Volume 3, Issue 1, Fall 2006

The Fall 2006 issue of KB Journal features new articles by Keith Gibson ("Burke, Frazer, and Ritual: Attitudes Toward Attitudes"), Robert S. Littlefield, Timothy L. Sellnow, and Matthew I. Attanse ("Mysticism and Crisis Communication"), and Timothy Crusius ( "The Question of Kenneth Burke's Ethics"). James W. Chesebro remembers Bernard L. Brock, and Mark Wright remembers Leland Griffin. David Blakesley begins a new "book gallery" that alerts readers to newly published books by Burke ("Burke's New Boiks: Get 'em While They're Hot and Before They're Not . . ."), and we feature Julie Whitaker's preface to Late Poems, 1968-1993 by Kenneth Burke, along with three previously unpublished Burke poems. In our Happenings section, Michael Burke describes his art project at Andover. We also announce a "Call for Participants in a New Conversation."

Issue 3.1 also features reviews of Late Poems, 1968-1993, by Kenneth Burke [Miriam Clark], Rhetoric: A User's Guide, by John D. Ramage [Brad E. Lucas], “Plymouth Rock Landed on Us: Malcolm X’s Whiteness Theory as a Basis for Alternative Literacy,” by Keith D. Miller [Paul Lynch], “Rhetoric, Cybernetics, and the Work of the Body in Burke’s Body of Work," by Jeff Pruchnic [Drew M. Loewe]

Burke, Frazer, and Ritual: Attitudes Toward Attitudes

Keith Gibson, Auburn University

Abstract: Attitudes Toward History has long been one of Burke’s most difficult texts to understand. In this essay, I argue that a return to the literary context in which Burke wrote ATH, specifically a revisiting of James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, will help us see how ATH fits into Burke’s body of work, as well as the literary landscape of the time. It will also help us better comprehend the specific role of ritual in the text, a role that may have larger implications for much of Burke’s scholarship.

FOR THE PLACE William Rueckert claims “Burke’s true genius is first evident” (“Rereading,” 244) and the work Thomas Farrell calls “Burke’s first serious foray into the dense thickets of ideology” (40), Attitudes Toward History has received relatively light treatment. Russ Wolin notes that “the book remains largely neglected. References to it outside of a handful of scholars in English and communication studies is slim indeed, and those scholars who do use Attitudes tend to use it piecemeal for their ends1 instead of his” (91). This is perhaps because many readers view ATH as Henry Bamford Parkes, an early reviewer, did: with “a resemblance to a tropical jungle; its fertility is undeniably impressive, but it is difficult to decide how much of it has value” (109-110).

It may be comforting, in the sense that misery loves company, for the 21st century reader to find that Burke’s contemporaries struggled with ATH as well. In a postscript to Sidney Hook’s 1937 review of ATH, Rueckert points out that even at the time of its publication, many readers did not read the book as Burke intended:

I once read a copy of ATH, for example, in which all of Burke’s factual and other kinds of ‘errors’ were carefully noted and corrected in the margin and accompanied by a steadily increasing number of exclamation points and a kind of rising hysteria. It was a compulsive job of negative documentation which filled the margins in a fine hand page after page. But, surely, that careful person missed some essential point about the book and Burke: it was not a historian he was reading, but a visionary, a myth maker and system builder. (Critical, 96-97)

And though we may share some of the difficulties of Burke’s 1930s readers—trying to peer through Parkes’s “tropical jungle,” for instance—we have at least one more that they didn’t: a lack of context.

That’s probably not quite right, though; indeed, ATH seems to suffer from, if anything, too much context. Like the first time I encountered Ulysses in a graduate seminar and discovered that the book of annotations was longer than the novel, readers of ATH are confronted by so many names and concepts that it would be near-impossible to trace down all the individuals he mentions and just as difficult to keep track of how they each play into the text. Much of this context is provided by Burke himself: the text makes explicit reference to, among many others, James, Whitman, and Emerson in the title to Chapter 1; a who’s who of literary modernism in “Poetic Categories,” including Lawrence, Yeats, Eliot, and Pound; and a list of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Voltaire, Bentham, Marx and Veblen as the “great formulators of ‘economic psychoanalysis’” (ATH, 172). Critics then and now have further provided names by which we may compare and better understand ATH. In a 1938 review in Science and Society, Margaret Schlauch pointed out Burke “frankly leaning on Plato’s Cratylus” (108) in the discussion of the overtones of letter sounds in the “Dictionary of Pivotal Terms” (ATH, 236-240). Rueckert connects ATH with Ernst Cassirer’s theory of language in The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (Critical, 109). Timothy Crusius identifies the “Nietzschean dimension in Burke’s concept of the self” (39) and the similarity of Burke’s analysis of the symbol to Riceour’s “surplus of meaning” (83). Robert Heath connects P&C and ATH to Jeremy Bentham’s Book of Fallacies (150). Krista Betts Van Dyk suggests we read ATH in the context of Burke’s own novel, Towards a Better Life.

At the risk of simply adding to the thicket of context for ATH, I want to contribute to the conversation in this particular Burkean parlor, and I think there are at least two very good reasons for doing so. First, Burke’s work in the mid-1930s represents a turning point in his thought. As recent articles by Betts Van Dyk, Hawhee, and George and Selzer have pointed out, Burke in the 1930s was turning more toward politics, more toward rhetoric, more toward theory generally, and a clearer view of ATH will help us grasp this transition period in Burke’s thought. Second, Burke as “system builder” is perhaps more important now than he ever has been before; the comic frame explained in ATH is too valuable a tool to be lost in a confusing text. Our current political and social climates practically demand that we approach them with this frame, and I think the effort we expend in better understanding the comic correctives he suggested will more than repay us in successful interactions with other individuals and the groups of which we are all a part. I hope to discuss Burke’s context in a way that provides some useful general background for ATH, as well as a more specific discussion of ritual, a concept that appears throughout the first two parts of ATH, then receives an entire chapter of its own in Part III. Ritual, of course, is an important theme throughout Burke’s work, emerging in the exploration of magic and science in Permanence and Change, in the analysis of religion in The Rhetoric of Religion, and in many points between, but it is in ATH that ritual makes its most overt appearance. The presence of ritual in Attitudes Toward History, though conspicuous, is often misunderstood, particularly when Burke’s musings on ritual and myth in the “General Nature of Ritual” appear seemingly out of nowhere following his five part dissection of history. Burke describes our present society as “a disparate world that must be ritualistically integrated” (ATH 184), and then discusses the seemingly unrelated topics of literary symbolism and tragedy. He then concludes the chapter by returning with a section entitled “Main Components of Ritual,” but he never explicitly ties this topic to his previous chapters on history. The chapter following “General Nature of Ritual” is no help, either; it consists of Burke’s “Dictionary of Pivotal Terms” and does not even attempt to connect any of the preceding material. Thus, we are left to interpret the first chapter of Part III of ATH on its own, and this task has led to much uncertainty about the role the chapter plays in the overall work.

This confusion occurs at least in part because of our general unfamiliarity with a specific text that Burke’s readers in the 1930s knew well, a book whose concepts “since the 1920s . . . have been so widely diffused through academic, literary, and journalistic channels that they are known to many educated people today who have never read the work or any of its abridgements” (Ackerman 99). It is a book that, in the words of Stanley Edgar Hyman, “not only transformed classical studies and comparative religion . . . but it profoundly affected Freud and all later psychoanalysis, such historians as Spengler and Toynbee, Bergson and philosophy, and writers from Anatole France to T.S. Eliot, who based The Waste Land on it” (vi-vii). It is a work of which Lionel Trilling wrote, “Perhaps no book has had so decisive an effect upon modern literature” (14), written by an author he described as “a perfect representative of what Arnold meant when he spoke of a modern age” (15). It is also a text that is only mentioned a single time in ATH and is thus overlooked by most scholars, but which I believe is vital to understanding this important Burke text: it is James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough. For Burke’s audience, the parallels between The Golden Bough and Attitudes Toward History would have been obvious, and the recognition of them would have made Burke’s entire project, as well as the “General Nature of Ritual,” much easier to understand; for most readers today, The Golden Bough is a book in the Kurtz compound in Apocalypse Now. In this essay, then, I will provide a brief summary of Frazer’s work and demonstrate how The Golden Bough can help clear up some of our confusion about ATH generally and about the role of ritual specifically.

James George Frazer and The Golden Bough

James George Frazer is, if nothing else, a fascinating case study in the rise and fall of academic fame. With the publication of the two-volume first edition of The Golden Bough in 1890, Frazer burst onto the public consciousness in a way surprising for a previously unknown scholar in a very young field. Within the first year of publication, The Golden Bough received at least 25 positive reviews: “Virtually every major newspaper and periodical in Britain gave the book a substantial notice . . . . [N]one was hostile, and the tone of most ranged from favorable to glowing” (Ackerman 98). Frazer’s work quickly became one of the most important works in anthropology: Bronislaw Malinowski, one of Frazer’s students and, of course, an important anthropologist in his own right (and a scholar whose work on the Oedipus Complex Burke discussed in Permanence and Change), wrote that nearly all the leading figures in the field could be seen to “take their cues and orientations from Frazer—whether they agree or disagree with him” (183). One of Frazer’s strengths was his ability to clearly explain complex anthropological concepts and relationships; this greatly enhanced the accessibility of The Golden Bough to non-specialists and accelerated Frazer’s growing popularity in literary circles. Vickery writes that “People doubtless learned of Frazer . . . by word of mouth in casual conversation and impassioned artistic debates” (81), and though 1920s Greenwich Village was not filled with anthropologists, “Frazer’s ideas made themselves felt in nearly every area of the humanities and social sciences, including literary history and criticism” (Vickery 81). Angus Downie reports that Frazer had even achieved a worldwide fame: “his works have been read all over the world, and in France he is something of a national hero, for it is said that there every intelligent young person reads him” (128). Frazer’s influence on early 20th century literature has also been widely documented; the most famous example is The Waste Land, in which T.S. Eliot acknowledges Frazer, but essays have been written locating The Golden Bough in the works of Yeats, Conrad, Joyce, and Lawrence as well (see, for instance, Ackerman, Fraser, and Vickery).The impact of the work was not hampered by its length; even though few people probably read the entire tome (especially the third edition, which, published in pieces between 1911-1915, weighs in at an astounding twelve volumes and 4568 pages; even the abridged version, published in 1922, contains a hefty 864 pages), a familiarity with its concepts was expected in the audience Burke was addressing, an audience comprised of “only a small, elite segment of the highly educated,” according to William Rueckert (Encounters, 117). This portion of the population was almost certain to be familiar with Frazer and his work “even before [they] actually picked up his book. . . . Starting in 1890, throughout Frazer’s career reviews, summaries, and critiques of his work occupied extended space in numerous periodicals,” (Vickery 75) assuring that any of the literary “elites” of the time, and many of the general public, would have had a general idea of Frazer’s claims.

But if a familiarity with Frazer among the esthete audience Burke was addressing in Attitudes Toward History could be taken for granted in the 1930s, it is striking that such general knowledge is almost completely lacking in current academic readers. Indeed, Frazer’s decline in popularity was almost as quick as his ascension, especially among his academic peers. In his textbook originally published in 1923, A.L. Kroeber mentions Frazer only four times in 850 pages, the last of which is a dismissive reference to The Golden Bough as “the anthropological work that long influenced the greatest number of non-anthropologists” (793). Bennett notes that by the 1940s, Frazer and his disciples “were in dubious repute—even worse, they were considered old hat” (34). Ackerman, who points out that Frazer “does not appear in any of the professional lineages that anthropologists acknowledge today,” cites as the main reason Frazer’s old-fashioned research methodology: “he wrote vast assured tomes about primitive religion and mythology without ever leaving the library” (1). Thus, with Frazer so far removed from the academic and literary spotlight, readers today simply do not have the cultural background upon which Burke built ATH. In the remainder of this essay, I will first examine Frazer’s views of the evolution of society and the role of ritual in that evolution, and I will illustrate the ways in which Burke used Frazer’s work as a frame for the general architecture of ATH and the specific role ritual plays in the text.

The Evolution of Society

The Golden Bough began as an inquiry into the origins of the legend of a particular religious ritual involving the succession to the priesthood of Diana at the small town of Nemi in the mountains of central Italy. The priest at Nemi, which carried with it the title of King of the Wood (Rex Nemorensis), was an unusually precarious position, for, as Frazer describes it, “A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest, and having slain him, he retained office till he was himself slain by a stronger or craftier” (GB 1). The candidate (who could only be a runaway slave, not a freeman) must first prove his worthiness by plucking a golden bough from the tree on the shores of the lake; thus, much of the priest’s life is spent circling the tree, hoping to ward off any potential combatants. Frazer was initially impressed by the stability of this ritual, as it seemed to have survived virtually unchanged for centuries. When Frazer first conceived of the project in the early 1880s, he intended his investigation to be a brief one—perhaps a short article—but he soon found himself delving into “certain more general questions” regarding myth and ritual (GB v). When completed the work dealt with, in Frazer’s own words, “the long evolution by which the thoughts and efforts of man have passed through the successive stages of Magic, Religion, and Science” (qtd. in Downie 21).

The Golden Bough was first published a mere 31 years after the appearance of The Origin of Species, so any talk of evolution necessarily drew comparisons to Darwin. Jewel Spears Brooker noted that “As Darwin had attempted to discover the origin of species and chart the descent of man, Frazer and his contemporaries tried to discover the origin of religion and chart the descent of the gods” (544). But there are some important differences between Darwin’s evolution and Frazer’s. First, the original Darwinian evolution is a fairly constant phenomenon; it rambles along at a more-or-less steady pace, never stopping for any extended period. Frazer’s, on the other hand, is much more like the “punctuated equilibrium” theory described by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge in 1972 (and now subsumed into a more general, Darwinian evolution): long periods of little change are interrupted by relatively rapid, large-scale alterations. Burke was, at least, familiar with this view of evolution: in 1935, Burke and Horace Gregory were corresponding about the social implications of Darwin’s theory, when, in a letter dated July 5, 1935, Gregory wrote: “I happen to believe that the evolutionary process is irregular, that the process is a series of cyclic jumps.” This is clearly a view Gregory shared with Frazer, and, as demonstrated in ATH, with Burke as well. Second, Darwin’s theory is a non-directed, random sort of event: nature is not in working toward the best animals; indeed, nature is not “working toward” anything at all. Frazer’s evolution of society, though, is much less random. He believed that humans have been working their way toward the truth ever since they first began trying to explain the world around them (GB 824-827).

This teleological evolution for Frazer began at the very moment that humans began to distinguish themselves from other animals. In fact, the arrival at magic for early humans was almost inevitable: “magic [is] deduced immediately from elementary processes of reasoning, and [is]...an error into which the mind falls almost spontaneously” (GB 63). These elementary processes of reasoning took two main forms: recognizing similarity in causes and effects, and recognizing that contact is a carrier of action. Unfortunately, these two benign observations led to what Frazer calls the Law of Similarity—“[one] can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it”—and the Law of Contagion—“whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact” (GB 12). These two principles formed the basis of nearly all magical rituals, according to Frazer, and the person in a community best suited to their execution quickly rose to positions of great power. By continually displaying his magical power, the magician/king was able to maintain a relatively stable social unit (GB 96-105).

The magician’s power was not infallible, however. Soon the “acuter minds” in the community began to notice that the magician/king did not seem to be in total control; in fact, some began to believe that total control was not possible. As this notion of the unpredictable nature of the world became more prevalent, the belief in a deterministic magic began to give way to faith in a propitiatory religion; rather than control the world themselves, the people tried to please those who actually did. This belief system was predicated on the assumption of an “operation of conscious or personal agents…behind the visible screen of nature” (GB 62). This was a much more complex notion than that underlying magic, but one that did not sacrifice any of the socially cohesive properties of its predecessor; just as magic could not be practiced by the average person, neither would the gods listen to any but the one anointed for the job. Thus, in place of the magician/king, society came to be led by the priest/king.

But the priests were eventually subject to criticism as well. The driving assumption of religion—“that the succession of natural events is not determined by immutable laws, but is to some extent variable and irregular” (GB 824)—turns out to be not entirely true. When close observation is made of nature, an underlying order appears; this makes reliance on a capricious and arbitrary deity seem questionable at best. Thus society moved back in the direction from whence it had come, “to revert in a measure to the older standpoint of magic by postulating explicitly . . . an inflexible regularity in the order of natural events” (GB 825). This “inflexible regularity” is, of course, science, but for Frazer, the shift from religion to science was mainly an afterthought. He had done his job in describing the roots of religion in magic, and he merely noted in passing that religion had now been replaced as well.

As described above, the success and popularity of The Golden Bough made these key tenets of Frazer’s common knowledge in the first half of the 20th century, especially in the literary and academic circles Burke frequented. Burke himself had shown some interest in the evolution of society as early as 1931, when, in an unsent letter, he penned a history of a fictional island people, describing their journey from religion through science and capitalism. Burke first formally addressed Frazer’s ideas in Permanence and Change, where he demonstrated his acceptance of Frazer’s general scheme of “the three orders of rationalization: magic, religion, and science” (P&C 59). His discussion even featured much of Frazer’s language: “both magic and positive science assume a uniformity or regularity of natural processes” (59); “religion stressed an arbitrary principle which could not be coerced but had to be propitiated” (60, original emphasis). Burke began to part ways with Frazer on the latter’s explanations for the transition between magic and religion:

Frazer seems to think that the belief in the efficacy of magic broke down through the discovery of its errors. Yet the rationalization as he describes it was so totally consistent, and so well corroborated by “practical successes,” that I do not see how it could possibly have lost prestige through disproof. The magician’s ability to bring about the orderly progression of the seasons, assure the fertility of seeds, and promote the conception of children was on the whole astoundingly successful. (P&C 60-61).

Instead, Burke suggested, “a system so self-sustaining could be attacked only from without” (P&C 61, original emphasis), and this attack would consist of a new point of view, or, as Burke called it, a “philosophic corrective” (P&C 61). The remainder of the chapter is a brief discussion of how these correctives have worked to move us from magic to religion to science, and the chapter concludes with a short section on the next corrective we will need: “The corrective of the scientific rationalization would seem necessarily to be a rationale of art . . . an art in its widest aspects, an art of living” (P&C 66, original emphasis). From there, Permanence and Change moves into Part II, “Persepctive by Incongruity,” and Burke’s notion of the philosophic corrective remains tantalizingly unexplored.

Until, that is, Attitudes Toward History. From the opening pages of ATH, when Burke describes various frames of acceptance and rejection, the notion of the philosophic corrective is always just below the surface. When he writes that “The pressure of good-evil conflicts on ‘one’ level brought forth the necessity for a solution, and this solution moved the issue to a ‘higher’ level” (ATH 19), he is describing the philosophic corrective of religion. The connections to Permanence and Change are probably not surprising, but when ATH moves to Part II, “The Curve of History,” the reliance on Frazer’s work becomes abundantly clear. The Golden Bough had focused on the transition from magic to religion; Burke’s examination of history in ATH begins just after religion has become entrenched as the main rationalization of western civilization. Burke discusses in great detail how religion began losing credibility with the people, and he explains how science slowly took its place. He also, like Frazer, points out the similarities in the assumptions both magic and science imply about the universe. But Burke is quick to point out the differences in science and magic, particularly as they are translated into social systems. One of the key distinctions is the accessibility of science to the common man. No longer is society dependent on particular individuals to lead them through a dangerous world. Instead, the explanatory truths are available to anyone; this leads to freedom, but it also leads to some uncertainty about social stability. When one person is responsible for keeping a community together, the system is straightforward, but the equality inherent in the science world-view removes the “comfort” of the previous monarchies. Social cohesion is not, however, lost. The comparatively vast amounts of knowledge available through science creates a situation wherein specialization becomes necessary, and this specialization in turn creates mutual dependence. No longer does an entire community rely on a magician or priest as protection from nature; now each member of a community relies on each of the others. This is precisely the situation which emerges in the “Protestant Transition” and reaches full flower in “Naïve Capitalism.” Just as Frazer had sought to explain how cultures moved from magic to religion, so Burke’s “Curve of History” details the philosophic correctives that stimulate transitions from religion to science and capitalism and, further, to Burke’s “Emergent Collectivism.” Thus, it should come as no surprise that many of Burke’s 1930s readers would recognize Burke’s central project in Attitudes Toward History as not only a follow-up to Permanence and Change, but also as something of a sequel to Frazer’s Golden Bough.

Ritual in the Evolution

A general understanding of the nature of Attitudes Toward History is not the only potential benefit of an understanding of Frazer. A more particular puzzle can also be solved—that of what Burke calls the “General Nature of Ritual.” Frazer expounded on the role of ritual in the evolution of society. Since this evolution was mainly related to social cohesion, Frazer’s study of ritual is tied directly to the same phenomenon. It is this characteristic that most interested Burke, and it is this relation that is key to a proper understanding of Burke’s “General Nature of Ritual.”

Very early on in his study, Frazer revealed his distaste for magic. Far from being an objective observer, striving to diplomatically describe the peoples he was studying, Frazer came right out and defined primitive myths as inherently false: “By myths, I understand mistaken explanations of phenomena …being founded on ignorance and misapprehensions, they were always false” (“Introduction” 163). Thus, one of the key questions he poses in his investigation was “How was it that man did not sooner detect the fallacy of magic?” (GB 68). And this is where ritual enters the picture—as the stabilizing force in the society.

The magician was the man who was able to perform the rituals that brought nature under control. He was needed in the community because no one else, allegedly, had the ability to call forth spring after a long winter or bring rain to the dry land. And these rituals were very persuasive in their ability to prolong belief in these “mistaken explanations.” Frazer admits that “the fallacy was far from easy to detect…since in many, perhaps in most cases, the desired event actually did follow, at a longer or a shorter interval, the performance of the rite which was designed to bring it about” (GB 68). Thus, whenever someone started to doubt the power of the magician, the persuasive power of the ritual convinced him to continue to believe. In this way, the magic ritual was truly a “primitive rhetoric” (as Burke would later state in A Rhetoric of Motives), persuading people to remain in the community. Any time belief began to waver, a new ritual would be performed, and faith would be restored.

But, of course, this faith did not last forever: “the shrewder intelligences must in time have come to perceive that magical ceremonies and incantations did not really effect the results which they were designed to produce” (Frazer, GB 65). Here again, the persuasive power of the ritual is the issue; only when people began discovering evidence that seemed more convincing than the results achieved by the magician was there any chance of change. And one of Frazer’s key points is that even as magic was giving way to religion, the prominence of ritual remained the same. If anything, ritual became an even larger part of the typical community. Frazer thus described in detail several religious rituals—the ritual of Adonis, of Dionysus, of the Christian sacrament—and all of them designed with the same goal as the magic rites: convincing the community members of their dependence on the leaders.

What has this to do with the “General Nature of Ritual”? One of the most important pillars supporting Burke’s work is Frazer’s idea of ritual as societal stabilizer. As Burke proceeds through his five-part tour of history, he explains that each one contains its own “casuistic stretches” which aim to prolong its life and stabilize its position. For example, the shifting of the Catholic Church’s position on usury is one of these “stretches,” and such instances are necessarily pieces of persuasion; they are designed to convince people to stick with the status quo. These are precisely the rituals Frazer had detailed; priests would not call forth spring, but they would ensure salvation at a fixed rate.

Of course, Burke took his history much farther than did Frazer. The Golden Bough only briefly peeked at science, and then its tone was purely laudatory, pointing out “the abundance, the solidity, and the splendour of the results already achieved by science” (GB 825). In fact, Frazer believed that science had rescued humans from the clutches of ritual: “Here at last, after groping in the dark for countless ages, man has hit upon a clue to the labyrinth, a golden key that opens many locks in the treasury of nature” (GB 825). For Frazer, science was discovering truth, and since myth is by definition false, science had freed us from myth and ritual. Satisfied with the modern state of affairs, Frazer stopped his history.

Burke, of course, did no such thing—he picks up where Frazer leaves off. Even as religion was giving way to science in the form of the Protestant reformation, Burke was just getting started on his history. Nor was Burke at all satisfied that science had freed us from ritual; in fact, as he argued in Permanence and Change, science was not qualitatively different from magic and religion, it was simply the latest instantiation of ritual (P&C 59-65). And far from being liberating, science introduced a social structure that kept the people more bound than they had been before: naïve capitalism (ATH 142-158). Though there is no magician or priest standing at the head of the community leading the rite, there is an even more powerful force to which everyone bows: money. Burke describes in detail the results of prolonged exposure to this ritual; the only outcome is an uneven distribution of the money and a class warfare that goes on until everyone gets so “pugnacious” (ATH 158) they simply burst out of capitalism and the science rationalization.

The rejection of science and the capitalist society that accompanies it leads to what Burke calls “Emergent Collectivism.” The appearance of this near-idyllic state of affairs is left intentionally ambiguous so “that readers may be induced to participate in the writing of it” (ATH 159). But it apparently involves widespread acceptance of the comic frame: “the charitable attitude towards people that is required for purposes of persuasion and co-operation, but at the same time maintains our shrewdness concerning the simplicities of ‘cashing in’” (166). Burke, then, was clearly skeptical of Frazer’s enthusiasm for science and capitalism, but Burke seemed to acquire some excitement of his own here as he pondered the potentialities of life under collectivism.

The General Nature of Ritual

But what about the “General Nature of Ritual”? Having arrived at the ultimate stage of history, it may be assumed that all is well, that no more correctives are required, and thus that there is no place for ritual. But this is not the case: “Even in the ‘best possible of worlds,’ the need for symbolic tinkering would continue,” Burke claims (ATH 179). In other words, Burke realizes perfection is not possible; the best that can be expected is the right general direction, and “symbolic tinkering” is needed to ensure we are still on course. Burke further explains that even if everyone is in the comic frame and society has become collectivist, the community will still need a symbolism to guide “social purpose,” defined as each person knowing “what he should try to get, how he should try to get it, and how he should ‘resign himself’ to a renunciation of the things he can’t get” (179). This description of social purpose seems to be a re-phrasing of the comic frame, and that should come as no surprise. After all, the comic state of mind as Burke describes it is not something that will be achieved easily, and, once achieved, it will not be easily maintained. Therefore, the attainment of “comic collectivism” is not the end of the struggle; there will continue to be “many kinds of conflict… heightened to the point of crisis, necessitating scrupulous choices between acceptance and rejection” (ATH 179). Regardless of the level of society, the people must work to keep themselves there, constantly employing correctives, and these correctives, as in the past, will come in the form of ritual.

Thus, Burke’s chief concern after describing the rise to collectivism is the rituals that will allow society to stay there. His project has now become much more complex than The Golden Bough; Frazer merely looked into the past and described what he saw. He witnessed certain societal formulations and the rituals that maintained their stability. Burke, on the other hand, found himself peering into the future, speculating on the sort of rituals that could sustain a hypothetical community. And by considering ritual generally, he was able to determine the specific ritual needed for the future situation.

Burke closes in on the newly required ritual by briefly looking back at some of the main aspects of previous ones. Religion, for instance, employed guilt to its great benefit (ATH 180-183). The church was able to convince the people they had sinned before they were born, immediately placing them in a subordinate position: “it built upon the foundations of human guilt, subtly contriving both to intensify people’s sensitivity to the resources of guilt . . . and to allay this guilt by appropriate rituals” (ATH 128). The solidifying nature of ritual was precisely one of Frazer’s main themes in The Golden Bough, and the reminder of this effect puts the reader right where Burke wants him: thinking of ritual as persuasion. Since collectivism will not immediately solve everyone’s problems, persuasion, and therefore ritual, is still important: there will still be “a disparate world that must be ritualistically integrated” (ATH 184).

Permanence and Change also offered some clues to the new corrective ritual. Speaking of Frazer’s succession of magic, religion, and science, Burke noted that the next “corrective rationalization must certainly move in the direction of the anthropomorphic or humanistic or poetic since this is the aspect which the scientific criteria . . . have tended to eliminate” (P&C 65). Thus, just as science moved back toward the immutability of nature after religion, the next corrective will move back toward indeterminism after science. And in ATH, he lives up to his forecast; the corrective ritual designated for a collectivist society is literature.

At this point, late 20th century readers of Burke finally have an advantage over his audience of the late 1930s. Though literature may not be commonly thought of as a corrective ritual, enough scholars, notably Wayne Booth and Steven Mailloux, have argued for the notion of literature as rhetoric that it does not seem strange to many readers today. Burke made the case by, in discussing Shostakovich’s play, introducing the notions of universal and factional tragedy (ATH 185-190). In the former, the “scapegoat” represents everyone, and as he is “punished” for his crimes, we feel pity for him, but also some semblance of vindication for our own shortcomings. A factional tragedy, on the other hand, places the scapegoat in an adversarial relationship with the audience: he is the enemy. We see the results of his actions, but in this context, they are not “punishments,” they are “just desserts.” There are two possible types of persuasion inherent in these modes of tragedy. First, a factional tragedy can remind us of what we do not want to become. By portraying characters with undesirable traits and then illustrating the eventual repercussions of those actions, the audience is persuaded to remain on the path. Second, the universal tragedy can be a gentle (or occasionally not so gentle) rebuke; by seeing society as it is and where that particular track will take it, the audience is persuaded to alter its behavior.

Thinking back, these are precisely the two types of persuasion inherent in all other rituals: preventing people from leaving the society and pulling them back when they do. Frazer had specifically discussed this aspect of the magic ritual (GB 96-105), and Burke pointed to it in religion (ATH 128). And now Burke identified the same principles at work in the fourth ritual, literature. But factional and universal tragedy are not the only types of literary persuasion Burke illustrates in the “General Nature of Ritual.” He also points out the corrective power of symbolism (191-196), synthesis (196-200), and analysis (203-208), but the relevant functions are similar in each.

And now we see Attitudes Toward History through a Frazerian screen. Burke, drawing on the study of ritual in The Golden Bough, is conducting an examination of society’s attempts to maintain itself. These attempts are anchored in ritual, and though rituals come and go, there are general characteristics of all ritual that will help us identify and understand them when we see them. And as we understand the forces that hold societies together, we will be able to more effectively participate in the “symbolic tinkering” that keeps collectivism on course. This tinkering is then specifically outlined in the “General Nature of Ritual,” where Burke first makes the argument that ritual will be needed as a corrective even when we have attained our ultimate state of society. This is the case because this is a “disparate world,” and a one-time ascension of collectivism will not change that material fact. As disparate beings, people will tend to wander from the established path, even if that path is the best possible alternative. In general, then, ritual exists as a way of persuading people to continue with or return to their society. Ritual appears in different forms, but as it relates to collectivism, it will appear as literature, as the factional and universal tragedy provide the stabilizing force society requires. In the new collectivist society, it will be poetics, rather than magic, religion, or science, that is responsible for the maintenance of the community structure.

Afterword: Ritual and Rhetoric

Burke did not finish with Frazer in Attitudes Toward History, of course. As late as A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke briefly returns to the subject of ritual as he describes magic as a form of “primitive rhetoric” (43). He is clearly not trying to claim that all rhetoric is magic, nor even that all magic is rhetoric, but his now-famous definition of rhetoric—“a symbolic means of inducing cooperation” (RoM 43)—sounds suspiciously like his description of ritual—“symbolic tinkering . . . [which] guides social purpose” (ATH 179). Later, in The Rhetoric of Religion, he argues that “religion falls under the head of rhetoric . . . [because] religious cosmogonies are designed, in the last analysis, as thoroughgoing modes of persuasion . . . . [that] persuade men toward certain acts . . . [and] form the kinds of attitudes which prepare men for such acts” (v). Burke later equates the rituals of religion, in the form of covenants, with governance and the natural order (RoR, 233). Given, then, that rhetoric is chiefly concerned with “inducing cooperation” and ritual, through activities as disparate as magic, religion, science, and literature, “guides social purpose,” is it possible that all rhetoric is a form of ritual?


1 This is not to say that these uses of ATH have not been interesting or productive. There have, in particular, been several scholars who have used Burke’s conception of comedy and burlesque as an analytical tool (see, for instance, Appel, Carlson, and Bostdorff).

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Mysticism and Crisis Communication

The Use of Ambiguity as a Strategy by the Roman Catholic Church in Response to the 2004 Tsunami

Robert S. Littlefield, Timothy L. Sellnow, and Matthew I. Attansey, North Dakota State University

Abstract: The Roman Catholic Church played a primary role in fund-raising and the recruitment of volunteers in the months following the December, 2004 tsunami that left 200,000 people dead and millions homeless in South Asia. In the aftermath of such crises, victims and sympathetic observers turn to recognized leaders to help make sense of the carnage. The Vatican emerged as one such source of leadership and sensemaking. The Vatican’s crisis rhetoric provided insight into how the theological issue of God’s role or purpose affected communication following the disaster. Kenneth Burke’s perspective on identification (1950), action versus motion (1954), and terministic pyramids (1966); as well as Eisenberg’s (1984) concept of strategic ambiguity as rhetorical strategy, provided the theoretical underpinnings for the present study. We conclude that the Vatican was successful in establishing identification with a diverse audience in the early stages of the crisis recovery. This success coincides with a use of strategically ambiguous messages that embraced the mystery and motion of the crisis. Using this strategy in the extended healing phase of the crisis is potentially problematic.

ON THE DAY BEFORE CHRISTMAS, 2004, a natural disaster wielding a level of force unseen for decades brought death and destruction to hundreds of island and coastal communities in a vast area of the Indian Ocean. Tens of thousands of people drowned as entire communities were washed to sea. John Lancaster (2004, December 28) described the disaster in the Washington Post: “The 9.0 magnitude earthquake Sunday morning was the fourth most severe since 1900, and the strongest since a 9.2 magnitude temblor in Alaska in 1964, according to the U.S. Geological Survey” (n.p.). This earth movement caused what the Japanese term a tsunami, a destructive tidal wave spawned in the Indian Ocean that washed life off the shores of Asia, India, and parts of east Africa.

The tsunami and its effects were described in extremes: “The most powerful in 40 years” (Foster, 2004, p. 1); “a deluge” (Fernando, 2005, p. 62); “the day that shocked the earth,” and a wave moving with “the power of more than 1,000 atomic bombs” (Craig, Sherwell, Orr et al., 2006, p. 14). The initial death toll was enumerated for each affected country, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand (Tsunami, 2004, n.p.); with the confirmation of the deaths at over 200,000 people and the rendering of millions homeless and devastated (Soorley, 2005). Reports of the tsunami continued to make headlines for over six months—from 26 December 2004 to 26 July 2005—in U. S. and international newspapers. According to Mohler (2005), “the scale of suffering and the magnitude of the disaster in South Asia defy the imagination” (n.p.).

The crisis communication literature explains that crisis events as extreme and shocking as the 2004 tsunami have the potential to, at least momentarily, collapse the sensemaking capacity of observers (Murphy, 1996; Sellnow, Seeger, & Ulmer, 2002; Weick, 1993, 1995). Weick (1993) labels such moments of mystification cosmology episodes:

A cosmology episode occurs when people suddenly and deeply feel that the universe is no longer a rational, orderly system. What makes such an incident so shattering is that both the sense of what is occurring and the means to rebuild that sense collapse together. (p. 634)

As Weick explains, surviving victims and observers alike are left to wonder how such a catastrophic event could overwhelm existing structures designed for warning and protection. This confusion is often accompanied by spiritual questions seeking to understand why their lives have been touched by such devastation and loss of life.

The process of making sense of such tragedies is, to a large extent, rhetorical. Crisis victims turn to respected leaders in the wake of a disaster to help them make sense tragedy (Reynolds, 2002). Previous research has focused on the traits and characteristics that enable leaders to succeed in reestablishing order out of chaos (Reynolds, 2006; Ulmer, 2001; Witt & Morgan, 2002). Burke offers a means for moving beyond leadership characteristics to an evaluation of the rhetorical strategies employed by leadership figures in response to extreme situations. Specifically, Burke’s (1954) discussion of the purpose, and the corresponding term mysticism, yields a novel perspective to crisis communication. Burke characterizes the mystic moment as “the stage of revelation after which all is felt to be different” (p. 305). The tsunami meets the criteria for a mystic moment, reflecting what Burke describes as the dialectical principle of the Upward Way, where “some level of generalization is reached that one did not originally envisage, whereupon the particulars of the world itself look different, as seen in terms of this ‘higher vision’” (p. 306).

When events like the tsunami occur with the appearance of mystic involvement or design, the attribution of God’s role in the crisis becomes mystical as the belief that people who are guilty should be punished by God comes into synch with what some would consider the fate of a natural disaster claiming the lives of people perceived to be guilty. Burke (1954) writes: “Experience itself becomes mystical when some accidental event happens to be ‘representative’ of the individual, as when a sequence of circumstances follows exactly the pattern desired by him [or her]” (p. 307).

The Roman Catholic Church was one of the influential religious communities that responded both financially and rhetorically immediately following the tsunami. The Vatican provided four million dollars of emergency relief and dozens of Catholic agencies joined the cause making nearly $650 million available to the affected region (Migliore, 2005). In addition, the Pope and his spokesperson made statements in support of those affected by the disaster. Amid this macro-level display of support from the Roman Catholic Church, different views emerged regarding the reasons why the disaster occurred. These conflicting perspectives voiced the views of those seeking to make sense of what happened and why.

Responses in this sensemaking process ranged from the scientific perspective explaining the geological reasons for the shift of the 620 mile section of subsurface tectonic plate in the Indian Ocean at a depth of 6.2 miles (Lancaster, 2004) to the religious attribution of God’s punishment on the inhabitants of the affected regions (Coffin, 2005; Kelley, 2005; Kettle, 2004; Lantos, 2005; Alphonso & Thomas, 2005). For some Christian observers, who believed the populations in the regions most affected by the tsunami were Muslims, God’s purpose was to punish non-Christians. For some Muslims, the affected region was a popular tourist area, making God’s purpose one of punishing decadence. These explanations provided a challenge for religious leaders who needed to solicit an appropriate crisis response for the victims of the disaster based upon a spirit of charity and benevolence.

This study explores the rhetorical responses of the Pope and Vatican spokespeople pertaining to the tsunami of 2004 in an attempt to explicate the rhetorical strategies of the Roman Catholic Church in reconciling conflicting perspectives about God’s role in causing the disaster. The findings help to inform the religious leaders and the general public how the role of theology influences the crafting of crisis messages designed to help people to understand disasters and form better dispositions in the face of future disasters. This focus provides a meaningful extension of the existing crisis communication literature in three ways. First, and foremost, this analysis applies several of Burke’s principles to the rhetorical process of crisis recovery. More specifically, Burke’s notion of mysticism instills a rhetorical dimension into the extant sensemaking literature related to cosmology episodes. Finally, Burke’s perspective allows for assessing the complexities of religion in the rhetorical sensemaking process following a major crisis event.

The theoretical perspectives included in this study provide a framework for analyzing the response of the Roman Catholic Church to the events that transpired following the tsunami of 2004 and lead to the following research question: How does the theological issue of God’s role or purpose in a crisis affect the communication following a disaster? To answer this question, we identify the following sub-questions:

  1. How did the Catholic Church respond rhetorically to the tsunami crisis?
  2. How did the theological issue of God’s role affect the ability of the Church to raise funds to help the victims of the disaster?
The study begins with an explanation of our theoretical perspective. We then explain the methodological procedures used in the study. An evaluation of the Pope and Vatican spokespeople follows. The study ends with a series of conclusions and implications related to the case.

Theoretical Framework

The writings of Kenneth Burke pertaining to identification (1950), action versus motion (1954), and terministic pyramids (1966); as well as Eisenberg’s (1984) concept of ambiguity as rhetorical strategy, provide the theoretical underpinnings for the present study. In the case of a natural disaster, as individuals attempt to make sense of what happened following the event, differences in opinion emerge. The dialectic reflected in the range of interpretations about the disaster established the composition of the discussion. Identification is a way for religious leaders to gain agreement with their particular viewpoints. The rhetorical dimensions of identification reflect both action (voluntary) and motion (involuntary action). The recognition of how terministic pyramids help to sort how particular words reflect realms or order of thought adds insight into the process of explaining how leaders cast their rhetoric in a way that increases audience receptivity and identification. Furthermore, as religious leaders provide explanations for the cause of a disaster to their constituencies, the use of ambiguity as a rhetorical strategy serves to enhance agreement among people who have different views about the origin of a crisis.


As leaders attempt to explain the cause of a natural disaster to their constituencies, they often rely on identification as a way to secure agreement with their particular viewpoint. For religious groups, as leaders attempt to establish identification through the expression of a common belief or story, they often draw upon their belief in, or association with, a divine being. Burke (1950) explains: “Identification ranges from the politician who, addressing an audience of farmers, says, ‘I was a farm boy myself,’ through the mysteries of social status, to the mystic’s devout identification with the source of all being” (p. xiv). The result of this identification is a rapport between the leader and the audience based upon a common religious orientation.

As identification between leader and audience is achieved on one level, the reality that not all people share a common religious perspective cannot be denied. Burke (1950) continues:

In being identified with B, A is “substantially one” with a person other than himself [or herself]. Yet at the same time he remains unique, an individual locus of motives. Thus, he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another. (p. 21).

The ambiguity inherent in identification is evident. Burke (1950) explains: “Identification is compensatory to division. If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity” (p. 22). Thus, the use of rhetoric as a persuasive means to achieve identification is essential as “the use of language [functions] as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (p. 43).

The challenge for the leaders attempting to establish consubstantiation with people holding dialectic views about the cause of a disaster or crisis is complex due to the competing nature of the extremes, as Burke (1950) suggests, “they are enigmas of a revealing sort . . . insofar as they sum up, or stand for, a complexity of personal, sexual, social, or universal motives” (p. 176). Therefore, in order to reconcile the dialectical tension between positions, the leaders must place them into what would be considered an ultimate order or relationship. Burke continues:

The “ultimate” order would place these competing voices themselves in a hierarchy, or sequence, or evaluative series, so that, in some way, we went by a fixed and reasoned progression from one of these to another, the members of the entire group being arranged developmentally with relation to one another.(p. 187)

In short, to persuade someone to accept a particular point of view, leaders must speak in a way that enables listeners to identify with them. In the case of the tsunami, the conflicting views about the cause of the disaster prompted a rhetorical response from religious leaders who sought the identification of the public with an ultimate perspective reflecting what the leaders believed to be of greatest importance.

Action versus Motion

When clarifying what constitutes a rhetorical response, Burke’s (1954, pp. 135-137) discussion of action versus motion is relevant. When a situation calls for a rhetorical response, action is needed. This action may take various forms, but it is conscious, voluntary, and purposeful. Entities choose to act rhetorically. Alternately, motion is viewed as being outside the realm of personal control, independent, and involuntary. When something outside the control of humans is in motion, nothing can be done to stop the movement. In this study, some argued that God chose to send the tsunami. For others, the tsunami was perceived as an event caused by nature, not a purposeful act of God or humans.

While action and motion are distinguishable, the difference in this case seems immaterial about whether the event was actually a natural disaster or purposeful action by God. Our perspective is based upon the belief that how the public characterized the tsunami was rhetorical either way as meaning was assigned by observers. If the tsunami were a natural occurrence that happened involuntarily, those making this argument shared a common rhetorical perspective excluding God as the cause. If the tsunami was characterized as a purposeful act of God, this constituted a “mystery” for the observer (Burke, 1950, p. 115) due to the ambiguity of how God chose who would live and who would die. As such, this “hierarchy of privilege” (p. 122) became the rhetorical means by which those who identified with the viewpoint establishing God as the cause of the disaster could argue that a “mystifying condition” (p. 123) enabled God to selectively save some and destroy others.

Understanding the complexity of why action or motion occurs requires observers to operate in the “mode of transcendence.” In other words, in the context of symbols representing things, when some action or motion occurs, people assign meaning to the event and that meaning becomes part of how they come to understand the motivation for why that event occurred: “When we use symbols for things, such symbols are not merely reflections of the things symbolized, or signs for them; they are to a degree a transcending of the things symbolized” (Burke, 1950, p. 192). Due to the nature of the event, the explanation may “transcend reason” if it is associated with God or a higher power. Burke concludes: “It may also make claims to be ‘religious,’ since it presumably represents man’s relationship to an ultimate ground of motives not available for empirical inspection” (p. 203).

Terministic Pyramids

Burke (1966) in his discussion of the relationship between words and things, suggested the utility of what he termed terministic pyramids, “each of which contains words for a certain realm, or order” (p. 373). The first pyramid represents the natural order and is characterized by motion and position. In the case of the tsunami, words in the natural order would provide the scientific explanation of what caused the disaster. The verbal order represents the second pyramid, with words reflecting, “a high degree of aptitude at symbol-using” (p. 374). The knowledge a person possesses would reflect a level of rationality and cognitive complexity. Through words, leaders can connect with the presupposed knowledge of their audiences and establish consubstantiation with them. The third pyramid reflects the sociopolitical order which identifies relationships and roles within a social system. The ordering that takes place reflects the established hierarchy and provides an opportunity for the reordering of the relationships within this realm.

The fourth pyramid is the supernatural order and words within this realm reflect the supernatural. The first three pyramids reflect the order of the world (motion, rationality, hierarchy) and provide the words needed to describe the supernatural order. In the supernatural order, mystery exists regarding the origins of creation. As such, humans use words from the worldly orders to explain the supernatural order. For example, if something is in “the hands of God,” motion is in play and we must accept that we have no control over the outcome. When a leader responds to a crisis by saying, “mankind realizes his vulnerability” (see below), we rely on our rationality to remember that no one is immortal and even Jesus, as man, was crucified and died. As we consider the sociopolitical hierarchy, a reference such as “Mother of the Church” would suggest an ordering of importance based upon a mystery we may not fully understand.

The usefulness of these terministic pyramids may be best realized as we consider the presupposed information that individuals may believe about the supernatural. As Burke (1966) suggested: “Words being in the realm of the worldly, it follows by the very nature of the case that any words designed to describe a realm by definition transcendent must be inadequate to their real or supposed subject matter” (p. 374). Because one cannot be certain about the mystery of the supernatural, words may be inadequate and ambiguity may be necessary to enable the audiences to make their own connections and achieve transcendence.

Ambiguity as Rhetorical Strategy

Burke (1969) explains that, “insofar as men cannot themselves create the universe,” ambiguities and inconsistencies are inherent in human understanding and interaction (p. xviii). Thus, purging one’s rhetoric of all ambiguity is impossible. For Burke, the suitable objective is “not terms that avoid ambiguity, but terms that clearly reveal the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise” (p. xviii). In this manner, strategic ambiguity is natural and acceptable occurrence in human interaction that is worthy of analysis. Eisenberg (1984) explicates this strategic use of ambiguity when discussing communication competence within an organizational culture. He suggested that ambiguity may be effective in promoting a unified diversity, facilitating organizational change, amplifying existing source attributions, and preserving privileged positions. For the leaders of an organization, Eisenberg (1984) suggested:

The ambiguous statement of core values allows [people] to maintain individual interpretations while at the same time believing that they are in agreement. It is a political necessity for leaders to engage in strategic ambiguity so that different constituent groups may apply different interpretations to the symbol. (p. 231)

In the situation following the tsunami, the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church was challenged to establish a hierarchy or core value associated with responding to the victims with charity and benevolence. The competing dialectic regarding God’s role in the disaster served as potentially distracting rhetorical challenge to the establishment of the core value. In this situation, ambiguity is a rhetorical strategy with some utility for the leaders because “it permits participants to express their thoughts and feelings and simultaneously to deny specific interpretations which may be especially face-threatening” (p. 236). By allowing different groups to interpret symbols, messages, or events differently, strategic ambiguity enables the larger organization to remain united.

The use of ambiguity as a rhetorical strategy can also contribute to the maintenance of power by those in positions of authority. Miller, Joseph, and Apker (2000) discussed this concept in the workplace. They suggest that “strategically ambiguous discourse may be used to privilege those in power by examining how organizational members’ responses reified the firm’s existing power structure and perpetuated a system of control” (p. 197). In the case of a religious community, when addressing dialectic views about the cause of a disaster, in order to retain authority within the group, the leaders need to establish a position that encompasses the disparate views. In doing so, they solidify their control over the power structure within the group and retain their ability to speak for the group to the public.

In crisis situations, Sellnow and Ulmer (2004) explain that strategic ambiguity typically focues on three consistent questions. At the outset of this essay, we established the consistent need of crisis victims to make sense of their experience. Such victims often turn to leaders, including religious officials, to help them understand why a crisis event has entered their lives. Sellnow and Ulmer (2004) in their discussion of ambiguity in organizational crises identified three consistent questions that arise: questions of evidence, questions of intent, and questions of locus. Questions of evidence involve the details or facts of the crisis. Depending upon the amount and quality of the evidence, varying interpretations may result. Questions of intent point to the motive of an organization prior to the crisis. The intent is often cast in ambiguity to enable the organization to explain its actions. Questions of locus are used to identify the cause and assign blame. Often rhetorical strategies are used by organizations to “minimize the intensity of a crisis as well as their responsibility for it” (p. 259). While focused specifically on organizations, these questions are useful when critically analyzing the rhetoric issued by the Pope and his spokespersons, to gain a clearer picture how the theological issue of God’s role or purpose in a crisis affects the communication following a disaster.

Competing Claims as Context of the Vatican’s Rhetoric

As the Vatican sought to solidify support for survivors of the tsunami, it had to do so within a context of debate and uncertainty. The essence of this debate focused on whether the tsunami was a natural disaster or an act of retribution from God.

The devastation caused by this tsunami prompted speculation as to God’s role in the crisis (Coffin, 2005; Kelley, 2005; Kettle, 2004; Lantos, 2005; Alphonso & Thomas, 2005). Many people asked why God would allow such a disaster to hit his followers (Balkin, 2005; Bates, 2005; Briggs, 2005; Humphreys, 2005; Johnston, 2005; Neighbour, 2005; Woods, 2005). Some non-Christians viewed the tsunami as a proof that God does not exist (Fraser, 2005; Patterson, 2005). Some Christian and Muslim groups cast the tsunami as a divine wrath or retribution for the sins of the Other (Briggs, 2005; Joshi, 2005; Neighbour, 2005; Pearson 2005), while most saw it as only a natural occurrence.

God’s Role in the Tsunami

The world’s newspapers carried questions about God’s role in the tsunami. Columnist Martin Kettle (2004) asked, “How can religious people explain something like this?” He conceded that earthquakes and a belief in the judgment of God were hard to reconcile, and queried:

What God sanctions an earthquake? What God protects against it? What kind of order is it that decrees that a person who went to sleep by the edge of the ocean on Christmas night should wake up the next morning engulfed by the waves, struggling for life?”(p. 16)

Others echoed this perspective. Lantos (2005) wrote: “A reasonable question is: ‘If God exists, and if as the Bible teaches, He is (1) all-powerful, (2) all-knowing and (3), all-good, why does God permit disasters of such epic proportions as this Tsunami and the 9/11 terrorist attacks that took 3,000 lives?’” (n.p.).

Coffin (2005) suggested that the Tsunami was not directed by God because no group was shown preference among the victims: “The quake made no attempt to differentiate between the religions of those whom it made its victims” (n.p.). So, how can one explain God’s role in the disaster? Gray (2005) proposed that the debate filling the press and the Internet was a test of the people who believed that the God who answers their prayers could not be seen as responsible for slaughtering hundreds of thousands of people: “how [could] a loving God . . . deal such a cruel blow?” (n.p.).

Tsunami as Retribution

Among the first reports of those who thought the tsunami was an act of God’s retribution was the reference to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible. Citing the beliefs expressed by a Christian minister, Briggs (2005) reported: “Some of the places most affected by the Tsunami attracted pleasure-seekers from all over the world” (p. 3). Briggs further quoted arguments from a Christian minister providing support for the belief that the tsunami was an intentional act of God:

It has to be noted that the wave arrived on the Lord’s Day, the day God set apart to be observed the world over as a holy resting from all employments and recreations that are lawful on other days. Do not worldliness, materialism, hedonism, uncleanness, and pleasure-seeking characterize our own generation to a great extent and does not this solemn visitation in providence remind us that He remains the same God still? (qtd. at p. 3)

While the Christian minister voiced his own convictions, his perspective represented the belief of many silent religious extremists. Even those with more balanced views about the cause of the tsunami found it difficult to explain God’s role in the disaster.

Other reports of the event expressed a similar belief that the tsunami was retribution from God, including one that warned those in Morocco that, “the disaster was a warning . . . to take measures against sex tourism” (Neighbour, 2005, n.p.). Another report in News24, a South African online news source, suggested that God signed the tsunami. The newspaper quoted Mohamed Faizeen as saying that a look at the picture taken of the Sri Lanka’s west coast near the town of Kalutara as [the water] was receding, clearly spelled out the name of Allah in Arabic. The newspaper also quoted another Muslim leader, Mohammed Fawmey, as saying that he too believed the tsunami was sent by God (Pearson, 2005).

Finally, the Hindu Business Line, in an article entitled, “A Retribution for Warnings Ignored?” suggested that, “A nation that stoically took the suicides of over 8,500 farmers now stands jolted by about the same number of deaths caused by a similar absence of concern for the common man [sic]” (Joshi, 2005, n.p.). As reported, the Indian Government failed to make an equitable distribution of the agricultural subsidy, and had been warned against the injustice to the farmers. The newspaper recalled that at the wake of the 1934 Bihar earthquake, Mahatma Gandhi maintained that it was a retribution for the sin of untouchability. The paper maintained that the government had ignored several warnings that had brought about the suicide of many Indian farmers. So, it was justified to say the tsunami was God’s retribution for those ignored warnings (Joshi, 2005).

Tsunami as Natural Occurrence

Another side of the discussion on God’s role in the tsunami supported the belief that it was a natural occurrence. Although this aspect of the discussion did not take up headline position in many newspaper reports, it formed a base for the discussion about the role of God in the tsunami. Other than providing the scientific information describing the geological occurrence, few newspapers specifically spelled out that the tsunami was a natural disaster (Balkin, 2005; Bates, 2005; Gray, 2005; MacCormark, 2004). Even in these, the focus of the discussion was on effect of this natural disaster on the public in terms of building unity to help the victims. One columnist wrote: “even for the normally politicized Jawaharlal Nehru University, political differences have been buried for the moment as students and teachers are attempting to raise funds” (Samanta, 2005, n.p.).

In the face of the dialectic regarding the extremes of belief about God’s role in causing the tsunami, religious groups found themselves in a situation calling for a rhetorical strategy to build support for the victims without disregarding the basis for beliefs held by these different groups within their religious communities. The religious leaders needed to establish identification with their goal to raise support for the victims while allowing different opinions about whether the tsunami was an action of God or the motion of geological forces occurring without control. How the leaders rhetorically chose to address this dialectic had the potential to affect the level of support they could muster to provide aid to the victims. Within this context, the present study explores the public communication of the leader of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II, and Vatican leaders, following the disaster.


To analyze the crisis of faith expressed in the communications following the tsunami disaster, we employed a critical analysis to investigate how the theological issue of God’s role or purpose in a crisis affected the public communication of religious leaders. Over 100 national and international newspaper articles drawn from Pro Quest, Lexis Nexis, and Google search engines were reviewed to provide a descriptive account of different perspectives regarding God’s role in the disaster.


We selected the public communication of Pope John Paul II following the disaster as the specific data for this study. As the leader of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, the Pope is designated for Catholic Christians as God’s representative on Earth. Therefore, how the Pope rhetorically characterizes God’s role in the tsunami disaster would be especially insightful. The texts used for analysis represent the official public communications from the Vatican following the tsunami disaster. These were limited to the official statements of the Pope taken from the Vatican News Service, press releases featuring prominent spokespersons within Vatican published by the Catholic News Service, and official comments published in Catholic World News, an official news source from the Vatican. In order to get authentic Vatican statements, the authors searched the Vatican Website for the official translation of these public communications that were originally in either Italian or Latin. The texts were drawn from the time of the disaster on the December 26, 2004, through January 31, 2005, when the story was most urgent.


We used the process of critical discourse analysis to study the texts delivered by Pope John Paul II or presented in his name by senior Vatican spokespeople following the tsunami of 2004. As the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II was in a position to identify the principle interests of the church through his communication about the crisis. Fairclough (1995) suggested that texts constitute versions of reality, “in ways which depend on the social positions and interests and objectives of those who produce them” (p. 104).

To examine the reality depicted in texts, Fairclough (1995) included four degrees of textual presence or absence as a way to identify the interests and objectives of those crafting the messages: foregrounded information, backgrounded information, presupposed information, and absent information. Both foregrounded information and backgrounded information are explicitly stated in an article. Fairclough (1995b) used the term, “global text structure” to describe foregrounded information (p. 119). This information includes the main themes, topics, or ideas that are emphasized. While foregrounded information is prominent, backgrounded information is provided to fill in the needed information for a more complete picture of reality. For example, backgrounded information would follow the main theme or focus, be placed later in an article, or be embedded in subordinate clauses within sentences. In the case of presuppositions, the interpretation relies on elements that are constructed in other texts. For example, references in a press release calling on the Virgin Mary to “help your people and protect them from danger” (Pope joins Europe’s mourning, 2005, n.p.), would be considered as presupposed information drawn from Biblical references to Mary, as the mother of Jesus, the Son of God. The fourth degree of presence is absence. When something is unsaid, it is absent in the text. Fairclough (1995) argued that, “the unsaid of a text” (p. 6) identifies implicit assumptions about what might prove to be the most insightful viewpoint for the purpose of comparative analyses. In the case of the present study, if the word “Muslims” is absent in the Pope’s texts, the critic could speculate why this group was not specifically identified.

In the present study, we studied the texts using Fairclough’s model to identify what information was foregrounded, backgrounded, presupposed, and absent. This enabled us to determine how the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church framed their response to the tsunami in official Vatican communication. Following the description of their rhetorical strategy, we interpret the findings using Burke’s theoretical framework and the literature on strategic ambiguity, and evaluate the effectiveness of the strategy along with providing conclusions and directions for future study.


Foregrounded Information

The desired outcome or purpose of the texts we analyzed called for the giving of aid and support for the survivors in the affected regions following the crisis. The Pope and those who spoke for him were explicit in making this the focus of their messages to the world and expressed what they hoped would be the desired response from those hearing their words. First, the Pope called for material aid and acts of relief. The following terms represent these desired positive responses: “aid,” “acts to bring relief,” “concrete responses,” and “generous support” (Pope John Paul II prays, 2004, n.p.); “programs to rehabilitate” (Vatican bids generosity, 2004, n.p.); “donations” and “relief efforts” (Pope applauds Asian relief, 2004, n.p.); “material assistance” (Vatican leads church, 2005, n.p.); “aid to victims” (Vatican prelate reflects, 2005, n.p.); and “assistance for survivors” (Vatican mass, 2005, n.p.). The immediacy of providing money and aid to help the relief efforts made this appeal attractive to those hearing the call for assistance.

A second form of support involved encouraging solidarity and cooperation among members of the Church, as well as other individuals and groups. Examples of these terms calling for people to work together to help the victims included: “solidarity” (Pope John Paul II prays, 2004, n.p.); “support the efforts of the local churches” (Ireland, 2005, n.p); provide “expressions of genuine, active solidarity,” (Vatican prelate reflects, 2005, n.p.); “encourage followers of different religions to cooperate on their efforts” (Pope encourages joint effort, 2005, n.p.); and prayers, such as, “May this catastrophe lead . . . to a future of greater generosity, cooperation and unity in the service of the common good” (John Paul II, 2005, January 22, n.p.).

The commitment to a higher order was the third purpose in the messages issued by the Pope. Included among these more universal goals were the following: “renew determined commitment to build peace” (Ireland, 2005, n.p.); bring about “a radical and dramatic change of perspective among people ‘too often preoccupied with making war’” (Vatican paper raps, 2004, n.p.); “defeat the temptation toward selfishness” (Vatican leads church, 2005, n.p.); “promote human dignity” (Pope lists 4, 2005, n.p.); “reduce materialism and selfishness” (Vatican prelate reflects, 2005, n.p.); and have faith that “the lessons of the tragedy could also help to form the members of the younger generation” (Vatican leads church mobilization, 2005, n.p.).

The foregrounded responses of the Pope were clearly focused on getting his message across to members of the Roman Catholic Church. However, he also meant for his words to be heard by other religious groups, mentioned only as “different” (Pope encourages joint efforts, 2005, n.p.) and “too often preoccupied with making war” (Vatican paper raps, 2004, n.p.). His intended action was explicitly identified as the giving of material aid, the showing of solidarity and cooperation, and the fulfillment of higher order values such as peace and human dignity.

Backgrounded Information

In all of the official communication, the Pope and Vatican spokespeople used general terms that described the crisis event, its location, those affected, and its effects. These terms reflected the necessary information to provide a more complete picture of the reality of the situation. The following terms illustrate how the Pope and his official spokespeople focused the attention on the crisis event of December 24, 2004: “tsunami,” “tidal waves,” and “earthquake” (Papal prayers, 204, n.p.); “wake” (Pope John Paul II prays, 2004, n.p.); “quake” (Ireland, 2005, n.p.); “natural disaster” (John Paul II, 2005, January 24, n.p.); “natural forces” (Vatican mass, 2005, n.p.); and “terrible seaquake” (Sodano, 2005, n.p.). Except for the word “tsunami,” which is of Japanese origin, the terms describing the event mostly were familiar to the public.

All of the texts provided information about where the crisis occurred. Commonly, the authors identified the general areas of Asia, Southeast Asia, or South Asia. The specific countries of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, the Maldives, and Somalia often were named. The Indian Ocean and “that region” (John Paul II, 2005, January 22, n.p.) also were identified as locations for the crisis.

The terminology used to identify those affected by the tsunamis reflected a similar tendency toward the general. Those affected were: “victims,” “people,” and “populations” (Pope John Paull II prays, 2004, n.p.); “refugees” (Vatican bids generosity, 2004, n.p.); “survivors” (Vatican schedules memorial mass, 2005, n.p.); “loved one” (Vatican leads church, 2005, n.p.); “the world’s children” (Pope prays for all, 2005, n.p.); “the dead” (Vatican prelate reflects, 2005, n.p.); “families” (Pope joins, 2005, n.p.); “the grieving,” “the homeless,” and “the peoples struck” (John Paul II, 2005, January 22, n.p.); and “the souls of those who died” (Vatican mass, 2005, n.p.).

The effects of the crisis took the form of positive and negative terms and phrases. When describing the response of people around the world, positive descriptions emerged: “a unanimous chorus of fraternal solidarity” (Pope John Paul II prays, 2004, n.p.); “rapid international and humanitarian mobilization” and “the great work of solidarity” (Ireland, 2005, n.p.); “prayerful sympathy” (Papal prayers, 2004, n.p.); “a $4 million aid package” (Vatican bids generosity, 2004, n.p.); “the international community rushing help to the survivors” (Pope applauds Asian, 2004, n.p.); “emergency aid” (Vatican paper raps, 2004, n.p.); “condolences” (Vatican leads church, 2005, n.p.); “three minutes of silence in memory of those who died” (Pope joins, 2005, n.p.); “globalization” (Vatican mass, 2005, n.p.); “efforts to provide relief” and “remarkable outpouring of sympathy throughout the world” (Pope encourages joint efforts, 2005, n.p.); and “young people discover[ing] the face of God in Christ” (John Paul II, 2005, January 6, n.p.). The negative effects of the crisis were captured by such descriptors as: “destruction,” “tremendous tragedy,” and “devastating calamity” (Pope John Paul II prays, 2004, n.p.); “suffering” (Vatican paper raps, 2004, n.p.); “thousands of deaths” (Papal prayers, 2004, n.p.); “devastation” (Pope applauds Asian, 2004, n.p.); and “the most difficult and painful trials” (Vatican leads church, 2005, n.p.).

Through the inclusion of backgrounded information generally describing the event, where it occurred, those affected, and the effects of the crisis, the audiences of these messages gained a more complete picture of the reality as it presented itself following the crisis. General terms were used to describe these aspects of the situation, keeping the desired outcome of seeking aid and support for those affected in the foreground of people’s minds.

Presupposed Information

The Pope and those who spoke for him assumed the receivers of the messages would draw upon information previously acquired from other sources to make sense of the rhetoric explaining the disaster and what action should be taken to help those affected by the crisis. By including references to Christian beliefs, universal principles, and terms often associated with divine intervention, the leaders of the Church enabled the listeners to make their own connections between the rhetoric and their individual perceptions regarding the disaster.

Throughout the texts, references to information that would make sense to Christians and those familiar with Christian practices emerged. The timing of the tsunami corresponded with Christmas and there were numerous references to “the Christmas holiday” (Pope John Paul II prays, 2004, n.p.); “at this Christmas time” (Ireland, 2005, n.p.); “Christmas festivities” (Papal prayers, 2004, n.p.); “Epiphany” (Pope prays, 2005, n.p.); and the “Christmas season” (John Paul II, 2005, January 5, n.p.). The connection with Christmas was used on several occasions by Pope John Paul II (2005, January 5) to identify a time when God intervened on behalf of humanity: “We contemplate the great mystery of the birth of Jesus, in whom God definitely enters history and offers salvation” (n.p.); and “the Church recalls the message of hope made visible in Bethlehem with the birth of Christ and assurance that God never leaves man alone in his suffering” (Pope lists 4, 2005, n.p.). The Christian belief that the dead will be raised up to be with God in “our heavenly home” presupposes that the victims of the tsunami will enjoy a similar outcome (Pope joins, 2005, n.p.).

Christians were often referred to specifically in the texts: “all believers,” “Christians” and “the faithful.” In establishing this common tie with Christianity, references could be made to individuals and groups who previously had been tested by God in biblical times. Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice, suggested in this situation: “Perhaps God wants to test our capacity . . .” (Vatican leads church, 2004, n.p.). Archbishop Josef Cordes, President of the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum,” agreed: “If faith does not shed light on their circumstances, what will?” (Vatican prelate reflects, 2005, n.p.).

In addition to the Christian references, the texts included universal appeals that relied on non-Christian audiences to make their own sense of the rhetoric. Whenever Christians were mentioned, non-Christians were included as, “and men [sic] of good will” (Pope applauds, 2004, n.p.). In a press release, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore, pointed to the universality of the destruction by referencing its magnitude: “The fact that the devastation swept across different societies, cultures, and nations should help to reinforce the universal perspective” (Vatican paper raps, 2004, n.p.). The perspective referred to in this case is the suffering endured by those impacted by the magnitude of the disaster. Church leaders made references to the universality of suffering by issuing such comments as: “No one can feel a stranger to those who suffer” and “mankind realizes his [sic] vulnerability” (Vatican leads church, 2005, n.p.).

The universal urges to question why something as devastating as a tsunami would be allowed to occur, often is reflected by the Pope and Church leaders. Cardinal Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State, speaking for the Pope explained, “The natural response is ‘to look to the heavens seeking response to the many questions that arise during these times of confusion” (Vatican mass, 2005, n.p.). Cardinal Renato Martino also characterized the times as “full of difficulties and contradictions” (Pope lists 4, 2005, n.p.). The Pope himself suggested a similarity between the disaster and the mystery of Jesus’ suffering and resurrection when urging that the “Christian community to be led to a deepened trust in God’s mysterious providence and ever closer union . . . in the mystery of his suffering and resurrection” (John Paul II, 2005, January 22, n.p.). The relationship between suffering and resurrection for Christians is cast as a framework for viewing the suffering experienced by the victims of the tsunami and their resurrection to eternal life.

The terminology used in the texts also provides reference to what might be considered as divine intervention. In biblical texts, God’s power is often reflected in verb choices with physical characteristics, such as: “powerful tsunamis which struck Indonesia” (Pope John Paul II prays, 2004, n.p.) and “the peoples struck by this immense natural disaster” (John Paul II, 2005, January 22, n.p.). When the plagues were sent by God in Egypt, they moved across the face of the earth striking down the firstborn son in every household, much as how Church leaders suggested the tsunami “swept across different societies” (Vatican paper raps, 2004, n.p.) without discriminating among its victims. By referring to the tsunami as a “devastating cataclysm” (Vatican schedules memorial mass, 2005, n.p.), the Pope presupposed a familiarity with biblical history when the earth opened up to swallow some evil force or destroy unbelievers, such as when Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments only to find his followers worshipping false idols. When he threw the stone tablets against the idol in the form of a golden calf, the earth opened and swallowed up the unbelievers. A similar reference, “came like a bolt from the blue” (Sodano, 2005, n.p.), suggests the presence of a higher power sitting in judgment and sending a lightning bolt as a warning or message to observers about the power of God or “vengeful deities” (Burke, 1954, p. 161).

Through references to Christian beliefs and believers, universal messages, and attributes to divine intervention, the Pope and Church leaders relied on connections that the audiences could make with previously acquired information to make sense of the disaster. In each instance, through this presupposed information, the audiences could transcend from the here and now to the eternal. These references made it possible for Pope John Paul II to have his rhetoric understood by members of the Roman Catholic Church, non-Catholic Christians, and non-Christians.

Absent Information

The absence of specificity in the texts is noteworthy regarding the cause of the event, the victims, the location, and some of the effects. While the crisis was named, details of how the disaster occurred are missing. No geological terms or information were forthcoming from the Vatican regarding the origin or science of the disaster. Specific victims were also nameless. The groups were identified as: “populations” and “people” (John Paul II, 2005, January 5, n.p.); “communities” (Vatican leads church, 2005, n.p.); “Asians” (Pope joins, 2005, n.p.); “world” and “children” (Pope prays for all, 2005, n.p.); “families” (Vatican prelate reflects, 2005, n.p.); and “souls” (Vatican mass, 2005, n.p.). The details of the “homeless” (Pope to offer mass, 2004, n.p.), the nature of the “suffering” (Pope joins, 2005, n.p.), and the condition of the “dead” (Vatican prelate reflects, 2005, n.p.) were missing. No specific ethnic or non-Christian religious groups were named. Similarly, no mention of previous conflict, terrorism, or war was found in the Vatican’s rhetoric. The location of the disaster remained at the national or regional levels, with specific communities and cities affected absent from the texts issued from the Pope and those who spoke for him from the Vatican.

Equally absent was the suggestion that God had a reason or the right to purposefully cause the tsunami. No specific reference was made to God as being vengeful or even powerful. In this manner, the Vatican embraced the mystery of the event and avoided the potentially controversial process of explaining why such an event would occur.

When examining the effects of the disaster and the desired actions sought by the Pope in response to the crisis, there is some divergence in what is present and absent in the texts. The negative effects of the disaster are mentioned, but absent are the details of what the destruction actually entailed. Facts are missing from the official Vatican communication about the disaster. This absence of specifics about the negative effects contrasts with the more specific strategies of efficacy reflected in the positive responses to the disaster and the strategies needed to respond further to the crisis.

In summary, the Pope and other Church leaders were explicit in the foregrounded information about what the world’s response should be to the tsunami disaster. With sufficient backgrounded information to provide a clearer picture of the reality as it presented itself following the crisis, the audiences were able to use their previous knowledge through references to Christian teachings, universal principles, and examples of divine intervention to make sense of what had transpired. The absence of more specific information about the details of the disaster and those affected enabled Vatican rhetoric to focus on how the people of the world should respond to the crisis.


The Vatican’s crisis rhetoric offered a clear message of identification, but failed to address directly the mystery of the crisis event. We discuss the relevance of this strategy form the perspective of Burke’s terministic pyramids and apply these observations to the sensemaking process of crisis communication.

Terministic Pyramids and Identification

The foregrounded information was based on language from the sociopolitical pyramid (Burke, 1966). The Vatican established “relief efforts” (Vatican bids generosity, 2004, n.p.) and “aid to victims” (Vatican prelate reflects, 2005, n.p.) as the primary objective. To achieve the world-wide response needed for such a severe disaster, the Vatican called for “solidarity” (Ireland, 2005, n.p.) and aspired to see “a future of greater generosity, cooperation and unity in the service of the common good” (Pope encourages joint efforts, 2005, n.p.). This foregrounded message made no mention of conflicts among groups or differences among ideologies. Instead, the primary objective was to unify in an effort to bring aid and comfort to those who were suffering. This approach was appropriate in that the Vatican offered a call to action that ignored differences and provided an irrefutably altruistic goal.

The backgrounded information touched on the natural order of the situation, but failed to provide any messages regarding causation. The Vatican made clear mention of the fact that an “earthquake” (Pope John Paul II prays, 2004, n.p.) had caused a “tsunami” (Papal prayers, 2004, n.p.), but there was no detailed discussion of the science. Similarly, the Vatican identified the region and every country whose shores had been ravaged by the tsunami, but no mention of the victims’ religion or political preferences were identified. In this manner, the Vatican made clear the action which was needed, why it was needed, and where it was needed. The only mention of God in the backgrounded information was a reference to young people discovering the “face of God” (John Paul II, 2005, January 6, n.p.) in their service to the “suffering” (Pope encourages joint efforts, 2005, n.p.). By establishing the background of the crisis relief effort without mention of the political and ideological tensions in the affected areas, the Vatican was able to maintain a focus on the immediate need of providing aid to thousands of suffering people. Any mention of the political and ideological tensions described above, would likely have only served to distract the audience from the Vatican’s primary goal of service.

The presupposed information addresses what Burke (1966) refers to as the verbal pyramid. The crisis event gave the Vatican an opportunity to connect the crisis with the story of Christ’s “suffering and resurrection” (John Paul II, 2005, January 22, n.p.). The Vatican’s message made consistent reference to the universality of “suffering” (John Paul II, 2005, January 5, n.p.), claiming “no one can feel a stranger to those who suffer” (Vatican leads church, 2005, n.p.). As consolation to those who lost loved ones in the tsunami, the Vatican mentioned life after death with such references as “our heavenly home” (Pope joins, 2005, n.p.). Each of these references calls upon the established beliefs of Christians. These beliefs call for tolerance for suffering, a hope of a brighter future, forgiveness, and the need to offer aid to those in need. At no point in the discussion of presupposed information, however, did the Vatican seek to provide a specific reason for the suffering. This ambiguous approach is consistent with the Vatican’s overall objective of fostering identification in the service to those in need.

The absent information identified in the analysis suggests a willingness and preference by the Vatican to accept and tolerate the mystery of the disaster. The Vatican viewed the tsunami in essence as, in Burke’s (1966) terms, a force of motion over which there is no worldly control. In so doing, the Vatican accepts the most basic hierarchical division—God’s supremacy over worldly powers. Yet, there was no speculation about God’s vengeance or any other possible motives for creating or allowing this disaster to occur. Thus, the supernatural dimension of the crisis received little attention from the Vatican.

Mystery and Sensemaking

The Vatican’s rhetoric did not address any specific cause or motive for the crisis. Instead, the Vatican employed a strategically ambiguous strategy that embraced the mystery of the event and allowed for multiple interpretations. We explain this observation further based on questions of evidence, intent and locus. As we noted above, these deal with, respectively, (1) the details or facts of the crisis, (2) the motive of the organization prior to the crisis, and (3) the cause of the crisis and who is to blame.

Questions of Evidence. The absence of references to the scientific information explaining the disaster resulted in ambiguity in the backgrounded information explaining exactly what happened. While the scientific description of what occurred could be found in the press (Lancaster, 2004), at no time was this information forthcoming from the Vatican. The choice not to include this information may or may not have been intentional. However, the fact that it was absent supports the argument that without specific evidence to the contrary, the ambiguity of the rhetoric enabled audiences to transcend between the reality of the here and now to the possibility that God had a divine purpose that was played out through the events surrounding the tsunami.

Questions of Intent. God’s involvement in the crisis brought into play Burke’s notion of action versus motion. The dialectic tension between those who argued that God intentionally struck Southeast Asia contrasted with those who contended that the act of nature was motion. The presupposed information was key in affecting the rhetoric of the Pope and those who spoke for him due to the transcendence experienced by audiences who acknowledged the mysticism of God’s previous intervention into history through the birth and resurrection of Jesus. The use of terminology associated with previous divine intervention furthered the presupposed view that God was capable of the action. However, in the absence of rhetoric suggesting God took such action, the questions behind God’s role remain clouded in mystery.

Questions of Locus. While Sellnow and Ulmer (2004) used these questions to determine who was responsible or to blame for the crisis, these questions are pertinent to the issue of identification within Burke’s discussion of consubstantiality. When exploring the theological issue of God’s role affecting communication about a crisis, the establishment of whose God we are talking about becomes relevant. The use of references to Christian beliefs and Judeo-Christian history helps to promote identification between the Church leaders and the audience. For Christians, God is the same being. This identification enables audiences to understand the rhetoric of the Church leaders as they explain the crisis. In addition, while secondary, the use of terms that appeal to a universal perspective enables those who are different from Christians in their beliefs to become consubstantial with Christians in what their response should be to the crisis.

Accepting the mystery of the tsunami’s supernatural origin proved effective in allowing the Vatican to meet its initial objective of raising money and providing aid. The Vatican’s ambiguity allowed for what Eisenberg (1984) described as allowing diverse groups to maintain “individual interpretations while at the same time believing that they are in agreement” (p. 231). The fact that the Vatican orchestrated a combined effort by Catholic relief agencies to raise $650 million is evidence that this strategy was effective. Yet, there is no evidence that the Vatican’s ambiguity contributed to the eventual need of the victims to have some sense of understanding and healing after the crisis. Seeger, Sellnow, and Ulmer (2003) explain that, as time passes and the acute phase of the crisis subsides, there is a lingering sense of loss and bitterness that must be addressed. Ulmer, Sellnow, and Seeger (2007) contend that, for victims to feel a sense of renewal after a crisis they must adopt a prospective rather than retrospective vision of the crisis. Turner (1976) describes this prospective post-crisis view as a readjustment of one’s belief system. For those who experienced the tsunami disaster directly and even for those whose vicarious experience was intense, the need for an adjusted belief system was not likely addressed in the Vatican’s initial rhetoric. Thus, the tolerance of mystery displayed by the Vatican could be useful for other agencies in the initial stages of crisis recovery. As time passes, however, the crisis literature suggests that messages of greater specificity may be needed to address the healing process of victims and observers.

In the prolonged aftermath of a major crisis, Turner (1976) contends that the crisis victims must adopt a new sense of what is normal. As explained above, Burke (1954) describes this altered outlook as a “higher vision” (p. 306). To fully grasp this new sense of normal or higher vision, crisis victims must undergo an extended post-crisis recovery process. Seeger et al. (2003) explain that this post crisis period typically involves messages of explanation, forgetting, remembering, and renewal. In short, crisis victims seek a better understanding of what occurred, move beyond the trauma emotionally, memorialize those who died, and embrace a transformed perception of order that gives them a renewed sense of purpose and fortitude. As the tsunami survivors continue their recovery process, their informational needs will shift from the sympathetic and ambiguous responses described here to a need for a better understanding of how to move past the event emotionally and how to enhance their warning systems for and resilience to similar crises in the future.


Neither the Pope nor Vatican representatives made any direct mention of the general argument that was prevalent in the world newspapers. Whether God could permit such a disaster on his people either as retribution or as natural occurrence is out of the question. Rather, in its rhetoric, the Roman Catholic Church strategically avoided being drawn into such argument or apportioning blame. Instead, the Church maintained the position that responding to the crisis was more important than determining with certainty who or what was responsible for causing it.

This position leaves the crisis communicator ample opportunity to move the stakeholders in any crisis forward for the common good. Such a position serves as a help to those affected in the crisis in their coping and healing process. The Church leaders concentrated their rhetoric on God’s love for the people affected by the disaster. The rhetoric of Vatican officials supported the presupposed belief that since God allowed Jesus to suffer in order to save the people of the world, everyone must be ready at all times to suffer for their own good. For the Catholics, the belief that God loves his people, and his love should prompt love and concern for others, is reflected in the foregrounded position that aid and support must be forthcoming from the world. The Catholic Church did not participate in the dialectic of whether or not God caused the tsunami. Instead, the Pope and those who spoke for him used their rhetoric to accomplish their objective of providing aid and support. The rhetoric reflected multiple objectives: the texts promoted identification and consubstantiation among Christians and non-Christians, relied on the mystery of action versus motion in establishing the disaster’s cause enabling audiences to experience transcendence with the possibility of divine intervention, and used ambiguity as a strategy to keep the attention of the world focused on mobilizing aid and support for the victims of the disaster.

Future research in this area should continue to explore the relationship between action and motion when examining how a crisis unfolds in organizations or in larger contexts. Are there signs that a crisis unfolds in predictable ways from specific actions or does a crisis acquire motion that, once started cannot be mitigated until the crisis has run its course? The further application of Burke’s conceptualization of action and motion to crisis situations may provide insight into this question. Another area for exploration involves how the cultural elements of crisis messages establishing identification must consider the perspectives of those who do not share the presupposed information necessary to make sense of the communication. Burke’s discussion of consubstantiation may help to explain how the recognition of difference may be helpful in crafting messages that must take different perspectives into account. Finally, further analysis of the role of ambiguity as a rhetorical strategy in crises that may appear to have mysterious causes or conditions might illustrate how crisis communicators can more effectively help victims of a crisis to make sense of a tragedy.

*Drs. Littlefield and Sellnow are Professors of Communication at North Dakota State University. Mr. Attansey is a priest and a doctoral student at North Dakota State University.


The Pope issued four statements through the Vatican News Service in the month of January, 2005: “General Audience” (5 January), “Angelus” (6 January), “Message of John Paul II to the President of the Pontifical Council ‘Cor Unum’ For Those Affected by the Tsunami in Southeast Asia” (22 January), and “Message of the Holy Father John Paul II for the 39th World Communications Day” (24 January).


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The Question of Kenneth Burke's Ethics

Timothy W. Crusius, Southern Methodist University

I have a problem to pose and notes toward an approach to solving it. The problem is summed up in the title of this essay, the question of Kenneth Burke’s ethics. I don’t have in mind assessing the moral value of Burke’s life or achievement—an interesting issue, no doubt, but not my concern. What I mean is: Can we fashion an ethics inspired by Burke’s thought?

Let’s consider the nature of the problem in more detail.

The Problem

First, at one point in his career, Burke planned to write An Ethic of Motives. For reasons unknown, it never appeared. Furthermore, we can’t piece an ethics together from what he did write as William Rueckert has done with A Symbolic. Almost everything Burke wrote has ethical implications, but very little focuses on ethics as such. Whoever would write An Ethic of Motives must range far beyond what Burke said.

Second, unfortunately I don’t believe we’ll get much help by exploring ethical philosophy. It’s chaotic: too many schools of thought, each entertaining its own assumptions, advancing its own premises, and arriving therefore at conclusions incommensurate with each other. As part of my research for Kenneth Burke and the Conversation after Philosophy, I read extensively in ethics from Aristotle to John Rawls. I had hoped to locate Burke within the tradition. I couldn’t because I couldn’t make sense out of the tradition.

Third, another aspect of the situation is that much of what Burke did say about ethics isn’t going to help us very much. For example, in Permanence and Change, Burke claims that language is “loaded with judgments” and “intensely moral.” That’s important because it means that the scientific drive toward a language that suspends judgment only takes us away from ethics. It also means that the neutral ideal is not where people live. We don’t and can’t exist beyond good and evil. But one can hold that language is intensely moral and adhere to any ethics whatsoever. Similarly, Burke tells us later, in his definition of human being, that we are “moralized by the negative.” Again, it’s important to understand what moralized by the negative implies: that human being is ineluctably moral being, always already caught up in “shalt not’s”. To be human is to be moral. But also again, one can believe this and entertain any ethical position whatsoever. You just can’t make an ethics out of such statements. They and others like them provide good reasons to want an ethic of motives, but nothing that will help create one.

In sum, then, the situation provides unusual freedom. We have in Burke himself only hints about the project. Much of what he did say about ethics only affirms its centrality without committing us to anything more. Whereas typically scholars must hack their way through a vast and tangled undergrowth of past discourse, we can leave the machete at home. Not much has been written about a book Burke never wrote, and reading ethics may be edifying but there’s no edifice that requires renovation or demolition. In a sense ethics is as much “not there” as An Ethic of Motives.

So much freedom is always threatening. Even if you’re fond of Derridean absences, you find yourself wishing for more to work with. It’s almost like confronting a pristine canvas with only some tubes of paint and a brush and the injunction to create something wonderful. I have a few observations that should at least give us a sketch to work with.

Towards a Solution

“We began with a theory of comedy, applied to a treatise on human relations,” Burke said, describing the origins of A Grammar of Motives. In other words, the entire Motivorum project begins in ethics, “a treatise on human relations.” Ethics is not an afterthought, merely something else added to A Grammar, A Rhetoric, and A Symbolic. Rather, ethics is Burke’s first and most recurrent impulse. What we should want and not want, what we should do and avoid doing is Burke’s subject first to last. It begins with a theory of comedy because that theory is normative, a matter of “ought” and “should.” Such formulations as “moralized by the negative” are descriptive, claims about what is. As we’ve already seen, you can’t make an ethics out of descriptive statements. In contrast, comedy offers a vision of the desirable, what ought to be. It embodies an attitude, how we should approach human relations. Ethics is nothing if not normative, and so you can fashion an ethics out of comic norms. And what does Burke say in Attitudes Toward History, where his theory of comedy is first developed? “Whatever poetry may be, criticism had best be comic” (ATH, 107).

Let’s alter the terms and ponder the implications of this statement instead: Whatever morality may be, an ethics had best be comic.

The statement implies, obviously, that morality and ethics are not the same thing. Actually morality means what the Greek word ethos means, “custom, disposition, character.” That is, for the most part we don’t construct our morality. It’s always already there, ready to come into play as soon as encounter a situation where what we ought to do becomes an issue. Consequently, if someone offered to write a morality, we’d find the proposal odd. You don’t write a morality. You live it. It’s your custom, your disposition, your character.

Now, if morality is ethos, what is ethics? Traditionally the answer would be, a branch of philosophy that reflects on morality and attempts to make its assumptions and principles explicit, so as to render a coherent account of what is right and good (or valuable). But the problem is that, so conceived, an ethics is virtually impossible. Alasdair MacIntyre complains that

We are Platonic perfectionists in saluting gold medalists in the Olympics, utilitarians in applying the principle of triage to the wounded in war, Lockeans in affirming rights over property; Christians in idealizing charity, compassion, and equal moral worth; and followers of Kant and Mill in affirming personal autonomy. No wonder that intuitions conflict in moral philosophies. No wonder people feel confused.
For MacIntyre, a traditional ethicist, this ethical confusion is something ethical philosophy must confront and overcome. For Burke and those of us who follow him I think it is something else entirely.

MacIntyre is right: Our moral convictions are inconsistent. But they are not so primarily because we are confused. They are so because morality is always a response to a situation. If you abstract from the situations, of course what you’ll get are batches of inconsistent moral principles. But this is precisely what we Burkeans wouldn’t or shouldn’t do. What is language for us? Symbolic action. And what is symbolic action? “A strategy for encompassing a situation.” Our morality enters the picture both in sizing up some situations and in the strategies we adopt for encompassing those situations.

What does this mean for an ethic of motives? It means it won’t be a situational ethics, but rather an ethic of situations. It means that it won’t do what philosophy has almost always done, abstract from situations in a futile effort to discover what is really and always right and good. Morality is part of that rhetorical concern the Greeks called kairos, a timely and appropriate response to a particular situation that we will never encounter in all its particulars again. An ethic of motives simply won’t attempt to do what philosophy tries to do—render morality coherent.

You see, then, why I have largely abandoned the ethical tradition and why I have ceased trying to place Burke within it. For the most part an ethics of motives will be, as they used to say on Monte Python, something “completely different.” But how exactly different?

First and most importantly, it will be comic. Comedy supplies our goal, Burke’s ad bellum purificandum, “toward the purification of war.” We won’t be able to eliminate conflict in human relations, but our ethic must strive to limit conflict to words, verbal conflict. We know, then, what we want. Furthermore, we know a lot about how we’ll approach the moral confusion MacIntyre described so well. Instead of solemnly undertaking to eliminate it, we’ll take the comic route of “appreciating” it instead. We will smile or laugh at our own and everybody else’s inconsistency because we know that morality cannot be any more consistent than situations are.

Second, an ethic of motives will be critical in the sense of having a depth dimension. Because we know what we want, limiting conflict to words, we’ll want to expose and criticize moral convictions and values that lead to war. Sometimes the convictions and values are so obviously war-like that we’ll require no depth dimension. When our President proclaims a war on terror and formulates a policy inaccurately labeled “preemptive war,” who needs anything but the surface? However, some moral convictions and notions of the good are not so obviously connected with war-making. We valorize competition, for example, without realizing that often it means cut-throat exploitation of natural resources and people, resulting in destitution, alienation, resentment, and of course often armed resistance. No, as Burke taught us in so many ways, we cannot take morality and notions of the good at face value. Even something we may love, like great tragedy, requires us to examine the ethics of noble sacrifice, something promoted every Memorial Day.

Third, a Burkean ethics must be embodied. Why? Because we are symbol-using animals. No doubt we would have no morality without language, and certainly no moral principles, since language is required to state them. But if we are moralized by the negative, we remain bodies, animals, flesh and blood, and many of our moral convictions and values are incomprehensible apart from bodily existence. Yet most traditional philosophy has tried to approach ethics abstractly and formally, as if it were an exercise in pure reason alone. This tendency can be traced all the way to Plato. To see a well-developed alternative, pick up George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (Basic Books, 1999). For ethics, see especially chapters 14 and 20. Of course, Burke’s philosophy was already philosophy in the flesh long before either Lakoff or Johnson were born. And we will have to go far beyond what Lakoff and Johnson have done. They are content to account for morality as metaphorical extensions of bodily needs. They miss all the ethical complications that arise solely from our symbol-engendered motivations. It takes language, as Burke pointed out, to hate as one’s enemy a people living thousands of miles away, whom we have never met and don’t understand. A Burkean ethics must be critical, especially of the motivations that arise from notions like “the American century.” I mention Lakoff and Johnson mainly to indicate that the way to an embodied ethics is now open to a degree it hasn’t been before.

Fourth, and last, an ethic of motives must be ecological in Burke’s extended sense of the term. Yes, Burke has in mind ecology in its usual meaning, preserving the planet. If this doesn’t happen, clearly we can anticipate the end of ethics because the symbol-using animal will cease to exist. Ecology and embodiment are as tightly related as comedy and criticism. But Burke also means by ecology resistance to any unbalanced conceptions and values that happen to exist in our curve of history. He emphasized himself our over-commitment to technological manipulation, but we could adduce many other instances of investment in ways and means that violate social and cultural “ecology.” In short, a Burkean ethics will be a more or less constant counter-statement, as Burke’s first book was. It will be an ethics of resistance.

To return to our original question: Can we create an ethic of motives inspired by Burke’s thought? Clearly, we can. But should we? What might we gain if we fleshed out an ethic of motives?

First, we could show that rhetoric and ethics are not fundamentally different, much less fundamentally at odds. They come together in kairos, the timely and appropriate, and in another Greek concept of great significance for both rhetoric and ethics, phronesis, roughly translated as “practical judgment.” Put another way, rhetoric and ethics are both arts, practical arts, with everything that “practical art” implies. They are not Philosophical, capital “P.” They are situational. They are discursive. They are men and women reasoning together to try to discover what is right and good in this particular case or set of circumstances. Asking questions like, “What is the Good?” may be pleasant prompts for discussion in a philosophy class, but they offer little guidance or help. That’s what I meant by saying that an ethic of motives must be an ethic of situations. It will be a situational ethics only in the sense that all moral judgments and acts are situated.

Second, instead of wasting time pursuing abstractions like the Right and the Good, we must flesh out, be as concrete and detailed as we can, about an ethics based on understanding ourselves as “symbol-using animals.” Let’s be clear about this. We are not angels. We are not even creatures of pure intellect, try as we might to reduce ourselves to disembodied minds. Nor are we complicated rats. Or blond beasts. We are ground apes, social animals, that first stood upright and then acquired language. We are totally dependent on our bodies, and our bodies are totally dependent on the relatively narrow range of environmental conditions required to sustain them. What, then, should we want? What should matter to us? Also: We not only use symbols—they use us. Burke’s motto might be a variation on something Thoreau said: “Symbols are in the saddle and they ride mankind.” What, then, should we want? What should matter to us? How can we come together in a comic society of plain Adams and Eves, flesh and blood, rather than be “goaded by the spirit of hierarchy” and “rotten with perfection”? If we can’t learn to recognize and control our symbol-driven motives, how can we be ethical?

It may sound overly grand and maybe even another symbolic delusion, but the world needs a Burkean ethics. We have to stop believing that it matters if my God is different from your God. Or even that it matters if you have no God at all. We have to stop believing that piles of dead bodies signify transcendent value. In short and in sum, Burkean ethics is about putting the skids on self-victimage. “We have met the enemy and they are us,” Pogo famously proclaimed, something a comic ethics must never forget. Can we meet ourselves as something other than the enemy? That’s the great challenge, the perpetually unrealized possibility, the frontier we’ll never run out of, the final end and purpose of ethics.

*Timothy W. Crusius is an associate professor of English at Southern Methodist University. His books includes Kenneth Burke and the Conversation after Philosophy, Discourse: A Critique and Synthesis of Major Theories, A Teacher's Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics, and The Aims of Argument: A Rhetoric and Reader, which he coauthored with Carolyn Channell. This essay was originally presented to the the Sixth Triennial Kenneth Burke Conference, Penn State University (State College), July 2005.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. 3d edit. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

---. A Grammar of Motives. 1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

---. Permanence and Change. 3d edit. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Crusius, Timothy W. Kenneth Burke and the Conversation after Philosophy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

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Remembering Bernard Brock and Leland Griffin: Introduction

This year we have witnessed the passing of two major scholars of Burke studies: Bernard L. Brock and Leland M. Griffin. The Kenneth Burke Society has recognized the contributions of both men to Burke studies through its Lifetime Achievement Award. In the previous issue we included a brief remembrance of Professor Brock by Jim Klumpp. Here we remember and honor the contributions of both men with essays by their former students. James W. Chesebro offers his personal remembrances of Dr. Brock and a review of his contributions to rhetorical studies generally and Burke studies particularly. This essay was originally presented as part of a panel remembering Dr. Brock at the Eastern Communication Association Convention in April 2006. Mark Wright considers Dr. Griffin’s contributions to our work in an original essay commissioned by KB Journal.

Remembering Bernard L. Brock

James W. Chesebro, Ball State University

It is difficult to find the words to adequately capture why so many of us remember Bernard L. Brock as a marvelous, scholarly, and caring man. For his students--such as myself--he was initially an inspiring teacher. But, our relationship evolved. Bernie gradually became an informed and wise mentor. With additional time, he became a supportive and sharing colleague. Ultimately, I believe, Bernie was a sensitive—if not compassionate--friend.

In these few words, I cannot do justice to Bernie as a teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend. But, I do want to do three things here today. First, I want to provide a little background about Bernie, background that explains the man we knew. Second, I want to provide some of my personal reflections about Bernie—these are the reflections of his first Ph.D. candidate and a friend who knew him for forty years. Third, I want to identify three of Bernie’s contributions to the discipline of communication.


Bernie, as we all knew him, was born on June 15, 1932, in Elkhart, Indiana. Following open-heart surgery, he died of cardiac staphylococcal infection on Friday evening, on March 31, 2006, at the age of 73, in Detroit, Michigan.

Of the many things that can be said about Bernie, he was always a scholar and professor.

Yet, his academic career was easy to summarize.

He was formally educated in the state of Illinois. He graduated from Arlington High School in Arlington, Illinois, in 1950. He received his bachelor’s degree from Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, in 1954. He taught and coached high school debate in Illinois. He decided to continue his formal education. He received both his masters’ degree in 1961 and his Ph.D. degree in 1965 from Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois.

Likewise, his academic career is relatively concise. He taught at only two institutions. Bernie came to the University of Minnesota in 1965 as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted to Associate Professor. He was then hired and appointed as a full Professor at Wayne State University in 1972. He stayed at Wayne State University until his retirement. On June 14, 1997, in a wonderful ceremony, we celebrated his retirement in Detroit. My picture of Bernie and I at that retirement ceremony hangs in my home office. I look at it everyday. In all, Bernie taught at the university level for 32 years.

Before I consider Bernie’s specific scholarly contributions, let me share a few personal remembrances. I think these personal notes reflect what so many of his students felt as they interacted with Bernie. These remembrances provide a host of insights into Bernie as the man who does scholarship, a scholarship decided to influence society, and a scholarship with and for others.

Personal Reflections

In terms of my personal experiences with Bernie, I need to go back some forty years now. Indeed, Bernie and I celebrated our fortieth year as colleagues in September of 2005. In 1965, I was a junior at the University of Minnesota, majoring in speech communication, and a debater. Bernie joined the Minnesota faculty in September of 1965, and part of his responsibilities including coaching the debate team. So, that first year, I met Bernie as a debate coach and as a student in several of his courses including campaigns and movements and communication for the classroom teacher.

It is during this period that I first read Bernie’s dissertation. I was impressed, and I made of copy of one chapter in particular. Chapter III, “Content Analysis,” provided a scheme for analyzing rhetoric that Bernie described as a “system.” Indeed, in some ways, we could now classically identify Bernie as a structuralist.1 But, in his terminologies, he advocated the use of a system, a system of analysis. This system, Bernie noted, “must be sensitive to the substance of the political positions as well as to the normal rhetorical devices” (1965, p. 51). For Bernie, this Burkeian analysis was always his “system” of analysis.

When I received my bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota, Bernie guided and helped me select the school for my master’s degree, and he provided me advice on my first job. At this juncture, Bernie became my mentor. In 1969, I returned to the University of Minnesota for my Ph.D. Bernie Brock was my adviser, and I was his first Ph.D. candidate. But, during this period, we also team-taught a course, coauthored a book, and presented joint convention papers. In this regard, we gradually shifted from a mentor relationship to colleagues.

When I left Minnesota for my first job at Temple University in Philadelphia, one of my most outstanding remembrances was when Bernie and I first shared and consoled each other when we had simultaneously experienced major interpersonal crises. At that time, I knew we had shifted from being more than colleagues; we were truly friends in every sense of the word, a friendship I have valued as one of my most important relationships.

During the next twenty five years, we were continually and constantly interacting. In the late 1980s, I began a collaboration with Bernie and Bob Scott that produced the third edition of Methods of Rhetorical Criticism in 1990. In 1993, Bernie contributed to a volume I was editing, Extensions of the Burkeian System. I contributed to his edited volume, Kenneth Burke and Contemporary European Thought: Rhetoric in Transition, published in 1995. On June 14, 1997, I attended and spoke at the ceremony honoring Bernie’s retirement at Wayne State University. At the time of his death, Bernie, I, and my student Dale Bertelsen were collaborating and working together on the fourth edition of Methods of Rhetorical Criticism, to be published by Roxbury Press in 2007. In my mind, this publication will formally mark our 40th anniversary as colleagues as well as our transition from a student-teacher relationship, to a mentorship and colleague relationship, finally to being colleagues and friends.

Indeed, our path has been virtually the same in so many ways. Some of the markers have been vivid. In 1996, I was one of those nominating Bernie for the Kenneth Burke Society Lifetime Achievement award. Three years after he received it, in 1999, I received that same award. When I did, I thought of Bernie and said what Kenneth Burke had once said when reflecting on one who inspired him. I thought of Bernie and said, “without whom not.”

From these remembrances, let me recall my uses of systems of analysis that Bernie created which brings me to Bernie’s contributions to the discipline of communication.

Brock’s Three Contributions to the Discipline of Communication

Bernie has played a host of roles in the discipline of communication. Certainly, he has been a critic, and a critic of presidential rhetoric. But, he has also been one who crafts rhetorical methods. And, he particularly loved to develop systems that provided comprehensive and systematic ways of accounting for all persuaders along coherent dimensions. And, at the end of his career, a new perspective emerged. At this juncture, let me detail three specific contributions that Bernie made to the discipline of communication.

The Four Political Positions

First, Bernie contributed to our understanding of the nature of political persuasion and the rhetorical structure of the political process. While images were always important to Bernie when dealing with politics, he remained forever convinced that our belief systems, our political ideologies, guided—if not controlled—our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. And, Bernie was systematic in his conception of ideology, and he posited that there were four political positions. When characterizing these four political positions, Bernie has used two interlocking dimensions, response to change and use of institutions to distinguish systematically four political positions from radical to liberal to conservative to reactionary. In this system, all options are accounted for, each political position has unique characteristics, and all political agents are simultaneously defined in terms of each other. Bernie’s system conveys the sense that all possibilities are accounted for while also accounting for transformations by diverse political agents.

I did use this radical-liberal-conservative-reactionary framework when I considered the role and use of change and institutions when dealing with international cultures. In volume 21 of the International and Intercultural Communication Annual in 1998, I proposed a scheme for “distinguishing cultural systems” with “change as a variable” for “explaining and predicting cross-cultural communication.”2 While Brock’s terminology of radical-liberal-conservative-reactionary did not appropriately fit a discussion of cultural systems, I did use a system that exactly parallels what Brock had developed. When explaining the kinds of change that dominate cultural systems, I suggested the use of a revolutionary-evolutionary-stability-involution scheme for classifying the world’s cultures. Ultimately, for Bernie, his 2005 volume, Making Sense of Political Ideology: The Power of Language in Democracy3, was important to him, because it reflected the system of thought he developed in 1965, but also because so many of the students he so valued—Mark E. Huglen, James F. Klumpp, and Sharon Howell—were coauthors of the volume with him.


Bernie’s second contribution to the discipline of communication focused on his conception of how change and transformation occurred, a process he identified as the dramatistic structure and process. I have most extensively used Bernie’s dramatistic structure and process of pollution-guilt-purification-redemption. I used Bernie’s dramatistic scheme as stages in connection with Northrop Frye’s types of communication dramas to isolate the ways in which irony, mime, leadership, romance, and myth can be distinguished as communication systems. Linking Brock and Frye in this way, I developed a 4 x 5 grid that I have used to classify prime-time television series from 1974-1975 through the 1998-1999 television season. In all, over a twenty-five year period, 1,365 television series were classified into this scheme. This scheme was used to mark transformations in idealism and individualism during the last quarter of a century. As I noted in the most recent publication of this analysis:

In order to identify operationally and systematically the unique pattern of dramatic action that characterizes each communication system, Kenneth Burke’s (1961/1970, pp. 4-5) “dramatistic process” has been employed. As originally adapted by Brock (1965) and then as extended and used in a modified form here, all human dramas are carried out in four discrete stages. These stages . . . are: (1) Pollution . . . (2) Guilt . . . (3) Purification . . . and (4) Redemption.4

Beyond using Brock’s scheme to complete a 25-year longitudinal study of prime-time television series, I should also note that I did interim reports on this study at four year, seven-year, eleven-year, eighteen-year as well as at the twenty-five year intervals. Finally, I used this same scheme to track changes in popular music from 1955 through 1982.5 When dealing with popular music, I detected a cyclical pattern of development in which popular music returned to its the rock ‘n’ roll origins. Like myself, others continue to find additional uses of Brock’s dramatistic structure and process.

Spiritual Communication

Bernie’s third contribution to the discipline of communication began to emerge toward the end of his career. Bernie had long been considering how humanism and spiritualism influence human symbol-using. Additionally, part of this inspiration came from his own self-examinations as well as Kenneth Burke’s examinations of Christian Science. Finally, in 2004, as Editor of Review of Communication, I was able to convince Bernie to explore what he was thinking about. In the April-June 2005 issue of Review of Communication, Bernie examined a genre of communication he identified as “spiritual communication.”6

Yet, Bernie’s exploration in this essay was not a radical departure. Indeed, his analysis constituted an evolution and development from his earlier works. For example, he believed that a major trend was occurring in the United States, a trend from “physical well-being” to “spirituality” (p. 88). Additionally, he believed that two structures or “models”—the “fall/redemption” and “blessing/growth”—could account for recently published volumes dealing with spiritual communication.

At the same time, Bernie’s explorations within this area constituted a break-through in some extremely fundamental ways. Bernie began to consider a new rhetorical scheme that was not grounded in the dramatistic structure and process. Indeed, Bernie suggested that spiritual communication itself was undergoing a transformation. He concludes his analysis of “spiritual communication” by suggesting it was undergoing a transformation from a system and discourse based in “fall/redemption”—the foundation of the dramatistic structure and process—to a system and discourse based upon “blessing/growth” (p. 99). This “blessing/growth” model did not emphasize the “”falling from grace” that Bernie believed was central to Burke’s “idea of Order” (p. 89). In sharp contrast, the “blessing/growth” model began with a premise of “continuous change, growth and progress,” an orientation Bernie believed that had its “roots in traditional Eastern religions like Buddhism” (p. 91). Here the first step of the “blessing/growth” model was the recognition of “change, evolution, healing, blessing, growth, and new things.” In this view, we begin as human beings—held Bernie—with and tap into an “eternal, creative energy and activity associated with wisdom and play” (p. 91). This process ends on a final stage of “transformation.” This final “transformation,” Bernie held, “charts how individual transformation occurs through a variety of paths” which “a person is able to build creatively,” “with God,” and thereby “gain a positive life experience” (p. 92).

Bernie’s contribution here would take the discipline of communication in a new direction. It suggests that communication itself is initially and predominantly a blessing, a growth experience, a way of changing, a form of healing, and a transformation.

Beyond the discipline of communication, I personally think that Bernie increasingly found communication to be such an experience for him. His description of spiritual communication was a description of his own experience with human communication. He ended his life with the kind of realization that only a few come to know.


As a concluding comment, let me note that, in all, Bernie’s contributions have been impressive and insightful. His work in methodology has exerted powerful and overwhelmingly significant contributions to the discipline of communication. And, I also think Bernie’s influence is reflected in his students and colleagues, such as myself, who have used his constructs so directly in their work. But, in the final analysis, it was the man himself who counted. Bernie made communication a blessing, a growth experience, and a transformation. In all, Bernie did what he hoped he would do: As a teacher, he inspired; As a mentor, he informed and gave wisdom; As a colleague, he supported and shared; and, finally, in the final analysis, he was a sensitive and compassionate friend.

There is no easy way to say “thank you” in academic environments.

Certainly, the memorial services and commemorative panels in his name this year are more than appropriate. But, how can we say “thank you”? Once again, in the words of a man Bernie respected so much, one final statement seems to work, “Without whom not.”


*James W. Chesebro (Ph.D., University of Minnesota, 1972) is Distinguished Professor of Telecommunications and Director of the Department of Telecommunications’ Digital Storytelling Master’s Program at Ball State University. A version of this paper was presented at the Eastern Communication Association convention in Philadelphia, PA, in April 2006, and at the National Communication Association convention in San Antonio, TX, in November 2006.

1. In this regard, see one of the classical statements of structuralism: Pierre Bourdieu, “Structuralism and Theory of Sociological Knowledge,” Sociological Research, 35 (Winter 1968), pp. 681-706.

2. James W. Chesebro, “Distinguishing Cultural Systems: Change as a Variable Explaining and Predicting Cross-Cultural Communication” (pp. 177-192) in Communication and Identity Across Cultures, edited by D. V. Tanno and A. Gonzalez (International and Intercultural Communication Annual, Vol. 21). Thousand OaksCommunication and Identity Across Cultures, edited by D. V. Tanno and A. Gonzalez (International and Intercultural Communication Annual, Vol. 21). Thousand Oaks

3. Bernard L. Brock, Mark E. Huglen, James F. Klumpp, and Sharon Howell, Making Sense of Political Ideology: The Power of Language in Democracy (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005).

4. James W. Chesebro, “Communication, Values, and Popular Television Series—A Twenty-Five Year Assessment and Final Conclusions,” Communication Quarterly, 51 (Fall 2003), 367-418, especially pages 371-372.

5. J. W. Chesebro, D. A. Foulger, J. E. Nachman, & A. Yannelli. (1985, June). Popular music as a mode of communication, 1955-1982. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 2, 115-135.

6. Bernard L. Brock, “Spiritual Communication,” Review of Communication, 5 (April-July 2005), pp. 88-99. The quotations and page references in this context are all to Brock’s analysis of spiritual communication in this essay.

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A Remembrance of Leland Griffin

Mark Wright, Tsuda College, Tokyo, Japan

On June 24th of this year, Burkeian scholars lost one of their oldest colleagues. Much could be written about Leland Griffin’s fine character, but here the focus will of necessity be upon his contributions to Burkeian rhetorical theory and criticism. As I must treat complex matters in little space, forgive me in advance if I oversimplify.

Leland M. Griffin was born in 1920 and worked at Northwestern from 1956 until his retirement in 1989. Besides his research into rhetorical form and social movements, Griffin organized an early Burke conference in 1965 and received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1990 National Kenneth Burke Society convention. Later he was nominated for the NCA’s Mentor Award fund.

Griffin is best remembered for three essays in which he gradually integrated his ideas about the structure of social movements with an impressive range of Burkeian theory. In the earliest such essay, 1952’s “The Rhetoric of Historical Movements,” Griffin outlined his now familiar three-stage structure of successful movements: inception, rhetorical crisis and consummation. Griffin was inspired by a paper by Wichelns at the 1946 SAA conference to outline an alternative area of rhetorical study to single-speech or single-rhetor studies (184). This essay is too early to mention Kenneth Burke but the theory was ripe for the introduction of a Burkeian theory of motives since Griffin argued that it was most important to study the “rhetorical pattern[s]” of movements (188). As published, the essay’s warrants for such a focus are that the theory of the three stages needs to be tested, we may learn something about great orators, we may come to appreciate less significant speakers, and we may find that history may “be conceived in terms of movements rather than of individuals” (188).

Almost immediately movement studies began appearing in communication journals. Griffin’s most important contribution was 1964’s “The Rhetorical Structure of the ‘New Left’ Movement: Part I,” which traced efforts to establish a presciently named “New Left” which would be neither communist nor liberal. There Griffin began to integrate Burkeian theory into his rhetorical theory of social movements. By this time Griffin had evidently read Permanence and Change through A Grammar of Motives, as his citations are all from those works. He charted a series of equations adding up to a “comic frame” which, following Burke, might be called “humanism” (115). In a series of footnotes, Griffin drew the reader’s attention toward Burke’s work with Marxism, and warned that Burke’s ideas had changed over time, so it would be well to pay attention to differences between the various editions of his early books (115). Griffin also explained the New Left’s emphasis upon peace as a Scene/Act ratio whereby a new scene creates new acts in dialectical interaction (121). Burkeian theory also helped Griffin extend his description of the inception phase of movements, especially the importance of symbols of authority in the development of identity (128).

Griffin’s most important work of Burkeian theory is the 1969 essay “A Dramatistic Theory of the Rhetoric of Movements.” In Griffin’s own words, “The essay involves a synthesis of materials – words, phrases, and concepts – which have been drawn, almost wholly, from the terminology of Burke” (456). Especially notable was Griffin’s use of the recently published A Rhetoric of Religion.Griffin identified his earlier phases of rhetorical movement with Burke’s paradigm of history. As a result, inception comes to consist of Order, Guilt and the Negative, rhetorical crisis of Victimage and Mortification, and consummation of Catharsis and Redemption. More than a model of movements, the essay is a survey of later Burkeian theory, a representative anecdote which has made Burke more accessible to many young scholars.

Along with Herbert Simon’s sociological approach to movements, Griffin’s conception of social movement held sway until 1980, when meta-analyses of movement criticism seemingly burst into regional journals. The opening salvo might be regarded as Dan F. Hahn and Ruth M. Gonchar’s “Social Movement Theory: A Dead End.” While they did not directly address Griffin’s essays, they made the relevant argument that there is no such thing as a unique “rhetorical” movement. Hence there is no uniquely rhetorical theory necessary to study movements (64). That line of argument and others appeared during the same year in a special issue of The Central States Speech Journal. Griffin began by noting that when movement criticism began, rhetorical critics saw themselves as a type of historical critic, so that movement studies had not changed so much as critics’ self conceptions (230). He also welcomed a greater number of approaches to movements since all offered partial perspectives (231-32). David Zarefsky developed Hahn and Gonchar’s position by arguing that the historical study of unique movements may be valuable as history, but that movements have not been shown to employ unique types of argument (252). Michael Calvin McGee repeated an earlier radical critique that the social movement is purely an imaginary idea, a “meaning” rather than a “phenomenon” (237-38). Stephen E. Lucas and Ralph R. Smith argued, separately, that it was too soon to decide whether there were rhetorical movements or not; much more movement criticism was needed (265). They also began to respond to McGee. Robert Cathcart argued in Griffin’s defense that it was only when the context of “rhetoric of confrontation” was ignored that movements could be said to be non-rhetorical (272-73). Yet he also argued that it was not enough for a group to call itself a movement for a rhetorical movement to exist. These arguments were repeated three years later in a “Special Report” in The Central States Speech Journal. Bernard Brock, the editor of the special report, could only conclude “that differences among the approaches outnumber the similarities” (82).

Indeed, Brock was right. Yet some of the confusion among that hornet’s nest of disciplinary argument could have been easily resolved if a stronger Burkeian perspective had been applied. For example, in answer to McGee, one might have noted that since humans invented the negative and since there are no negatives in nature, the non-existence of movements is just as much a “meaning” as their existence. From this perspective, the distinction collapses. In any case, rhetorical study of movements has continued as a methodological option if nothing else. The data that Griffin and others desired has been accumulating, and it waits for a bold Burkeian theorist to make sense of it.

Griffin’s most neglected work is 1984’s “When Dreams Collide: Rhetorical Trajectories in the Assassination of President Kennedy,” published in The Quarterly Journal of Speech. Here Griffin used Burke’s definition of rhetoric as “addressed,” arguing that Lee Harvey Oswald engaged in self-address in his personal journal, where he imagined himself to be the leader of a social movement behind Kennedy’s assassination. This essay is the true second part to Griffin’s study of the New Left, and the material from Oswald’s diaries is perfectly chosen to illuminate the theoretical issue.

In sum, Burkeian studies has lost a creative and influential pioneer. One of Griffin’s sons once told me that Lee loved teaching and had a lot of difficulty writing. Be that as it may, his struggle to write was without a doubt worthwhile. If there were an influence-per-essay statistic, Griffin would rank near the top. Hopefully his contributions will be revisited, appreciated and extended by generations of scholars to come.

Works Cited

Andrews, James R. “A Historical Perspective on the Study of Social Movements.” The Central States Speech Journal 34 (Spring 1983): 67-69.

Andrews, James R. “History and Theory in the Study of the Rhetoric of Social Movements.” The Central States Speech Journal 31 (Winter 1980): 274-81.

Bertelson, Dale. “Synopsis of the 1990 National Kenneth Burke Society Convention.” Kenneth Burke Society Newsletter 6.2 (October 1990): 1-6.

Brock, Bernard L. “Editor’s Commentary.” The Central States Speech Journal 34 (Spring 1983): 80-82.

Cathcart, Robert S. “A Confrontation Perspective on the Study of Social Movements.” The Central States Speech Journal 34 (Spring 1983): 69-74.

Cathcart, Robert S. “Defining Social Movements by Their Rhetorical Form.” The Central States Speech Journal 31 (Winter 1980): 267-73.

Griffin, Leland M. “A Dramatistic Theory of the Rhetoric of Movements.” In William M. Rueckert, ed., Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke 1924-1962. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969.

---. “The Edifice Metaphor in Rhetorical Theory.” Speech Monographs 27 (November 1960): 279-92.

---. “The Edifice Metaphor in Rhetorical Theory.” Speech Monographs 27 (November 1960): 279-92.

---. “Letter to the Press: 1778.” The Quarterly Journal of Speech 33 (April 1947): 148-50.

---. “On Studying Movements.” The Central States Speech Journal 31 (Winter 1980): 225-32.

---. “The Rhetoric of Historical Movements.” The Quarterly Journal of Speech 38 (April 1952): 184-88.

---. “The Rhetorical Structure of the Antimasonic Movement.” In Bryant, Donald C., ed., The Rhetorical Idiom Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1958: 145-59.

---. “The Rhetorical Structure of the ‘New Left’ Movement: Part I.” The Quarterly Journal of Speech 50 (April 1964): 113-35.

---. “When Dreams Collide: Rhetorical Trajectories in the Assassination of President Kennedy.” The Quarterly Journal of Speech 70 (May 1984): 111-31.

Hahn, Dan F., and Ruth M. Gonchar. “Social Movement Theory: A Dead End.” Communication Quarterly 28 (Winter 1980): 60-64.

Jablonski, Carol J. “Promoting Radical Change in the Catholic Church: Rhetorical Requirements, Problems and Strategies of the American Bishops.” The Central States Speech Journal 31 (Winter 1980): 282-89.

Lucas, Stephen E. “Coming to Terms with Movement Studies.” The Central States Speech Journal 31 (Winter 1980): 255-66.

McGee, Michael Calvin. “Social Movement as Meaning.” The Central States Speech Journal 34 (Spring 1983): 74-77.

McGee, Michael Calvin. “’Social Movement: Phenomenon or Meaning?” The Central States Speech Journal 31 (Winter 1980): 233-44.

Simons, Herbert W. “On Terms, Definitions and Theoretical Distinctiveness: Comments on Papers by McGee and Zarefsky.” The Central States Speech Journal 31(Winter 1980): 306-15.

Smith, Ralph R. “The Historical Criticism of Movements.” The Central States Speech Journal 31 (Winter 1980): 290-97.

Stewart, Charles J. “A Functional Approach to the Rhetoric of Social Movements.” The Central States Speech Journal 31 (Winter 1980): 298-305.

Stewart, Charles J. “A Functional Approach to the Rhetoric of Social Movements.” The Central States Speech Journal 34 (Spring 1983): 77-80.

Zarefsky, David. “A Skeptical View of Movement Studies.” The Central States Speech Journal 31 (Winter 1980): 245-54.

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Julie Whitaker's Preface to Kenneth Burke's LATE POEMS, 1958-1993

Preface by Julie Whitaker to Late Poems, 1968–1993: Attitudinizings Verse-wise, While Fending for One's Selph, and in a Style Somewhat Artificially Colloquial by Kenneth Burke. Edited by Julie Whitaker and David Blakesley.© 2005 by the University of South Carolina.

I look upon lyrics as the ideal succinct way of dancing an attitude.

Poetry is steps along the way. Every once in a while, something gets summed up in a developmental way, along with a pronounced attitude (some emotion or sentiment) and that's a poem.

—Kenneth Burke

For more than fifty years, Kenneth Burke lived in an old farmhouse in northern New Jersey, first with his second wife, Libbie, and their two sons. After her death and their departure, he carried on by himself. In his regular dress of soft shoes, corduroy trousers, a loose plaid shirt, and a sweater vest, he worked away. His crooked figure, topped with a shock of white hair and bent over a book or a paper, was a friendly picture. He had filled the space with distinctly KB ambiance. Every table or counter or shelf was covered with notes, newspapers, letters, boxes, and stacks of books piled precipitously so that to enter the kitchen where he worked was a challenge. Although one would assume that chaos reigned, KB was remarkably adept at locating a particular item when he needed it.

I knew KB from 1978 to 1993, a period when Libbie was not there to help him organize and sort, so the space in the house had diminished as all available surfaces got covered up. However, he was always accommodating and willing to move the stacks aside a bit to make room for a visitor. The kitchen was the warmest room in the winter (no central heating) and the liveliest in the summer; KB did not isolate himself but worked in the midst of all the comings and goings of the household. In the summertime, preparation of meals, visits from nieces and nephews, the running in and out of children and grandchildren all swirled around him, punctuated with occasional visits from KB scholars or students. He would stand over the end of the table and, with phenomenal concentration, peruse the newspapers, journals, or texts at his elbow, circling words or underlining phrases with a red pen; or he would sit at his typewriter, using just his index fingers to type, and answer a letter or compose an article.

Words were everywhere, in the air and on the page. Scraps of paper, old mailings, leftover envelopes would do for him to scratch down an idea or sketch a short poem in a penmanship that often required considerable expertise to decipher. He was alert to the moment, and that is what he caught in his poems. Whether he admired a grandchild or found himself waiting in line at a grocery store, that moment interested him as a subject of a poem. In an unpublished manuscript, he wrote, "In verse I should be willing to be momentary—say anything for as long as it lasts."1 That willingness to be momentary informed the way he worked and the poetry he wrote.

KB died in November 1993 at age ninety-six. Looking at the books and boxes stacked high in the kitchen without KB at the table, I was aware of the tremendous loss. All the words were there, typed, on paper, safe for another season, but the contest, the real-life conversations were gone. The boxes appeared listless and tired, as if they needed a winter's rest. On a cold, gray day, we packed stray papers in yet more boxes, put away the typewriter, and closed up the house for the winter.

The rituals of sorting and saving, organizing and cleaning, began in the spring. When we opened up the house, the boxes greeted us, forming a fairly formidable wall. They had themselves become a presence, so it was with a hesitant hand that I opened the first one. Then the wonder of the contents began to unfold. The newspapers, advertisements for household products, and empty folders that I had expected to find alternated with letters written to students and friends, notes scrawled in the margins of news articles, or typewritten musings on sheets of paper. And there were the poems. Some were in folders, typed and obviously set aside for a purpose; some were addressed to friends and colleagues; and others were scribbled down on the backs of envelopes.

For all the apparent confusion, KB did have a particular sense of order. I began to sense categories, a design. He had already published two books of poetry, The Book of Moments, Poems 1950-1954, and Collected Poems: 1915-1967, but since the late 1960s, his poetry had not been collected and updated. Some of the poems had appeared in periodicals and journals such as the New Republic, Critical Inquiry, or Communication, but many of those tucked away in various folders had not yet been published. As I came across more and more poems, KB's intention to eventually publish them was increasingly clear: here was another collection in the making.

That summer I emptied most of the boxes and organized, in a rough sort of way, the papers, letters, and manuscripts I found. It was a large task, so I took time off the following winter to work specifically on the folders of poems that KB had obviously set apart for publication as well as on those poems that I found here and there interspersed among other papers. In recopying the poems, I took care to consider the context in which I found them. If there was more than one version, I selected the most recent for inclusion in the present volume. There is some repetition of stanzas, because KB rearranged their order or placed the same stanza in more than one poem. (For example, the same stanza appears among other stanzas under three different titles: "Statements of Attitude," "A Juxtaposition," and "Vietnam.")

To KB, poems were moments of thought that sprang into being and were put down without the strict editing and rewriting requirements of his prose. He talked about the difference between prose patience and verse patience:

Prose patience tries to consider all the complicating factors in a given situation. Verse patience tries to state the position as “purely” as possible. Thus, when in prose criticism, I write on death, I work out fifteen or twenty possible meanings for the term. When I write on death in verse, it's just because I suddenly get scared to death of dying, and that's all there is to it, except for a notion here and there as to how I might patch up a line or drop a line because it seemed to state the given moment or attitude inefficiently.2

True to KB’s desire to express the moment, I found surprisingly little evidence of his revising the poems. Often the same version would appear in more than one folder, or he would send the same version to more than one person. Given his tendency to keep all his notes and papers, it is unlikely that he would have thrown out alternate versions. In cases such as "Eye-Crossing—from Brooklyn to Manhattan," where two versions have been published, I have included the longer and more complete version as well as KB's glosses on it.

KB took pleasure in modifying traditional spellings: "selph" instead of "self," for example, or "godam" rather than "god damn," “ecstacatic" rather than "ecstatic," "flowerishes" rather than "flourishes." This is the sort of quirkiness that can drive an editor mad, but I have maintained the original spelling or misspelling.

In this collection, the poems are arranged in approximate chronological order. Some of the poems were dated by KB, some were included in dated letters to friends, and others included personal or political references that places them in time. The folders in which some of the poems were stored and their proximity to dated documents also suggested the general time frames in which they were written. Following KB's example in Collected Poems, I tried to cluster the other poems around the dated poems, putting in sequence those that seemed to have ideas, images, or references in common.

I realize, of course, that this method is imperfect where strict chronology is desired, but I hope that the readers will bear with me. At one point, I had covered my worktable with copies of the poems placed in varying categories, some dated, many uncertain. The window was open on that fall day, and as I was about to leave the room for a moment, a great gust of wind came billowing through. The poems flew up into the air and then fluttered down in a different order. After a moment's reflection, I decided KB was trying out a new order from a different perspective.

The volume begins with poems from the late 1960s. The first, "Eye-Crossing from Brooklyn to Manhattan," was written during the last year of Libbie's life. Muscular atrophy encroached on her mobility until she was confined to a wheelchair. She and KB spent that winter at the Standish Arms Hotel in Brooklyn Heights in an apartment with a view of the East River between Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. Because of her illness, the couple’s crossings to Manhattan were limited mental crossings, crossings with the eye. In this poem, KB alludes both to Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" with its exuberant salute to ferry crossings and Hart Crane's "Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge" with its crossing of the bridge above the water.

Libbie's death (May 24, 1969) inspired some of his most moving poems, but when KB's feelings were too strong, he chaffed against his own injunction to write poetry of the moment. After writing "One More Autumnal," he added "An Anti-Pentecostal Deposition" in 1971, about which he scrawled some notes suggesting that the former poem was a "professional conceit rather than a literal Diarism." He could not resist commenting on or adding to words that had probably come about from a strong, perhaps too painful moment.

Most of the poems that KB dated himself are from the 1970s. They vary in subject from despair at personal loss, to biographical musings on the frustrations of his lot, to comments about the Halloween trick of turning over the outhouse. While he wrote fewer poems in the 1980s, he did speak and write about being a poet, and these comments point the direction for the present volume:

Although I am not a full time poet, I do view my poetry as a basic part of my sixty-plus years devoted to the professional stating of my attitudes. I have already published Book of Moments: 1915-1954, which was later included in my Collected Poems: 1915-1967. And as soon as time permits I hope to prepare for publication my later efforts, for which I have the tentative title, "Attitudinizings Verse-wise, While Fending for One's Selph: and in a Style Somewhat Artificially Colloquial." The title is not wholly accurate, since many of the items are as orthodox in their phrasing as I could possibly make them; but several are as shaggy in their way as my plans call for.3

In the 1990s KB wrote just one poem that I know of, "A Ritual of Thanksgiving" which he read at a family Thanksgiving dinner in 1992. It appeared posthumously in the Journal of New Jersey Poets, whose editor, Sander Zulauf, kindly alerted me to the existence of in “In Retrospective Prospect,” which the journal also published.

KB continued to write flowerishes, wry observations graphically designed, which constitute the next section of this volume. Book of Moments and Collected Poems each include five and four pages respectively of flowerishes graphically designed by his wife Libbie. In this volume, ninety-six written ones. David Blakesley, the coeditor of this volume, and Michael Burke have created the graphic designs for some of them

The final section is titled "Quinquains," a form that KB found particularly congenial. The five-line iambic pentameter stanza has an extra foot added to the final line, which, I suspect, allowed him to have the last word and drive home the point. The first poem in this section, "Quinquains: Quequessi, Quaint, Quinquains” is an apostrophe to the form. According to those that bear dates, he began to experiment with quinquains in the late 1960s and continued well into the 1970s, commenting on any number of personal, social, political, and philosophical subjects.

It is my hope that this collection of the late poems of Kenneth Burke will help to bring his "dancing an attitude" and "attitudinizings verse-wise" up to date.


The daughter-in-law of Kenneth Burke, Julie Whitaker brings firsthand knowedge of the author to the editing of this volume. She teaches literature and writing at the Nightingale-Bamford School in New York. Once a dancer with the New York company of Alwin Nikolai, she has also written scripts from language tapes in French and German and taught English in Paris.

Epigraphs come from Kenneth Burke, “Three Sessions, Boulder, Colorado” (draft of manuscript for lecture, February 25–27, 1987), 29, and from the draft of the untitled manuscript, [1980s?].

1. Kenneth Burke, "Extraduction" (unpublished manuscript, [1980s?]), 1.

2. Ibid.

3. Kenneth Burke, "Poetry as Symbolic Action," in What Is a Poet? ed. Hank Lazar (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987), 167-68.

© 2005 by the University of South Carolina. Used by permission.

Late Poems, 1968–1993

Attitudinizings Verse-wise, While Fending for One's Selph, and in a Style Somewhat Artificially Colloquial

Kenneth Burke
Edited by Julie Whitaker and David Blakesley
© 2005 by the University of South Carolina

The first publication of over 150 poems from Burke's final decades

6 x 9, 256 pages; cloth, 1-57003-589-X, $39.95s; Studies in Rhetoric/Communication, Thomas W. Benson, series editor

KB Journal is grateful to the University of South Carolina Press for permission republish Julie Whitaker's Preface to this book. Please visit the USC website to learn more about this book and others in the Studies in Rhetoric/Communication series. You can also download the flyer and order form (PDF format).

Out of Backwards Sidewise Towards Fromwards

(An Attitudinizing Winter Solstitially)

Kenneth Burke

What with one Thing's doing being another's undoing
and all adding up to Universal Ing-Ing

and while we cannot know all
whereof is getting said about

anyone by being as though abandoned could realize
close up how being left, felt,
it was disclosed to my Master
in a moment of Supreme Vision

with the late-Fall Sun just come
upfrombehind the hill

into total cloudlessness to bathe
through the window me with my typewriter

all thus as though every detail
had been arranged by prearrangement meaningfully

in the sign of in the spirit
of meaning-in-general (which is what?)

or but seeing the other side of
withinnesses of withinnesses

me thus planning for sure to linger on
through all the TEN DAMNEDEST WEEKS of this immediately coming year

and maybe write some lines to match my outcry
of those correspondingly TEN DAMNEDEST last year,

Jan., Feb., to mid-March, getting all sorts
of flotsam and jetsam and dis jecta membra

of Unfinished Bizz slapped into shape for filing
as planfully as a mourning dove of a spring morning

despite when as winter comes what more at best
than wintrier winters can be far behind

towards temporary remedies for the incurably aging
towards purpose perforce irreversibly forevermost

within all Lamentation there being faint traces of Hope
always unto Ing-Ing in Anagrammatic Songfulness:

      May all

out LIVE
the VILE

Late Poems, 1968–1993

Attitudinizings Verse-wise, While Fending for One's Selph, and in a Style Somewhat Artificially Colloquial

Kenneth Burke
Edited by Julie Whitaker and David Blakesley
© 2005 by the University of South Carolina

The first publication of over 150 poems from Burke's final decades

6 x 9, 256 pages; cloth, 1-57003-589-X, $39.95s; Studies in Rhetoric/Communication, Thomas W. Benson, series editor

KB Journal is grateful to the University of South Carolina Press for permission republish Kenneth Burke's poetry.. Please visit the USC website to learn more about this book and others in the Studies in Rhetoric/Communication series. You can also download the flyer and order form (PDF format).

Suave Power of Persuasion

Kenneth Burke

Suave Power of Persuasion,
help me to persuade you
to help me be

May I be as profound as a bass drum,
without the emptiness

and as clever as Oscar Wilde
before he went to jail.


Late Poems, 1968–1993

Attitudinizings Verse-wise, While Fending for One's Selph, and in a Style Somewhat Artificially Colloquial

Kenneth Burke
Edited by Julie Whitaker and David Blakesley
© 2005 by the University of South Carolina

The first publication of over 150 poems from Burke's final decades

6 x 9, 256 pages; cloth, 1-57003-589-X, $39.95s; Studies in Rhetoric/Communication, Thomas W. Benson, series editor

KB Journal is grateful to the University of South Carolina Press for permission republish Kenneth Burke's poetry.. Please visit the USC website to learn more about this book and others in the Studies in Rhetoric/Communication series. You can also download the flyer and order form (PDF format).


Kenneth Burke

To become a leader in the first place
you must have the backing
not just of those you'll benefit
but also of many
who expect of you
benefits that you can't deliver

(and above all
they themselves don't know what they want
quite as you or anyone can't know
what the situation
as it develops
will make it possible
for anyone to deliver)

Once in, you'll be surrounded
by those who
being there to work your will
will tell you what
you want to hear.
And the combination
of your office
your body guard
and the media
will make it impossible
for you ever again
to know close up
those who were for you.

You'll discover that
no matter what you do
many who were for you
will want to drop out, whereat
you must shift your efforts
to the destruction of whatever freedoms
made it possible for you
to get there
in the first place.

However things turn out
they won't be at all
as you had planned
for even your successes
will organize the swing
into a counter-move . . .

Late Poems, 1968–1993

Attitudinizings Verse-wise, While Fending for One's Selph, and in a Style Somewhat Artificially Colloquial

Kenneth Burke
Edited by Julie Whitaker and David Blakesley
© 2005 by the University of South Carolina

The first publication of over 150 poems from Burke's final decades

6 x 9, 256 pages; cloth, 1-57003-589-X, $39.95s; Studies in Rhetoric/Communication, Thomas W. Benson, series editor

KB Journal is grateful to the University of South Carolina Press for permission republish Kenneth Burke's poetry.. Please visit the USC website to learn more about this book and others in the Studies in Rhetoric/Communication series. You can also download the flyer and order form (PDF format).

Call for Participants in a New Conversation

KB Journal is sponsoring a joint study to be published in its Spring 2007 issue. The study will canvass the Bush Administration’s response to criticisms from officials who have left the Executive Branch. It will apply Burke’s concept of scapegoating to an assessment of how the Bush Administration explains its rejection of criticism from those whose credibility it formerly touted. Examples include, to name a few, former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, former Faith-Based Initiatives assistant director David Kuo, and Former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Essays will be short: 1000-1500 words. All essays will be combined into a single paper, with an introduction by Ed Appel. All contributors will be required to participate in a post-publication discussion about the papers, comparing and contrasting their findings, and considering implications of the overall project. Each author will be credited for his or her contribution as a multiple-authored essay.

Ed Appel will accept self-nominations for contributions to the project, will serve as editor for the final paper, and will coordinate the post-publication discussion, which readers of KB Journal are encouraged to join. He can be contacted at Edappel8@cs.com.

Consider this an experiment. This is an attempt at joint research that promises to allow Burke scholars to quickly assess the rhetorical landscape of political discourse, with the aid of many hands. If we succeed, we will pursue similar ventures in the future.

Reviews in KB Journal 3.1 (Fall 2006)

  • Burke, Kenneth. Late Poems, 1968-1993. Edited by Jullie Whitaker and David Blakesley. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005. Reviewed by Miriam Clark. Read the review.
  • Ramage, John D. Rhetoric: A User's Guide. New York: Pearson, 2006. Reviewed by Brad E. Lucas. Read the review.
  • Miller, Keith D. “Plymouth Rock Landed on Us: Malcolm X’s Whiteness Theory as a Basis for Alternative Literacy.” College Composition and Communication 56:2 (Dec. 2004): 199-222. Reviewed by Paul Lynch. Read the review.
  • Pruchnic, Jeff. “Rhetoric, Cybernetics, and the Work of the Body in Burke’s Body of Work" Rhetoric Review 25.3 (2006): 275-96. Reviewed by Drew M. Loewe. Read the review.