there are” or “there are not” compassionate grounds. That is, those grounds exist or they do not exist. There is no middle ground, no continuum here, as were we to say, alternatively, “I must give weight to compassionate considerations,” where more or less weight may tip the balance this way or that.

Finding compassionate grounds in this formulation involves going out and looking to see if they exist. That scenic approach comports well with the medical experts to whom MacAskill looks for guidance. Doctors are scientists, looking at bodies, studying the effect of treatments, assessing the growth of cancers, and the like. As Burke has noted, such materialist orientations are scenic (Grammar 128, 131). The doctors’ scenic ground and MacAskill’s compassionate grounds are dovetailed in the Scottish minister’s construction. If death is imminent — a medical/​scientific question — then the requisite compassionate grounds exist. Indeed, MacAskill as decision-maker is moved out of the picture to the extent that compassionate grounds themselves justify the decision to release. Stated grammatically, the scene (grounds/​medical condition) controls the act of choosing to release Megrahi.

Around this scene-act construction are additional terministic moorings that fix the act of release to follow. The scenic requirements are a product of the legal agency that sets compassionate grounds as a standard. “Compassion,” an attitude and purpose, is a direct outgrowth of those scenic grounds. That is, a medical condition, a state of affairs, a unique scene, gives rise to a purpose of offering compassion, and an attitude of pity and sympathetic feeling towards Megrahi and his family. Oddly, agents, who are required elements as vessels of attitudes and purposes, are only implied here. Of course, technically it is the state that is offering compassion here, though MacAskill provides the face of the state. Overall then, the legal agency describes the required scenic grounds, the medical experts establish those scenic grounds, the scene gives birth to a purpose and attitude of compassion, all of which determine MacAskill’s act.

By the time MacAskill announces that Megrahi had “met the criteria [for release],” the die has been cast. Nonetheless, MacAskill reasserts his role as agent of the decision, insisting that “it therefore falls to me to decide whether Mr Al-Megrahi should be released on compassionate grounds.” MacAskill’s embrace of his responsibility in this case, where he reminds us, “a decision has to be made,” belies the fetters he has placed upon his own actions. He does not indicate where in this statute-driven decision he has wiggle room to decide that Megrahi will not be released; he makes no mention of his discretion in this matter. Yet he constructs himself as the final arbiter of this emotionally-charged decision, who is willing to face the disagreement he foresees, “whatever my decision.”

At this point of final consideration, after positioning himself squarely in the seat of what George W. Bush famously called “the decider,” MacAskill turns to reconstruct the actions of others, rather than of himself. One construction invokes the acts, judgments, and values of the Scottish people as a whole; the other constructs an act of God. On the latter, MacAskill assures his audience that ultimate justice has been meted out, regardless of his actions, because “Mr. Al-Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die.” Megrahi’s disease, previously part of the scenic-medical-scientific landscape is here transformed into an agency of divine action for the purpose of ultimate justice. Constructing the Libyan as one already sentenced and irrevocably serving out that sentence diminishes concern over the human-imposed sentence in Greenock as well as the release to come.

The other group of acts constructed by MacAskill at this juncture involves the Scottish people as a whole. He assures his listeners:

Scotland will forever remember the crime that has been perpetrated against our people and those from many other lands. The pain and suffering will remain forever. Some hurt can never heal. Some scars can never fade. Those who have been bereaved cannot be expected to forget, let alone forgive. Their pain runs deep and the wounds remain.

Note MacAskill’s specific focus on the Scottish nation’s memory, which is the storehouse for the victimage and pain of its people, as well as “those from many other lands.” He highlights the public memory of this particular group of agents because it is on their behalf that he will show compassion to Megrahi. Because they remember and they still suffer for all those victimized, the Scottish people are in a position to grant compassion because (1) they were harmed and, thus, are a proper party to offer a reprieve and (2) they understand suffering and, ironically, are thus positioned to identify with the suffering of the dying Libyan and his family.

Of course just because a group of victims could show compassion to their victimizer does not mean they will. But MacAskill explains how the character of the Scottish people makes such a compassionate act appropriate: “In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity. It is viewed as a defining characteristic of Scotland and the Scottish people.” Those defined by their humanity are those who engage in compassionate acts, he avers, through an agent-act logic. It is the Scottish nation that is defined by its humanity, the Scottish people, and, as a Scot himself, MacAskill. Thus, the Justice Minister readies his audience to see his compassionate release of Megrahi as following from the nature of Scots. It also implies the reverse: that engaging in a compassionate release demonstrates the Scottish humanity he touts (through an act-agent logic), while failing to do so detracts from this noble construction.

Scottish humanity is directly contrasted with the inhumanity of “Mr Al-Megrahi [who] did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them.” Here MacAskill must deal with a collision course between two actions: Megrahi’s bombing and the Scottish nation’s compassion.

Grammatically, the two acts are incompatible. On the one hand, there is Megrahi, an evil agent undertaking a horrendous and deadly act with a heartless, cruel attitude towards the hundreds of innocents who perished. Megrahi then becomes the focus of a second act, supported by MacAskill, whereby victimized agents nonetheless maintain their compassionate attitudes to engage in an act of pardon for the very person who made them victims. MacAskill recognizes the leap required here, but insists: “The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live.”

Kenneth Burke told a story explaining what he called the “nevertheless” strategy in the construction of motives. He said:

A conference organizer is standing to introduce a keynote speaker, Walter Jones. He announces: “Now we will hear from Walter Jones.” An audience member jumps up and yells, “Walter Jones is a liar, a fraud, and a windbag.” The introducer responds: “Nevertheless, Walter Jones will speak now.” (Burke, Personal Interview)

Burke’s “nevertheless” principle highlights the fact that grammatical relationships are not deterministic of actions, but only terministic. That is, despite grammatical relationships among the pentadic terms, a particular understanding of a grammatical term is not deterministic of action “in the world,” though it is terministic in shaping our understanding of motives. So, for example, the conference organizer in the example above may let a “liar, fraud, and windbag” speak at his conference, but not without the consequence of others questioning the motives of the organizers (i.e., reassessing “what they are doing and why they are doing it”).

Of course, showing compassion to one who has not shown you compassion is not universally rejected. The grammatical incongruity involved in MacAskill’s appeal to the “nevertheless” strategy here does not reflect a lack of concern for what the first author has called a general dimension of terministic relations, such as the scene-act relationship, whereby a scene is thought to contain an act. Rather, it involves what is a culturally-coded specific dimension that says that compassion should not be shown to those who engage in evil acts (Rountree, “Coming to Terms”). That specific dimension might be thought to be otherwise, given the Christian heritage of the UK and US, whose citizens are key audiences of this discourse. But, there are other cultural factors at work in determining “what properly goes with what” in the construction of motives.

Christian teachings concerning “turning the other cheek” and letting “he who has not sinned cast the first stone” might smooth the grammatical discord in MacAskill’s construction. However, a prevalence of Christian belief in a society has not always tempered the urge to trade “an eye for an eye” in the justice system. Consider the United States after 9/​11. One of the most Christian nations in history, widely regarded for its defense of human rights, quickly devolved to the point where former Vice President Dick Cheney could admit, on national television, that officials in the Bush administration ordered the waterboarding of three terrorist suspects. Waterboarding, an interrogation method that uses simulated drowning to coerce information from suspects, was first used during the Spanish Inquisition and was prosecuted as a form of torture in the United States as early as 1947 (Pincus; Mostrous). But, given the devastation of the terrorist attacks, with thousands dead and a nation in shock, the nation was quick to ignore human rights in the interests of security and revenge. Even as late as 2014, a CNN poll found that while most Americans believed waterboarding is torture, 49% approved of its use (Jaffe). Those results should come as no surprise, even without the 9/​11 attacks, given “tough on crime” positions of both Republicans and Democrats over the past 30 years and fictional media heroes from “Dirty Harry” to 24’s Jack Bauer suggesting that playing tough with criminals is both necessary and useful. The Weekly Standard notes that over 12,000 prisoners died (mostly of natural causes) in US prisons from 2001–2004 — compassionate release has not been our practice (Lindberg).

Although the British are not as supportive of such extreme measures against the worst criminals (see, e.g., Miller and Kull), they do have a “tough on crime” legacy of their own. For example, a decade ago, Prime Minister Tony Blair was trying to “woo middle class voters” with a series of bills that were “tough on crime.” The appeal was needed, despite the fact that crime rates had fallen, because fear of crime had risen (see, e.g., “Blair Gets Tough”). Such changes in attitudes circumscribe both what ministers can safely do in offering compassion to criminals such as Megrahi as well as how their motives will be constructed. In the case of MacAskill’s speech, he was on shaky ground when he followed his appeal to Scottish humanity with the proclamation: “it is my decision that Mr Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi, convicted in 2001 for the Lockerbie bombing, now terminally ill with prostate cancer, be released on compassionate grounds and allowed to return to Libya to die.”

Overall, MacAskill constructs his motives for releasing Megrahi as law-following, grounded in medical/​scientific evidence, compassionate, and comporting with the humanity of the Scottish people. He initially constructs Megrahi as a passive recipient of a conviction for a heinous crime, but ends by emphasizing his lack of compassion. Because MacAskill uses careful language in referencing the findings of the prosecutors and courts, he leaves the impression that he either does not agree with their assessments, or that it is simply beyond the scope of his duties (or perhaps conflicting with them) for him to take a position on the matter. He does not question the professionalism of those involved in the case, even if he does not directly endorse the verdict. He shows sympathy to victims, but berates British officials for failing to fully cooperate. He takes pains to state that he had no influence on Megrahi dropping an appeal, perhaps sensitive to appearances, but he does not discuss the concerns he is trying to alleviate. He demonstrates even-handedness in rejecting the Prisoner Transfer Request, while accepting the Compassionate Release request. The act of release itself, it would seem, satisfied the British in their efforts to secure a release, though his rejection of their means (PTA) seems to create a separation from them.

Next we turn to the construction of MacAskill’s motives by others. Generally, the explanation that the Scottish minister offers of compassionate grounds as the only basis for Megrahi’s release was rejected by commentators. We will argue that public incredulity over his construction of motives as offering compassion to a heartless agent who committed violent atrocities is central to a search for alternative explanations. The “mixed motives” he presented in failing to clearly blame Megrahi for the bombing also opened the door to alternative explanations.

Government Officials Respond

The reaction from government officials on both sides of the Atlantic was swift and overwhelmingly negative. Because 189 of the dead from the Lockerbie bombing were Americans, it is unsurprising that the news of Megrahi’s release was met with criticism from this side of the pond. Surprisingly, the criticism from the Obama administration was terse and measured. President Obama called Megrahi’s release “a mistake” and noted that his administration was “holding further discussions on the matter” (Cowell and Sulzberger). White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs was more formal, but still brief in reporting: “The United States deeply regrets the decision. . . . [W]e continue to believe Megahi should serve out his sentence in Scotland” (Siddique, Milmo, and Carrell ). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had previously “expressed strongly” to MacAskill that the Libyan should not be released (Samuelson). FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, III, who had been the lead investigator in the Lockerbie bombing case, was the most vocal of all. He called MacAskill’s decision “as inexplicable as it is detrimental to the cause of justice” (Burns and Lipton). He admitted, “I have made it a practice not to comment on the actions of other prosecutors . . . ,” but ignored that practice in telling MacAskill, “ . . . I am outraged at your decision, blithely defended on the grounds of ‘compassion’” (Boyle). Overall, such comments did little more than to construct MacAskill’s act as wrong. Mueller’s comments implied a too-casual attitude on MacAskill’s part in “blithely” granting the pardon.

Greater outrage was expressed by US officials not from the release itself so much as the Libyan reaction to it. US Attorney General Eric Holder warned MacAskill two months prior to the decision that “the convicted Lockerbie bomber could not get a hero’s welcome if he were returned home to Libya” because such a return “would be seen as a vindication of al-Megrahi’s innocence . . .” (Macleod). And, indeed, that’s what happened. Cheering mobs greeted Megrahi. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was shown hugging the freed prisoner. The entire scene was broadcast across the world. Robert Gibbs called the scenes in Tripoli “outrageous” and “disgusting,” noting that President Obama condemned the cheering Libyans’ behavior (Burns). New York Senator Chuck Schumer said “the Libyan government has shocked the world with its gross and callous behavior . . . ; the celebration compounded the crime” (Boyle).

This construction actually detracts attention from MacAskill by bringing in new agents — the Libyans, who lack a sense of propriety in celebrating the release of a mass murderer. From the perspective of Libyans, that celebration might have been warranted either because Megrahi was a hero in taking on Westerners in this bold and successful terrorist attack or, more likely, because they thought he was the victim of a frame-up by Western governments who wanted a scapegoat for the attack (see, e.g., Burns and Lipton). This latter perspective would be taken up by some Western commentators in their construction of MacAskill’s motives.

Government officials in the UK with the exception of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, expressed greater outrage at the decision than American officials. British Conservative leader David Cameron said Megrahi’s release was “wrong and the product of some completely nonsensical thinking” (Siddique, Milmo, and Carrell). After he became Prime Minister in 2010, Cameron told American officials during his first visit to Washington DC that Megrahi’s release “was completely and utterly wrong . . . totally fraudulent, morally offensive and, quite possibly, criminal” (“Drill for the Truth”).

Scottish officials were no happier about the decision of their Minister of Justice. The leader of the Scottish Conservative party, Annabel Goldie, proclaimed: “I want to make clear that the decision to release Mr. Megrahi was not done in the name of Scotland” (Underhill). At an emergency session of the Scottish Parliament called by MacAskill in 2009, to which Members of Scottish Parliament were recalled from their summer break, the opposition party claimed MacAskill “had not been speaking for Scotland . . . and the Justice Secretary had brought shame to Scotland” (Maddox). Labour justice spokesman Richard Baker accused MacAskill of having “made up his mind to release Megrahi and then tried to marshal evidence and paperwork to justify it” (Barnes). MacAskill retorted by attacking the UK Government, declaring that they “declined to make representations or provide information” on the case, had “shunned his request for advice on the matter, and withheld information he sought about any understandings with the United States regarding Mr. Megrahi’s imprisonment” (King). MacAskill found support from Alex Salmond in condemning the Prisoner Transfer Agreement brokered by Tony Blair as “ethically wrong” (Carrell).

Missing in this early round of condemnations was Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was silent on the issue. Leaders from the left and right of Brown criticized this silence. Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said that “it was absurd and damaging [for Brown to keep quiet regarding the decision] in the vain hope that someone else will take the flak” (King). Conservative Party politician Liam Fox offered: “When the going gets tough, Gordon Brown disappears” (Kennedy and Croghan). The Guardian summarized numerous critics in suggesting that it was “absurd for Brown to continue to say nothing” five days after the release (Carrell). Secretary of State Jack Straw defended Brown’s silence, claiming that “it would be wrong for a UK minister to offer an opinion on a decision taken in Scotland” (Watt and Carrell). However, he was less generous to MacAskill, noting that unlike the Scottish minister, he had never “visited a prisoner in jail who has applied for compassionate release,” since a written representation would be sufficient (Watt).

Other UK officials took their wrath over the controversy out on the Americans. Lord Fraser the Lockerbie prosecutor, former Lord Advocate, and old friend to FBI Director Mueller throughout the years of the Lockerbie case, responded to Mueller’s criticism of the release. He was “absolutely shocked” at comments from Mueller, because they created a spectacle of “an unelected US police official publicly rebuking a Scottish minister.” He thought the “[t]he intervention of the director of the FBI was totally out of order. . . . It would be the equivalent of the Metropolitan police chief writing to Barack Obama to complain about a decision.” Henry McLeish, former first minister, suggested that Mueller “keep his nose out of Scotland’s affairs” (King).

These US and UK criticisms from officials generally failed to construct MacAskill’s compassionate release in any detailed way beyond saying that it was problematic or unjustified. It led to little speculation as to MacAskill’s “true” motives in the release, though the media were quick to fill the void. Indeed, the in-fighting among parties and between officials on either side of the Atlantic mostly drew attention away from MacAskill’s act and towards the subsequent acts (or omissions of actions) by various officials. However, the heat from the controversy demonstrated in these exchanges would fuel speculation that MacAskill acted with something less than humanitarian motives in his release of Megrahi.

The news media constructed two primary alternative motives for MacAskill, both involving a hidden government conspiracy, as well as several minor constructions. The most popular claimed that the release was part of a secret oil deal the British were trying to finalize with Libya. Or, more generally, this construction emphasized the British interest in good relations with Libya, for economic and other reasons. A second popular construction had MacAskill recognizing that Megrahi’s conviction had been bungled, making the release a means to avoid embarrassing revelations about the investigation and the conviction, particularly if Megrahi appealed the case. We will examine these two major constructions that compete with MacAskill’s own self-construction.

Blood Money

The most frequently cited motive for the release of Megrahi is that the Libyan was a bargaining chip in British efforts to open up Libya to lucrative business deals. It was widely reported that the British sought such deals (particularly for British Petroleum) and that the release of Megrahi was a prerequisite for the Libyans to move forward with those deals.

The construction of British action relating to Megrahi’s release in support of a business deal begins with their efforts to push a prisoner transfer agreement (PTA) that opened the door for Megrahi’s release. As The Guardian reported: “The UK government had ‘failed to exclude’ Scotland from the prisoner transfer agreement despite the fact that the only Libyan in Scottish custody was Megrahi, said MacAskill” (Siddique). That act of omission was taken to reveal a purpose of opening the door to Megrahi’s release. The Daily Telegraph constructed this PTA as a betrayal, because it went “back on a pledge made to the SNP [Scottish National Party] government to keep Megrahi out of a prison transfer agreement with Libya.” The scene within which they did this revealed a larger purpose, the British newspaper added, because the UK ministers “switched their position as Libya used its deal with BP as a bargaining chip” (Barnes). Indeed, BP admitted to pushing for the PTA. The New York Daily News reported: “BP says it pressed for a transfer agreement in general, not specifically relating to Megrahi” (“Drill for the Truth”). The newspaper quoted a Libyan source noting that “[i]t was obvious that we were talking about him [i.e., Megrahi]” (“Drill for the Truth”). The Press Association of Scotland stressed the timing of the PTA announcement:

The Tony Blair agreement [i.e., the PTA] was signed during the then Prime Minister’s global farewell tour. It also coincided with an announcement by oil giant BP that it was returning to Libya after 30 years in an oil and gas exploration deal. (Quinn)

Not only did Tony Blair indicate an interest in freeing Megrahi, his successor did as well. As The Sun reported, “sensational documents [released] showed that [Prime Minister Gordon Brown] did NOT want the mass murderer to die in jail.” Indeed, the newspaper noted, “[t]he PM and Foreign Secretary David Miliband both told the Libyan government they were against Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi perishing from cancer in Greenock Prison” (Nicoll). Thus, the purpose of freeing Megrahi was shown not to be merely an interest of the retiring Tony Blair, but of other top British officials as well, making this a conspiracy of leaders and not merely of parties.

BP was the primary corporate beneficiary of “lucrative oil contracts from the Qaddafi government,” according to the New York Times (Cowell and Sulzberger). News sources named a number of British officials, besides the former and current prime ministers, who lobbied on behalf of the British oil giant. The Economist noted that “three British ministers have visited Libya in the past 15 months (as has Prince Andrew, Britain’s special representative for trade and investment)” (“Counting the Cost”). The New York Times added that “the Duke of York [i.e., Prince Andrew] . . . has made a reputation for promoting British business interests in parts of the world where Britain has played down its human rights agenda as it has sought oil deals and other lucrative contracts” (Burns). The Economist added others to the list as well, such as “Lord Mandelson, the powerful business secretary, [who] had twice this year met Mr. Qaddafi’s son. . . .” The story quoted the British aristocrat as telling Megrahi on his return to Libya: “[I]n all the trade, oil and gas deals which I have supervised, you were there on the table” (“Counting the Cost). The Weekly Standard added another aristocratic voice, “Lord Trefgarne, the head of the Libyan British Business Council, lamenting the slow pace of oil deals, [who] charmingly noted [following Megrahi’s release], ‘Perhaps now, with the final resolution of the Lockerbie affair, as far as the Libyans are concerned, maybe they’ll move a bit more swiftly’” (Lindberg). That swifter movement involved “multibillion-dollar oil contracts,” according to the New York Times, “set[ting] the terms for the ‘deal in the desert’ that sketched a reconciliation between Colonel Qaddafi’s pariah government and the West” (Burns).

The Economist widened the economic interests at stake beyond those involving oil in noting that “[r]etailers such as Marks & Spencer, one of the 150 British firms present in Libya, hope to expand there, and defence and construction contracts beckon” (“Counting the Cost”). The image is one of a convergence of multiple business interests all wanting to smooth over relations with Libya by freeing Megrahi.

The British were not simply motivated by a general interest in establishing the possibility of business deals and by lobbying from BP. The New York Times noted an enticement from Libya, which “awarded Britain a major oil contract, a $900 million deal involving BP, and dangled the prospect of others” (Burns and Lipton). If an economic purpose was plain, so was the means for reaching those ends. Many news sources reported that Qaddafi’s son had made Megrahi part of the negotiations over British trade deals. Both the New York Times and the New York Daily News quoted the Libyan leader’s son, Saif al-Islam insisting that “in all commercial contracts for oil and gas with Britain, Megrahi was always on the negotiating table” (Kennedy and Croghan). The Washington Times used stronger language, urging that “[e]ven before the terrorist landed in Tripoli to the hosannas of the mob, the colonel’s sons were boasting of the deal their daddy made; Daddy himself said the trade would be ‘positively reflected in all areas of co-operation between the two countries’” (Pruden). The Sun emphasized that the trade talks would have been undermined without the release, reporting:

A month earlier the Libyans warned Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell of “catastrophic effects” for relations with Britain if Megrahi died in prison. The note says: “Mr Alobidi confirmed that he had reiterated to Mr Rammell that the death of Mr Megrahi in a Scottish prison would have catastrophic effects for the relationship between Libya and the UK.” (Nicoll)

Overall, the construction urged that securing the PTA and realizing Megrahi’s release were not ends in themselves; instead, those purposes were transformed into agencies of a larger economic purpose sought by the British. Connecting those purposes-qua-agencies into ultimate economic purposes redounded on public interpretations of what Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill was doing in releasing the Libyan. The implication is that MacAskill became an agent of British economic interests.

This construction was plausible enough that it led to some harsh words from American politicians. For example, Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman said that the suggestions of an oil deal were “shocking.” New York Senator Chuck Schumer asked: “Was there a quid pro quo here?” He added: “I don’t know if that’s the truth, but if it is: shame, shame, shame on the British government” (Burns).

The problem with these constructions of an economic motive, obviously, has to do with a missing grammatical link: Why would MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Minister, give a whit about British economic interests? These constructions ignore that little problem, identifying MacAskill with British prime ministers, aristocrats, royalty, and British Petroleum. They presume, without establishing, a connection, with rare exceptions. One New York Times article suggested a connection between MacAskill and the oil deal through the leader of his Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond: “[C]ritics in Scotland suggested that Mr. Salmond, a former oil economist for a Scottish bank, might have seen long-term benefits for Scotland beyond its reputation for compassion” (Burns). The implication is that if MacAskill’s party leader saw benefits for Scotland (rather than simply benefits for the British), then that Scottish economic purpose might have been shared (or foisted upon) MacAskill. But this purpose is tenuous (“might have seen long-term benefits”) and unexplored — we learn nothing of how Scotland might benefit. That mechanism is a black box, as political machinations often are conceived.

The Daily Record in Scotland tried another avenue of oil influence, noting that MacAskill “’took into account’ pleas for Megrahi’s release from the government of Qatar, where the Scottish government have been keen to build trade links” (Gardham). Thus, we have a completely different business deal being raised as crucial, while the huge majority of the news coverage spoke only of British interests. The same article took one more stab, this time through a familial connection, noting that Kenny MacAskill’s brother Allan “worked for oil giants BP — who have signed a major exploration deal with Libya. Allan also worked for Canada-based Talisman Energy, another oil firm who have sought business in Libya” (Gardham). The article admits that Allan MacAskill’s work with BP ended in 1997, but nonetheless seeks to assert Allan’s interests and connect them to his barrister brother.

We will return to the issue of grammatical disconnection in the construction of “oil motives” at the end when considering the competition among accounts of MacAskill’s motives. For now it suffices to note that there was no compelling construction of the release of Megrahi that clearly connected the Scottish minister to British economic interests. Indeed, the sound and fury committed to detailing the economic interests — particularly of the powerful BP and its government defenders — is motivationally rich, but strategically weak in implicating MacAskill as the primary agent of action. He would have to be a pawn, but no one bothered to show convincingly that someone was directing him.

Corruption or Incompetence in the Prosecution and Conviction of Megrahi

A second, though less widely discussed, alternative motive the news media offered for the release of Megrahi paints a picture of a botched or corrupt prosecution and conviction of the Libyan. Doubts concerning the conviction were fueled first by the media’s highlighting of Megrahi’s protestations of his innocence, in spite of his conviction, Libya’s payments to the victims of this convicted Lockerbie bomber’s terrorism, and Megrahi’s dropping of an appeal of his conviction prior to his compassionate release. The New York Daily News noted, “Al-Megrahi has always insisted he is innocent . . .” (Boyle and Kennedy). In four separate articles, the New York Times conveyed Megrahi’s position: “Mr. Megrahi has always maintained his innocence” (Lyall), “Mr. Megrahi insisted one more time on his innocence” (Cowell and Sulzberger), “Mr. Megrahi, meanwhile, at home with his family in Tripoli, continued to insist on his innocence” (Burns), and “ . . . Mr. Megrahi and his supporters have always depicted [his conviction] as a gross miscarriage of justice” (Burns and Lipton). The New York Daily News added Megrahi’s lament: “The remaining days of my life are being lived under the shadow of the wrongness of my conviction” (Boyle and Kennedy). One New York Times story offered this plea from the Libyan: “And I say in the clearest possible terms, which I hope every person in every land will hear: all of this I have had to endure for something that I did not do” (Cowell and Sulzberger). Megrahi’s claim of innocence added a note of sympathy for those he was alleged to have harmed: “To those victims’ relatives who can bear to hear me say this: they continue to have my sincere sympathy for the unimaginable loss that they have suffered” (Cowell and Sulzberger). Obviously, Megrahi’s attitude of sympathy was at odds with MacAskill’s construction of the Libyan as failing to “show his victims any comfort or compassion [in the bombing].” Megrahi also indicated that, despite his release, he would take steps to prove his innocence. John F. Burns of the New York Times reported that “Megrahi told The Times of London on Friday that he would ‘put out evidence’ exonerating himself and that the people of Britain and Scotland would ’be the jury’” (Burns).

Beyond such obviously self-serving statements, other people indicated that Megrahi’s conviction might have been tainted. As Sarah Lyall reported for the New York Times, “many Scots — including influential members of the legal establishment — feel that Mr. Megrahi was unjustly convicted and should never have been imprisoned in the first place.” She quoted Hans Köchler, a United Nations observer assigned to oversee the original trial in the Netherlands, who “called the guilty verdict ‘inconsistent’ and ‘arbitrary’” (Lyall). The Christian Science Monitor noted that the father of one of the Lockerbie bombing victims, Jim Swire, “long had doubts about Megrahi’s involvement and has pushed for an independent inquiry to examine the events surrounding the night of the bombing.” He stated that he was “determined to get at the truth” (Samuelson).The New York Daily News reported that many British relatives of the bombing’s victims “believe that Iran was the real culprit,” and “speculat[ed] that al-Megrahi’s release was engineered to distract from evidence he had been railroaded” (Boyle and Kennedy).

Megrahi’s decision to drop his appeal, which MacAskill had insisted “was his decision,” also fueled speculation of a government conspiracy to frame Megrahi. David Blair of The Daily Telegraph asked: “[W]hy did the Libyan suddenly drop his appeal last Friday? Why did his lawyers then go to court and win judicial approval for this decision on Tuesday?” (Blair). This action was odd because, Blair notes, “[i]f . . . illness was the only factor in Mr MacAskill’s mind, these moves would have been unnecessary. . . . Once back in his homeland, Megrahi could have sought to clear his name by persisting with his appeal” (Blair). Angus Macleod of The Times (of London) quoted a former British ambassador to Tripoli stating that there was “something fishy” in this coincidence of the dropped appeal and the compassionate release and inferring that “some kind of deal” had been made (Macleod). Carrell and Watt of The Guardian also emphasized the timing, noting that “[o]n 14 August, two days after it emerged that the Libyans had been secretly told that Megrahi would be released, Megrahi suddenly said he would drop his appeal” (Caroll and Watt). John Pilger of the left-of-center British magazine, The New Statesmen, was more explicit in drawing conclusions from this coincidence, asserting that the Libyan was “in effect blackmailed” to drop the appeal, before he could bring “some 600 pages of new and deliberately suppressed evidence [that] would have set the seal on his innocence and given us more than a glimpse of how and why he was stitched up for the benefit of ‘strategic interests’” (Pilger). The reporter even connected those interests to the Scottish government (rather than simply to the British, as the blood-for-oil theories had done) in giving voice to the ambassador’s belief “that there was growing anxiety in the Scottish justice department that a successful appeal would severely damage the reputation of the Scottish justice system” (Pilger, qtg. Oliver Miles). Pilger highlights this purpose even as he rejects the blood-for-oil claims, citing a BBC source insisting: “I don’t think there was a deal involving business. I think on that ministers are telling the truth” (Pilger). Such qualification by the left-wing writer — that they were lying about this, but not about that — gave him a sense of evenhandedness.

Although there were hints of problems in the prosecution and conviction of Megrahi, few mainstream media sources offered any elaboration of those problems. Doing so would not have been hard. For years, Professor Hans Köchler had been decrying the original conviction. Köchler had been nominated by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, with four other people, to observe the original trial. A first-hand report of his concerns over the trial was published in 2001 (Köchler, “Report on”). Köchler also weighed in on an appeal of the case and issued several statements to the international press expressing concern over the correctness of the verdict (Köchler, “Report on,” “Scots Complicit,” “I Saw the Trial”; “UN Monitor”; Macaskill). Köchler’s lone voice was joined more recently by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, which had enough doubts about the conviction to approve his case for appeal.

Despite these concerns, only left-of-center, small-circulation periodicals bothered to detail the unjust conviction/​government conspiracy construction of the case. Pilger of the New Statesman, was a rare source in quoting the Commission’s finding: “based upon our lengthy investigations, the new evidence we have found and other evidence which was not before the trial court, that the applicant may have suffered a miscarriage of justice” (qtg. Commission Chairman Graham Forbes). Two years earlier, on June 28, 2007, the more mainstream Sunday Times of London had quoted the Commission’s concerns over a possible “miscarriage of justice,” though it did not revisit those concerns when it offered a 2009 construction of Megrahi; rather, it editorialized that MacAskill’s decision to release Megrahi was “the wrong decision” (“Return Flight”). Instead of considering the possibility that the verdict was wrong, it castigated MacAskill for the way he discussed Megrahi’s guilt in his speech of compassionate release, complaining that the Scottish Justice Minister seemed to “intend at least to leave a whisper of suspicion about the safety of al-Megrahi’s conviction [from appeal]” (“Return Flight”).

Pilger recounted problems with the case that were well-known in 2009. Two of those problems involved questionable witnesses. The bomb was alleged to have exploded in a suitcase that contained suits purchased from a Maltese shopowner. Although the shopowner testified against Megrahi as the purchaser of the clothes, Pilger notes, he “gave a false description of him in 19 separate statements and even failed to recognize him in the courtroom.” A “secret key witness” testified that he saw Megrahi and his co-conspirator, al-Alim Khalifa Fahimah, load the bomb on a plane in Frankfurt. But Fahimah was acquitted of the charges, while Megrahi was convicted. Furthermore, the secret witness “was bribed by the US authorities holding him as a ‘protected witness’ [whom] [t]he defence exposed . . . as a CIA informer who stood to collect, on the Libyans’ conviction, up to $4m as a reward” (Pilger). There also were problems with material evidence. A key piece of evidence was a circuit board that was used for the bomb’s timer. But, Pilger notes that “[a] forensic scientist found no trace of an explosion on it,” making it likely that the board “was probably a plant.”

Pilger’s construction paints a picture of likely corruption, forcing him to construct another act: that of the international court. For if the evidence was flimsy and the witnesses unbelievable, then why would Megrahi have been found guilty? Pilger has to construct them as corrupt agents as well, offering:

Megrahi was convicted by three Scottish judges sitting in a courtroom in “neutral” Holland. There was no jury. One of the few reporters to sit through the long and often farcical proceedings was the late Paul Foot, whose landmark investigation in Private Eye exposed it as a cacophony of blunders, deceptions and lies: a whitewash. The Scottish judges, while admitting a “mass of conflicting evidence” and rejecting the fantasies of the CIA informer, found Megrahi guilty on hearsay and unproven circumstance. Their 90-page “opinion,” wrote Foot, “is a remarkable document that claims an honoured place in the history of British miscarriages of justice.” (Pilger)

Here Pilger relies on his own witness, Foot, and an insinuation that the jury-less courtroom was run poorly and corruptly by “Scottish” judges who were not “neutral.” His strongest support is the quotation of the opinion that admits a “mass of conflicting evidence” faced the judges who nonetheless found Megrahi guilty, while freeing his alleged accomplice.

Still missing is a purpose for framing the Libyan. Drawing again on Foot, Pilger offers one:

[Foot] named Margaret Thatcher the “architect” of the cover-up after revealing that she killed the independent inquiry her transport secretary Cecil Parkinson had promised the Lockerbie families; and in a phone call to President George Bush Sr on 11 January 1990, she agreed to “low-key” the disaster after their intelligence services had reported “beyond doubt” that the Lockerbie bomb had been placed by a Palestinian group, contracted by Tehran, as a reprisal for the shooting down of an Iranian airliner by a US warship in Iranian territorial waters. Among the 290 dead were 66 children. In 1990, the ship’s captain was awarded the Legion of Merit by Bush Sr “for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as commanding officer.”

Pilger’s account only goes so far as to purpose, suggesting pressure from 10 Downing Street was the result of a promise to a US president. He does not connect the dots, however. What was Bush’s purpose in protecting Iran? The US had fallen out with Iran since the hostage crisis after the fall of the Shah in 1979. The US had backed Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran. And it would be seven months before Iraq invaded Kuwait and turned its former ally into an enemy in the Persian Gulf Conflict. And why would even an ally as strong as Margaret Thatcher take the political heat and support a miscarriage of justice simply as a favor to a US president in a case involving such a heated public issue?

Although the scene-act ratio concerning the timing of the dropped appeal by Megrahi is compelling, establishing the government’s purpose for pushing Megrahi to drop the appeal is more difficult. The problem is the same one faced by those who see a conspiracy involving the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the attacks of 9/​11 (as US government sanctioned) — too many agents have to be implicated in the conspiracy. In the Megrahi case, not only would Scottish, British, and American investigators and officials have had to participate in a cover-up, but Scottish judges and as well. Such thoroughgoing corruption is difficult to sustain in constructions of motives in the absence of insider leaks or smoking-gun documents, except among the most paranoid of audiences.


One might conclude that MacAskill did a poor job of explaining his motives in the release of Megrahi, given the widely-reported conspiracy theories about the release. On the other hand, perhaps the American and British publics that read about the release and its motives themselves were already skeptical, in general, of the government, government officials, and official explanations. In grammatical terms, they had trouble buying connections between the elements of the act of compassionate release, finding more conspiratorial constructions more convincing.

As we noted above, the first author previously drew a distinction between two dimensions of terministic relationships among pentadic terms that is relevant here. He contrasted general dimensions with specific dimensions of those relationships. Of the former, he argued: “General dimensions are described and amply illustrated by Burke in his Grammar of Motives: The scene ‘contains’ the act; means (agencies) are adapted to ends (purposes); agents are the ‘authors’ of their actions; and so forth” (Rountree, “Coming to Terms”). In a recent essay he went further in claiming that such general dimensions are universal, noting that it is “a social and historical fact that humans have made, and continue to make, distinctions that allow them to answer Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why [concerning actions]; and, indeed, that this perspective plays a central role in allowing us to become what is recognizably human (for better or worse). . . .” Accepting that, he urged, puts us “on the road to accepting the universality of the grammar of motives” (Rountree, “Revisiting the Controversy”).

Specific dimensions of terministic relationships get at differences in various discourse communities’ understanding of motives. Thus, while all human societies distinguish various acts, agents, agencies, purposes, scenes, and attitudes, and all human societies understand that scenes are containers of acts, that means must be adapted to ends, that certain agents tend to engage in certain kinds of actions, and so forth, they may differ in their understanding of, say, what kind of agent engages in a particular type of act.

Thus, one reason why MacAskill’s “compassionate release” explanation was so widely rejected rests upon the specific dimensions of our twenty-first century grammar of motives. Obviously, the “tough-on-crime” attitudes embodied in American and British policies and political discourses have sunk into the public psyche and into our cultural grammars of motives, making it unthinkable that one who has been convicted of killing so many — particularly through means employed by terrorists — should be given compassion. Or, put more simply, we tend to believe that government agents responsible for dealing with criminals don’t do this sort of thing. Furthermore, we, as a people, don’t show mercy to our enemies. We aren’t the kind of agents who engage in this kind of act. Certainly many Americans call themselves Christians, but many seem more comfortable thinking of themselves as Christian soldiers (as in the classic 19th century English hymn, Onward, Christian Soldiers), fighting more than forgiving enemies they see as evil.

Perhaps MacAskill is correct in insisting that Scots are different on this score. Given their long history of persecution by the British, perhaps their cultural grammar of motives includes a recognition of the value of compassion and the propriety of their leaders showing it. But the judgment of whether MacAskill’s decision was based upon compassion is never made in a vacuum. It is not compassion or not compassion; instead it is compassion or something else. Because we recognize (1) that people may lie, mislead, or slant their positions and (2) that alternative motives always exist for any given action, the compassion that was offered as central must stand against other possibilities. We don’t always take people at their word. That is why competing constructions become so important in our understanding of motives. Nonetheless, the fundamental strength of one’s claim, in a given cultural context, that “I released this prisoner on compassionate grounds,” will determine how it plays in that competition with other motives.

Admittedly, MacAskill’s speech opened the door to competing constructions, somewhat undermining his own construction of motives. As this analysis has demonstrated, his failure to clearly convey his belief in Megrahi’s guilt — even if it was the ethical product of his arm’s length stance as Justice Minister — led commentators to consider the possibility that the original conviction was flawed, notwithstanding his endorsement of the prosecutors’ professionalism and of the court’s authority. MacAskill’s complaints about British pressure and lack of forthrightness regarding the prisoner transfer agreement made audiences wonder about British motives. The British Petroleum interests at stake provided an easy fit for explaining the attitude coming from Scotland’s “big brother.” And, of course, Megrahi’s refusal to die in a timely manner following his release provided fodder for ongoing speculation about MacAskill’s honesty in explaining how the fatal medical verdict was reached.

These alternative explanations raised the specter of a government conspiracy — either to cover up a botched investigation or to curry favor with Libya for economic reasons. An audience’s willingness to embrace such conspiracy theories also depends upon a particular cultural grammar of motives, one that says: “My government/​another’s government (agent) is likely to engage in an elaborate public deception (act) for ulterior motives (purpose).” Sadly, such assumptions are widespread in the United States, as evidenced by the persistent belief by many that Lee Harvey Oswald was framed for killing John F. Kennedy (Saad) or, more recently, that the government allowed or was behind the attacks of 9–11 (e.g., Mikkelson). Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair, the undiscovered “weapons of mass destruction” that were used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and other evidences of government conspiracies have fed our belief that this agent cannot be trusted, lending credence to alternative explanations for MacAskill’s release of Megrahi. And, though the British do not have a history of conspiracy theories against their government, they do tend to be as sensitive to economic double-dealing as any advanced capitalist country.

The force of such cultural grammars of motives can overshadow critical thought about motives. As we demonstrated above, no clear connection was made between British economic interests (exemplified in the BP deal) and the Scottish minister whose country and party would not directly benefit by serving this interest. Although MacAskill might be protecting the Scottish justice system from an embarrassing overruling of its prosecution, the blame that was laid by conspiracy theorists seemed to fall on the Americans (particularly the CIA) and not the Scots, and the breadth of the conspiracy had to be so broad as to strain credulity.

If MacAskill’s rhetorical goal was to ensure acceptance of his “compassionate grounds” explanation of his decision, then he failed, partly because of poor rhetorical choices, especially in showing less certainty about Megrahi’s guilt and complaining about the British influence. On the other hand, if his goal included other purposes, such as spurring government investigators and/​or those who watch the investigators to dig more deeply into the Lockerbie tragedy, perhaps he was savvy, but faced a rhetorical situation where he had to sacrifice some of his standing to support these goals (on this “status-actus” relationship see Rountree, “The President as God”). There is no critical method that finally can determine what his actual goals were, so these two assessments must stand together as our judgment on MacAskill.

As communication scholars from Ernest Wrage to Michael Calvin McGee have pointed out, rhetorical criticism can reveal the values of a society at a given point in time, whether they involve the leading ideas of the day or the ideographs central to a polity’s value system. As Wrage explained: “Ideas attain history in process, which includes transmission. The reach of an idea, its viability within a setting of time and place, and its modifications are expressed in a vast quantity of documentary sources [including] . . . lectures, sermons, and speeches” (Wrage 452). McGee looked to discourse to reveal prevailing ideographs deployed by rhetors, which are links between rhetoric and ideology that describe and explain the dominant ideology of a people.

In a similar vein, examining public discourse such as in the Lockerbie bomber release case can tell us something about a public’s understanding of what are to count as credible motives and what are to be rejected. That is, it can reveal the specific dimensions of a culture’s grammar of motives at a particular place and time.

Rhetorical scholars deploying the pentad to study constructions of motives should add to their critical goals a concern for revealing the cultural grammars of motives at play in rhetorical exchanges. They must go to places where rhetoric confronts an audience, consider that audience’s weighing of various constructions (such as we do in our canvassing of the news media), and offer insight into “what goes with what” in a culture’s understanding of motives. That will help us contribute to Wrage’s goal of discovering “[t]he reach of an idea, its viability within a setting of time and place . . .” (452), and better understand ourselves, as we unpack rhetorical artifacts.

Methodologically, this essay demonstrates that pentadic analyses may be enriched by venturing beyond the singular pentad which has been the focus of most pentadic criticism, to consider how rhetors strategically construct various acts and then weave them together to reinforce particular constructions or, as in this case, to leave us with a sense of mixed motives. Multipentadic analyses also may benefit from considering competing constructions of the same acts, to better understand the contested ground and the culture that gives rise to them.

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Review: "Rhetoric and Ethics in the Cybernetic Age: The Transhuman Condition" by Jeff Pruchnic. Reviewed by Lauren Terbrock-Elmestad

Cover of Rhetoric and Ethics in the Cybernetic Age

Pruchnic, Jeff. Rhetoric and Ethics in the Cybernetic Age: The Transhuman Condition. New
York, Routledge, 2014. 206 pp. $46.95 (paperback); $155.00 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Lauren Terbrock-Elmestad, Saint Louis University

To what extent can videogames be held responsible for human deaths? What are the implications of paying vulnerable populations, such as the homeless, to create Internet material? What does it mean for chatroom users to communicate with a nonhuman entity, such as Burkebot — a language-recognition program that uses a stock of Kenneth Burke quotations? These are some of the questions investigated in the five chapters of Jeff Pruchnic’s book, Rhetoric and Ethics in the Cybernetic Age: The Transhuman Condition. The first two chapters introduce his tasks at hand: one, Pruchnic delineates the historical separation between Platonic philosophy and sophistic rhetoric to aid in his larger goal of bringing logos and techne together to rethink contemporary issues of technology and communication; two, he advocates for transhumanism as the best philosophical framework for achieving the former. Pruchnic relies heavily on Julian Huxley’s definition of transhumanism, which claims that understanding and replicating the processes of the natural world would “lead to a much greater cross-coupling of, or growing indiscernibility between, the natural and the artificial as conceptual categories” (10). The last three chapters utilize and expand Huxley’s definition of transhumanism in particular “cases” of what he suggests as indicative of the contemporary moment we are in. These final three chapters, which utilize theories of Burke, Deleuze, and Nietzsche, among many others, move toward rhetorical ecology as an approach for rethinking current ethical dilemmas of technology and communication, particularly as the human body is implicated in cybernetic loops that inform power distribution and knowledge production. In short, Pruchnic’s overarching claim of the book contends that new technology does not entail dehumanization and homogenization, as critiques of our contemporary moment claim; instead, current technology and communicative modes confirm an intensification of the human in processes of politics, economy, and culture.

Because this review is for the KB Journal, it seems appropriate that I focus on the ways Pruchnic directly engages with Kenneth Burke. Interestingly, the only direct link to Burke is about halfway through the book in the third chapter (the first of his “cases”): “Rhetoric in the Age of Intelligent Machines: Burke on Affect and Persuasion After Cybernetics” (100–19), wherein Pruchnic draws on Burke’s earlier works Counter-Statement and Permanence and Change. Although this is ostensibly the only chapter “about Burke,” Pruchnic’s book appears to fold into itself, making it possible to review it through the lens of Burke. In other words, the ways Pruchnic engages with Burke could be read as the ways Burke folds into the overarching topics of the book — rhetoric, ethics, cybernetics, and transhumanism (if one is to take the title literally) — and vice versa.

Folding is, as Pruchnic points out, a common trope in Burke’s work. So, to think about Burke’s earliest writings on rhetoric and aesthetics folding into the book fits Pruchnic’s goal “to thematize persuasion ‘after cybernetics’ — the ways in which computing technologies and new media have changed the bases of public persuasion” (102). This is a somewhat difficult task to accomplish with Burke considering the fact that Burke was opposed to “the becoming-machine of humans (and vice versa)” (Pruchnic 100) as well as the early cybernetic movement emerging contemporaneously with Burke’s career. However, Pruchnic makes it clear that his attempt to engage Burke with cybernetics is twofold. One, Pruchnic wants readers to rethink Burke’s earliest writings not as undeveloped thoughts on their way to becoming more mature works later on. Instead, Pruchnic sets out to convince readers that Counter-Statement and Permanence and Change are the criticalfoundations for how Burke will continuously investigate many of his recurring topics of human perception and response, or the ways Burke establishes “the crucial site of persuasion . . . neither as the unconscious or false consciousness, but the corporeal” (106). Two, and as a result of one, Pruchnic wants readers to rethink cybernetics, particularly early cybernetics, also as embodied. Challenging claims that cybernetics’ primary “impulse” is “toward disembodiment and the creation of artificial intelligence,” Pruchnic contends that the movement “might aid in transforming human perception and response,” much like Burke’s own sites of inquiry (105).

The thread holding these two goals together for Pruchnic is affect, particularly the role of affect in human perception and response. Burke views affect as one of the determining characteristics of humans as opposed to animals or machines. It is the affective capacities between human bodies that ensure and propagate persuasion as human. While some readings of cybernetics would pit embodiment and artificial intelligence against each other (as noted above), Pruchnic claims that human affect is central to new technology and media’s greater influence in political, economic, and cultural persuasion. Or, human affect becomes indiscernible from artificial processes of communication. Transhumanism, then, brings humanism into question as a pervasive ethical framework and becomes a conduit for rethinking current issues. In other words, the techniques of the human not only enhances but is also enhanced by contemporary technology and communication.

In the first chapter, “The Transhuman Condition,” Pruchnic lays out two shifts in contemporary culture that he sees as defining, of course, the transhuman condition. One is the conception of modernity as associated with constant transition, yet putting the body at stake like never before. The body is used in new ways, which “extends” cultural change “beyond social or experiential factors into more explicitly material and biological realms” (21). For Pruchnic, the rhetorical and ethical implications of this extension is most notable in something like neuromarketing, which he discusses later in the first chapter. Imaging technology, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fRMI) and Electroencephalography (EEG), allows one to see how marketing techniques work beneath the cognitive level, making it easier to target audiences. This brings the embodied — the neurological and biological happenings — to bear on how new technology impacts communication, which is a move away from simply intellectual modes of persuasion. With this in mind, though, readers must remember the second shift that Pruchnic situates as characteristic of the transhuman condition: while contemporary technological and material processes have changed capitalist production, science, politics, and marketing — via microtargeting, to be specific — it has become easier for institutions of social power to take advantage of these new “targets and resources” (22).

Pruchnic makes sure to point out the ethical dangers of this expansion and redistribution, but he encourages readers to see this as ultimately positive. For example, microtargeting possible through contemporary techniques and media creates new networks that become simultaneously more specific, more explicitly collaborative, and more embodied. In chapter two, “The Age of the World Program: The Convergence of Technics and Media,” he challenges Heidegger’s critiques of technology, most notably that “technology produces . . . an ‘unconditional uniformity’ of humankind” (66) and the “essence” of technology as a “compensatory mechanism” to fill a metaphysical void (63). To dispel these Heideggerian myths throughout chapter two, Pruchnic rethinks the Turing Test “not as an epistemological endeavor but as a rhetorical ecology” (84). This means that Pruchnic reads the Turing Test not as a task of determining what is human and what is machine, but rather as a process by which both human and machine engage and perform in complex ways. Or, new modes of persuasion emerge through the capacities of both human and machine to confront assumptions and values previously held as common knowledge.

One way to sum up rhetoric’s investment in that process is Pruchnic’s emphasis on rhetoric as concerned with “a spectrum of directly motivational or persuasive forces” rather than “representation, epistemology, or ideology” (17). Pruchnic’s engagement with Burke becomes apparent through Burke’s concept of Metabiology, an ecological approach to understanding “human actions and thought processes as networked” (Pruchnic 112). Burke is always concerned more with the pragmatic rather than the epistemic. This is most noticeable in his “scope and reduction” strategy (e.g., Four Master Tropes or Five Elements of Dramatism) (Pruchnic 104), as well as his inquiries into how effects are produced and what they do, rather than what effects are or what they should be. At its core, Burke’s Metabiology is such a pragmatic endeavor, as well as a rhetorical ecology. Moreover, Pruchnic makes direct connections between Burke’s Metabiology and cybernetics, particularly through theorizations of feedback, equilibrium, and homeostasis. The interdependence of the human and the material creates phenomena that can no longer be separated by qualitative distinctions, but rather emerge through dynamic processes of cooperation and communication (112). So, while Heidegger’s critique of technology would argue that “our connections to ‘reality’ and each other are increasingly mediated through impersonal and informatic exchanges of various types” (Pruchnic 63), Pruchnic suggests that Burke’s concept of Metabiology opens up new (ecological) ways to rethink affect and agency through phenomena produced through human and machine together.

Rather than a convergence (or separation) of distinct entities, Burke’s Metabiology emphasizes an emergence of body and environment. Pruchnic contends this aspect allows room for rethinking the rhetorical strategies that might be most helpful in intervening in the contemporary forces of social control. In the fourth chapter, “Any Number Can Play: Burroughs, Deleuze, and the Limits of Control,” Pruchnic focuses on the matter of intervention, particularly as he does not envision interventions of contemporary culture as radical reorganizations or total inversions. Instead, as he points out in chapter one, he wants to “figure out how these same techniques already immensely immanent” in contemporary power structures can be reworked and improved to better understand issues of inequality and control (38). In a sense, he wants to unfold and refold current techniques of power and control. In chapter four, then, Pruchnic introduces doxa as a useful term in this folding. He points to doxa (“opinion” or “common belief”) as an unaccounted for concept in the making and remaking of knowledge. As a contrast to episteme (“true knowledge”), he argues that doxa is often left out as a contributing factor in contemporary power and control. In other words, doxa emerges in much the same way as episteme, but is somehow dismissed as passive. For Pruchnic, taking any knowledge for granted, especially common opinion, puts theory’s relevance at stake. Rather than relying on critique, or relying on a concept of returning to some previous state of naturalness, theory should come to terms with its own persuasiveness as a result of taking both doxa and episteme for granted. To do so means “not a resistance to or renunciation of the forces in which one is immersed” (142), but a rethinking of how complacency within current systems of power and technology can be redirected in new ethical frameworks.

The fifth and final chapter of the book, “On the Genealogy of Morals; or, Commodifying Ethics,” deals more directly with the question of ethics, particularly as they are defined in Platonic, rather than sophistic terms. This final chapter, then, attempts to bring logos and techne together at last. He “take[s] up a technological and rhetorical ecology” that “might offer productive strategies for responding to the ethical and political challenges of the present moment” (147), which he suggests are useful for the refolding he proposes in chapter four. Again, the distinction between Platonic philosophy and sophistic rhetoric comes into play; Pruchnic highlights the transhuman body not as separated from but as simultaneously informed by and informing current technological modes of communication. The techniques of contemporary culture in the face of new technology provide affordances for rethinking the ethical implications of distinguishing between “truth” and “persuasion.” Ethics, as they are inextricably linked to our rhetorical modes of persuasion (and thus technologically), are then the commonplaces for contemporary culture, as well as the toolbox by which conventional knowledge emerges and circulates.

Although Pruchnic’s book theorizes the ways rhetoric can be useful in rethinking ethics in our current moment of technology and communication, he never fully articulates how this can be done. This might suggest, then, that the work of redirecting and improving the networks in which we operate is still thetask at hand. With that in mind, Pruchnic’s book reads less as a method for intervening in issues (and uses) of technology today and more like the historical account that will help us — primarily rhetorical scholars — understand how deep dualistic traditions have done us a great disservice and, moving forward, aid in our reimagining of human and machine in productive cybernetic loops.

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