Issues of KB Journal

KB Journal began publishing in October, 2004. New issues are published twice per year.

Volume 10, Issue 1 Summer 2014

Contents of Issue 10.1 (Summer 2014)

Terministic Screens of Corruption: A Cluster Analysis of Colombian Radio Conversations

Adriana Angel, Universidad de Manizales (Colombia)
Benjamin Bates, Ohio University


To explore understandings of corruption in Colombia, we analyzed public talk on Hora 20, a very popular Colombian radio program. Using Burke’s concept of terministic screens and his method of cluster analysis, we found that Hora 20’s radio speakers express six terministic screens regarding corruption. Each cluster triggers different programs of action with diverse linguistic and practical implications, both for addressing problems of corruption in Colombia and for complicating Burke’s cluster analysis method.

A PUBLIC DISCUSSION OF CORRUPTION in Colombia is certainly needed. Transparency International confirms that Colombia is a highly corrupt country; on a scale of transparency from 0 to 10, Colombia only reached 3.4, and, out of the 183 countries that are measured, Colombia ranked number 80 (Morales). In 2011, corruption emerged in different fields including land, health, military forces, and public administration. Several cases investigated by the Attorney General, the Public Prosecutor, and the Comptroller, as well as many studies conducted by NGOs and academic institutions, reveal the magnitude of the administrative irregularities in the country (Semana).

According to the last Gallup Survey, 63% of Colombians believe that the country has serious problems of corruption (Samper). According to Samper (2011), the Colombian state recovers only eight of every 1,000 pesos stolen. Likewise, one-tenth of all public budgets are diverted to improper payments. This means that, annually, Colombia loses about 18 trillion pesos (about $10 billion) due to corruption. To overcome this problem, the government has created more than 4,500 internal control units, but, according to the Attorney General (Samper), they have not succeeded. Out of 26,000 cases of bribery, extortions, and embezzlement, only a few of them are fully investigated and adjudicated (Samper). In fact, impunity in Colombia can be as high as 90%, which means that most authors of corruption are neither accused nor punished (Cepeda 1).

To address cases and even scandals of corruption, the intervention of media is necessary because it is through media that information becomes public and known (Tumber and Waisbord 1143). An event of corruption becomes a scandal only after mass media have communicated or denounced it to a nation’s public (Restrepo 68). The few Colombian scholars who have studied media representation of corruption agree that we must study corruption’s causes, implications, and its relationship to media if we are to resolve this problem (Fedesarrollo 49; Ureña 213). These claims presume, however, that there is a shared meaning given to the term “corruption” in Colombian media. But there is not.

To explain the lack of agreement about the definition of corruption and to understand the construction of corruption in Colombian radio media representation, we turn to Burke’s concept of the terministic screen (Philosophy 109) as well as his method of cluster analysis (Attitudes 232). Given the multiple understandings of corruption, Burke’s concept of the terministic screen helps us to understand each perspective of corruption as a different frame of interpretation that motivates speakers and that also triggers different programs of action with diverse linguistic and practical implications. But Burke’s ideas are not only important from a theoretical perspective. They are also helpful from a methodological standpoint in the sense that Burke provides some methodological guidelines and teaches us how terminologies come together in clusters so that they reflect and reproduce particular understandings of reality. Burke’s cluster analysis allows us to explore different terministic screens of corruption and how they are reproduced through language.

To access terministic screens of corruption, we performed a cluster analysis of Hora 20, a very popular Colombian Monday-to-Friday radio program. On this program, journalists, politicians, and scholars discuss important news of the day. Corruption was a common topic on the program in 2011. This cluster analysis method reveals understandings of corruption in Colombia and provides clues on how to start managing the problem. We decided to perform this cluster analysis on radio conversations considering the importance of this medium in Colombia.

Since its arrival to the country, radio has played a fundamental role in Colombian society. Colombian radio has been used to entertain (Antequera and Obregón 147), to provide news (Lalinde 47), to educate (Kaplún 147; Mwakawago 307), and to advocate for social change (Mejía and Gómez 140; Mwakawago 308; Bonilla, Restrepo, Vásquez and Betancur 241; Vaca 254). People of all ages, genders, social classes and occupations, and in all parts of the country, often listen to radio (Centrao Nacional de Colsutoria; Mastrini and Becerra 9). Radio is the second most widely consumed medium in Colombia after television; 67% of the Colombian population listens to radio every day (ACIM).

One of the most popular radio programs is Hora 20. In 2011, Hora 20 devoted several episodes to issues of corruption, as levels of corruption increased significantly during this year. Despite spending many hours trying to construct the causes and consequences of this increase, the radio speakers invited to the program rarely achieved agreement. The conversations were highly controversial, in part, because they lacked consensus on what “corruption” is.

We begin this article with a brief review of the literature regarding Colombian corruption. Turning to cluster analysis, a Burkean method of analysis, we examine the radio program Hora 20 to show the clusters of terms that give rise to six different constructions of corruption’s meaning in Colombia. Finally, we offer implications that these findings have both for addressing problems of corruption in Colombia and for complicating Burke’s cluster analysis method.

Colombian Corruption

Even though every country in the world has corruption, what is considered to be a corrupt act varies from country to country (Rønning 158). Scholars have defined corruption as “the abuse of public office for private gain and the abuse of public power for private benefit” (Vargas-Hernández 270). In some cases, corruption involves the payment of bribes to finance a State decision. In other cases, corruption implies clientalism, a system of privileges in which “resources are controlled by patrons and delivered to clients in exchange for deference and various kinds of support” (Yusha’u 162). Corruption not only involves the payment of money but also some kind of exchange of favors or benefits (Solimano, Tanzi and del Solar 270).

Scholars have also classified the kinds of corruption according to the magnitude of the scandal (Ureña 211), the type of agent who commits the act (Solimano, Tanzi and del Solar 270), the kind of result that the act seeks (Vargas-Hernández, 285), and the theoretical framework that is used to explain its causes (Jain, part II). Given the diversity of definitions, operationalizations, and examples, we do not adopt a priori a definition of corruption. Rather than imposing a definition, whether it be a moralistic or legalistic definition, we seek to understand how Colombians have articulated the meaning of corruption. To do this, we turn to Hora 20 as a representative anecdote for how Colombians discuss corruption.


Text Selection

Every day, Monday through Friday, Hora 20 is broadcast live from the most prestigious and widely heard radio station in the country, Caracol Radio, to all cities in the country (AICM). Hora 20 is one of the most important journalistic programs of opinion among all kinds of Colombian media, which explains its large audience (Duzán). The producer of Hora 20 has told us that the audience of the program is over one million listeners, which makes Hora 20 the most important radio program of opinion and news information in Colombia (C. Torres, personal communication, July 15, 2011). This data, of course, is not entirely reliable because it comes from the producer of the program. However, the general idea among citizens and media producers is that Hora 20 is the most important program of opinion in the country because of the depth of the analysis and discussion that if offers (Duzán). Indeed, in addition to being listened to by 44% of the population each week, Caracol Radio is judged by Colombians to be the most trustworthy source of  news and information (Intermedia). And, of the programs on Caracol Radio, Hora 20 is the most popular program. Overall, Caracol Radio and its flagship programs nationwide enjoy a 62% audience share for news and current affairs (Prisa). Hora 20 is consumed across many social classes and regions of the country.

Néstor Morales hosts the program every day, but his guests vary. These guests are politicians (usually congressmen and former government officials), widely known journalists in the field, or scholars with high positions in important universities. Over one hour and a half (7:30 PM to 9:00 PM), Morales asks questions to his guests about one topic that has been relevant during the day, often the most controversial political topic of the last 24 hours.

Major corruption events in Colombia occurred in March 2011 and Hora 20 covered them through the analysis of their causes and implications. To analyze how the notion of corruption is constructed and communicated in Colombian news-talk radio, we recorded all episodes where the main topic was corruption broadcast by Hora 20 from the beginning of March of 2011 until October 31 of the same year. Because of the several kinds of corruption occurring in Colombia in 2011, we selected the four broadcasts that Nestor Morales named as approaching corruption as a general phenomenon. These episodes were likely to provide some perspective about the context and general characteristics of corruption without concentrating on specific cases. We also included cases of corruption in both the health and the agriculture systems for three reasons. First, these broadcasts represent cases of corruption of national scope. Second, they were quantitatively the most discussed cases of corruption, as the numbers of broadcastings show. Third, corruption in the health and the agriculture sectors have been considered the most serious instances of Colombian corruption over the last decades in the history of the country (Pizano). In total, 13 episodes of Hora 20 and, therefore, about 20 hours of spoken discourse, were selected.  Once we transcribed these 13 broadcasts (about 750 pages), we performed a cluster analysis to examine how the notion of corruption was communicated by radio speakers.

Cluster Analysis

In Attitudes Toward History (19-24, 293-298) and Permanence and Change (19-36), rhetorician Kenneth Burke presented his preliminary ideas about how certain terms reflect individuals’ motives and, therefore, their attitudes toward action. He posited that when speakers use terms to communicate about a certain idea, their terminologies come together in “clusters.” Clusters, as defined by Burke, are “what goes with what” in terms of what vocabularies begin to be associated with one another when a speaker speaks (Philosophy 20). Cluster analysis allows the researcher to explore “what subjects cluster about other subjects” because speakers will use associated terms in ways that demonstrate patterns of uses where some terms are commonly used with other terms to create a set and, further, these terms are against some other cluster of terms (Attitudes 232). Through cluster analysis, other scholars have studied American racial politics (Lynch), the question of women priests in the Episcopal Church (Foss 1), and John Kennedy’s speech (Berthold 302) by exploring what goes with what and what is against what.

Although it is common to use frameworks like Burke’s pentad to derive a single rhetor’s motivational vocabulary, we must consider Burke’s argument that it is all-too-common for interpreters to ignore the dramatic and dialectical origins of group motives when they posit that a single principle motivates a text. This move to place unified motives above the actual dialectic of a society becomes “an act of supererogation” in which the unified motive cannot account for conflicting motives within the group that the text claims to represent (Rhetoric 367). Multiple motives can exist in a society, and when different speakers speak, they may be motivated by these different vocabularies differently. At a social level, and as Burke has noted, however, “ideals, or wishes, need not be consistent with one another. . . . Yet one might wish for both dispensations at once” (Grammar 374). This inconsistency is not fatal to the organization of group motives; it is essential to them. This is why Burke claims we must acknowledge that multiple terministic clusters exist and that they are in agonistic and complementary relationships at the same time:

There are principles in the sense of wishes, and there are principles in the sense of interrelationships among the wishes. Principles as wishes are voluntary and arbitrary, inasmuch as men can meet in conference and decide how many and what kind of wishes they shall subscribe to. But once you have agreed upon a list of wishes, the interrelationships among those wishes are necessary or inevitable. (Rhetoric 375)

The specific means of identifying these principles (or motives) and their associated vocabularies is not fully clarified by Burke.

To conduct this analysis, we therefore followed four traditional steps of cluster analysis (Berthold 304-306; Burke Attitudes 3-30; Lynch). First, we began by establishing “corruption” as the a priori key term that guided the consecutive search for other terms. That is, we explored the main terms that news-talk radio speakers use when they define and describe corruption. While we predetermined corruption as the key term, other terms emerged a posteriori from the reading of the text.

For the second step of cluster analysis, we identified the terms often used by speakers when referring to corruption. As Lynch observes, at this stage of the analysis it is necessary to identify “terms that appear in the same context as the key term(s) and rank them according to frequency of appearance and the intensity or power of the term.” Terms of high frequency are those that repeatedly appear in a text and terms of high intensity are those charged with special meaning and connotations in the sense that they are used to define, describe, or undermine key terms (Foss 2-3).

The third step to conduct the cluster analysis consisted of identifying the clusters of terms that showed patterns of meaning insofar as they referred to broad and more complex narratives about corruption. These patterns of meaning referred to similar ideas or narratives that speakers often convey when describing and analyzing corruption. These terms can, at this time, also be classified by following Burke’s (Attitudes 3-30) ideas about frames of acceptance and rejection. These acceptance and rejection frames allowed us to identify the agons or terms in opposition to corruption. This agonistic relationship, as Lynch calls it, is developed “through some form of contraposition which includes direct opposition and negation, description of a potential competition between terms, imagery portraying, opposition or struggle, indirect opposition vis a vis a third term, and enumeration.” In this sense, we explored the ideas that news-talk radio speakers accept and reject through the analysis of the terms that they employ to construct corruption; different terms show the practices, characteristics, and dimensions that are included and excluded in their constructions of corruption.

The fourth and final stage of cluster analysis consisted, as Foss explains, of “naming the rhetor’s motives on the basis of the meanings of the key terms” (367). Unlike a psychological approach, it is important to notice that these motives are not related to the speakers’ intentions or to their mental states. According to Burke (Permanence 19, Attitudes 293, Rhetoric 99-101) motives are systems of interpretation that work as frames of orientation through which individuals perceive the world. Thus, motives exist in the realm of meaning and, therefore, in the specific vocabularies that individuals use of define the world (Jasinski 367). Through the terms that we use, we not only communicate meaning, but also refer to particular attitudes and actions over the world. The purpose of exploring radio speakers’ motives when discussing corruption did not aim at establishing their intentions, but to examine the systems of interpretation and the frames of orientation through which they construct their discourses about corruption.


When invited to analyze Colombian corruption, Hora 20’s radio speakers express their different approaches to this phenomenon and talk radio allows them—and the audiences—the possibility to share these different constructions. The conversation led radio speakers to reproduce six main terms that name the clusters speakers use to frame corruption: invasive decay, illegal practice, piñata, irregular action, unethical behavior, and normal practice. Each of these terms constitute what Burke (Language 44-45) calls a terministic screen, or a frame of interpretation from which speakers define and reproduce specific approaches to corruption. While terministic screens are vocabularies or lenses that speakers use to define and understand the world, the method of cluster analysis allows researchers to study the way in which those terms group, relate, and distinguish from others. Thus, reality is already mediated by language and cluster analysis allows us to study the forms and the consequences of that mediation.

In tracing terministic screens that reveal motives of a social (or non-unified) rhetor, it would be a mistake to claim that there must be a single, consistent, principle (or motive) that guides the text (Burke Rhetoric 61-62). Rather, in a collectively articulated text in which multiple speakers come together to express different terministic clusters surrounding a phenomenon, it is more likely that there will be multiple articulations of principles and motives, and that these motives will operate agonistically (in some dialogues/dialectics) and consistently (in other dialogues/dialectics). Indeed, we must take care to recognize and protect these terministic tensions within a social text.

We did not consider one of these six different voices or understandings of corruption as correct and the others wrong because, as Burke argues “charts of meaning are not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’—they are relative approximations to the truth. . . . In fact, even in some of the most patently ‘wrong’ charts, there are sometimes discoverable ingredients of ‘rightness’ that have been lost in perhaps ‘closer’ approximations” (Philosophy 108). Moreover, because the drama within a text comes from the dialectical negotiation of terms to chart meaning, “we shall automatically be warned not to consider it [the text/document] in isolation, but as the answer or rejoinder to assertions current in the situation in which it arose” (Philosophy 109).  It is less important, then, to identify the voice of single speaker in a text; rather, the tracing of terministic clusters, allows us to hear the motives of “a group dance in which all shared” as rhetors in a society (Philosophy 109). To examine the motivations within this group dance that creates multiple meanings of corruption, we present the six different clusters of Colombian corruption.

Corruption as Decay

When talking about corruption as a long term problem in Colombian society, some news-talk radio speakers frame corruption as an invasive decay. The following brief radio excerpts illustrate this terministic screen: “Many institutions that are fundamental to the State are today gnawed” (Santos); “Corruption is the plague of the Colombian State” (Nieto); “So, according to what you all have been saying, the diagnosis is that we are corroded by corruption” (Morales); and, “Corruption is corroding the soul of Colombians” (Esguerra). Insofar as corruption is presented as a decay in the form of plague, rot, rust, or virus, the identity of corruption is ambiguous and unclear. The gnawing, corroding, plaguing agent is not named. Corruption may simply be a natural phenomenon that comes from age. In this cluster, corruption is not an illegal practice or an unethical behavior, but a vague entity that attacks institutions and individuals. The motive for decay, then, is not one of ill intention. Like rusting metal or rotting wood, corruption-as-decay is motivated by natural causes. And, like rusting metal or rotting wood, humans can use cleaning and maintenance to prevent or ameliorate corruption as a stopgap solution, but, in the long term, decay is inevitable.

Corruption as an Illegal Practice

By presenting corruption as an illegal practice, radio speakers give a severe and very negative connotation to corruption by clustering “corruption” together with terms from legal settings. A corrupt action constitutes an illegal act insofar as it violates the law so that a few people can gain some private benefit. Defining corruption in terms of legality and illegality is a matter of controversy in the scholarly literature on corruption. Some scholars consider that what makes an event an act of corruption is not its condition of illegality, but the violation of ethical principles of justice. In the following excerpt, offered as a representative example, journalist and researcher for the United Nations, Claudia López, frames as illegal the use of public money to finance two political campaigns:

 I do believe, I have no doubt, I think that it is common sense to think that taking advantage of the money that we Colombians pay in taxes in order to support some campaign funders is not only unethical, but it’s clearly a crime of favoritism and an abuse of public office.

Terms like prison, law, crime, and judicial system cluster around this understanding of corruption as an illegal practice. When radio speakers frame corruption in this sense, they define corrupt practices as actions that categorically and certainly constitute violations of law. For example, when debating the judicial consequences of corruption, radio speakers who frame corruption as an illegal practice claim that individuals implicated in cases of corruption have to go to prison since corruption implies the violation of law. Those who frame it differently (see below) consider excessive a punishment like this since corruption does not mean crime, but an irregular action of less severe nature. Finally, unlike corruption as a decay, the corrupt act here is committed by a specific agent and not by an unknown specimen or element (time, rust, something) of uncertain nature. While the former approach tends to consider corruption as a condition of a system, the latter views it as the attribution of an illegal behavior of a particular agent.  Thus, corruption-as-illegal practice is motivated by the law as guiding principle. For corruption to be understood as illegal practice, it emerges because corruption is performed in opposition to or in violation to the Law. And, in turn, the solution to corruption is to strengthen the reach of the Law.

Corruption as a Piñata

A third cluster of terms—terms naming corruption as a piñata—is similar to the construction of an illegal action, but it is not exactly the same. Rather than being an action that violates the law, corruption as piñata refers to contexts of celebration and feast. Likewise, a piñata is a container filled with treats and gifts, which are given to the guests of a party. In the context of agricultural corruption, for example, some radio speakers  frame Secure Agricultural Income1, a government program to subsidize smallholding farmers, as a piñata in the sense that agricultural programs like this was designed as a system of gifts according to which quick-witted individuals could appropriate “treats” that were in fact large amounts of money. This cluster emerges clearly in the following example:

Forero: We are talking about giving public resources to private individuals without making any public bidding and many times those individuals didn’t have to return those resources.

Later in the same episode, Forero is more direct and claims:

Forero: Through Secure Agricultural Income [the government] created a very dangerous piñata that produced incentives for corruption.
Rangel: A piñata?!
Forero: If this program had been very well regulated, I wouldn’t use that word.
Rangel: A piñata? Is it a piñata a program that helped 316 thousand families? Please! 

In this excerpt Forero points out that subsidies were given to private individuals without any process of public bidding or corroboration of information, which stimulated corruption.

Finally, a piñata refers to an opportunistic scenario where every person strives to use his/her skills to collect as many treats as he/she can. Thus corruption is represented as extravagance, wastefulness, and squandering. This last excerpt by professor and Congressman Jorge Enrique Robledo illustrates these ideas:

[When we were discussing] the creation of Secure Agricultural Income in the Congress I clearly explained that it was obvious that [through this program] the government decided to give money away. When we talk about these subsidies for land we are talking about the government giving the money away. Gifts for some people, for who? For those families or more witted individuals who could take advantage and receive that money. 

When corruption is seen as a piñata, individuals undertake corrupt acts out of opportunism. Here, corruption is not motivated by an opposition to the law that informs individual practice broadly; rather, corruption is motivated by one-time opportunities to take a fleeting advantage. Once the piñata has burst and the treats collected, the individual is not likely to engage in corrupt practices. Thus, the solution to corruption is to either not fill the piñata with treats; the advantages from fleeting acts of corruption must be minimized.

Corruption as an Irregular Action

In a variation of corruption as wrong, yet not illegal or exploitative (as in the piñata), other news-talk radio guests approach corruption as an irregular practice. This cluster includes many other terms such as deviation, trick, cheat, abuse, and taking advantage. Many radio speakers’ statements can be placed under this cluster according to which corruption is neither an illegal nor a completely “normal” program. The following claim made by the former Minister of Health, Diego Palacio, is an example of construction of corruption as an irregular practice.  Diego Palacio, was invited to the May 5 broadcast of Hora 20 to talk about a scandal of health corruption that occurred when he served as Minister of Health. When asked about the magnitude of the events, Palacio starts by framing them as irregularities and abuses, not crimes:

I think that one has to analyze two or three things understanding that there are problems with the [health] service and understanding that there are problems of lack of control. But I think that one has to separate what is abuse from what is corruption, these are different things.

Throughout the episode, Palacio seeks to show both that these events are legal and that they do not constitute corruption. By claiming that it is necessary to differentiate abuse from corruption he tries to minimize the scope of health corruption. Speakers like Palacio specify their understandings of corruption by stating, for example, that there are differences between illegal and improper practices in the sense that some behaviors might be unconventional but not necessarily illegal. Speakers argue that even though abuses, tricks, and cheats are improper actions, they are not intrinsically illegal practices. Most of the time, law is used as the main criterion to frame corruption as an irregular practice. In this context, the magnitude of corruption is not as severe as it is in previous constructions of the term because it does not refer to violations of law, but to procedures that are legal even though they might be dishonest or misleading. Because corruption-as-irregular practice is not motivated by opposition to law, but motivated by opposition to convention, the objection to state regulation is not part of its motivation. As such, to resolve corruption, one cannot simply attempt to enforce laws against corruption, one must understand the conventions that allow corruption to emerge. Corruption, here, is understood as motivated by the failure of social conventions to apply.

Corruption as an Unethical Behavior

The construction of corruption as an unethical behavior constitutes one of the less severe approaches to corruption. This is also the subcluster of terms less-often used by news-talk radio speakers. Radio speakers rarely define corruption in terms of ethics, and the few times that they do so the construction of ethics is so ambiguous that it is difficult to understand the way in which they approach this relationship between ethics and corruption. Speakers minimize the scope and magnitude of corruption by claiming that certain events do not constitute violations of law, but they are just unethical actions. When defining corruption as a problem of a lack of ethics, radio speakers frame corruption as the attribute of an action in which the values of a given individual come into conflict with the broader system of values of a society. Thus, unlike corruption as irregular activity, corruption is seen as regular yet also improper. Unlike law, this system of values is intangible and may become entangled in the culture of a given society. For example, lawyer Juan Manuel Charry frames health corruption as an ethical problem:

I think we have a serious problem in the health sector and what it hurts me is the lack of ethics of many of the individuals who took advantage of [the lack of] legal circumstances. I’m a bit surprised because, as far as I understand, what is happening is not corruption itself, but unethical investments.

This excerpt also constitutes an example of the many times that speakers define corruption in terms of a dichotomy in which corruption is either an illegal act or an unethical behavior; it cannot, in this cluster, be both. In this cluster, corruption is not formally punishable because it exists outside the law and, thus, is left to the realm of ethics. Unlike corruption-as-irregular action, corruption-as-unethical practice places the motivation for corruption as the individual level. It is a flaw in character that motivates corruption, not a flaw in social convention or in the Law. Therefore, to resolve corruption, one must teach ethics and morals to individuals, and have those individuals embrace ethics and morality.

Corruption as a Normal Practice

This last subcluster of terms refers to the least radical approaches to corruption. Each of these previous clusters names corruption a bad thing to be resolved. Yet, some news-talk radio speakers strive to show that some acts of corruption are normal and there is no need to frame those events as corrupt. This normalization of corruption is accomplished in different ways. For example, the number of times that a probable corrupt event occurs may be an indicator that the event is not perceived as corrupt, but perceived as normal. During the July 21, 2011 episode of Hora 20, lawyer Rafael Nieto, claimed that it is common for some institutions to avoid public bidding and for some investigated individuals to agree on a version to testify. He did this not once, but many times. Such repetition contributes to normalization. In the following excerpt professor and journalist Juan Carlos Flores strives to undermine this normalization of corruption:

But Rafael [Nieto], the fact that we have accustomed to do so doesn’t mean that it’s ok. The fact that we have done so for years doesn’t mean that it is legal [. . . ]. Rafael Nieto’s argument is very dangerous: We have been doing so for years, what is the problem that we do it now? Amazing Rafael! I’m stunned, the truth, I confess.

In this excerpt Flores problematizes Nieto’s argument according to which some practices have become normal because they have been done so for a long time. If corruption is normal, then the motive for corruption need not be understood. Corruption is simply part of being human, and need not (and perhaps cannot) be resolved. Under this motivational cluster, corruption is not a problem, and therefore needs no solution.

The Agon(s) of Corruption

Unlike other cluster-agon analyses (Berthold 302; Foss 1; Lynch) in which authors present a terms that stand in oppositional pairs, in the case of radio conversations about Colombian corruption the agon terms work according to the context because of the multiple meanings of the word corruption. While the term “control” appears as an important agon to health corruption, this term is not present when speakers analyze other cases of corruption. In addition, the uses of the words “justice” and “ethics” are so ambiguous that it is hard to say if both of them are positively or negatively associated with corruption. Agon terms emerge according to the way in which radio speakers approach corruption. For example, when speakers define corruption as an illegal practice, normality emerges as an agon; however, normality is not agonistic as they construct corruption as an irregular practice yet irregularity is often presented as normal. Thus, we should not claim that corruption has a particular agon term, but that the polysemy of the word as well as the context of the conversation originates different agon terms that work according to the context (i.e., ethics or justice).


Different approaches to corruption correspond with different terministic screens. The invitational nature of radio makes possible the co-existence of various terministic screens in which different perspectives of corruption are represented through language. Beyond the realm of discourse, this polysemy of corruption has material consequences leading to the normalization of corruption.

Polysemous Nature of Corruption

The different constructions of corruption presented above vary according to the terministic screen that is used when discussing a particular corrupt event. For example, seen from the terministic screen that considers corruption as an illegal act, corrupt events are illegal practices through which individuals attempt to increase their capital (i.e., political, economic, symbolic, or social). The severity of corruption is far higher here than in the terministic screen that approaches corruption as an irregular behavior, which might be illegitimate, but not necessarily illegal.

This polysemous condition of corruption extends Burke’s classification of positive and negative terms as frames of acceptance and rejection. According to Burke, negative terms stand against positive terms insofar as the latter contradict the former. Specifically, the co-existence of various terministic screens of corruption complicates Burke’s categorization in the sense that, rather than having a dialectic relationship between positive and negative terms which rotate around a shared ultimate term, the analysis of Hora 20 shows six different constructions of corruption operating simultaneously. In other words, the analysis of news-talk radio conversations shows that there is not one term that clearly stands against another, but six different terms whose nature is not always entirely positive nor negative. For example, the way in which radio speakers frame corruption as an irregular practice is neither positive nor negative, but stands between both values. In addition, the fact that there is not a clear agon term illustrates the complexity of the kinds of relationships that emerge among the terms that speakers use to describe corruption. Finally, unlike previous cluster analyses, in this study we did not find two main clusters of terms which relate to each other in a dialectic manner, but six different clusters of terms that represent corruption in a diversity of ways. According to the context, some terministic screens operate as positive terms. However, seen in relation to other screens they might be considered as dialectical terms. The abstract idea of corruption constitutes the ultimate term around which they rotate. Moreover, the six clusters and their vocabularies also work to disable any agon term to corruption. In this set of texts, the opposite, the agon, of “illegal” could be said to be “legal,” but that which is legal is normative and “normal” has already been articulated as a cluster term characterizing “corruption.” Or, the agon could be “ethical,” but the speakers dissociate legality and ethicality as both could be “normal,” but one is wrong in the juridical sense whilst the other is wrong in the moral sense.  In addition, if corruption is a natural process as it is when named decay, corruption is again “normal.” Of course, as ultimate term, corruption is related to the world of principles and systems of thought and is argued to manifest itself as a concrete phenomenon in the realm of positive terms when some speakers name acts of corruption. Nonetheless, because corruption is polysemous, and because the six clusters operate agonistically (at times) and cooperatively (at others), this polysemy prevents the emergence of a dialectical “god-term” to stand in opposition to corruption as ultimate “devil term” in all six clusters at the same time.

Each terministic screen can be considered as a set of specific vocabulary, rhetorical resources, and figures of language that works as a particular system of interpretation of corruption. The conversational character of talk radio allows speakers the possibility to present, argue, and reproduce their own terministic screens on corruption. The agonistic tone that Ong attributes to pure orality is indeed present in the secondary orality of radio where speakers confront their own terministic screens and undermine others’. The tone of the program is agonistic itself since we have six different perspectives on corruption, each of which struggles to be accepted as “the one” correct perspective. In this sense, the construction of corruption is polysemous but attempts to be monosymous. News-talk radio reproduces an agonistic tone not so much because there might be verbal confrontations between radio speakers, but especially because talk radio becomes a scene of dispute or competition among different terministic screens that present corruption in very different ways.

Normalization of Corruption

Each terministic screen exists in the vocabularies and rhetorical strategies that speakers use to define corruption and to frame it according to specific characteristics. However, beyond reproducing different constructions of corruption, terministic screens also suggest diverse programs of action. Here we return to Burke’s  notion of program of action to explain how the frames of orientation through which individuals perceive the reality not only ground their perception of the world, but also reflect speakers’ motives for acting. To recall Burke’s example, “To call a man a friend or an enemy is per se to suggest a program of action with regard to him” (Permanence 177). In a similar sense, the six different terministic screens that radio speakers use to construct corruption suggest distinct programs of action with respect to this phenomenon. For example, to define corruption as an unethical act suggests a program of action centered on an individual’s behavior and, specifically, on his or her system of values. On the other hand, to construct corruption as an illegal practice suggests a different program of action that is focused on the legal system of a Nation-State.

This idea of identifying several motives is consistent with Burke’s warning against allowing a single motive to determine the meaning of a social text: once in the case of the rise of fascism and again in condemning the rush toward anti-Communism. In tracing terministic screens that reveal motives of a social (or non-unified) rhetor, it would be a mistake to claim that there must be a single, consistent principle (or motive) that guides the text. Rather, in a collectively articulated text in which multiple speakers come together to express different senses (or terministic clusters) of a phenomenon, it is more likely that there will be multiple articulations of principles and motives, and that these motives will operate agonistically (in some dialogues/dialectics) and consistently (in other dialogues/dialectics). The acknowledgment that multiple terministic clusters, rather than unified meaning, operate allows for multiple intellectually competing, yet socially co-present, motivations within a social text to be engaged and considered.

This linguistic polysemy of corruption has material consequences. One of the main consequences of this polysemy has to do, precisely, with the lack of agreement on the definition of corruption. Despite a great deal of analysis, consensus is also lacking about the nature, causes, and consequences of corruption (as explained above). This is evident in the fact that, for example, according to one terministic screen corruption represents an invasive decay of unknown nature while, according to another, it is a deliberate illegal business. The difficulty in coming to a shared definition of corruption prevents both linguistic and practical cooperation. As Burke argues, “If language is the fundamental instrument of human cooperation, and if there is an ‘organic flaw;’ in the nature of language, we may well expect to find this organic flaw revealing itself through the texture of society” (“Meaning 330). Acts of corruption may be the revelation of the organize flaw of not being able to cooperate linguistically in creating a shared meaning of corruption. In the context of several competing approaches to corruption, several programs of action also compete, even those where there is nothing to do against some practices of corruption because they have become normal, and therefore, legitimate. The inability to act against corruption, because we cannot cooperate in defining corruption, may allow those in Colombia who profit from corruption to continue their acts and at the cost of the larger Colombian society.

The second—but related—material consequence of this polysemy is the normalization of corruption. For instance, some radio speakers argue that the practices that occurred within health and the agricultural fields are normal and should not be framed as corrupt events. In addition, the number of times that a probable corrupt event occurs may become an indicator that this event does not constitute corruption anymore. In this sense, because they are culturally accepted, these practices become legitimate even though law forbids them. This hiatus between law and culture is a main consequence—and cause—of the normalization of corruption (Mockus 2). In addition, this hiatus is maintained by the reliance on particular terministic screens. Speakers claim that the fact that some actions have always been done in the same way justifies continued practices or corruption.

The fact that there is not a definitive and explicit term that stands against corruption as its main agon term also confirms the polysemy of corruption. The most striking case is the speakers’ use of the term normal to both define what corruption is and to describe what its opposite action is. That is, they use “normal” both as a cluster term and as an agon term. Some radio guests minimize acts of corruption because they consider that there were not corrupt practices involved, but normal actions that do not represent violations of law, unethical behaviors or major irregularities. Ultimately, we are still uncertain about which the opposite of corruption is. It might be values, ethics, cleanliness, control, normality, and legality, among others. In this context of dispute among different agon terms, it is also difficult to find a solution to corruption. The existence of competing terministic screens of corruption and agon practices implies the existence of competing programs of action against corruption; we cannot know if the program of action must address particular individuals, entire social structures, or some unknown agent. The inchoate program of action makes suggesting solutions to the problem of corruption more complex and uncertain.


This scenario of dispute among programs of action against corruption might seem daunting or challenging, to say the least. However, knowing what the different vocabularies are constitutes an important step in the fight against corruption. While some scholars think that communication plays a very important role in this fight (Jarso 40-45; Yusha’u 155-156; Mockus 2), others accuse mass media of trivializing issues of corruption and turning them into a spectacle (Breit 620; Giglioli 390-391; Pásara). Rather than approaching Hora 20 as a program that turns corruption into a spectacle, we can consider this talk radio show as a scenario where speakers analyze issues of corruption and help Colombian audiences to understand the way in which these events occur. The lack of agreement about corruption does not make of Hora 20 a weak program. On the contrary, it provides a kind of radiography about how Colombians construct corruption. The different terministic screens embraced by radio speakers reveal Colombians’ cultural perceptions of this phenomenon. Moreover, it illustrates the programs of action that each of these terministic screens carry with them.

In addition, talk radio shows why some scholars claim that communication represents the first step against corruption. To have a dialogue in which some Colombians discuss whether or not corruption is an illegal, unethical, irregular, or normal practice constitutes the first – and one of the most important – steps to decide how to deal with this phenomenon. Insofar as a society can have a dialogue that allows it to share and confront its different constructions of corruption, this society might more easily know what programs of action to undertake; the competition of terms allows the negotiation of meaning. Hora 20 not only shows that Colombians do not agree on what corruption even is, but also that a large hiatus separates culture from law so that illegal actions that seek to benefit private interests may be considered legitimate. Once Colombians realize that, even though corruption is one of the most serious problems of the country, and there is no agreement on what it is and how to avoid it, it might be easier for Colombian society to decide the kinds of cultural, economic, legal, and political measures required to decrease this phenomenon if they begin to seek a shared vocabulary. Thus, communication is a key strategy to articulate and implement different programs of action against corruption.


1. As a way to prepare the economy for a possible free trade agreement between Colombia and the United States of America, the Colombian Minister of Agriculture, Andrés Felipe Arias, created in 2007 the Secure Agricultural Income program [Agro Ingreso Seguro, AIS] whose main objective was to protect small farmers and to ensure their participation in the international market. Through illegal maneuvers such as falsification of documents and subdivisions of land, politicians and businessmen obtained the subsidies that were aimed at smallholding farmers. The Prosecutor General accused Arias of using the Secure Agricultural Income program as a platform for his presidential campaign Arias is currently in jail awaiting trial for embezzlement and misappropriation of state funds (Boyd).

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Reflections on the First European Kenneth Burke Conference

Rhetoric as Equipment for Living: Kenneth Burke, Culture and Education

Kris Rutten, Ghent University
Dries Vrijders, Ghent University
Ronald Soetaert, Ghent University


This special issue of KB Journal is the first of two issues that offer a compilation of papers that were presented at the conference Rhetoric as Equipment for Living: Kenneth Burke, Culture and Education, which was held in May 2013 at Ghent University, Belgium. The aim of this conference was to introduce rhetoric as a major perspective for synthesizing the related turns in the humanities and social sciences—linguistic, cultural, ethnographic, interpretive, semiotic, narrative, etc.—that focus on the importance of signs and symbols in our interpretations of reality, heightening our awareness of the ties between language and culture. The conference focused specifically on "new rhetoric," a body of work that sets rhetoric free from its confinement within the traditional fields of education, politics and literature, not by abandoning these fields but by refiguring them. (On this, see Dilip Gaonkar.)

The conference’s focus on this "new" kind of rhetoric was inspired by Kenneth Burke, who together with scholars such as Wayne Booth and Chaim Perelman, was a foundational thinker of this new conception of symbolic exchange. As a rhetorician and literary critic interested in how we use symbols, Burke described human beings as the symbol-making, symbol-using and symbol-misusing animal. Our interpretations, perceptions, judgments and attitudes are all influenced and "deflected" by the symbols that we make, use and misuse, and we are at the same time used by these symbols. This implies that we can approach the world either symbol-wise or symbol-foolish. The conference aimed to explore how rhetorical concepts (specifically those developed by Kenneth Burke) can be deployed as tools—equipment—to make students, teachers, scholars and citizens symbol-wise: to understand the way linguistic, cultural, narrative . . . symbols work, and to develop effective means of critical engagement with, as well as on behalf of, those symbols. The conference furthermore aimed to explore if and how (new) rhetoric can still be relevant in a world that is becoming ever more complex and paradoxical by political, economic and cultural differences on a global scale.

In what was the first major event devoted to Kenneth Burke outside the United States, the second aim of the conference was to explore the international legacy and potential of this seminal thinker. By introducing Burke to scholars and fields of research that are as yet less familiar with his ideas, the conference aspired to initiate a lively exchange between people, scholarly domains, and geographical regions. Under the banner of “Rhetoric as Equipment for living,” the broad call for papers resulted in a highly varied program that explored Burkean conceptions of rhetoric in pedagogy, social work, psychology, cultural studies, management, and communication, and from the perspective of education, citizenship, literature, literacy, technology, games, (new) media . . . And with over a 100 attendees from 20 different countries, this mix of topics and perspectives also resulted in a true crossover between national and intellectual traditions.

Thanks to what we believe was a successful conference that realized its double aim—introducing Burkean new rhetoric into new areas of research and new geographical domains—and the generous response to the ensuing call for papers, we are very happy to change roles from being satisfied conference organizers to becoming excited guest editors of two special issues of KB Journal. This first Summer 2014 issue is devoted exclusively to non-US scholars, with contributions by authors coming from Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, the UK, and South Africa. This issue will offer both an overview of the conference set-up, as well as a practical incarnation of its international and explorative spirit. In the second issue (to be published in the fall of 2014), we will continue with a more theoretical examination of Burke’s international legacy, by giving a stage to scholars who confront Burke’s ideas with the work of European thinkers such as François Lyotard, Chaim Perelman, Augustine, and others. Before introducing the contributions to this first special issue, however, we would like to take some time to look back (with both the satisfactions and benefits of hindsight) to the May 2013 conference. For those unable to attend, we will first give an overview of the set-up of the conference and the different topics that have been dealt with.

Keynote Speakers

Driven by our aspiration to explore the international legacy of Burke, we invited two speakers from Europe and two speakers from the US, selecting speakers who would address the theme of the conference "rhetoric as equipment for living" from a broad range of different perspectives and disciplinary backgrounds (philosophy, communication, rhetoric and literature).

The first keynote speaker was Michel Meyer, Professor of Rhetoric and Philosophy at the Université libre de Bruxelles (Belgium) and former student of Chaim Perelman. In his opening keynote, he confronted the work of Burke with that of Perelman. In his lecture on Burke, Perelman and Problematology: Three Different Views of Rhetoric? Meyer argued that Perelman deeply respected Burke’s vision of rhetoric and that he resorted several times to the notion of a Burkean ethos. In addressing the question of what it is in Burke’s work that was so relevant for the rhetorical conception of Perelman, Meyer focused on the conception of the interacting person playing with identification at all levels. However, whereas Burke offers a vision of man and his dramatic expressions through rhetoric, Perelman provides a vision of rhetoric, and for Meyer this difference is specifically clear in their respective views on tropes. In his lecture, Meyer integrated both Burke’s and Perelman’s views into a single vision of rhetoric, more specifically the question-view or problematological approach that Meyer himself has developed in recent years.

The second keynote lecture was given by Barry Brummett, Charles Sapp Centennial Professor in Communication at the University of Texas at Austin, who introduced A Burkean Framework for Rhetoric in the Digital Age. Starting from Burke’s observation that new rhetoric today creates an existing audience rather than appealing to a preexising one, the paper developed a general perspective on the development of rhetoric in our current digital age. Working on a metaphorical level, the paper claimed that people today can be understood as terminals. Our consciousness is made up of the images grounded in the material pixels of the screen, yet the images are not physically real. These images must be cognitively integrated and assembled following culturally shared forms. The paper addressed the question as to where the individual stands in connection to cultural discourses if the individual is conceptualized as a terminal.

The third keynote lecture was given by Steven Mailloux, President’s Professor of Rhetoric at Loyola Marymount University, who gave a lecture on Under the Sign of Theology: Kenneth Burke on Language and the Supernatural Order. The paper examined Burke’s rhetorical paths of theological thought in the 1960s. In his lecture, Mailloux explored “Theotropic Logology” as a way of characterizing Burke’s approach in a series of publications and conference papers during that period. Mailloux argued that through theotropic logology, or words about words about God, Burke developed a distinctive rhetorical hermeneutics in addressing questions at the intersection of what he called (in “What Are the Signs of What?”) the linguistic and supernatural orders.

The final keynote lecture was given by Jennifer Richards, Professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture in the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics at Newcastle University, who gave a lecture on Kenneth Burke: Literary-Rhetorical Thinker. In this lecture, she explored how a literary-rhetorical frame of mind equips us not only to live, but also to live well with each other. She explored what Burke meant by describing ‘literature’ as ‘equipment for living’ and how this might also work for rhetoric. Initially, Richards argued, it is hard to see how Burke’s major contribution to rhetoric, A Rhetoric of Motives (1950), equips us for living, because its mode of argument is so difficult. Richards unfolded what is difficult and, apparently, impractical about A Rhetoric of Motives by comparing it with a recent attempt to revive rhetorical analysis, Sam Leith’s You Talkin’ to Me (2011), which does set out self-consciously to ‘equip’ readers with a method of rhetorical and political analysis. She compared these two works not to show up Burke but to try to understand what was different about the use of rhetoric he had in mind. Despite the difficulty of A Rhetoric of Motives, its mode of argument does aim to equip to live well. To help explain how, Richards turned to Burke’s short essay on "Literature as Equipment for Living," focusing on his conception of literary writing in terms of proverbial wisdom: strategies or attitudes for different situations. Burke’s comparison of literary genres to proverbs provided Richards with a starting point for re-thinking rhetoric, and the rhetoric of literary experience, that might clarify Burke’s own style of thinking. What Burke can give us is equipment for thinking, Richards argues, because he furnishes us with a different style of thinking in utramque partem (i.e. on different sides).

Plenary Sessions

Next to the keynote lectures, we also organized a series of plenary sessions that offered detailed explorations of specific aspects that are of importance for the theme of the conference. To set the scene for the conference, we started with a panel on The Rhetorical Turn in the Human and Social Sciences, which explored Burke’s importance for anticipating (and influencing) the (re)turn to rhetoric of the past century. In Kenneth Burke and the Rhetoric of the Human Sciences Herbert Simons (Temple University) focused on the way Burke anticipated what has come to be called the Rhetorical Turn in the human sciences. The rhetorical turn has been an intellectual movement that refashioned the human sciences in rhetorical terms by criticizing commitments to objectivism and to foundationalist presuppositions. Simons argued that when used disparagingly, the term “rhetoric” can be something of an ironic entitlement, summoning images of scholars as flatterers and deceivers, con artists and propagandists and raising questions about relationships between science and ideology, scholarship and political practice. Simons claimed that while traditionalists might be pleased to learn that the project to re-conceive the human sciences has a reconstructive aspect—that it is not all criticism and deconstruction—they might still legitimately conclude that while the news from the rhetoric front is somewhat mixed, it is generally bad for them. Simons addressed the question how there can be progress in the human sciences absent foundations and with objectivity called into question.

From an anthropological perspective, Ivo Strecker (Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Germany) honored Kenneth Burke, who pioneered the rhetorical turn in the study of culture, and who demonstrated that symbolization and figuration play a crucial role in art, science and everyday-life. Strecker argued that Burke hardly ever used the term “culture” but preferred to speak of “human relations,” the “human condition” or simply “ourselves and others.” Strecker’s contribution first reflected on the metaphor of “rhetoric as equipment for living” and then presented two new approaches to the study of rhetoric, which are greatly indebted to Kenneth Burke. Firstly, the homo rhetoricus project which is based at the University of Tuebingen and which derives its innovative power from a new alliance between philosophical anthropology and rhetoric. Secondly, the rhetoric culture project—a project that originated at the Johannes Gutenberg University (Mainz) and Rice University (Houston) but has now become thoroughly international and nomadic—and that derives its innovative thrust from a new alliance between anthropology and rhetoric. In his paper, Strecker explored the many different ways in which rhetoric molds culture and culture molds rhetoric.

One of the aims of the conference was to explore what it implies to become symbol-wise and this inevitably also implied a focus on new developments, such as digitization. Therefore, in collaboration with DiGRA Flanders we organized a plenary session on Videogames as Equipment for Living which was chaired by Jeroen Bourgonjon. Christopher Paul presented a paper on Identification in Play: People, Processes, and Paratexts in which he focused on the concept of identification as the core of Burkean notions of rhetoric. According to Paul, identification works to build a sense of ‘we’ among individuals and, through consubstantiality, can demonstrate representations of what can bring a group together. In moving from an approach to rhetoric predicated on persuasion, a Burkean focus on identification rather facilitates a focus on connections and interactions. Christopher Paul argued that this kind of approach is particularly suited for the analysis of video games and their multifaceted platforms for interaction. Applying Burke’s ideas about identification to the study of video games indeed enables a richer understanding of games.

In his presentation Burke, Bogost, and Foucault in Colloquy on the Rhetoric of Games Gerald Voorhees (Oregon State University) aimed to put Kenneth Burke’s notion of literature as equipment for living in conversation with Ian Bogost’s conception of procedural rhetoric and Michel Foucault’s theory of discourse, knowledge, and power. Burke’s explanation of literature’s capacity to identify both recurrent situations and strategies for negotiating them has been applied to study a diverse range of mediated communication, including games. Games not only teach players which ways of interaction "make sense," according to Voorhees, they also assess player input and provide feedback evaluating the effectiveness of the player’s action. This paper explored how games offer a more responsive equipment for living that communicates knowledge about recurring situations. Voorhees argued that games advocate the effectivity of specific responses by dynamically modeling the outcomes afforded by different possibilities for action.

Seeing that the conference theme also specifically explored the educational dimensions of Burke’s corpus, we organized a panel on Rhetoric as Equipment for Education. In this session, Kris Rutten and Ronald Soetaert focused on the question: How can rhetoric and narrative function as equipment for living? They discussed how Burke argues for the importance of literature by focusing on his major concepts as: "equipment for living," "everything is medecine" and "proverbs writ large." They discussed some "representative anecdotes" from recent literature, films, and TV to illustrate how these concepts are thematized and problematized in recent fiction. By presenting a set of case studies they discussed how rhetoric and narrative can serve as equipment for education.

The final panel of the conference was an informal one that explored the current status and the possible future of the international legacy of Kenneth Burke. Noting suitable points of exchange between Burke and European scholars, the panel also discussed potential obstacles to the integration of Burke into different national traditions of scholarship. The main obstacle, the panel agreed, is the lack of suitable translations of Burke’s work. Burke himself, it was noted, earned a living in part as a translator: this meant he was very susceptible to the different shades of culture and meaning that are present in language. Transposing Burke’s idiosyncratic vocabulary into different tongues might make us more aware of these different shades in Burke’s conceptual metaphors, exposing prospective common ground between Burkean ideas and those of other thinkers. Such common ground, it was argued, might provide a basis for more comparative scholarship on Burke and contemporary European thought. Also, it was hoped, such scholarship might be flanked by studies that tackle the European (Freud, Marx) and classical (Plato, Aristotle, Augustine) sources from which Burke’s scholarship draws.


It is obviously beyond the scope of this introductory essay to describe how the many and diverse paper sessions of the conference interacted with, and deviated from, the topics discussed in the keynote lectures and panels. For a full overwiew of the presented papers and panels we are happy to redirect you to the conference program. Still, before introducing the conference papers that made it to this first special issue, we would like to point out some general tendencies, developments and hiatuses that struck us as the conference unfolded.

Despite the specific focus in the Call for Papers on the implication of Burke's work for (and in) education, only a minority of the presented papers explicitely explored the relationship between Burke and education. As we stated before (in “Narrative and rhetorical approaches to problems of education”), Burke has only written one essay explicitly about education—“Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education”—which was published in Modern Philosophies and Education: The Fifty-Fourth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. In KBJournal 7.2 William Cahill already extensively discussed the specific volume that this essay was published in and he argued that “[t]hough Dramatism could be called a philosophy, and there were people who regarded it as such in the period, it was still a stretch to call it a “general philosophy” in the sense implied by the Yearbook’s editorial committee, which brought together in the volume the main philosophies studied in academic departments of the day—Thomism, Pragmatism, Realism, etc. Burke’s philosophy was not studied in this way at that time” (¶2). His exploration of the context of this publication specifically raised the question: “How did Burke come to appear in this book whose other writers, with one exception, were professors of philosophy in universities and one a professor of education?” (¶2). Probably, as we argued (“Narrative and rhetorical approaches to education”), it is even today still more or less exceptional to give Kenneth Burke a major role in educational studies. However, our (continuing) aim is to re-visit the work of Burke for educational studies by exploring if and how Burke’s ideas are still relevant for contemporary discussions in education. We concur with Peter Smudde, that ‘to take Burke seriously calls for an examination not only of the substance of his corpus, but also of the implications of that substance for how we function as educators,’ which does not imply to ‘develop or advance any singular view on education, except to have Burke as the nexus for thinking about and acting on education’ (xii, our emphasis).

A second notable (near) absence was that of papers that tried to strike a bridge between classical rhetoric and Burke’s new breed of identificatory symbol usage. Does this suggest a radical break between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ rhetoric on which our Ghent Conference focused? Or have Burke studies as yet to convince those scholars of Aristotle, Aquinas and Ramus that Burke also speaks to them—and do we new rhetoricians, in turn, need to get in touch with our classical roots? Whatever the case, it seems that there is still a lot of scholarly ground that needs covering before we can establish more accurately the novelty of Burke’s thinking, and ours in its wake. Related to this is a third notable (near) absence: that of papers that explore Burke’s relation to those great European thinkers—Marx and Freud—that shaped his thought. Here, too, European scholars still have their part to play.


In his paper “In Pursuit of Persuasion: Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives and the Artistic Practices of the Painter Frank Auerbach,”Derek Pigrum (University of Bath, United Kingdom) starts from Jean-Luc Nancy’s claim that ‘there is an incapacity, an infinity, an impossibility inherent in writing about, to writing in the face of painting, for which every text on painting must account’ (341). He starts his paper with this claim and, accordingly, has chosen to view Frank Auerbach’s painting in terms of his practices and what he terms his ‘quest.’ Pigrum argues that this quest has vital links to key notions in Kenneth Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives that, although it deals primarily with works of literature, has, according to Pigrum, a relation to the painting practices of Auerbach and perhaps other painters too. Thus, this paper is experimental and exploratory in terms of the relation between Burke’s rhetoric and the visual arts. In the paper Pigrum characterizes Auerbach’s endless practice, that Weiss terms "erasure and restitution," as part and parcel of the "self-address" of the artist in pursuit of "pure persuasion," which according to Burke, is "the furthest point of rhetoric."

In her paper “The Vox Populi in Poems: Ramsey Nasr as Poet Laureate and Public Intellectual,” Odile Heynders (Tilburg University, The Netherlands) puts the spotlight on the work of Dutch Poet Laureate Ramsey Nasr. In the four years of his official appointment, he wrote poems and essays articulating a critical perspective on the current political conjuncture in the Netherlands. The Poet Laureate can be considered a public intellectual in that he shows engagement in regard to concrete societal issues and translates this into poetry. Using ideas and rhetorical tools from the work of Kenneth Burke, Heynders shows how Nasr’s poetry prompts readers to identify with his perspective while illuminating how such identification leads to division from a perspective that frames nationalism in terms that would exclude multiethnic citizenship.

In his paper “Urban Motives. Rhetorical Approaches to Spatial Orientation, Burke on Lynch's ‘The Image of the City,’” Pierre Smolarski (University of Bielefeld, Germany) argues that whoever raises questions about the legibility of the city must notice that the metaphor of legibility involves the ideas of interpreting signs and symbols under different motivational axes, which leads to the creation of different scopes of reading, understanding and acting. Thus, the legibility of the city involves the idea of a rhetoric of the city. Smolarski examines Kevin Lynch’s inquiry, The Image of the City, in terms of the rhetorical theory developed by Kenneth Burke. The aim of this confrontation is to see what happens when Lynch’s central terms are discussed rhetorically, and to show that Lynch’s categories can be understood as rhetorical motives. In conclusion, he argues that The Image of the City can be interpreted rhetorically, and in a more fundamental way the paper aims to demonstrate that problems of orientation in the metropolis have an essential rhetorical dimension. Finally, Smolarski interrogates the results of the rhetorical impact on urban environmental design.

In their paper, “Expanding the Terministic Screen: A Burkean Critique of Information Visualization in the Context of Design Education,” Anneli Bowie and Duncan Reyburn (University of Pretoria, South Africa), start from what information design theorist Richard Wurman has dubbed "information anxiety" to argue that information visualization has become a widely accepted tool to assist with the navigation of the symbolic world. Information visualizations, or infographics, are essentially external cognitive aids such as graphs, diagrams, maps and other interactive and innovative graphic applications. It is often argued by design theorists that information visualizations are rhetorical texts in that they have the ability to persuade. From this perspective, Bowie and Reyburn assert that information visualization may be understood as one expression of Kenneth Burke’s notion of the "terministic screen." This paper aims to interrogate the rhetoric of information visualization within the domain of design education in South Africa by analyzing two student visualization projects. Moreover, it explores the selective and deflective nature of visualization alongside issues regarding the interplay between ideology and Robin Kinross’s idea of a visual "rhetoric of neutrality." Burke’s explanation of synecdoche is shown as a useful approach to understanding how visualizations function rhetorically. Furthermore, Burke’s concept of perspective by incongruity, which is echoed in the notion of "Critical Design" is shown as an alternative method with the potential to ameliorate the problems with traditional infographics. Bowie and Duncan present Burke’s rhetorical theory as a critical tool for developing more ethical communication design education and praxis.

In her paper, “‘You’re Not Going to Try and Change My Mind?’: The Dynamics of Identification in Aronofsky’s Black Swan,” Yakut Oktay (Bogazici University, Turkey) focuses on the movie Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky, to analyse how the rhetoric of ballet is used as a tool for shaping, and interrupting, the journey of the hero. The movie follows its main character Nina, who is dangerously obsessed with becoming the perfect swan for the new production of Swan Lake, which requires the principal dancer to embody both the White and the Black swans. By focusing on her struggle with identification, this article aims to pinpoint these instances by utilizing the theory of the monomyth, propounded by Joseph Campbell.

In her paper, “Who are you working for? How 24 Served as Post-9/11 Equipment for Living,” Laura Herrmann (Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen, Germany), focuses on the groundbreaking television series 24. Portraying a post-9/11 society, 24 has been an interesting show to watch and analyze, Herrmann argues. Not only did it tie viewers all over the world to their screens, it also attracted fierce criticism in regards to its depiction of society, its war on terror, and the means by which it was fought. Times author James Poniewozik put an interesting point to these discussions, asking: “Is 24 just a TV show or right-wing propaganda? Or, to turn Jack Bauer’s frequent refrain on him: Who are you working for?” (“The Evolution of Jack Bauer“). This paper argues that 24 worked for us; as equipment for living to a post-9/11 society. As 24 "sized up" (Burke, Literature 298) a status of exception of a post-9/11 era, it offered us attitudes and strategies to symbolically (Literature, 299) overcome our fear. Employing a pentadic analysis, it examines the portrayal of a post-9/11 status of exception, its promoted strategies and attitudes. The idea is that these attitudes bear different notions of self: they offer facets of identity to a post-9/11 society, which had to deliberate on how our actions morally define us, how they not only determine our identity, but also create it anew.


Cahil, W. (2011). Kenneth Burke’s pedagogy of motives, KB Journal, 7(2).

Gaonkar, D. (1993). "The revival of rhetoric, the new rhetoric, and the rhetorical turn: some distinctions." Informal Logic 1, 53–64.

Rutten, K. & Soetaert, R. (2013). Narrative and rhetorical approaches to problems of education. Jerome Bruner and Kenneth Burke revisited. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 32(4), 327–43.

Smudde, P.M. (Ed.) (2010) Humanistic Critique of Education: Teaching and Learning as Symbolic Action. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press.

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In Pursuit of Persuasion: Burke’s Rhetoric and the Artistic Practices of the Painter Frank Auerbach

Derek Pigrum, University of Bath


Jean-Luc Nancy states “there is an incapacity, an infinity, an impossibility inherent in writing about, to writing in the face of painting, for which every text on painting must account” (341). I began this paper with this in mind and, accordingly, I have chosen to view Frank Auerbach’s painting in terms of his practices and what he terms his “quest” but a quest that I believe has vital links to key notions in Kenneth Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives that, although it deals primarily with works of literature, has, I will argue, a relation to the painting practices of Auerbach and perhaps other painters too. Thus, this paper is experimental and exploratory in terms of “how far one might systematically extend the term rhetoric” (44) to include the visual arts. In the paper I characterize Auerbach’s endless practice of what Weiss terms “erasure and restitution” (löschung und restitution) (15), as a ’realism of the act” (Burke 44) and as such part and parcel of the artist’s pursuit of “persuasion available in (the) given situation” (Burke 46) of painting and drawing.

My interest in rhetoric originates in the context of my PhD thesis at the University of Bath and subsequently in a book on what I term “Multi-Mode Transitional Practices.” It was while looking at drawing as a means of generating, modifying and developing ideas that I came across the work of Michael Summers who closely relates artistic practices to rhetoric as involving a process of change, constant transformation and the final persuasion that effects closure. Burke states “wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric” (172). Auerbach’s practice of “erasure and restitution,” in which he all but removes the painting of the previous day and then begins to paint the subject all over again is one of change and transformation directed towards the achievement of persuasion that the work is complete.

In the first section of the paper I outline Auerbach’s “topics” or the way he restricts his drawing and painting to the area of Camden Town and to the sitters that come to his studio according to a strict schedule—some of them for over twenty years. I explore the transitional and transformational changes these undergo in Auerbach’s sketching, painting and drawing process. This is followed by a section on “erasure and restitution” in Auerbach’s artistic practices that I relate to Burke’s notion of “standoffishness.’

In the next section the emphasis is on the all-important role of mark- making in Auerbach’s practices as involving what Burke terms “nonverbal conditions or objects (that) can be considered as signs by reason of persuasive ingredients inherent in the meaning they have for the audience to which they are addressed” (161). In terms Auerbach’s of the painting practices of Auerbach this involves a notion of the self -address of internal rhetoric. Burke states that “nothing is more rhetorical in nature than a deliberation as too what is too much or too little, too early or too late” (45). This deliberation is at the root of Auerbach’s painting practices and when “fused with the spirit of the formative moment” (Burke 323) result in a state of closure akin to Burke’s notion of “pure persuasion” (267). However, I suggest that there is a tension between Burke’s notion of art as “construction of the self” and Auerbach’s account of what for him counts as a state of closure, or “pure persuasion” in which he rejects our accustomed way of thinking about painting as self-expression and self-discovery. In my conclusion I go over the main points again and suggest how Burke and his notion of “self-address” could provide a bridging principle between the work of painting and drawing and the realm of rhetoric. I also outline some directions for further research where Burke’s ideas on rhetoric could expand our understanding of the practices of visual artists.

Auerbach’s “Topics”

To begin with let us consider the two main themes in Auerbach’s painting: the area of Camden town where his studio is situated and the sitters that come according to a strict schedule to his studio, some of them for over twenty years. It is these two external entities that have been Auerbach “topics.” Topics that he approaches through charcoal drawings made outside the studio in the city and inside the studio in the presence of a sitter. The drawings as such are a bridging principle between what is seen, drawn and then painted. Auerbach, talking about the cityscape, states,

buses come across and people move and then you do more drawings and all sorts of sensations about pace and speed and the plastic coherence of the material you are dealing with, and people walking across begin to appear in space, and you just make these drawings and take them back to the studio and it gives you an impetus you know, to do something with the painting you’re working on. (Tusa 9).

Thus, the drawings continually inform the act of painting. In Auerbach’s paintings both the sitter and the cityscape are lifted temporarily out of the continuous flow of life. The marks that Auerbach makes in the process of sketching, drawing and painting stand for a relation between observer and observed where something is abstracted from what is seen. Burke states in his comments on poetic observation, there is “no naked relation between an observed object and the observer’s eye” (Burke 219). The to-and-fro between painting and drawing, like that of poetic observation, turn what is perceived into an image that moves at another level from that of empirical perception. This produces work that, in the words of Nancy, is “utterly, infinitely different from the image of reality which is neither its opposite, nor its reversal” (Nancy 162) but open to infinite possibilities.

Erasure, Restitution and “Self-Address”

Robert Hughes describes Auerbach’s drawing and painting process as a pattern of continual erasure and re-appearance carried out in an effort “to stabilize and define the terms of his relations to the real, resistant and experienced world” (Hughes 202). In his book on Auerbach Hughes states that “each days drawing is left over night, taken up the next day when the sitter arrives, and then scrubbed back to a grey blur—usually to the sitter’s disappointment as there seems no end to all this(198).” Hughes tells us that such drawings go through up to thirty states of erasure and that, before Auerbach began to use much heavier paper, he often applied a patch to where the paper had become perforated by “the abrasive action of the charcoal [and] the rubbing of the rag” (ibid). According to Hughes, when asked why he did not begin again on a fresh sheet of paper, Auerbach said that he felt that “the ghosts of erased images “in” the sheet contribute some pressure to the final version, which he is loath to lose” (ibid). My former professor Ralph Lilleford attended the Royal college at the same time as Auerbach and sent me the following recollection of Auerbach at work:

He was a strong, well built man and put emotional power into his thrashings and murderous avenge by holding the board with an inch of paper on it and ravaging it with a fist clenched round a handful of willow charcoal sticks, holding a rubber to devaluate what he had drawn, quite a performance -along with the 10 meter path of trodden in charcoal where he walked back and forth to the easel. He would draw through several sheets in inches, in furrows, flaking paper off in a ragged way. He wore all black, generally industrial clothing, black hair, very serious [and with] no relation to any one else in the studio, expecting complete silence except for his crunching underfoot and groans and yells at the easel. He did painting from four-gallon cans occasionally. I can’t think of any model or other artist he based his actions on. . . .” (email)

For Auerbach, drawing and painting are always on the verge of both losing and finding, or what Burke describes as “a ritual of getting and not getting” (273) that, I would argue, involves, in Burke’s terms, an element of “self-address.” In this self-address erasure is not total obliteration nor restitution or return to what has gone before but its ghost, and this is then subjected to a renewed act of making, a kind of Penelopewerk or work of Penelope where, as Walter Benjamin states, “hier löst der Tag auf, was die Nacht wirkte” (here the day unravels what the night has woven) (in Fleckner 268). Auerbach’s process of “erasure and restitution “ is closely related to what Burkes says concerning amplification that “of all rhetorical devices (is) the most thoroughgoing” (67) because “it increases persuasiveness by sheer accumulation” ibid).

It is interesting to note that the importance Auerbach assigns to the “grey traces of obliteration” (Feaver 19), is echoed by the German writer Matthias Politycki on the process of writing. He states, “The first draft, even if not a word of it remains, is always crucial in every text because its pressure remains in all subsequent versions” (“Die Erstniederschrift, auch wenn davon kein einziges Wort am Ende erhalten bleibt, ist allerdings für jeden Text ausschlaggebend, weil als Druck darin durch alle Fassungen spürbar.’) (Politycki 23). This process of making, erasing, and re-emergence becomes, in Auerbach’s painting, marks, streaks, scratches, trails and traces that are subject to a process of attrition, accretion, upheaval, erasure and restitution.

In a recent BBC radio interview with John Tusa Auerbach describes how he works:

things are going well and I feel it’s almost as though something arose from the canvas of its own accord, you know, the various attempts one has been making come together and an image seems to form out of the paint: when I’m actually in pursuit of this I no longer quite know what I’m doing because all my energies are engaged in this pursuit of the possibility that’s arisen on the canvas. (8)

Tusa goes on to ask why Auerbach, despite what he has just said, will look at the painting at the end of the sitting and then “scrape it off.” Auerbach’s reply is that “at the end of the sitting I’ll put it on the floor and look at it and turn it to the wall” (ibid). He then goes on to describe how his working habits have changed over time so that instead of scraping the paint off at the next sitting he now waits three or four days and then “I blot it off with newspaper so that I have . . . a sort of flattened version of the image which gives me a basis to go on the next time but without the paint on it . . . “ ibid). Later, in the same interview, Auerbach talks more about the necessary role of destruction in his painting process as “the only possible progress” and if he feels a “slight unease, even if the thing seems plausible and presentable and nobody else might notice that it’s no good, one’s got to destroy it” (9).

In Auerbach’s practices this is a to-and-fro of “making, erasing and restituting” that seems to know no rest. In terms of creative practices, the sculptress Louise Bourgeois sheds light on this:

[What] I do is an active state. It’s positive affirmation. I am in control, and move forward, toward a goal or wish or desire. . . . The undo is the unraveling. The torment that things are not right and the anxiety of not knowing what to do. There can be total destruction in the attempt to find an answer, and there can be terrifying violence that descends into depression. . . . The re-do means a solution is found to the problem. It may not be the final answer, but there is an attempt to go forward. You get clearer in your thinking. You are active again. (368)

This doing, undoing, and redoing is closely related to Burke’s view of the formal situation as involving “winding–up and unwinding, finding and losing, loosening and binding” (Burke 11). It is this “loosening and binding” that must be given priority because it is concerned with actively making, responding to and transforming marks together with a specific form of self-address.

The Stimulus of the Mark

The mark belongs to what Peirce termed the “third universe,” that is to say “everything whose being consists in the active power to establish connections” and as such is “essentially a sign” (in Liske.2). There is also a sense in which the mark is the outcome of what Peirce termed “pure play” (ibid) that produces a form of “musement’; once the mark is there it sets in motion a lively give-and-take of possibility produced by accretions that Peirce relates to purposes which have essentially shaped the “springs of action,” or what Burke would term “motivation,” that is purpose accompanied by the “habit of expectation” and of surprise, but also the possibility of temporary failure. Thus the mark can induce an affective state of excitation. Certain marks stop us in our tracks, move us in some way, often without our knowing why, and at the same time move us on or forward, albeit tentatively and provisionally, seizing upon the “material sign” of the mark as an inducement to act.

In terms of the mark and primary linguistic signifiers Seebald, in his novel Austerlitz describes the experience of becoming aware of the perceptual nature of the signifier of the linguistic sign akin to the painters recognition of the mark or the trace when he states, “The sentences are dissolved into many individual words, and the words into letters, and the letters into broken signs and these, here and there, into a lead grey shiny trace . . . “ 180). (“Die Sätze lösten sich auf in laute einzelne Worte, die Worte in eine willkürliche Folge von Buchstaben, die Buchstaben in zerbrochene Zeichen und diese in eine blei-graue, da und dort silbrig glänzende Spur’).

Auerbach says that each painting begins “as an almost nothing, an incoherence worked on, worked at, worked with . . . “ (in Feaver 19). Auerbach comments on this primacy of the mark as a point of departure when, even after long years of practice, he has

totally forgotten how to paint . . . and then a mark may happen at any time that reminds one what it is like to paint, and one tries to do the thing with the energy at one’s disposal before the feeling goes. And what happens on those occasions is that I find myself making certain marks. It’s what happened to me rather than what I mean to do, it’s what’s happened to me in the thrill of the chase, with the quarry in sight. I’ve done my best, I’ve forgotten myself, and this is how it has come out. (Peppiatt 9)

There is an echo here of Bourdieu’s notion of habitus as an “estimation of chances . . . of objective potentialities, immediately inscribed in the present, things to do or not to do, in relation to a forthcoming reality which . . . puts itself forward with an urgency and a claim to existence excluding all deliberation” (Bourdieu 76). The mark is in the order of an inaugural moment, a beginning, something close to what Said, referring to the writer Erich Auerbach, termed an “Ansatzpunkt” or point of departure that has a quality that is intelligible in the same way that Said states that “an X is intelligible in an algebraic function . . . yet its value is also unknown” 68) until , like the mark, it is seen in relation to other marks. At this moment something emerges and is actualized, a coming, or potency that is grasped as an opening, a point of departure that is a tightening or slackening of the mark from which variations flow. Above all the mark is a sign occurrence where the subjective and the objective, the signifier and the signified have not yet been separated.

Elkins comes as close as perhaps anyone has ever done to providing a description of painting. One of the people Elkins contacted in order to verify his findings was Frank Auerbach who stated: “as soon as I become consciously aware of what the paint is doing my involvement with the painting is weakened. Paint is at its most eloquent when it is a by-product of some corporeal, spatial, developing imaginative concept, a creative identification with the subject”(qtd. in Elkins 74). In this sense the making of marks and their erasure are what Burke would term “successive moments in a single process(187) that he likens to a “footfall” that continues to “echo in the memory” because fused with the taking up again of the “formative moments . . . as vague adumbrations of later possibilities” (323).

According to Elkins the mark has “the dual nature of the pictorial trace” (240) and as such is partly semiotic and partly non-semiotic. We might see the mark as sub-semiotic, that is to say meaningless until by accretions it forms into a meaningful sign. But Elkins counters this reduction of the mark to something like the status and role of the morpheme in linguistics, and instead places the mark “beyond the reach of linguistic analogies” (824) on the grounds that the mark can produce a response or incitement that is “un-coded.” Elkins argues that although small changes to marks can alter their syntactic and semantic function “this does not correspond well with the ways that pictures are actually made or viewed” (828).

Some marks might have a significance open to deliberation and as such are what Burke terms the “putting,” the “may” or “must,” “will” or “ought” (153) of deliberation, stating “nothing is more rhetorical than a deliberation as to what is too much or too little” (45).

We might say then, following Burke’s ideas, that Auerbach makes a mark that “sets up demands of its own . . . demands conditioned by what has gone before but not foreseen” (269). This is what Auerbach is seeking, this is the “quest.” There is a sense in which this “quest” is imbued with a “predatory principle” shaped by the principles specific to each kind of cultural activity” (134). But this raises the very difficult philosophical question of the relation between temporality and affect. In other words, what are the qualities in a painting that, at a particular moment, reach a state that persuades Auerbach that he has caught in the paint what he is after.

In Pursuit of “Pure Persuasion’

For Burke “the furthest we can go, in matters of rhetoric, is the question of “pure persuasion” (267). Auerbach’s “self-address,” is intertwined with his repeated “erasures and restitutions” but we have suggested that many of the decisions he makes are unconscious. The question is how does this equate with a notion of Burkian “self-address.” Nienkamp develops a notion of ’internal rhetoric” as affecting the way we act at an intentional conscious level and the unconscious level of what she terms “primary internal rhetoric” that she equates with Burke’s notion of “a wide range of ways whereby the rhetorical motive, through the resources of identification, can operate without conscious direction . . . in varying degrees of deliberativeness and unawareness” (20). An example of this primary rhetoric is provided by Elkins when he describes the turning of the body against itself” (17). What he means here is how in the process of painting the body is countered in its inclination towards a predictable pattern of marks that “stems from a fleeting momentary awareness of what the hand might do next” (18).

But what is it that ultimately persuades Auerbach, in the “formal situation,” that the work is completed? The very fact that Auerbach does not immediately erase a day’s work on the canvas or on paper suggests that the “pure persuasion” that Auerbach seeks lies in “a thing one doesn’t understand and which one suspects may work” (qtd. in Feaver 19) which implies a temporal gap between completion and final persuasion, or what Burke describes as an “element of standoffishness” (269). Auerbach’s painting practices rely on an immersive moment or state. It is of great interest in this context that Fried in his book on Caravaggio, uses the term “immersive moment” to describe that state in which the painter is to be imagined as continuous with the picture on which he is working and a subsequent “specular moment” that we might identify with Burke’s “standoffishness” in which he separates or cuts himself off or detaches himself from the painting to view the possibilities that have emerged.

In Auerbach’s case, this is a day away from the moment when he is persuaded that the painting “stands up for itself, and I no longer see the trace of my will and hopes in it” (in Feaver 19), words that cast a whole new light on the notion of closure and its consequences for the painter, and on some of our accepted notions on the relation between the work of art and the artist.

Auerbach’s account of what constitutes for him closure, as quoted at the end of the previous section, does not include a notion of either identity or Burke’s notion of the way we “construct the self” (45). It is in fact far closer to Adorno’s notion of “the factor in a work of art which enables it to transcend reality . . . found in those features in which discrepancy appears: in the necessary failure of the passionate striving for identity” (131).

In the case of Auerbach the completed work is by definition implicated in what Burke would term as belonging “in a larger unit of action” (27). I suggest that this “larger unit of action” for Auerbach has two main components: the way his work relates to painters and paintings of the past and the way in which the “pure persuasion” that constitutes closure also anticipates and leads to further action, to further painting.

For Auerbach paintings of the past are fundamentally incomplete, leaving traditions, like the tradition of portrait painting, open to startling revisions. At the same time, the present moment of painting constitutes the indispensable point of reference by means of which past painting achieves its significance for Auerbach. While painting Auerbach will sometimes “pull a book from the shelves, flick it open . . . and dump it on the floor as assurance, or incitement, or aid to reflection” (qtd. in Feaver 5). These books are among his formative influences together with the teachings of David Bomberg and the work of artists such as Francis Bacon, Alberto Giacometti and Chaim Soutine, all of who have had motivational processes similar to those of Auerbach, but none of this subtracts from Auerbach’s autonomy because such influences have been intuitively absorbed and interwoven with the particulars of Auerbach’s practices. Auerbach’s recourse to these books and artists is closely related to what Burke says about the need “ . . . to keep trying anything and everything, improvising, borrowing from others, developing from others . . . schematizing; using the incentive to new wanderings, returning from these excursions to schematize again” (265).

I would argue that Auerbach’s paintings, by means of the to-and-fro between drawing and painting and erasure and restitution, shift from the initial sensory image of the cityscape or sitter to a non-empirical image that is not reducible to either a positive mimetic image or to the dialectical order of ideas but nevertheless achieves what Burke would term a “mythic image” 203). But why mythic? The explanation Burke provides is that such an image embodies or “summarizes successive positions or moments in a single process” (187). Here I would remind the reader of the “ghost” in the painting that is blotted out with newspaper and how Auerbach applies successive drawings on the same sheet of paper, all of which are subsumed in a final act of painting that I suggest is comparable to Burke’s notion of “pure persuasion.”

In Burke’s expanded view of rhetoric “pure persuasion” is a balancing act on the very edge of finding and losing, which, as we have seen, is the way Auerbach describes his painting process. However, Bryan Crable mentions Burke’s insistence on human beings as “symbol using/making/misusing animals (of) the inclination and aptitude to verbal appeal (that) shapes all aspects of our uniquely rhetorical existence” (231). The question here is if we can assign to the moment when Auerbach sees that a painting “stands” to a verbal appeal, albeit one that takes place internally but at the same time is beyond“rational terms of definition” (268–69).

According to Deleuze Aristotle’s view of the transition from potentiality to actuality is that which has left behind all uncertainty. We leave behind all uncertainty of form when we achieve closure. But how do we know when to stop, to call a halt of closure as the end result of a series of events that begin with possibilities and end in the imperative cessation of activity that Burke termed “pure persuasion” (267). However, and most interestingly Burke related “pure persuasion” to a “non-existent limit.” Non-–existent because the limit set by “pure persuasion” opens into “vague adumbrations of . . . higher possibilities” (323). In other words, the work, although subject to the limit of closure, is always arriving. This I believe is of the essence of Burke’s notion of “pure persuasion” and the impetus that continuously fuels Auerbach’s painting.

But there are further grounds for admitting painting to the order of “pure persuasion.” Crable argues that Burke’s “pure persuasion” shatters a “primary unity” that “is a ground, in both agent and scene, beyond the verbal” (324) but which, “contains the potentiality of the verbal” (290) that once actualized “interposes distance” or a “standoffishness” (271) that is the differentiation and distance created by symbolic or other sign use as an incentive for the maintenance of appeal.

But no more profound question exits than that of how and when our capacity to create verbal and written signs began. One thing seems to emerge: that the written sign was preceded by the iconic sign and this would seem to have been prefigured by marks of different sizes and shapes with different spacing that did not produce any recognizable image. I would argue then that one of the first ways human beings created distance or Burke’s “standoffishness” was through mark making. Marks made either by fingers dipped into some pigment and then applied to a cave or rock wall or incised on some such surface. It is interesting to note here that the root of the English word to write is the German word ritzen, to scratch or incise. I would further argue that the writer’s words on blank sheet of paper or a painter’s marks on the blank canvas are acts that initiate the distance required for the maintenance of appeal that is essence of rhetoric.


The reader might think that I am filling in my own blank check in this paper with regard to rhetoric and Burke’s notion of “pure persuasion” in the painting practices of Frank Auerbach in which the verbal does not seem to play a part. However, Burke mentions “sources of mystery beyond rhetoric, found among other things in “the non verbal” where the “unutterable complexities” to which the implications of words themselves, or, in Auerbach’s case, marks, give rise. Finally he talks about the “super-verbal” that “would not be nature minus speech, but nature as the ground of speech, hence nature itself as containing the principle of speech” (180) and here I would add nature itself as containing the principle of the mark and the iconic sign.

Auerbach’s external world is transformed into drawings and paintings that involve an integrated rhythm of painting, drawing, or what Burke’s calls the “formal situation,” where the illusive nature of the mark acts as an incitement and inducement to act. The mark as a point of departure subject to deliberative self-address that involves erasure and restitution in a tireless quest over time for the “pure persuasion” of closure. What for Auerbach constitutes “pure persuasion” is the “surprise” that no one painting can fulfill.

A direction in future research would be to explore in far greater depth than has been possible here, the nature of the stimulation produced by the mark and those practices that develop its use. An additional direction for future research would be to explore Burke’s notion of “primary inner rhetoric.” Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives could act as a way of bringing forward and making connections between the “formal situation” and the work or labor of painting as a liberation form, rather than an expression of the ego. In this connection I would argue that Auerbach’s deep interest in certain artists of the past suggests, contrary to popular belief, that influence is not an obstacle to creativity but rather an enhancement, something we learn from in complex ways. A future research direction would be to examine the importance of influence on visual artists in much the same way that Harold Bloom has done this for writers in his book “The Anxiety of Influence.” Finally, I believe that this essay provides a starting point for utilizing Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives to reassemble and achieve a new and improved understanding of the disparate aspects of individual artistic practices.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Das Penelopewerk des Vergessens in Fleckner, U. Hrsg. (1995) Die Schatzkammern der Mnemosyne: Ein Lesebuch zur Gedächtnistheorie von Platon bis Derrida. Göttingen: Verlag der Kunst 1929. Print.

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1973. Print.

Bourgeois, Louise. Destruction of the Father Reconstruction of the Father. Writings and Interviews 1923–1997. Ed. M.L. Bernadac and H.U. Obrist. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005. Print.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley, U of California P, 1969. Print.

Crable, Bryan. “Distance as Ultimate Motive: A Dialectical Interpretation of A Rhetoric of Motives.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 39.3 (2009): 213–39. Print.

Elkins, James. “Marks, Traces, Traits, Contours, Orli, and Splendores: Nonsemiotic Elements in Pictures.” Critical Inquiry 21 (Summer 1995): 822–870. Print.

—. The Domain of Images. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1999

—. What Painting Is: How to Think about Painting Using the Language of Alchemy. London: Routledge, 1999

Feaver, William. Frank Auerbach. New York: Rizzoli, 2009

Hughes, Robert. Frank Auerbach. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992

Fried, Michael. The Moment of Caravagggio. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2011. Print.

Lilleford, Ralph. Email to the Author (6 March 2013).

Liske, James, Jacob. A General Introduction to the Semeiotic of Charles Sanders Peirce. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996. Print.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Birth to Presence. Trans. by Brian Holmes. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1993. Print.

Nienkamp, Jean. “Internal Rhetorics: Constituting Selves in Diaries and Beyond.” Culture, Rhetoric and the Vicissitudes of Life. Ed. Michael Carrithers. New York: Berghahn Books 2012. 18­­–33. Print.

Peppiatt, Michael. Interviews with Artists 1966 to 2012. New Haven: Yale UP, 2012. Print.

Pigrum, Derek. Teaching Creativity: Multi-Mode Transitional Practices. London: Continuum, 2009. Print.

Politycki, Matthias. “Schräglage zur Welt: Was bringt den Schriftsteller zum Schreiben.”Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Samstag 15 (Dec. 2012): 23–24. Print.

Said, Edward. Beginnings: Intention and Method. New York: Columbia UP, 1985. Print.

Seebald, Winfried Georg. Austerlitz. München: Carl Hauser Verlag 2001. Print.

Summers, David. Michelangelo and the Language of Art. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1981. Print.

Tusa, John. Frank Auerbach. Interview.BBC-Radio 3 (7 Oct. 2001).

Weiss, Judith Elisabeth. “Frank Auerbach’s Porträts und Köpfe.” Trajekte 25 (Oct. 2012): 14–20. Print.

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The Vox Populi in Poems: Ramsey Nasr as Poet Laureate and Public Intellectual

Odile Heynders, Tilburg University


This paper puts the spotlight on the work of Dutch Poet Laureate Ramsey Nasr. In the four years of his official appointment, he wrote poems and essays articulating a critical perspective on the current political conjuncture in the Netherlands. The Poet Laureate can be considered a public intellectual in that he shows engagement in regard to concrete societal issues and ‘translates’ this into poetry. Using ideas and rhetorical tools from the work of Kenneth Burke, I will show how Nasr’s poetry prompts readers to identify with his perspective while illuminating how such identification leads to division from a perspective that frames nationalism in terms that would exclude multiethnic citizenship.

The Poet Laureate as Public Intellectual

ON MONDAY JANUARY 28, 2013, DUTCH POET RAMSEY NASR (b. 1974) was one of the guests on the popular Dutch TV talk show De Wereld draait door (DWDD),1 being invited on the showin connection with the festivities surrounding the annual ‘Poetry Week’ and the termination of his four-year appointment as Poet Laureate (from 2009 to 2013). On the evening in question, however, he did not get a chance to discuss literature at all, the program being interrupted by a Breaking News item in which the Dutch Queen announced her abdication. After this, the discussion at the DWDD table turned to her thirty-three-year reign and remained there for the rest of the show. The next day, Nasr appeared on the program again, in full swing now, since that morning he had written a long poem addressed to the queen,2 thus underscoring his position as Poet Laureate. He read the poem in a solemn voice, delivering it flawlessly as the trained actor that he is. On Wednesday January 30, Nasr reappeared again on DWDD, this time to really discuss his ideas on the potential and the power of poetry, and his past performances as poet Laureate. Some of his poems and statements had caused quite a stir, being considered by some to be too left wing and, perhaps even more importantly, because they were clearly pro-Palestine.3

Nasr’s appearing on an important prime-time television show three evenings in a row, and expressing his views on political and social topics, reaching a wide general audience in the process (much broader than that of the average readers of poetry), underlined his cultural authority (Collini 452). The prestige involved not only lay in his being Poet Laureate, but also in a broader structure of relations (Collini 52), including his being invited by top TV personality Van Nieuwkerk and his editorial team, expressing clear opinions on the Queen and the monarchy, having met the challenge and writing an appealing poem in response to her abdication, which, as an actor, he could recite convincingly. A successful television appearance on a quality talk show is an obvious indication that one is performing one’s role well, doing the right thing at the right moment.

The Poet Laureateship was introduced into the Dutch literary context when quality newspaper NRC Handelsblad in collaboration with the Poetry International organization and Dutch Public television NPS decided to organize a contest to choose a renowned poet who was to promote poetry by writing on important current events and special occasions. The Poet Laureate was to be an ambassador for poetry. The first to be chosen as Poet Laureate was famous poet and anthologist Gerrit Komrij (1944–2012), in January 2000.4 Four years later the less canonized, light verse poet Driek van Wissen (1943–2010) was elected after an elaborate campaign (which he had organized himself). In 2009, Ramsey Nasr became the third Poet Laureate. When his term was over, a committee of connoisseurs was formed to choose his successor in order to avoid the public voting-procedure, which had turned out too easy to manipulate. The current Poet Laureate is Postmodernist poet Anne Vegter (b. 1958), who accepted the honor in January of 2013.

The Poet Laureate is a historical institution, going all the way back to the Roman Empire in which poets, such as Horace, were officially appointed by the Capitol to compose texts for special events. This institution developed into the tradition of the court poets in the Middle Ages. The Poets Laureate Petrarch and Chaucer are famous representatives of the position in the Renaissance.5 In 1668, the laureateship acquired royal status in the UK when Dryden was appointed to the post and was the first to receive the official title. In England, the Poet Laureate writes for the court at national events. It is a job for life. Ted Hughes was one of the most renowned Poets Laureate in the 20th century. In the US, the Poet Laureateship was introduced as recently as 1937, and there the Poet Laureate is appointed by the Librarian of Congress for a period of only eight months. S/He is supposed to write poetry for a broader audience. In addition, every Poet Laureate can choose his own personal project to pursue. There is a wide variety of choices open to him, ranging from writing columns on poetry, or compiling an anthology, to organizing poetry projects at schools. Today, every American state has its own Poet Laureate, comparable more or less to the city poets in Dutch cities.

The Dutch Poet Laureate position is obviously a bit different from the ones in the UK and the USA. In the Netherlands, this position has been configured at arm’s length from government—neither the public broadcaster NPS or Poetry International though both subsidized can be taken as representative of the state—whereas in the other countries mentioned the appointment does have clear ties to the state. This, indeed, shapes the auditor’s and reader’s expectations: in the Dutch context the configuration is much more unofficial and progressive. The poet can make his point without taken the representativeness as such as too restrictive.

Ramsey Nasr, born from a Palestinian father and a Dutch mother6, is a jack-of-all-trades: poet, essayist, renowned actor and director. In 2000, he published his debut, the collection 27 Poems & No Song (27 gedichten & Geen lied). His second book of poetry, awkwardly flowering (onhandig bloesemend) appeared four years later. In 2005, Nasr was appointed city poet of Antwerp, a city in the North, Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. His third poetry volume our-lady-zeppelin (onze-lieve-vrouwe-zeppelin) (2006) includes all his ‘Antwerp poems’ along with detailed commentary and historical photographs of the city. A selection of articles on art and politics was published in 2006 under the title Of the Enemy and the Musician (Van de vijand en de muzikant). Aside from his literary work, Nasr is also a gifted actor and director. In May 2013, he was appointed a member of the prestigious theatre company Toneelgroep Amsterdam (TGA). He has played parts in films and television series.7 In 2010, Heavenly Life appeared, the first English-language collection of the work of Ramsey Nasr, translated by David Colmer and published by Banipal Books.

The Dutch Poet Laureate is supposed to write at least four poems a year on an international event of a cultural, political, sports (sic) or societal character. The poems are published in the NRC newspaper.8 In the four years of his Poet Laureateship, Nasr wrote 23 poems on occasions such as a shooting in a provincial town with seven people dead and seventeen injured (‘the spring gun’ (‘het lentekanon’)), the attack on Queen’s Day—a national Dutch holiday—in 2009 (‘In the land of kings’ (‘In het land der koningen’)) and the installation of a new government in October 2010, made possible by the support from Geert Wilders’ populist Party PVV (‘Mijn nieuwe vaderland’ (My new fatherland)). He also wrote memorial poems on the death of three renowned Dutch writers: Harry Mulisch, Simon Vinkenoog and Gerrit Komrij and, as said, ended his official Poet Laureateship with a poem on the announced abdication of Queen Beatrix.

In this article, I argue that Nasr as Poet Laureate demonstrates how the generic expectations associated with poetry can be ‘sized up’ rhetorically to accommodate the expression of timely political critique. Nasr, so to say, successfully mingles poetry and politics and in doing so intertwines various linguistic dimensions in the Burkean sense, in order to underscore the authority of the poet and the importance of his voice in judging the societal conjuncture. The Poet Laureate is an example of the literary author as a public intellectual,9 addressing an audience on conflicting cultural or social issues that need to be interpreted and commented upon. The ‘intellectual’ element emphasizes the writer having (a certain amount of) authority, often rooted in an academic education or on the prestige of his oeuvre, and being able to judge things from a wider perspective. The ‘public’ element refers to the author performing a role as a social critic and mediator, both from the sideline and from the centre of a public sphere.

Italian philologist Antonio Gramsci, locked up in prison by Mussolini’s fascist regime, wrote in his Prison Notebooks (1926–1937) that “all men are intellectuals” though not all of them have the function of intellectuals in society (Gramsci 9). He distinguished between the traditional intellectual (teacher, priest, literary writer and so on, occupying specific professions in between classes deriving from historical formations in rural society), and the organic intellectual (the organizing and reflective element in a particular social class or group). At first sight, the contemporary Poet Laureate typically is a traditional intellectual, performing the role of the Man of Letters. Today, however, in our mediatized society, the intellectual finds himself in a more organic position in which he frequently has to bridge the gap between intellectualism (high education, well-informed) and the general public (partly well-educated and interested in poetry, and partly not reading poetry at all, but interested in the public figure as a celebrity). While the unique and defining characteristic of intellectuals is that they take a stand on issues and deliver critique from a universal or sophisticated point of view, public intellectuals by the very fact of their having to present their ideas to the general public and performing a role in the media, are forced to popularize their ideas. They find themselves in the middle of a public sphere that they also consciously have to detach themselves from, in order to be active as artists. It is this paradox or bi-dimensionality10 that becomes explicit in the performances of Ramsey Nasr as Poet Laureate, and I will examine it with the help of some of Kenneth Burke’s ideas and rhetorical tools. The particular focus will be on concepts such as poetics, engagement, associational cluster, identification and symbolic action.

As regards the latter, poetry as symbolic act can be analyzed in three subdivisions: the poem as dream, prayer and chart. Burke elaborates on this in the first chapter of Philosophy as Literary Form (1941).11 The prayer and chart dimensions make us aware of the communicative aspect, as well as of the potential of the “realistic sizing up” of poetry, which is relevant when discussing these politically motivated poems. Nasr’s observation is that art-for-art’s-sake (he calls it “postmodern art”) is a luxury, though social and political commitment should be part of poetry without affecting the poetic dimension. This is what he writes in a pivotal passage in one of his essays:

Is it possible to let engagement enter poetry without affecting the poetry? I think it is, as long as one has enough talent and manages to keep solutions at a safe distance. As long as your pen wriggles and lives and slips out of your hands. And particularly: as long as it is up to the reader to decide what is a love poem and what is politics. Engagement is not to choose in favor of or against a party, engagement is simply being engaged in life itself and participating, if only in language (Van de vijand en de muzikant 78).12

This ties in with certain ideas on “life, literature and method” put forward by Burke, connecting the aesthetic with the concrete or referential. What I am aiming at is an analysis and understanding of the political, cultural and social potential of an aesthetic text such as a poem, an examination of the public performance of the poet, and of the responses of the lay audience. The question addressed is: does the audience comprehend the combination of aesthetic practice and popularized political statements, that is inherent in the position of and exemplified by the practice of this Poet Laureate? This article develops as follows: first I will discuss some of Burke’s ideas and analyses, and subsequently relate them to a number of Nasr’s poems. Secondly, I will go into the poet’s performance and the public responses to it. Finally, the third part will present an argument on cultural authority, linguistic dimensions and civic participation.

Burkean Perspective on Poetry

Ramsey Nasr’s My New Native Country, Poems of Crisis and Fear (2011) is a collection of sixteen poems and two polemic texts—entitled ‘Beyond Freedom’ (De vrijheid voorbij) and ‘But we put Orcs in charge of Culture’ (Alleen op cultuur zet je een ork)—representative of his laureateship. As such, the volume immediately confronts the reader with the problem of deciding on the attitude to take with regard to the content. After all, one cannot help but recognize that the poetry is written from an official Laureate’s position and thus inspired by particular societal events that the poet was invited to write about as Laureate. Two of the lectures Nasr delivered as Poet Laureate are collected in the volume, which not only makes it more than just a collection of poetry, but also provides a specific context in which the poems are placed and thus, one would assume, are expected to be read. In Burkean terms: these poems are not just poems in their own right—they are explicitly presented in a more broadly defining general language context. Moreover, Nasr’s poems can be considered to be didactic poetry, as Burke has described this poetic category in Attitudes Toward History; the didactic impliying: “coaching the imagination in obedience to critical postulates” (75). Poets can deal with issues that cannot be solved by essayistic legislation, Burke observes, and the didactic poet attempts to avoid the confusion of synthesis by a schematic decision to label certain people “friends” or “enemies,” though this sometimes leads to oversimplification and sentimentality (79). Nasr is not unfamiliar with an enemy discourse, and more than once feels tempted to make others aware of the dangers of fascism and anti-Islam sentiment. In a ‘Letter to my Enemy’ from 2006, he confronts Dutch (Jewish and evidently pro-Israel) writer Leon de Winter with his negative and bellicose rhetoric in regard to Palestinian issues (Van de vijand en de muzikant 108). Nasr’s plea is to resist the simplification of putting Israel and Palestine in opposition, and considering all Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians as the same people.

Before we focus on Nasr’s poetry, it will be helpful to draw some more ideas from Burke’s texts. In the essay ‘Poetics in particular, Language in General’ (from: Language as Symbolic Language, Essays of Life, Literature, and Method), Burke discusses Edgar Allen Poe’s famous essay ‘The Philosophy of Composition,’ and observes that for the 19th century American author “supremeness, perfection” is the ideal, not only with regard to composition but also with regard to the things one writes about. The most poetical topic in the world, according to Poe, is the death of a beautiful woman. Burke points out that this should not just be taken at face value, as capturing the quintessential characteristic of Poe’s poems. There are other motivating factors besides those of a poetic nature that stand out in this work, the most conspicuous being the necrophile theme that is linked to the psychiatric disorder the poet was suffering from. In other words, what we might say about a poem as a poem “might not adequately cover the wider motivational problem of what we might say about the poem ( . . . ) as aspects of language in general” (27). Hence, we can make a deliberate choice to read a poem beyond its poetic dimension.

Poetics is but one of the four primary linguistic dimensions: there are also logic, rhetoric, and ethics (28). The poetic motive is understood by Burke as “the sheer exercise of ‘symbolicity’ for its own sake” (29). As said, an approach to the poem in terms merely of poetics is not enough in itself; sometimes a poem requires an analysis as an example of language in general. Burke is very clear on this issue when he states that “the very attempt to discuss the poem purely as the product of a poet should eventually help sharpen our perception of the respects in which the poem must be analyzed rather as the product of a citizen and taxpayer, subject to various social embarrassments, physical ills, and mental aberrations” (38). In an earlier reading of Coleridge (1941) he had pointed at the “associational clusters” that can be picked up in a work, implying that acts, images, personalities and situations come together and have to be examined to disclose the structure of motivation in a work. The poet as a person survives in his work. It is clear that the four dimensions of language are related, and that poetics is the principle of perfection, in the sense that component parts of a work are produced in perfect relationship to one another. But the aesthetic principle should not be viewed in too simple a sense. The study of a work in terms of poetics alone is not sufficient, if we are also “inquiring humanistically into the poem’s full nature as symbolic act” (Language as symbolic Language 41).

Burke’s essays and readings help to clarify the complicated motives underlying the poems of Poet Laureate Ramsey Nasr; motives rooted in personal experiences, political contrasts, as well as in the societal conjuncture, and motives involved in his efforts aimed at reaching and encouraging a general audience. Burke’s point of poetry as symbolic action moves midway between a formalistic and a Marxist approach, the former studying the text in terms of poetics and treating the work as anonymous, the latter studying the text as language in relation to the author and his environment. Burke rediscovers, so to say, the rhetorical elements that aesthetics had banned. It is important to become conscious of this essence of Burke’s work, in order to make his ideas even more functional in the contemporary political context of the poetry of Ramsey Nasr.

This being said, we can zoom in on another concept relevant when discussing this didactic poetry: identification. Burke discusses this notion as a key term for rhetoric, and argues: “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” (A Rhetoric of Motives XIV). Rhetorical analysis throws light on literary texts and human relationships in general, since there are two main aspects of rhetoric: its use of identification and its nature as being or intended to be addressed. Aristotle refers to rhetoric as the art of persuasion. Burke refines this to “rhetoric as art of identification,” thus placing the activity of speaking in a wider context. He underlines that in regard to the relation between identification and persuasion, we might keep in mind “that a speaker persuades an audience by the use of stylistic identifications; his act of persuasion may be for the purpose of causing the audience to identify itself with the speaker’s interests; and the speaker draws on identification of interests to establish rapport between himself and his audience” (46). This seems particularly applicable in the context of Nasr’s work as poet Laureate, thus as public figure, prompting the reader to think and to form an opinion about literature as well as politics, without blurring the two categories.13

Burke appears to have been ahead of his time, since we observe that feminist literary theories, postcolonial theories, and cultural studies in the second half of the twentieth century started from a similar assumption that texts cannot fully be understood in terms of their aesthetic qualities only. The rhetorical project of identification is indeed based on the idea that language is used by individuals to persuade others, and to identify and recognize themselves in regard to others. Values and beliefs are shaped in ways we are not always aware of. It is precisely in the unawareness of expressions and the use of language, that identification as association becomes most clear. This is often achieved without rational assent. Burke, as Jennifer Richards has clearly pointed out, “makes us routinely and deeply suspicious” of the words used (166).

In the third part of A Rhetoric of Motives Burke discusses three elements of vocabulary: positive terms (naming the things of experience; the imagery of poetry is positive to the extent that it names things having a visible, tangible existence), dialectical terms (referring to ideas, concerned with action and idea rather than things) and ultimate terms (placing competing voices in a hierarchy or sequence, it is the guiding idea or unitary principle behind the diversity of voices) (183–187). He uses these terms to analyze poetry as a form of identification, and discusses works by T.S Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and other canonical poets. These are analytical tools that can likewise be applied to the poems of Nasr, and they can help us grasp the device of identification as well as the various linguistics motives underlying the poetry, thus locating the poet’s voice moving in between poetic and general language.

To sum up, I argue that Burke’s texts offer an appropriate framework for analyzing and understanding the poems of Dutch Poet Laureate Ramsey Nasr, since these poems are strong in rhetorical aspects of identification, and specific in their prickly critique of current societal and political issues. The singularity of Nasr’s didactic poetry lies in particular in its popularizing lyrical voice, effective in prompting a broad audience to react. A purely poetic approach would not be sufficient to understand the tough public dimension of these poems.

The Poems of the Poet Laureate

To build up my argument, I will focus on four poems from the volume, My New Native Country, Poems of Crisis and Fear. The first poem that I would like to analyze is entitled ‘My new native country.’ It consists of seven stanzas of eight rhythmic lines each. In terms of form and phrasing, this poem explicitly refers to the lyrics of ‘Wien Neerlands bloed’14, written by 19th century poet Hendrik Tollens (1780–1856), which was the Dutch national anthem before the well-known ‘Wilhelmus’ was chosen to replace it 1932. Nasr wrote the poem in the autumn of 2010, honoring Tollens as predecessor, as a first Poet Laureate so to say. The occasion on which Nasr wrote this poem was the installation of the first ‘Mark Rutte coalition’ government. This was a right-wing minority coalition of liberal conservatives and Christian democrats made possible by the support (laid down in an official agreement) of the PVV,15 the anti-Islam party led by populist politician Geert Wilders. In return for his support, Wilders got stricter immigration checks, a ban on burqas, and conditional passports for new immigrants. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek warned in The Guardian that Wilders is part of a European trend in which centrism is being challenged by populist neo-fascism.16

In the poem, we find Poet Laureate Nasr identifying with and at the same distancing himself from his predecessor Tollens, who in no mistaken terms wrote about the “cleanliness of his country.” Indeed, it was Tollens who introduced the image of Dutch blood “free from foreign stains” (“Wie Neerlands bloed in d’aders vloeit / van vreemde smetten vrij”—“All those with Dutch blood flowing through their veins/ free from foreign stains”). Nasr uses this image and ironizes it, ridiculing the connotations of a stainless native land by deliberately referring to the populist politician: “Today I sing my song of joy / for fatherland and scum.” Here I quote the complete first stanza,

Wie Neerlands bloed in d’aders vloeit
      van vreemde smetten vrij
wiens hart voor volk en orde gloeit
verhef uw zang als wij.
Vandaag zien wij weer één van zin
de vlaggen afgestoft
Vandaag zet ik mijn feestlied in
voor vaderland en schoft.

All those with Dutch blood flowing through their veins
      free of foreign stains
whose hearts for our people and order burn,
join us in song and sing in praise.
Today once more in unison we see
the flags are dusted down
Today I sing my song of joy
for fatherland and scum.17

Tollens, whose patriotic ideas were expressed in response to and as a rejection of the Napoleonic reign, can be considered a Poet Laureate because of his ambition to appeal to and reach a specific public.18 This public first of all consisted of the audience of the ‘literary societies’ in which his poems found response and support. In this intimate circle, the poet was free to express his thoughts; publishing, on the contrary, was a more restricted activity. Thus, the first identification in this poem is with Tollens as a voice raised against suppression, immediately followed, if not simultaneously accompanied by, a critical distancing from his words and images.

In the second stanza, the lyrical voice uses the clear and positive term fascist: “and most high sits a fascist / supporting you and me / as long as he decides.” I use the qualifying term positive in the Burkean sense of it, referring to something that has a tangible, visible existence. Nasr is very clear in his statement that fascism is not just a thing of the past—a dialectical term—“when in the name of the country / a whole people was burnt”,19 but very much also a thing of the present, as evidenced by the presence of Geert Wilders as a politician at the center of power in Dutch politics. Fascism also is an ultimate term, as recognizable behind the voices of the people deliberately misbehaving in the fourth stanza: “Humiliate what you don’t like / destroy what you deny / show how you love this fatherland / embrace it at its smallest.”20 The voices of the people heard here are not just those of the Dutch white trash21, but also the voices of educated citizens expressing the view that freedom of speech is sacred, thus implying that every offensive and hurtful remark should be tolerated. The lyrical voice, by contrast, seems to address mainstream democratic politicians and other opinion-leaders and intellectuals, inviting them to be braver and more outspoken in combating this sort of inflammatory rhetoric. The final words are very clear: “I’d rather be raped by Huns than to be taken along by this vortex of scum and fatherland.”22

Identification is a multifaceted rhetorical strategy central to this poem. As said, Nasr, while at the same time identifying with and distancing himself from Hendrik Tollens, also identifies with the common people–“you and me”—who, against their will, though effected by the system of representative democracy, are ruled by a government supported by and thus depending on a populist politician. Populism inflates democracy; the people have voted for someone who brings democracy down. This is the message of the didactic poem; speaking out and addressing others immediately presupposes an act of identification as well as of distanciation.

What we have read here is a poem based on an intertextual link with another poem, in which the current situation in Dutch politics is brought to the fore. In both poems, the 19th and the 21st century one, a political statement is made in poetical language. The reader has to open up the lyrical context in order to really grasp the political critique. This, obviously, can be understood as a negotiation between a poetical and a general language reading, as found in Burke’s essay on Edgar Allen Poe. Yet, there also is another text by Burke, which is relevant here. In ‘Literature as equipment for living,’ an early text from the volume The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941), Burke emphasizes the importance of a “sociological criticism of literature,” focusing on what we might call the proverbial aspect of literature, i.e., its succinct manner of expression in short, well-known pithy sayings, stating a general truth or piece of advice. It is the proverb-like or proverbial quality of literature that is designed for consolation or vengeance, for admonition, exhortation, or foretelling. His argument is again a stimulating one: could we consider literary texts as proverbs, and as such could we apply them to life in general? In other words, can literature be used in a non-literary, social situation, be considered as social knowledge? Although Burke, in my opinion, is somewhat imprecise in working out this argument, I do think that his idea about the wider applicability of literature is encouraging. Striking recent examples can be found in the work of Martha C. Nussbaum (Poetic Justice) or Rita Felski (Uses of Literature). Returning to Nasr’s poem, we notice that certain lines can indeed be read deliberately as proverbs, warning us about the consequences of populist politics in contemporary western societies.

Burke’s texts offer a framework for analyzing and understanding the poems of the Dutch Poet Laureate, since these poems are strong in the rhetorical aspect of identification and in using proverbial phrasings in relation to current societal issues. The poet as a public voice criticizes the political circumstances in his native country, and takes responsibility as a recognizable authoritative voice in offering the audience a counterstatement regarding the anti-Muslim accounts of a prominent politician. A purely poetic approach to this poem would fail to bring out its specific social and political dimensions.

Similar observations can be made with regard to another work by Ramsey Nasr, that I would like to discuss. It is a series of three sonnets (en)titled ‘Transatlantic.’ The poems were translated into English by David Colmer and they once again reveal a sharp critique of politics. This time the focus is not merely on the disquieting Dutch political climate, but also on American imperialist strategies. I quote the sonnets in the English translation.

I—hudson’s shortcut
our outcome was that you were in the way
we sailed to that conclusion on a dream
dreamt by a fool: our captain hudson claimed
that he could find a shortcut to the east
go straight and keep the north pole on your left
then you can slip down quickly to the indies
and we believed the guy and followed him
yes, even when he said: “or maybe west . . . ?”
henry hudson had been dismissed before
and when he swore on the shore of a foreign bay
that all we had to do to reach the orient
was set a course straight through america
we’d wisely lowered sail—already wedged
from stem to stern in this new continent

This straightforwardly written poem refers to the discovery of America, and Hudson’s historic enterprise. Henry Hudson (1565–1611) was an English navigator and explorer who sailed on a Dutch ship in 1609 to find a short route from Europe to Asia, through the Arctic Ocean. The outcome of this adventure was,—“our outcome” as the poet says, ironizing his words as if he is speaking for and identifying with the Dutch representative majority—that “you were in the way.” It turned out America lay on the perceived route to the East-Indies, effectively blocking it, and the Dutch ship got stuck on its way as a result. However, after this catastrophe, New Amsterdam was built on the new-found shore and became the city of colonizers and entrepreneurs, and as such representative of “the true world champions of immigration.” This is what we read in the next poem.

II—new amsterdam
the waiting bay lay like an outstretched finger
at the end of an invisible dutch arm
we went exploring, stamping round we found
our way in a deserted fertile backwater
perhaps no other body but ours, which never
managed to win one god, one people for itself
which rose from drifting, loose minorities
could lay the seed for such a babelopolis
who taught you how to use the melting pot?
who said, be equal, be diverse and free
your trade, who told you, dreams can spread like shares?
the true world champions of immigration
we were, a distant spark of liberty
america, the netherlands writ small

The people from New Amsterdam, then Dutch and now American, were the champions of immigration. The lyrical voice here is obviously mocking the anti-immigration rhetoric of the populist politicians. If we take the words of Geert Wilders as an example: “because immigration results in enormous problems for Dutch society (problems of integration, crime, and too much of a strain on the welfare system), it is more than reasonable to stop family reunion in regard to not-western “allochtonen” (i.e., immigrants and their offspring) in the coming five years.”23 It is not only Wilders, however, who employs this kind of rhetoric, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Maxime Verhagen, seemed to accept this kind of talk as normal as well. He was party leader of the Christian-Democrats and very much in favor of forming a government with the support of the PVV (some 30% of his fellow party members, including many high-ranking ones, such as former ministers and party leaders, were dead against it). In the last stanza, the humanist ideals, which the Dutch were so fond of in the Golden Age, are pushed aside by the Christian-Democrats, accepting the American rule without any critical thought.

III—new netherland
oh font of humanism, oh shining beacon
oh cradle of exemplary citizenship
who listens to us now? we have our leaders
they blare their christian values round the place
and mount the moralistic foghorn high
but in america their frightened faces
all gleam with drooling pride, it’s not prime time
but still we steal a slot in the cool white house
what kind of model country toes this line?
we bob along behind the big boss boat
impressive, don’t you think? a fifty-state fleet
with an inspiring airbed at the back
WANTED URGENTLY: foolish fools with vision
who dare to dream and make the cold sea crack24

The Netherlands has become the fifty-first state of the US by accepting American rules and strategies on a global level. The Dutch and their representatives are the “foolish fools.” Most likely, Nasr is making an intertextual link here to Erasmus of Rotterdam, contemporary of Hudson, who wrote The Praise of Folly (1509), in which he advocated a return to a more simple Christianity. The lyrical voice expresses a strong and critical opinion, and in fact expresses it on behalf of a “we.” It is not easy to decide who exactly this “we” is meant to represent. Whose words do we hear resonating in the words of the poet? Whose voices are encapsulated, or—following M. Bakhtin -, should we say ventriloquized, by Nasr? Since he is the Poet Laureate, it is obvious that Nasr speaks for the Dutch in general, he expresses the vox populi, the opinions or beliefs of the majority, for whom politics is becoming more and more incoherent. But if we take a look at the responses to Nasr’s poems and performances generated on the web, we can no longer be quite so sure that the poet does indeed speak the general public’s mind.

Public Responses and Engagement

The words of the lyrical voice did not leave any room for doubt in regard to his ideas on the emerging populist current in Holland. The poem as symbolic act is a very public affair. The subsequent step now is to raise the question if this reflects the personal opinion of the poet, Ramsey Nasr himself, and if so, what the implications of these words are if we expect a Poet Laureate to also represent the vox populi, the voice of the people, and to reflect the communis opinio.

The poem ‘My new native country’ was published in NRC Handelsblad on 28 October 2010 and a day later in the Belgian newspaper De Standaard. On the evening of the 28th, Nasr read three stanzas of the poem on the television talkshow Pauw & Witteman and discussed his political ideas with Stef Blok, the leader of the liberal conservative VVD party. Nasr explained that what had inspired him to write the poem was a television interview with working people from Volendam (a well-known provincial town, famous for its singers, and showing one of the largest percentages (one in three) of populist party PVV voters).25 Interviewees from Volendam had uttered opinions such as: “the taxpayer isn’t getting anything in return for his money,” “nobody works anymore,” “nothing is transparent.” It is phrases like these, Nasr emphasized, that are representative of the climate of silliness created by Dutch politics.

Thus, asked to read parts of his poem in a television talk show, the poet expresses his personal commitment and ideas, including his aversion in regard to the political climate of stupidity and lack of nuances, and he positions himself as an engagedwriter criticizing ordinary men as well as politicians. This is how he gives additional substance to the Poet Laureateship: he not only writes poems, he also discusses the context in which they were written, and takes a personal stand underlining the superficiality of the public debate. Nasr makes a point of calling attention to the fact that Geert Wilders’ ideas are essentially fascist and dangerous. This interview caused a lot of commotion. Responses to the poem and to his television performance, mainly in blogs by lay people, were both positive and very negative in character. Some bloggers applauded Nasr as “the true Poet Laureate,” others called him “a communist” and “Left-wing extremist.” Other comments included “a left-wing Muslim telling me that Wilders is a fascist” and “neo-nationalist.”26 Dominique Weesie, hosting the right-wing TV show Powned, made it very clear that he did not consider Nasr his Poet Laureate: “Away with Ramsey Nasr.”27

The Poet Laureate writes engaged poetry, prompting the audience to respond, to identify with his words. And bloggers do indeed react, though more often in negative rather than positive terms. But what exactly does this engagement involve? Is it something the poet decides upon, or something that the reader arrives at, brings in, or reads into it? It is precisely this question that Nasr answers in the essay ‘Look, there! The engagement of the poet,’ published in Of the Enemy and the Musician. Starting with an anecdote on reading poetry on tours in Indonesia and Palestine, Nasr points out that in non-western societies engagement is quite a different issue from the way it is interpreted in the west. Thus, his Palestinian audience interpreted a poem on love as being a political poem: “not only did they misunderstand the poem, ( . . . ) crying men came to shake my hands afterwards” (72).28 His Indonesian listeners interpreted a poem on a painting as being a pro-Islam statement, and Nasr realized that “not the poet but the public had given birth to a huge monster” (74).29 He subsequently states that it probably is not the poet but his audience that decides what the work is about: “The artist is the worst exegete. It is the reader, the public, the listener, who can pick up the engagement, whether it is there or not” (74).30 Engagement is not the result of the wish to engage in politics, but emerges from events in which politics rule life. Engagement, Nasr stresses, is not writing pamphlets. Engagement implies having a heart, being a living human being in a world that does not make sense. Nasr ends with the sentence already quoted: “engagement is simply being engaged in life itself and participating, if only in language” (78). This, I think, ties in exactly with Burke’s ideas on poetics and symbolic action: on the poem as poem, and the poem as language. Engagement is understanding the symbolizing poem as general language, and acting on it when the community asks for responsibility and participation. This presupposes identification and establishes the Poet Laureate’s cultural, political and social authority.


Ramsey Nasr addresses the audience in various ways: by writing poems that are published in a newspaper and thus are immediately readable in the context of particular events, by speaking out on political and social issues and by doing so in the public sphere—on television, in demonstrations, at cultural events–, and by writing and publishing official volumes of poetry and positioning himself as a writer. The role of Poet Laureate is that of a public intellectual who has already built up artistic prestige with his writings, and subsequently expresses his views on the political, ethical and social landscape. The public intellectual is a mediator in articulating and popularizing ideas and as such he again and again confirms his cultural authority.

In analyzing Nasr’s activities, I have distinguished the various linguistic dimensions that Burke discussed. The rhetorical dimension is opened up when the poet addresses the audience and identifies with the people in general or with particular social groups. In addressing them, he encourages their identification. The ethical dimension can be observed when the poet shows and requests explicit engagement. And the poetical dimension is recognized when the poet articulates what poetry is about—the poem as poem. Nasr’s specific position as Poet Laureate emphasizes his conviction that poetry, art and culture demand responsibility. An artist cannot stay “pure” and “naïve” (Mijn nieuwe vaderland 8). The examination of the various activities and linguistic dimensions also shows how specifically symbolic and more general linguistic actions are interwoven in the performances of the Poet Laureate. Analyzing Nasr’s work in the context of Burkean ideas, one becomes aware both of the layered quality of linguistic dimensions, and of the various strategies and discourses employed by the public intellectual voice. Participation in the debate on television requires another voice than speaking before an audience of poetry readers, or when taking the floor at a cultural protest meeting on behalf of fellow-artists. The poet accepts his civic responsibility, he identifies with general, political as well as artistic audiences. In the last few decades, literary studies have put too much energy in distinguishing literariness from discursive language. Arguments based on the uselessness of literature (Bloom 1994) were supposed to disengage the aesthetic from the social and the ideological. Recently, scholars like Rita Felski and Marjorie Garber in the footsteps of Martha C. Nussbaum have tried to bridge the divide.31 In this article I have shown that Kenneth Burke defended the same position as early as the 1930s.

The final question is whether the identification of the poet can also be comprehended as a form of engagement, even though Nasr himself looks upon engagement merely as a reader’s perspective. What is it that the poet wants to share and advocate, is it experience or knowledge, belief or truth? Obviously, it is difficult to draw the line between participation and teaching, or between being one with the people and keeping a distance as an intellectual public figure. This leads us back to the challenges involved in the conceptualization of the notion of a public intellectual as someone who is committed and aloof at the same time, both contributing to discussion and keeping a certain distance, moving up and down from the center of the debate back to the writing desk in order to recapitulate ideas and discussions. Ramsey Nasr, as I hope to have shown, deliberately unites the various interventions. He is poet and columnist, artist and critical observer, commentator and actor at the same time. His voice is heard in didactic poems as well as in presentations, performances, interviews and other media appearances, and in all these various manifestations Nasr articulates the dynamic process of identifying as an intellectual in a complicated political conjuncture. The main message of this engaged Poet Laureate is that democracy is at stake. Identification requires that the auditors and readers affirm the value of a democratic mediatized culture, that is ethnically and religiously plural in its constitution.


1. The World keeps on turning [De wereld draait door] is a TV show broadcast live from an Amsterdam studio every day between 7.00 and 8.00 p.m., in which host Matthijs van Nieuwkerk discusses politics, culture and social issues with various guests. More than one million people watch this infotainment program every day. See <> [Accessed on 8 October 2013]

2. The poem was entitled ‘O, zoete onbereikbaarheid’ (‘Oh, sweet unreachable one’) and marked the end of his Poet Laureateship.

3. A clip was shown from Pow Nieuws, another Dutch TV show, in which host Dominique Weesie declared that Nasr was too left-wing and should resign as Poet Laureate: ‘Ramsey Nasr, take your leave, You are not my poet.’ Pow Nieuws 29–10–2013.

4. Gerrit Komrij was chosen by the general public—some 3000 people had voted—as ‘second best.’ The poet who had actually won the election was Rutger Kopland (1934–2012), but he rejected the job.

5. The origin of the term lies in the metamorphosis myth of Apollo and Daphne; he tried to seize her, upon which she turned into a laurel tree. He ordained that the laurels should be the prize for poets and victors, Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 682.

6. For more biographical information, I refer to his official website <> [Accessed on 9 May 2013].

7. Including De man met de hond (1998), Mariken (2000), Liefje (2001), Magonia (2001) and Het Echte Leven (2008).

8. As described on the official website: “De Dichter des Vaderlands hoeft niets in opdracht te schrijven, hij schrijft alleen wanneer hij zich daartoe bewogen voelt. Aan hem zal slechts worden gevraagd zo’n vier keer per jaar een gedicht te schrijven bij een (inter)nationale gebeurtenis van culturele, politieke, sportieve of maatschappelijke aard. Welke gebeurtenis dit is, bepaalt de dichter zelf, er zijn geen verplichte thema’s. De gedichten zullen worden geplaatst in NRC Handelsblad.” <—2016> [Accessed on 18 May 2013]

(“There is nothing the Dutch Poet Laureate will be commissioned to write on; he will only write on things when he feels the urge to do so. All that will be asked of him is that he write a poem some four times a year on a national or international event or occasion of a cultural, political, or societal nature, or sports event. It is up to the poet himself to decide which events or occasions these will be; there are no required themes. The poems will be published in NRC Handelsblad”).

9. See Heynders (2013) for a comprehensive conceptualization of the public intellectual.

10. It was French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who defined the intellectual as both “a paradoxical being” and a “bi-dimensional being.” The paradox involves the classical combination of pure culture and political engagement. The intellectual as literary writer grounds his authority in the autonomous world of art, and on the basis of this prestige interferes in political life. The intellectual is a bi-dimensional being, because he has to fulfill two conditions: he has to belong to an autonomous intellectual field, independent from religious, economic and political powers, while at the same time investing his competence and authority in political action which occurs outside the intellectual field proper. Cf. Bourdieu 1991 and Heynders 2013.

11. “We might make the following three subdivisions for the analysis of an act in poetry: dream (the unconscious or subconscious factors in a poem) . . . , prayer (the communicative functions of a poem, which leads us into the many considerations of form, since the poet’s inducements can lead us to participate in his poem only in so far as his work has a public, or communicative, structure . . . ), chart (the realistic sizing-up of situations that is sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, in poetic strategies . . . ).” (5–6)

12. “Is het mogelijk engagement in de poëzie toe te laten zonder dat het die poëzie aantast? Ik ben overtuigd van wel, zolang je maar genoeg talent hebt en oplossingen buiten de deur houdt. Zolang je pen maar kronkelt en leeft en uit je handen glipt. En vooral: zolang het maar aan de lezer wordt overgelaten wat een liefdesgedicht is en wat politiek. Engagement is niet het kiezen voor of tegen een partij, engagement is eenvoudigweg in het leven staan en deelnemen, desnoods alleen in taal (Nasr 2006, 78).”

13. When Ramsey was appointed ‘Poet of the city of Antwerp’ he was involved in a polemical debate on the difference between ‘fiction and propaganda.’ Being accused of mixing politics and his function, he defended himself by saying that he had an opinion “not as city poet, but as human being” (2006, 128).

14. This poem was the national anthem from 1815 to 1932.

15. Party for Freedom.

16. Zizek: Liberal multiculturalism masks an old barbarism with a human face. < >[Accessed on 21 May 2013]

17. Translation Hans Verhulst, Tilburg University.

18. See: N.C.F. Sas, 2008: “Voor de ideale dichter van deze tijd was de dichtkunst nauw verweven met deze ‘orale communicatiesituatie,’ die weer aansloot bij het verlichte sociabiliteitsideaal. De literaire genootschappelijkheid gaf de dichtkunst zowel een klankbord als een draagvlak. Dichters als Helmers, Loots en Tollens waren geen toevallige enkelingen, geen roependen in de woestijn, zoals wel is gesuggereerd. Ze waren juist de steunpilaren van deze genootschappelijkheid. Van belang is ook dat op de katheder een grote mate van vrijheid gold.”

(“For the ideal poet of his time, the art of poetry was closely interwoven with this ‘situation of oral communication,’ which in turn linked up with the ideal of sociability. The literary societies provided the art of poetry with a sounding board as well as support from others. Poets like Helmers, Loots and Tollens were not isolated single individuals, not voices crying in the wilderness, as some have suggested. On the contrary, they were pillars of this structure of societies. It is also important to realize that the lecterns of these societies were characterized by a great amount of freedom.”)

19. ‘toen in het landsbelang / een heel volk werd verbrand’

20. Verneder dus wat u niet zint / sla stuk wat niet bevalt / laat zien hoe u dit land bemint / omhels het op zijn smalst.’

21. White trash in the sense as used by another Dutch public intellectual Anil Ramdas (1958–2012): white people not interested in civilization, social order, or education. These people are often considered as dangerous because they are unpredictable, and without respect for authority whether it be political, legal, or moral.

22. “Veel liever word ik door een volk / van hunnen aangerand / dan mee te gaan in deze kolk / van schoft en vaderland.”

23. As stated on the PVV website, accessed on 8 October 2013: <

24. Poets’s Note: 400 years ago, in September 1609, a Dutch East India Company ship sailed into an unknown bay on the North American coast. Captain Henry Hudson hoped to find a shorter, northern route to the Indies. Instead he stumbled upon a territory that would be populated in the years that followed by Dutch merchants and colonists, eventually developing into the most renowned city in the world: New Amsterdam, later New York.

The 400th anniversary of Dutch-American relations was celebrated in the Choir Church in Middelburg on 2 September 2009 in the presence of Princess Margriet, the U.S. ambassador and the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Maxime Verhagen. At the invitation of the Roosevelt Study Center, Ramsey Nasr wrote three sonnets, which he recited during this ceremony. That same day the poems were published in the NRC Handelsblad. See:

< > [Accessed on 8 October 2013]

25. > [Accessed on 21 May 2013]

26. See: < > [Accessed on 21 May 2013] and < > [Accessed on 21 May 2013]

27. Pownews 29–10–2010.

28. ‘Niet alleen begreep men het gedicht ( . . . ) verkeerd, de mensen waren tot tranen toe geroerd. Huilende mannen kwamen me na afloop de hand schudden (2006: 72).’

29. ‘Niet de dichter maar het publiek had een groot monster gebaard (2006: 74).’

30. ‘Ik vraag me sterk af of de kunstenaar zelf in staat is te bepalen waarover zijn werk gaat. De kunstenaar is zelf zijn slechtste exegeet. En het is de lezer, de toeschouwer of de luisteraar, die engegament kan opzoeken—of het er nu is of niet (2006: 74).’

31. As Garber (116) writes: “literature is a status rather than a quality. To say that a text or a body of work is literature means that it is regarded, studied, read, and analyzed in a literary way.”

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon. The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company: 1994. Print.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “Universal Corporatism: The Role of Intellectuals in the Modern World.” Poetics Today, 12.4 (Winter 1991): 655–69. Print.

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. Third edition, with a new Afterword. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984 [1937]. Print.

—. “Literature as Equipment for Living." The Philosophy of Literary Form, Studies in Symbolic Action. Louisiana: State UP, 1941. 293–305. Print.

—. Language as Symbolic Action, Essays of Life, Literature and Method. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966. Print.

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

Collini, Stefan. Absent Minds, Intellectuals in Britain. Oxford: Oxford UP, reprint 2009. Print.

Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. London and New York: Penguin, 1999. Print.

Felski, Rita. Uses of Literature. Malden & Oxford: Balckwell, 2008. Print.

Garber, Marjorie. The Use and Abuse of Literature. New York: Pantheon, 2011. Print.

Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Ed. and trans. by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowel Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1971. Print.

Heynders, Odile. “Individual and Collective Identity—Dutch Public Intellectual Bas Heijne." Journal of Dutch Literature, 4.1 (2013). Web.

Ramsey, Nasr. Van de vijand en de muzikant. Essays, artikelen, opiniestukken. Amsterdam: de Bezige Bij, 2006. Print.

Nasr, Ramsey. Mijn Nieuwe Vaderland, Gedichten van Crisis en Angst. Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2011. Print.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. Print.

Richards, Jennifer. Rhetoric. Abingdon: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Van Sas, N.C.F. De metamorfose van Nederland. Van oude orde naar moderniteit, 1750–1900. Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2005.

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“If one language is not enough to convince you, I will use two”: Burkean Identification/Dissociation As a Key to Interpret Code-Switching

Marco Hamam, Università di Sassari (Italy)

PEOPLE ARGUE EVERY DAY. Convincing others, by letting them identify with the way we look at the world, is everyone’s bread-and-butter activity, everyone with his own rhetorical abilities. But how do bilinguals argue? Is the sociolinguistic phenomenon known as code-switching  rhetorically significant? What has Burke to tell us about code-switching? This article is based on spoken language and will try to provide some insights on how rhetoric can offer a coherent reflection in order to understand code-switching. Its intent is to show how the Burkean approach to rhetoric and especially the Burkean concept of identification (and its contrary dissociation1), as a crucial rhetorical concept, have contributed to influence the sociolinguistic reflection on code-switching and, in particular, to the development of the approach to discourse analysis known as “ethnography of communication.” Finally, Burkean concepts such as motion and action will be exploited to describe the distinction between writing and speech as the symbolic “capital” from which code-switching draws. Focus will be place on Arabic for the extreme symbolism of its diglossic system.2

1. Introduction

To begin with, Burke agrees with the main classic Aristotelian goal of rhetoric, which is to persuade: “Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, or a study of the means of persuasion available for any given situation” (RM 46). But more specifically, the term “rhetoric” is mainly used by Burke with the sense of every symbolic interaction: “Rhetoric is rooted in an essential function of language itself, a function that is wholly realistic and continually born anew: the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (RM 43). For Burke human beings are rhetoricians because they are “symbol-using animals” (Language as symbolic action 16). Symbolic action, grammar, rhetoric and dialectic are all elements, according to the Burkean system, useful to describe the strategies men use to affect situations and audiences. What can be found out approaching code-switching in the light of the Burkean system is that the latter is a powerful framework to rhetorically understand code-switching. Burke has a lot to say on code-switching. Although, to my knowledge, he never directly dealt with this phenomenon, nonetheless his views are, in many points, convergent to those of other authors who worked on code-switching such as John J. Gumperz, to the extent that one may presume Burkean influences. As far as Gumperz is concerned, we do not know whether he actually read Burke or not. It is not unlikely that Gumperz might have known Burke at the suggestion of Hymes who worked for many years with Gumperz. Both of them are considered as the major contributors to the field of study called “ethnography of communication.” In fact, Hymes could have been the link between Burke and Gumperz because we do know, thanks to Jordan’s work, that Hymes was deeply influenced by Burke’s work, especially in his Ethnography of speaking (1962). Gleaning from both published literature and the correspondence between Hymes and Burke housed at Penn State University, Jordan traces how Hymes was affected and adapted to his theoretical framework many Burke’s concepts such as identification. As Jordan advocates "Hymes could speak about Burke’s work with considerable authority: he had been a student of Burke’s during a critical reading seminar fourteen years earlier and since then had read, advised on, and published various pieces of Burke’s writing, adapting quite a bit of it along the way as he explored the implications of his own work" (Jordan 265).

Although admitting that to many linguists Burke’s enterprise seems unknown, Hymes saw in the Sixties that Burke, not only could offer an important contribution to the new-born field of sociolinguistics, but that, in fact, he pioneered in the sociolinguistic reflection in studying language use rather than language as an abstraction. Hymes writes:

Underlying parallels can be found between Burke’s work and recent trends in linguistics, and there are possibilities of convergence of the two. Indeed, it would seem that Burke has been first in the field, commonly enough by a generation, with regard to standpoints toward language that recent linguists take to be recent on the American scene. He is still ahead of us in some respects (Foundations in Sociolinguistics 136; emphasis is mine)

Burke, Hymes and Gumperz have in common their profound interest in the influence society, topic and speakers exercise on language and in the linguistic settings, communication and speech analysis. They all advocated language as a non-neutral medium. As far as code-switching is concerned, Burke’s rhetorical reflection anticipated in many aspects the sociolinguistic comprehension of this phenomenon.

2. Code-Switching as a Rhetoric, Thus Symbolic, Phenomenon

Code-switching concerns mainly spoken language, although we can find it also very frequently in written texts. A general, broad definition of code-switching to move from and which will circumscribe the kind of approach adopted here for code-switching would be this:

Within the verbal interaction, [code-switching] is the functional transition from a linguistic system to another, in conjunction with a change in the communicative situation: for example in the communicative intent, topic, interlocutor to whom one addresses, functions, key etc. (Grassi, Sobrero, and Telmon 186; translation is mine)

The peculiarity of code-switching is its having an essentially contrastive value: it breaks up the speech flow and draws attention to a change in code and in the symbolic structure of the speech. This contrast allows the speaker to achieve a main goal: emphasize. By doing this he highlights certain speech segments or marginalizes them, helping him argumentatively structure his discourse. It is like using a camera: the speaker continuously focuses and defocuses, back and forth.

There exist dozens of approaches to code-switching and the proposed models are often in competition with each other. Mainly, the linguistic boundaries and the kind of focus adopted represent what differentiates one approach from another. In fact, code-switching may go from a broad definition that includes all the combinations of any grammatical or lexical-grammatical element at any of thelevels of the sentence to a narrow definition that relates to the functional switch from a code or a language system to another at a higher level of the sentence, namely at an intersententiallevel3. Approaches could be summarized in two main: a grammatical approach, trying to answer the question ‘how do codes mix?,’ and a functional/pragmatical/rhetorical (terminology is fluctuating), trying to answer the question ‘why do codes mix?.’ The two main groups of factors at the base of the motivations for which bilinguals switch (rhetorical approach), according to Grosjean are: A) social-related motives and goals,4 B) discourse-related motives and goals.5 Factors often overlap: "Rarely does a single factor account for a bilingual’s choice of one language over another", says Grosjean (143). Here a rhetorical, discourse-related approach will be followed, as already stated in the preliminary definition of code-switching.

Discourse-related motives and goals concern what Blom and Gumperz, who studied language use in Hemnesberget, a small village in northern Norway, called the ‘metaphorical’ code-switch, a code-switching that "relates to particular kinds of topics or subject matters rather than to change in social situation" (Blom and Gumperz 425). The classic example of metaphorical code-switching, provided by Blom and Gumperz, is the one found in a conversation at the local community administration office, where two villagers switch from the standard variety of Norwegian, in which they have been discussing official business, to the local variety to discuss family and other private affairs. It is clear that the rhetoric of code-switching is shared around common symbolism. A shared symbolism makes a common experience and common meaning possible.

It is interesting to notice that Hymes proposed to stick to Burke’s term “symbolic competence” in opposition to the Chomskian “linguistic competence.” For Hymes while language has a universal symbolic peculiarity, it is locally, ethnographically, symbolic: every “speech community” (to use a Hymesian term) has its own symbols to refer to (cfr. Review of Language 667). For Gumperz too, symbolism is the key to interpret code-switching. The individual’s choice of a code has, for Gumperz, "a symbolic value and interpretative consequences that cannot be explained simply by correlating the incidence of linguistic variants with independently determined social and contextual categories" (VII). Gumperz specifies this “symbolic value” by saying that "rather than claiming that speakers use language in response to a fixed, predetermined set of prescriptions, it seems more reasonable to assume that they build on their own and their audience’s abstract understanding of situation norms, to communicate metaphoric information about how they intend their words to be understood" (61) Burke would agree that meaning is created through a symbolic codification and decodification of speech/text and that behaviour, and especially linguistic behaviour, has a polysemic character. The Burkean dramatistic pentad is a tool that helps read and interpret a kaleidoscopic rhetorical situation with many co-existing and co-working factors. For Burke and Gumperz, speakers/writers are not passively influenced by the situation but they manipulate it conveying specific metaphoric information. If objects and events are given meaning through symbolic codification and decodification, then those who possess the right symbolic keys of interpretation will give a meaning closer to “truth.” For bilinguals code-switching is meaningful and represents a communicative resource because they possess these keys while, for ‘outsiders’ who do not share the same “second grammar” as Gee would call it, code-switching would seem unpredictable or unintelligible. At the very beginning of The Philosophy of Literary Form, in 1941, thus very much ahead of the sociolinguistics reflection, Burke gives this example: "Let us suppose that I ask you: “What did the man say?.” And that your answer: “He said ‘yes.’” You still don’t know what the man said. You would not know unless you knew more about the situation, and about the remarks that preceded his answer [ . . . ] There is a difference in style or strategy, if one says “yes” in tonalities that imply “thank God” or in tonalities that imply “alas!”" (1; my emphasis). Burke, not only acknowledges the essential role played by paralanguage in conveying meaning, but also highlights the importance of the rhetorical strategy, as an essential tool to construct meaning. Similarly Gumperz sees, in this regard, that only by focusing on the strategies "that govern the actor’s use of lexical, grammatical, sociolinguistic and other knowledge in the production and interpretation of messages in context" (Discourse strategies 35) in order to convey meaning and to convince, one can really analyse and interpret spoken language. Describing these strategies Gumperz uses adjectives such as “persuasive,” “conversational,” “contextualization,” “verbal.” But, in his well-known 1982 work Discourse strategies, he uses eight times the expression “rhetorical strategies.”

3. Code-Switching’ Rhetorical Function: Identification/Involvement; Dissociation/Detachment

One of the most common functions of code-switching is identification and dissociation. The terms involvement (instead of identification) and detachment (instead of dissociation) are also common in literature. Despite a diverse terminology, identification/involvement (and its opposite, dissociation/detachment) is a cross-function, reflecting what Goffman has described as footing, i.e. changes in alignment we take up to ourselves, others and toward the material or content. While we speak we often shift from one foot to another, signalling this in various way, code-switching being only one of these signalling devices (cfr. Goffman 22). Switches in footing can range from gross changes in social settings to the most subtle shifts in tone.

According to Tannen (Oral and literate strategies 9; Talking voices 25–42), involvement is seen as the product of the following factors:

  1. devices by which the speaker monitors the communication channel (rising intonation, pauses, requests for back-channel responses) (spoken language);
  2. concreteness and imageability through specific details;
  3. a more personal quality; use of 1st person pronouns;
  4. emphasis on people and their relationships;
  5. emphasis on actions and agents rather than states and objects;
  6. direct quotation;
  7. reports of speaker’s mental processes;
  8. fuzziness.
  9. emphatic particles (really, just).

On the contrary, detachment is seen as characterized by:

  1. a higher degree of abstraction;
  2. emphasis on states and objects having things done to them;
  3. impersonal aspect;
  4. while involvement deals with events in an ‘experiential’ and detailed manner, detachment gives a more abbreviated report.

Identification and dissociation are found in many loci. Auer (120) calls conversational loci those parts of discourse, or those rhetorical and argumentative mechanisms, that are particular susceptible to code-switching. In doing this, Auer distinguishes locus from function: in every locus, code-switching produces a series of functions. Thus, for instance: involvement is a function, whereas reiteration and quotation are the conversational loci in which this function can take place. In this sense, when Tannen talks about the importance of reiteration in rhetoric, she states that speakers might try to convince by "instilling in the reader a sense of identification with its point of view" (“Spoken and written language” 7). Quotation is another locus where identification/dissociation are at work. Especially in speech, quoting is used as a tool to identify or to dissociate from a person or an idea, normally to build or to strengthen one’s own argumentation. This rhetorical movement can even be stated explicitly either before or after the quote in a meta-communicative introduction or conclusion or it can be emphasized through paralinguistic elements such as vocal features (voice tone, pauses, emphasis, laugh etc.) or non-vocal features (gestures, facial expression etc.). Imaginary quotes exploit to the utmost this double function: the speaker says something in the form of a quote but, at the same time, he/she identifies or dissociates himself/herself from what is stated. The use of one or another code enables the speaker to personalize/depersonalize the content, attributing it to an external voice. This allows him/her to delegate the responsibility of what is said to another person (whether this person exists or not it does not matter, whether he/she said or not those words does not matter either) and, at the same time, to provide it with greater objectivity and meaningfulness.

Gumperz calls this function personalization vs. objectivization: "The code contrast here seems to relate to such things as: the distinction between talk about action and talk as action, the degree of speaker involvement in, or distance from, a message, whether a statement reflects personal opinion or knowledge, whether it refers to specific instances or has the authority of generally known fact" (80; my emphasis).

Burkean concept of identification is clearly here and confirms the rhetorical value of code-switching. His definition (or it should better be said definitions) of identification is scattered throughout his works. Yet, as it will be clearer through the following excerpts, it seems that the Burkean concepts of sympathy or antithesis, two of the possible ways in which identification can explicit itself, are not only used to create identification between interlocutors/writers and readers, but also with the speech/text. Here the consubstantiality, that is the "common sensations, concepts, images, ideas, attitudes" (RM 21) that make men identified in a same substance, is between what is said/written and the speaker/writer who hopes that also his listeners and readers will, by their turn, identify with his identification. There is an acting-together (see Burke RM 21) with the speech/text and then an acting-together with the audience. Commenting on Burke’s concept of identification Jordan states that "identification, ambiguously locating as it does both division and the tendency to transcend division, presents the possibility for rhetoric, figures the inevitability of rhetoric, and stresses the need for rhetoric in language and in social relations" (269).

For Burke identification is the condicio sine qua non one has to fulfil in order to persuade:

You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his (RM 55; my emphasis)

As for the relation between “identification” and “persuasion”: we might well keep it in mind that a speaker persuades an audience by the use of stylistic identifications; his act of persuasion may be for the purpose of causing the audience to identify itself with the speaker’s interests; and the speaker draws on identification of interests to establish rapport between himself and his audience. So, there is no chance of our keeping apart the meanings of persuasion, identification (“consubstantiality”) and communication (the nature of rhetoric as “addressed”) (RM 46)

Commenting on the importance of identification in Burke’s work, Gusfield states that: "Identification is the key process through which poets and ordinary people further rhetorical purposes in attempts to persuade others. In the use of symbols there is a bid toward others, or to self, to be joined or to oppose the identities which are proffered" (18).

4. Examples of Code-Switching

I.a. Sociolinguistic conventions

I.b. Transcription conventions

/ short pause (less than 1’’)

// medium pause (nearly 1’’)

? interrogative intonation

| conclusive intonation

. . . hesitation

as far as the Arabic transcriptions are concerned

: or :: vocalic lengthening

ɂ glottal stop that is etymologically a /q/

[yixlaɂ à x l q]

/ð/ ḏ

/θ/ ṯ

// ḏ̣

I.c. Glosses and other abbreviations

2 second person

excl part exclamatory particle

imp imperative

f feminine

m masculine

p person

pl plural

poss possessive marker

rel relativizer

s singular

voc prep vocative preposition

EN English

SP Spanish

HI Hindi

SA Standard or Substandard Arabic

NA Native Arabic

EA Egyptian Arabic

YA Yemeni Arabic

4.1. Excerpt 1

In excerpt 1, two Chicano (Mexicans grown-up in the US) professionals are talking. The speaker talks about her attempt to cut down on smoking:

(1) EN à SP à EN dialogue

(Gumperz 83–84)

The speaker talks about her attempt to cut down on smoking.


They tell me “How did you quit Mary?” I don’t quit I . . . I just stopped. I mean it wasn’t an effort that I made (EN)


que voy a dejar de fumar por que me hace daño o (SP)

that I’m going to stop smoking because it’s harmful to me or


this or that uh-uh. It’s just that I used to pull butts out of the waste paper basket yeah. I used to go look in the . . . (EN)


se me acababan los cigarros en la noche (SP)

my cigarettes would run out on me at night


I’d get desperate(EN)


y ahi voy al basarero a buscar, a sacar, (SP)

and there I go to the wastebasket to look for some, to get some


you know.(EN)

Commenting on the latter example, Gumperz states: "The code contrast symbolizes varying degrees of speaker involvement in the message. Spanish statements are personalized while English reflects more distance. The speaker seems to alternate between talking about her problem in English and acting out her problem through words in Spanish" (81; italics are mine). In this passage, Spanish is used to express feelings, convey intimate and personal feelings while English is used to convey facts. This wavering between two linguistic codes show an ambivalence in the attitude of the woman of the example in relation to the question discussed. It appears evident how code-switching can be a bearer of meaning as much as lexical choice. Identification/dissociation here are primarily between the speaker and the part of the message conveyed. But there is also an identification/dissociation with the interlocutor and the linguistic group they both belong to. This kind of identification/dissociation will become clearer in the next excerpt.

4.2. Excerpt 2

This brings to the distinction ‘we-code’ and the ‘they-code’ theorized by Gumperz. The ‘we-code’ is "associated with in-group and informal activities" (66; emphasis is mine) while the ‘they-code’ is normally the majority language (he speaks about situation of bilingualisms) which is "associated with the more formal, stiffer and less personal out-group relations" (ibid; emphasis is mine). The identity opposition ‘we’ code/‘they’ code has not only psycho-social signification. He writes: "Participants are likely to interpret ‘we’ code passages as personalized or reflecting speaker involvement and ‘they’ code passages as indicating objectification or speaker distance. But this does not mean that all ‘we’ code passages are clearly identifiable as personalized on the basis of overt content or discourse context alone. In many of these cases it is the choice of code itself in a particular conversational context which forces this interpretation". (83–84; Italics are the author’s). Gumperz states that in order to really understand the semantic processes that are at work in code-switching, one must see whether code-switching’s direction is from a ‘we code’ to a ‘they code’ or the contrary. He proposes these four examples:

(2) We-code vs. They-code

code-switching they code à we code

code-switching we code à they code


Father talking to his five year old son, who is walking ahead of him through a train compartment and wavering from side to side:

Keep straight (EN). Sidha jao (‘keep straight,’ HI)


Adult talking to a ten year old boy who is practicing in the swimming pool:

Baju-me jao beta, andar mat (‘go to the side son, not inside,’ HI). Keep to the side! (EN)


A Spanish-English sequence taken from a mother’s call to children:

Come here. Come here (EN). Ven acá (‘come here,’ SP).


A Spanish-English sequence taken from a mother’s call to children:

Ven acá. Ven acá (‘come here.’ SP). Come here, you (EN).

In 2/1 and 2/3 the code-switching is from the ‘they code’ (EN) to the ‘we code’ (HI and SP) while in 2/2 and 2/4 the code-switching is reversed. When speakers were asked if there was a changing in meaning, they agreed that the reversal normally does make a difference: "The shift to the ‘we’ code was seen as signifying more of a personal appeal, paraphrasable as “won’t you please,” whereas the reverse shift suggests more of a warning or mild threat" (Gumperz 92). The ‘we code’ and ‘they code’ can have metaphorical extension. They can, in fact, mean the oppositions: warning/personal appeal; causal remark/personal feeling; decision based on convenience/decision based on annoyance; personal opinion/generally known fact (Gumperz 93–94). Here Burkean identification clearly acquires another sense: speakers use a given code to flag an identification with, or a dissociation from a linguistic group. Which, in its turn, is translated as an identification/dissociation with the role the father wants to play with the child. This sense will be better illustrated in the next excerpt.

4.3. Excerpt 3    

Arabic is not far from these mechanisms. The state of diglossia, that is, according to Ferguson (1959), that particular linguistic situation which characterizes the Arabic language, in which, in addition to the primary dialects of the language (Low), there is a divergent, highly codified superposed variety (High), does not prevent code-switching. On the contrary, it exploits to the utmost the particular symbolic charge of the Arabic linguistic situation.

The well-know Egyptian leader Ğamāl ‘Abd al-Nāṣir (Nasser) is one of those Arab politicians who exploited the rhetorical power of code-switching the most. Here is an excerpt taken from one of his speeches.

(3) SA à EA monologue

(Holes 34); glosses added, transcription adapted

            The Egyptian leader Ğamāl ‘Abd al-Nāṣir (Nasser) addressing a speech.







bi-ntiṣa:ra:tihi /


voc prep

my brethren

we look


With-its victories

Today, my brethren, we look at the past with its victories,







we look

at-the -past

with-its battles

we look


With-its martyrs

we look at the past with its battles, we look at the past with its martyrs,





bi-n-naṣr [ . . . ]


and-we look



we raised them


and-we remember

we look at the flags that we raised in victory [ . . . ] and we remember






our flags


they were stained



our blood stained flags.




xwa:ni /



bi-ntia:ra:tu /


voc prep

my brethren

we look

at-the -past

With-its victories

Today, my brethren, we look at the past with its battles,



bi-maʕarku [ . . . ]





we look


with-its battles

we look



with-its martyrs

we look at the past, we look at our past with its martyrs,

nbuṣṣ [ . . . ]





bi-n-nar [ . . . ]


we look




we raised them

with- the-victory

And-we remember

we look [ . . . ] at our flags that we raised in victory [ . . . ] and we remember










they were stained

with-the- blood


our blood stained flags.

Paragraph 1, in SA, and paragraph 2, in EA, are almost identical. Paragraph 2 ‘rewrites’ paragraph 1 in another code. According to Holes between the two a process of lexical replacement occurs in the first place: ‘today’: al-yawm (1.)à in-naharda (2.);‘we look’: nanuru (1.)à nbuṣṣ(2.); ‘we remember’: nataðakkar (1.)à niftikir (2.). The need to deliver twice the same concept with two different codes is explained by Holes by the fact that the first ‘we’ (nanur, nataðakkar) refers to Egypt on a international level, an Egypt that works for peace and stability while the second ‘we’ (nbuṣṣ, niftikir) refers to the Egyptians themselves, to the public. We will come back to this kind of identification in §4.4.

Here, the coce-choice reflects also a more rhetorical issue: the ‘important’ messages, what are perceived as ‘truths,’ ‘theorizations’ are expressed in SA and are paralinguistically marked by a slow elocution; the ‘organizational speech,’ which is not central to the message, and it is thus marginal, it is said in EA and in a faster way. SA is used by Nāṣir to express abstract, idealized, metaphoric messages, and without any kind of personalization. It conveys maxims, slogans. EA is used, instead, to channel what is felt as concrete and physical and it is strongly linked to the personalization of the facts (see Holes 33). The two varieties are used in tandem: SA conveys the abstract aspect of a question and EA amplifies, personalizes its effects in the real world. Holes summarizes this dynamics stating that "the ʕāmmiyya organizes for the audience in ‘real time’ the ‘timeless’ fuṣḥā text" (Holes 33). Burke refers to a sort of “doubling of language,” which allows for different symbol-systems, when he says

A notable aspect of language is that it makes for a kind of doubling. For language variously refer to, or bears upon, or takes from in “context of situation” outside itself; and it can convert one symbol-system into another, by translations with varying degrees of literalness or freedom" (Above the Over-Towering Babble 88)

In this sense, this repetition/translation is not only meant to stress the same concept but also to convey two different symbol systems. Identification here is with the text and the role: code-switching helps Nāṣir assign a rhetorical function to every segment; moreover code-switching helps him flag the strategic role he identifies with. But also the audience is important in influencing the code-switching: SA marks distance between the leader and the people, conveying the political slogan as an international leader. On the contrary, the EA segment reduces distance and lets Nāṣir put himself in the people shoes, consubstantiating himself with them. EA segment seems more a sentence extrapolated from a conversation between fellow Egyptians.

4.4. Excerpt 4

(4) SA à EA monologue

(Bassioney 174–175); translation is the author’s, glosses added,

transcription slightly adapted

            The ousted Egyptian Ḥusnī Mubārak addressing a speech.


θa:niyan /



fi l-miza:ni

t-tuga:ri /

ʕan ṭari:qi


redressing of




By way of

Secondly, redressing the deficit in the trade balance, by




l-ʔisti:ra:d /




increasing of


and-controlling of


so-issue of



increasing exports and controlling imports. [This is because] the issue of the Egyptian exports


maṣi:riyya /






l-fiʔa:t /



it has to



interest of



is a crucial issue that has to occupy the minds of everyone





ʕibʔ /



fi maṣr /






and-responsibility of


in Egypt

who is involved in Egyptian production.


l-muʔassasa:ti /



min agli


of all





security of

[This issue should also occupy the mind] of all establishments that work for the security of


l-maṣri /





 the Egyptian economy [ . . . ]


da ʔana


ʔana kunt /

fi šarm iš-ši:x /




excl part I


I was

in Sharm El Sheikh

you (pl) know



I was in Sharm El Sheikh the other day. Do you know these kites



fi l-fallaḥi:n

di /


di /



we were

we make them

at the peasants




and-we fix them

with reed

we used to make in the countryside? the ones made from papers, the ones we used to fix with reed



wi-nṭayyarha /


mi l-barazi:l /



and-piece of


and-we let them fly

we bring them

from the-Brazil



and a piece of string and then we would let them fly? They import these kites from Brazil! Of course this


ha:yif /

bi-yʔul lak

wi-da mablaġ? /



masal /



he tells you

and-this amount


I give


is a trivial amount of money. Then someone comes and tells you “is this an amount worth bothering about?” But I am just giving an example.


mi l-barazi:l


they buy them

from Brazil!


They buy them from Brazil! [applause]

Bassiouney discusses this excerpt taken from one of the discourses of the ousted Egyptian president Ḥusnī Mubārak twice: when talking about the role the speaker wants to play vis-à-vis the audience (cfr. §4.3.) and when discussing detachment and involvement. In the first case, she says that code-switching signals the passage from the role of ‘governor—governed’ to that of ‘good old friend’ or ‘fellow Egyptian.’ This brings to mind this other definition of identification given by Burke in his The Philosophy of Literary Form (227):

By “identification” I have in mind this sort of thing: one’s material and mental ways of placing oneself as a person in the groups and movements: one’s way of sharing vicariously in the role of leader or spokesman; formation and change of allegiance; the rituals of suicide, parricide, and prolicide, the vesting and divesting of insignia, the modes of initiation and purification, that are involved in the response to allegiance and change of allegiance; the part necessarily played by groups in the expectancies of the individual [ . . . ]: clothes, uniforms, and their psychological equivalents; one’s way of seeing one’s reflection in the social mirror.

It appears clear, in the previous excerpt and here, how important the role played by the psychological and social aspects is in identification. Man has to deal with multiple identifications which are psycho-socially grounded. Identification would be useless if it were not provided with—Burke uses an amazing image—a “social mirror,” if it had no applause and no objection. As in excerpt 3, here too Mubārak uses code-switching to psychosocially mark different roles, form and change allegiances (namely he doses distance with the audience), vesting and divesting insigna (he puts up the clothes of the president, then those of the fellow Egyptian) etc.

In the second case, when Bassiouney discusses detachment and involvement, she comments on this code-switching by saying that "Mubarak decides to tell a story to explain a fact, which increases the level of involvement of the audience. The story is very appealing to the audience because it involves allusions to shared childhood memories" (212; her emphasis), that is shared symbolism. We encounter again of a triple identification: with a role, with an audience, with a message. Which comes first is difficult to say.

4.5. Excerpt 5

(5) SA à EA monologue

Mattā al-Miskīn (Hamam 262);  glosses added

         Father Mattā al-Miskīn commenting on Mt 25,31–46




yasu:ʕ il‑masi:h


fi kull



wa‑mašlu:l /

he was


Jesus the-Christ

he sees

in every




The Lord Jesus Christ saw in every sick, weak and paralytic





xa:liqihi | /




he was

he sees

in him

image of

his Creator

he was

he sees

isn’t it (that)

the image of his Creator. He saw . . . doesn’t [the Bible say]









come on

we make



our image

so-he was

he takes delight


“Let Us make man in our image” [Gen 1:26]? Christ used to take delight





xayran |




he wanders

he makes



in going about doing good all day long.



fi l‑maʕmu:diyya

ɂal lina






in the-Baptism

he said-to us

excl part

you became

Then, in the Baptism he told us: “Take, then. You have become

wla:di /



ʕamali /


Ɂide:ku /

zayy ma

my children

dress me.imp


my work


your hands


my children put me on, do my works, stretch out your hands, as










I stretched them





wear yourselves out


I did to every blind and poor man, wear yourselves out, night



fi l‑giba:l





in the-mountains



and day, then climb the mountains and pray.

This excerpt is taken from a homily that the contemporary Coptic hegumen father Mattā al-Miskīn (1919–2006) delivered to his disciple monks. Paragraph 1 comes after a brief passage in which father Mattā synthesizes the point that on earth we see Christ under the form of the sufferer (Mt 25:31–46). Paragraph 2 continues the argumentation of the previous passage and adds a link between action and prayer. But here father Mattā lightens up the point: he paraphrases the previous movement and personalizes it in EA with an imaginary dialogue between Christ and believers. These imaginary quotes are extremely powerful from a rhetorical point of view. As Saeed states they "occur in the form of illustrative examples, short stories, episodes and scenarios that support the position of the speakers. This strategy—presenting examples or supporting evidence in the form of dialogic scenarios or narrative-like styles—serves to add vividness and is a device to convince the audience of the logic and sensibility of speakers’ arguments" (Saeed 143). Burke, in his The rhetoric of religion, points out the paradox of theological language: words are borrowed from the material realm to describe the supernatural realm, which then can be borrowed back to describe the material realm in new ways because of the implications gained from the supernatural usages (see 7). 

Moreover, code-switching continues to work as a tool to mark identification. Father Mattā has already said elsewhere in the same homily that we must be Christ-like. Here he repeats the same concept by using, again, a triple rhetorical identification: the role (he identifies with Christ whom he embodies and lets speak in plain language), the audience (he identifies with the listeners to whom he directly addresses with a dialogue), the message conveyed (he wants to stress the link between action and prayer). Here SA in the first paragraph is not used to dissociate from the message but for abstraction, which is, in some way, a rhetorical distanciation, as we have already seen in §4.3. . We will come to this point back later on.

4.6. Excerpt 6

The contrary can happen too. This kind of imaginary quotes can also have the function of "saying something, but at the same time distancing oneself from what one is saying. The use of the other code makes it possible to depersonalize the expressed point of view, attributing it to a voice external to the interaction, with the purpose both of not taking the responsibility for what it is said and to provide it with greater objectivity and meaningfulness" (Alfonzetti 136; translation is mine). This is clear from this example in which direction in code-switching is particularly indicative:

(6) YA à SA monologue

(Saeed 147); Saeed’s translation; glosses added, transcription slightly adapted

         A Yemeni Islamic cleric talking about the Islamic banking



yugu:l lak

bi-šarṭ /





he says to you

on-one condition




After that he tells you: “On condition.” There must be conditions. “What [are they]?.”



ği:b lak

al-muhandisi:n [ . . . ]


he said


I bring to you



“I supply you with the engineers,” he replies [ . . . ]




ʔaz-zira:ʕi /




l-xabi:r |

it came




take it



When an agricultural project comes, [the Islamic bank says] “Take it to the expert.”




he studied



Once it has been examined by the expert:




na:ğiḥ /




fi: l-ʔida:ra /






we will share

with you

in the-management

“Oh, it is a [potentially] successful project.” [The Islamic bank then suggests:] “Let’s be partners in the project. We will administer it together,




ʕank |


for us


for you

a representative from our side and one from your side,



kaða:               wa-kaða:




such and such


and the administration should be as such and such

Here we find two imaginary quotes (story-tellings): between a loan customer and another from a representative of a non-Islamic country or bank (paragraph 1) and between a loan customer and a representative of an Islamic bank (paragraph 2). Saeed says that in the first example, the code used is always YA to "show the loan lender’s deception" (148) while in the second example the cleric switches to SA in order to "convince the audience of the soundness of his categorization of Islamic banks as humane, and Islamic banking as an honest way of banking" (1997:148), within a function Saeed calls ‘iconic.’ "This kind of code manipulation", states Saeed "can be considered a form of iconicity, in that the form of the language mirrors the content [ . . . ] In other words, the H [High] code [SA] is used to express what is perceived to be [+ positive] and the L [Low] code [Native Arabic] to express what is seen as [- positive]" (117). When discussing the function of exemplifying he states that in his corpus Native Arabic (NA)6 is used for hypothetical, non-real examples while SA is used for real examples. This is very common in his corpus. The goal, according to Saeed, is to distinguish what has been highly thought of, or what is very serious (SA) (see 142–143) from what "they do not value or respect, possibly to downgrade its importance, or to ridicule it or its significance" (NA) (131). Once again code-switching flags identification and its contrary, dissociation, in a triple way: with/from the message, with/from the role, with/from the audience.


In conclusion, from the excerpts above it emerges that identification/dissociation is a threefold process: the speaker identifies or dissociates himself with/from a role he wants to play, with/from the audience he addresses to and with/from the content he is conveying. When theoretically discussing the Burkean perspective on identification, Radcliffe interestingly confirms what comes to light from the text analysis: "Burke’s identification contains a personal, a cultural, and a discursive dimension" (54). She then quotes Christine Oravec who expands on this point by stating that Burke’s identification "never strays very far from earlier versions of the three ruling analytically schema of the twentieth century: Freudianism, Marxism, and structural linguistics"; as such, it "tracks the interpenetration of subject, environment, and discourse" (quoted in Radcliffe 54). This “triangle of identification” is what makes the discourse a source of consubstantiality and an effective tool of persuasion.

Burke’s work not only offered a decisive pioneering contribution to the new-born field of sociolinguistics but it might also have had an indirect influence on the first pragmatical approaches on code-switching through his theorizations of the key-concept of identification/dissociation. Burke does not explicitly refer to an identification with a code or a linguistic group, which is an crucial point in the understanding of the psycho-socio-rhetorical processes behind code-switching and without which code-switching cannot be seized in its relational dimension. This is certainly due to the fact that Burke never directly dealt with bilingualism and its rhetorical potentialities. Nevertheless, as textual analysis has demonstrated, his multifaceted conceptualization of identification is so yielding that it lends itself to be adapted and adopted into the framework of a wider rhetorical approach to code-switching.


1. Burke uses both the term division (e.g., RM 22) and dissociation (e.g. RM 34). This latter seems to better fit this sociolinguistic context.

2. The technical term diglossia which describes, since Marçais (1930) , the situation of the Arabic language counts a profusely abundant literature. About twenty years ago, Fernández (1993) published a monograph that examined a vast bibliographic review of works concerning the concept of diglossia from 1960 to 1990, including about 3000 titles. The very term ‘diglossia’ has been intended by the various scholars, from time to time, in various ways ranging from a very narrow definition, referring to the particular situation of certain regions (the German-speaking Switzerland, the Arab world), to a very wide definition that practically overlaps with that of bilingualism (see Berruto 191–204) Ferguson’s “standard” definition of diglossia is the following: "Diglossia is a relatively stable language situation in which, in addition to the primary dialects of the language (which may include a standard or regional standards), there is a very divergent, highly codified (often grammatically more complex) superposed variety, the vehicle of a large and respected body of written literature, either of an earlier period or in another speech community, which is learned largely by formal education and is used for most written and formal spoken purposes but is not used by any sector of the community for ordinary conversation" (Ferguson 336).

3. In particular here the intersentential switching will be the level which will be dealt with. This includes those cases in which an entire sentence (complex or simple) or an entire clause within a sentence are switched. In the intersentential switch, the switching point is between a sentence and another, or in other cases between a clause and another. This kind of switching is normally bearer of rhetoric functionality unlike other kind of switches, generally called code-mixings, i.e. intrasentencial switching where the mixing of segments belonging to the two or more systems in contact happens at the level of a single clause.

4. These may concern 1. participants (language preference and attitude, for instance: a speaker has an ideological or an affective attitude towards one code and prefers it or children of a stigmatized minority may decide not to use their native language with their parents so as not to be differentiated from the children of the majority group; 2. situation: degree of intimacy, for instance: one uses a code only with strangers whereas one switches to another code with friends; 3. social interaction: to create social distance, for instance: one can choose a code different from the one of the interlocutor breaking group solidarity (Grosjean 136 et seq)

5. For instance, topic: "Some topics are better handled in one language than another either because the bilingual has learned to deal with a topic in a particular language, the other language lacks specialized terms for a topic, or because it would be considered strange or inappropriate to discuss a topic in that language" (Grosjean 140).

6. Native Arabic is a more “neutral” term instead of ‘colloquial’ or ‘dialect’: it refers, in fact, to the first variety of Arabic people learn since they are children.


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Urban Motives—Rhetorical Approaches to Spatial Orientation, Burke on Lynch’s “The Image of the City”

Pierre Smolarski, University of Applied Sciences Bielefeld


Whoever raises questions about the legibility of the city must notice that the metaphor of legibility involves the ideas of interpreting signs and symbols under different motivational accesses, which leads to the creation of different scopes of reading, understanding and acting. Thus, the legibility of the city involves the idea of a rhetoric of the city. Kevin lynch is one of the most important theorists of the legibility of the city and his ground-breaking work The Image of the City is first of all on questions concerning the influence of architectural clues and city form on the degree a city becomes legible. Therefore, he emphasizes the important role of three major terms: identity, structure and meaning. But, while his inquiry stresses identity and structure, he says almost nothing about meaning. Since Lynch has no background in theories of meaning, his work leaves a desideratum. It seems to be obvious that leaving out questions of meaning won’t lead to any kind of legibility of the city, as long as the metaphor of legibility is taken seriously. To fill this gap Lynch’s work has to be grounded on a theory of meaning which is able to explain how form influences attributions of meaning, creates scopes of understanding and, finally, affects questions of appropriate behavior. This theoretical background is given by Kenneth Burke. The thesis of this paper is that Burke describes the relation of form, situation and action by the help of what I will call the motive-circle and that this motive-circle is able to explain the above mentioned advisements. Thus, the aim of this paper is to show the rhetorical dimension of the creation of an image of the city. Since—for Lynch—our processes of orientation are based on our image of the city, the main thesis of this paper is that processes of spatial orientation have a rhetorical dimension.


Finding your way has never been more important. Getting places on time, with minimum stress, is more valuable than ever. Easy accessibility to services whether on foot, by public transit or by automobile is not just a matter of courtesy or common sense. It is an economic necessity.(Hunt 152)

Finding your way, Hunt says, is an economic necessity. I want to show, however, that finding your way has an essential rhetoric dimension. Therefore, I will examine Kevin Lynch’s inquiry, The Image of the City, in terms of the rhetorical theory developed by Kenneth Burke. The aim of this confrontation is to see what happens when Lynch’s central terms are discussed rhetorically, and to show that Lynch’s categories can be understood as rhetorical motives. In conclusion, I will show that The Image of the City can be interpreted rhetorically, and in a more fundamental way the paper should demonstrate that problems of orientation in the metropolis have an essential rhetorical dimension. Finally, I interrogate the results of the rhetorical impact I will have shown, on urban environmental design. Thus, this paper is not concerned with drawing a historical link between the development of the ideas of Burke and Lynch, but is to be understood as a contribution to current questions concerning the link between rhetoric and design in general (among others: Kaufer and Butler; Joost and Scheuermann; Hill and Helmers; Krippendorff; Buchanan) and the rhetoric of urban design in particular (among others: Mikunda; Scheuermann; Clark). Therefore, the present paper creates a distinction which has some similarities to the distinction Gregory Clark draws between land and landscape: “Landscape is not the same as land. Land is material, a particular object, while landscape is conceptual. [ . . . ] Land becomes landscape when it is assigned the role of symbol, and as symbol it functions rhetorically.” (9) In an similar way, I aim to show that elements of the city-image—which are for Lynch paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks—are both physical objects and conceptual ideas, and as such, the link between the two becomes a rhetorical challenge for every city dweller, and of course, urban designers.

The Image of the City

To better understand the following argument some background is needed on Lynch’s inquiry The Image of the City. Published in 1960, this work is the result of a five-year study on how people perceive their surroundings and on how they orientate themselves in their cities. For this study Lynch interviewed the inhabitants of three American cities: Boston, Jersey City and Los Angeles. He asked them to draw maps of specific points, or even whole regions of the city. Lynch overlaid the maps in order to create several master maps, which highlight the city elements important to most people. The elements become the Lynch’s central categories. Thus, he interpreted the drawn maps not only as drawings but as mental maps, upon which subjects repeatedly act. In this respect, there is a strong correlation between Lynch’s work and the concepts and discourses on mental/cognitive maps. Lynch works in the same vein as psychologists Edward C. Tolman and Warner Brown, who elaborate the concept of cognitive maps (Tolman; Brown; see for this discussion: Seifert). Since Lynch’s book combines a study on human orientation with thoughts about urban design, he also stands in the tradition of theorists of urban design and influenced the whole field of urban design. (among others: Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form and A Pattern Language; Rapoport)

The book is accessible due to its clear categorisation and usable distinction of ‘only’ five basic elements of every city-image. Given this fact, and that Lynch coined the words ‘imageability’ and ‘wayfinding,’ it is easy to see why Lynch’s work has such an enormous impact on the study of urban orientation processes. For Lynch imageability means “that quality in a physical object which gives it a higher probability of evoking a strong image in any given observer.” (9)1 In The Image of the City, Lynch takes up the challenge of analysing the mental images that allow city-dwellers to orientate themselves.

Lynch describes the city in the following way: “At every instant, there is more than the eye can see, more than the ear can hear, a setting or a view waiting to be explored. Nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surroundings.” (1) As such he describes the complexity of the city as an aesthetical overtaxing of the recipient, which has its classical locus in artwork. Immanuel Kant’s aesthetical idea2, which gives rise to more thoughts than could be named in a single term (§49), may stand implicitly behind Lynch’s description of the city. The complexity of the city and the continuous stimuli it offers will lead to overstimulation unless the recipient is able to overcome it through the strategy of fragmentation. “Most often, our perception of the city is not sustained, but rather partial, fragmentary, mixed with other concerns.” (Lynch 2)

On the one hand, because of the complexity of the city and—in response—the fragmentation, our city-image is characterized by a principle ‘interminableness’ of the ideas of imagination. “There is no final result, only a continuous succession of phases.” (Lynch 2) From this point of view it is evidentially clear that the city confronts us vehemently with problems of orientation, since orientation has the function to create within this principle ‘interminableness’ of the ideas of imagination a specific idea which allows us to find partial endings. Thus, on the other hand, our city-image might be incorrect in detail, but has to be simplified, graspable and endingly. Or to put it more generally: Orientation has the function to create certain scopes of action under uncertain conditions. Lynch also calls this specific idea an image, but he means by this something which alternates between an idea and a map.3

Lynch’s book The Image of the City is about the image, interpreted as a partial endable (cognitive) map, a kind of graphic snapshot of the urban structure, which does not have to be adequate or correct in detail. He is asking what the categories are that can give us partial endings and, as such, structure our image of the city. These categories are paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks. According to Lynch, every mental map helping us to orientate ourselves in urban environments is built upon an interaction of these five categories. That’s why he simply calls them in an Euclidian way, the “elements of the city-image” (46).

Mental maps have, because of their fragmentary status, a relation to the manifest urban forms. My thesis is that this relation is similar to the relation Burke describes between terminology and reality: “Any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extend it must function also as a deflection of reality.“ ( LSA 45) Therefore we must introduce the concept of orientation that Kenneth Burke develops in Permanence and Change—An Anatomy of Purpose. We will see how the reflective, selective and deflective character of the elements of the city-image involves the idea of a rhetorical dimension in urban orientation processes.

The Circular Motive Structure

Burke’s concept of orientation is based on four pivotal terms: situation, motive, symbolic action and form. These four terms are—for Burke—inseparable from, and circularly bound to each other so that it makes in principle no difference where to start. To unfold what is meant by these categories it is important to show how motives correlate and interact with situations and lead to and arise from symbolic action, and finally, what the function of form is in this context.

The term “motive” is one of the pivotal terms in Burke’s whole work. Motive does not mean an isolated reason to explain in a criminological sense human action, but rather it means a linguistic pattern of explanation and justification to describe a situation so that an act becomes comprehensible. Motives are, like Burke says, “shorthand terms for situations” (PC 29). That is to say, motives were expressed through linguistic forms, which symbolize experience and create a connection to reality. “Reality, to outline Burke’s ontological background, is constituted through linguistic constructed relations and that’s why reality is always an interpretation of reality.”4 (Holocher 112, see: PC 35) It is reflected, selected and deflected by our terminologies. For Burke, motives are terms of interpretation, and on the basis of these terms reality can be interpreted as a specific, nameable reality. Since interpretative approaches to reality always structure the thus interpreted reality within a larger frame of orientation, motives are therefore regulatory and meaningful parts of orientation. Motives are like atoms of orientation; you build them to interpret your situation.5

Two aspects of motives are also important to note. First, the naming of a motive is not irrelevant. Language itself is a motive and not only a medium for description of motives. “The names we give to motives shape our relations with our fellows. Since they provide interpretations, they prepare us for some function and against others, for or against the person representing these functions. Moreover, they suggest how we shall be for or against.” For example: “Call a man a villain, and you have the choice of either attacking or cringing. Call him a mistaken and you invite yourself to attempt setting him right.” (Blankenship and Murphy and Rosenwasser 77, see: PC 4)

Second, it is remarkable that motives create a scope of action, widening it and at the same time restricting it. When Burke says motives are shorthand terms for situations, then it follows, motive is to situation like act is to scene, as so far as a motive always includes strategies to handle situations. It is in this respect important to note that situation is not to be seen as something which lies before any motivated access and is quasi-objectively given, so that it could be said motives were responses to situations, but are rather circularly bound to each other. To quote Burke: “One tends to think of a duality here, to assume some kind of breach between a situation and a response. Yet the two are identical. When we wish to influence a man’s response, for instance, we emphasize factors which he had understressed or neglected, and minimize factors which he had laid great weight upon. This amounts to nothing other than an attempt to redefine the situation itself. In this respect our whole vocabulary of motivation is tautological.” (PC 220) What Burke here calls tautological is describing the circular relation between motive and situation and is a result of the recursive nature of every orientation-process. Werner Stegmaier calls this the paradox of self-reference: “The self-reference is justified by the external reference; the external reference of orientation is the sense of its self-reference.“6 (13) So tautological here does not mean tautological in the argumentative sense—in short, that it is ineffective. Tautological means the possibility of transformation so that motives can function as shorthand terms for situations.

The Elements of the City Image

After this short introduction into Burke’s term motive, we have to come back to Lynch. The question we want to raise now is whether Lynch’s elements of the city-image could be understood as Burkean motives and if so, what this means for urban orientation processes and wayfinding design matters.

The five elements of the city-image map can be classified as following: punctual elements (nodes and landmarks), linear elements (paths and edges) and a laminar element (districts). These elements are characterized by specific forms and functions. Let’s see what happens when these elements are not treated primarily as signifiers for an urban form, but as action leading motives which are created based on form-clues.

The Linear Elements

Lynch says: “For the most people interviewed, paths were the predominant city elements” (49) and he characterizes paths as with continuity and identity attributed vectors through urban space. Thus, paths are shorthand terms for a situation, which Lynch describes as courses of motion with “directional quality” (54). The crucial point is not that paths and situation are associated, but that they are identical. By describing a situation—in this case where courses of motion with directional quality take place—as ‘following a path,’ and by describing the manifest urban form on which someone could be situated while ‘following a path,’ as a ‘path,’ as an element of the city image, is by the same token to describe the situation as course of motion with directional quality. This is exactly the circular relation between motive and situation which is caused by the fact that “our whole vocabulary of motivation is tautological.” (Burke, PC 220) To put it otherwise, it seems to be evident that the existing path as a manifest urban element does not involve the path-situation as such. It can also be treated as, for instance, an edge-situation. Or to express it more radically, there is no path in urban landscape that pre-exists before naming, and thereby perceiving it as a path; This is because naming a situation invites you to overcome it, which by the same token is created through naming. And to name something as something, which it is not, is no more than a metaphorical extension, or as Burke calls it in Permanence and Change a perspective by incongruity. Like every sidewalk is often interpreted as a path by walkers and interpreted as an edge by drivers, the sidewalk itself is neither a path nor an edge. To take another example, a riverbank in a city is for Lynch a typical example for an edge. Lynch characterizes edges mainly ex negativo as those linear elements which are not paths. This means that they are “not used or considered as paths by the observer.” (41) While paths are coordinate axis’ in the city-image, edges are lateral references. Their imageability is increased if they are entirely visible and uninterrupted. Thus, as lateral references it seems that edges do not invite people to act upon them. But edges can involve motives too. Because edges enclose, divide areas and limit accessibility, different motives can occur to handle an edge-situation. While taking a walk on the (above mentioned) riverbank, it is simply treated as a path involving you as in a path-situation without awareness of its edge-quality. A surrounding city wall—also a good edge example—could be treated as a path too. Parcour-runners have raised this to an urban sport. They treat edges as paths and are—in contrast to the riverbank-flaneur—of course in every moment aware of its edge-quality. Beside this ‘along-motive’ of the flaneur and this ‘crossing-motive’ of the free-climber, the main edge-motive—regarding an edge as an element of the city-image whose main quality is to function as a lateral reference—could be named as ‘division-motive.’ Edges, like rivers, highways or railways often cut the city into pieces, dividing parts associated with one kind of character from parts associated with their opposites. The highway through the German city of Essen, for example, divides the wealthy south from the poorer north.

If we do not understand manifest linear urban forms as paths or edges, but as indicators which create path-motives or edge-motives, we can emphasize the relation between urban structure and meaning. And because of the circular connection of motive and situation, it is possible to focus on matters of action more closely than Lynch does.

Let’s see the effects in the following example: I like to ride via bicycle through the City I live and work in. Via bicycle I know exactly the shortest way to the place I work. Knowing exactly the shortest way means that I have trained an ability to interpret a direct line of given manifest urban forms as paths (sometimes even against the traffic rules). If I have to guide a friend using a car, my trained ability functions mostly as a trained incapacity in mean-selecting and my orientation will often fail. There are one-ways I can’t go through, there are sidewalks I can’t use with a car and of course I can’t use the same parking-place for the car, I use for my bicycle. In short: To interpret the direct line of given manifest urban forms still as paths shows that my orientation, my trained incapacity functions as blindness. So I need a re-orientation. If, like Robert Wess says, “Orientation is trained incapacity [and] re-orientation is perspective by incongruity” (69), I have to change the perspective to redefine the situation itself. Paths are no longer paths, some are edges and some are nodes. Landmarks are no longer landmarks, edges no longer edges–some are paths (like the local highway). This example is, of course, simplifying a complex problem. But the challenges we are confronted with are basically the same in more complex situations. For example, try orientating yourself at a foreign university-campus, in a large hospital, or in a foreign city.

The Punctual Elements

Lynch mentioned two kinds of punctual elements of the city-image: nodes and landmarks. While landmarks are point-references which the observer cannot enter, and whose function in orientation-processes is more or less passive, nodes are enterable active points. Lynch describes nodes in two ways: “Nodes are points, the strategic spots in a city into which an observer can enter, and which are the intensive foci to and from which he is traveling. They may be primarily junctions, places of a break in transportation, a crossing or convergence of paths, moments of shift from one structure to another.” (41) Nodes, like main junctions, are points of decision. Their recognisability and imageability correspond with their demands that the observer act. This demand–the demand to decide to change direction or to hold the lane–is what makes a junction become a node. While we cross many junctions on our daily commute, we do not usually interpret all of them as a demand to act; most of them are so unimportant for us that we cannot even remember having crossed them. Like the designer Markus Hanzer says: “We like to remain true to a path once we have chosen it until we stumble across new possibilities. We don’t examine every available symbol to make a decision; we just look for indications that seem to confirm the path already taken instead. Our view is selective.” (24)

Lynch’s impressive thesis is that the difference between a junction we even can’t remember and a junction which functions as a node, is not only given by the fact that nodes are points where we can decide to follow main roads, or that we can move faster or more directly by changing our ways only at node-junctions (which is probably not true). He asserts rather, that the difference is primarily a difference in architectural and urban forms which demands us to act. Or to put it otherwise, form gives us clues to interpret a given situation as a node-situation and by interpreting it as a node-situation, form invites us to act upon it the appropriate way. “However, if symbols persuade us to change directions we tend rebuild our thoughts to make wrong paths, detours and zigzag courses look like straight lines. So the world of symbols doesn’t only help make decisions, it also changes, often subconsciously, our motives, intentions and goals.” (Hanzer 24) That is, form invites us to create node-motives.

The second description of nodes is the following: “the nodes may be simply concentrations, which gain their importance from being the condensation of some use or physical character, as a street-corner hangout or an enclosed square. Some of these concentration nodes are the focus and epitome of a district, over which their influence radiates and of which they stand as a symbol. They may be called cores.” (Lynch 41) Cores are not primarily points of decision; they are remarkable punctual elements of the city-image whose characteristics influence our view of whole districts. Because of their direct relation to districts, the issue will be discussed in the next chapter.

“Landmarks are another type of point-reference, but in this case [in contrast to nodes] the observer does not enter within them, they are external. They are usually a rather simply defined physical object: buildings, sign, store, or mountain. Their use involves the singling out of one element from a host of possibilities.” (Lynch 48) Thus, landmarks help to create radial coordinate axis around a punctual reference; they “symbolize a constant direction” (Lynch 48) and therefore need to be visible over long distance and identifiable as singular objects. Lynch notes that visitors who are unfamiliar with the city make an extended use of such ‘rough’ landmarks for orientation purposes, while familiar observers rely on more subtle landmark-tools: “Other landmarks are primarily local, being visible only in restricted localities an from certain approaches. These are the innumerable signs, store fronts, trees, doorknobs, and other urban detail, which fill in the image of most observers. They are frequently used clues of identity and even of structure, and seem to be increasingly relied upon as a journey becomes more and more familiar.” (Lynch 48) There is one common quality in the use of both rough and subtle landmarks: “Since the use of landmarks involves the singling out of one element from a host of possibilities, the key physical characteristic of this class is singularity, some aspect that is unique or memorable in the context. Landmarks become more easily identifiable, more likely to be chosen as significant, if they have a clear form; if they contrast with their background” (Lynch 78). There is, like Klaus Sachs-Hombach and Jörg Schirra mention in Bild und Wort (Schirra and Sachs-Hombach 2006), a figure-ground-difference to be created by the observer. Since the differentiation of what is figure (what is meant?) and what is context (as what is it meant?) is the basis of all semantic identification; this difference becomes the basis on which the observer may act in correspondence to landmarks. The process of ‘singling out’ is once more a process following the invitations of form-clues which are given not only by the architectural and urban form, but also by environmental graphic design, signage and orientation-tools like maps and way-descriptions.

The Laminar Element

The laminar element upon which the observer constructs his city-image are districts. “Districts are relatively large city areas which the observer can mentally go inside of, and which have some common character.” (Lynch 66) As an element of the city-image, and therefore, an element of a mental map, the district remains a mental concept only able to be entered mentally. But by identifying a manifest urban form as an indicator of a district we are able to enter it physically. Thus, districts are containers with a specific character which contain nearly everything: concepts, experiences, places, and events—each district gives rise to different expectations about the probability that any of these things could occur. Out of these differences in expectation, the district derives its specific character; this character, in turn, influences our feelings and behaviour in each district. A main part of what is meant when we say ‘I am in London-Soho, Berlin-Kreuzberg or New York-Brooklyn’ derives from a kind of container/things-contained relation. To clarify this point, we can refer to the first chapter of Burke’s A Grammar of Motives which is about “container and things contained” (GM 3). Here he distinguishes between scene and act and shows the meaningful relation between them in the scene-act-ratio. The “stage-act contains the action ambiguously—and in the course of the play’s development this ambiguity is converted into a corresponding articulacy. The proportion would be: scene is to act as implicit is to explicit.” (GM 7) Of course, this quotation could stand for the whole work we have done till now. What we have shown by discussing the linear und punctual elements as motives is based on the implicit-explicit relation of scene and act, of situation and motive. In the now given context of discussing districts as containers the idea behind this quotation becomes strongly relevant. Burke emphasizes relating to the scene-act-ratio one important limitation: “One could not deduce the details of the action from the details of the setting, but one could deduce the quality of the action from the quality of the setting.” (GM 7) The Lynchean elements (paths, edges, nodes, landmarks and of course districts) are scenes in this way, they contain ambiguously a quality of appropriate action. This means the scene consists of (ambiguous) clues on which the rhetorical category of the aptum (acceptability, adequacy, fittingness) is created, which is probably the only measurement to judge the quality of the action. In this context a variety of important questions arise: What is the quality of a specific district? That is, what is the specific character of the district-container upon which action leading motives are created, and from where does this character derive? Of course, this question is much too broad to be answered in this text since it involves the demand to formulate a whole theory of meaning of the built environment. The character of any given district derives from many sources: literature, poems, artwork, experiences of its inhabitants, political decisions, architectural form, myths and oral traditions and much, much more. That’s why we want to focus on just one building block, one part of this question which remains in our research question focusing on Lynch: how does the above mentioned second type of node—the core—influence the character of the container in which they were contained? Cores, as we saw, are points of thematic concentrations. As such they are meaningful architectural forms which have certain similarities to landmarks. But while landmarks have to be unique objects visible at a distance, cores “are the focus and epitome of a district, over which their influence radiates and of which they stand as a symbol.” (Lynch 41) From the various elements contained in the district (container), cores are prototypical elements. This means, following the prototype-theory developed by Eleanor Rosch, that cores are not only elements of districts–they are the best example of that category. If someone asks for an example of the category ‘bird,’ the answers robin, sparrow, penguin and ostrich are not equal. Although all these are not more or less birds than any other–they are all 100% bird–the first two are thought of as being ‘more bird’ than penguins or ostriches. They are prototypical for the category ‘bird.’ Like Rosch, and later George Lakoff pointed out, prototypes are those elements of a category which are highly memorable and easy to identify as a member of the given category. Moreover they structure the whole category; they influence the production of examples, create an asymmetry in similarity ratings7, an asymmetry in generalization8 and are follow the effects of family resemblance9. Thus, it is clear that cores as prototypes have a great impact on the perception of the district. A main part of the character of the district derives from the character of its core. For example, there are many places in Berlin, Mitte (the central district of Berlin), but ask any passer-by where the city center is, and he will point you to Alexanderplatz. This illustrates that Alexanderplatz is a core which could symbolically stand for the whole district—even the city. Or, to take an example from Lynch: “Louisburg Square [in Boston] is another thematic concentration, a well-known quiet residential open space, redolent of the upper-class themes of the Hill, with a highly recognizable fenced park. It is a purer example of a concentration than is the Jordan-Filene corner, since it is no transfer point at all, and was only remembered as being ‘somewhere inside’ Beacon Hill. Its importance as a node was out of all proportion to its function.” (76)

More research must be carried out to evaluate the degree to which cores function as prototypes of districts, but it seems evidentially clear that if cores have such an enormous impact on the generalization of districts, much of what I have called the district-motive derives from the core-motive and from the scope of action manipulating associations related to the core. Part of the quality of districts seems to be deducible from the quality of their cores, and from this we can deduce the quality of the action which takes place in accordance to districts. And, since districts may have different cores for different people at different times, the quality of this deduction depends on the selection of a core as prototypical.

To conclude, the ‘elements’ Lynch is describing are always terms which are interpreting any given situation as a such-and-such-situation, and thereby have a bearing on the scope of action. That’s why we can characterize these elements as motives. There are two main benefits given by this characterization; because of the circular connection of motive and situation, it is possible to focus the matter of action more closely than Lynch does. This matter of action is describable as ’symbolic action.’ On the other hand, the symbol based nature of urban orientation shows evidently that there is a rhetorical dimension in orientation. The problem of orientation becomes essentially a rhetorical problem.

City Form

The rationalistic chapter ‘City Form’ in The Image of the City, which sounds a bit like the introduction into Descartes meditations, aims to raise the legibility of the city by increasing the clarity and distinctness of the city-image. Lynch emphasizes the function of the architectural and urbanistic form as the following: “Above all, if the environment is visibly organized and sharply identified, then the citizen can inform it with his own meanings and connections. Then it will become a true place.”(Lynch 92) Thus, when Lynch describes form as the possibility that one part fits to another, then a certain similarity to Burke’s statement that “work has form insofar as one part of it leads the reader to anticipate another part” might be seen (CS 124). Indeed both authors emphasize the receiver-orientated function of form, but Burke understands form first of all as “the way of uniting motive and symbol, situation and act” (Blankenship and Murphy and Rosenwasser 84).

This ‘way of uniting’ has its meaning, if transferred to the context of urbanistic form, not in a reduction of the orientation-problem to a problem of distinctness, but form becomes the smallest building block in a rhetorical process. No persuasive orientation happens, even when motive, symbol, situation and act have become a chosen and communicable united form, in the absence of identification. In successful cases, the recipient identifies himself with the form after the city planner has chosen this urban form in reference to his identification with the (probable) recipient. This process, on another level, is based on the semantic identifications that arise through metaphorical extensions. Lynch lacks the rhetorical dimension of urban orientation precisely because the process of identification in this doubled form is the key concept of rhetoric. It is not, as Lynch says, that a distinct structure and a clear legibility of the city-image gives the citizen the possibility to “inform it with his own meanings and connections”—or to identify himself with the city. It is, rather, a question of how motives, symbols, and situations and acts become a communicable unit, which allow/invite the recipient to identify with them or not. Distinctness is only one way of uniting and probably not the clearest.

Some Remarks on Urban Environmental Design and Signage

The main task of urban environmental graphic design, orientation-design and signage-design is to deliver indicators that may help to identify situations. In conclusion, the identifications of situations dependent on these indicators have to be understood as motives. The main task of every environmental graphic design is to create motives—to create action-leading interpretations of situations. This motive creation is rhetorically based on semantic identifications of physical urban forms as situational, which makes it possible for the city dweller to handle the involvement in that (conceptual) form. This is the creation of the situation-motive-action-circle. From here it would be possible–though not in this essay–to formulate a rhetorical inquiry concerning environmental graphic design that focuses not on way-showing, but on motive-creation. The main question should be whether there is a motive persuasively expressed. That is one reason why the way-finding-processes have to be based on form-finding-processes. Based on this we could discuss projects such as The Legible City projects (Bristol, London, Melbourne, Sydney, etc.) in terms of motive-creation. The idea behind this project is that because of the increasing number of visitors and inhabitants the city of London has to—in the truest sense of the word—motivate people to use their feet as transportation instead of using tubes or buses. This relies on the observations that many stations and other locations are quicker to reach as pedestrian than by any other transportation system. “From Covent Garden nine out of ten adjacent stations are quicker to walk.” (Bauer and Mayer 238) Though my analysis of the rhetorical dimension of the Lynchean elements of the city-image does not provide enough detail to carry out an discussion on the wide variety of solutions found in The Legible City project and others, we can still ask whether there are, for example, node, path or edge-motives expressed through the design of guidance systems and signage. More research has to take place to answer these questions. However, a rhetorical theory of design—concerning not only questions arising with Lynch, but also questions concerning the identification-potential of different typographies and pictograms, map-making and map-designing, the motives expressed through categorization given by legends, and many more—is called for.


By forcing a confrontation between Lynch and Burke, I have proven that Lynch’s ‘elements’ of the city are terms of interpretation. The crux of my argument is that Lynch knows that his elements are terms of interpretation and therefore fall under a rhetorical theory, but he ignores the consequences arising from this.10 To quote Lynch, Charles Street “acts ambiguously either as linear node, edge, or path for various people at various times. Edges are often paths as well.”(65) Take an almost common highway as an example: it might be interpreted as a path, or as an edge, or maybe even as a main part of a district. Of course it is possible to interpret it in part as a landmark, and it probably is often interpreted as a node. It seems to be that everything can be interpreted as everything else. Thus, I might be forced to say that a distinction of elements which does not make any difference is ineffective and in this way meaningless. But I am not forced to this conclusion; Burke has shown that from the fact that these elements are terms of interpretation, we do not have to conclude that they are useless, since to interpret something as something different is always circularly connected with the creation of a situation, which leads to a specific scope of action. Thus, interpreting the Lynchean elements of the city-image as Burkean motives, is nothing other than giving these elements use and meaning by embedding them in rhetoric. What Lynch lacks is a theory of meaning in the background of his inquiry that would enable him to show what it means to see the elements of the city-image as terms of interpretation. This theory of meaning might be implemented by the new rhetoric.


1. “It is that quality in a physical object which gives it a higher probability of evoking a strong image in any given observer” (Lynch 9)

2. Immanuel Kant wrote in Kritik der Urteilskraft: „Unter einer ästhetischen Idee aber verstehe ich diejenige Vorstellung der Einbildungskraft, die viel zu denken veranlaßt, ohne daß ihr doch irgendein bestimmter Gedanke, d. i. Begriff, adäquat sein kann, die folglich keine Sprache völlig erreicht und verständlich machen kann.—Man sieht leicht, daß sie das Gegenstück (Pendant) von einer Vernunftidee sei, welche umgekehrt ein Begriff ist, dem keine Anschauung (Vorstellung der Einbildungskraft) adäquat sein kann.“ (Kant § 49.)

3. See Wagner and Seifert. Both point out that Lynch’s term image alternates between a drawn, visual map, a cognitive map and a collective and shared idea. Moreover, Lynch wanted it to function as a design-device for urban architects and city-planners.

4. Original: “Wirklichkeit, so kann man Burkes ontologisches Verständnis zusammenfassen, konstituiert sich aus sprachlich konstruierten Beziehungen und ist daher immer eine Interpretation von Wirklichkeit.”

5. To quote Burke: “Motives are subdivisions in a larger frame of meaning; this larger frame of meaning is [ . . . ] an orientation.” (Burke, PC 19)

6. Original: „Der Selbstbezug ist auf den Fremdbezug ausgerichtet, der Fremdbezug der Orientierung ist der Sinn ihres Selbstbezugs.“ (Stegmaier 13)

7. “Less representative examples are often considered to be more similar to more representative examples than the converse. Not surprisingly, Americans consider the United States to be a highly representative example of a country. [ . . . ] Subjects considered Mexico to be more similar to the United States than the United States is to Mexico.“ (Lakoff 41)

8. “New Information about a representative category member is more likely to be generalized to nonrepresentative members than the revers.“ (Lakoff 42)

9. “Characterizing ‚family resemblances‘ as perceived similarities between representative and nonrepresentative members of a category, Rosch showed that there was a correlation between family resemblance and numerical ratings of best examples derived from the above experiments.“ (Lakoff 42)

10. In The Image of the City Lynch gives three terms to structure his inquiry: identity, structure and meaning. “A workable image requires first the identification of an object, which implies its distinction from other things, its recognition as a separable entity. This is called identity, not in the sense of equality with something else, but with the meaning of individuality or oneness. Second, the image must include the spatial or pattern relation of the object to the observer and to other objects. Finally, this object must have some meaning for the observer, whether practical or emotional. Meaning is also a relation, but quite a different one from spatial or pattern relation.” (Lynch 8) It may not be quite right to say that Lynch ‘ignores’ the consequences since Lynch only focuses on identity and structure of the city-image and leaves out the difficult work on meaning. Thus, in this context ‘to ignore’ means not that Lynch merely ignores, but that his inquiry is constructed under the condition ‘to ignore.’

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Expanding the Terministic Screen: A Burkean Critique of Information Visualization in the Context of Design Education

Anneli Bowie, University of Pretoria
Duncan Reyburn, University of Pretoria


In the face of what information design theorist Richard Wurman has dubbed "information anxiety," it is well documented that information visualization has become a widely accepted tool to assist with the navigation of the symbolic world. Information visualisations, or infographics, are essentially external cognitive aids such as graphs, diagrams, maps and other interactive and innovative graphic applications. It is often argued by design theorists that information visualisations are rhetorical texts in that they have the ability to persuade. Thus, it is not a leap to assert that information visualization may be understood as one expression of Kenneth Burke’s notion of the ‘terministic screen.’

Bearing the above in mind, this paper seeks to interrogate the rhetoric of information visualization within the domain of design education in South Africa by analyzing two student visualization projects. Moreover, it explores the selective and deflective nature of visualization alongside issues regarding the interplay between ideology and Robin Kinross’s idea of a visual "rhetoric of neutrality." Burke’s explanation of ‘synecdoche’ is shown as a useful approach to understanding how visualizations function rhetorically. Furthermore, Burke’s concept of ‘perspective by incongruity,’ which is echoed in the notion of ‘Critical Design’ is shown as an alternative method with the potential to ameliorate the problems with traditional infographics. Ultimately, this paper presents Burke’s rhetorical theory as a critical tool for developing more ethical communication design education and praxis.


IN THIS ARTICLE, WE SET OUT TO PROVIDE A BURKEAN CRITIQUE OF THE RHETORIC OF INFORMATION VISUALIZATION within the context of design education in South Africa. In recent years, information visualization has become an increasingly popular means to explore and present both scientific and cultural phenomena, through the use of graphs, diagrams, maps and other graphic formats. Owing to the amount of data people interact with increasing exponentially in the last few years, through the internet and specifically the rise of web 2.0 and social media, new ways to mine, process and visually represent data have been developed. Advances in technology, along with the increasing availability of data, have furthermore led to a democratization of visualization practice, and a proliferation of visualization projects displayed on the internet, in popular science magazines and in the news media.

In the face of what information design theorist Richard Wurman has dubbed ‘information anxiety,’ it is well understood that although we are accustomed to thinking about an ‘information economy,’ information is not the commodity that is in short supply. Indeed, as Richard Lanham observes, “we’re drowning in it” (xi). Lanham, who echoes Wurman’s perspective by referring to an “attention economy,” points out that “what we lack is the human attention needed to make sense of it all” (xi). Under such circumstances it is understandable that information visualization has become a widely accepted tool to assist with the navigation of the symbolic, hyper-informational world. This is to say that information visualization acts as an example of Kenneth Burke’s notion of a “terministic screen” in that it “explicitly and implicitly turns our attention in one direction rather than in other directions” (LASA 57). Following Burke’s logic, it may even be deemed a form of “magic” in that it establishes a kind of visual-linguistic coercion—a prioritization of a particular set of scopic regimes—albeit in a subtle way. It is a medium that reflects the human capacity for negotiating both visual and verbal symbolic vocabularies in order to reflect and thus also control reality. Nevertheless, as with all such orienting vocabularies, every reflection of reality automatically “functions as a deflection of reality” and is also inherently a reduction or “selection” of reality (LASA 59). Visualization is certainly a genre that has developed its own symbolic hierarchies, each allowing for the privileging of specific terminologies and meanings, as well as the marginalization of others, but this is not our main concern. Our main concern is the way in which this ideological construct becomes institutionalized and solidified in a way that such symbolic hierarchies go unchallenged. While it is true that contemporary discourse on information visualisations has started to include a challenge to the supposed scientific biases of the medium, our contribution in this paper is to present the first critique of the medium from a Burkean perspective.

When we speak of ideological constructs above, we are aware that Burke spent most of his career avoiding the term ideology when referring to systems of ideas. However, his uses of terms like “‘orientation,’ ‘rationalization,’ ‘perspective,’ ‘critical perspective,’ ‘way of life,’ ‘critical mind-frame,’ ‘Weltanschauung,’ and ‘gestalt’” point to the same basic idea as what is captured by the word ideology (Beach 1). Slavoj Žižek considers ideology to be a “generative matrix that regulates the relationship between visible and non-visible, between imaginable and non-imaginable, as well as changes in this relationship” (Žižek 1), but Burke’s definition of ideology is more succinct: it is simply “the study of ideas and of their relation to one another” (RM 53), but it can also refer to “a structure of interrelated ideas” (A rhetoric of motives 88). Thus, while ideology may be considered in terms of the performative relationship between the linguistic and the practical, Burke’s view of ideology tends to stress the linguistic even while the performative is called into question. This fits well with a critique of ideology in design, since design is fundamentally concerned with visual language. Accordingly, it makes sense to stress the paradoxical or analogical structure built into the very nature of language: it both accepts and rejects, leads and misleads; informs and misinforms; by drawing attention to itself, it points away from itself.

A similar paradoxical structure is reflected in our roles as information design educators. One of our many tasks involves equipping our students with the necessary skills to be able to create their own information visualizations or information graphics (infographics). Infographics are a subset of information visualizations often used in popular media. They are usually static, manually crafted graphics created by designers, as opposed to being generated or updated automatically by software applications (Kosara). Infographics in their current popular format usually combine an array of data visualization elements into a single layout in order to communicate a statistical overview of a topic or issue.

Thus, on the one hand, we must promote the extension of a particular kind of designerly orthodoxy, in alignment with the linguistic idealism of the Bauhaus (1919–1933), New Typographic movement of the 1920s and 1930s, and Ulm School (Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm) (1953–1968). However, on the other hand, as academics involved in critical discourse, we are also tasked with imparting the importance of self-reflective critique to our students. This approach, while taking the legacy of older design schools seriously, is closely aligned with the international design movement towards what is known as ‘Critical Design’ practice. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby explain how most design activities fall into two broad categories, namely ‘affirmative design’ and ‘critical design.’ They explain how typical design practice is mostly affirmative, as it “reinforces how things are now, it conforms to cultural, social, technical and economic expectation.” However, critical design can be seen as an alternative form of design practice that challenges the status quo and critiques “the prevailing situation through designs that embody alternative social, cultural, technical or economic values” (Dunne and Raby 58).

The above distinction is thus played out in the current scenario where we need to both promote information visualization as a useful tool for graphic communication and demote it for its sometimes less-than-obvious limitations. To put it more bluntly, we need to tell our students that even this orthodoxy is a kind of heresy, which means that even in their sincerest attempts to create truthful communication, it is almost certain that they will also mislead, albeit unintentionally. This reminds us that Burke’s notion of “trained incapacity” is not just something found in human beings with regard to occupational specialization, but is something inherent to the way that language itself works as a mediator of the world. By stating one thing, language automatically overstates it and therefore understates or neglects other things; by emphasizing one thing, it overemphasizes it and therefore underemphasizes other things. This is referred to by the French philosopher Alain Badiou as a problem of “nominal occlusions” whereby one term or name in a truth procedure occludes and thereby possibly even obliterates another: thus, “[t]he name ‘culture’ comes to obliterate ‘art.’ The word ‘technology’ obliterates the word ‘science.’ The word ‘management’ obliterates ‘politics.’ The word ‘sexuality’ obliterates love” (Badiou 12). This is noted not to claim that language is entirely bound to fail in its aims, but to simply point out that, like any medium, language has both a positive and a negative charge. Foregrounding one thing automatically causes another to recede, leading every statement to require a corrective counter-statement. To navigate the somewhat disconcerting or destabilising paradoxical/analogical nature of language, Burke’s ideas are applied in what follows as a means of interrogating the rhetoric of information visualization.

Although Burke paved the way for the study of ‘visual rhetoric’ (Foss 141), remarkably little has been written about Burke from within or for design discourse. Although some authors, such as Foss and Brummet, consider Burke’s theories from a visual rhetorical perspective, this is usually from a broader visual culture perspective, and not specifically as it relates to communication design practice. In communication design discourse, Burke is sometimes mentioned in passing or as a footnote, but to date there is no in-depth application of Burke’s rhetoric in this domain. This paper attempts to address this gap, albeit on an introductory level.

Burke’s dialectical approach to rhetoric, also explained as both “a dialectic of ideological demands and the critique of ideology” (Bygrave 9), makes his theories particularly useful in a design education context. Not only does his theory of rhetoric shed light on how to use rhetorical strategies in information visualization, but it also simultaneously presents a method for ideological critique. This approach resonates with our teaching approach, in that we need to equip our students to communicate as effectively as possible (through the strategic use of visual rhetoric), while also encouraging them to think more critically about the ethics and politics of their rhetorical practice.

This paper thus aims to illustrate how Burke’s theories can be used to disseminate the rhetoric of information visualizations and how his theories can be applied within the domain of design education. While our focus is specifically on visualization practice in an educational context, the way that we are applying Burke’s thinking below could certainly have a bearing on a wider view of design and design discourse, although it is not our aim to explore such implications here. Examples of student visualization projects are employed to support the following argument.

Visualizations and Infographics

Information visualizations are typically seen as external cognitive aids that serve two main functions (Card, Mackinley and Schneiderman 1). Firstly, they assist in the discovery of concepts, by making data visual. Researchers and scientists, for instance, make use of visual processing and mapping in order to identify patterns and relationships hidden in data sets. Through such processes, factors previously unknown or only hypothesized are confirmed through visualization techniques. Secondly, after such discoveries have been made, the other main function of visualization is to communicate these findings to others. Infographics take this a step further in that they are particularly focused on communicating to a wider audience and for a very specific purpose. Max Gadney explains that information visualizations “require more work and sifting by a user, in order to find patterns and insight” whereas infographics are “a quick and popular way of communicating that insight.” This apparent strength of infographics may, however, turn out to also be its fundamental weakness since it paves the way for creating a kind of nominal occlusion regarding its very own character.

Visualizations are considered particularly powerful communicative and persuasive tools. Peter Hall posits that some visualizations can “have a profound effect on society, changing the course of government policy, scientific research, funding and public opinion” (“Critical Visualization” 123). We grant that this is a fairly bold claim, but it does at least stress the seriousness with which visualizations are generally accepted. Throughout history, visualization has been used to present ‘evidence’ in a tangible form. As a consequence, visualization has become persuasive not only of the validity of the collected data and information that it presents, but has also become persuasive regarding its own status as a viable and even valuable form of visual communication.

Today we can visualize much larger data sets with the use of computers (as well as animate them or have them unfold interactively over time), but the basic principles of visualization have remained largely the same since the nineteenth century (Manovich). The rise of social statistics in the mid-eighteenth century had a direct impact on the development of visualization practice (Manovich), with scholars such as William Playfair, John Snow, Florence Nightingale and Charles Joseph Minard collecting numbers, calculating averages and representing statistical data visually. During this time the development of visual conventions for maps, graphs and charts has enabled people to communicate complexity in more eloquent and believable ways.

Today, the rise of social statistics through online and social media has once again fuelled the development and popularization of information visualization practice. This, in combination with the accessibility of visualization software tools such as Gapminder, and Processing, has led to the democratization of visualization practice. The visual communication design skills needed to convert crude data visualizations into eloquent infographics has also been democratized through the myriad infographic templates readily available online. Infographics obviously aim to draw attention by using powerful visual aesthetics, but the irony of course is that the more infographics we see, the less likely we are to pay attention to them. Along with this democratization of visualization practice one thus finds an increasing amount of criticism regarding the poorly-used (and perhaps even overused) medium. However, the fact that visualizations and infographics remain hugely popular in mass media indicates that they are still effective at creating favorable impressions about the nature of the information presented.

As can be observed from the history of visualization, as well as the current use of infographics, the emphasis remains on statistics, facts and scientific plausibility. But to take this emphasis too seriously is to miss the importance of the aesthetic and rhetorical dimensions of these visual artifacts. It is also to overlook the fact that even empirical data requires the context of a particular theory, and that the scientific is never neutral, as has been argued by Thomas Kuhn. In order to investigate this general acceptance of infographics as objective, scientific representations of statistical realities, we now look towards the rhetorical theories of Burke and illustrate these theories by analyzing two student case studies.

Visualizations as Terministic Screens

It is often argued that information visualizations are rhetorical texts in that they have the ability to “direct attention, persuade, and shape attitudes” (Kostelnick). Furthermore, design theorists such as Gui Bonsiepe, Richard Buchanan, Robin Kinross, Ellen Lupton, Hanno Ehses and Katherine McCoy have all pointed to the potential value of studying information design from a visual rhetorical perspective. Thus, what we are doing here is, in some respects, nothing new. Nevertheless, bearing in mind the above-mentioned paradoxes, we would like to focus on the often-overlooked ideological biases that inform the way in which information visualizations are both created and interpreted. Notably, we want to call into question the fact that these visualizations tend to display a seeming scientific authority and are thus perceived as having a kind of informational integrity. Kinross calls this particular kind of rhetoric the “rhetoric of neutrality” (18). By indicating the rhetorical, Kinross is emphasizing the fact that motive and bias are never eradicated. The human author remains a subjective interpreter who adopts and adapts facts and also designs in accordance with personal choices and established conventions.

Although their ideas are very closely aligned, Kinross never directly mentions Burke. Burke’s ideas are however particularly useful in understanding Kinross’ ‘rhetoric of neutrality.’ Burke was particularly skeptical of seemingly objective language and understood that all terminologies are value-laden and ideologically loaded. He specifically investigated the manner in which scientific language makes use of “a neutral vocabulary in the interests of more effective action” (Burke in Hildebrand 635) and in a similar manner one can investigate the visual vocabularies / terminologies (aesthetic design elements) of infographics in order to understand their rhetorical power. Therefore, any information visualization can be understood, in Burkean terms, as a subjective terministic screen even while it seeks to, or perhaps pretends to, ward off the shortcomings of human subjectivity.

The first visual example, titled “There’s no place like home” by one of our third year students from 2011, shows a fairly typical infographic (figure 1). During this two week Information Design project, students were tasked with gathering information on a pressing issue in South African society and to create an infographic poster thereof, utilizing a variety of visualization elements such as graphs, charts, etc. This specific infographic poster deals with the effects of “brain drain”—that is, human capital flight involving the large scale emigration of highly trained and knowledgeable people—on South African society, and consists of pie charts, bar graphs, icons and other communicative elements typical of infographics. This brain drain is a very complex issue, especially since it exposes some of the ongoing and seemingly irresolvable racial problems of South African society that have resulted, in part, from its Black Economic Empowerment policies. The subject of the poster is highly topical in post-apartheid South Africa, and an infographic that seeks to counter the dominant ideology—the normalization of the brain drain—would thus seem appropriate.

At a glance, the poster, with its bold lines, strong contrast, structured layout and clear labeling in a neutral sans-serif font is quite conventional. The poster, with its clear message, seems to be a fairly confident expression of the so-called ‘truth’ about emigration. This is somewhat illustrative of Kostelnick’s observation that visualization as we know it developed in a modernist style, “which fostered universal forms and aimed to objectify representations of cultural diversity by making them appear economical and perceptually transparent” (216). The visualization methods that have developed over time have become familiar genres leading to these forms being interpreted as “natural, direct representations of fact, [supposedly] unmediated by the lens of design” (Kostelnick 225). The ideological stance of this modernist style can be found in its stress on only one aspect of the analogical structure of language, namely is ability to convey a truth. It seems to neglect the other side of this binary, namely the inability of language to fully capture the truth that it is indicated towards.

As a consequence, on closer inspection of this poster, some problematic assumptions can be noticed. The most obvious of these is that the apparent “facts” are never sourced. This is not an error of the student’s inexperience, but a result of the student’s ability to follow the representational norms of infographics, the vast majority of which do not make any reference to sources. Furthermore, while the poster aims to create an overview of the current situation regarding brain drain, many of the statistics are fairly outdated, and also from vastly different time periods—some from 1995, others from 2001, and so on. A ‘cherry-picking’ of statistics thus takes place in the construction of this graphic, which is only visible after closer scrutiny. The need for closer scrutiny may be understood as somewhat defeating of the purpose of infographics, which are typically geared towards aiding the navigation of the symbolic world rather than making such navigation more time-consuming. An infographic that seeks to clear up a complex issue but ends up only making it more opaque is surely, albeit unintentionally, highlighting the potential failings of the medium.

Similarly, when one looks at the bar graph in the lower right corner (figure 2), one sees a comparison in prices on consumer goods in South Africa and Australia. These comparisons appear reliable until one realizes that no indication has been given of the vastly different economic contexts of the two countries. This is to say that a logical fallacy of false analogy is at work here: oranges are compared with apples, so to speak. In an attempt to strengthen the visual argument, the student has in fact weakened it. Nevertheless, the certainty with which this information is presented appears to make this false analogy quite plausible.

In another section of the poster (figure 3), one reads that of all the South Africans who emigrated, only a relatively small number of those were in fact professionals (only 205 of the 10 057 in 2001). In comparison, 4835 skilled professionals entered the country. However, it is unclear whether these were returning South Africans or foreign nationals. The difficulty in reading this specific graph, which uses suitcase pictographs as a statistical indicator, will quite likely cause the viewer to abandon any attempt at interpretation. The most prominent feature here is obviously the enormous suitcase, reaching out of the ‘frame,’ indicating unskilled immigrants entering the country. The infographic legend shows that these unskilled immigrants include illegal immigrants and asylum seekers, indicating a severely reductionist approach in presenting the data leading one to wonder whether this entire category of immigrants should be seen as a threat, as the designer suggests.

Without going through every detail of this poster, it is safe to say that the ideological orientations that have driven its creation and that also implicitly guide its interpretation have been left unchecked. To be clear, there is a hint of authorial self-awareness in the use of whimsical examples from the “land down under” (figure 4). Yes, dangerous wildlife and skin cancer are problems in Australia, but these are not problems unique to Australia. Furthermore, such problems are certainly not escaped by living in the outdoors culture of sunny South Africa. Furthermore, the negative aspects of living in South Africa are not given nearly as much real estate on the poster (only a small block naming some reasons why South African medical professionals choose to emigrate).

The student in question, of course, only did what was asked of him, and the strategic selecting (and therefore deflecting) of information is part and parcel of any infographic design process. The student was briefed to create an infographic that addresses a particular issue in a South African context, and in his final layout this is exactly what he delivers. In general, there would seem to be nothing clearly misleading in the poster, because it follows the trend of infographics, which is concerned with simplifying the complex. But the rhetoric of infographic aesthetics serves as a shield against critical scrutiny and readers may accept such information without questioning it. The designer wants to justify his own point of view, and by rendering it in supposedly neutral terms ends up concealing his real motivation. Consequently, the rhetoric of neutrality is ultimately reinforced rather than challenged.

The fundamental rhetorical device of the rhetoric of neutrality is uncovered in its “representative” symbolic nature. Synecdoche, “the figure of speech wherein the part is used for the whole, the whole for the part, the container for the thing contained, the cause for the effect, the effect for the cause, etc.,” is the foundation of this rhetoric of neutrality (Burke, The philosophy of literary form 25–26). On synecdoche, Burke notes: “The more I examine both the structure of poetry and the structure of human relations outside of poetry, the more I become convinced that this is the ‘basic’ figure of speech, and that it occurs in many modes besides that of the formal trope” (The philosophy of literary form 26). The positive aspects of synecdoche should not be overlooked, since it certainly enables the specifics of communication to become more universally applicable and more easily accessible. Nevertheless, this is also precisely the limitation of synecdoche: by presenting itself as self-evidently true, it conceals its own ideological location.

This synecdoche may be an example of Tyler’s (26) suggestion that factual information appears to be communicated in an “omniscient voice”; thus, the part not only stands for the whole, but is actually confused with the whole. This “omniscient voice of science” seems to eliminate emotional qualities and present information as truth (Tyler 26). If an artifact appears too subjectively constructed, people will perceive it as biased and therefore unreliable. Nevertheless, our argument is that it is precisely this unreliability that needs to be communicated in order to foster a more honest rhetorical ethos. The rhetoric of neutrality needs to be exposed and demystified. Edward Tufte outlines a variety of ways in which data can be presented in more neutral and unbiased ways. He contends, for example, that visualizations “become more credible if constructed independently of a favored result” (Tufte, Beautiful evidence 29). However, the fact that Tufte, one of the leading authorities on visualization, suggests the possibility of unbiased communication should raise the alarm. All communication design is “infiltrated rhetorically” (Ehses 5). All data is collected, processed and presented for specific purposes, under specific circumstances and ordered in according to subjective preferences (Hall, “Critical visualization” 130). To neglect to notice this is to fall back into the modernist biases out of which visualization practice arose.

Expanding the terministic screen

Bearing all of this in mind, and in accordance with an observation of this problematic perpetuation of the rhetoric of neutrality in the infographic project of 2011, the brief to the students was changed in 2012. Prior to the commencement of the project students also participated in an additional four day workshop on visualization, in which they gained a more in-depth understanding of the medium and its persuasive character. Furthermore, instead of simply asking for a basic information visualization, the project leader encouraged the combination of a more playful, self-reflective process. This is to say that from the outset students were made more aware of their own subjective presence and rhetorical choices. As could be expected, some students fell back on the myth of neutrality, but others found a way to embed their new awareness of the limitations of this genre into their work.

Take, for example, this poster entitled “I cried making this poster” (figure 5). The self-deprecating tone and the self-referential title are already enough to spark a slightly different reading of the communication, even while it seems at first to contain fairly commonplace infographic devices. On closer inspection, the content of the poster presents a kind of auto-critique that draws further attention to the subjective nature of the information on the poster. It is, in Burkean terms, an example of “perspective by incongruity” in that it tries to not simply present something “as it is,” but rather to throw the entire visual artifact into question (Beach 39). It presents the image as a drama that invites participation, rather than as a static picture to be believed or rejected.

Hill explains how ‘perspective by incongruity’ can be seen as a “corrective symbolism derive[d] from an impious appropriation of the problematic symbolism.” The tongue-in-cheek statement about infographics as a medium is thus achieved through the appropriation of the typical visual infographic aesthetic. The power of the piece is found precisely in the fact that we do not immediately recognize the poster as a ‘rip-off’ and only after closer inspection do we notice that we have been tricked. Such is the power of ‘perspective by incongruity’ to jolt one into a more critical frame of mind. It is a poignant response to the objectivist fallacy.

The poster, on the left-hand side, represents a blank canvas, and then tracks the “treachery” and “randomness” involved in arriving at a final concept for the poster design, which reveals the final poster within the very same poster. The design process outlined here is treated as somewhat typical of the experience of the average designer, but the meta-referential content and personal rhetorical choices evident in the visualization seem to undermine this universalization of the particular. The treatment of time here makes for a unique interpretive experience, especially since it implicitly argues that there is a lot about the design process that is invisible to the audience. Its use of chronology is more of a sketch than an exact record; thus, it is more representative of how time is perceived than of how it is measured.

When we read that it takes 50 licks to finish an ice-cream or that the student yawned four times while researching yawning or even that the “power of white space” is precisely nothing (in one example of a subversion of the pie-chart metaphor), we are confronted by a certain ‘dysfunction’ of the infographic. The made-up-ness of the statistics is a glaring reaction against the traditional ‘factual’ data display. Through its symbolic action, this poster could potentially be seen as a manifestation of Burke’s claim that “the aesthetic must serve as anti-mechanization, the corrective of the practical” (Burke in Hill). The impracticality of the infographic, being less objective and ‘useful’ in teaching us something about the world, could thus perhaps be seen as a deliberate ‘corrective’ in a world where objectivity and functionality is valued above all else.

The power of anti (or at least alternatively)-functional design can be linked to Burke’s concept of “anti-instrumental instrumentalism” (Hill). Instrumentalism, a prevailing ethos primarily focused on functionality and efficiency, can be subverted through a type of deliberate anti-functionality. In other words, the way in which this infographic does not function as an infographic should, allows it to become an aesthetic and critical statement about the prevailing and problematic rhetoric of information visualization in general. The above example could thus be framed within a critical design framework. Critical design, as mentioned previously, is an alternative design practice that “evaluates the status quo and relies on design experts to make things that provoke our understanding of the current values people hold. Critical design ‘makes us think’” (Sanders 15). Paula Antonelli’s articulation of critical design furthers an understanding of this intentionality:

The Critical Design process does not immediately lead to useful objects, but rather to food for thought whose usefulness is revealed by its ability to help others prevent and direct future outcomes. The job of critical designers is to be thorns in the side of politicians and industrialists, as well as partners for scientists or consumer advocates, while stimulating discussion and debate about the social, cultural and ethical future implications of decisions about technology made today (Antonelli).

The power of this infographic may arguably be discovered in how we are not compelled to believe the information as being unbiased or somehow flawless. Nevertheless, there is a kind of raw honesty in the image. It resonates with any designer who has battled through the design process, but it does not presume to encapsulate every designer’s experience. To put it differently, it manages to embody the power of synecdoche, but without supplanting the various complexities of context. It represents the universal in the particular without universalizing the particular. This poster, too, is not without its problems, but it represents, in our view, a positive step towards educating our students about the possibility of playing with and thus expanding the terministic screens that guide information design praxis.

We are aware, however, that this example of a counter-statement may simply be another kind of overemphasis that utterly trivializes the medium of the infographic. It may be helpful to counter the modernist biases that govern infographic design praxis, or to at least call such biases into question, but it is certainly problematic to argue that this should be done in the same way as what our second student example demonstrates. Our intention, however, is not to set up another ideological extreme. Instead, it is, as aligned with critical design practice, to present the possibility of calling into question the way that the primary function of infographics and other visualizations are seen. To date, they have been fundamentally understood, as the name so obviously implies, as a means for conveying information. But conveying information is not the same thing as communicating. Relaying data is not synonymous with creating meaning. Thus, while the poster “I cried making this poster” may fail in a number of respects, it gets one thing absolutely right: it implicitly argues that facts are given meaning through a better understanding and appropriation of context.


It is clear, as DiSalvo argues, that “the obscene proliferation of information in our daily lives” leads to a “crisis of meaning” (76). It is for this reasons that we regard information visualization as an area of design practice that could be highly influential in creating greater understanding of complex phenomena and thus something that can also contribute to a better grasp of meaning. However, many contemporary visualizations are too reductionistic to add real value. Indeed, the danger is that such visualizations add to the clutter and thus also to this crisis of meaning. According to Gadney, infographics are useful when simplicity and accessibility is required, but designers often produce “glib infographics when depth is desired.” He further raises his concerns about infographics, becoming a “fashionable stylistic motif in graphic design” instead of being a genuine “tool for communication.” This problem of popular and superficial visualization has led us as educators to reconsider our teaching strategy. Students should not simply go through the motions of placing graphs and charts on a page, but need think more critically about their actions and the medium itself. In Burkean terms, students need to overcome their ‘occupational psychosis’ and ‘trained incapacity,’ the blindness towards the effects of that which they are proficient in, in order to see not only the limited value of information visualization, but also the misleading and harmful potential of the medium.

Our pedagogic approach has thus been shown as aligned with important developments in critical design practice. Although we acknowledge that designers primarily operate within commercial contexts, where they do not always have the freedom to express critical concerns, we believe it is important to include critical design approaches in our curriculum. Dunne and Raby argue that “Critical design, or design that asks carefully crafted questions and makes us think, is just as difficult and just as important as design that solves problems or finds answers” (58). They therefore challenge designers to “move beyond designing for the way things are now and begin to design for how things could be, imagining alternative possibilities and different ways of being, and giving tangible form to new values and priorities” (Dunne and Raby in Antonelli).

A problem remains that we have highlighted only briefly here, namely the fact that visualizations are often assumed to reflect reality without properly acknowledging the fact that they have a selective and deflective function as well. Hall believes that the most valuable effect of considering a design object as a rhetorical argument is that it “allows us to look under the hood and consider it not as an inevitable or neutral invention but as something that embodies a point of view” (Hall, “A good argument”). However, it is our contention that ethical design itself could contain clues that draw attention to its own rhetorical nature. By representing the illusion of objectivity that is known as the rhetoric of neutrality, visualization often carries with it a highly problematic ethos in that it discourages other ways of interrogating this terministic screen. Thus, we have attempted to argue briefly for introducing a kind of auto-critique into the visual text, as an instance of Burke’s ‘perspective by incongruity.’ Such auto-critique may not necessary appear in the final visual text, but its presence should be somewhat implicit in the process that leads to the creation of that text. Auto-critique must, of course, be preceded by a particular kind of attitude. The attitude of the designer is an “incipient act” that informs the possibilities of what any designed communication can achieve (Burke in Beach 66). It allows for an opening up of meaning, rather than a closing down; and, most importantly for our purposes here, it offers a challenge to and the expansion of a particular kind of terministic screen. Critical design, as a current approach used in design pedagogy, deliberately attempts to create ‘perspective by incongruity’ and can ultimately be seen as aligned with Burke’s goal to “keep us reasoning as equitably and democratically as possible so that when we judge, we have done our utmost to avoid personal and cultural dogmatisms” (Hildebrand 643).

* The authors wish to thank Nick Hlozek for leading the information visualization projects analyzed in this paper, as well as the University of Pretoria’s third year Information Design students of 2011 and 2012 for their hard work and creativity.

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“You’re Not Going to Try and Change My Mind?” The Dynamics of Identification in Aronofsky’s Black Swan

Yakut Oktay, Bogazici University (Istanbul, Turkey)

“ . . . where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we should come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world” (Campbell 23).

KENNETH BURKE HAS INTRODUCED THE NOTION OF “IDENTIFICATION” into what the Aristotelian approach to rhetoric entails, namely “persuasion,” which provided modern criticism with a wider scope while, ironically, taking a step “back into the world of particulars” from the generalised ultimate (Burke, “Rhetoric” 204). The flexibility identification has created within rhetoric enables it to expand into elements beyond language. As Burke states in “Rhetoric—Old and New,” “Aristotle treated rhetoric as purely verbal. But there are also areas of overlap” (Burke 205).

The Burkeian treatment of rhetoric thus forms the terminus a quo for this article. It will delve into the movie Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky, to analyze how the rhetoric of ballet is used as a tool for shaping, and interrupting, the journey of the hero. The movie follows its main character Nina, who is dangerously obsessed with becoming the perfect swan for the new production of Swan Lake, which requires the principal dancer to embody both the White and the Black swans. Through her struggle with identification, this article will try to pinpoint these instances by utilizing the theory of the monomyth, propounded by Joseph Campbell. As the monomyth—or in everyday terms, the Hero’s Journey—follows a rather chronological pattern, by means of which the manifold checkpoints each hero passes throughout a story are noted, I will shape the argument within its boundaries. For the sake of keeping visual integrity, the paper will mostly take the screened version into consideration. As for the ending of the movie, although there exist clashing interpretations of the character’s fate, this article assumes that, as a result of the final act, the main character dies.

As a major area of overlap in rhetoric, and the centerpiece of the movie Black Swan, I would offer ballet as a second-, or rather, third-nature form of art. In Burke’s words, “Human beings have created a new set of expectations, shaped with the norms, to break away from sheer animality. This has become a ‘second nature’ to us; even more natural than the original from time to time” (Burke, Language as Symbolic Action 13). Within this context, the understanding of second nature includes the common social structures, such as language and basic aesthetic expectations that appear as a challenge to natural inclinations—yet stays within performative limitations. Therefore, in comparison to what Burke initially describes as the second nature human beings have adopted, an art form like ballet that has been established within these very structures, and has developed its own norms and aesthetic which takes expression a step further into particularity, may arguably become the third nature. Under the well-established and ever-improving symbolic structures, ballet facilitates such sub-symbolicity, a strict sub-structure with alternative standards for rhetoric.

However, in order for a minority of human beings to be able to specialize in this area, a persuasion process of the body into the standards of ballet, which push the limits of what is remnant of the “first nature”—the unstructured, uninterrupted inclinations that are granted by evolution and not society or an institution—must take place. This persuasion is expected to keep the body away from the sheer natural, so much so that the further the dancer can bend her body the better the performance. In Basic Principles of Classical Ballet: The Russian Ballet Technique, for instance, Agrippina Vaganova emphasizes this aspect multiple times when she states that “it is necessary to begin a struggle with nature” in the case of bending the Achilles tendon, or describes the turn-out as “the faculty of turning out the knee to a much greater extent than is made possible by nature,” and provides guidance on how “to bring [the arm] into an obedient . . . state” (18, 24, 45).

Darren Aronofsky takes up on this state of obedience in Black Swan, and merges it with the identification process going on at the backstage, which will be discussed subsequently. The film has a documentary-like quality in terms of exhibiting the technical aspects of the art, which is also emphasized by the editor, Andy Weisblum, during the “Making Of” interviews. This style especially dominates the beginning, such as the scene where the audience follows Nina’s morning flexion ritual. The short interval between the dream and the daily preparation sets the primal contrast between on- and off-stage; the graceful en pointe Nina dreams about turns into disturbing cracks of her neck and toes off-stage (Black Swan).

These two sequences generate our first impression of Nina; she is presented as a childish girl who giggles at an inside joke with her mother on “how pink! [and] So pretty” a grapefruit is (Black Swan). The same sequences also provide the first hints of Nina’s perspective on her “occupation”: having dreams about the ultimate role she thinks she can get, and her structured and disciplined manner of stretching before starting her day pave the way to what Debra Hawhee mentions as “passionate blindness,” which “also names a sort of obsessive overfocusing” (99).

On another note, in the same scene, the mother, Erica, is introduced as the first authority figure. Her attitude suggests that she is determined to keep Nina the way she was before puberty; she is overprotective, and from what is heard in most of her dialogues with Nina throughout the film, she makes her daughter nervous, both in terms of her performance and her identity. Within the boundaries of the house, Erica displays and fulfills the role of the caring and benign mother, until she transforms into “the hampering, forbidding, punishing mother” when confronted (Campbell 102).

The confrontation against the mother figure is enabled through creating two main realms in the film to which Nina is shown to belong: that of her house and the ballet company. These two realms, although the boundaries blur as the film proceeds, acquire the context of off- and on-stage for Nina. The house presents the audience the background for the impression Nina gives, whereas the company is where she is required to assert her identity, and when necessary, change it (Goffman 17-76).

The audience is not introduced to the identificatory aspect of the occupation until the Call for Adventure is revealed, namely, the announcement of a new Swan Lake production. Up to this point, the way the dancers are presented in the movie is exactly what Burke despises in American ballet, which he deems to have lost its magic; instead of allowing the body to feel the music, and adapt its movements to it, thus creating a “self,” American ballet “has been made, machinelike, through continual repetition of habituated practice” (qtd. in Hawhee 42). Although it is a part of the daily practice for modern day ballet companies, the extremely harmonized, well-monitored (the mistress retouching the smallest difference of each dancer) exercise is depraved of the Burkeian expectation of magic from dance.

It is during this scene that a second authority figure appears: Thomas the ballet director, who comes up with the fresh and revolutionary idea for the new production, and who is ironically non-American. Throughout the film, both Erica and Thomas struggle to influence the direction Nina will take. In terms of the Hero’s Journey, both act as the mentor; however, after Nina is chosen for the embodiment of both Swans, the two mentors take their roles on “the true-or-false basis”; Erica trying to conserve Nina within the White Swan, and Thomas trying to turn the “beautiful, fearful, fragile” girl into the Black (Burke, On Symbols and Society 90; Black Swan).

The appearance of multiple mentors, and multiple modes of rhetoric, twists the mono-myth from the beginning, shaking the very ground from which the hero has to set out. The disruption is deepened when the main conflict is hinted: the announcement of an audition for the title role—again, with a twist. The Call for Adventure brings not one, but two roads for Nina to take: two parallel journeys that need to be taken simultaneously, with only one body to spare.

The Call for Adventure also brings forth the second aspect of the rhetoric of ballet, which includes the “appropriation of and commitment to a particular identity or a series of identities” (Foote 17). The multiplied processes of identification and transformation Nina goes through build the spine of the film, and the audience is subjected to numerous modes of identification within the multiplicity of personalities.

The first instance would be the scene where Nina watches Beth throwing a tantrum over her “forced” retirement, and sneaks into her room after she smashes the door and leaves. This action puts the audience out of their comfort zone as it creates a contrast with the fragile character we met at the beginning. The uneasiness continues as Nina steals the lipstick that belongs to Beth. Moreover, with the sound that implies some “spirit” in the lipstick, the objective correlative, “[the object] which shall be the formula of [a] particular emotion” is identified (Black Swan; Eliot 3). Nina is a ballet dancer, and as she is not trained in the art of verbal rhetoric, therefore she uses materials—such as the lipstick—and her bodily features for identification and persuasion. As Burke expresses:

. . . in mediating between the social realm and the realm of nonverbal nature, words communicate to things the spirit that the society imposes upon the words which have come to be the “names” for them. The things are in effect the visible tangible material embodiments of the spirit that infuses them through the medium of words. And in this sense, things become the signs of the genius that resides in words. The things of nature, as so conceived, become a vast pageantry of social-verbal masques and costumes and guild-like mysteries, not just a world of sheer natural objects, but a parade of spirits. (Burke, Language as Symbolic Action 362)

With the help of the lipstick, Nina nonverbally utters her attempt to identify with Beth, the principal dancer in the company. She puts the attempt into action as she wears the very lipstick, “dolls up,” and visits Thomas’ office. It is hard for Thomas not to notice the difference, acquainted with Nina’s stiffness, so he works on this light of change in her. His words “You’re not going to try and change my mind? You must have thought it was possible” openly state a demand towards a strong rhetoric on Nina’s side; verbal or nonverbal. He provokes her for a “means of persuasion available for [the] given situation” (Black Swan; Schwartz 211). Thomas suddenly kissing Nina is his second attempt against the “Beth effect,” which triggers Nina’s identification in turn, and causes the biting reflex. We understand that the persuasion is successful as soon as Nina is chosen for the role.

“Yet a persuasion that succeeds, dies: an indefinite courtship which feeds on estrangement and reconciliation is a felt necessity: there is, in other words, a continuing need of interference, a need to discover new modes of transcendence through cultivated division and innovative re-identifications” (Meadows 85). Consumed for the succession to the role, the “Beth effect” dies; Beth’s retirement is officially announced, followed by the traffic accident that ends her career forever. As a result, Nina sets out to look for the innovation, which comes in the form of Lily, the new dancer from San Francisco.

While the identification with Beth has connotations of “deliberate design,” an action taken purposefully and with consequences in mind, the process of identification with Lily is only triggered by the comment Thomas makes during the scene where Nina watches her dance from a distance, and therefore “includes a partially ‘unconscious’ factor in appeal” (Black Swan; Burke, “Rhetoric” 203). “As a process, [identification] proceeds by naming; its products are ever-evolving self-conceptions—with the emphasis on the con-, that is, upon ratification by significant others” (Foote 17). While watching Lily, Thomas does not hide that she would make a better Black Swan, and provides Nina with the guidelines: “imprecise, but effortless,” the opposite of what Nina does, for she is often told by the mistress to “relax.”

“Burke discusses a second process of identification, that of association, which roughly corresponds to Freud’s mechanism of displacement by which one element of dream comes to stand for another” (Wright 1-2). Although Nina seems annoyed by the newcomer and imperfect Lily, unconsciously she is drawn to the contrast. Lily becomes the displacement for, or association with, Black Swan in Nina’s perspective, and with this qualification in mind, she tries to identify with her. This contrast between the two characters, and the Swans that they come to represent, is also emphasized with the color code determined by the costumes department for the movie. While Nina constantly wears shades of white, light grey and light pink, Lily is characterized with dark grey and black. Nina’s identification, therefore, can be tracked via this code; as she comes closer to uniting with the Black Swan, her clothes take darker hues.

The objective correlative that sets a turning point for Nina is the tank top Lily lends her during their night out. Not only is this the first instance Nina is seen in black, but also the tank top being a possession of Lily, the scene implies a foregone conclusion. With the help of a drugged drink, Nina finally “relaxes,” and blends in. Afterwards, as the two Swans enter Nina’s house, the image that is seen in the mirror is confusing; we wonder where Nina ends and Lily begins (Black Swan). And when Nina’s reply to her mother’s question is completed by Lily—yet in Nina’s voice—ambiguity takes over; the parallelism of the two journeys gets blurred. However, Burke argues that

it is in the areas of ambiguity that transformations take place; in fact, without such areas, transformation would be impossible . . . A may become non-A. But not merely by a leap from one state to the other. Rather, we must take A back into the ground of its existence, the logical substance that is its causal ancestor, and on to a point where it is consubstantial with non-A; then we may return, this time emerging with non-A instead. (Burke, On Symbols and Society 142-143)

It is the sequent sex scene that marks the transition of identities. By projecting her identity onto an imaginary Lily, Nina manages to be consubstantial with her, or the Black Swan, in one body through the intercourse, which is also emphasized with the tattoo on Lily’s back changing from a couple of flowers to a set of black wings before her face changing into Nina’s.

The end of this scene clarifies the second step of Nina’s identification with Lily: the process of becoming her. In the Burkeian sense, the dynamic process of becoming is “the basis for growth as the self moves toward a unity of being” (Ambrester 206). However, within the context of this movie, the unity of being is in contradiction with the requirements of the role the heroine accepts. While the identities begin to merge in Nina’s body, one of the ends she has set out for is interrupted. Erica’s rhetoric is eliminated, and The White Swan, or the pure and virginal heroine, that is supposed to be kept intact in the process of acquiring the Black slowly breaks away, erasing one of the journeys. The story proceeds in a way that allows Nina only to transform into the Black Swan, or only to “lose control.” This process of losing the self is indicated through a physical metamorphosis, which is finalized with the full self-loss in Nina’s performance as the Black Swan.

Nina’s struggle to lose control to become the Black Swan is initiated through the Thomas’ rhetoric, who offers an alternative mode of perfection, which is an end Nina strives to achieve, and which she expresses multiple times throughout the film. As the film proceeds, and the audience are better acquainted with the authority figures, or the mentors, it is possible to examine how the rhetoric of each shapes Nina’s outlook on perfection, and triggers the passionate blindness. While the idea of perfection Nina has grown up with is parallel with strictness and technique like her mother advocates, Thomas’ declaration is that perfection is about letting go, like Lily does when she dances. As a result, the words “becoming” or “identification” and “perfection” come to acquire similar meanings as the story approaches to the final performance, or in the context of the journey, the apotheosis.

As Nina is back in the arts center for the premiere, and prepares for the first act as the White Swan, her identification with her virginal, pure self, is not successful, which is hinted at her sharp-tongued reply to Thomas: “After Beth, do you really need another controversy?” While she manages to perform until the end, as she sees Lily, and by default, projects her identity onto her, “the doubt of identity creeps in,” and her “action is paralyzed,” for “only full commitment to one’s identity permits a full picture of motivation” (Foote 18). Nina’s doubt eventually affects her passage into the third-nature, and as her technique fails, so does the rhetoric of the White Swan. Nina loses her balance, and falls from the arms of the male dancer, disrupting the persuasion of the audience.

The scene where Nina returns to her room to get ready for the Black Swan performance is where the “projected” and the “internalized” identities clash. Nina sees Lily in the Black Swan dress, and after a brief struggle, kills the imaginary Lily—or the Double, as referred in the screenplay—spitting that “it is [her] turn,” signifying that the identification with Black Swan is no more through the association with Lily. As Burke states, the aim of perfection “shows in the tendency to search out people who, for one reason or another, can be viewed as perfect villains, perfect enemies, and thus, if possible, can become perfect victims of retaliation,” and in Nina’s perspective, the perfect enemy, Lily, is eliminated (Burke, Language as Symbolic Action 39).

An imagery of slaying (slaying of either the self or another) [however] is to be considered merely as a special case of identification in general. Or otherwise put: the imagery of slaying is a special case of transformation, and transformation involves the ideas and imagery of identification.

Thus Nina completes her transformation into the Black Swan. However, to use Coleridge’s words, the “Victorious Murder,” indeed, proves a “blind Suicide” (qtd in Burke, “The Imagery of Killing” 159).

Burke equates the rhetoric that aims at perfection with the Aristotelian notion entelechy, and defines the imagery of death as the narrative equivalent of entelechy. As Nina finds out that the imaginary person she stabbed is, in fact, her own body, she proceeds to the apotheosis stage, which enables the hero to perceive the world in a completely different manner, and through his move towards a “mind that has transcended the pairs of opposites,” towards a divine bliss (Campbell 140). Nina, who was up to that point directed by the mentors, and lacked “experiential confirmation,” lives through both Swans, and by sharing the same fate as the White Swan, is able to identify with her once more, for the last time (Foote 19). The childish Nina in the beginning, and the vicious Nina she transforms into, are immolated by Nina herself, and as a successful persuader, she accepts a literal death, which is visualized during the last make-up scene, and is finalized as Thomas calls her “his little princess” like he called Beth upon the announcement of her retirement.

Nina’s death interrupts the Hero’s Journey altogether, for the third stage, or the Return, is never attained. According to Campbell, death is an integral part of the hero’s journey; however,

the individual, through prolonged psychological disciplines, gives up completely all attachment to his personal limitations, idiosyncrasies, hopes and fears, no longer resists the self-annihilation that is prerequisite to rebirth in the realization of truth, and so becomes ripe (220).

Throughout his argument, Campbell emphasizes a metaphorical death, a threshold passing, which can be symbolized with physical death in a myth, but cannot be realized in other realms. Therefore, the process, the last checkpoint on the full circle, is interrupted by Nina’s physical death, which does not entail a physical rebirth.

In conclusion, Black Swan is a visual tragic poem, which presents Burkeian identification in multiple layers. It utilities this aspect to create the spine of the movie, by multiplying the terms of identification that the heroine is expected to adopt and adapt, and therefore seeding a question regarding the potential practicability of the theory: indeed, identification is required to persuade the observer by creating the right impression, but how can the performer maintain mental integrity throughout multiple terms of expression (Goffman)? On its endeavor to set the question, and offer an answer—a negative one, the film thus takes a different road in terms of the Hero’s Journey, and establishes a journey that divides into two paths, with two mentors that support these different paths, and a heroine that needs to take both paths at the same time, which in turn creates a multiplicity of identities, and eventually, the death of the body through the clash of those very identities. In terms of the tragic mechanism, on the other hand, the film achieves the tragic lyric attitude Poe expresses, which is quoted by Burke: “The death, then, of a beautiful woman is, the most poetical topic in the world” (Burke, Language as Symbolic Action 39). The rhetoric, in this story, proves to be the crucial equipment for this death.


1. The term, and later in the paper, its counterpart “impression,” is used within the context of Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday, 1959. Print.

Works Cited

Ambrester, Roy. “Identification Within: Kenneth Burke’s View of the Unconscious.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 7.4 (1974): 205–16.

Black Swan. Dir. Darren Aronofsky. 2010. DVD.

Burke, Kenneth. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1966. Print.

—. On Symbols and Society. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. Print.

—. “Rhetoric—Old and New.” Journal of General Education 5.3 (1951): 202–09. Print.

—. “The Imagery of Killing.” The Hudson Review 1.2 (1948): 151–67. Print

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton UP, 2004. Print.

Eliot, Thomas Stearns. “Hamlet and His Problems.”The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921. 87-94. Print

Foote, Nelson N. “Identification as the Basis for a Theory of Motivation.” American Sociological Review 16.1 (1951): 14–21. Print.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1959. Print.

Meadows, Paul. “The Semiotic of Kenneth Burke.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 18.1 (1957): 80–87. Print.

Schwartz, Joseph. “Kenneth Burke, Aristotle, and the Future of Rhetoric.” College Composition and Communication 17.5 (1966): 210–16.

Vaganova, Agrippina. Basic Principles of Classic Ballet: Russian Ballet Technique. Trans. Anatole Chujoy. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1969. Print.

Wright, Mark H. “Burkeian and Freudian Theories of Identification.” Communication Quarterly 42.3 (1994): 301–11.

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Who Are You Working For? How 24 Served as Post-9/11 Equipment for Living

Laura Herrman, Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen (Stuttgart, Germany)

JACK BAUER IS BACK—in May 2014, the Fox Broadcasting Company returned its groundbreaking television series 24 to international TV screens. Once more, CTU-Agent Jack Bauer faced ticking time bomb scenarios in which he had to conquer assassination attempts and terrorist attacks. Also, once more, viewers were tied to their screens when the real and hyper-real of reality and film will collapse (Weber 3).

For the past eight seasons, which aired between 2001 and 2010, 24 has been an interesting show to watch, analyze, and engage in. Jermyn, Allen and Mikos have pointed out 24’s stylistic inventions of split-screens; others (e.g., Furby and Mikos have analyzed the show’s real-time format; which altogether may represent reasons for why 24 may be such a groundbreaking television show). However, one may also consider it that way for its depiction of a post-9/11 society, its war on terrorism and the current political climate:

While season 1 aired only days after the 9/11-attacks, 24’s following seven seasons purposefully anticipated a reflection of pressing public issues. Whether these regarded society’s fear of biochemical weapons, nuclear attacks, and uncontrollable terrorist activity, all plots circulated around the overarching question of how to deal with the aftermath of 9/11. In this regard, “ground-breaking” may also be the new, realistic turn 24 took on our typical narratives of unity, bravery, and hero-figures in the context of a “war on terror”: while it occasionally allowed its characters to heroically survive or rescue their friends and family, all too often worst-case scenarios could not be averted, main-characters, their friends, and family died, and our fears were realized (Cavelos 7).

“Put simply,” Peacock concludes, “24 is a cultural phenomenon” (5). It certainly had its finger on the pulse of a post-9/11 era. Portraying a new and “global sense of uncertainty and suspicion with its provocative depiction of America’s role on the world stage and of terrorists activity and political double-dealing” (Peacock) to more than 100 Million viewers worldwide (Aitkenhead, “One hour with Kiefer Southerland”), the show communicated to its viewers “the very sense that American politicians . . . have been insisting upon and repeating ceaselessly . . . :  9/11 changed everything” (Caldwell and Chambers 97f.). Simultaneously though, it appears that 24 did not only reflect a post-9/11 discourse on how the world had changed, but also created a discourse anew, making it impossible to escape political reality for the matter of simple enjoyment, as Weber notes: “In the weeks after the terrorist attacks, US movie-goers who may . . . have been craving an escape from the realities of war and a return to normalcy all too often found themselves caught up in national debates about the status of the war on terror.” (3)

It might not seem surprising, that the show provoked intense reactions and fierce, moral criticism. National and international media reception evolved from questions as to whether or not the show was pro-torture (Aitkenhead, “One Hour with”; Dana, “Reinventing 24”; Mendelson, “Zero Dark Thirty Doesn’t Endorse Torture, and Neither Did 24”), or contained anti-Muslim propaganda (O’Brien “24 writers urged to be careful of portrayal of Muslims“). Nelson and Fournier even argued that the show was arguing according to the logic of the Bush Administration. And scholars such as Woolf, Herbert, or McCabe have pointed out that 24 was deliberating American values and narratives in the context of its “war on terrorism.” It seemed that fiction and reality did not only collapse within the series’ plot, but suddenly also outside the show, as public controversies at some point demanded of the show’s producers to respond to public debates of what can, should and shouldn’t be done for the sake of the country and against terror (Aitkenhead, “One hour”). In this regard, Times-author James Poniewozik (“The Evolution of Jack Bauer”) may have put a point to these discussions asking: “Is 24 just a TV show or right-wing propaganda? Or, to turn Jack Bauer’s frequent refrain on him: Who are you working for?“

However, some scholarship has taken a different turn on answering this question. In her psychological analysis, Jeanne Cavelos’ considered 24 a “coping-mechanism” (7) for post-9/11 trauma. This paper would like to elaborate her idea from the rhetorical perspective of Burke: Presenting to us our trauma on screen, how might have 24 helped us to cope, “gain some measure of confidence, some sense of control” (Cavelos 6)? Thus, I’d like to propose the idea to consider 24 piece of “literature as equipment for living.” As such, I’d like to think about how 24 might have actually worked for us, as we used and interpreted the show “so that we might equip ourselves to live better lives” (Blakesley 50) in an ever changed post-9/11 situation.

Burke’s concept of “literature as equipment for living“ describes one of the major functions of literature to provide “strategies” (“Literature as Equipment for Living” 296)—which Burke also calls “attitudes” ("Literature" 297)—for naming and dealing with situations in our real life. By literature, Burke means any piece of “imaginative cast” (Burke, Literature 1), that “singles out a pattern of experience that is sufficiently representative of our social structure, that recurs sufficiently often mutandis mutatis, for people to ‘need a word for it’ and to adopt an attitude towards it” (Philosophy of Literary Form 300).

As such, works of art are “answers to questions posed by the situation in which they arise. They are not merely answers, they are stylized answers” (Burke, The Philosophy 1) to a hitherto unknown situation: “Men seek for vocabularies that will be faithful reflections of reality. To this end, they must develop vocabularies that are selections of reality. And any selection of reality must, in certain circumstances, function as a deflection of reality” (Grammar of Motives 59).

One may say, that 9/11 marked the beginning of such a new situation. After the attacks, Cavelos notes, society “gained a new and immediate fear” (3); one that can’t be successfully countered, as there where no clear enemies, no clear home fronts, and no clear boundaries between any two terms (Weber 152). As the world had changed, so had the way society had thought of itself and of its world:

many people, prior to a trauma, hold four core beliefs: ‘The belief that the world is benign, that the world is meaningful, that the self is worthy, and that people are trustworthy’ [Epsetin qtd. in Foa]. In many of us, these core beliefs were shaken by the trauma of September 11. The world certainly no longer seems benign, . . . , the world no longer seems meaningful. While the self may still seem worthy, others may be viewed with suspicion or fear (Cavelos 14).

The attacks had violated an old belief in safety and invulnerability (Cavelos 4); as such, the effects were not limited to American society. In the aftermath of the attacks, people all over the world needed to understand what just had happened, what just had changed, and how whatever had changed might have an effect on them, too. In the wake of a new era of international terrorism, they all had to not only reflect on a new concept of a possible ‘other,’ but also on concepts of self, that is, on concepts of identity.

According to Burke, “identity would here be its uniqueness as an entity in itself and by itself, a demarcated unit having its own particular structure” (Rhetoric of Motives 21). However, society’s particular structure was deeply questioned in the aftermath of the attacks. 9/11 demanded of all of us to seek a new framing and new vocabularies that would be “faithful reflections” (Burke, Grammar 59) of an ever-changed reality in order to deal with the aftermath of the attacks, nationally and internationally. Post-9/11 society was confronted with multiple questions about “who we think we were/are . . . , who we’d never been; who we really are, and who we might become” (Weber 5): What can, should, and shouldn’t we do in order to impede future attacks? Do we endorse torture (Mendelson, “Zero Dark Thirty”)? Who do we consider friends, strangers and enemies (O’Brien, “24 writers“)? And what do the answers to these questions tell us about ourselves, our identity? What did it mean to be a citizen before 9/11, and what would it mean to be one after, be it individually, nationally and internationally? As Weber notes, this kind of deliberation “wasn’t just about what we ought to do in response to 9/11; it was about who we are—about how our responses to 9/11 morally configure us” (Weber 4).

In the wake of this new situation, Burke considers rhetoric coming into being, as it “is par excellence the region of the Scramble“ (Burke, Rhetoric 19). As we know from Burke, rhetoric in his understanding aims for identification. Considering the state of a post-9/11 society an identificational crisis, Burke would prefer to name this kind of crisis “ambiguity.” That’s what he’d consider the state of mind where you put “identification and division ambiguously together so that you cannot know for certain just where one ends and the other begins, and you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric” (Rhetoric 25). As identification is key to persuasion, and aims for consubstantiality, it best describes the creation of social relations: “A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself with B even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded to believe so” (Burke, Rhetoric 20). The relationship between rhetoric and identification works according to a sine-qua-non-formula: “If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity” (Rhetoric 22).

However, by arguing that 24 served as equipment for living, this paper does not mean to eliminate ambiguity, “but to clearly reveal the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise” (Burke, Grammar xviii). In doing so, it will employ Burke’s dramatism in its analysis.

In this context, dramatism is considered especially helpful as it is employed as the analytic lens, that allows studying literature a symbolical adaption to a specific situation (Burke, Literature 299) in which a type of equipment for adapting shared, lived experience occurs (Blakesley 50). More importantly, it is a helpful resource to link identification to the concept of equipment for living, since one concept could not work without the other.

Furthermore, focusing on five key pentadic elements, dramatism does not only provides a clear procedure to points of departure “for human motivation in complex situations” (Blakesley 97), but may also serve as guiding orientation itself in an identificational crisis. Taking the pentadic ratios into account, we will consider clusters of “equipment for living”:

We will begin by looking at the scene and act, which according to Burke are “at the very center of motivational assumptions” (Grammar 11). We’ll consider their ratio, as the scene can be considered a “fit ‘container’” (Grammar 3) for the act; and vice versa, “we learn of a scene, or situation, . . . central to its motivation (Burke, Grammar 4). As the scene—realistically or symbolically—reflects the course of action, it furthermore “contains implicitly all that the narrative is to draw out as a sequence explicitly (Grammar 7). As I will try to show by analyzing the scene-act ratio of 24, the stage-set contains the action ambiguously. It presents to us an ideal-projection of how we’d like to deal with exceptional situations, yet, might fail to do so. As I will show in the course of the scene, the initial ambiguity of “who we think we” are (and who we are not) will be “converted into a corresponding articulacy” (Grammar 7). Thus, this ratio analysis is summed up as “who we think we are.”

Considering the scene a “motive-force” (Grammar 9) behind characters, the analysis will then proceed with considering the agent contained in the scene. In doing so, it builds up on the “correlation between the quality of a country and the quality of its inhabitants” (Burke, Grammar 8) in the containing scene and act 24 presents to us. In this regard, I’ll try to trace references to self and personal responsibility (Griffin 331f.) made by the agent, summing up this cluster under the heading of “who we really are“.

Lastly, the analysis will consider agency and purpose. Both have a certain overlap with the first cluster; so does for example agency, if we consider the scene pragmatically “not as a way of life, or act of being, but as a means of doing” (Grammar 15). Thus, agency may bear traces of the agent’s mindset of pragmatism. Correspondingly, an analysis of purpose may uncover “common concerns” (Griffin 331f.) 24 presents to us. However, grounded in scene and act, agency and purpose will be presented to us ambiguously, which is why they are summed up as a cluster of “who we might become.”

Altogether, the three clusters of “who we think we are,” “who we really are,” and “who we might become” aim to uncover the identificational ambiguities that arose in the aftermath of September 11. They reveal the attitudes and facets of identification 24 presented to us, which lastly offer “equipment for living” to a post-9/11 society.

In order to reduce the large amount of data record of eight seasons, the analysis will focus on season 2 (aired 2003) to season 7 (aired 2009). As season 1 was written and directed well before the attacks in New York and Washington D.C., season 2 truly marks “the first post-9/11 representation of counter-terrorism on the show” (Caldwell and Chambers 97). Aligned closely along the actual political discourse, it deals with a nuclear threat to Los Angeles by terrorists from the Middle East. Season 7 marks an important turn within the show. Following the political development of reality, it is a critical assessment of what has been done in the “war on terror,” which can be thought of according to the lines of Burke’s question: “What is involved, when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it?“ (Burke, Grammar xv). The opening of the season presents to us an interesting meta-perspective, as Jack Bauer interprets his interpretation of his “war on terror” while on trial for the alleged crimes he committed working for the CTU.

All We Are—Pentadic Analysis of 24

Who we think we are—exceptional victims in exceptional times


In each season of 24, the setting functions as the plot’s and character’s drive. It is a means to “size up” (Burke, Literature 298) and dramatize the situation of a post-9/11 society that faces the permanent threat of terrorism. It presents this threat to its viewers in all “detail and horror” (Cavelos 7), placing a ubiquitous sense of urgency and constant danger into every detail of the show. In doing so, the scene of 24 anticipates an actual existing logical pattern: The metaphoric ‘war on terrorism’ was not only a set of actual practices, but also a set of accompanying assumptions, beliefs, justifications, narratives, and thus, an entire language or discourse (Jackson 8).

After 9/11, President Bush insisted on treating the attacks “not as criminal acts but as acts of war” (Caldwell and Chambers 101). Accordingly, he created a discourse of exceptionality to the attacks, as well the victims (Jackson 33), and inferred that exceptional acts “require for their response exceptional measures” (Caldwell and Chambers 101).

Following the wake of a ‘changed world,’ circumstances in 24 realistically anticipates this pattern of a status of exception. Within the show this status is referred to as “a situation” (Day 2: 8:00 A.M.—9:00 A.M.), “national crisis” (Day 2: 6:00 A.M.—7:00 A.M) or “security issue” (Day 7: 8:00 A.M—9:00 A.M.) to which countdown and worst-case scenarios are inherent.

Also, the scene is introduced to us as a current and global setting; switching from a bird’s eye perspective on Seoul, South Korea, to the US-west coast of -16 hrs. at Midnight, then turning to a very specific place at Lake Oswego in Oregon, and from thereon to the CTU headquarter in Los Angeles (Day 2: 8:00 A.M.—9:00 A.M.). At a first glance, this headquarter functions as central base for communication between institutions, and as technological, strategic, and informative back-up for protagonist Jack Bauer, who will be operating mostly outside the CTU. Moreover, the CTU symbolically morphs into the center of action, the center at which decisions are made, and from where the state of exception is called into action by CTU Chief George Mason:

Alright, heads up ( . . . ). It appears there is a nuclear bomb under terrorist control somewhere here in Los Angeles and it’s set to go off sometime of the day. So from this moment on we do not communicate with anybody outside of our secured envelope. That means we do not call home, we don’t talk to friends, we do not call relatives. Our job is to find this device and stop it. We do not want to create panic. I know this is not very pleasant, but this is our job. This is what we do. So let’s do it. (Day 2: 8:00 A.M.—9:00 A.M.)

At first, the state of exception is portrayed as a nightmare coming true, as “a rare and exceptional event that ( . . . ) interrupts standard order” (Caldwell and Chambers 98). However, through Mason’s call for protocol-procedure, it then transcends into standard order. The exception becomes “regularized” (Caldwell and Chambers 98), the response to it seems “rational and reasonable” (Jackson 2). As such, the CTU does not only set the stage for its narrative. Furthermore, it symbolically functions as interception of personal and political attitudes in the wake of a terrorist threat. It sizes up the situation of a terrorist threat changing everything, and calls our attention to strategies of what can, should, and shouldn’t be done in the wake of these threats. Hereto, the audience is closely engaged in through the camera’s perspective. As the department heads group around Mason, shots vary between medium and extreme close-ups, capturing a view over team members shoulders, from behind their heads, or from the side. It is a scene of what Mikos (192) calls “primary identification” (\primäre Identifikation), were the camera’s view becomes consubstantial with the audience’s view. Inviting us to become a team member, 24’s scene provides a notion that there are things more important than our fear and our lives; that is, the safety of our country, and / or “maintaining our integrity” (Cavelos 13). Identification with such strong attitudes in this scene offers to us an idea how we might do better in coping with our fear and trauma, offering to us some “confidence and hope” (Cavelos 13). As such, the plot anticipates a facet of identity of “who we’d like to be”: While 24 exposes us to our greatest fears, it represents the dream of this fear being “manageable” (Cavelos 7). Thus, it provides equipment for living with increased feeling of fear and helplessness in the context of terrorist threats.


However, the notion of a state of exception is also taken to another extreme: In the context of 24, consideringthe act directs our intention towards act-ual incorporation of exceptions and extremes within the state of exception: “Willful acts of terrorism are thought to evoke the most severe reactions” (Cavelos 3). Hence, the show spins the logic of a state of exception to its very end. 24’s President David Palmer for example argues that his choice of kidnapping a journalist and torturing a staff member “may have been extreme, but I was only responding to the extremity of today’s events” (Day 2: 4:00 A.M.—5:00 A.M.).

This extremity furthermore accumulates in a constant atmosphere of suspicion, which anticipates the sense of society’s vulnerability: Jack Bauer can’t trust his closest colleagues (Day 2: 8:00 A.M.—9:00 A.M.), and friends (Day 7: 08:00 A.M.—09:00 A.M.); President Palmer faces conspiracy (Day 2: 8:00 A.M.—9:00 A.M.; Day 7: 08:00 A.M.—09:00 A.M.), there are moles in governmental institutions (Day 7: 09:00 A.M.—10:00 A.M.). Furthermore, twists and plot points highly involve the audience. Along with the characters, we constantly need to question identities and challenge loyalties. The extremer the situation becomes, the more we need to contest the course of action, as all too often, these actions are staged as “collateral damage” (Day 2: 11:00 A.M.—12:00 P.M.). The early facet of “who we think we are” is challenged, which shall be illustrated in another example.

In season 2, President Palmer is informed that Bauer threatens to kill the two sons of terrorist Sayed Ali. In an extreme-close-up, we capture the stunned and grave look on his face, as he asks: “Can we let this happen? . . . How could it have come to this?” (Day 2: 07:00 P.M.—08:00 P.M.) The state of exception has outruled the former notion of a manageable standard protocol, and worse; it has become a permanent situation. While every character tries to follow a notion of what should be done in ‘the war on terror,’ they fail to do so, and begin drifting along the lines of what shouldn’t be done: We witness how they harm themselves (Day 2: 9:00 A.M.—10:00 A.M.), loose important witnesses (Day 2: 10:00 A.M.—11:00 A.M.; Day 7: 08:00 A.M.—09:00 A.M.), sacrifice other’s (Day 2: 11:00 A.M.—12:00 P.M.; Day 2: 5:00 P.M.—6:00 P.M.) and their own lives (Day 2: 5:00 P.M.—6:00 P.M.; Day 2: 10:00 P.M.—11:00 P.M.; Day 7: 07:00 A.M.—08:00 A.M.). Yet, they hate to be in such dilemmas and may even beg to not make extreme decisions. So does for example Jack Bauer facing a potential terrorist, Sayed Ali: “I despise you for making me do this. [ . . . ]. Please don’t make me do this.“ (Day 2: 07:00 P.M.—08:00 P.M.)

As the former manageable status of exception is ‘sized up’ (Burke, Literature, 298) as a farce, the act challenges our identificational facet of “who we think we are”; a strict setting of a state of exception in return calls for a “corresponding restriction” (Burke, Grammar 9) of the acts. Thus, the scene provides an insight on the relationship of circumstances and its impact on free will. Or, as Neslon argues, lends credence to the Bush Doctrine (78). Also, it demonstrates a commitment to realism, reminding us in a Burkean manner that “a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing” (Permanence and Change 49): “The constant crisis of identity . . . takes its toll on the characters who not only subject themselves to grave physical harm and push themselves into psychological disorders. . . , but must also harm and even kill their friends and colleagues” (Monahan 109).

Overall, scene and act provide a deliberative reflection of “who think we are,” always pending (and here, also overlapping with the other clusters) between facets of “who we’d like to be,” “who we think we are,” and even a prophetic reflection of “who we might become.” This I’d like to elaborate further by focusing on the agent.

Who we really we are—Jack Bauer between Idealism and Realism


Following a notion of Burke, it is by the logic of the scene agent-ratio, that if the scene is exceptional in quality, the agent contained by the scene will partake of the same exceptional quality (Grammar 8). In 24, Jack Bauer, functions as personified exception, thus incorporating a two-folded identity between idealism and realism, constructivism and determinism.

At first, many of Bauer’s characteristics offer a projection surface for identification through a scent of idealism: Bauer is a loving and caring father, a grieving widower, a loyal friend. As special-agent, he is a hero, a patriot, willing to do the exceptional for his country. It’s an ideal depiction, though, picking up on our “idealist's concern with the Einklang zwischen Innen- und Außenwelt” (Burke, Grammar 9).

However, following the logical pattern set by scene and act, exceptional threats do not only demand for exceptional heroes, but for exceptional acts of a hero. It is this strain of thought that provides a realistic reflection of a disordered “Einklang.” It’s scenes where the hero—literally rolling up his sleeves, killing or torturing suspects, getting blood on his hands—undermines his audience’s morals, challenging existing loyalty and identification. The exceptional hero speaks on behalf of his exceptional status, as he exclaims to Mason: “You want to find this bomb? This is what it’s going to take. . . . That’s the problem with people like you, George. You want results but you never want to get your hands dirty. I’d start rolling up your sleeves” (Day 2: 8:00 A.M.—9:00 A.M.).

It is this rhetorical evidentia that reflects society’s struggle with ambiguity. On the one hand, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, one may be wishing for a hero, who is willing to roll up his sleeves in order to restore our trust in safety and invulnerability. Hence, we perceive things than can be done. Killing for results is simply what Bauer needs to do in order to protect the country. On the other hand, we simultaneously perceive the limits of what can be done. Hence, we need to question this distorted ideal of an exceptional hero in an exceptional situation; or, as Burke would suggest: the character of Jack Bauer is portrayed as exceptional and brutal as his scene and thus, “is not worth saving” (Burke, Grammar 9).

The antagonism of empathy and enclosure reveal realistic cracks in an idealistic surface of a hero-figure; it is “both the genuine need for the exception and the space opened up for distorting and abusing the exception” (Caldwell and Chambers 103) that are inherent to the agent. Hence, the extreme and exceptional conception of the scene, restricted to a state of exception, as motive-force behind the character “in turn calls for a corresponding extreme restriction” (Burke, Grammar 9) upon Bauer’s personality.

Consequently, the principle of an exceptional hero is transformed into the principle of a scapegoat. As Burke notes,

the guilt from failures of perfection symbolically necessitates a sacrifice or purging of this guilt on some level, theorizing that this rhetorically functions through either victimage or mortification. Victimage requires a sacrificial “scapegoat,” [ . . . ], who is blamed for the social imperfection and symbolically punished or purged (Treat).

We witness how Bauer is left alone with the consequences of his choices, how his identity is torn between the normal and the exceptional. This can be further illustrated in season 7, when Bauer is on trial for his extreme interrogation techniques during his time at the CTU. Here, Bauer has to answer the questions of judge Blaine Mayer:

Jack Bauer: Senator, why don’t I save you some time. It’s obvious that your agenda here is to discredit CTU and generate a series of indictments ( . . . ) Ibrahim Hadad had targeted a bus carrying 45 people, 10 of which were children. The truth, Senator, is that I stopped that attack from happening.

Blaine Mayer: By torturing Mr. Hadad!

Jack Bauer: By doing what I deemed necessary to save innocent lives.

Blaine Mayer: So basically, what you are saying, Mr. Bauer, is that the ends justify the means and you are above the law.

Jack Bauer: When I am activated, when I am brought into a situation, there is a reason. And that reason is to complete the objectives of my mission at all costs.

Blaine Mayer: . . . Even if it means breaking the law.

Jack Bauer: For a combat soldier, the difference between success and failure is your ability to adapt to your enemy. The people that I deal with, they don’t care about your rules. All they care about is a result. My job is to stop them from completing their objective, at all costs. I simply adapted. In answer to your question: Am I above the law? No sir. I am more than willing to be judged by the people you claim to represent. I will let them decide what price I should pay. But please sir, do not sit there with that smug look on your face and expect me to regret the decisions I have made. Because, sir, the truth is I don’t. (Day 7: 08:00 A.M.—09:00 A.M.)

Scenes as these call for a moral assessment. Firstly, because the debate between Bauer and Mayer proves that in a state of exception, distinctions of legitimate and illegitimate measures and their premises “cannot ultimately hold” (Caldwell and Chambers 107). Secondly, Bauer’s justification reveals another facet of identificational ambiguity. It proves that there are multiple identities rather than simple black and white distinctions. While we would like to consider the protagonist Jack Bauer the hero, we cannot forget that he killed and tortured people (Caldwell and Chambers 107). The evidently distorted idealistic facets of identity thus offer another conclusion: no one can claim “that the exception is warranted by the law. Indeed, the exception is always an exception to the law. If it were truly warranted, if it were simply, legally legitimate, then there would be no need for the exception” (Caldwell 109). Consequently, Bauer cannot be saved. We, on the other hand, are equipped with “a new and expanded understanding of . . . fearful situation[s] and undergo emotional catharsis” (Cavelos 11).

Who we might become—No time for excuses

Agency and Purpose

Agency and Purpose both have a certain overlap with the scene-act-ratio. We can focus on agency as a way to consider the scene pragmatically not as “a way of life, or act of being, but as a means of doing” (Burke, Grammar 15). In the state of exception, agency might thus reflect a “‘get-the-job-done’ approach that springs from the agent’s mindset of pragmatism” (Griffin 332). In this regard, we can look at purpose as the stated goal of the action. Its analysis may reveal a strong desire for “common concerns” (Griffin 332).

In 24, all pragmatism aims at a common concern, which, put simply, is getting through the day. However, within a state of exception agency and purpose lack a sense of justice. While characters follow the logic of the state of exception, they ambiguously hold the interception of idealism and realism, of official and personal attitudes. They run out of time, rush into hopeless one-way scenarios, where urgency does not allow reasonable either-or-considerations or any kind human emotional response for that matter as for example President Allison Taylor concludes: “Grief is a luxury I can’t afford” (Day 7: 08:00 A.M.—09:00 A.M.).

In Day 2: 4:00 P.M.—5:00 P.M., Nina Meyers takes Jack Bauer hostage and demands of President Palmer to grant her immunity for the murder of Jack Bauer she is about to commit. While on the phone with the President, the intertwined personal challenge of all three characters is captivated in split-screens and extreme close-ups. Jermyn suggests that in this moment, the “spectator’s experience comes to parallel that of the characters; forced to scan multiple frames for information” (52). Split-screens frame the emotional “tension” (Jermyn 53) of a situation that once again deviates from standard protocol, and in which even friends have to distance themselves from one another in order to maintain the course of action they’ve agreed upon. As Bauer, Meyer and Palmer agree on Meyer’s immunity and Bauer’s sacrifice, split-screens transform into a single one again. From thereon, camera shots take turns between the plot’s settings of the CTU, the President’s office, and the location of Meyer and Bauer, suggesting that Bauer and Palmer couldn’t be further apart. Yet, they’ve agreed upon objectives and procedure, and as such, they are consubstantial. Yet, at the same time, they remain “unique” (Burke, Rhetoric 21) as conflict and crisis escalate. Bauer accepts to die, and Palmer accepts to hold responsibility for his friend’s murder: “There was only one right choice to make and you made it” (Day 2: 4:00 P.M.—5:00 P.M.). When Palmer asks Bauer for his last wishes, the screens split up again in extreme close-ups depicting Palmer’s pain and tears, and Bauer’s resignation.

Purely by being the kind of agent that is at one with the scene and accepts an exceptional agency, both Bauer and Palmer become “divine” (Burke, Grammar 8), whereas we as viewers are made aware of our human weakness; that some pain is just unbearable. And there just is no way to cope. In this regard, agent and purpose emphasize a division of attitudes, providing us with a notion of self, that pends between “who we might become” and “who we really are.”


One might think that we would have become habituated to the fear of a terrorist attacks more than a decade after September 11. But even now researchers, e.g. Glazer, are finding that “Americans are suffering lingering symptoms of anxiety and trauma,” (qtd. in Cavelos 3) trying to find their way to cope. And since we are constantly reminded of a possible attacks—be it by the government and / or the media—it surely “is difficult for a threat to fade into the background of our lives” (Cavelos 4).

Yet, this paper concludes that post-9/11 society is also provided equipment to cope with the aftermath of 9/11. “With their stories, artists name a situation, they give us words to name a situation, and behind that lies strategy” (Burke, Literature 596). 24 surely provided us a name for an ever-changed situation; even more so, by symbolically offering to us a state of exception, it revealed the whole range of exceptionality and crisis that affected our sense of identity before and after. While it presented to us our fear and trauma, it simultaneously helped us to deal with it; and to symbolically overcome our trauma (Burke, Literature 299). 24 provides some sense of “developmental repair. While the worst often happens on 24, each day ends with the specific terrorist threat conquered” (Cavelos 12).

Moreover, as one of the first post-9/11 shows 24 provided a reflection on society’s identificational ambiguity: “What does it mean to be a moral American, and how might we act morally in the post-9/11 era?” (Weber 151) Thus, the show rather equipped viewers with a critical reflection on multiple selves.

As it followed the lead of a hegemonic discourse of the “war on terror” it depicted revenge, war, and means that are justified not by law, but by their ends. We consider these facets fragments of our identity, as we interact with characters and ask the same questions: How do we deal with fear, loss, and tragedy? How do we deal with the fact that there are constantly threats in this world that are out of our control? Here, 24 provided us with an “empowering sense of knowledge, preparation, and control” (Cavelos 12).

Furthermore, 24 may have been supporting a moral and deliberative discourse that was imagining a world at war with terror; a world of how we as society think it is and might become. Ultimately, it points out that in exceptional situations there are many strategies and attitudes that may equip us for a better live, and by that, a way of coping. 24 constantly pushes the limits of such attitudes by the means of its dramatistic elements, illustrating modes of action and their consequences. Thus, the show does not only reveal the inconsistencies of the existing discourse of a “war on terror.” It also opens space for individual considerations: Projecting heroic idealism onto a post-9/11 society may look good on the outside; yet, heroic visions are not reliable, the relationship between crime and consciousness (Weber 135) is an uneasy one, not matter the given purpose. Lastly, they are extreme, and as such, they may end in isolation instead of unity.

Concluding, 24 serves as “equipment for living.” It emphasized the search for a nation’s identity, depicting multiple forms of ‘we.’ It accomplished the difficulty to include fragments of society, and constantly anticipated and reflected contemporary US-discourse, mirroring and creating reality anew. As such, it enhances self-reconstruction to a “country of the traumatized” (Cavelos 6). We were equipped with a lesson for life: Unlike the characters, we have options. We have a choice in who we want to be beyond our weaknesses, our grief, disbelief, and trauma. And so, 24 may have made left us “both joined and separate” (Burke, Rhetoric 21), as it provided its answers as identificational options, as a choice no matter the common concerns. Or, to say it in the words of Jack Bauer:

I can’t tell you what to do. I’ve been wrestling with this one my whole life. I see fifteen people held hostage on a bus, and everything else goes out the window. I will do whatever it takes to save them—and I mean whatever it takes (Day 7: 07:00 A.M.—08:00 A.M.).

In a way then, Jack Bauer worked for us: He engaged us in a dialectical journey of identification and division on the search for a new consubstantiality. 24 might have helped us reflect on the basis of our unity and our differences, of what is holding us together as society, no matter what.


The author would like to thank Prof. Dr. Dietmar Till and Pia Engel for their inspiration, support, and encouragement.

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Volume 9, Issue 1, Fall 2013

Contents of Issue 9.1 (Fall 2013)

A Note from the Editors

Welcome to issue 9.1 of KB Journal. We are very pleased to present the issue, which features many new elements as we nudge the journal in new directions. As a result, 9.1 broadly reflects a series of moves we have made as editors.

We have worked to exploit the strengths (and limitations) of the online format

Because KBJ is an exclusively online publication, we strived to make the best use of what the internet affords and what it constrains. For example, we aimed for shorter pieces with fewer endnotes to allow for scrolling reads. An online journal may be theoretically more spacious, but online reading habits make lengthy articles less attractive.

We likewise wished to treat videos as articles (or as featured content) that advance claims either implicitly or explicitly. First, there is the wonderful video discussion between Debra Hawhee and Bryan Crable: “Video Parlor: Action and Motion.” Crable and Hawhee (whose respective books are both reviewed in this issue) discuss how Burke’s action/motion pair has figured in their own work—how they have deployed, supplemented, and even discounted it. They likewise engage issues of the body and of bodies—including Burke’s own body—as they are made manifest in and through rhetoric. In this vein, Crable and Hawhee describe where Burke himself gets with the pair and how further we can go with it after Burke. Their compelling conversation concludes with a discussion of how they have both used archival research and how such research is changing the work of Burke scholarship. Perhaps most importantly, and in light of KB Journal’s revised mission statement, we see two scholars fully deploy the work of Burke, who remains not a static figure but a thinker whom we think with (and sometimes against). In short, Crable and Hawhee perform what it is to be Burkean.

Second, we have the striking video creations of Jimmy Butts, who has done more than simply translate three of Burke’s short stories; he has brought them to new life. His films not only attend to Burke’s fiction, which is explored far less than his scholarly output, but they also make these stories do important work. Through these films, we are compelled to think about Burke in fruitful, inventive ways. As Butts argues in his concise introduction of the films, “Adaptation as close reading, then, becomes a way of seeing, as Burke would say—but then also a way of not seeing.” Butts’s films are both delightful and suggestive of the many ways in which we can do scholarship.

We have worked to shift the way the journal engages Burke

Applications of Burke abound in rhetoric scholarship generally. As such, we have endeavored to downplay such work in KB Journal (more on this below). We do this not because we believe that such work is not valuable, but because we wager that the health and relevance of the journal lies in its ability to push Burke in new directions rather than in using Burke as a stable platform from which to read the world. Instead, we looked for work that might challenge readers to reconsider Burke (rather than to reaffirm that he was so often right). Christopher Oldenburg’s more traditional scholarly piece on the protest of the Milwaukee 14—who burned draft cards and other documents in protest of Vietnam—claims that this action represented “hybrid victimage,” in which the protestors played the part of both mortifiers and scapegoats. Oldenburg’s rich reading of Burke offers the kind of work we have sought: work that might change the way readers think about Burke.

Third, issue 9.1 features a healthy crop of book reviews cultivated by reviews editor Ryan Weber. We have reviews of Bryan Crable’s Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke: At the Root of the Racial Divide; Debra Hawhee’s Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edges of Language; John McGowan’s Pragmatist Politics: Making a Case of Liberal Democracy; Krista Ratcliffe’s Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness; and Clarke Rountree’s The Chameleon President: The Curious Case of George W. Bush.

* * *

Readers will likely note not only the delay between issue 8.1 and 9.1 but also that issue 9.1 features one scholarly article. Why, longtime readers might reasonably ask, have we waited so long for such a brief issue? We took over the journal in Fall 2011, before Andrew King’s final issue went into production. In our 18 months of editing the journal, we’ve received 21 submissions, or a little more than one per month. Of those 18, we have forwarded eight to reviewers. Only one of the eight received a decisive reject; the other seven were encouraged to revise and resubmit. Of those seven, four are still in process and two have been withdrawn by their authors. The remaining piece is this issue’s feature article. We did consider waiting until we had three or four articles, but the long gap since 8.1 suggested to us that it was time to publish 9.1.

As for the ten submissions that we did not forward to reviewers, these pieces fall into one of two groups, which we might call the “straightforward application” and the “tangential relation.” The first moniker is self-explanatory: many authors simply apply Burke—usually the pentad—to some text, artifact, or situation. Though the authors often perform this operation successfully, the straightforward application articles all tend to come to the same conclusion: Burke was right. As persuasive as readers of KB Journal may find that thesis, it does not serve to challenge or even complicate any conventional scholarly assumptions. This is not to say that we did not welcome applications. Oldenburg’s “Redemptive Resistance” is an application, but it is complex and deeply engaged with a wide range of Burke’s writing.

That brings us to the second type of problematic submission, the “tangential relation” article. In these, the author pursues a rhetorical inquiry (sometimes a compelling one) that does not really rely on or even need Burke for its analysis. For these submissions, the telltale sign is usually a bibliography that features a single work from Burke’s corpus. Once inside the article, the reader finds what we would call (following John Schilb’s discussion of Foucault in rhetoric scholarship; see “Turning Composition toward Sovereignty” in Present Tense 1.1) the “drive-by Burke moment”: a passing reference that could be deleted without damage to the overall structure. Here, the question is obvious: why KBJ? As the journal’s mission statement makes clear, “Kenneth Burke need not be the sole focus of a submission, but Burke should be integral to the structure of the argument.”

In spite of these problems, we have never summarily rejected an article. We have sent every author feedback, including those whose work did not make it to the review stage. We outlined our concerns, related those concerns to the journal’s mission statement, and encouraged every author to revise with those guidelines in mind. Happily, a couple of authors who received an initial rejection have since submitted new work that reached the review stage. Moreover, our rate of external review has increased: of our most recent eight submissions, four have gone out. We interpret this as a sign that authors are becoming more attuned to the journal’s mission statement. Meanwhile, the journal is planning to produce a special issue of European Burke scholars who participated in the Ghent conference in May. That issue, guest edited by Kris Rutten and Ronald Soetaert, should appear in late 2013 or early 2014. After this long delay, the gears of the journal are starting to turn more quickly.

In spite of these welcome developments, however, we have decided to step down as editors. After two years and one issue, it has become apparent to us that we are taking the journal in a direction that the Burke community may not want to follow. Given the special issue that is coming this fall, and that the natural end to our tenure comes next summer, now seemed a good time to step away. We have enjoyed our time as editors, but we think the journal might be better served by other leadership. David Blakesley has taken over the journal’s editorship as of August 1. Authors whose submissions are in process should refer their questions to him. In the meantime, we are looking forward to seeing everyone at next year’s Burke conference in St. Louis, and we remain the point-persons for that event. Finally, we wish to thank the following reviewers for their service to the journal: Matthew Althouse, Denise Bostdorff, A Cheree Carlson, Gregory Clark, Miriam Clark. Nathan Crick. Sonja Foss, Robert Ivie, Robert Heath, David Hildebrand, James Klumpp, Stan Lindsay, Star Muir, Lawrence Prelli, Peter Smudde, Mari Boor Tonn, and David Cratis Williams.

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"A Note from the Editors" by Paul Lynch and Nathaniel Rivers is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Video Parlor: Action and Motion Featuring Debra Hawhee and Bryan Crable

Debra Hawhee and Bryan Crable discuss the Action-Motion distinction in this "Video Parlor":

From the Editors' Introduction

In this video discussion between Debra Hawhee and Bryan Crable, “Video Parlor: Action and Motion,” Crable and Hawhee (whose respective books are both reviewed in this issue) discuss how Burke’s action/motion pair has figured in their own work—how they have deployed, supplemented, and even discounted it. They likewise engage issues of the body and of bodies—including Burke’s own body—as they are made manifest in and through rhetoric. In this vein, Crable and Hawhee describe where Burke himself gets with the pair and how further we can go with it after Burke. Their compelling conversation concludes with a discussion of how they have both used archival research and how such research is changing the work of Burke scholarship. Perhaps most importantly, and in light of KB Journal’s revised mission statement, we see two scholars fully deploy the work of Burke, who remains not a static figure but a thinker whom we think with (and sometimes against). In short, Crable and Hawhee perform what it is to be Burkean.

Paul Lynch and Nathaniel Rivers

Three Short Film Adaptations

"Parabolic Tale, with Invocation," The Excursion," and "Scherzando"

Jimmy Butts, Wake Forest University


I have become increasingly interested in the process of adapting literature to the screen. Short stories represent a particular kind of medium that I find attractive in the age of new media, because they’re quickly taken in, but also manageable in the space of an hour long class discussion. Even so, Kenneth Burke’s short stories still remain largely unread—even by Burke scholars—and so I wanted to give them a broader audience by shifting them into another medium.

Adapting short stories in particular, has become quite a lucrative business, after all, with the recreation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” or Christopher Nolan’s reworking of his brother Jonathan’s short story “Memento Mori,” A.I. as Kubrick and Spielberg’s retelling of Brian Aldiss’s wonderful “Super Toys Last All Summer Long,” or the long list of Philp K. Dick stories adapted for the big screen. Total Recall, based on Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” is now being adapted for the second time. These are just a handful of short stories that I’ve liked and that come to mind without even thinking about it much.

But this is not an overview of the growing field of adaptation studies. For that, you should talk to a Shakespearean rather than a Burkean. Still, making multimedia as a way of responding to Burke in particular offers us some interesting insights into his literary work. Collections like Dave Blakesley’s The Terministic Screen testifies to this relationship to Burke studies.

A couple of years ago, I started having some of my English classes adapt short literary works into little videos with some success. What I began to understand is that adaptation is interpretation. And cinematic adaptations, for my students and myself and for Hollywood as well, have become a very interesting and entertaining way of conducting close readings upon some of our favorite texts.

Adaptation as close reading, then, becomes a way of seeing, as Burke would say—but then also a way of not seeing. When I was sharing with Julie Whitaker, the wife of Kenneth Burke’s son, Michael, that I had made the films, her first response was a kind of wonder. How could Burke’s highly stylized writings be transferred onto the screen? The language itself was almost visual, but sometimes more cerebral. Furthermore, Burke’s writing isn’t primarily plot driven. In some ways, making Burke’s writing visual takes us away from the language that he so adeptly employs, but there is also something that calls us to visualize the symbolic imagery he invokes. After she’d seen the films, however, Julie seemed to really appreciate the watching of Burke’s work. She came up and gave me a hug.

The result was that these films offered another way of breaking down Burke’s fiction, and I have kept his exact wording from the stories as voiceovers. This tactic is one that I as a lover of writerly language haven’t been able to shake in my work with literary adaptation. Keeping Burke’s beautiful language was important to me.

The three stories, “Parabolic Tale, with Invocation,” “The Excursion,” and “Scherzando” are now in the public domain and have been collected elsewhere in The Complete White Oxen and Here and Elsewhere, with a wonderful introduction by Denis Donahue. Each movie has its own soundtrack that I created using computer software and looping. Each short piece considers God in some way by happenstance. I merely chose the three shortest fictions that I could find to adapt for the screen. I first showed them at the Triennial Kenneth Burke Society Conference in 2011, and now they are available here.

I made each of the movies in this little trilogy in chronological order. “Parabolic Tale, with Invocation” was written in 1917, and functions like a strange parable. The first movie, the blue one as I began to think of it, seemed to work best with shadow puppets. As a parable, the narrative needed some kind of distancing that would allow us to read the text symbolically. Parables do this by using representative characters—animals oftentimes. Here I place the camera vertical, and placed a pane of glass above it. This allowed me to move paper shadow puppets using wires for the different shots. The blue hue of the video makes for a calming and serene experience in the vein of wisdom literature. The prayer at the end is meditative as well and shifts visually to show its addition in the same way that Burke adds the invocation on at the end of his short parable.

Read “Parabolic Tale, with Invocation" by Kenneth Burke here.

The Excursion,” written in 1920, is an angry piece. It is the most seemingly plot-driven piece, but in the end moves toward philosophical and poetic thought. The red movie works from an ironic perspective. Because the main character of “The Excursion” is not an admirable fellow, I thought of the way that Burke notes irony as a humble trope in The Grammar of Motives. He suggests, “True irony, humble irony, is based upon a sense of fundamental kinship with the enemy, as one needs him, is indebted to him, is not merely outside him as an observer but contains him within, being consubstantial with him” (514). So, I played the role of the unlovable speaker in “The Excursion.” It was not easy to watch myself like that. I also learned a lot about killing ants. Although, as a disclaimer, I should note that no ants were harmed in the making of the film.

Read "The Excursion" by Kenneth Burke here.

The final video, “Scherzando,” whose accompanying written piece was first published in 1922, was the most difficult to make and is the most difficult to pronounce. Scherzando is a musical term—and Burke knew his musical terms—meaning “in a light, playful manner;” it literally means “joking” in Italian. The music for the final movie is the most playful, and the cuts are certainly the most playful in this collection. Because the written work was a pastiche, a joke of sorts, I decided to make the entire film a pastiche of other films. The yellow figured in for the anxiety that the piece elicited. One might think that pastiche is a simpler form of mere borrowing, but I went back and borrowed from many old films now in the public domain. Trying to find the right shots was difficult, and making them layer well was also difficult. I shot some of my own footage and added it to the mix. The final work is a blend of alienating visions that end apocalyptically.

Read "Scherzando" by Kenneth Burke here.

I hope that these three little projects offer a new way of spying on Burke. Maybe I’ll continue this project and show another adaptation at a future Burke Conference, but I also want other Burkeans to explore these kinds of thoughtful responses to Burke’s writing. However, my main goal has simply been a broader audience for Burke that cinematics can facilitate. It in some ways prompts all of us as Burke scholars to make our own responses to Burke in various media. I want to see projects like the Burke videos help us address, apply, extend, and repurpose Burke as the new mission statement of the KB Journal asks of us.

I had the happy opportunity to study with director Volker Schlöndorff in Switzerland this past summer. His work has focused largely on adapting literary classics like Death of a Salesman, The Handmaid’s Tale, Coup de Grâce,and the Palme d’Or winner at Cannes Die Blechtrommel. Schlöndorff values the power of story as a way for us to interpret our lives. I believe Burke valued fiction for similar reasons.

I’d like to close with my deepest thanks to the Burke family and the Burke Literary Trust for their encouragement and endorsement of this project. It’s been quite an experience.

* Jimmy Butts likes to explore strange rhetorical tactics, in places like sentences and in digital media.   He has worked with students in Charleston, at Winthrop, Clemson, and most recently at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina to get them composing in brave, new ways.  He received his PhD from the transdisciplinary program called Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design at Clemson.  His research interests include structural and poststructural composition strategies, new media, rhetorical criticism, defamiliarization, and writing pedagogy.  He has published multimodal work elsewhere with Pre-Text, in the CyberText Yearbook, for Pearson Education, and as a proud instructor in The Journal for Undergraduate Multimedia Projects.  You can find him online at

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"Three Short Film Adaptations" by Jimmy Butts is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Parabolic Tale, with Invocation

Kenneth Burke

And the old man, being an old man, and therefore a senex, and entitled to give counsel, asked the young man:

"Young man, what do you know?"

And the young man, who had felled trees, had girded mountains and swum rivers, done many things, and who never took counsel, immediately answered:

"I know everything, father."

And the old man rather smiled and said:

"I know nothing."

And the old man, being old, then gave the young man counsel, which the young man tossed aside with anger. And the young man continued to do many things, while the venerable senex meditated in silence and was mildly discomforted by the young man's stubbornness. And the old man's mind became quiet, and magnificent, and awesome, like a deserted Cathedral full of vanished echoes. And his soul became tall, and calm, and Gothic, like the Cathedral.  But he was still vexed at the sacred stubbornness of the young man, and still gave counsel.

Until finally the young man hearkened a little, and found that what the ancient senex said was wise. And the more he obeyed, the less often he swam a stream too swift.

And  the old man wrote his counsel, that other young men might read of it, and died.  And  the young man became old, and counseled the young.  And these young men hearkened to him, at first not at all, then more, and more, until they, too, were senexes, fit to give counsel.  And having spoken, they died.

And as time went on the young men were led more and more by the accumulated wisdom of the old men, and their mistakes became fewer and fewer.

They are trying to guide me; 0 God, be merciful, and spare me, who should beyoung yet, from the wisdom of death.

* "Parabolic Tale, with Invocation" originally appeared in The Sansculotte 1 (January 1917): 8. [Also in The White Oxen and Other Stories and Here & Elsewhere: The Collected Fiction of Kenneth Burke by Kenneth Burke (Black Sparrow Books, 2005)]

This story has been adapted to video by Jimmy Butts in KB Journal 9.1 (Fall 2013).


Kenneth Burke

As I entered the room, he was reading one of his poems to a very moth-eaten person. “Catalogus Mulierum,” he grunted at me, and went on with the poem. From which I assumed that the title of the thing he was reading was “Catalogus Mulierum,” or “A Catalogue of Women.”

“Yes, I know the old ones who have had their day.
I have observed them.
Those old wrecked houses;
Those dead craters.”

The next I do not remember. Or rather, I do not want to remember it. It was detestable. And the stanza following. . . . The moth-eaten person clucked after each, and murmured something. When he had read another stanza, I left, while the moth-eaten person clucked—whether at the poem, or at me, I do not know.

“Then there are the little girls,
Recently able to become mothers;
Packages wrapped securely
In the admonitions of their parents.”

Why must men be hog-minded like that, I say. Great heavens! Have we exhausted the play of fresh morning on a lake? Have all the possible documents been written of a star near the horizon? I have seen him sitting monstrously in his chair and leering at me as though I were a whole world to leer at. I remember him in the distillation of my memory as a carcass, so many pounds of throbbing flesh with the requisite organs stuffed in, growling over the raw meat of his ideas.

Is there some gigantic cancer for us to sap with wells, and where we can descend on ladders? Could we spend our holidays here, on the edge of the decaying flesh, with our wives and children? I used to grind my teeth at the mere thought of him, until I had diseased my liver, and I ached from escaping juices. Ossia: There has been Christ, and the saints, and whole libraries of sanctity, and yet there was no law to exterminate this man! What darkness of darknesses have we been plunged into, when pestilence is invited among us, suffered to sit at our table and fester our tongues? But the critics are coming, and the satirists. Soon a wide plague of caterpillars will cover all the green leaves. There will be nothing behind them but naked trees and the scum of intestines. Prepare for a lean season, made meager with excessive insects.

I have sat opposed to him, and remembered the sunlight with a bursting gratitude. I remembered a little town sleeping in the foothills, with a bright clay road working across the countryside, and a green pool with the shadows of trout. I remembered the long, drooping fingers of the chestnuts—for the chestnuts blossom late, and there was a scattered frost of them even though the beards on the corn were already scorched. I remembered all this, while there spread about me the cool, dank mold from the cellar of his brain.


Let us construct a vast hippopotamus to the glorification of our century. Other ages could have constructed hippopotami of equal vastness, but ours will be superior in this: That it is exact within as well as without. A steam heart will beat against the brazen ribs of the brute, and the ooze of the kidneys will have been studied accurately. On the bolsters of his folded hide we shall have blotches and sores proper to the hippopotamus. And when we have finished, we shall have constructed a vast hippopotamus, which will cast its shadows
across the plain, and disfigure the sky to the glorification of our century.

* "Scherzando " originally appeared in Manuscripts 1 (February 1922): 74. [Also in The White Oxen and Other Stories and Here & Elsewhere: The Collected Fiction of Kenneth Burke by Kenneth Burke (Black Sparrow Books, 2005)]

This story has been adapted to video by Jimmy Butts in KB Journal 9.1 (Fall 2013).

The Excursion

Kenneth Burke

Having nothing to do, and having searched in vain among the notes of a piano for something to think on, I started off on a walk, trusting that I might scent a scandal on the breeze, or see God’s toe peep through the sky. I passed a barbershop, a grocery store, a little Italian girl, a chicken coop, a roadhouse, an abandoned quarry, a field of nervous wheat. All this distance I had walked under God’s blue sky, and still without a thought. But at last, after trudging on for hours, I came upon a thought. Miles upon miles I had walked for a thought, and at last I came upon an anthill.

Idly curious, I stopped to look at the ants. They would go from one place to another and return to that first place again, and for no reason that I could see. Little ants with big burdens, big ants with bigger burdens, and ants with no burdens, the most frightened and panicky of them all. As I watched them they seemed so human to me that
my heart went out to them. “Poor little devils,” I said.

But I grew tired of watching the swarming mass of them. “I shall watch just one of them,” I said to myself after much deliberation. And I picked out one frightened little ant to watch. He went running about unaware of my presence, not knowing that a great god was looking down on him, just as I did not know but that a great god might be
looking down on me. And with the toe of my shoe I marked out a rut in his path, so that he had to climb over it. And then I began dropping little bits of sand on him, and turning him over with a blade of grass. “I am his destiny,” I whispered; the conception thrilled me.

As the poor little fellow rushed about in terror, I realized how massive his belief in life must be at this moment, how all-consuming his tragedy; my pity went out to him. But my blade of grass was too limber; I picked up a little stone to push him with. I drew a circle. “May God strike me dead, little ant, if you get out of that circle.” I took that oath, and the battle was on. It was long and uncertain, with victory now on his side, and now on mine.

The little ant, in a last despairing burst, made for the edge of the circle, and crossed it. I was aroused. “I’ll kill the ant,” I shouted, and brought the stone down on his body, his passions, his dreams. Destiny had spoken. For an instant I was ashamed, for I had been unfair. He had beaten me under the terms I had made for myself. I should have let him go free.

I began watching other ants. They irritated me—they were so earnest, so faithful. Two ants came up and touched. I wondered what that could mean. Do ants talk? Then I watched one of the ants which had touched the other to see if it touched still other ants. For it might be a herald of some sort; perhaps ants do talk.

One little ant was tugging and pulling at a dead bug. Slowly, carefully, I took my stone and drew it over two of his legs, so that he was wounded grievously, and began writhing in agony. My face was distorted with compassion; how my heart bled for him!

I ran the stone across his other legs, and the motion was like a thrust into my own flesh. I was almost sick with pity for the poor little ant, and to end his suffering I killed him. Wide regret came on me, “Perhaps,” I thought, “perhaps, he was a poet. Perhaps I have killed a genius.”

And I began stepping on the other ants, digging up the anthill, scattering destruction broadcast about me. When my work was finished, and only a few mangled ants remained alive, my sorrow for the poor little ants had grown until it weighed on me, and crushed the vitality out of me. “The poor little ants,” I kept murmuring, “the poor, miserable little ants.” And I was bitter with the thought of how cruel the universe is, and how needlessly things must suffer. I stood gazing at the death and slaughter about me, stupefied with calm horror at what I had done. I prayed to God.

“O Great God,” I prayed, throwing back my head towards Heaven and stretching out my hands like Christ on the Cross, “O Great God”—but I didn’t really throw back my head, for I still kept looking at the ants, and I did not address God, for at times I even wonder if there be no God. I didn’t do these things, I say, since I was too intently watching the ants. “O Almighty God,” I thundered out in mighty prayer, throwing back my head towards Heaven and stretching out my hands like Christ on the Crucifix, “Thou who art Ruler of us all. Now I know why we suffer, and ache, and I pity Thee, God.”

* "The Excursion" originally appeared in The Dial 69 (July 1920): 27-28. [Also in The White Oxen and Other Stories and Here & Elsewhere: The Collected Fiction of Kenneth Burke by Kenneth Burke (Black Sparrow Books, 2005)]

This story has been adapted to video by Jimmy Butts in KB Journal 9.1 (Fall 2013).

Redemptive Resistance through Hybrid Victimage

Catholic Guilt, Mortification, and Transvaluation in the Case of the Milwaukee Fourteen

Christopher Oldenburg, Illinois College


In 1968 the Milwaukee Fourteen, members of the Catholic Anti-Vietnam War Movement, removed approximately ten-thousand draft files from a Selective Service Office and burned them with home-made napalm in a nearby park before awaiting arrest. Employing the Burkean concepts of categorical guilt, mortification and transvaluation as a framework from which to analyze the Milwaukee Fourteen’s “statement” and the resistive act itself, this essay troubles the general understanding of mortification as simply extirpating one’s guilt by self-victimage. Rather the Milwaukee Fourteen mortify themselves for the disordered transgressions of a culture. Their sacrificial purification results in a form of hybrid victimage with the ultimate goal of transvaluing the moral order of the Vietnam War era.

THE FIRE BURNED AT THE BASE OF A FLAGPOLE in a small downtown Milwaukee park. With arms locked in solidarity, fourteen men stood in a single line; they awaited arrest and peacefully entered police patrol wagons. As reported by the Milwaukee Sentinel on September 24, 1968, fourteen me—comprised of five priests, a protestant minister, and Catholic laity—raided a Milwaukee Selective Service Office. They seized approximately ten thousand 1-A draft files and burned them with homemade napalm in an adjacent park dedicated to America’s war heroes. Before anyone could to make sense of what occurred, all fourteen peaceful demonstrators were demonized by the Milwaukee Sentinel as “war foes,” and charged with “burglary, arson to property (other than a building) and criminal damage to property” (Patrinos 7).

In a statement to the Milwaukee Journal, Senator Robert W. Warren, Republican candidate for attorney general described the event as “brazen anarchy” (Kirkhorn 2). Framing the event this way, the Senator converted civil, Christian-inspired dissent into “anarchy.” The false dichotomy of “with us or against us” was not far behind. Lamenting that the reconstruction of Wisconsin draft files would be long and costly, Lt. General Lewis Hershey, national selective service director, said “people have the right to oppose the Vietnam war, but I don’t think it’s doing service to give aid to the enemy by showing such disunity here” (Kirkhorn 2). The Milwaukee Fourteen’s bail was set at $415,000. They were tried and sentenced to two years in prison.

While much scholarship has been produced on anti-war protests and social movements of the Vietnam era, the purpose of this essay is to understand the Milwaukee 14’s resistance from a Burkean perspective. Through an analysis of both “The Milwaukee Fourteen Statement” and the public act of resistance itself, I argue the case of the M-14 is of particular interest for Burkean scholarship because it demonstrates how categorical guilt is managed with both blame and complicity through what I call hybrid victimage. The M-14 mortified themselves by the “cleansing fire” of burning draft files for which they were arrested, but their victimage ritual simultaneously included serving as scapegoat for the larger American public guilt. Such hybrid instances are absent from the Burkean literature on vicitmage and its variants. My study aims to fill this gap. More examples and analyses of hybrid victimage will better help Burkeans understand the complexity, contingency, and interdependence of sacrificial variants in ethico-melodramas. I intend to illustrate how the M-14’s hybrid victimage can function as a socially purposive political trope, another means of coping with the misguided instruments of our own making whereby symbol users need not have to choose between the all-or-nothing extremes of dogma and skepticism that imperil war and democracy. I would suggest that hybrid victimage is a concept that Burke himself would endorse due to its affinity with his “both/and” view of the symbolic “Scramble,” his pursuit to purify war, and his mindful dedication to the pedagogy of language.

A full understanding of the M-14’s blending of purgation devices requires a brief review of those Burkean scholars who have theorized alterative peace building and guilt relieving strategies. Robert Ivie, for example, underscores Burke’s point that self-mortification is not a default response to guilt. Ivie notes that calling “for a redeeming act of self-mortification by a nation accustomed to condemning scapegoats, asking in effect that it purge itself of savagery without the benefit of the principle of substitution” fails to engender peace (“Metaphor” 178). As a corrective to the ritual of redemptive violence via trigger-happy scapegoating, Ivie calls for rites of reconciliation with the main rite being making enemies less evil and more human (“Fighting” 236). Margret Calvin, in an examination of William Sloane Coffin’s language of peace, suggests the scapegoat function can be replaced by “mutual mortification leading towards a mutual confession” between adversaries (288). Calvin acknowledges that sacrifice is still part of this process “with mortification requiring a death of self, the collective self” (290). But Calvin does not specify who represents the collective self. It is plausible that a mortifying representative from the guilty collective could in fact also serve as a scapegoat.  

Offering the idea of hybrid victimage troubles the dichotomy of scapegoating and mortification and thus extends the Burkean applications of these previous studies. The M-14’s brand of hybrid victimage is another rehumanizing rite that purifies the guilt created by war culture in two significant ways. First, the case of the M-14 accounts for Ivie’s assertion that the political language of demonization and national blame alone are insufficient in changing the order of war. Consequently, the M-14 conflates the two variants of victimage. By standing in as sacrificial scapegoats, the M-14 simultaneously exorcise their own guilt and the guilt of their culture. Their burning of draft files and arrest were non-violent and saved lives. Secondly, beyond attenuating guilt through a mutual, confessional “language” of peace as Calvin suggests, the M-14’s hybrid victimage centered on a radical, positive act of bearing witness. Their resistance was a sacrificial drama with deep symbolic meanings that focused on transvaluing the disordered practices of a war culture. My examination of the Milwaukee Fourteen’s resistive drama therefore focuses on the Burkean concepts of categorical guilt, mortification and transvaluation. 

Categorical Guilt

Order is a decisive notion in Burke’s dramatistic theory of human relations. Given that symbol users are “inventors of the negative” (LSA 9) language generates orders, hierarchies, and bureaucracies that goad individuals towards perfection. To the extent that verbal acts construct orders and establish proprieties, they engender guilt. Categorical guilt is an initial and necessary precondition of Burke’s cycle of terms implicit in the concept of order. Burke writes of the steps in history that join order and sacrifice, “Order Leads to Guilt…Guilt needs Redemption…Redemption needs a Redeemer (which is to say, a Victim!)” (RR 4-5). Since falling short in the glorious pursuit of entelechy is endemic to the symbol-using animal, guilt is a condition that abides. Burke writes in The Rhetoric of Religion “as there is guilt intrinsic to the social order, it would not in itself be ‘actual,’ but would be analogous to ‘original sin’ an offense somehow done ‘in principle’” (224; PC 290). Here Burke draws an apt parallel between the logological and theological conceptions of guilt. Burke insists that it is important to note the tautological nature of Order. “[W]e may say either that the idea of Disorder is implicit in the idea of Order, or that the idea of Order is implicit in the idea of Disorder” (RR 182). Based on this observation, how might the sacrificial variants engendered by the guilt of such Order and Disorder be purified? It is no accident that Burke defines mortification as “a systematic way of saying no to Disorder, or obediently saying yes to Order” (190). What we witness with the M-14 is a party mortifying themselves for failing to say “no” to disorder and serving as scapegoat for others who and fail to say “yes” to a moral order.
Following Burke’s cycle, “‘guilt’ intrinsic to hierarchal order…calls correspondingly for ‘redemption” through victimage” (PC 284). The purgative sacrifice may be completed by two main salvation devices: scapegoating, “a sacrificial receptacle for the ritual unburdening of one’s sins” (PC 16); and mortification, whereby castigation for one’s sins is self-enforced or self-inflicted which Burke places on the “suicidal” ambit of human motives (RR 208). William Rueckert’s Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations, provides a narrow distinction between the two salvation devices:

The essential difference between victimage and mortification is that the first always directly involves some other person, place, or thing; always calls for ritualistic transference of pollution to the chosen vessel…In mortification, however, even in its most extreme form of suicide…nothing outside the person involved needs to be polluted or destroyed in order for purification to take place….Generally, then, to make others suffer for our sins is victimage; to make ourselves suffer for our sins is mortification. (146-147)

Barry Brummett notes that mortification “involves open confession of one’s ‘sins’ and actual or symbolic punishment of them” (256). Here an opportunity arises to problematize Rueckert and Brummett’s emphasis on the narrow, autotelic understanding of mortification as “making ourselves suffer for our sins.” But Brummett and Rueckert do not consider the possibility that the ritual of mortification could be enacted for the sake of redeeming the sins of an external group or culture in the form of a self-scapegoat.
In“A Dramatistic View of Language,” Burke does stress the significance of “self” as both the source and telos for mortification; it functions as Rueckert’s paraphrase of Burke suggests as the “self-inflicted punishment for one’s self-imposed, self-enforced denials and restrictions” (Drama 146). For Burke, mortification “does not occur when one is merely ‘frustrated’ by some external interference. It must come from within. The mortified must, with one aspect of himself, be saying no to another aspect of himself” (RR 190). However, mortification is not limited simply to self-punishment. Later in The Rhetoric of Religion, Burke acknowledges mortification’s wider social utility as “basic to the pattern of governance” (RR 200), the Biblical equivalent to Mosaic Law (“THOU SHALL NOTS”). Burke also notes mortification’s martyrdom function. “Martyrdom is the idea of total voluntary self-sacrifice enacted in a grave cause before a perfect (absolute) witness. It is the fulfillment of the principle of mortification, suicidally directed, with the self as scapegoat” (248). This martyrdom function of self-scapegoating can be socially purposive and uncover politically corrective possibilities for guilt. Burke writes, “mortification…can be developed by conscientious priesthoods who would transform the negatives of guilty trespass into a corresponding regimen of ‘positive’ athleticism” (“Dramatistic” 264). Mortification is not merely an efficient self-atoning device but can be a political trope for changing the status quo. To use mortification in this politically active manner, agents must enact an imaginative strategy where “taking one for the team,” a positive athletic form of martyrdom, attempts to achieve a moral victory by altering the game itself.

C. Allen Carter comes close to this strain of mortification when he writes in Kenneth Burke and the Scapegoat Process that mortification involves the secret yearning in people “to be the one whose sacrifice saves the group. Who would not secretly revere the one who behaves heroically in the face of punishment or death at the hands of the authorities?” (19). In accordance with Burke’s cycle, sacrificial motives are driven by a range of partisan and hierarchic estrangements, order/disorder, right/wrong, etc. Every act of victimage, mortification, or some hybrid version is an effort to transvalue the flouted piety incurred by these divisions.


The lesser known, but highly relevant, Burkean concept of transvaluation plays a critical role in redemptive dramas and social orders. In Attitudes Towards History,Burke defines transvaluations as “new attitudes” and remarks that attitudes are synonymous with values (381-382). In Permanence and Change,Burke characterizes the process of transvaluation “whereby the signs of poverty were reinterpreted as the signs of wealth, the signs of hunger as the signs of fullness, and present weeping was characterized unmistakably as the first symptom of subsequent delight” (155). One rhetorical goal of transvaluation is the conversion of attitudes and orders. Sacrifices, self-inflicted or otherwise, are performative rituals enacted for transformative purposes. Virgins are sacrificed to end droughts; baptisms (the symbolic death to self) are conducted to remove original sin. Burke’s conception of transvaluation is another corrective means of “pious yet sportive fearfulness” (“Poetic” 63) that the symbol user can take up to cope with the “ultimate disease of cooperation” (RM 22).

The Milwaukee Fourteen: Catholic Guilt and the Improprieties of Property 

In her book Divine Disobedience, Francine Gray provides some historical context and insight into the motives of the M-14. The Catholic Church’s apathy towards the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement prompted the Milwaukee Fourteen to employ an act of radical civil disobedience, one in a series of actions by the little known Catholic Anti-War Movement in the United States. These Catholic activists worked with related organizations such as Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam (CLCV) and Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker. The incursion on the Milwaukee Selective Service Office was the third destructive act of resistance following similar episodes earlier that year. In Baltimore, four activists poured blood on draft files. In Catonsville, led by the infamous Berrigan brothers, nine opponents to the war in Vietnam ransacked the draft headquarters there and burned 1-A draft files with home-made napalm. Unlike the members of SNCC and SDS, who were not going to be drafted anyway, the Catholic anti-war movement carried out their resistance away from the insulated college campus and into the public sphere. The Milwaukee Fourteen, all draft-exempt themselves, confronted the administrative instruments of war directly. Disillusioned with the unraveling of America’s social, economic, political, and moral fabric, these Catholic activists resolved that concrete action was the only option left. Resistive communities like the M-14 held “since politics weren’t working anyway, one had to find an act beyond politics: a religious act, a liturgical act, an act of witness” (Gray 57).

The M-14’s direct confrontation and destruction of property was viewed by the general public as a secular transgression. Yet, for the M-14 it was only a small part in a broader “catholic guilt” that motivated them to self-victimage in the first place. Both meanings of “catholic,” both “Roman Catholic” and “universal,” apply to this situation. Many of the members of the M-14 were Catholic priests, brothers, and laity who were motivated to burn draft files out of their own sense of guilt. And for Burke, guilt is an essential motive in human communication and is therefore catholic. James Forest, one the Fourteen, concisely characterized the general sense of cultural indifference, soft, hands-off dissent, and catholic guilt by drawing analogy to a Peanuts comic strip:

It [soft-dissent] is not unlike the Peanuts cartoon in which Linus, a grim SDS sort of expression on his face, marches forward with a placard in his hands proclaiming: HELP STAMP OUT THINGS THAT NEED STAMPING OUT! But following along a few paces to the rear was Snoopy, a drowsy, clerical expression on his face. He, too, is carrying a sign: (THIS ANNOUNCEMENT IS VOID WHERE PROHIBITED BY LAW). Many of us considered the war in Vietnam, the draft, racism, and poverty intolerable. We didn’t hesitate to say Amen to Linus’s sign. But we marched behind Snoopy. (2)

A close analysis of “The Milwaukee Fourteen Statement” can be read as a confession of “categorical guilt.” Such guilt prescribed purification though social and moral change and redirected readers’ attention to the discourse surrounding the M-14’s own motives for action as they are described in the introduction of the Statement:
Generation after generation religious values have summoned men to undertake the works of mercy and peace. In times of crisis these values have further required men to cry out in protest against institutions and systems destructive of man and his immense potential. We declare today that we are one with that history of mercy and protest. In destroying with napalm part of our nation’s bureaucratic machinery of conscription we declare that service of life no longer provides any options other than positive concrete action against what can only be called the American way of death: a way of death which gives property a greater value than life, a way of death sustained not by invitation and hope but by coercion and fear. (3)

As the statement suggests, the categorical guilt of the M-14 stems from an unconscious acceptance of the actions of political authorities, in which “positive concrete action” is the only remaining corrective. Refusing to act renders one complicit in “giving property greater value” and sustaining the “American way of death.” “The American way of death” was employed as an ironic, subversive phrase with the intention to awaken the American people and inspire more resistive communities. That particular way of death can be understood as another articulation of Burke’s “socialization of losses.” Burke explains, “the most normal mode of expiation is that of socialization (the “socialization of losses”). […] And the patriot may slay for his country, his act being exonerated by the justice of serving his group.” (PLF 50-51). “The socialization of losses” in the context of the Vietnam War could very well be synonymous with “the American way of death” precisely because it illustrates other symbolic related pathologies, i.e. “trained incapacity” and “occupational psychosis” (PC 7, 37) from which collective America suffers.

This kind of desensitizing doxa allows for the violence of war to persist because its dehumanizing effects are remote, not seen or discussed in public. Stephen Brown observes the challenges of confronting and transforming violence rhetorically are difficult to surmount because violence is a potent force that silences, dulls the moral imagination, and eliminates the capacity for resistance (159). Quiescence to the violence of war is socialized under the mytho-poetic banners of “duty,” “service,” and “protecting our freedoms.” More sophisticated strategic ambiguity and double-speak employed by the military to describe events in Vietnam have been captured in such familiar phrases as “pacification,” “neutralization,” and General Westmoreland infamous, “destroying the village to save the village.” It is resistance communities like the M-14 who seek to transfigure such criminal complacency and call attention to systematic distortions of communication. Such an example is the M-14’s own rhetorical revolution evident in the ironic inversion of “the American way of life.”

Moreover, the “genesis” of their moral culpability also centers on acquiescing for far too long to the indifference of ecclesiastical authority. At the risk of being lumped in with those apathetic religious leaders who Martin Luther King indicted for “remain[ing] silent behind the anesthetizing security of stain glass windows” (“Letter” 52), the M-14’s repudiation of Church authorities was necessary for redemption. According to the M-14, their shame also derives from being part of a fractured order. They believed that certain practices such as “killing is disorder, [and] life and gentleness, and community and unselfishness is the only order we recognize” (2). For the sake of bringing about that benevolent order, the group was willing to mortify themselves if it meant purifying the disorder of war and saving even a small amount of human lives.  

The M-14’s categorical guilt and motivation for resistance is clearly articulated. “We confess we were not easily awakened to the need for such action as we carry out today. In order for communities of resistance to come into being, millions of America’s sons were torn from family, friends, health, sanity and often life itself” (3). The aforementioned passage illustrates the magnitude of the M-14’s own transgressions. First, they admit the lag in their own enlightenment. Secondly, more significantly, they confess that their own existence as a community of resistance was called forth by immense suffering and loss of life. Thus, as they state later in the pamphlet: “For a growing number of us, the problem is no longer that of grasping what is happening. […] Ours is rather a problem of courage. We wish to offer our lives and futures to blockade, absorb and transform the violence and madness which our society has come to personify” (3). In articulating this disruptive desire to shift a nation’s moral conscience and exorcise their own categorical guilt, it becomes clear to the M-14 that abstract hopes and inert political talk has failed. What are needed are sacrificial acts of witness; however, the acts must to be public, profoundly symbolic, transvaluative and purify by a new brand of sacrifice. Federal property would become the target of this concrete action.

While the M-14’s guilt stemmed from indifference and inaction, they were also deeply troubled by America’s obsession with property. A simple cluster analysis of the Milwaukee Fourteen Statement associates property with: evil, slavery, the instruments of torture and human holocaust. Several examples of this “what goes with what” exercise include: “Today we destroy Selective Service System files because men need to be reminded that property is not sacred”; “So property is repeatedly made enemy of life: gas ovens in Germany, concentration camps in Russia, occupational tanks in Czechoslovakia, pieces of paper in draft offices, slum holdings, factories of death, machines, germs, and nerve gas”; and finally, “Some property has no right to exist” (3-4). However even deeper analysis reveals the role that destroying Federal property played in both the M-14’s micro rhetorical strategies and their grander sacrificial resistance. Property was described using mechanistic imagery, most notably in reference to the draft system as the “bureaucratic machinery of conscription.”

Beyond the materialistic bourgeois sense of property, the M-14 were more interested in eradicating a particular kind of property, that which is given “a greater value than life.” The “bureaucratic machinery of conscription” is one such a type of property. The purposeful use of this mechanistic imagery in describing what the M-14 destroyed functions rhetorically in two important ways. Mechanistic imagery further articulates the pathology of institutions and bureaucracies like the Department of Defense and Selective Service Offices who hold a view of the world as a set of objects preserved by systematic, unconscious, and naturalized practices and behaviors, what British cultural studies theoretician Raymond Williams calls “mechanical materialism” (96). From this perspective, what must stop this apparatus of enslavement is destructive friction. In short, framing the administrative injustices of the military industrial complex in mechanical terms allows for the possibility of breakdown or more pointedly, sabotage—the proverbial “monkey-wrenching.”

Closely related to the idea of property is the thought that categorical guilt is a byproduct of constructed hierarchies of values. As Burke informs us in Permanence and Change that the etymological propinquity of property and propriety is no accident (212). Here the principles of hierarchy allow for the symbol-using animal to place and be placed in positions of moralizing status. “[T]o the extent that a social structure becomes differentiated, with privileges to some that are denied to others, there are the conditions for a kind of ‘built in’ pride. King and peasant are ‘mysteries’ to each other. Those ‘Up’ are guilty of not being ‘Down,’ those ‘Down’ are certainly guilty of not being ‘Up’” (LSA 15). The bounded reciprocity between property and propriety therefore sets up variations of social regulation on who’s in and who’s out, who is guilty and who is innocent. This is precisely the problem the Catholic Anti-War Movement has with property. That is to say, America values property over people; it rejects secular and spiritual norms and therefore establishes why purification is needed.

Fr. David Kirk, a proponent of the Catholic Anti-War Movement declared, “We must depropertize, renounce the material of power. She [the Church] must divest Herself of property to return to the spiritual roots of the Gospel” (qtd. in Gray 25). Brother David Darst, a Christian Brother from Memphis, Tennessee, and the youngest member of the Catonsville Nine, condemned the deleterious effects of privileging property over people at his own trial. Darst, using Jesus’ actions as an analogue, vindicates the radical destruction of property:

The non-violent tradition of our religion has always drawn the line between people and things. It said that material things are for the use of people, but that people are sacred, they are absolute ends in themselves, they can never be used as means. Jesus Christ beat the moneychangers and threw over their tables because these were properties which were desecrating a more sacred property—the Church. Our point is that we’re destroying property which is desecrating the most sacred property—life. Was Jesus Christ guilty of assault and battery? (qtd. in Gray 179)

In short, through America’s quest to accumulate material property, rapacious capitalism has reified human beings. Phil Berrigan, a member of the Catonsville Nine, quipped, “One thing that Americans do understand is the destruction of property! Think of how much more upset the average parent is when his kid smashes the family car into a tree than when he receives an induction notice” (qtd. in Gray 151).

Thus burning draft files served two interrelated functions in the larger goal of reconfiguring the moral order. First, those individuals whose draft files were destroyed were ensured of not being drafted in what was perceived by many as an unjust war. Such an act of destruction was ironically lifesaving. Secondly, perhaps even more important, burning draft files was the impetus for ensuring the M-14’s mortification. As stated the M-14’s scapegoating of the Selective Service was an incomplete sacrifice. For if scapegoating the supreme example of property—the Selective Service—would have exculpated the sins of the Milwaukee Fourteen, then why stand around and wait to be arrested? A defining feature of the sacrificial deed, which marks the M-14’s act as mortification, is the protest notion of “stand around.” Contrary to other alternative tactics such as “hit and run,” after burning the draft files the M-14 simply awaited arrest. Their sabotage was grounded in “the nonviolent mystique that the presence of the man awaiting arrest, sacrificing his freedom to witness to his moral indignation, is an ingredient that transforms sabotage into a religious act” (Gray 2). Along with this shift from sabotage to act of witness, the M-14’s hybrid-victimage becomes clear. They state: “We have no illusions regarding the consequences of our action. To make visible another community of resistance and to better explain our action, we have chosen to act publicly and to accept the consequences. But we pay the price, if not gladly, at least with profound hope” (3). Here, the mortified are transvalued into more than an instance of self-atonement, but, rather, are offered up as a scapegoat for the collective guilt of a culture with the “profound hope” of transcending the disorder of war. In sum, Burke’s guilt-purification-redemption cycle is not always tidy; internal machinations occur. The M-14 was willing to stand in as scapegoat and be mortified by incarceration, however, in order for them to ensure mortification, it was necessary to locate an antecedent material scapegoat (the Selective Service, a penultimate synecdoche for property).

Transvaluation and Mortification: Salvation, Condemnation, and Atonement

Having established the M-14’s guilt and the role property played in the redemptive drama, let us now continue with an analysis of the ways in which the M-14 reappropriated the instruments of war for peaceful purposes, culminating in an act of martyrdom that transvalued mortification into a self-scapegoat. Just as the justification and public support for war necessitates a strategic choreography of attitudes, so, too, does resistance to the tribal war waltz require the “dancing” of new attitudes (PLF 9). But new attitudes are often side stepped or dubbed disgraceful by older orders with recalcitrant values. How can one rhetorically refresh the moral imaginative of older, static orders? One answer is through transvaluation. It follows that the attainment of a new moral order insistent on a conversion of hearts only has hope of taking hold to the extent that the old order undergoes significant rhetorical transformations.1 The M-14’s acts of destroying property did more than simply render the group consubstantial, scapegoat the Selective Service, or set in motion the cyclical elements of redemption; they also saved lives through nonviolent transvaluations.

The M-14’s symbolic conversions rely on changing the perceived meaning of terms and contexts used by the old order. Such refining by redefining is similar to Burke’s concept of “exorcism by misnomer” (PC 133). Burke explains “[o]ne casts out demons by a vocabulary of conversion, by an incongruous naming, by calling them the very thing in all the world they are not” (133). The M-14’s name is itself an exorcism of the more familiar meaning of the M-14, an automatic rifle with a 20-round magazine, more efficient than the 8-round weapon used in World War II and Korea. One protest poster offered this ironic slogan “The M-14, a soldier’s best friend.” Thus, the proverbial sword is turned into the plowshare. But the M-14 had other significations, as well: the number fourteen indicated an increasing momentum and potency of the movement, containing more members than those of antecedent groups—the Baltimore four, and the Catonsville nine.

In addition to transvaluing the meaning of the M-14 machine gun, the scene where the draft files were burned and the M-14 awaited arrest also undergoes a symbolic reformation.2 The draft files were strategically burned with homemade napalm in a nearby park that memorialized America’s war heroes. It goes without saying that a nation’s commemoration of its war dead is an archetypal and rhetorical aesthetic form. But as Burke would remind us, such a form is not only “a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality” (LSA 45). Under a different scheme of hierarchical and cultural values, at different times in history, involving different wars, it is possible to interpret commemoration as condemnation.

However, this translation from commemoration to condemnation is more easily understood when juxtaposed by competing symbolic forms. The choice of the war memorial is intended to produce a radical rethinking of the exploits involved in what those monuments represent. Honor becomes horror, and we are reminded that both “victim and executioner have been trapped in the same dragnet of death” (MFS 3).It is also important to note that it is at this park where the M-14 themselves are arrested. From the perspective of a religious drama, the Milwaukee memorial park may be transvalued into the Garden of Gethsemane through Burke’s idea of secular conversions. “It [conversion] effects its cures by providing a new perspective that dissolves the system of pieties lying at the roots of the patient’s sorrows…offering a fresh terminology of motives” (PC 125). Scholars of rhetoric have observed discourse’s ability to reinforce the conversion process.3 The M-14’s own religious piety is consubstantiated by the symbolic conversion of the situation. The act of their willing arrest converts a secular green space into the locus of their Lord’s sacred Passion. Just as Jesus refrained from resistance upon his arrest by Roman centurions, giving himself up freely; so, too, did the Milwaukee Fourteen accept the consequences of their actions. In doing so, they invited the American public to view their mortification as a resistive act having larger sacrificial purpose.

Finally, there is the repeated allusion to Napalm, which the M-14 used both rhetorically and extra-rhetorically in their act of resistance.4 Symbolic destruction of institutional property and the burning of documents rest on mythic, biblical and historical precedent. Harvey Cox, a Harvard theologian, compared the acts of the radical Catholic anti-draft movement to several other such religious acts, including:        

Jeremiah destroying the clay pots on the steps of the Temple; to William Lloyd    Garrison’s public burnings of the Constitution in protest against slavery; to Martin Luther’s burning of Cannon Law in front of the University of Wittenberg.... Catholic priests have a special task of carrying out sacrificial acts which lead to redemption. (qtd. in Gray 163)    

Before elucidating how the extra-rhetorical use of napalm functions as incipient redemption and corroborates the hybrid victimage thesis, let me explain the rhetorical ways in which the M-14 reconstitute napalm. First, they plainly state, “we use napalm and strike at the draft as a point of continuity in the nonviolent struggle recently carried forward in Maryland” (2). This genuflection to the Catonsville nine, who also burned draft files with napalm, sears the bands together, thereby sustaining and propelling the Catholic anti-draft movement. Secondly, apart from the simple thought that “if it worked once, it will work again,” they use napalm metaphorically. “Indeed Napalm is the inevitable fruit our national un-conscious, the signs of our numbness to life” (2). This metaphor operates on two levels. First, as an all-consuming weapon of mass destruction, napalm is compared to the collective complacency that has subsumed the Catholic Church and the larger American public. While the comparison to “the inevitable fruit,” may appear anachronistic, it becomes analogous to the forbidden fruit of the Garden Eden in the book of Genesis when conjoined with the possessive pronoun our preceding “national un-conscience” and “numbness.” When they eat this fruit under the temptation that it will make them godlike, they directly disobey God’s commandment and thereby instantiate humanity with our “original sin.” Likewise, in the U.S. military’s ubiquitous and arbitrary use of napalm it attempts to be god-like, raining fire down on our enemies, the godless Communists of Vietnam.

Another example present in the opening section of the pamphlet informs readers of precisely why the M-14 chooses to use napalm. In burning government property the M-14 turns the very instrument of war on itself. This transposing of napalm gets close to a more elaborate symbolism. Recall that in order for the M-14’s or any group’s redemption there must first be a purgatory ritual. It has become clear that what the M-14 desires to purify is not the simple machinery of war, but the ideology promulgated by it. It is an ideology that sees “devotion to property take ever greater precedence over devotion to life” (MFS 4). The expiation of guilt, the rejection of the hierarchical position that America has placed on death over life and the guilt by association that complacency produces requires a purification ritual. Joseph Gusfield, in the introduction of Kenneth Burke On Symbols and Society observes, “Rituals, dramatic enactments, provide us with visible symbols in which hierarchy is built up and in which rejection is atoned for (33). Thus, a more expanded understanding of the M-14’s transvaluation of napalm requires the knowledge of liturgical ritual. As the M-14 prepared the altar for sacrifice, as it were, these “suffering servants” burned draft files in order to enact the final rite of mortification.

Most importantly, through mortification by incarceration, the M-14 publicly forge a moral reordering. Although the symbol of fire in most religions has liturgical resonance signifying refinement, purity, or vengeance, for the M-14 it is the light of new life brought about by a holocaust, the “purgatorial fire,” the “ritual cleanser” (SM 97). The draft files functions as a synecdoche representing the larger institution of war and all the guilt and disorder associated with it while destroying the draft files functions as a scapegoat device and not as an act of mortification alone. Since new covenants require the central agents of fire and sacrifice, napalm is transvalued into the fire that creates a new non-violent moral vision with the sacrifice occurring in the arrest and imprisonment of the M-14. While potential draftees’ lives were saved by the protest pyre, the sacrificial act is not complete without self-victimage. Here Burke’s more nuanced definition of mortification as “scrupulous and deliberate clamping of limitation upon the self” (qtd. in Burke, PC 289) aligns most appropriately with the redemptive drama of the M-14. The M-14’s meticulously planned and public act of burning Federal property and subsequent incarceration, the “clamping” of handcuffs, the “limitation” of space, and restrictions of freedoms were all expected and accepted consequences. These self-impositions, the symbolic death of one’s liberties, thereby constitute a form of mortification. The M-14’s hybrid victimage becomes the ultimate act of transvaluation whereby one becomes the object of sacrifice themselves.


The purpose of this paper has been to challenge the narrowly defined concept of mortification by analyzing an act of resistance that illustrates how categorical guilt can be purified through a blend of mortification and scapegoating. The M-14’s actions were not those of mere anarchists or saboteurs, but those of “secular sinners.” The M-14 mortified themselves for the disordered transgressions (most notable the Vietnam War, racism, sexism, poverty, and exploitative capitalism) of a culture. Crucial to this sacrificial drama is that the Selective Service be marked as scapegoat. However, because the M-14 saw themselves complicit with the larger socio-political sins of the Vietnam era, stealing and destroying draft files from the Selective Service did not to purify their guilt outright. It only became a subsequent sin, a necessary catalyst for their mortification by incarceration. Ultimately, the M-14’s brand of hybrid victimage managed both individual and collective guilt and, most importantly, saved human lives through peaceful, nonviolent resistance.

* Dr. Christopher J. Oldenburg is Assistant Professor of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. He can be reached at


  1. For an excellent analysis of how a new order (albeit an odious one) is achieved by distorting the symbols of another see Kenneth Burke, “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle” in The Philosophy of Literary Form.
  2. In focusing on the scene or site of the resistive act of destroying draft files, I do so for the purposes of demonstrating the concept of transvaluation and mortification. While I acknowledge the scene is arguably the most prominent element of Burke’s dramatistic pentad, it is not my intention to analyze the scene from that framework.
  3. See E.E. White. Puritan Rhetoric: The Issue of Emotion in Religion. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 1972.
  4. For Burke’s own poetic reflections on the Vietnam War and napalm, see, Collected Poems 1915-1967, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968, 290-291.

Works Cited

Brown, Stephen. Angelina Grimke: Rhetoric, Identity, and the Radical Imagination. East Lasing: Michigan State UP, 1999. Print.

Brummett, Barry. “Burkean Scapegoating, Mortification, and Transcendence in Presidential Campaign Rhetoric.” Central States Speech Journal 32 (1981): 254-264. Print.

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Towards History. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984. Print.

—. Collected Poems 1915-1967. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968. Print.

—.“A Dramatistic View of the Origins of Language.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 38 (1952): 251-264. Print.

—. Essays Toward a A Symbolic of Motives, 1955-1955. Ed. William H. Rueckert. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2007. Print.

—. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966. Print.

—. On Symbols and Society. Ed. Joseph R. Gusfield. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. Print.

—. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984. Print.

—. Philosophy of Literary Form Studies in Symbolic Action. 3rd ed.Berkeley: U of California P, 1973. Print.

—. “The Poetic Motive.” Hudson Review 40 (1958): 54-63. Print.

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

—. The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. Berkeley: U of California P, 1970. Print.

Calvin, Margret. “Replacing the Scapegoat An Examination of the Rebirth Strategies Found in William Sloane Coffin’s Language of Peace.” Peace & Change 19 (1994): 276-295. Print.

Carter, Allen C. Kenneth Burke and the Scapegoat Process. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1996. Print.

Forest, Jim. “In a Time of War.” Delivered into Resistance. (N. editor) New Haven: The Advocate Press, 1969. Print.

Gray, du Plessix Francine. Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970. Print.

Ivie, Robert L. “Metaphor and the Rhetorical Invention of Cold War ‘Idealists.’” Communication Monographs 54 (1987): 165-182. Print.

—. “Fighting Terror by Rite of Redemption and Reconciliation.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 10 (2007): 221-248. Print.

King, Martin Luther Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Audiences and Intentions: A Book of Arguments. 2nd ed. Ed. Nancy Mason Bradbury and Arthur Quinn. New York: Macmillan, 1994. 43-55. Print.

Kirkhorn, Michael. “Draft Office Here Raided, Protestors Burn Records.” The Milwaukee Journal 25 September 1968: 2. Print. 

Milwaukee Fourteen, The. The Milwaukee Fourteen Statement. Milwaukee: The Milwaukee Fourteen, 1968. Print.

Patrinos, Dan. “War Protestors Give Statement.” The Milwaukee Sentinel 25 September 1968: 7. Print.

Rueckert, William H. Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations. 2nd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1981. Print.

Vkbellis. “Milwaukee Fourteen Action.” YouTube, 22 Feb. 2009. Web. 5 Sept. 2012.

White, E.E. Puritan Rhetoric: The Issue of Emotion in Religion. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1972. Print.

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977. Print.

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Review: Moving Bodies by Debra Hawhee

Hawhee, Debra Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edges of Language: Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009.

Patricia Fancher, Clemson University

Debra Hawhee’s book Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edges of Language develops the only comprehensive examination of the role of bodies in Burke’s rhetorical theory. For Burke scholars, this fact alone makes this book a significant contribution to the continuing conversation that Burke initiated. In addition, Hawhee argues that the broader field of rhetorical theory must re-focus on the body in order to account for the complex interaction of language and material in each rhetorical situation. This book constructs an argument for and a performance of body-focused rhetorical analysis.  Through her body-focused analysis of Burke, Hawhee illustrates how refocusing on the body in rhetoric can add new depth and complexity to our understanding of rhetoric and rhetorical theory.  For an audience of Burke scholars and rhetoricians in general, this book reminds us that the body is the foundation of rhetoric, and that we create new perspectives to understand any rhetorical situation by paying close attention to bodies. 

Hawhee argues that, in Burke’s rhetorical theories, bodies are inseparable from language. Bodies and language are in a co-constituting relationship. Bodies represent non-symbolic motion. Words represent symbolic action. Although Burke distinguishes between non-symbolic motion and symbolic action, language (symbolic action) cannot exist without bodies (motion). Therefore, bodies form the ground of all symbolic action. If we are to understand symbolic action, we must understand the bodily foundation. However, bodies are not just the foundation of symbolic action; Hawhee focuses on numerous ways that the bodies in Burke’s world and his writing move toward language and symbolic action. Hawhee’s argument focuses on how bodies move, dance, and sneak away from non-symbolic motion and toward symbolic action. Hawhee supports this argument by looking at how bodies, in Burke’s writings, in Burke’s life, and in Burke’s own body, move toward language.

Burke’s employer, Colonel Author Woods of the Bureau of Social Hygiene, was a significant ‘body’ outside Burke’s text that influenced Burke as he formulated his method of counter-efficient scholarship and perspective of incongruity. Hawhee explains that the Colonel represented the counter-Burke, about whom Burke once claimed “it would take a life time to explain the damages and rewards” from working with Colonel Woods (61).  Woods was efficient, serious, and bureaucratic (62). He promoted the training of efficient disciplined bodies in order to create efficient social organizations. Colonel Woods held an unwavering conviction that drugs, of any sort, are evil, in part, because they drugged body was an inefficient, uncontrolled body (69).

Hawhee explains Burke’s reaction to this professional relationship: “the counter-efficient style of scholarship no doubt made more explicit to Burke through his oppositional relation to Colonel Woods” (74). Burke develops his counter-efficient style of scholarship, in part, as a reaction to the ‘efficient’ bodily mannerisms and convictions of Colonel Wood. Burke saw this type of efficiency as a form of mental gridlock. Burke advocates for a ‘counter-gridlock’ that would allow the mind to “go every which way” (64). This counter-gridlock thinking appears as the key term ‘perspectives by incongruity’ in Permanence and Change and Attitudes Toward History, the books that Burke wrote during and immediately after his employment at the Bureau. 

Hawhee’s chapter “Body Language: Paget and Gesture-Speech Theory” focuses on the bodies within Burke’s texts in order to explain how Burke configured the body/language dualism.  Hawhee traces out numerous locations where Burke invokes gesture-speech theory. Hawhee argues, “attention to Burke’s Pagetian side will show… that attitude both stems from and manifests in generative, connective, bodily movement…. Burke’s addition of attitude brings with it the crucial mind-body correspondences that his theories honored all along” (108). Gesture-speech theory draws on physical science and evolutionary theory to argue that language evolved out of a foundation in the body and gesture (107).  Burke developed an interest in Richard Paget’s gesture-speech theory early in his career and continued to incorporate the concepts into his theories of dramatism and symbolic action.

Burke uses gesture speech theory to demonstrate that bodies have a formative role in the ‘linguistic dance’ of meaning and attitude (117). Bodies do not simply produce the sounds necessary to speak and convey meaning. The body also performs the attitude motivating the speech act. The physical cues made by the larynx and mouth, which he calls ‘tonal gestures’, convey meaning and attitude that may or may not correspond to the logic of the words alone. In Philosophy of Literary Form, Burke writes, “The Paget theory of ‘gesture speech’ obviously makes a perfect fit with this [theory of drama] perspective by correlating the origins of linguistic action with bodily action and posture” (121, in Hawhee). Hawhee stresses that Burke’s interest in gesture speech theory should remind rhetoricians that “communication is difficult to separate from language’s materiality, which is never far from communing, communicative bodies” (124).

The final chapter, “Welcome to the Beauty Clinic”, is likely the most useful for rhetoricians interested in the connection between bodies and rhetoric because Hawhee performs the most body-focus method of rhetorical analysis, which she calls a body biography. In this chapter, Hawhee creates direct connections between an analysis of Burke’s physical condition and his intellectual progress on the Symbolic of Motives. Until this point, Hawhee has performed a rhetorical method that connects Burke’s writings to the bodies in Burke’s life. She has also performed a method that connects Burke’s writings on bodies and his writings on language. In this chapter, she moves language and bodies even closer by making the most direct connection between bodies and language. Hawhee explains the method is to “examine how two bodies – the body in theory and Burke’s own ailing body – both sculpted and stultified his writing during this period [1950’s]” (129).

She opens the analysis by discussing Burke’s various ailments and then connects those ailments to Burke’s developing thinking on bodies and symbolic action. His abuse of alcohol and ongoing respiratory ailment hindered the flow of his ideas. These physical conditions affected his process of writing, creating starts, stops and interruptions. His writing stops and stumbles like the Gaspo-Gaggo-Gulpo of his lungs struggling to breath. Both of these physical ailments led Burke to return to thinking on the body in further depth. Hawhee explains, “Burke’s relationship to his ailing body, as evidenced in his painstaking account of his symptoms’ correlation – indeed, response – to the flow of ideas, approximates....a belief in the transformative power of illness” (134). She then connects these physical ailments to how Burke develops four different bodies of catharsis – bodies that purge, bodies that laugh and cry, bodies of the crowd, and bodies as part of ecology - in “On Catharsis or Resolution” a piece of writing that was intended to contribute to A Symbolic of Motives, his final major book project. Hawhee explains that these bodies and Burke’s own body remind him of the ‘deathiness’ that “paradoxically binds and divides bodies and language” (146). Without bodies, language may be pure and essential, but it would also be dead and empty. Bodies give language life, vivacity and through the birth and death of new bodies, language builds and grows.

Hawhee does not simply urge rhetoricians to focus on the connection between language and body; her entire book performs body-focused rhetorical analysis. This focus on the body is most clear in “Welcome to the Beauty Clinic”. In Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edges of Language, Hawhee effectively argues for a rhetorical analysis at the intersection of language and bodies. The book functions as a performance of a rhetorical analysis that connects bodies and language. By connecting Burke’s ideas to the bodies surrounding the texts, this book breathes fresh life into Burke’s words. Before publishing Moving Bodies, Hawhee states, “It would be incumbent upon Burke scholars to take seriously Burke’s terms and turns and look into their conditions of emergence” (Burke on Drugs, 1). Moving Bodies represents the most extensive example connecting Burke’s terms and turns and their “conditions of emergence”. In this case, the conditions of emergence are the bodies in the text, the bodies influencing Burke’s ideas, and Burke’s own body as he develops his theories throughout his life. Hawhee’s argument and performance in this text remind scholars of rhetoric to pay attention to the bodies that give language life, movement and energy.

* Patricia Fancher is a PhD student in the Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design program at Clemson University.

Works Cited

Hawhee, Debra. Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edges of Language. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2009. Print.

Hawhee, Debra. “Burke on Drugs”. Rhetoric Society Quarterly. 34:4 (2004), 5-28. Print.

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Review: Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke by Bryan Crable

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

Tyler Branson, Sharon A. Harris, Tom Jesse, and Joel Overall, Texas Christian University

Ralph Ellison once said in an interview that he chooses not to recognize a distinct “white” culture: “I recognize no American culture,” he said, “which is not the partial creation of black people” (McPherson 174). Ellison thus rejected the separation of “black culture” from a more general “American” culture. And this “fundamental hybridity” (Stephens 119) embodied in Ellison’s work is what, according to Bryan Crable, links him with Kenneth Burke. Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke: At the Roots of the Racial Divide highlights how the personal relationship between the two men embodies a “distinctly American” conversation, one in which discomfort, silence, distance, and awkwardness represent building blocks of a new kind of “transformative discourse” which more accurately counters the prevailing and stifling dialogue on race in America.

In Chapter 1, Crable investigates why, given their biographical and intellectual alignment (45), Ellison’s fan-letter to Burke—in which he said he was “indebted” to Burke’s theories—was met with “awkward distance” and reticence (3). Crable writes that Burke’s “discomfort” with Ellison’s praise and identification indicates the larger “awkward conversation” developing around race in America, the “antagonistic cooperation . . . that has long characterized the relationship between blacks and whites” (5).

In the book’s second chapter, Crable frames his discussion of the brief correspondence between Burke and Ellison around a central paradox. The chapter’s title—“Antagonistic Cooperation”—borrows from Ellison’s comments on the challenges of maintaining friendships between writers (46), but Crable shifts here from personal history to textual analysis in an effort to demonstrate how the long silences and unresolved tensions present in their “ongoing dialogue had helped [Burke and Ellison] create some of their most celebrated works” (78).

Over a series of five documents—Ellison’s 1945 essay “Richard Wright’s Blues,” three letters written between 1945 and 1946, and the published text of A Rhetoric of Motives in 1950—Crable details the countervailing approaches to race each man would develop in conjunction with but wholly separate from the work of his peer. The on-again, off-again correspondence between Burke and Ellison becomes, paradoxically, one of the most important and most consistent influences in the development of both thinkers’ attitudes toward racial identity, privilege, and justice (64). As both men struggle to find the right words to express their early positions on race in America, each converts this lack into an excess by exploiting the “motive force” inherent in language that compels “man to transcend the ‘state of nature’” (Burke 192). This force enables Burke to develop his terminological hierarchy (moving from positive to dialectic to ultimate vocabularies) in the Rhetoric and motivates Ellison to create the character “Invisible” who comes to embrace “a more complex set of coordinates” regarding “the symbolic constitution of reality” (Crable 93).

The same “drive for transcendence” (75) that Burke felt Ellison missed in his 1945 review of Richard Wright’s Black Boy becomes a major concept in the final section of the Rhetoric, and through his detailed readings of the five documents featured in Chapter 2, Crable constructs a convincing case that “Burke’s Rhetoric constitutes a significant treatment of race, one developed in response to Ellison” (76, emphasis added). And though, at times, the focus veers so sharply from Ellison to Burke and back again that the finer points of Crable’s analysis get a bit muddied, there can be no denying that the paradox inherent in the relationship between these men—the formative correspondence that had no coherent form; the substantial sharing that lacked consistent substance—produced transformative results in the works each published from 1950 onward.

This paradox, embodied by disconnected correspondence and inconsistency, manifests itself particularly in Burke’s response (or lack thereof) to Ellison’s Invisible Man in 1952. In Chapter 3, Crable argues that while many scholars have highlighted the Burkean structure of Invisible Man, few have adequately placed it within the context of Burke and Ellison’s relationship with one another. Examining private letters between Burke, Ellison, and their mutual friend Stanley Hyman, Crable demonstrates how Burke deliberately refused to comment on or even read Invisible Man for years after it was released in 1952, despite Ellison’s letters of praise and the fact that Invisible Man is so very clearly Burkean in its “comic consciousness” (101). Crable writes, “When we consider that this book was initially dedicated to Burke, this admission is simply astonishing” (105). Burke, jealous of the quick rise in fame of Ellison and of the success of Invisible Man in particular, was unable to see the useful adaptation of his own theories into a valuable counter-statement (98). Thus, Burke’s 1985 essay on Ellison, “Ralph Ellison’s Trueblooded Bildungsroman,” is not simply a friendly meditation thirty years later, but a manifestation of the response that Burke never wrote to Ellison, the letter of approval that Ellison so desperately wanted but never received (110). Crable also shows that merely noting the linkages between Burkean concepts and Ellison’s Invisible Man is by itself is not enough: we need to look deeper into the context of their own relationship, at the acceptance and rejection--or the “tragic grammar” of purpose, passion, and perception between them--in order to visualize an “ultimate vocabulary” for better understanding and combating America’s racial divide.

Before we can arrive at this vocabulary, however, Crable feels that the issue of Burke’s own personal attitudes on race need to be addressed. Chapter 4 (“Was Kenneth Burke a Racist?”) contests other scholars’—especially Beth Eddy’s and Donald Pease’s—simplistic denunciations of Burke as a racist and argues for a more nuanced view of Burke’s and Ellison’s disagreements on race. To achieve this, Crable constructs a holistic context from little-used archives. As in other chapters, Crable assembles evidence from published and unpublished correspondence between Burke, Ellison, and others, as well as critical works by both men to address the central argument of his book: Although his own position within a white cultural milieu rendered him incapable of transcending a dialectical terminology, Burke provided Ellison with the model for creating a vocabulary to address race as an irreducible element of humankind. More importantly, Crable’s analysis of the theme of race in Burke’s letters to Ellison and others from the 1940s through the 1960s reveals Burke’s habitual framing of race as a binary—a “unified whiteness . . . whose sole other was the black American” (132). The consistency of Burke’s dualistic view of race is perhaps Crable’s greatest contribution to scholarship on Burke and Ellison, a portrayal all the more unsettling because Burke—the quintessential observer of linguistic practice—appears at times unconscious of the terministic screens with which he conveys the duality.

Inasmuch as their correspondence reveals Ellison’s desire for Burke’s affirmation and counsel, Burke can only offer Marxist terminology as an admittedly temporary and unsatisfying way for “minorities to transcend social conflict” (135). Burke himself is unable to envision “the possibility of an ultimate vocabulary of race” (135). However, Ellison understood the origins of racial identity in ways that Burke could not, and, building upon Burke’s theory, Ellison projects “a more complex, ultimate vocabulary which would treat race as central to the question of human existence, thus providing a vision of true cooperation to replace wins and losses inherent in the dialectical order” (136). The transcendent order of vocabulary Ellison envisioned would probe the foundations of American racial identity in ways that Burke could theorize but not articulate beyond the terministic screens warranting race as a binary circumstance of American culture. However much Burke and Ellison, the individuals, may have yearned for equilibrium within and between their cultural scenes, Crable writes, only a conscious union of their vocabularies offers a new discourse on race.

From the introduction, Crable claims his book provides “important intellectual resources for the critique of [the] racial binary” (6), and in Chapter 5, Crable most fully details these resources. By combining Burke’s theoretical description of an ultimate vocabulary with Ellison’s enactment of this theory in his often-overlooked nonfiction, we can more effectively critique the racial binary. Some readers might have expected Crable to delve into Ellison’s posthumously published fiction (Juneteenth and Three Days before the Shooting…) in this final chapter, but instead, Crable argues Ellison’s nonfiction more fully envisions “a nondialectical approach to the analysis of race” (138). While readers might prefer to know in which nonfiction essays Ellison articulates this nondialectical approach to race, Crable chooses instead to treat the works of nonfiction as a unified body of thought. For the most part, this strategy works, though a few dates to help trace the evolution of Ellison’s thoughts might have been helpful. Nevertheless, Crable delivers a clear articulation of “the central arguments and insights of an Ellisonian rhetorical theory of race and identity” (214).

Crable details a comprehensively Ellisonian and Burkean rhetoric of race by first confronting the fantasy of racial purity within the positive and dialectical orders of current racial vocabulary. While Crable claims Burke was blinded by his own whiteness, he describes how Ellison rejected a dialectical vocabulary of race and adopted an ultimate vocabulary that unified black and white races. Though Ellison was unable to fully transcend the dialectical order of race, Crable pushes Ellison’s insights further to “move closer to the ultimate account of race” (150). By acknowledging race as “a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies” (159), Crable argues that the racial divide too often relies primarily on dialectical symbolism, which can be divorced from the natural, biological world. In arguing for transcendence into the ultimate order, Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke: At the Roots of the Racial Divide continues the process of regrounding the racial dichotomy in nature and bodies and compelling us to take responsibility for both our social and symbolic acts.

* Tyler Branson is a PhD Student in Rhetoric and Composition at TCU. He can be reached via email at
* Sharon A. Harris is a PhD Candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at TCU. She can be reached via email at
* Tom Jesse is a PhD Student in 20th Century American Literature at TCU. He can be reached via email at
* Joel Overall is a PhD Candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at TCU. He can be reached via email at

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.

McPherson, James. "Indivisible Man." Ed. Maryemma Graham and Amritjit Singh. Conversations with Ralph Ellison. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1995. 173-191. Print.

Stephens, Gregory. On Racial Frontiers: The New Culture of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, and Bob Marley. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print

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Review: The Chameleon President by Clarke Rountree

Four Ways of Looking at Eleven Ways of Looking

Clarke Rountree, The Chameleon President: The Curious Case of George W. Bush. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2013.

Jason C. Thompson, University of Wyoming

In 1917 Wallace Stevens published “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” a poem that, in presenting alternative perspectives of a mundane act, argues not for the narrative construction of one singular and edifying meaning, but for the intellectual possibility of perspectivism: in place of a distinct narrator’s voice, thirteen narrators speak, a literary prefiguration of the “virtual camera” that pioneered Bullet Time® in the 1999 film The Matrix.

J. Clark Rountree, Professor of Communication Arts at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, appears to engage in a project similar to that of Stevens: when I read on the dust jacket that Rountree proposes “eleven different versions of George W. Bush” that illustrate his multi-perspectival mode of inquiry, I got excited by the project and remembered the quote in Kenneth Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives: “But put identification and division ambiguously together, so that you cannot know for certain just where one ends and the other begins, and you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric” (25).

I thrilled at the idea of a writer ambiguously combining various and quite possibly contradictory portraits of the controversial former president and architect of the War on Terror—the notion of an invitation to rhetoric, an incitement to a kind of Corderian spaciousness, a consideration, after Erasmus, of a political De Copia. In anticipation of a reading a modern Dissoi Logoi on a contradictory president I eagerly pick up the book and turn to read the first words of the first chapter.


In his Acknowledgments, Rountree sets out the nature of this unique project: The Chameleon President: The Curious Case of George W. Bush marks “a departure from [his] usual academic work—a chance to apply [his] theoretical work on the rhetorical constructions of human motives to an understanding of one of the most confounding politicians” (ix). The book also offers “a postmortem on the ugly body of work known as George W. Bush’s presidency” that aims to “get at the issue of who Bush is, and how who he is has led us to where we are to today” by comparing “several of the most popular and defensible constructions of Bush” (xvi). Rountree identifies these eleven constructions in corresponding chapters: “Not the Sharpest Tool in the Shed,” “The Callow Frat Boy,” “The Born-Again President,” “The Conservative Texan,” “The Man Who Would Be King,” “The Incredible Oedipal Bush,” “The Corporate Crony,” “The Evil President,” “Cheney’s Puppet,” “The Victim of Circumstance,” and “The Far-Seeing Patriot.” For each chapter, Rountree adopts the appropriate writerly persona (the voice of what he terms “an advocate” of that construction) and discursively channels that argument. He concludes the book with a short final chapter that asks “Will the Real George W. Bush Please Stand Up?”

Through his source material, experimental form, and cunning use of Kenneth Burke, Rountree intends to reach a non-academic or general audience in order to achieve his ambitious purpose of showing how rhetoric—specifically Burke’s dramatistic Pentad— can be used to illuminate motive. This light, then, artfully destabilizes the solid ground that had, just before, seemed to support the construction. By voicing dominant popular constructions of Bush—and rigorously supporting these voices with compendious endnotes (there may by 900 in all)—Rountree nicely sidesteps the difficulty that attends an academic writer arguing directly against a named authority or a known argument. Here, in creatively voicing a given construction—“Not the Sharpest Tool in the Shed,” for example—Rountree inductively gathers evidence that eventually coheres. To watch it occur on the page is not only to experience the fleshing out of a commonplace (a type of argumentative z-axis emergence) but also to understand that its reconstruction (like Bakhtin’s heteroglossia or Butler’s drag performance) unveils its ontological construction. Again, an expert move for his audience.

In order for Rountree to embody the eleven most “defensible” constructions of Bush, he appropriately draws on the most widely-known material from popular, not academic, sources: biographies, autobiographies, tell-alls, and reportage written by and about Bush administration officials. When looking to articulate the construction of Bush as “The Callow Frat Boy,” for example, Rountree argues that Bush’s use of nicknames and his practice of nepotism coalesce in the infamous Katrina press conference, in which Bush “stated in front of the media, ‘Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.’” Rountree recounts how Brown had become FEMA director based on “his work as commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association” (17) and along the way had earned the nickname “Brownie,” a badge identifying his status as a “loyal Bushie.” Rountree points out that Bush’s “penchant for nicknaming . . . suggests an informality that makes him as playful” but that it may also be “sinister” and, according to journalist Ron Suskind, “‘a bully technique’” (28). The cluster—callow, frat boy, nepotism, nickname, “Brownie,” bully—gets set up by Rountree. However, the quotation cementing it comes from the tell-all What Happened by longtime Bush press secretary Scott McClellan:

Even Brown looked embarrassed, and no wonder . . .. For Bush to commend him publicly suggested either that the president’s well-known belief in personal loyalty was overwhelming his judgment or that he still didn’t realize how bad things were on the Gulf Coast. Either way, the incident said something bad about the Bush administration. (38)

Given that Rountree’s audience lived through both Bush terms, they likely recall the many press conferences held by Bush’s longest-serving press secretary. Hurricane Katrina, in addition to being the costliest domestic disaster, affected millions of people and generated thousands of rhetorical identifications that would have been consumed by Rountree’s audience. Also, administrative mishandling of Katrina came to exemplify Bush’s disconnection from the American people, particularly his detachment from suffering Americans. In McClellan’s assessment, either Bush accidentally revealed how loyalty trumped judgment (supporting the voice of Chapter 2: “The Callow Frat-Boy”), or how incuriousness trumped fact (supporting the voice of Chapter 1: “Not the Sharpest Tool in the Shed”). It is worth noting here that this interpretation of presidential motives comes from the former press secretary, the official manager of popular rhetorical constructions of the president. Surely the audience reading The Chameleon President must think back to that particular press conference and to the many defenses of Bush policy outlined by McClellan over the years. “If a former, official apologeticist can be such a chameleon,” Rountree’s reader might wonder, “how changeable must Bush himself be?”

Throughout the book, Rountree offers some masterful deployments of the work of Kenneth Burke, particularly of Burke’s theory of human motivation as given in the Grammar of Motives. However, though his book relies on the Pentad, Burke is not named until page 147, when the Pentad gets summarized without the familiar terms Act, Agent, Scene, Agency, Purpose, (and Attitude). Burke is named again on page 217, in order to introduce pentadic ratios. Given his audience and purpose—not to mention the unwieldy nature of harnessing Burke—this choice to downplay helps the project. Finally, Rountree returns for a third time to Kenneth Burke, the idea of terministic screens and the pentadic elements, in order to reveal his higher purpose: the 11 constructions of Bush can be related to agent (“Not the Sharpest Tool in the Shed,” “The Callow Frat Boy,” “The Born-Again President,” “The Evil President”), to scene and act (“The Conservative Texan,” “The Victim of Circumstance,” and possibly “Cheney’s Puppet”), to purpose (“The Incredible Oedipal Bush,” “The Corporate Crony,” and “The Far-Seeing Patriot”), and attitude (“The Man Who Would Be King”). In other words, the Pentad itself is revealed as the scene of the act of popular presidential construction. Readers among Rountree’s intended audience will likely find satisfaction in this conclusion: in addition to offering a way out of the maddening binaries and high volumes that currently mark popular political discourse, it creates a feeling of anagogic arrival. Rountree’s “eleven Bushes” serve a pedagogic function, one designed to improve our politics by destabilizing unitary understandings of our forty-third president. In this, it does resemble a political Dissoi Logoi, and that accomplishment deserves high praise.


Academic audiences, especially ones familiar with Kenneth Burke, may find aspects of RountreeÕs project problematical: his title and chapter constructions might be read for tensions of a work at cross-purposes.

For example: the title of Rountree’s book, The Chameleon President: The Curious Case of George W. Bush, smashes rhetoric (in the implied sophistry of a president best characterized as a lizard, a reptile able to change its color to match its surroundings) and literature (in the salute to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald about a man who ages in reverse). If, as Kenneth Burke argued, “To call a person a murderer is to propose a hanging,” then Rountree’s title calls Bush a lowly reptile, a natural liar whose very adaptability suggests no essence. Aligning Bush’s life and presidency with Benjamin Button proposes that the reader see Bush as out of time, backward, a child’s mind controlling a grown man. Neither association—lizard nor liminality—proves complimentary to George W. Bush. To borrow from Kenneth Burke’s Counter-Statement, before beginning Rountree in his choice of form creates a contradictory appetite in the mind of his reader: as a president, Bush’s lack of essence allowed him to become invisible; also as a president, his anachronisticity makes him conspicuous.

Looking more closely at the eleven constructions, too, a reader might observe that nine propose flatly negative rhetorical identifications that range from simple stupidity (“Not the Sharpest Tool in the Shed”) to cosmic malevolence (“The Evil President”); only the final two chapters offer positive identifications, iambically starting on the weak foot of victimage (“The Victim of Circumstance”) and ending on the strong foot of Promethean exceptionalism (“The Far-Seeing Patriot”). A quick tally of endnotes mirrors this: whereas “Cheney’s Puppet” offers the most—129 notes in support of 25 pages—the final two chapters combined share only 104 notes in support of 35 pages. In fairness, it may be that Rountree in selecting the most popular rhetorical constructions simply found more evidence to support the initial nine Bushes; alternatively, it may be that Rountree was disinclined to apply de Gourmont’s La Dissociation des Idees to associations for which he advocates.

This disproportion could lead one to question the project. For example, in his Introduction Rountree maintains that “While constructions of Bush’s motives are always rhetorical—persuasive attempts to convince other to see Bush as the author sees him— they run into limitations” of fact and cohesion (xvi); in this light, one could read Rountree’s book for the way it tacitly proposes a twelfth rhetorical construction of Bush. This finds support in the Conclusion, in which Rountree writes, “So who is George W. Bush? This book offered 11 possible answers to that question. If I’ve done my job well, my readers should not be able to identify which profile I personally endorse” (235).
After working so diligently to offer this needed lesson on the productive nature of multiple perspectives and their import for political discourse, the conclusion—that one “essential” Bush has been disclosed but successfully obscured by the author—like the book’s title, seems at cross purposes. An academic might find in the book’s conclusion the Psychology of Information, relying as it does on suspense (“Who is this ‘humanist thinker’ Kenneth Burke? Which is the real George W. Bush?”)—and surprise “This book is about rhetoric!”). What eloquence here marks the Psychology of Form? Other formal difficulties: if the reader accepts that each of the eleven chapter voices is written in a persona voice, does it follow that Acknowledgements, Introduction, and Conclusion are not? What might a reader make of an exculpatory statement contained within a persona chapter but presented prior to its articulation as when, in “The Far-Seeing Patriot,” Rountree asserts “I cannot attribute this particular construction to the 43rd president”? (219). The ambiguities brought on by these questions may enliven the project; on the other hand, they may be taken for intratextual signs that make some readers wonder if an academic, too, can become an unreliable narrator.

I submit that these dangers, however compelling, grow directly from the ingenious methodology Rountree employs in pursuit of his monumentally difficult task.


In his final sentence, Rountree hopes, “Perhaps in seeing these constructions side-by-side we can engage in a more thoughtful conversation about this man who has had such a significant impact on our country, for better or worse” (239). Given the increasingly polarized and shrill nature of US political discourse, Rountree implies, here we have a modern president whose ultimate meaning has not yet been established. In terms of Burke’s Definition of Man: despite an overabundance of rotten symbol-using, Bush escapes perfection. This destabilization of Bush constructions recalls Burke’s own rejection of strongman rule and his advocacy of the messy, many voices of a polyvocal parliamentary. Rountree’s book takes us back to the Scramble, “the flurries and flare-ups of the Human Barnyard . . . the War.” Rhetoric must lead us through.

I close Rountree’s book and re-read the Wallace Stevens poem. In part V he writes, “I do not know which to prefer, / the beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes, / The blackbird whistling / Or just after.”

When I first read the description of Rountree’s book I imagined what would happened if Burke himself undertook to explode the multiplicities of George W. Bushes contained and obscured in those singular constructions. In my mind’s eye I pictured a sort sol, the “black sun” of a million birds as they form, deform, and reform in flight: a spectacle of profound identification and division together.

I applaud anyone willing to engage the messy, irascible, and indefatigable intellectual curiosity of Burke, and I absolutely stand and salute anyone who, after such engagement, succeeds in reaching a non-specialist audience. The beauty in Rountree’s book is the beauty of inflections, in his facility with explaining how motives shape real- world constructions of presidency. If his experimental form is a departure, we should not only applaud his courage but this: we should entertain how formal ambiguity might inform our own future projects as we pause to enjoy its enthymematic effect—the beauty of innuendoes, the “just after” that occurs in that silence when the back flap folds over, a blackbird’s wing.>/p>

* Jason C. Thompson is Assisant Professor of English at the University of Wyoming

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Review: Pragmatist Politics by John McGowan

McGowan, John. Pragmatist Politics: Making the Case for Liberal Democracy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Paul Stob, Department of Communication Studies, Vanderbilt University

John McGowan’s Pragmatist Politics draws upon the pragmatist tradition—primarily the work of William James, John Dewey, and Kenneth Burke—to formulate a liberal democratic politics for the twenty-first century. At least that’s the overt aim of the book. But what may stand out most to readers of KB Journal is how McGowan seems intent on crafting an attitude. In formulating a pragmatist politics, McGowan fails to explicate political programs and initiatives, he disregards the nuts and bolts of democratic negotiation, and he provides no real strategies for building grassroots coalitions. What he does—and what he does admirably—is present readers with a pragmatist attitude that will, he hopes, come to permeate public culture. This attitude leaps off the page in the book’s introduction as McGowan foregrounds the writers who will help him construct a pragmatist politics:

Because of my interest in desire, Dewey alone does not suffice. William James and, more idiosyncratically, Kenneth Burke have a large role to play in this book. . . . I am not particularly interested in being “faithful” to any of the writers who have inspired me. I have mined each of them for what they can contribute to the vision of a possible and desirable democracy that I try to articulate. . . . My title, “pragmatist politics,” is meant to indicate my sources and general outlook, but if readers find what I have to offer not really “pragmatic,” that’s all one to me. Nothing significant hinges on whether what I say deserves the name “pragmatist” or not. And since I am not purporting to offer either an interpretation or an introductory understanding of Dewey or James or Burke, but, instead, an account of a possible democracy, I feel no responsibility to discuss parts of their work not relevant to my concerns. (xvii)

The presentation of an attitude in Pragmatist Politics is wholly fitting because of the role of “attitude” in pragmatist philosophy. For James, pragmatism is an “attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts” (James 32). For Dewey, one’s attitude is integrally linked to the art of communication:

To be a recipient of a communication is to have an enlarged and changed experience. One shares in what another has thought and felt and in so far, meagerly or amply, has his own attitude modified. Nor is the one who communicates left unaffected. Try the experiment of communicating, with fullness and accuracy some experience to another, especially if it be somewhat complicated, and you will find your own attitude toward your experience changing. (Dewey 8)

For Burke, attitude is integral to symbolic action, for “The symbolic act is the dancing of an attitude” (Philosophy 9).

Pragmatist Politics seems intent on making an attitude dance. McGowan has little interest in reasoned argumentation—at least in the objective, philosophical sense of the term. But he does hope to persuade readers that “liberal democracy as described herein offers the best possible guidelines currently available for creating a polity that we could embrace because it most fully approximates concrete achievement of goods to which we are committed” (39). Accomplishing this project, McGowan recognizes, requires a bit of Burkean identification: “I need to convince you that liberal democracy is aligned with goods you already cherish or should now come to cherish—and that liberal democracy is more likely to promote those goods successfully than other possible political arrangements” (39).

For many readers, especially those already interested in the pragmatist tradition, McGowan will likely succeed in making his liberal democratic vision compelling. While he presents no novel or specific political initiatives, often just reaffirming the basic commitments of Deweyan social democracy, he does show how the pragmatist tradition relates to America’s current political culture. In so doing, he implements all the key terms of American pragmatism: uncertainty, novelty, possibility, contingency, deliberation, habit, orientation, meliorism, anti-foundationalism, collective action, and more. Taken together, these terms lay the groundwork for a liberal democracy, even though McGowan is careful to note that pragmatism “does not inevitably go hand in hand with liberal democratic values” (36). It does, however, emphasize “that each of our fates is inextricably tied to the fate of our fellow citizens, that an affirmation of the everyday as the scene of our entanglement with one another is preferable to imagined ‘elsewheres’ that transcend the limits of the ordinary, and that effective freedom is not only a cherished good, but also possible to achieve for all” (42).

Central to McGowan’s political vision is the art of rhetoric. Rhetoric, McGowan argues, fits naturally with pragmatism because pragmatism puts philosophy “at the center of democratic action,” where the “attempt to persuade others” connects citizens in a common project (xv). Indeed, one of the more heartening aspects of Pragmatist Politics is the fact that it brings together pragmatism and the rhetorical tradition—and does so from outside the rhetorical tradition. It is one thing for a scholar of rhetoric to link pragmatism and rhetoric; it is another thing entirely for a political theorist to recognize rhetoric’s role in a vision of pragmatist politics. As McGowan describes the rhetorical nature of his interests,

This pragmatist account is meant to introduce a dynamic understanding of everything involved in the articulation of reasons. What count as convincing reasons (to one’s self as well as to others) will shift over time and from context to context. Each self is constantly buffeted by the judgments and demands of the other selves with whom that self occupies the world. (105)

In a world that hinges upon intersubjective negotiation, rhetoric is the counterpart of pragmatism.

McGowan develops his view of pragmatist politics across five chapters. The first chapter, “The Philosophy of Possibility,” uses Burke’s thoughts on literature as “equipment for living” to show how pragmatism lays the intellectual groundwork for liberal democracy. The second chapter, “Is Progress Possible?,” draws upon pragmatist philosophy to explore the idea of democratic progress, which “is not about moving the world, or a whole society, toward a certain substantial good. Rather, goods are plural, and progress involves creating the conditions for the pursuit by individuals within varying social associations of those multiple goods” (77). The third chapter, “The Democratic Ethos,” explicates the attitude and posture that, according to McGowan, ought to define a liberal democracy. In this chapter, Burke’s “unending conversation” plays a key role in grounding the sense of moral responsibility that makes citizens attentive to one another (106-107). The fourth chapter, “Human Rights,” operates as a kind of case study that reveals how rights are rhetorical and performative: “They are words spoken in public, in a particularly solemn or ceremonious way, that are designed to bring what they designate into existence” (130).

The fifth chapter, “Liberal Democracy as Secular Comedy,” will likely prove most interesting to readers of KB Journal. Drawing extensively on Attitudes Toward History, McGowan affirms comedy as the best political attitude for accommodating the “cacophony of multiple voices and motives” that mark modern society while also “giving each person the opportunity to undertake the work” of writing his or her own story (175). Burke’s idea of the comic frame, McGowan argues, leads to a politics that aims at a social, contingent, ever-changing “modest utopia of the ordinary,” which allows individuals to love diversity, embrace imperfections, and accept those “constraints designed to enable our peaceful intercourse with others even as we avoid turning those constraints into straightjackets” (157). McGowan’s comic frame is secular because it involves turning away from nonhuman subjects and toward the human community itself. We can then perform

the work of continually adjusting ourselves to the presence of others and to our need to cooperate with them to sustain life. The work of comedy is to foster first the ‘charitable attitude’ that can help us to avoid the temptation of blaming others for our ills and then, possibly, to move us toward a more positive love that delights in the fact of others who are not like me. (182)

With the help of James, Dewey, and Burke, Pragmatist Politics enters a conversation about political goods in the twenty-first century. It is safe to say that McGowan largely succeeds in making pragmatism speak to current problems. Even those who may not find his liberal democratic politics wholly persuasive will no doubt find in the book compelling fodder for discussion. Pragmatist Politics raises the issues about public life that need to be raised.

This review would be incomplete, however, without noting two potential shortcomings in the book. “Shortcomings” may not be the right word here, for McGowan is simply presenting an attitude, simply formulating a vision of politics. As a result, he can pick and choose whatever ideas and themes he finds most inspiring, and he need not worry about “shortcomings.” Nevertheless, the book passes over two areas that could have, according to my own vision, strengthened it further.

First, McGowan adeptly positions the rhetorical tradition as a fitting counterpart of the pragmatist tradition. The trouble is that a number of scholars have already begun this project, and McGowan pays no attention to their work. Mailloux, Keith, Danisch, Crick, and Stroud, among others, have already started accounting for the intersection of pragmatism, rhetoric, and democratic politics. Their work could help round out and bolster McGowan’s account. To be sure, McGowan is able to make his case apart from this body of secondary literature, yet connecting to it could have contributed to a larger framework for understanding the issues he raises. Pragmatist Politics has, unfortunately, missed an opportunity to bring rhetorical scholarship and humanities research writ large into closer conversation.

Second, and more germane to readers of KB Journal, are issues surrounding McGowan’s final chapter on “secular comedy.” Burke’s influence comes through most prominently in this chapter, yet McGowan’s emphasis on secular comedy misses a key aspect of Burke’s work. In fact, it misses a point that James, Dewey, and Burke made time and again. In advocating a secular comedic frame, McGowan argues for a turn away from “nonhuman agents” (158). He also argues for a turn away from religious terminology, which, he insists, has corroded civic connections. McGowan, for example, describes James’s “obsession with ‘salvation’ and redemption’” as “disquieting.” “Why talk of salvation?” he begs to know. “What are we to be saved from? . . . To talk of salvation is to dream of a once-for-all dramatic transformation, of a tool that will fix the human condition permanently” (158). For McGowan, the “talk” of salvation impedes effective political operation, as does the language of “sacrifice” (160) and “sin” (165-166). Secular comedy, he hopes, will provide “a social, this-worldly, non-extreme response to the ongoing presence of evil in human affairs” (182).

If a secular comedic frame means relinquishing religious symbols, McGowan moves in a direction that James, Dewey, and Burke were not willing to go. All three pragmatists recognized the motivational, coordinational power of religious language. As symbols, sin, salvation, redemption, faith, God, and sacrifice do important rhetorical work. James, for example, not only investigated but routinely employed religious discourse, particularly in The Will to Believe and The Varieties of Religious Experience. Even Pragmatism culminated with a lecture on “Pragmatism and Religion.” Dewey preached a kind of democratic gospel grounded in the language of sin, salvation, faith, and cooperation. While this language was disconnected from the realm of the supernatural, Dewey drew upon it regularly to motivate and inspire.1 Furthermore, Burke’s logology was premised on the power of religious symbols. Logology, for Burke, is “a purely secular project,” but it probes religious terminology to understand symbolic transcendence and human motivation (Rhetoric 5). As a result, Burke warns against “a simple historical development from the ‘sacred’ to the ‘profane,’ from the ‘spiritual’ to the ‘secular’” (Rhetoric 35). Because humans are “goaded by the spirit of hierarchy,” religious language, shot through with ultimate terms, establishes powerful grounds for action.

McGowan can, of course, advocate for whatever kind of secular project he wants. As already noted, his book is not a systematic treatment of pragmatism, rhetoric, and democracy, but a presentation of an attitude. Yet considering pragmatism’s historical commitment to religious terminology, McGowan’s emphasis on secular comedy may have missed an important piece of the motivational puzzle. His own conclusion to Pragmatist Politics underscores the need for liberal democracy to tell captivating stories that will garner adherents: “Liberal democracy needs to become what people desire, not something viewed as an impediment to individual fulfillment” (185). He also notes that while supporters of liberal democracy have failed to tell a compelling story, “Conservatives have understood the rhetorical core of politics in a democracy” (186). The conservative story is, at least in part, a religious story. Yet McGowan advocates for the creation of a narrative based on secular comedy. James, Dewey, and Burke point down another path. Religious language, all three pragmatists suggest in their own way, ought to play a role in the story of liberal democracy.

Contrary to McGowan’s book, then, pragmatist politics may lead not to secular comedy but to a comedic frame that infuses collective life with a new kind of religious meaning. This religious meaning need not be tied to the supernatural, and it need not be divisive and exclusive. But it ought to be compelling to a populace that has long responded to religious symbols. At the very least, the liberal democratic story needs to provide terminological order to the messy world of modern politics. One way to do that, Burke insisted long ago, is with the “‘transcendence’ of man’s symbol-systems” (Rhetoric 38).

* Paul Stob is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Vanderbilt University*


1. I develop this point about Dewey and religious discourse at length in Stob, “Minister of Democracy.”

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Philosophy of the Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. 3rd Edition. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973. Print.

—. The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. Berkeley: U of California P, 1970. Print.

Crick, Nathan. Democracy and Rhetoric: John Dewey on the Arts of Becoming. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2010. Print.

Danisch, Robert. Pragmatism, Democracy, and the Necessity of Rhetoric. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2007. Print.

Dewey, John. Democracy and Education, vol. 9 of The Middle Works of John Dewey, 1899-1924. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1980. Print.

James, William. Pragmatism (The Works of William James). Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975. Print.

Keith, William. Democracy as Discussion: The American Forum Movement and Civic Education. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007. Print.

Mailloux, Steven. Reception Histories: Rhetoric, Pragmatism, and American Cultural Politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1998. Print.

Stob, Paul. “Minister of Democracy: John Dewey, Religious Rhetoric, and the Great Community.” Trained Capacities: John Dewey, Rhetoric, and Democratic Culture. Ed. Brian Jackson and Gregory Clark. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, forthcoming 2013. Print.

Stroud, Scott. John Dewey and the Artful Life: Pragmatism, Aesthetics, and Morality. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 2011. Print.

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Review: Rhetorical Listening by Krista Ratcliffe

Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005. 248 pages.

Steven M. Pedersen, Oklahoma State University

During the 2005 Kenneth Burke Conference at Penn State, I was lucky enough to meet Donald Jennerman, who told me stories about knowing Kenneth Burke. One in particular has always stayed with me. It has to do with Burke’s notion of the negative. The story goes that, as a child, Burke’s grandmother would follow him around the house and any time Burke would touch or grab something he wasn’t supposed to, his grandmother would shake her index finger and say, “You musn’t.” This experience of listening to his grandmother, as I understand it, was the genesis of his later theories of the negative.

Listening is a skill often overlooked in scholarship, and yet in the anecdote above, it is the means by which we learn, retain and share stories, hold onto memories, understand our world, and develop our own voice in conversation with others. Krista Ratcliffe’s work, Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness, has given “listening” new prominence in the field of composition and rhetoric for the way she extends Kenneth Burke’s theories of rhetoric. It is a work that explores how rhetorical listening, grounded in Burke’s theory of “identification,” might foster and increase cross-cultural communication in a number of different contexts.

In her introduction she writes, “This concept of rhetorical listening is important to rhetoric and composition studies because it supplements Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical theory” (1). She frames her project through Burke’s theory of identification in A Rhetoric of Motives and extends listening’s social and communicative function when talking about gender and whiteness:

But identifications, especially cross-cultural identifications, are sometimes difficult to achieve. Such identifications may be troubled by history, uneven power dynamics, and ignorance. Curious about such troubled identifications, I use this project to investigate the following question: How may people employ rhetorical listening to foster conscious identifications with gender and whiteness in ways that may, in turn, facilitate cross-cultural communication about any topic? (1-2)

In other words, Ratcliffe demarcates her project in questioning how rhetorical listening operates as a stance/space that allows individuals to foster “conscious identifications” in overcoming troubled issues of gender and race within cross-cultural communication practices.

In the first chapter, Ratcliffe sets the foundation for what she refers to as rhetorical listening. She writes, “As a trope for interpretive invention, rhetorical listening signifies a stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in relation to any person, text, or culture” (her emphasis 17). In defining this, Ratcliffe goes on to review how listening has largely been overlooked in composition scholarship. She “makes a case” for what listening has to offer research. Later, she elaborates on what she means by rhetorical listening as a trope for interpretive invention, where a person occupies a space of openness “to cultivate conscious identifications in ways that promote productive communication” (25). She defines a “code of cross-cultural conduct” that “assumes that listeners posses the agency for acknowledging, cultivating, and negotiating conventions of different discourse communities,” (34) and she details how “rhetorical listening may foster understanding of intersecting gender and race identifications in ways that may promote cross-cultural communication” (35).

In the second chapter, “Identifying Places of Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Disidentification, and Non-Identification,” Ratcliffe makes a case for extending Burke’s notion of identification to promote better understanding of cross-cultural communicative contexts. Ratcliffe begins by critiquing the limitations of Burke’s identification:

As a place for rhetorical listening, however, Burke’s concept of identification is limited. It does not adequately address the coercive force of common ground that often haunts cross-cultural communication, nor does it adequately address how to identify and negotiate troubled identifications; moreover, it does not address how to identify and negotiate conscious identifications functioning as ethical and political choices. (47-48) 

Ratcliffe’s critique of Burke’s theory of identification, with its limited discussion over the inequities found within cross-cultural communication contexts, is a fair perspective when looking back over A Rhetoric of Motives (RM). But I also believe Ratcliffe overlooks a critical passage in RM, a passage where Burke readily opens the door for the type of project Ratcliffe pursues in Rhetorical Listening. Towards the end of “The Range of Rhetoric,” Burke outlines how the resources of identification can extend into a more idealistic realm found within human relations:

[T]he resources of identification whereby a sense of consubstantiality is symbolically established between beings of unequal status may extend far into the realm of the idealistic. And as we shall see later, when on the subject of order, out of this idealistic element there may arise a kind of magic or mystery that sets its mark upon all human relations. (46)

Burke shows that through the resources of identification, a more “idealistic realm” is found within human relations. And it is within this idealistic realm that Ratcliffe is able to carve out her extended theories of identification in Rhetorical Listening, making it accessible and giving it form in practical ways that promote what she refers to as “productive communication” (25).

After making this critique, Ratcliffe moves beyond Burke to outline competing definitions and functions of identification and how it “directly informs or indirectly haunts academic theories in many fields, such as, psychoanalysis, philosophy, communications, drama and performance studies, queer studies, [as well as] feminist studies” (50). 

Ratcliffe draws upon the scholarship of postmodern feminist scholar Diana Fuss and her ideas of “disidentification” as an example of how the context of communication is complicated by internalized factors (60-62). To explain, the idea of “disidentification” is the direct result of preconceived stereotypes a person might hold that fosters an automatic disindentification with another person. Ratcliffe writes, “Within this logic, disidentifications are dependent upon previous identifications however faulty or stereotypical” (62). By understanding this interplay within a communicative context, we begin to see how cross-cultural communication can be obfuscated by inaccurate presuppositions.

Another important factor that Ratcliffe writes about later in the chapter is the notion of “non-identification” (72). To simplify, this idea postulates the reality that sometimes there is a lack of any notion of “identification,” whether about a “person, place, thing, or idea” (73). Within this space, rhetorical listening enables one to explore identifications and disidentifications with increased awareness. Towards the end of this chapter, Ratcliffe underscores some ethical concerns and possibilities with “theorizing and practicing identification, disidentification, and non-identification as places of rhetorical listening” (77). In a world separated by political, cultural, and ideological differences, Ratcliffe makes clear that embracing an open stance of acceptance in rhetorical listening might foster “appropriation, [and] misunderstanding,” but it also holds the possibilities for “coalition building across cultural boundaries” (77).

In the last three chapters of the book, Ratcliffe outlines different contexts in which rhetorical listening can be applied as a tactic. Chapter 3 is entitled, “Listening Metonymically: A Tactic for Listening to Public Debates.” In this chapter she offers specific functions that rhetorical listening can take in listening to public debates. In Chapter 4, Ratcliffe introduces another tactic for listening that she refers to as “eavesdropping” in scholarly discourse. She writes that “eavesdropping is . . . an ethical tactic for resisting the invisibility of a gendered whiteness in scholarly discourses within rhetoric and composition studies” (her emphasis 101). She recovers the term from its negative connotations (as “busybody”) and redefines it “as an ethical rhetorical tactic . . . as a means for investigating history, whiteness, and rhetoric” (103). In the final chapter, Ratcliffe outlines how to “listen pedagogically” and how rhetorical listening in the classroom can overcome resistance between students and teachers. After a thorough discussion on pedagogy and resistance, Ratcliffe elaborates on issues of gender and whiteness in the classroom, outlining specific ways of helping students develop awareness of these issues. In the appendix section of the work, Ratcliff generously shares her assignment sequence and lesson plans for those interested in incorporating these strategies for teaching gender and whiteness in an advanced writing course. 

Krista Ratcliffe’s Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness is a work of tremendous impact for composition, communication, and rhetorical studies, not only for the ways it calls attention to the importance of listening as an area of scholarship, but for the ways it extends Kenneth Burke’s theory of identification in order to help bridge the difficult space between cross-cultural communication. In fostering “conscious identifications,” brought about through acts of rhetorical listening that are cognizant of the interplay between disidentifications and non-identifications, Ratcliffe brings to the forefront research that holds great theoretical and pedagogical potential. Burke’s Grammar of Motives opens with the epigraph, “Ad bellum purificandum” (the purification of war), an epigraph that calls for greater rhetorical awareness that might advance peaceful communication practices. Towards this end, Ratcliffe’s work is a step in that direction, one that reminds us all of the importance of listening rhetorically, whether dealing with our students, scholarship, public debates, colleagues, or a grandmother who shakes her finger to admonish, “You musn’t.”

Steven M. Pedersen is a PhD Student in Rhetoric and Composition at Oklahoma State University.

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Volume 8, Issue 1, Spring 2012 Special Issue

Andy KingThis special issue of KB Journal (8.1, Spring 2012) is the last prepared by outgoing editor Andy King. The issue begins with Andy's Editorial: Soldiers of the Burke Legion and is followed by an outstanding series of interviews and articles that take Burke and related scholarship in new directions. Andy interviews James Klumpp in “The Burke I Knew.” This interview is followed by Richard H. Thames's The Meaning of the Motivorum’s Motto: "Ad bellum purificandum" to "Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore," Kevin R. McClure's Media Coverage of Natural Disasters: Pentadic Cartography and the Case of the 1993 Great Flood of the Mississippi, Robin Patric Clair's Rhetorical Ingenuity in the New Global Realities: A Case of the Anti-Sweatshop Movement, Rebecca Walker's Flash Flooding: A Burkean Analysis of the Scene-Agent and Scene-Agency Ratio in the Flash Mob, Jim A. Kuypers and Ashley Gellert's The Story of King/Drew Hospital: Guilt and Deferred Purification, Tonja Mackey's Introducing Kenneth Burke to Facebook, Michael Feehan's A Note on the Writing of A Rhetoric of Motives, and Grace Veach's Divination and Mysticism as Rhetoric in the Choral Space.

Editorial: Soldiers of the Burke Legion

This is my last roll call with you. My signal fires are dying on the mountain; the bivouac in wild terrain is abandoned. The staff is decommissioned. Our cartridge boxes are empty and we have beaten our swords into ploughshares.

My tenure as editor is ended, and it is time to put up the shutters and go home. Only the kindness of David Blakesley and Clarke Rountree have indulged me in a last supplement issue to clear the decks. And I am grateful. This issue contains a long-awaited article by Richard Thames, one I consider an unprecedented piece of blinding magnificence. There is also an interview with James Klumpp, a wonderful conversation with a senior scholar.

There is also a review of Michael Burke’s novel Music of the Spheres, a novel so full of brilliant imagery that the whole work is like a light-struck canvas. Kevin McClure’s "Media Coverage of Natural Disasters" represents an ingenious use of Burkean cartography. And there are more riches in the rest of the articles and features.

Since November, 2010,I have been fighting a battle with throat cancer, and it has complicated my editorial work. Please forgive any roughness and marks of haste in the issue. I finished my last treatment a few days ago and am deeply grateful to everyone who has supported me in this difficult time.

Andy King
Summer 2011

“The Burke I Knew”: An Interview with Professor James Klumpp

Andy King

King: Can you tell our readers how long you have been part of the Burke Society?

James Klumpp photoJ.K.: I was, as they say, there at the founding. I attended the first meeting set up by Herb Simon in Philadelphia in 1984. When the formal organization was completed (by 1987) I joined the organizational structure on the board of directors, and served on the conference planning committee through the 1999 conference that David Blakesley and I planned. Along the way I chaired the Eastern Communication Association branch and the Speech Communication Association branch. So, I have been pretty much continually involved.

King: You and I have been at this for a long time. We remember when Burke was a rather marginal figure in departments of English and Communication. Recently he has become fully mainstream and scholars at the recent Southern Communication convention complained about his hegemony. What do you make of all this fame and expansion and does it surprise you?

J.K.: In the introduction of a special issue honoring him in the Southern Communication Journal after his death I referred to Burke’s ideas now being “the air that we breathe.” That affirms your idea that he is fully mainstream and more. It also explains the hegemony. You and I remember the time when, if your criticism looked anything like a Burkean criticism, the editor demanded that you justify the use of Burke. I think that today the kind of orthodox demand we encountered has been subordinated to a demand for insight, but perhaps that is just me not recognizing the new orthodoxy.

For those in communication, Burke came along at a time when contextualism was taking control of our criticism. We were participating in the linguistic turn that was happening throughout Western intellectual circles. The difference was that for us, the linguistic turn elevated what we studied to the central place in human action. That was unusual heights for rhetoricians, who had been toiling with the “harlot of the arts” for millennia. We were fortunate because Burke gave us such a well-rounded statement of contextualist motive. After a false start in the early 1950s, by the late 1960s we were not only following Burke, but leading him to new insights.

As far as the hegemony is concerned, I can fill out your story. A number of years ago I was sitting in a panel at the Eastern Communication Association that dealt with culture. I can no longer remember exactly what the topic was, but I remember the panelists attacking Kenneth Burke because he had nothing to say about culture. I was incredulous. I prepared my scathing rebuttal for the question and answer period. I was ready to point to Permanence and Change and A Rhetoric of Motives, and surely A Grammar of Motives. But as I listened on, I realized what was happening. I remembered back to those of us attempting to loosen up the orthodoxy of Neo-Aristotelianism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We launched some attacks on Aristotle that, no matter how fair to the neo-Aristotelians, were certainly unfair to Aristotle. We were attacking Aristotle and his “failings” as a way to make room for our voice in a hegemonic discussion. I realized as that panel proceeded that this was what was happening here, that these students were trying to make room for their voice by attacking the orthodox. Is that orthodoxy charge justified? I don’t think so because I believe the inherent power of permanence and change will always give power to new voices. To the extent that by acknowledging hegemony we give room to those voices, I am all for acknowledging that it is Burke’s ideas that today compose the taken-for-granted.

But you ask if I am surprised. No. From where I sit contextualism was a powerful and important move that has unleashed much understanding and much good on the world. This has led to its dominance.

King: Did Burke think of himself as a contextualist? I do not remember him using the term. Do you think there are keys to understanding Burke as a contextualist?

J.K.: No, I do not recall him using the term either. But, Burke was not one to embrace “category terms.” He didn’t mind “agro-bohemian” but obviously that phrase is half metaphor and half perspective by incongruity and suitably playful. He deflected the label “Marxist” and “Freudian” by admitting to being a “Marxoid” and a “Freudoid.” He thought of our question of whether he was “post-modern” as unimportant and uninteresting to him.

But, of course, labels are important and interesting not because of the fences they include people in but because of the influences that they track. They entail narratives of development that are important ways of perceiving the “launches” that create order like the ones on that photograph at MOMA that he refers to in the Introduction to A Grammar of Motives.

I believe the best explanation of contextualism is Stephen Pepper’s (World Hypotheses). Using Pepper’s scheme captures the formalism (formism) of the classical tradition in rhetorical theory and the mechanism of Neo-Aristotelianism and the dominant social science of the 20th century as well as the contextualism of the linguistic turn. There are times when Burke is moving toward an organicism as Pepper defines the intellectual identity, but for most of his life he demonstrates how a contextualist thinks.

King: Do you reckon Burke would be pleased by the growth of the Burke industry?

J.K.: Yes, but not with your metaphor. I truly believe that Burke believed the formation of the Kenneth Burke Society was one of the highlights of his life. He believed it affirmed his intellectual influence. He cared a great deal about his ideas having a life beyond his own biological life. He wrote to Cowley one time about the search for their legacy. So, he would be very pleased.

King: Some Burke scholars believe that he left us a coherent body of theory. Others, like our mutual friend, Robert L. Scott, see Burke as a kind of excitable polymath who always developed his ideas unevenly and invented under the pressure of events and publication deadlines. Do you line up in either camp or do you have a different take on Burke, the “unsystematic system builder” as Howell called him during a long-ago NCA debate?

J.K: All these folks are right. He was an excitable polymath, first and foremost. Good contextualists are. At the time Burke was emerging in our discipline (Communication), there was a political (more, I think, than intellectual) struggle between the humanists and the social scientists. In intellectual terms that struggle was between the domination of the mechanistic metaphor for social science and the emerging contextualists in the humanities. Of course, the same struggle was going on in the social sciences for contextualists trying to earn traction for their approaches to understanding human action. As a result, the question of whether there is a “coherent body of theory” led to a search for a theory in the theory-practice mode of mechanistic social science. Theory means something different to a contextualist,, more akin to “I have a theory that . . .” This notion is grounded in interpretation rather than in the primary/secondary categories of mechanism. Stable interpretation does require categories, and the vocabulary that provides those categories is a cousin of theory as the mechanist sees it, but with pragmatic rather than referential tests for the theories’ usefulness. And, there is no doubt that Burke has provided us an abundant jargon with which interpretation may proceed. Coherence, for a contextualist like Burke, does not lie in the theory however. It lies in the interpretation. So, what we would say is that Burke has provided us a body of work—vocabulary and categories—that permits coherent interpretation of the moments of our lives. Contextualism has above all a texture of probes in which the things being interpreted and the interpretation must interpenetrate. Thus, it is unsystematic, but informed by the system. I like Howell’s phrase: “unsystematic system builder.”

King: What is your favorite Burke piece?

J.K.: “Rhetoric of Hitler’s 'Battle.'"

King: There is still no consensus on whether Burke’s pentad is a metaphor or a literal entity. I know that beginning in the 1980’s with the advent of post—modernism a lot of scholars refused to accept Burke’s apparent foundationalism. Is the metaphoric pentad a point of view for you or is it the only point of view? Or do you consider it rubbish. Burke made a number of statements that suggest his belief in a relentless material world. “You better not put your out house above your well. You will be poisoned and it doesn’t matter what you think about the matter. Mother Nature is a bitch,” he stated. This quarrel still arouses
fury and some anti-foundationalists have actually abandoned Burkean studies because of it.

J.K.: The pentad is a vocabulary for characterizing the variety of points of view. It is utilitarian and it is a vocabulary. It belongs to the realm of methodology, stretched perhaps into epistemology, but definitely not ontology.

As you present them foundationalism and anti-foundationalism are dichotomous terms. If so, Burke was neither. Those who label Burke a “linguistic realist” have it about right, I think. We forced him to emphasize the material by using him—incorrectly for certain in his view—as the base of our nominalism. When we would say “It is all language!” he would strenuously object. He would do so with some turn of phrase such as the one you quote; drawn beautifully, I might add, from his agro-bohemianism. But he was a good distance from the referentialist assumptions that are inevitably a part of a foundationalism. For Burke, the material was “recalcitrant” to our efforts to impose interpretation; but this was important because we are interpreters. Interpretation is not right or wrong, it is the essence of motivation. No foundationalist would cotton to this. But Burke is pragmatic through and through. Interpretation must deal pragmatically with all sorts of reality, including the material. I usually prefer to say the world is not fluid but sticky. Change happens but within the dialectic of permanence and change. At the heart of this is the imperative of “both/and.” If foundationalism and anti-foundationalism are dichotomous rather than dialectic terms, then “both/and” precludes either side from claiming Burke.

King: In your justly famous “Burkean Social Hierarchy and the Ironic Investment of Martin Luther King,” you wrote that you could not find any strong proof in Burke that he believed in the inevitability of hierarchy. That piece got several people’s goat (I can think of three Sociologists). I know that William Bailey angrily called the piece “wish fulfillment” and “a Leftist apology for the old man.” Those strong reactions are still evoked when my conservative graduate students read the piece. What is your reaction and have your beliefs about Burke and hierarchy changed?

J.K.: Well, that is a misinterpretation of my point. What I said was that I could find no place in all of Burke’s corpus where he makes the empirical argument that social hierarchy is inevitable. I believe the reasoning here is critical because the dismissal of Burke on the basis of a mythical symptomatic reasoning deprives those repulsed by the claim of important insight.

My argument in the piece is long and complex. I do not wish to repeat it in toto here. But perhaps with a few words I can urge our readers to invest in the full argument again.

Most of the people who are bothered by the idea that hierarchy might be inevitable are bothered because they are egalitarians who value the possibility that a social order can feature equality. Obviously, such people would have to reject Burke if his argument was empirical, and if it were about social order. But, in my view, Burke believes that social order is constructed through language. Those constructing, maintaining, and destroying social orders do so by exploiting resources of language. Hierarchic qualities of language are among those resources.

Burke’s line of reasoning does not begin in a survey of human social forms. Rather, it begins in the nature of human language and its influence on social order. Burke argues that human language is based on such notions as selection and attention that elevate some over other. A linguistic utterance refers to something, and in doing so it selects from among all the things it could refer to and directs attention. The result is that something is lifted above something else. Also, Burke says that human speech is inherently moral. Thus, the sense that some things are good and others are bad is a sense of hierarchy inherent in language. Then, we get to the drama of human relations in which humans make their societies with the resources of language. The hierarchical resources of language are there, ready to be called upon in asserting ideals or grading the world around. Now the principle of hierarchy is there to be invoked. But the principle does not dictate a particular hierarchy. Egalitarians, indeed, assert a hierarchy that elevates equality over other values instantiated in social gradations. Thus, the inevitability of hierarchy is not for Burke true because he has looked at all societies, cultures, and communities and never seen one without hierarchy; it is true because hierarchies are established and maintained in linguistic acts that inevitably through selection and evaluation elevate some things over others. What Burke says, in fact, is that the principle of hierarchy is inevitable, not that social hierarchy is so.

King: David Cratis Williams and I debated you and Jim Chesebro at the 1992 Southern and 1993 Burke Conference in Virginia. Do you remember those debates over Burke’s status as a modern or postmodernist thinker. David and I were told it was going to be an informal debate but when we faced you, we discovered that you and Jim had been provided with pieces of evidence. We were lacking in formal evidence and were crushed in 1992 debate. In the 1993 debate in Virginia both sides were steeped to the lips in boiler plate evidence and the result was a bare knuckle affair. David Williams claimed victory of our side but Jim averred that your side won on body blows and knockdowns. Do you remember those debates?

J.K.: I don’t remember that debate that way. You may be confusing me with a much more effective debater. But let me address the question of the debate: Burke’s postmodernism. I earlier addressed Burke’s attitude toward labels. I tend to be on his side. But there can be no doubt that he and whomever you wish to label a “postmodernist” were playing in the same sandbox. I think it has turned out two decades later that the label “postmodern” has not weathered very well. The years have eroded rather than added to its ability to focus our gaze. But the debate at its best sent us to inquiring into underlying intellectual commitments of Burke and others. That was a good thing.

By the way, long after that debate I came across something else that I believe colored Burke’s attitude toward our interest in this question. In a letter to Cowley in 1945, right after A Grammar of Motives had come out and long before the postmodern question was prescient, he wrote the following: “But I suppose, despite the extent of the effort, we can look forward to the usual reception: i.e., my noble colleagues will pilfer bits here and there, and scrupulously give credit to dead Frenchmen or half-dead Harvard professors.” Does that sound like our debate or what? This certainly speaks to your question about systemness. He believed that Grammar was a coherent statement and the process of burking it and associating it with the ideas of others in a kind of “Who is he really?” was offensive. I think that was some of his reaction to our postmodern debate. He just thought it was a labeling exercise that would diminish rather than enhance our understanding the world he saw.

King: On a lighter note, what was your favorite memory of Burke?

J.K.: I have so many. Not so much because when I first met him he was so far advanced in age that you knew each moment was precious, but more because he was a character. He enjoyed life so much. Those eyes did twinkle. And he fully embraced life with intellectual development. He would engage my students with all the energy of Socrates and he would never forego setting me straight. I can answer that question you asked on foundationalism so fully because I was one of those anti-foundationalists that he pounded.

But my favorite memory is a dinner at the Glass Onion in Lincoln, NE, in 1984 when Burke and Richard McKeon attended a conference that Jim Ford and I sponsored at the University of Nebraska. It was their last meal together. McKeon died within the year. It was a combination of remembering their time together on the subway going to Columbia, their time together since including Burke’s time at Chicago at McKeon’s invitation, and a mutual praise society. Here were two of the greatest humanists of the 20th century enjoying their final dance. It was a privilege to buy that dinner.

King: What was your favorite Burke conference and why?

J.K.: With absolutely no hesitation it was New Harmony. I have always thought that New Harmony is the perfect place for a conference about an agro-bohemian. I have thought that going back there every three years would be something akin to visiting Valhalla. But I have lost that argument. It was obviously my favorite first of all because of the place and its appropriateness. But also because Burke was there. We had to budget his time at his advanced age, but he absolutely delighted in the attentions of my graduate students and he reveled at the attention to his work.

The certainness with which I respond is not to disparage the other conferences. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind of the value of our triennial gatherings. They have significantly deepened our understanding of the intellectual content of Burke’s work. This is so because of the generally high quality of our work. My graduate students always say this is where they go to meet their footnotes. And the conferences defy the academy’s organizational caste system by bringing scholars together across disciplinary lines. Finally, they humanize Burke, not only because of the excellent historical work that is part of our research, but because of the participation of Michael Burke, Julie Whitaker, and the Chapins. There are those who charge that the conferences (and even the Burke Society) are a kind of hero worship blinded to intellectual debate. On the contrary. No doubt fond recollections of the human Burke may on the surface appear to be such worship. But those who see this as our activity must have let it keep them away from the conference. The intense critical encounters of the seminars and programs, whether biography or not, makes the conference vital to energizing the faculty of insight that so many have developed from reading Burke. It is this intensification of energy that I have enjoyed and that should bring others to the conferences.

Dr. James Klumpp, a senior Burkean scholar, is a professor at the University of Maryland.

The Meaning of the Motivorum’s Motto: "Ad bellum purificandum" to "Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore"

Richard H. Thames, Duquesne University


Why render the Motivorum’s motto in Latin? Because ad bellum purificandum can be translated “toward the purification of war,” but also “toward the purification of the beautiful [thing],” an alternative Burke himself suggests in his unfinished second draft of the Symbolic. In addition, purificandum (associated with transcendence in dialectic) is a neologism Burke probably constructs from purgandum (associated with catharsis in rhetoric and poetics). Working back and forth between interpreting the motto and interpreting the text, the relationship between rhetoric (whose end is War) and dialectic (whose end is Beauty à la Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus) can be established and the nature of poetic (which weaves the two together) discerned.

This essay follows on "The Gordian Not: Untangling the Motivorum" (KB Journal Spring 2007).

In memory of Michael Leff—admirer of Burke, scholar of Classical rhetoric, and close reader extraordinaire.


AD BELLUM PURIFICANDUMsuch was the epigram or motto of Kenneth Burke’s proposed multi-volume “Motivorum” found on the opening page of A Grammar of Motives, published in 1945. As all Burkeians subsequently noted, the epigram was odd. The typical translation, “Toward the purification of war,” seemed to beg the immediate question, “Why not eradication?” And just as quickly the attempt to answer mired all in a myriad of difficulties. The Grammar started innocently enough, then abruptly dove into the deep end, examining the paradox of substance, then the paradox of purity. The “purification of war” would be no simple matter, nor the books dedicated to that proposition.

But perhaps the first question truly begged is the more obvious but never asked “Why render the epigram in Latin?” when it’s perplexing enough in English. Why complicate the matter further? Because, to echo the Lord’s repeated reproach of Satan in “A Prologue in Heaven,” it is indeed “more complicated than that” (RR 277). A close reading of the Latin reveals a richness the standard rendering fails to convey.

I say this with some trepidation. All too often we over-complicate Burke, bifurcating him into early and late; then middle, post-modern, post-structuralist, etc. Actually, Burke is simple in the sense that all great thinkers are—which is not to say easy. Great thinkers thoroughly, relentlessly, and oft times systematically pursue one or two profound ideas for decades or even life.1 Burke sought to understand language as more than a tool, more than a means to innumerable ends; he thought of language in and of itself as motivation. What is required is a representative summation of the system thereafter elaborated, a statement that is simple but not superficial, assuring students and scholars alike that plunging into his work will prove to be not bewildering but bracing and worthwhile.

Such a statement will be offered in conclusion. First, a plunge into paradox.

Burke’s Warrant

The warrant for this reading is Burke’s own discussion from the unpublished second draft of A Symbolic of Motives (left unfinished in 1963)2 in which there is an early section entitled “Preparatory Etymology” with a sub­section on “Beauty and War.” Burke notes the Greek root of the word “artistic” (ar-, the source, he says, of “articulate,” “aristocracy,” and “arithmetic”) is related to the Greek word meaning “to join” and even older Sanskrit forms meaning “to attain” and “to fit.” Thus, he continues, looking in this etymological direction—

We may encounter Socrates’ notion that the dialectician knows how to carve an idea at the joints, and that dialectics itself begins with two kinds of terms, those that generalize and those that specify. The thought suggests that the work of art will be found, on inspection, to have its own peculiar kind of dialectic, an expert interweaving of composition and division. And in accordance with the genius of this route, when analyzing a poem we are admonished to ask how its parts are related to one another and to the whole. (’63 SM ms.32)

Burke further notes that the Greek words for “armament,” “Ares” (the god of war), and “virtue” (arête) share the same root, as do (obviously) the Latin words vir (a man of arms-bearing age) and virtus.3 Contemplating this route, he continues, may suggest reasons for the inclination to consider the tragic cult of the kill as exceptionally “poetic.”4

Turning to “beauty,” Burke observes that

in pre-classical Latin, a word duellum (deriving ultimately from the Indo-European root for “apart” or “two,” and meaning “war between two”) became transformed into bellum, meaning “war.” This was related to a word bonus, meaning “good” (and derived from an older form, duonus, also meaning “good,” and similarly related to the root word for “two”). (SM ms.33)

Etymologically, then, “beauty” is related to both “war” and “good.”

(“Beauty” is from French beauté, that came from an assumed Late Latin word bellitas, built from bellus, itself modulating from benulus to benus to bonus, the word for “good,” and related to bellum, the word for “war.”) By the same token, when on the subject of artistic felicity, we might well recall that the saintly word “beatitude” apparently bridges us back to the same origins. And inasmuch as the whole story apparently leads to the Indo-European root for the notion of things apart, or two (dva-, dvi-; English two, twice, twilight, twig, twist, twin, twine), it might be relevant to recall also that when St. Augustine wrote his no longer extant tracts on beauty and fitness (de pulchro et apto), he apparently constructed his entire theory around a distinction between unity and division . . . (SM ms.33-34)

Obviously Burke knew his Latin (from Peabody High School in Pittsburgh) and was well aware that bellum was ambiguous, that with the epigram“ad bellum purificandum” he was dedicating his magnum opus to the purification of both “war” and “the beautiful [thing]” (bellum being the accusative form of the noun bellus) with suggestions as well of “the good” (the etymologically related bonus).

The word purificandum is likewise suggestive. Unlike with bellum, however, Burke offers no observations concerning its etymology, the term apparently being his own—the post-Augustinian verb purifico having been derived from the earlier, more common purgo and its non-occurring gerun­dive form having been derived by Burke himself, perhaps from purgandum. The choice of the neologism “purifying” over the vernacular “purging” suggests a preference for dialectical processes effecting transcendence over rhetorical processes effecting catharsis through victimage (both real and symbolic); at the same time, the etymology suggests some relation­ship between the two.

Clearly Burke himself warrants closely reading the Latin, though doing so will involve working dialectically back and forth between interpreting the motto and interpreting the text.

Purificandum I

Without doubt one of the most devilishly difficult notions in dramatism is that of “pure persuasion.” One need not be ancient in the ways of Burke to beware his invocation of the adjective “pure,” tempting him at every dialectical twist and turn to ensnarl in paradox whatever it modifies.

But Burke’s discussion represents more than a mere exercise in dialectical deviltry. There is considerable payoff for those with the patience to follow every twist and turn, every image and example. What can be learned concerns the nature of rhetoric and its ultimate possibilities vis-à-vis the human condition.

Burke’s analysis of pure persuasion is supposed to be unique, but Aristotle’s analysis of money in Nicomachaean Ethics (5.5) and Politics (1.8-10) is remark­ably similar and may provide an easier entry. 

According to Aristotle, in barter, one commodity is exchanged directly for another (wine for wheat). In more advanced markets, money mediates exchange; one commodity is sold for money to buy another (wine is sold to buy wheat). But as exchange after exchange extends over time, the exchange of commodities mediated by money becomes instead the exchange of money mediated by commodities (money buys wine or wheat to be sold in turn for even more money). Ultimately the mediating commodity is dropped and money is exchanged directly for more money still (money is lent for interest—or in modern times made by playing exchange rates, though ancient “bankers” were often money-changers). Thus money, intro­duced as a means to facilitate the end of exchange, is transformed into an end in itself.

Commodities have natural ends—wheat to be eaten and wine to be drunk. There are natural limits to consumption, duration, and therefore acquisition—wheat spoils and wine turns sour. Because there are natural limits to the acquisition of any one thing, as well as many things in toto, at some point there will be enough. In other words, wealth is not unlimited; its natural end is in whatever constitutes enough—not the store of money for exchange, but the stock of real things useful for living the good life, achieving happiness, realizing our nature in the polis.

But money as a means has no proper end. There is no natural limit to its accum­u­lation; no such thing as enough. Its pursuit is therefore endless, irrational, and unnatural.

Pure persuasion would likewise involve transforming a means (persuasion) into an end (persuasion for the sake of persuasion alone), thus making pure persuasion the endless pursuit of a means.  

Burke’s point is more than mere word-play, an end being not only a goal or purpose but also a completion or termination. Therefore pure persuasion as a means transformed into an end would paradoxically become both purposeless and perpetualpurposeless in that once persuasion’s purpose is accomplished, it ceases to be persuasion for the sake of persua­sion alone, becoming instead persuasion for the sake of whatever was purposed (RM 269-70); and perpetual in that once persuasion reaches its goal, it ceases, thereupon becoming something else (RM 274). 

The perpetual frustration of purpose requires an element of standoffishness or self-interference, says Burke (RM 269, 271, 274), to prevent persuasion’s ever achieving its end. For example, constructing a rhetoric around the key term identification means confronting the implications of division (RM 22). Identification compensates for division, but pure identification could never completely overcome it; identification for the sake of identification alone would require standoffishness, the perpetuation of some degree of division for identification to forever overcome. Or, insofar as rhetoric involves courtship grounded in biological and/or social estrangement (RM 115, 208 ff.), pure persuasion would require coyness or coquetry (RM 270)—again a degree of standoffishness, but more obviously connoting eros.

According to Burke, rhetoric is rooted in the use of language to induce cooperation as a means to some further end (RM 43). Cooperation is always being sought because there is always competition. Cooperation for the sake of cooperation alone would require some interference, the perpetuation of some degree of competition for cooperation to forever overcome.

Burke’s analysis of pure persuasion reveals a resistance to rhetoric that lies at its very heart. His point is that analysis of an ultimate form (e.g., pure persua­sion) reveals a motivational ingredient present even in the most elemental (RM 269, 274)—i.e., what is ultimately the case is always the case to some degree.5 Therefore any rhetorical act would comprise a complex of motives, minimally consisting of (1) persuasion itself compounded with (2) pure persuasion to some degree (i.e., some degree of standoffishness or interference). Rhetoric as rhetoric then can never transcend itself. Rhetoric as rhetoric can never be salvic, for all rhetoric is somewhat self-defeating.

War constitutes the ultimate instance of pure persuasion—the greatest degree of cooperation perpetuated by the greatest degree of competition, the greatest degree of identification perpetuated by the greatest degree of division.6 Burke regards war as diseased cooperation (RM 332) in that complete cooperation cannot be achieved by means of competition, because there must always be some­thing against which we compete; the communion of complete identification can­not be achieved by means of division, because there must always be an enemy from which we are divided, an enemy in opposition to which we stand united. 

War, says Burke, is a special case of peace—“not as a primary motive in itself, not as essentially real, but purely as a derivative condition, a perversion”(RM 20)—like evil for Augustine. Little wonder then that Burke writes, the Rhetoric

must lead us through the Scramble, the Wrangle of the Market Place, the flurries and the flare-ups of the Human Barnyard, the Give and Take, the wavering line of pressure and counter­pressure, the Logo­machy, the onus of ownership, the War of Nerves, the War. It too has its peaceful moments: at times its endless competition can add up to the transcending of itself. In ways of its own, it can move from the factional to the universal. But its ideal culminations are more often beset by strife as the condition of their organized expression, or material embodiment.  Their very universality becomes transformed into a partisan weapon. (RM 23)

If war constitutes pure persuasion’s ultimate instance, then we are always somewhat at war. If war constitutes pure persuasion’s ultimate instance,then war would be the essence of rhetoric. And the motto “ad bellum purificandum,” “toward the purification of war,” could be justly translated “toward the purification of rhetoric” as well.

If war perverts cooperation, turning it toward competition, war purified would transform competition, turning it toward cooperation—as in dialectic. In rhetoric, says Burke, voices cooperate in order to compete (i.e., “cooperative competition”); but in dialectic, voices compete in order to cooperate (i.e., “competitive cooperation”) (LSA 188). If rhetoric is in essence war, then dialectic is in essence not peace negatively defined as the absence of war but positively defined as love—as in Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus where Beauty is the ultimate object of love (or eros). 

Burke’s own etymological analysis supports as much, bellum suggesting war on the one hand, beauty and good on the other. The “bellum-bellus” or war-beauty pair suggests the rhetoric-dialectic contrast again, but embodied in victimage on the one hand and eros on the other. The adjective bellus is derived from benus and bonus meaning “good,” once more suggesting Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus and the dialectical climb to the mystic experience of Beauty “by itself with itself” (Symposium 2111b), the Good, the One.


As noted above, the post-Augustinian verb purifico is derived from the earlier, more common purgo, and its non-occurring gerun­d purificandum apparently derived from purgandum by Burke himself. The choice of “purifying” over “purging” suggests his preference for dialectical processes effecting transcendence over rhetorical processes effecting catharsis through victimage (both real and symbolic); at the same time the etymology implies some relation­ship between them. So, what is that relationship?

Burke actually distinguishes between dialectical processes of purification and dramatic (rather than rhetorical) processes of purgation. But drama involves both dialectic in the sense of thoroughly using language for no purpose other than using language and rhetoric in the sense of using language for a particular purpose—e.g. the author’s persuading himself and/or his audience vis-à-vis a particular subject, often problematic. For Burke, drama (indeed all literature) is ceremonial rhetoric addressing the timeless (i.e., speaking to all human beings insofar as they are bodies that have learned language) and the present (the here and now, hic et hunc, of the author’s life and time).

Burke defines human beings as bodies that are genetically endowed with the ability to learn language.7 As such, all humans (though some more than others) take delight in expressing or exercising their being (as in Jerome Kern’s lyric from Showboat, “fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly”), in doing that which distinguishes them from all other animals, in using language for the sake of using language alone (Rueckert, “Language of Poetry” Essays 38). The internally directed use of language for its own sake is dialectical and ontological; the externally directed use of language for the sake of something else is rhetorical and historical,  tied to a particular person and a particular place and time (seeSM ms. 179).  

Both dialectic and drama, says Burke, exemplify competitive cooperation (as opposed to the cooperative competition of rhetoric)—though Burke would appear to be emphasizing the dialectical (rather than rhetorical) aspect of drama insofar as its parts are organically related to the whole. Out of conflicts within a work, “there arises a unitary view transcending the partial views of the participants”—the dialectic of the ideal Platonic dialogue (LSA 188).8

Both transcendence effected by dialectic and catharsis effected by ceremonial rhetoric or drama “involve formal development,” says Burke; therefore both give us “kinds of transformation,” operating in terms of a beyond in dialectic and victimage in rhetoric (or its imitation in drama), though in dialectic there are traces of victimage (i.e., voices left behind), and in drama the cathartic “resolution ‘goes beyond’ the motivational tangle exploited for poetic enjoyment.” Burke even proposes translating Aristotle’s famous formula, “through pity and fear beyonding the catharsis of such emotions,” noting the word normally translated “effecting” or “producing” (perainousa) is etymo­logically from the same root as peran, meaning “opposite shore” (LSA 298-99).9

Transcendence involves building a terministic bridge whereby one realm is transcended by being viewed in terms of a realm beyond (LSA 189, 200),

a kind of “translation” whereby the reader is induced to confront a problem in terms that allow of resolutions not possible to other terms of confrontation. Dialectic, we might say, can even effect a kind of “quashed catharsis,” or “catharsis by fiat,” or “implicit transcendence,” since the terms in which a given problem is presented can so setup the situation that a given problem is “resolved in advance,” if you can speak of a problem as “resolved” when the terms in which it is treated do not even give it a chance to be expressed in all its problematic aspects. (SM ms. 170)

Dialectical purification and dramatic purgation then are both the same and different—the same insofar as the dialectical aspect of drama is emphasized, different insofar as the rhetorical is. And rhetoric and drama are different insofar as the former involves victimage and the latter its imitation (all the difference in the world to the victim), but they are the same insofar as both are ultimately partisan. Economic, political, and social tensions may be purged by sacrifice upon the stage, but the curtains close and the playhouse doors reopen on a world that remains unchanged. “Hence,” says Burke, “tragic purges, twice a year. Such symbolic resolutions must be repeated, since the actual underlying situation is not resolved” (Dramatism and Development 15).

So ultimately we return to the problematic aspects of rhetoric and Burke’s preference for dialectic—though along the way, the idea of dialectic operating in terms of a beyond has emerged. Understanding what Burke means unfortunately involves another plunge.

Purificandum II

The epigram suggests that Burke is prejudiced against rhetorical action, but ultimately Burke is prejudiced against any action other than linguistic action for its own sake. All other action would constitute a means to an external end that would in its purity be transformed into an end in itself, thereby perpetuating itself by never attaining its intended end; all other action would be to some degree undertaken for its own sake, thereby requiring some degree of inter­ference in accom­plishing its external purpose. Thus, all action is problematic, all action somewhat self-defeating, because what is ultimately the case is always the case to some degree.

The only action that is not self-defeating is linguistic action for its own sake, because there is an ultimate end internal to language attained when all that is inherent to language itself has been thoroughly unfolded. Such pure action is dialectic and its inherent end transcendence—the mystic experience of an ultimate, unitary pantheistic ground beyond nonverbal and verbal—NATURE (à la Spinoza).10

Once again, because what is ultimately the case is always the case to some degree, all other action would also involve an ingredient of linguistic action for its own sake. All other action would contain some element of language’s reaching toward its inherent end.  

Normal actions then would comprise a complex of motives consisting of (1) an action undertaken for the sake of its intended external end compound­ed with (2) some degree of that action undertaken for its own sake (i.e, an element of interference in accomplishing its intended external end); (3) linguistic action for the sake of an external end compounded with (4) some degree of lin­guistic action undertaken for its own sake (i.e., an element of language reaching toward its inherent, internal end; an element of dialectic culminating in transcendence) —what Burke refers to as a “fragment” of dialect (RM 175) and its inherent end, transcendence, and therefore a “fragment” of mysticism.11

This complexity of motives can be resolved into a simplicity (banality?) when an act in its purity is transformed from a means into an end in itself. Like pure persuasion, pure actions (other than purely linguistic ones) would be more than fragments of dialectic or mysticism; they would constitute substitutes for mysticism, ersatz­mystiken, as with money, sex, drugs, crime, war—instrumentalities of living transformed into demonic purposes with which one may identify “quite as with mystic communion.” Anyone for whom means are thus transformed has “a god” and, “engrossed, enrapt, entranced,” can become lost in its godhead (RM 331-32).

This perverse internality (eventuating in false mysticism) is counterpart to dialectic’s own internality (eventuating in mysticism proper). Their internality is in turn counterpart to the externality of normal action and linguistic action which con­stitute means to an external end. Pure action and purely linguistic action constitute simple actions that are counterparts to complex normal actions. Normal actions, however, in their confusion of motives are ultimately ineffectual—self-defeating (as somewhat pure) and partial (as fragmentary dialectic), their internal ends (between their poles of purity, false and proper) frustrating attainment of their external ends.

The only action by which true transcendence could be achieved would be by dialectic directed toward the internal end of language, devoid of all rhetoric directed toward an external end and therefore defeated by its purity to some degree. The cooperative competition of voices in rhetoric is transformed into the competitive cooperation of voices in dialectic, says Burke, by the inclusion of one voice that is primus inter pares, the foremost among equals, a role performed in Platonic dialogue by Socrates who functions as the summarizing vessel or synecdochic representative of the end or logic of the development as a whole (GM 526). Such is the role of the mystic fragment of linguistic action for itself alone that points to the mystic experience of a pantheistic ground beyond nonverbal and verbal, body and mind, material and ideal.

Bellus I

Returning to the epigram, bellum suggests Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes, “the war of all against all,” characterizing the rhetorical realm. But as Burke himself suggests, bellum can also be the accusative of the noun bellus, “the beautiful [thing].” The “bellum-bellus” or war-beauty pair suggests Mars/Ares (god of war) and Venus/Aphrodite (goddess of beauty and sexual love or eros) and the rhetoric-dialectic contrast again, but embodied in victimage on the one hand and sexual love on the other. The adjective “bellus” is derived from “benus” and “bonus,” meaning “good,” once more suggesting Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus as well as Castiglione’s Courtier and the dialectical climb to the mystic experience of Beauty, the Good, the One.

So ad bellum purificandum can also be translated “toward purification of the beautiful (or beauty).” Such is the dialectical task Burke sets for himself in the second part of his ‘63 version of the Symbolic at whose conclusion the manuscript breaks off but whose equivalent can be found in the chapter from the ‘58 version on “The Thinking of the Body,” the thorough and thoroughly disgusting “monster” of a chapter that “wrote itself” in 1951 (Williams, Unending Conversations 9 and 24), much to the embarrassment of Burke. That part of that original chapter was published in 1963 and collected with an equally disgusting essay (Somnia Ad Urinandum) in Language as Symbolic Action is testament to a deeply felt need for “expressing or redeeming the fecal motive” that, according to Burke, is required for transcendence to be complete (RM 309). So, in this alternative translation of the motto, we spy the body that learns language—i.e., we uncover the significance of embodiment in Burke.

The mystic, says Burke, “invariably aims to encompass conflicting orders of motivation, not by outlawing any order, however ‘inferior,’ but by finding a place for it in a developmental series.” The mystic, for example, treats the body, not as an antithesis to spirit, but as a way into spirit—“a necessary disciplinary step” for “entry to ultimate communion.” Indeed, says Burke, the mystic in his thoroughness employs body terms for his ultimate experiences (RM 189).

Having made his point, Burke arranges the remainder of the Rhetoric in a pattern climbing through rhetoric, beyond rhetoric in keeping with the pattern in Casti­glione’s “paradigmatic” Book of the Courtier—“a series of formal operations for the dialectical purifying of a rhetorical motive,”climbing through dialogues on the endowments of the perfect courtier, the forms of courtly address, and the code of courtly intercourse between men and women which is Platonically trans­formed in the final dialogue concerning the end of the perfect courtier (i.e., the theme of sexual love dialectically climbing “from woman to beauty in general to transcendent desire for Absolute union” (RM 221)). Burke begins by consider­ing rhetoric as courtship and dialectically climbs to consider­ing mysticism as ultimate identification where rhetoric and the Rhetoric end in a vision of Aristotle’s God (RM 333).

The end of rhetoric would be peace, rest, love—and at the same time the end or cessation of rhetoric, when rhetoric transcends itself in dialectic. Rhetoric in its ideal culminations would be love such as we find in Augustine, whose “God has made us for Himself,” so “our hearts remain restless until they rest in Him”;12 in Spinoza, whose crowning motive was “the intellectual love of God”; in Plato in the Symposium and Phaedrus in the love of Beauty and the Good; and in Aristotle whose God is “the motionless prime mover that moves all else not by being itself moved, but by being loved” (GM 254). And so rhetoric and the Rhetoric end with one of the greatest passages in Burke:

Finally let us observe, all about us, forever goading us, though it be in fragments [emphasis mine], the motive that attains its ultimate identification in the thought, not of the universal holocaust, but in the universal order—as with the rhetorical and dialectic symmetry of the Aristotelian metaphysics, whereby all classes of beings are hierarchically arranged in a chain or ladder or pyramid of mounting worth, each kind striving towards the perfection of its kind, and so towards the kind next above it, while the strivings of the entire series head in God as the beloved [emphasis mine] cynosure and sinecure, the end of all desire. (RM 333)

Purificandum III

Worth noting in the wonder of this concluding passage is the word “mounting,” whose range of meanings Burke has considered only a few pages earlier—the kinesthetic sensation of height, social betterment, ethical ascent, fecal matter such as the dung-pile (which might be associated with pyramids, given that ancient Egyptians held the dung-beetle sacred, and thus for Burke the surmounting of the fecal motive), as well as sexual mounting (RM 301-13).

Burke, in the final pages, claims the mystic state would have its bodily counterpart. Following neurologist Charles Sherrington (oft-quoted by Burke), he explains how movement is made possible by the coordinated flexing and relaxing of opposed muscles. If conflicting impulses expressed themselves simultaneously, if nerves controlling opposed muscles all fired at once, movement would not be possible. Such a neurological condition could be accurately described in terms of total activation (or pure action) and/or total passivity and plausibly would be involved in the pronounced sense of unity to which mystics habitually testify (PC 248; GM 294; RM 330-31), a oneness as thorough as that experienced in the womb (PC 248)—or, dare one suggest, sexual union

Two cautions. First, ideally sexual union would be the consummation, the culmination of courtship; and such would always be the case to some degree. Sexual activity would always involve more for bodies that learn language than it would for other animals. Second, the suggestion is not that sexual union is (always or even sometimes) mystical but that dialectic can lift us to a mystic state which would manifest itself physically in a manner much like sexual union for the body that learns language.

Burke himself hints at sexual union—and such an interpretation would explain the mystic’s recourse to erotic imagery. For Burke continues, if a taste of new “fruit” is knowledge—or, given the sly allusion to “forbidden fruit,” if sexual intercourse is considered (carnal) knowledge—then the experience of a rare and felicitous physical state would be so too. The mystic, reasons Burke, would be convinced his experience was “noetic,” conveying a “truth” beyond the realm of logical contradiction, constituting a report of something from outside the mind, a “communication with an ultimate, unitary ground” (RM 330-31).

Transcendence and catharsis are “rival medicines” (LSA 186-89), says Burke—transcendence being effected in terms of a beyond and catharsis by imitation of victimage. But both are medicines (not metaphor­ically, though perhaps in contrast to “cookery”), similar enough to suggest the embodiment of transcendence is comparable to the more obvious embodiment of catharsis. So, one should not be surprised when Burke observes that despite discord an audience may be brought by means of dramatic devices to a unitary response. He regards “the tearful outbursts of an audience at a tragedy as a surrogate for sexual orgasm” and 18,000 Athenians weeping in unison as a variant of “what was once a primitive promiscuous sexual orgy” such as “the Dionysian rites from which Greek tragedy developed” (Dramatism & Develop­ment 14; LSA 186; GM 229).13

Ideas of pity readily attain natural bodily fulfillment in tears, says Burke; and ideas of mirth lead similarly to laughter as well as tears from riotous laughter. Weeping at tragedy and laughing at comedy are akin to love, but not identical. They operate as substitutes for catharsis through erotic love which has its own kind of bodily release (completion, fulfillment). Surely, says Burke toward the end of the 1958 first version of the Symbolic, the most “cathartic” experience possible would be the ability to love everything, without reservation in such bodily spontaneity as attains its purely verbal counterpart in ejaculations [sic] of thanksgiving and praise (PDC ms. 322).

A final caution—sexual orgasm would be cathartic; sexual union need not be (e.g., the Tantric spiritual practice of sexual yoga and meditation in which orgasm is delayed or withheld). The mystic state would be more like the moment just prior to release—a neurological state, Burke speculates, that could be described in terms of total activation and/or total passivity in which all nervous impulses “attitudinally glowed” at once, “remaining in a halfway stage of incipience” (attitude functioning for Burke as a substitute for action or an incipient action); like, he continues appositively, “the status nascendi” (not the act but the state of being born) of “the pursuit figured on Keats’ Grecian Urn” (RM 330-31)14 (which appropriately for Burke, Keats addresses as “Fair attitude!”—see GM 459).

Bellus II

Burke’s mention of Keats is intriguing but confusing. He mentions Keats earlier to exemplify pure persuasion—“A single need, forever courted, as on Keats’s Grecian Urn, would be made possible by self-interference” (RM 275). Such interference would prevent persuasion’s ever coming to its end. But persuasion—rhetoric—transcends itself in dialectic. Linguistic action for itself alone does come to its end, an end inherent to language itself and a state such as that depicted on the Urn, a state characterized in a manner suggestive of self-interference—with a difference.

Pure persuasion, says Burke, would be “as biologically unfeasible as that moment when the irresistible force meets the immovable body.” It would be psychologically related to “a conflict of opposite impulses” and philosophically suggestive of “Buridan’s extremely rational ass” starving to death between two equally distant, equally succulent bales of hay. It would be “the moment of motionlessness . . . uncomfortably like suspended animation” (RM 294). 

Noting that if, “as neurologists like Sherrington tell us,” the expression of some impulses is contrived by the repression of others, then there is even on the bodily level an “infringement of freedom” within us, a sheerly physiological state of “inner contradiction.” Thus, he continues, “discord would have become the norm.”

However if going beyond [emphasis mine] it, the nervous system could fall [an odd choice of words, but see below] into a state of radical passivity whereby all nervous impulses “attitudinally glowed” at once (remaining in a halfway stage of incipience, the status nascendi of the pursuit figured on Keats’ Grecian Urn) there could be total “activation” without the overt acts that require repressive processes. Hence “contradictory” movements could exist simultaneously. (RM 330-31)

If normal action involves on the bodily level an “infringement of freedom,” the state concerning which Burke speculates, the state to which the purely linguistic act would lift us would be experienced not as “self-interference” but as “freedom.”

And perhaps not as “suspended animation” either, not as time stopped (or interfered with) but as an eternal present (GM 449). In his analysis of Keats’ poem, Burke writes of “suspension in the erotic imagery, defining an eternal prolongation of the state prior to fulfillment—not exactly arrested ecstasy, but rather an arrested pre-ecstasy.” But what he stresses is “the quality of incipience in this imagery.” And he cites G. Wilson Knight’s referring in The Starlit Dome (295) to “that recurring tendency in Keats to image [sic] a poised form, a stillness suggesting motion” (GM 449-50)—as with total passivity caused by total activation. Though Keats addresses the Urn as a “still unravish’d bride of quietness,” Burke points to Keats’ discovering erotic imagery (“maidens loth,” “mad pursuit,” “wild ecstasy,” and more) everywhere in the embroidered scene covering it (i.e., the “brede [breed?] of marble men and maidens overwrought [overly excited?]”), fevered imagery of ravishment frozen on the Urn, imagery sharing the incipience of the Bold Lover who never, never wins the kiss (?) but forever loves.

Burke interprets this incipience as a variant of the identification between sexual love and death typical of 19th century romanticism (e.g., the “musical monument” of Wagner’s Liebestod). “On a purely dialectical basis, to die in love would be to be born to love (the lovers dying as individual identities that they might be transformed into a common identity).” Indeed any imagery of a dying or a falling in common (perhaps why Burke speaks of the nervous system falling into a state of radical passivity—see above) when woven with sexual imagery “signalizes a ‘transcendent’ sexual consummation” (GM 450-51).15

Purificandum IV

But Burke reminds us that “transcendence is not complete until the fecal motive has in some way been expressed and redeemed” (RM 309). Indeed “the entire hierarchic pyramid of dialectical symmetry may be infused with such a spirit” (RM 311). If we would ascend to the vision of Beauty, beauty must be purified—ad bellum purificandum. The mystic—like Keats in the “Ode,” like Burke in the Grammar, Rhetoric, and Symbolic—encompasses conflicting orders of motivation by finding a place for them in a developmental series, treating the body not as an antithesis to but a way into spirit—“a necessary disciplinary step” for “entry to ultimate communion.” In his thoroughness the mystic even employs body terms for his ultimate experiences (RM 189). 

Keats seeks to transcend the body and his own illness16 (“with the peculiar inclinations to erotic imaginings that accompany its fever”), to redeem by a poetic act his bodily suffering (“death, disease, the passions, or bodily ‘corruption’ generally (as with religious horror of the body)” being variants of the fecal), by splitting a distraught state into active and passive aspects, so that the benign (purified spiritual activity) remains, while the malign (tubercular—and sexual—fever) can be abstracted and left behind (RM 317; GM 452-53).

More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoyed.
For ever panting, and for ever young
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

But transcendence is not complete with only a sexual mounting; the urinal and literally fecal must be expressed and left behind as well. Burke claims that sometimes transcendence “may be got by purely tonal transformation” (myriad instances of which can be found in language change and partially codified in Grimm’s Laws). Such transformations “would reduce to a single letter or syllable, the process of catharsis, or ritual purging, that is developed at length in tragedy” (RM 310), enabling us to say something without really saying it—like “shucks” (one word, two expletives). Readers of Burke may remember his Great-Gramma Brodie who forbad his saying “G” or “Heck, Holy Smokes, and Darn it” because she knew what they implied (Collected Poems 242). Nevertheless, he speculates that in the title “urn” may be just such a tonal transformation of “urine” and in the final oracular lines “beauty” a transformation of “body” and “truth” of “turd.” Burke cautions, however, that such “joycing” is heuristic or suggestive “though it may put us in search of corroborative observations” (RM 204, 310; “As I Was Saying” 21, an article in which Burke mounts a full defense of his position 20-24).

Bellus III

According to Burke, the same pattern of transcendence (minus joycing) is evident in Plato’s Phaedrus. Lysias’ reference to a “feast of discourse” on the topic of love functions not merely as a metaphor but a juncture of two levels, the dialogue leading step by step from “feast” on the level of sheerly physical appetite (with an element of sociality introducing a motivation beyond mere hunger) to “discourse” on the level of “purely verbal insemination.” In brief, says Burke, “the dialogue is a ‘way’ from sexual intercourse to the Socratic intercourse of dialectical converse,” an instance of the Socratic erotic—Plato’s cure to rival the playwrights’ which he resisted (GM 424).

Propounded most directly in the Phaedrus and the Symposium (which likewise features discourses concerning love on the occasion of a banquet), the Socratic erotic is defined by Burke as “an ideological technique whereby bodily love would be transformed into love of wisdom, which in turn would be backed by knowledge derived and matured from the coquettish give and take of verbal intercourse” (“Catharsis—Second View” 132; PDC 359); though Burke later observes such coquettish give and take “could be relevantly analyzed as an attenuated variant of the tragic principle (‘learning through suffering’), since the victimage involved one’s methodic ‘suffering’ of one’s opponent, in order that exposure to such counter-action might thus contribute to the mature revising of one’s own position” (Unending Conversations 76; PDC 372); or, characterizing the Socratic erotic more terministically, Burke says “the seeds of merely bodily love are [so] placed in a terministic context” that “doctrinal insemination” becomes the concern (Unending Conversations 71; PDC 362).

Catharsis being associated with drama, Platonic transcendence is in contrast associated with lyric, “the kind of arias-with-dance which drama had necessarily subordinated in the very process of becoming drama,” says Burke, observing that when drama overstresses thought, it dissolves into exposition, homily, or dialectic (“Catharsis—Second View” 121; PDC 342). Burke considers Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” an ideal example of such dialectic adapted to lyric poetry (Unending Conversations 76; PDC 373; “On Catharsis” 362).

The contrast between lyric and drama is not absolute, however. Both comedy and tragedy can be partisan; derisive laughter can be as socially unifying as sacrifice. Both employ victimage to some degree—“the butt of humor at whose expense we jointly laugh” as well as the “scape-goat.” But comedy involves a “comic blotch” (hamartema) rather than a “tragic flaw” (hamartia), a foolish blunder rather than a prideful error of judgment. And Aristophanic comedy would culminate in secularized variants of the “sacred marriage” (the hierogamy) and the “love feast” rather than the “kill” (“On Catharsis” 348, 362).17

Given that Plato’s particular system of cure was based on the Socratic erotic (“Catharsis—Second View” 132; PDC 359), the transformations characteristic of dialectic would be more akin to comedy than tragedy, falling on the side of sex rather than victimage—perhaps the reason for Burke’s approaching Plato roundabout through Nietzsche (which he does) and Aristophanes (which he planned to do) (PDC 359-60, a paragraph added in the PDC to “Catharsis—Second View”).

Purificandun V

Burke’s positions vis-à-vis dialectic and drama are part of a running argument with Nietzsche’s as expressed in the Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche claims that tragedy originates in the struggle between two forces, drives, or principles which he associates with Greek deities—Apollo, embodying the drive toward drawing and respecting boundaries and limits; and Dionysus, the drive toward destroying boundaries and transgressing limits. The purest expression of the Apollonian is Homeric epic poetry and the purest expression of the Dionysian quasi-orgiastic forms is music (especially choral singing and dancing). Applying the one-many alignment, Nietzsche equates the principle of individuation with Apollo and the aristocratic, and “primordial unity” with drunken worshippers of Dionysus and primitive democracy. Tragedy is a merger of aristocratic and popular tendencies (the Chorus “hovering on the edge of riot”), a balance of Apollonian moderation and self-control and Dionysian excess (with the musical, Dionysian element tending to dominate). Tragedy’s decline commences, according to Nietzsche, with the arrival of Socrates, a new force dedicated to creating abstract generalizations and attaining theoretical knowledge (Unending Conversations 74; PDC 369).

Though Burke believes scholarship provides backing for Nietzsche’s view of tragedy as “the marriage of conflicting social motives,” he disputes Nietzsche’s equating the principle of individuation with any one social class, there being democratic as well as aristocratic forms; besides, individuation is not exclusively a social principle. He claims primordial unity is equated with the Dionysian dance when it could be equated with the Apollonian dream as well. And music’s equation with Dionysus (an equation central to Nietzsche’s argument) could be made more justifiably with Apollo— an equation Burke himself implicitly makes, Apollo’s lyre being the instrument accompanying lyric poetry recited or sung at symposia (though flutes were also common). Burke would appear to align his terms differently, associating Dionysus more with drama and Apollo more with non-dramatic lyric and therefore Platonic dialectic. And while Burke believes Plato did offer a cure in direct competition with both the tragic and comic playwrights, he hardly considered his medicine inferior  (Unending Conversations 75-76; PDC 369-72).

But Nietzsche remains more than relevant for Burke’s purposes because, throughout the Birth of Tragedy, there runs “a terascopic [sic] concern” with what Burke calls “the Daedalian motive”—named for the creator of the Labyrinth on Crete in which the Minotaur (part bull, part man) was kept—given Nietzsche’s speaking of trying to find his way through “the labyrinth of the origin of Greek tragedy” (Unending Conversations 75; PDC 371). 

The relation “between articulate form and the inarticulate matter out of which such expression emerges,” says Burke, is “labyrinthine” in two senses—“not only is the inarticulate a tangle (at least, as viewed from the standpoint of the articulate); but also articulation itself is a tangle, since any symbol-system sets up an indeterminate range of ‘implications’ still to be explored.” The Daedalian motive—the desire for articulation—is cathartic in the non-Aristotelian, Crocean sense of expression being cathartic, an experience of relief resulting from converting an “inarticulate muddle into the orderly terms of a symbol-system,” as well as from finding a direction through a maze of implications (from a beginning through a middle to an end) (“On Catharsis” 364). And maintaining his Apollonian alignments, Burke observes, “Regarding dialectical processes in general, any expression or articulation may legitimately be considered as embodying a principle of individuation” (Unending Conversations 75; PDC 370).

Burke identifies three critical points in the process of purgation or purification—the poet being “cleansed” of his “extra-poetic materiality” when he hits upon his theme and starts tracking down its implications; when “he becomes so deeply involved in his symbol-system” that it takes over, and “a new quality or order of motives” emerges; when he reaches his goal and fulfillment is complete (“On Catharsis” 364).18 

Contra-Nietzsche, Burke argues Plato may have formulated his medicine after the great tragic playwrights had concocted theirs, but “dialectical transcendence is logically prior to drama.” Any work translating

the formless tensions of life into an orderly set of systematically inter-related terms (which make possible a treatment of the tension “in principle,” in “entelechial perfection”) by the same token provides a kind of transcendence, through having “translated” us into the formal realm of a symbol-system.  In fact, any orderly terminology “transcends” non-terministic conditions (as a medicology can be said to transcend the diseases it diagnoses and prescribes for, or as any theological, metaphysical, political, historical, etc. theory can be said to transcend the non-symbolic motives to which it imparts form by symbolism).  Man’s first notable step away from the realm of sheer sensation (that is to say, man’s first “transcendence”) is probably best got by the spontaneous symbolizing of sensation in poetic imagery.  (PDC 172-73)

Beyond sheer expression, beyond “turning brute impressions into articulate expressions” (LSA 188), there is the cathartic process of unfolding, of successively actualizing initially vague potentialities (“On Catharsis” 364). The terms in a symbol-system mutually imply one another in a timeless (eternal), cyclical, simultaneity (like notes in a chord), but the terms themselves are future to one another as a thinker proceeds in a temporal, linear sequence from one to the next (like notes in an arpeggio), discovering successively how each in turn is implicit in the others.  The futurity of an implicational cycle of terms still to be made explicit is “a cause of great unrest,” even if the implicational network is built about the cathartic promise of an ultimate rest (“On Catharsis” 364-65).  Insofar as such a cycle of terms is without direction, there would be “cathartic” value in the irreversibility of “narrative or dramatic forms, each with its own unique progression.” Such development “gives the feel of going somewhere, even though, in the last analysis, the same cyclic tangle broods over any self-consistent symbol system” (“On Catharsis” 366).19 

But what Burke contends concerning the articulation of any particular work or network is true of the articulation of language in general, its potentialities still to be made actual causing great unrest, though promising nonetheless ultimate rest at the end of their unfolding. To say the human being is a “symbol-using animal” is by the same token to say the human being is a “transcending animal.” There is in language itself “a motive force” calling us to transcend a world without language (RM 192). And implicit in language as “a means of transcending brute objects” is the idea of God as “the ultimate transcendence”. (RM 276)

Per linguam, praeter linguam

À la Nietzsche, Burke goes on his own hunt for the origins of tragedy. (In fact, the degree to which Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals and Birth of Tragedy inform the Symbolic may be greater than at first appears). Like Nietzsche, he turns to Aeschylus, analyzing the Oresteia almost line by line.

But his search for the origins of tragedy leads to a search for the origins of language and a focus on the negative as the essence of language. Burke moved rapidly through the early sections of the first draft of the Symbolic (“Poetics, Dramatistically Considered”) up through the one on Aeschylus’ trilogy. In summer 1952, he published “Form and Persecution in the Oresteia” in the Sewanee Review, then in fall ’52 and winter ’53 a long four-part essay in the Quarterly Journal of Speech on “A Dramatistic View of the Origins of Language,” which he identified as part of his Ethics years later (1959) in his initial correspondence with William Rueckert—“the damned trilogy” having split along the way into a tetralogy (Letters 3). For the next decade he worked back and forth between the proposed Symbolic and Ethics, publishing parts of each here and there, though the closest he came to publishing either as a complete volume was Language as Symbolic Action and The Rhetoric of Religion.

The Sewanee Review article (collected in LSA 125-38) sits halfway between the section of the 1958 first draft that it summarizes and the QJS articles. There Burke argues the Oresteia (though not reducible to terms so “biologically absolute”) is concerned “with the unresolved conflicts between the verbal and the nonverbal” out of which the verbal arises and in which it is necessarily grounded (LSA 136). The persecuting Furies and Orestes’ mother, Clytemnaestra, are described as the amphisbaena—what Burke takes to be the mythic representation of “the ultimate dreaming worm” (LSA 135) “ever circling back upon itself in enwrapt self-engrossment, the ‘mystic’ dreaming stage of vegetal metabolism in which the taking in and the giving off merge into one another” (LSA 310), “the caterpillar” residing at “the roots of our being” (“Art–and the First Rough Draft of Living” 157), “the sheerly vegetating digestive tract that underlies all human rationality, and out of which emerge the labyrinths of human reason” (LSA 135). Burke takes the “purely social justice” celebrated in the Eumenides’ pageantry at the mythic founding of the Acropolis to be a “dialectical transcending of the basic biological worm” (LSA 135).

In light of the “sheer physicality” of life, writes Burke, the human animal is but a “digestive tract with trimmings” (White Oxen 282), the human organism “simply one more species of alimentary canal with accessories” (“Art–and the First Rough Draft of Living” 157). Somehow, out of this nonverbal tract there emerge linguistic labyrinths in which we lose immediate contact with the sheer materiality of existence. Though the powers of speech may “guide and protect” us in our “tasks of growth, temporary individual survival, and reproduction” (White Oxen 282), they also “cause us to approach the world through a screen of symbolism.” This screen, forcing us to “approach reality at one remove,” distinguishes us from the dreaming worm and makes us the sort of animal human beings typically are (“Art–and the First Rough Draft of Living” 157). 

Thus the body that learns language suffers a kind of “alienation” from nature and its own body (LSA 52). Language establishes a “distance” between us and the nonverbal ground of our verbalizing, a distance not felt by organisms “whose relations to nature are more direct” (LSA 90). The body that learns language exhibits “an unremitting tendency” to make itself over in the image of his distinctive trait, as if aiming to become like “the pure spirit of sheer words, words so essential that they would not need to be spoken” (PC 184). Such a tendency denies our animality even though the action of symbolicity depends upon the resources of physical and biological motion.

Prior to language, we are submerged in nature. However, even then a certain kind of individuality is implicit in the sheer physical centrality of the nervous system whereby food a particular body consumes or pains a particular body suffers belong exclusively to that particular body—a view that Burke considers the logological equivalent of the Thomist view of matter as the principium individualionis (“Catharsis:  Second View” 107). Then come language and the resulting alienation of nonverbal and verbal. Language “strongly punctuates” physical individuality by making us aware of the centrality of the nervous system” (LSA 90). Though we may all “go through the same general set of physiological and psychological processes,” each of us is still isolated within his own body since “universality of that sort by no means removes the individuality intrinsic” to the central nervous system (“Catharsis:  Second View” 107).  Our alienation is exacerbated further as the material reality of the human body in physical association with other bodies, human and non-human, becomes submerged beneath the ideality of socio-political communities saturated with the genius of language (White Oxen 289-90).

The tension created by the vague and vast implications of language yet to be unfolded is released by speech. Thereafter language points down problematic paths, but out of labyrinthine tangles and turns the ultimate course emerges as the thread of language leads up and out in a long climb to its end—by and through language, beyond language, per linguam, praeter linguam (“Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education,” 263; Essays Toward a Symbolic of Motives 266). Such is Plato’s Upward Way, the route of dialectical rather than dramatic cleansing by tears or laughter, purification rather than purgation, transcendence rather than catharsis (Unending Conversations 70; PDC 361)—the way of death and rebirth.

For there is an analogue of dying (and a corresponding rebirth) in the very form of dialectical mounting, the particulars of the senses subjected to progressive transformation whereby their sensuous immediacy and sensory diversity are left further behind with each advance in generalization, the climb complete in the vision of the One—a mortification by means of abstraction, (GM 429; Unending Conversations 74; PDC 367) and death the final slaying of image by idea. “Death then becomes the Neo-Platonists’ One, the completely abstract, which is technically the divine” (“Thanatopsis for Critics" 374). 

In Plato’s analogy of the cave, the imagery is reversed—we leave behind the shadow realm of death; the cave where we have been imprisoned or entombed becomes a womb giving birth to a new world where we are free at last, a new world in which “everything is, as it were, shined on by the same sun, the unitary principle discovered en route, so that entities previously considered disparate can henceforth be seen as partakers of a single substance, through being bathed in a common light” (Unending Conversations 74; PDC 367).

How appropriate then that Keats knew, though there was a lust for life in the brede covering the Grecian Urn, there was an aura of death surrounding it as well.20  An urn after all is a funerary vessel, a chamber pot for life’s remains when life is left behind—although the ashes inside may remain from the conflagration of transcendent sexual union rather than cremation. Sub specie aeternitatis transcendental fever is transformed into transcendental chill, though Burke cautions that as only the fever’s benign aspects remained after consumption’s malign aspects were left behind, so it is on a wholly benign chill that the poem ends (GM 458-59). “Cold Pastoral!” writes Keats, describing an unheard melody with a pastoral theme, or the pastoral last rites rendered by a priest, or the pastoral scene of a transcendental ground (“mortality” left behind for “immortality”) from which the “silent form” issues its epiphany. Then isolation falls away in rapture, and we know . . .

Ordinary knowledge comes via the senses, says Burke, so an extraordinary sensory condition (such as one in which “all nervous impulses ‘attitudinally glowed’ at once” so that we remained “in a halfway stage of incipience, the status nascendi of the pursuit figured on Keat’s Grecian Urn”) would likewise be felt as knowledge. 

The mystic would thus have a strong conviction that his experience was “noetic,” telling him of a “truth” beyond the realm of logical conditions, and accordingly best expressed in terms of the oxymoron.  And indeed, why would it not be “knowledge”?  For if the taste of a new fruit is knowledge, then certainly the experiencing of a rare and felicitous physical condition would be knowledge too, a report of something from outside the mind, communication with an ultimate, unitary ground. (RM 331)

Could not a mystic Plato, Keats, or Burke speak of that which in that moment is revealed

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.


Burke observes in the closing pages of the Grammar that Jowlett, who devoted a great portion of his life to the translating and interpreting of Plato, fully recog­nized the Platonic doctrine of transcendence but never analyzed the dialogues themselves as acts of transcendence. “For not only do they plead for transcendence; they are so formed that the end transcends the beginning” (GM 421). The same might be justly said of the Rhetoric and surmised of the Symbolic.

The Rhetoric’s culminating passage concludes a dialectical climb to a transcendent end. I believe the Symbolic’s culminating passage would have concluded a similar climb.  I believe the steps can be found in the final sections of the ‘58 version (itself unfinished), which examines similarities and differences between dramatic catharsis and dialectical transcendence and in Burke’s great essay on Emerson which does the same (“I, Eye, Aye—Concerning Emerson’s Early Essay on ‘Nature,’ and the Machinery of Transcendence” published in 1966 and collected in Language as Symbolic Action, pp. 186-200).

Burkes writes in “Platonic Transcendence” of

an “Upward Way” moving towards some “higher” principle of unity; once this principle is found, a whole ladder of steps is seen to descend from it; thus, reversing his direction, the dialectician can next take a “Downward Way” that brings him back into the realm . . . where he began; but on reentering, he brings with him the unitary principle he has discovered en route and the hierarchal design he saw implicit in that principle; accordingly, applying the new mode of interpretation to his original problem, he now has the problem “placed” in terms of the transcendent . . .  (Unending Conversations 71; PDC 361-62 )

He continues,

Insofar as reality is non-symbolic and thus outside the realm of the symbol-systems by which we would describe it, to that extent reality is being described in terms of what it is not.  At the point where we have gone from sensory images to ideas that transcend the sensory image, we might next go beyond such ideas in turn by introducing a “mythic” image (an image that is interpreted not literally but ironically, since it states the new position by analogy, and analogies must be “discounted”).  Such use of “myth” as a step in a dialectic may carry the development across a motivational gulf by providing a new ground of assertion at some crucial point where a further advance is not attainable through strictly logical argument.  (Unending Conversations 72; PDC 364)

The image of the Urn as an “object” would be sensory, says Burke; the vision of the Urn as “viaticum” would be mythic (Unending Conversations 73; PDC 366).

Burke’s final step in the Emerson essay is his introduction of such a mythic image (toward which perhaps the whole Symbolic moves) by reference to book six of the Aeneid where early in his journey to the Underworld Virgil descries a wailing throng stranded on the shore opposite death, the land of life behind them; unburied and hence as yet unferried to their final abode, those shades are said to have “stretched forth their hands through love of the farther shore”—

Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore.

That is the pattern. Whether there is or is not an ultimate shore towards which we, the unburied, would cross, transcendence involves dialectical processes whereby something HERE is interpreted in terms of something THERE, something beyond itself. (LSA 200)21

Does not Burke’s image suggest we suffer life and long for death; that life is imprisonment and death a release? Expelled from and wandering the realms east of Eden, are we not like those wretched shades ourselves, yearning for the life we knew before the Fall, the Life that would be ours if we should truly Die?

Stretching forth his hands each day—enthralled in tracking down and contemplating the interrelationships prevailing among terms of a system (“Poetic Motive” 60), whether another’s or his own; constantly scrutinizing linguistic operations, how they unfold, what they ultimately hold within themselves; aware that wherever the process can be found, even in traces, of considering things “in terms of a broader scope” than terms those particular things themselves allow, “there are the makings of Transcendence” (LSA 200)—stretching forth his hands from the land of life and language to the silent shore beyond in “benign contemplation of death,” Burke is led  and would lead us likewise to live “a dying life” (GM 222-23).

Representative Summations

“Burke’s conception of the relationship between language, mind, body, and reality is informed by (a) naturalism, the mean between an anti-scientific idealism and a reductive materialism; and (b) organicism (biology), the source for hierarchy (an organism’s organization) and entelechy (its development). Language is the entelechy of the human organism, generating the mind, the highest (meta-biological) level of a body genetically endowed with the ability to learn language. Language itself mirrors biology (a terminology generating a hierarchy on the path to its entelechy) and possesses its own entelechy (an all-inclusive “nature . . . containing the principle of speech,” or NATURE.” 22  The system resulting is basically Aristotelian.

However, though Burke’s system is Aristotelian, his concept of rhetoric is Platonic.  There is no “fall” for Aristotle, but there is for Plato and a corresponding fall for Burke, the consequence of which is a “false” or “fallen” conscious­­ness regarding the relationship between body and mind, nonverbal and verbal, material and ideal, as well as ourselves and others. Being primarily ontological rather than historical, this fallen consciousness can be characterized on the one hand as Platonic; being a fall into the ideal world of language rather than the material world, it can be character­ized on the other as Marxoid; but being naturalistic (i.e., being primarily neither idealistic as with Plato nor materialistic as supposed with Marx, but acknow­ledging both the material and the ideal as natural), it is more Aristotelian than either (unless like Burke one considers Marx a naturalist and an Aristotelian).23

Consistent with Plato, rhetoric leaves us mired in this fallen realm; only dialectic can mystically lift us from it. All rhetoric (i.e., action for the sake of some purpose) is always to some degree self-defeating; every attempt to compen­sate for or overcome the imbalances and conflicts that characterize the human condition leads to but further imbalance and conflict. Only dialectic (i.e., lin­guistic action for itself alone) leads to true, though momentary, transcendence. No linguistic action is ultimately efficacious other than purely linguistic action effecting tran­scen­­dence through dialectic (the preferred route) or catharsis through drama (the less preferred in that drama mixes dialectic and rhetoric). The problem being language, the only solution is more of the same—rhetoric’s giving way to dialectic (i.e., a true and transcendent Rhetoric as with Plato) that overcomes the imbalance or conflict between body and mind, nonverbal and verbal, material and ideal, the conflict between ourselves and others, and for the moment makes us whole.

The cause of this fall can be traced to language which in its thorough (“cathartic”) operation turns distinctions (such as mind and body) into divisions. The remedy is likewise found in language which in its thorough (dialectical and in the Crocean sense “cathartic”) operation overcomes divisions. The cause is too much language, the cure more of the same—a “homeopathic” approach Burke characterizes as Aristotelian.

But the ultimate cause must be traced to the very nature of things (the existence of time and space and thus of distinction and potential division between parts which language in its thorough operation makes actual)—a “proto-fall” for which language provides no remedy. The ultimate remedy lies only in an end to the nature of things—the escaton.  Language provides temporary solace by generating an experience of wholeness through drama and (preferably) dialectic. But the experience of wholeness is shattered by (linguistic) action of any kind. The experience can be maintained only by a constant repetition of drama or dialectic. The eternal repetition which at first provides solace eventually becomes a source of despair from which death is the only escape, a position characteristic of Zen Buddhism in which the Nirvana of nothingness and oblivion is sought. Thus, action is depreciated by Burke, the only action sanctioned being incipient (or more accurately, substitutive): an attitude of Neo-Stoic resignation à la Spinoza.


1. The question of how systematic Burke actually may be is subject to ongoing debate. Burke’s system is not readily apparent because he was an autodidact with a dense and difficult highly personal (not to say jargon-laden) style. Had he stayed at Columbia he might have proven easier to categorize and read, but within the strait-jacket of academe he might never have become the protean thinker beloved by his admirers. From the Grammar on Burke clearly thinks he is being systematic, the question thereafter being whether he abandoned “dramatism” following the Rhetoric with the development of “logology,”  though Burke himself claims dramatism is his ontology and logology his epistemology ("Dramatism and Logology," The [London] Times Literary Supplement, August 12, 1983, p. 859). Burke’s never publishing his proposed Symbolic is also supposed as grounds for arguing he abandoned dramatism. Clearly the author believes otherwise. Burke’s thought is systematic though its expression may be more like that of a poet than a philosopher, more Plato than Aristotle.

2. Correspondence, partial publication, and the manuscript itself indicate the bulk of the unfinished second draft of the Symbolic of Motives (hereafter the SM for “Symbolic,” its running header) can reasonably be dated 1961-63, though the history of the complete manuscript is complex going back to the last sections of the first draft (hereafter the PDC for “Poetics, Dramatistically Considered,” the manuscript’s title). In a sense Burke was already revising the first draft before distributing it in 1958. Not only does Burke indicate the first draft is incomplete (PDC ms. p 374); in addition “The Poetic Motive,” the last section of the first draft (PDC ms. pp 375-391) becomes the first section of the second draft (SM ms. pp. 1-17) with virtually no change. The section is published in Hudson Review 11 (Spring 1958): 54-63. Other parts of the PDC published after 1958 with virtually no change (e.g., “Catharsis (Second View),” Centennial Review of Arts and Science 5 (Spring 1961): 107-32) may have been intended like “The Poetic Motive” for the revised SM.

Burke indicates to Malcolm Cowley in a series of letters from 1961 that he is now working hard on revising the Symbolic (see David Williams, “Toward Rounding Out the Motivorum Trilogy,” Unending Conversations, p. 16).  On the other hand 1963 appears to be the date for Burke’s completion of “Part Two” of the second draft covering SM ms. pp. 223-269 (the point at which the manuscript breaks off). “Part Two” is a major revision of “The Thinking of the Body” section from the first draft covering ms. pp. 76-179. The essay “The Thinking of the Body (Comments on the Imagery of Catharsis in Literature),” published in Psychoanalytic Review 50 (Fall 1963) and collected in Language as Symbolic Action (pp. 308-343), is drawn almost entirely from the PDC except for most of the last two sections (LSA pp. 308-30 and 330-43, respectively). There Burke writes (LSA p. 341) that as he works he is living on a Florida key—in fact Englewood, Florida from the end of December 1962 through the middle of March 1963, where he was working on the Symbolic among other things. Burke specifies in the SM (ms. p. 265) exactly what he has cut out of the section from the PDC and indicates he plans to publish the material in a separate monograph (i.e., the above mentioned essay). Burke has probably completed the SM material too, since he receives news on March 4th that William Carlos Williams has died. Thereafter he appears to be caught up in innumerable projects, especially those involving his budding relationship with the University of California Press, and from 1967 until her death in 1969 his wife’s illness.

3. A similar though less thorough discussion can be found in the PDC—e.g., “Embracing such words as ‘arms’ and ‘articulate,’ the root of the word ‘artistic’ is apparently related to a Greek word meaning ‘to join.’ (Further back, in Sanskrit, there were related roots meaning ‘to attain’ and ‘to fit.’)” Summing up the discussion of previous pages Burke says, “the etymological inklings in the word ‘artistic’ point towards dialectic, or articulation, with appropriate modes of generalization and specification—and this trend would come to a head in principles of classification (as with the order of the terms in a Platonic list of classes arranged like the rungs of a ladder)” (4-5).

4. Burke adds parenthetically, “Later in this text, we shall consider Poe’s proposition that ‘the most poetical topic for the ideal lyric is a beautiful woman dead” (SM 32-33)—suggesting the SM will turn ultimately to the consideration of “beauty” (traditionally the end of poetics and aesthetics) and “death” (which Burke associates with perfection and the end of dialectic as well as “rebirth.”)

5. Burke’s exact phrasing is important given the claim: “though what we mean by pure persuasion in the absolute sense exists nowhere, it can be present as a motivational ingredient in any rhetoric” (RM 269); and “as the ultimate of all persuasion, its form or archetype, there is pure persuasion. . . . The important consideration is that, in any device, the ultimate form (paradigm or idea) of that device is present, and is acting. And this form would be the ‘purity’” (RM 273-74). Emphases mine.

6. See also RM 218 where Burke discusses Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and the “antinomian yet intimate relation between love and war” where he characterizes the marriage between Venus and Mars as “a love match that is itself a kind of war.”

7. Burke phrased his definition in precisely this manner during a dinner conversation with Barbara Biesecker and me among others on November 5, 1987 at the SCA Convention in Boston. Burke’s phrasing echoes his 1985 essay “In Haste” (p. 330): “. . . our bodies being physiologically in the realm of nonsymbolic motion, but genetically endowed with the ability to learn a kind of verbal behavior I call symbolic action.” See also his 1978 essay “(Nonsymbolic) Motion/(Symbolic) Action” (pp. 811-12): “ . . . our anthropoid ancestors underwent a momentous mutation.  In their bodies (as physio­logical organisms in the realm of motion) there developed the ability to learn the kind of tribal idiom that is here meant by symbolic action.” And “. . . the mutation that makes speech possible is itself inherited in our nature as physical bodies.” See also his 1981 essay “Variations on ‘Providence’”: “But unlike all other earthly animals (to our knowledge) the human kind is genetically, physiologically, materially endowed with the ability to learn the kind of language which Logology would call ‘symbolic action’” (On Human Nature 274).

8. Burke goes on to observe both dialectic and drama “treat of persons and their characteristic thoughts”—though the dialectic of Platonic dialogue stresses the thoughts held by persons, while drama stresses the persons holding the thoughts. Still, “in both forms the element of personality figures”—though “dialectic can dispense with formal division into cooperatively competing voices.” The thoughts can still be “vibrant with personality,” but they are considered “various aspects of the same but somewhat inconsistent personality, rather than as distinct characters in various degrees of agreement and disagreement” as in Platonic dialogue (LSA 188).

9. See also LSA 125, fn 1.

10. In a critical passage in the Rhetoric (180—the end of “Part II”), Burke distinguishes between the nonverbal (by which he means the “visceral”), the postverbal (“the unutterable complexities to which the implications of words themselves give rise”) and the superverbal (whatever would be the “jumping-off place” if we went “through the verbal to the outer limits of the verbal”)—i.e., the superverbal not as “nature minus speech, but nature as the ground of speech, hence nature as itself containing the principle of speech,” an all-inclusive nature that would be not less-than but more-than-verbal (or NATURE to make the distinction clear and the phrase concise), Burke’s equivalent to Spinoza’s “God or Nature” (though the elements or attributes are reversed).

Unlike Spinoza, however, Burke does not forget the phenomenal character of his starting point. Spinoza describes the finite in terms of the infinite, his metaphysical propositions assuming the character of assertions about external reality; his one infinite divine substance possesses an infinite number of attributes of which we know but two, thought and extension (“God” and “Nature” being the names we respectively give them), mind and body constituting their finite modifications or modes. Burke describes the infinite in terms of the finite, his metabiological propositions being projections of the human; his infinite “nature [equivalent to extension] . . . containing the principle of speech”[equivalent to thought] is an extension of the finite “body genetically endowed with the ability to learn language” [equivalent to mind] —i.e., our phenomenally limited (anthropocentric) view of ultimate being is of human being writ large.

11. Burke does not seem altogether consistent in his use of the term “fragments” in the Rhetoric. Of course one could always argue (as Burke himself undoubtedly would) that however the notion is named, the idea is still inherent in the system. Still it is instructive to examine Burke’s usage.

Burke says, for example, “Empirically, what theologians discuss as the ultimate Oneness of God is equivalent to the ultimate oneness of the linguistic principle.” And from what has been argued, he would seem to suggest here that that principle operates in part or as a “fragment” in all language use.  But he goes on, “Rhetoric is thus made from fragments of dialectic.” His explanation: Expression “as persuasion, seeks to escape from infancy by breaking down the oneness of an intuition into several terms, or voices. It defines by partisanship, by determination. These terms may bring clarifications that are themselves confusions on another level” (RM 175-76). The discussion calls to mind an earlier discussion: “The notion of the Son as bringer of light seems in its essence to suggest that the division of the part from the whole is enlightening, a principle that might be stated dialectically thus: Partition provides terms; thereby it allows the parts to comment upon another. But this ‘loving’ relation allows for the ‘fall’ into terms antagonistic in their partiality, until dialectically resolved by reduction to ‘higher’ terms” (RM 140). In these passages and others, “fragments” suggests pieces divorced from or apart from the whole.

But elsewhere “fragments” suggests pieces that retain some aspect of the whole, that are somewhat or somehow connected to or a part of the whole—in which two cases (RM 331) the term is bracketed in quotation marks. Burke, for example, contrasts mysticism and its “fragments” with “substitutes” for mysticism that involve “the transforming of means into ends”—false mysticisms of money or crime or drugs or war (RM 331-32). 

Overall, the term seems to retain the ambiguity of the rhetoric-dialectic relationship, of voices cooperating in competition versus voices competing in cooperation, of opposition versus apposition.

The ambiguity of mysticism versus false mysticism (and the ambiguity of “fragments” as well) continues to the end of the Rhetoric: “Mysticism [including false mysticism?] is no rare thing. True, the attaining of it in its pure state is rare.” Does Burke mean a “true” or “real” state as opposed to a false one? or some other kind of state such as “pure” versus “impure,” that is, mixed with the ersatz? He continues:  “And its secular analogues [the “secular” contrasted with the “sacred” or “pure”? the “social” contrasted with the “cosmic”?], in grand or gracious symbolism, are rare. But the need for it, the itch, is everywhere [à la Augustine?—see fn. 12 below]. And by hierarchy it is intensified.”  (RM 332-33)

Mysticism (?), says Burke, can exist “under many guises” in hierarchy. Anagogically the conditions of the “divine,” the goadings of “mystery” reside in hierarchy (RM 333). In his “Definition of Man” Burke says that in his Rhetoric he tried to trace the relationship between social hierarchy and mystery. He concedes that should the fourth clause of his definition, “goaded by the spirit of hierarchy,” sound too weighted, he could settle instead for “moved by a sense of order.” He then points to E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India “for its ingenious ways of showing how social mystery can become interwoven with cosmic mystery”; and Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier for nicely bringing out two kinds of “worship,” kneeling on one knee to the sovereign and on both knees to God; and the ancient Roman application of the term pontifex maximus to the Emperor to specifically recognize his “bridging” relationship as the head of the social hierarchy  and as a god (LSA 15-16).

But given that “the mystery [social and cosmic?] of the hierarchic is forever with us,” writes Burke in the final paragraph of the Rhetoric, let us

scrutinize its range of entrancements, both with dismay and in delight. And finally let us observe, all about us, forever goading us, though it be in fragments [meant in all its ambiguity?], the motive that attains its ultimate identification in the thought, not of the universal holocaust, but of the universal order—as with the rhetorical and dialectical symmetry of the Aristotelian metaphysics, whereby all classes of being are hierarchically arranged in a chain or ladder or pyramid of mounting worth, each kind striving towards the perfection of its kind, and so towards the kind next above it, while the strivings of the entire series head in God as the beloved cynosure and sinecure, the end of all desire. (RM 333)

12. Burke’s own system can be profitably considered in regard to Augustine’s famous aphorism and modern theologian Paul Tillich’s rendering of it—God is the end of all our striving, that with which we are ultimately concerned. For Augustine and Tillich the theistic motive (though it may not be recognized as such) inspirits all aspects of our lives, so no account of human motivation is complete without it. The motive might be misdirected toward other ends (wealth, power, glory—other “gods”) but no substitute could fully satisfy. The theistic motive in Augustine and Tillich is apparently secularized as the hierarchic motive in Burke. The end of all striving is not God but a principle (such as money) that infuses all levels of a particular hierarchy and functions as God. Thus sheerly worldly powers take on the attributes of secular divinity and demand our worship. For Burke, though, the hierarchic motive itself is ultimately linguistic. And the linguistic motive is ultimately natural—meaning the natural world would encompass more than the merely material (see RM 180). The end of all linguistic striving then would be that NATURE which gives birth not simply to our bodies but also to language and our minds. Thus the theism of Augustine and Tillich is transformed into the naturalism of Burke in which it is NATURE that has made us symbol-using animals and our hearts are restless until our symbols bring us to rest in IT. See Thames, “The Gordian Not” 29.

13. Burke’s contention is particularly apt given Mircea Eliade’s analysis of the centrality of sex and victimage in his study of the archaic ontology implicit in myth and ritual (Myth of the Eternal Return; see also Richard H. Thames, Mystical Ontology in Kenneth Burke [dss.])

According to Eliade, myths testify to archaic man’s terror of losing contact with being (the eternal and sacred) by allowing himself to be overwhelmed in the process of becoming (the temporal and profane). When archaic man repeats an archetypal gesture (at essential moments such as a New Year, birthday or anniversary; a rite of passage; a founding) his action not only repeats but also coincides with an archetype initiated by the gods ab origine, at the beginning of time. By repeating such a gesture he escapes from becoming and maintains contact with being; he abolishes and projects himself out of profane into primordial or mythic time: he returns and is witness to Creation. Thus his rituals evince a thirst not only for the ontic but also the static. Such repetition enables him to maintain contact with being in all its plenitude; such repetition enables him to live like the mystic in a continual, atemporal present by generating a cyclical structure for time. 

According to Eliade, “sex” and “victimage” were central to primitive festivals in which time and space were ritually abolished and regenerated. Both constitute repetitions of the cosmogony—the act of Creation. Sexual intercourse ritually repeated the hierogamy, the union of heaven and earth resulting in the cosmos’ birth. In the Babylonian New Year festival the king and a temple slave reproduced the hierogamy, a ritual to which there corresponded a period of collective orgy.  Intercourse and orgy represent chaos and a rebirth of the universe. It was also during New Year festivals that demons, diseases, and sins were expelled in ceremonies of various types, all involving some form of victimage. According to Sir James Frazer (in that part of the Golden Bough entitled the Scapegoat) the “riddance of evil” was accomplished by transferring it to something (a material object, an animal, or a human being) and expelling that thing (now bearing the faults of the entire community) beyond inhabited territory. With the scapegoat’s sacrifice, chaos was slain. Such ritual purification means a combustion, an annulling of the sins and faults of the individual and the community as a whole—not a mere purifying, but a regeneration, a new birth.

Both sex and victimage repeat the cosmogony. Both represent attempts, in the words of Eliade, “to restore—if only momentarily—mythical and primordial time, ‘pure’ time, the time of the ‘instant’ of the Creation” (Myth 54). In illo tempore the gods had displayed their greatest powers, the cosmogony being “the supreme divine manifestation, the paradigmatic act of strength, superabundance, and creativity.” Religious man, says Eliade, thirsts for the real. “By every means at his disposal, he seeks to reside at the very source of primordial reality, when the world was in statu nascendi” (The Sacred and the Profane 80).

Burke argues that Aristophanic comedy culminates in secularized variants of the “sacred marriage” (the hierogamy) and the “love feast” whereas tragedy culminates in ritual sacrifice, victimage, the “kill” (“On Catharsis” 348, 362).

See endnote 14 below.

14. See endnote 13 above. The mystic state would involve annulment of the here and now and absorption into the Absolute which would be formless as opposed to form in time and space and therefore chaotic as the ground of creation, nothing as opposed to all that is, the womb of plenitude out of which the world is born—pure being.

15. Later in his analysis Burke adds in a footnote

In the light of what we have said about the deathiness of immortality, and the relation between the erotic and the thought of a “dying,” perhaps we might be justified in reading the last line of the great “Bright Star!” sonnet as naming states not simply alternative but also synonymous:

And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

This use of the love-death equation is as startlingly paralleled in a letter to Fanny Brawne:

I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death.  O that I could take possession of them both in the same moment.  (GM 456)

16. See Burke’s own piece, “The ‘Anaesthetic Revelation’ of Herone Liddell” (White Oxen 255-310), cited by Burke himself (“Catharsis—Second View” 119-20; PDC 340), in which the protagonist,

a “word-man” recovering from the ill effects of surgery, becomes engrossed in studying the death of Keats, as revealed through Keats’s letters. Here, by critically re-enacting the death of a “perfect” poet, the word-man in effect uses Keats as cathartic victim. But the cathartic principle is broken into other fragments also, as for instance, in shell-gathering, in speculations on the sea as life-giving charnel house, and in the change of scene, itself designed to be curative.

Burke takes the title from William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience from which Burke takes excerpts of excerpts, assembling the “cullings into one consecutive, dithrambic but rambling account, which should give a composite portrait of the experience, [the] mystic state” (RM 328-29).

17. “On Catharsis or Resolution, with a Postscript” (Kenyon Review 21 (Summer 1959): 337-75) is commonly supposed to have been drawn from the PDC section on “Catharsis (First View)” written in 1951 (ms. pp.38-56). Actually parts of the essay are taken verbatim from the first draft, but parts can also be found verbatim in the second! In 1959 Burke indicated in his first exchange with William Rueckert (Letters from Kenneth Burke to William H. Rueckert: 1959-1987, p. 4) that the “Symbolic” was somewhat delayed because unfortunately “some other possibilities turned up—and I couldn’t resist tracing them down.” Still he hoped to complete the Poetics’ “final bits” in the fall of that year—“a section on comic catharsis, for instance, though the general lines [were] already indicated” in his essay “On Catharsis.” He also hoped “to make clearer the relation btw. dramatic catharsis and Platonic (dialectic)/ transcendence” though he thought Rueckert would also agree that he had “already indicated the main lines in that connection,”  again in “On Catharsis” as well as elsewhere (e.g., the final sections of the PDC). Burke appears to have thought the “Symbolic” through to the end and did not anticipate its taking much longer to finish.

Burke adds at the end of “Platonic Transcendence” in the PDC (375):

We may not be able, at this time, to complete our remarks on Comedy. [How ironic that Burke’s remarks are incomplete and Aristotle’s lost, a situation Burke surely found fitting.] But here is, roughly, the sort of things to be treated:

First, by using as [a] model the three comedies of Aristophanes on peace, we shall be able to dwell on the pleasing antics of peace.

We want to consider the relation between wholly cathartic laughter and derision.

We want to ask in particular about the role of “body-thinking” in Aristophanic comedy.

We want to inquire further about laughter, tears, and appetite, as regards the materials of poetic form. (Unending Conversations 77; PDC 374)

Burke’s comment about completing “a section on comic catharsis” coincides with plans from the PDC but his comment about hoping “to make clearer the relation between dramatic catharsis and Platonic (dialectic)/ transcendence” takes things a step further. Clearly then, the essay is of considerable importance, indicating the direction the unfinished second draft may have taken. 

In fact the distribution of the PDC in the Summer of 1958; the publication of  “The Poetic Motive” (the essay  included at the end of the  PDC and moved to the front of the SM) in Spring 1958; the publication of  “On Catharsis” in Summer 1959 and the presence of verbatim sections in the SM; and Burke’s comments in the letter to Rueckert on 8 August 1959 vis-à-vis material in “Beyond Catharsis” and “Platonic Transcendence” as well as comments on what remains to be done on page 375 of the PDC, suggest that pages 362-68 from “On Catharsis” may constitute a sketch for the remainder of “A Symbolic of Motives.” 

Other essays published between 1959 and 1966 may contain additional clues—e.g. “Rhetoric and Poetics” (a talk presented at a Symposium on the History and Significance of Rhetoric under the auspices of the UCLA Classics Department in May 1965 and collected in LSA 295-307) as well as the extensive footnotes in LSA.

18. Burke continues: “Corresponding stages may be ascribed to the reader, or to the work itself, as with the different qualities of beginning, peripety, and end, analyzed without reference to either reader or writer” (“On Catharsis” 364).

19. Such translation of the logical into the temporal is the subject of Burke’s essay on Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition” which he promises to discuss later (SM 129). He does discuss Poe’s essay in his own “The Principle of Composition” (Poetry 99, October 961, 46-53) which he tells Rueckert will be used in some form in the Symbolic (Letters 31-32). See also “Poetics in Particular, Language in General” (LSA 25-43).

20. Burke quotes Bernard Blackstone who in The Consecrated Urn (332) observes that in the original draft the line “And silent as a consecrated urn” read “And silent as a corpse upon a pyre” (see “As I Was Saying” 21).

21. The first reference to this image appears on p. 363 of the essay “On Catharsis”; Burke describes it again in “Rhetoric and Poetics” (LSA 298); and he expands on it in the Emerson essay published in 1966 about the time he would have been returning to the Symbolic after finishing LSA and prior to the diagnosis of his wife’s malady sometime between late 1966 and early 1967.

22. See Thames, “The Gordian Not: Untangling the Motivorum. Part One: Seeking the Symbolic.”  KB Journal (Kenneth Burke Society Journal online at, Spring 2007.

23. In his Grammar ( 200-14) Burke argues that, so far as dramatistic terminology is concerned, Marxist philosophy begins by grounding agent in scene but requires a systematic featuring of act given its poignant concern for ethics; in other words, that Marx, an “idealistic materialist,” should be grammatically classified with Aristotle and Spinoza as a “realist” (or “naturalist”)—like Burke! Consequently, Burke offers “a tentative restatement of Marxist doctrine formed about the act of class struggle”—a “somewhat Spinozistic” characterization consistent with Soviet philosophical thought during the 1920s and ‘30s but also with Burke’s own philosophical stance.  (See G. L. Kline, Spinoza in Soviet Philosophy, London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1952.)

Burke accepts the idealistic-materialistic dialectic as descriptive of the dynamic underlying social change but not the Marxist escatology—sub specie aeternitatis all revolutions are essentially the same, ultimately leading to but another revolution, one system of inequality being replaced by another perhaps for some period more adequate to the demands of a particular time and place. (See Thames, “The Gordian Not: Untangling the Motivorum. Part One: Seeking the Symbolic.”)

Not only does Burke assimilate Marx to Spinoza and Aristotle and the naturalist tradition in the Grammar, he assimilates him to Plato and the dialectical development of terms in the Rhetoric (183-97). There Burke distinguishes between three orders of terms: the positive that names visible and tangible things which can be located in time and place; the dialectical (i.e., says Burke, dialectical “as we use the term in this particular connection”) that permeates the positive realm but is itself more concerned with ideas than things, more with action and attitude than perception, more with ethics and form than knowledge and information; and the ultimate (or mystical) that places the dialectical (actually from context, the rhetorical—see above) competition of voices in a hierarchy or sequence or evaluative series, a developmental series ordered by a “guiding idea” or unitary principle, transforming the competing voices into “successive positions or moments in a single process” (RM 183-87). The dialectic development typical of Platonic dialogue is the instance par excellence of the third order (see the discussion above in “Bellus”).

Burke contends the Marxist dialectic gains much of its strength by conforming to an ultimate order. Rather than confronting one another merely as parliamentary voices representing conflicting interests, various classes are instead hierarchically arranged, each with a disposition or “consciousness” matching its peculiar set of circumstances, “while the steps from feudal to bourgeois to proletarian are grounded in the very nature of the universe” (RM 190).

The assimilation of Marx to Spinoza and Plato are both examples of Burke’s tendency to de-historicize—to essentialize the temporal rather than temporize the essential (see Trevor Melia’s “Scientism and Dramatism” in The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, edited by Herbert W. Simons and Trevor Melia, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989, pp. 66-67).

Works Cited

Blackstone, Bernard. The Consecrated Urn, An Interpretation of Keats in Terms of Growth and Form. London: Longmans Green, 1959; reprint 1962.

Burke, Kenneth. “The Anaesthetic Revelation of Herone Liddell.” Complete White Oxen: Collected Short Fiction of Kenneth Burke. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. 255-310.

— . “Art—and the First Rough Draft of Living.” Modern Age 8 (1964): 155-65.

— . “Beyond Catharsis.” “Poetics, Dramatistically Considered.” Ms., 1958. 281-320. Also in Unending Conversations: New Writings by and about Kenneth Burke. Eds. Greig Henderson and David Cratis Williams. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001. 52-64.

— . Collected Poems: 1915-1967. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

— . The Complete White Oxen: Collected Short Fiction of Kenneth Burke. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

— . “Catharsis—Second View.” Centennial Review of Arts and Science 5 (1961): 107-132.

— . “Dramatism.” Communication: Concepts and Perspectives. Ed. Lee Thayer. Washington, DC: Spartan Books, 1967. 327-352. Also abridged in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 7. New York: Macmillan and Free Press, 1968. 445-452.

— . “Dramatism and Logology.” Times Literary Supplement. 12 August. 1983: 859.

— . Dramatism and Development. Barre, MA: Clark University Press with Barre Publishers, 1972.

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

— . Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

— . “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education.” Modern Philosophies and Education. Ed. Nelson B. Henry. National Society for the Study of Education Year Book 54. Chicago: National Society for the Study of Education; University of Chicago Press, 1955: 259-303. Also abridged in Essays Toward a Symbolic of Motives, 1950-1955. Ed. William H. Rueckert. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2006. 261-282.

— . “On Catharsis, or Resolution, with a Postscript.” Kenyon Review 20 (1958): 337-375.

— . “The Orestes Trilogy.” Essays Toward a Symbolic of Motives: 1950-1955. Ed. William H. Rueckert. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2006. 103-147.

— . Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. 3d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

— . “The Poetic Motive.” Hudson Review 40 (1958): 54-63.

— . “Poetics, Dramatistically Considered.” Ms., 1958.

— . “The Principle of Composition.” Poetry 99 (1961): 46-53. Also in Terms for Order. Ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman with the assistance of Barbara Karmiller. Bloomington: Indiana University Press (A Midland Book), 1964. 189-98.

— . A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

— . The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

— . “A Symbolic of Motives.” Ms., 1963 (?).

— . “Thanatopsis for Critics: A Brief Thesaurus of Deaths and Dying.” Essays in Criticism 2 (1952): 369-375.

Eliade, Mircea. The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (Bollingen paperback), 1971.

— . The Sacred and the Profane. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World (Harvest Book), 1959.

Henderson, Greig and David Cratis Williams (eds). Unending Conversations: New Writings by and about Kenneth Burke. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001.

Kline, G. L. Spinoza in Soviet Philosophy. London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1952.

Knight, G. Wilson. Starlit Dome: Studies in the Poetry of Vision. London: Methuen, 1941.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs (eds). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Rueckert, William H. (ed). Essays Toward a Symbolic of Motives: 1950-1955. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2006.

— (ed). Letters from Kenneth Burke to William H. Rueckert: 1959-1987. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2002.

Rueckert, William H., and Angelo Bonadonna (eds). On Human Nature: A Gathering Where Everything Flows, 1967-1984. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Simons, Herbert W. and Trevor Melia (eds). The Legacy of Kenneth Burke. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989

Thames, Richard. “The Gordian Not.” Kenneth Burke Journal, Spring 2007.

— . “Mystical Ontology in Kenneth Burke: Consequences for His Theory of Rhetoric.” Dissertation. University of Pittsburgh. 1979.

— . “Nature’s Physician: The Metabiology of Kenneth Burke.” Kenneth Burke and the 21st Century. Ed. Bernard L. Brock. SUNY Series in Speech Communication. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. 19-34.

Walker, Jeffrey. Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

An earlier shorter version of this paper was presented at the 2011 Southern States Communication Convention in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Richard Thames is an Associate Professor of Communication & Rhetorical Studies at Duquesne University. A founder of the Kenneth Burke Society, he helped organize the original 1984 conference in Philadelphia and the centennial 1996 conference in Pittsburgh. Thames edited the KBS Newsletter for over a decade and now serves on the editorial board of the Journal. His publications include “The Writings of Kenneth Burke, 1968-1985” and “A Selected Bibliography of Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke, 1968-1985” in The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, edited by Herbert Simons  & Trevor Melia; “Nature’s Physician:  The Metabiology of Kenneth Burke “ in Kenneth Burke and the 21st Century, edited by Bernard Broack; and most recently “The Gordian Knot:  Untangling the Motivorum” in the Spring 2007 KB Journal. Thames is currently editing a critical edition of Burke’s unpublished “Symbolic of Motives,” a copy of which was given  to him by Burke during his visiting professorship at the University of Pittsburgh in 1974.

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Media Coverage of Natural Disasters: Pentadic Cartography and the Case of the 1993 Great Flood of the Mississippi

Kevin R. McClure


This essay employs pentadic cartography in an analysis of media coverage of natural disaster with particular attention to the 1993 Great Flood of the Mississippi.  It begins with a review of pentadic cartography.  Next, the survey reports of the 1993 Great Flood of the Mississippi taken from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) are coupled with a synoptic pentadic analysis informed by scholarship from the disaster research field.  A detailed pentadic analysis of 48 Hours:  Flood Sweat and Tears (CNS 1993) follows.  The critical discussion argues that Flood, Sweat and Tears is representative of media coverage that overstresses physical destruction and human suffering in natural disasters, while constructing a symbolic landscape in which disasters are, implicitly and explicitly, presented as “random acts of nature.”  Through these analytical comparisons, I argue that media coverage of natural disasters functions to “close the universe of discourse,” contributing to a technological vocabulary of motives that tends to screen out the politics of disasters and disaster management policies.

IN THE CULTURE OF CALAMITY (2007), Rozario explains that major natural disasters have long “gripped the public imagination, challenging and transforming ideas of nature, religion, social organization, and public policy, while inspiring intense deliberation about the meaning of America and of life itself” (p. 12).  In his exploration of the symbiotic relationship between the project of modernity and disasters, he details the importance of “disasters to modern thought and activity” and reveals that calamities “generate an extraordinary amount of cultural production” (p. 14).  Disasters disrupt the daily routines and the putative stability of everyday life and call into question our constructions and understandings of reality and our relationships with the social and natural world (Alexander, 2005a, 2005b; and Hewitt, 1995).  In other words, natural disasters create raptures and “ambiguities” in our symbolic universe, challenging the veracity of our terms as “faithful reflections of reality” (Burke, 1969, p. 59).  Moreover, extreme natural disasters are linked to the inner workings of industrial-technological society and the society’s culpability due to factors such as race and class, failure to mitigate, growth and development, capitalism, and perhaps, the limits of modernity itself.1  This essay advances a theoretical and critical rhetorical engagement with elements of this extraordinary cultural production by exploring how the media respond to and construct meanings out of the chaotic events and situations brought about by natural disasters.2

The 1993 Great Flood of the Mississippi was the worst flood in U.S. history, lasting from June to September.  Like the disasters of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami (2011), the Haitian earthquake (2010), and Hurricane Katrina (2005), the 1993 flood had powerful impacts materially, economically, psychologically, politically, and sociologically.3 These extreme events reveal that disasters are exigent issues that provoke complex fields of rhetoric, which ripple across the broad discursive “spaces” of culture, including the institutional domains of civil society, politics, science, technology, media, and religion. While the case of the 1993 flood of the Mississippi, specifically CBS News’ 48 Hours: Flood, Sweat, and Tears that aired on July 14, 1993, serves as the “representative anecdote”4 of this essay, the critical analysis includes media coverage from other notable natural disasters.5  Given the range of rhetorical phenomena associated with the rhetoric of disaster, Anderson and Prelli’s (2001) pentadic cartography is appropriate because of its methodological flexibility for critically engaging discourses at both a macro-level and a micro-level.6 Burke’s pentad, as Anderson and Prelli (2001) explicate, “can be used as a cartographic device for mapping the universe of discourse, charting the terminological network of often implicit assumptions and relationships that serve to close or open discursive interactions” (p. 80). 

I begin with a review of pentadic cartography. Next, the survey reports of the 1993 Great Flood of the Mississippi taken from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) are coupled with a synoptic (or global) pentadic analysis informed by scholarship from the disaster research field that serves as the baseline for the symbolic terrain of the 1993 flood. A detailed pentadic analysisof 48 Hours: Flood, Sweat, and Tears (CBS, 1993) follows.  I conclude with critical discussion, arguing that Flood, Sweat, and Tears is representative of mediacoverage that overstresses the physical destruction and human suffering of disasters, while rhetorically constructing a symbolic landscape in which disasters are, implicitly and explicitly, presented as “random acts of nature.”7 In so doing, media coverage of natural disasters functions to “close the universe of discourse,” contributing to a terminological vocabulary of motives that constrains thoughts and discourses that deflects attention away from the politics of disaster and long term disaster management policies. The main objective is to provide the foundation for further critical engagements with the rhetorics of disaster.

Pentadic Cartography

Anderson and Prelli’s (2001) pentadic cartography extends Burke’s pentad.8 The pentad is Burke’s method of accounting for the rhetorical construction and advocacy of "realities" and for tracking motivations and attitudes in language.9 Pentadic cartography provides a critical methodology that affords both a synoptic perspective for the global mapping of the rhetoric of disaster and a more detailed interpretation of the specific terminological vocabularies via large-scaled mapping10  In their discussion of mapping symbolic terrain, Anderson and Prelli note that “[P]entadic cartographers operate in ways that parallel empirical map makers . . .  and produce pentadic maps, which are symbolic models that give a synoptic perspective from which critics can talk about the many ways that humans have talked about things” (p. 83).  Extending the analogy of empirical mapping, they point out that maps can operate at different scales: “Critics could track the dominate vocabulary of motives within an entire social order and, thus, yield a relatively global, or small scaled, interpretation; or they could map terminological implications within a single speech, or poem, or play, and generate a more detailed, or larger scaled, interpretation” (p. 83). 

Pentadic cartography has all of the advantages of Burke’s formulation of the pentad while emphasizing a critical focus on the verbal and visual rhetorics associated with the inner workings of advanced technological society.  More critically important, then, is that Anderson and Prelli employ Burke’s pentad as a means “for charting the ways that terminologies function to open or close the universe of discourse” by rhetorically mapping the “observable linguistic structures” of verbal terrain and visual messages (p. 74). “The cartographer of motives must locate the featured term that coordinates transformation of one vocabulary into the terms of another at pivotal sites of ambiguity” (p. 80).  The critic’s task, they argue, is to function as an agent of “demystification” to reveal how “‘legitimate’ perspectives are reduced . . . to the terms of a single technological system of thought” and to “reopen that closed system” of thought via the “construction of an alternative vocabulary to those privileged in the technological society” (p. 73).

In their discussion of the universe of discourse, Anderson and Prelli (2001) note that a broad range of social, political, and philosophical thinkers have argued that “advanced industrial society is so pervaded with a technological rationality that it fosters a closed universe of thought and discourse that stifles and silences all other points of view” (p. 73).  Informed by Burke’s discussion of terminological psychoses,11 as a “tendency to . . . see everything in terms of . . . a particular recipe of overstressings and understressings peculiar to [an] institutional structure,” and that the “technological psychosis” emerges as “supreme” among these psychoses, Anderson and Prelli’s critical method underscores the ways in which the contemporary closed universe of discourse “reduces all terminologies to the terms of agency or of scene” (p. 81).  Like Burke, Anderson and Prelli argue that in the technological society the “ultimate terms of . . . discourse are associated with scene or agency” (pp. 78-81). 

Every vocabulary is limiting, in that it selects particular terms that provide a way of seeing or thinking. With regard to matter and motion, the terminologies associated with scene instill totally mechanical meanings, lacking spontaneity and purpose.12 “The scene then acts as a ‘container’ for the agent and act. . . .  The industrial-technological scene reduces act, agent, and purpose to external conditions, through its own mechanical terms” (p. 81).  As Burke (1969) explains, scene corresponds with the philosophy of materialism, which “regards all the facts of the universe as explainable in terms of matter and motion” (p. 131).  The discourses of the sciences are the contemporary archetypeof scenic discourse. In contrast, agency corresponds with a philosophy of pragmatism and a vocabulary that reduces “people, actions, places and purposes in terms of, or from the standpoint of, instruments or means” (Anderson and Prelli, p. 81).13 Exemplars of agency are found in the areas of the applied sciences, engineering, and technology (Burke, 1969, p. 286), which reduce “the language of action . . . ultimately to terms of motion” (Anderson and Prelli, p. 81).14  Both the vocabularies of scene and agency are complementary to each other as they reduce the universe of discourse to mechanical terms that narrow “the terms of deliberation to terms of motion” and “circumference of motivations associated with motion [they] are inappropriate for political and social discourse” (p. 81).  Vocabularies of scene and agency mask motivations associated with acts, agents, and purposes.15

The following synoptic pentadic analysis of the survey reports from NOAA and the USACE serves as the baseline for the symbolic terrain of the 1993 flood. 

The Great Flood of 1993: A Synoptic Analysis

According to the reports by the USACE and NOAA, the 1993 flooding of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers resulted in the death of fifty people and caused about $20 billion in damage. The flood was distinctive from other floods in terms of its magnitude, severity, damage, and the season  in which it occurred—all summer. Flooding and water levels above the flood stage continued through the middle of September in many regions along the Mississippi River. At Hannibal, Mo., the Mississippi River remained above flood stage for more than six months, while portions of the Missouri River were above flood stage for several months (USACE, 1993).

At St. Louis, near the convergence of the Missouri, Illinois and Mississippi rivers, all of which were in flood at the same time, the first spring flooding on the Mississippi River began on April 8.  The Mississippi rose above flood stage again on April 11 and stayed above flood stage until May 24.  Then, on June 27, the Mississippi went above flood stage again and did not drop below flood stage until October 7.  The Mississippi River was above the old record flood stage for more than three weeks at St. Louis, from mid-July to mid-August (NOAA, 2003).  During July, Iowa became the focus of attention when flooding overwhelmed Ames and Des Moines. The state of Iowa was declared a disaster area, as  well as portions of eight other states: North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas (NOAA, 2003).  According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “40 of 229 federal levees and 1,043 of 1,347 non-federal levees were over-topped or damaged” (USACE, 2003).  The national disaster survey report of the NOAA (1996) describes the flood of 1993 as “an unprecedented hydro meteorological event since the United States started to provide weather services in the mid-1800s.”16 When floodwaters finally receded in October, the flood had saturated an estimated 20 million acres in nine states.

This description by NOAA and the USACE transforms nature (scene) into a geophysical agent.  The account, then, constructs the natural events as scene-agency, with the disruptions of the Midwest scene explained in terms of the motions of the Mississippi River and the rains that function as natural agencies (scenic-motions).  An important feature of this terminology is that scenic terms dominate as an orientation omitting acts, agents, and purpose. The pivotal terms of this description transform the events into “an unprecedented hydro meteorological event,” and thus, into a random act of nature, with no further explanation.

Hewitt (1995) describes this way of envisioning natural disasters as the technological or physical hazards view.  This conception, he notes, is “the most common vision of disasters, even in the work of social scientists” (p. 319).  Steinberg (2006) argues that this view, “understood by scientists, the media, and technocrats as primarily accidents—unexpected, unpredictable happenings that are the price of doing business on this planet,” constructs disasters as “random acts of nature” (p. xxi).17 A number of scholars in the disaster research field contest the adequacy of the “random act of nature” view and eschew its impact on public policy.18 When natural disasters are “seen as freak events cut off from people’s everyday interactions with the environment,” the events “are positioned outside the moral compass of our culture,” and thus, “no one can be held accountable for them” (p. xxi).  The political import of the “random act of nature” view is that it constrains our understandings of socio-political and socio-economic factors and the interplay of human agents and agency as factors in the production of disaster risks. As Steinberg explains, “natural calamities frequently do not just happen; they are produced through a chain of human choices and natural occurrences” (p. xxi).  

The 1993 flood is distinctive given that the Mississippi River is a product of a long-standing attempt to engineer the river to suit the needs of a contemporary capitalist economy.  In fact, the Mississippi River has been shaped by the industrial-technological agencies of the modern world ever since Congress authorized the Mississippi River Commission in 1879 for the construction of a levee system to prevent the annual flooding along the waterway, which connects the industrial centers and agricultural heartland of the Midwest with the Gulf Coast. In 1927, the levee system famously blocked the river from its floodplains and led to even greater flooding when the levees failed. The 1927 flood was one of the worst disasters in American history and a turning point in the implementation of modern disaster relief after intense media coverage “encouraged the public to invest emotionally in the flood and to demand that politicians do whatever they could to help the victims” (Rozario, p. 146).  Indicative of the technological psychosis, the problem was not seen as a failure in engineering but a defective program. “The levee-only policy had failed” so “the only solution was a new system that included controlled spillways” (Rozario, p. 149). The new system represented an expensive and massive long-term Federal commitment to further re-engineer the river that was accompanied by the commercial development of floodplains, the destruction of wetlands, and the striping of forest cover, ultimately tended to serve entrenched socio-political and socio-economic class interests of the economy.19 When the 1993 flood struck, like Hurricane Katrina, it was the prototype of a disaster where “modern disaster policy . . . was the mother of disaster” (p. 146).

But this is not the lesson to be drawn from the reports of NOAA and USACE. Rather, the terms used to describe the 1993 flood above, map a symbolic terrain that is wide in scope but narrow in circumference. This description decontextualizes the scene as a product of the industrial-technology agencies of modernity and understresses the meaning of these events for agents and public policies insofar as it lacks any significant consideration of socio-economic and socio-political factors that contribute to such events.   Pentadically, this description complements the technical idiom of the “purely” scientific discourses that formulate a scene-agency ratio. The idiom of science is one of pure motion as in the example of hydrologists who explain the 1993 flood in terms of rainfall amounts (agency) and ground saturation models that led to the flooding in the Midwest scene (Changnon, 1996). Scientific discourses can also mask issues of human agency that may play a more direct role in disasters.

The flood that disrupted and shattered the social fabric of people and communities was far more rhetorically complex and ambiguous than the events described in the calculable terms above . Indeed, the people directly affected by this tremendous flood likely found little comfort in knowing that it was an “unprecedented occurrence.” As local and national media covered the story throughout the entire flood, there were, of course, a number of rhetorical responses to the events, including official government statements20 and religious interpretations.21  Prior to Hurricane Katrina, no other natural disaster in U.S. history received so much media coverage or directly touched so many lives for so long as the 1993 flood (USACE, 1993). 

In what terms and terminology, then, did media coverage present the events of this natural disaster? Did these terms also “narrow the circumference” of the public’s understandings of the disaster? And if so, does a narrowing of terms and terminology in the media have an analogue in public policy toward natural disasters?

Flood, Sweat and Tears: A Detailed Pentadic Analysis

Although the description of events above excludes any meaningful consideration of the impacts of the disasters upon individuals, the seemingly “arbitrary” impact of scenic motion upon agents is a primary concern for the media.  For the mainstream visual and print media, natural disasters “are ideal subjects” insofar as the media “seeks the dramatic, emotionally-charged, even the catastrophic to capture audience attention” (Fry, 2004, p. 721).22  This is certainly the case in the July 14th episode of 48 Hours: Flood, Sweat, and Tears (CBS, 1993) that was broadcast live fromDes Moines, Iowa during some of the worst flooding.23  The episode, hosted by Dan Rather, was devoted to the 1993 Mississippi flood and the heat wave that was hitting the South and East. 

The episode opens with a medium shot of the Mississippi River flowing while dramatic music plays in the background.  As the camera shot pulls back to a wider view, it reveals that the river is in complete flood, with houses, roads, and bridges clearly inundated. As the music crescendos, Dan Rather’s voice narrates, “Tonight on 48 hours.” The next shot is footage of people reinforcing a levee with sandbags, with the voiceover of another man: “We got people fighting this thing like you wouldn’t believe.” The shot then turns to a specific house surrounded by sandbags with water rising on one side of the sandbags; Rather continues in voiceover, “fighting a flood.” The shot then turns to Mrs. Kim Camp as she notes, “this is where we started laying up our sandbag, April 16th.” Rather voices, “and standing firm.” 

As the introduction continues, it shifts to a man in an urban location who complains, “the heat, it’s too much.” Rather, in voiceover, comments “It’s hell . . .” A meteorologist in voiceover adds, “It’s a hundred and twenty in the shade.”  The next shot is of a paramedic administering aid to a person in distress, remarking that “his body feels hot.” The shot cuts quickly back to the flooding  Rather, still in voiceover, saying, “and high water.”  As Rather’s voiceover continues, “America’s summer of flood, sweat and tears,” the footage is of medical service workers, children playing in the water from a fire hydrant in an urban setting, and then back to flooding. An unidentified woman comments in voiceover, “We’re going to safe Mom’s house.”

The theme music from 48 Hours begins with its stock opening footage and credits.  This opening signals an important terminological moment of pentadic reversal and crisis, indicating a break or rapture in the putatively stable symbolic terrain of civil society, the container--human agencies like levees and dams--no longer contain or control the scene; dialectical speaking, the ratios shift from agency-scene to scene-agency.

After a commercial break, Dan Rather greets the audience. “Good evening. I’m reporting live from Des Moines, Iowa, a city under siege; a city coping with the crisis literally flooding America’s heartland.”  The shot is medium, from above, with the river in the background below and with scores of people in the immediate background urgently sandbagging a large levee; it is nighttime but large lights from above reveal the chain of human action. As the shot moves into a close-up, Rather states, “An incredibly large part of the Mississippi Basis is involved in this flood crisis. Mark Twain once called the Mississippi River ‘monstrous.’ Now the monster is on the loose. It has swallowed homes, towns and livelihood. The toll rises like the tide, and it’s a long way from over. That’s part of the heartache.”  After commenting on the heat wave in the South and East, he notes that “tonight you will meet men and women facing these twin disasters with courage, resolve, and grit.”  Rather proceeds to inform the audience that the program will begin with Phil Jones in “flood ravaged Illinois,” who will report “on people still clinging to their homes and clinging to hope.” 

The opening sequence of Flood, Sweat, and Tears constructs a symbolic terrain where people are at “war” with nature, in a city “under siege,” “fighting this thing,” this “monster,” that threatens to engulf “mom’s house” and “towns and livelihood.”  In cartographic terms, the extent of the massive flooding is visually reduced in the opening footage. Even the long shot of the river is only a partial view of a few miles of river.  This reduction in the scope of the flooding is further reduced as coverage shifts to a particular impact, the house of Kim and Scott Camp to represent the struggle against the “monster.”  Pentadically, the transformation is a progressive narrowing in scope as it shifts from scene to agents. 

After an interlude of theme music, the next segment opens with footage of a hose pumping water over a sandbagged barrier, then to water coming up from a drain on the side of the house, and then to Kim and Scott Camp at their modest home.  The home is almost entirely surrounded by sandbags.  Jones narrates, “Kim and Scott Camp are desperate.”  The shot shifts to inside the Camp home with Scott and Kim both holding children.  Next, we hear Kim, a young mother with an infant on her hip, exhausted and distraught. “It seems like it never ends, and we just have to keep going. We have to keep trying because it’s still ours.”  Jones says, "The river is about to swallow their house.” Kim continues, “We’re doing the best we can. We’ve got—we both come from big families. We’re religious. And we just pray that it’ll hold out.” 

In the next sequence, Jones and Kim walk around to the back of the house; Jones is now holding one of the Camp’s children. As they approach a high sandbagged wall, the shot is from above, with high water on the other side. Long panning shots of the river follow. One shot is from inside the house through a large side window - a shot that invites the audience to see the flood from the Camp’s living room.  Kim comments that her husband did “all the construction work himself with help of friends and family.” Jones in voiceover, “And they build their dreams.” Kim continues, “Everything is new—walls, floor, carpet—the whole works.” Jones, says in voiceover, “the home is on the lowest ground in Hardin, Illinois.” Then speaking to one of the children, Jones asks, “Does that scare you when you see that water out there?” The young girl in his arms nods yes. The camera then shifts to more footage of the flooding. Jones, again in voiceover, “If it goes to the river, the fear is, the whole town will follow.”  Footage continues to show the sandbagging around the house, while Kim discusses a nightmare in which she forgets to close the window at night and floodwaters keep “coming and coming and coming.” Jones then assures the audience that “Kim and Scott Camp and four-year-old Lacey and one year old Levi—they’re not beaten yet.” As this scene ends, Kim discusses how the sandbags will need to be three feet higher, with footage of the sandbags and high water, followed by Jones in voiceover, “Keep holding on Kim and Scott!” 

With a quick cut to prisoners marching like soldiers, we hear Jones in voiceover, “Hope has just arrived in Hardin. Eighty-nine prisoners . . . are here to gang up on the flood.”  Cartographically, the entire sequence’s terms shift as follows: from scene to agents, then to purpose-act, then a return to scene controlling agents. As the scene shifts to the efforts of the prisoners, the emphasis is again on agents and their noble and redemptive efforts, as the young “convicted felons” in a special corrections “boot camp program” help “save the town.” Without resolution regarding the Camp’s house, this sequence ends.  Moving through the water to a close-up of Jones, he comments, “While old man river and the people of Hardin are staring at each other, down south of here, some of the toughest old birds are giving up and calling for help.”  Cartographically, the most prominent ratios in this sequence are scene-agent, followed by agent-agency, with a return to scene-agent.  Perhaps most obvious is that agents are portrayed as struggling via agency with the purpose of controlling a small aspect of the scene, to save one house and one town.

The next sequence begins with footage of a small Coast Guard boat moving quickly along the river, with trees, cars, and houses clearly flood-out in the immediate background.   Reporter Phil Jones is now with Warrant Officer Terry Adams, who describes that beneath the boat “used to be a neighborhood.” This sequence is a rescue mission for an eighty-seven year old Mrs. Millie Adams and her son. Jones notes in voice over that Officer Adam’s “men go into the most devastated areas to save people who’ve been stranded and kidnapped by the flood.”  Just as the boat arrives at Mrs. Adams’ house, the program shifts back to the Camp’s house. Jones comments, “Back in Hardin, Kim and Scott Camp’s crisis appears to be getting worse,” as they face the “likelihood of losing their home.”

The Camp’s house is flooding from the inside because of backed-up sewer lines. We see the Camps, friends, and family urgently trying, with little success, to do something to save the flooding house—the footage shows them digging a drainage ditch and water rising out of the sewer. Jones continues, “It’s one thing after another. The more they try, the worse it gets.”  The footage then shifts back to the rescue of Mrs. Adams with Jones in voiceover saying, “Back at the Coast Guard operation, there’s a happier result to report.” As the rescue sequence progresses Coast Guard officers help a  frail eighty-seven year old woman with a cane into a small boat. Mrs. Adams comments, “I’ve been through a lot in my life but nothing like this.”   

As the sequence ends, Jones informs the audience that Scott Camp “was hospitalized” and that he was “dehydrated and physically exhausted.” Kim spent the day at his bedside; she appears exhausted and notes that she can’t go back to the house anymore. Jones says, “As for the house, well, it’s still here - but barely. As they say, when it rains, it pours. Dan.”  As the program turns back to Dan Rather live, he asks Jones: “You know, why did the Camps build their dreams on such low land?”  Jones replies:

Because the Camps, like many of the people along the rivers here, are children of the river; their parents lived here, their grandparents lived here. They saw the good life. Many of the—communities along here are small communities and they were raised here as children and they think it’s a good place for them to be. They love it. It’s a dream come true for many of them.

Rather, without comment, thanks Jones and turns to a preview regarding the heat wave “gripping the East and the South.” The theme music begins as the program goes to announcements. 

After the commercial break, we again see Rather in the lighted nighttime foreground, from above, with the river in the background below and scores of people in the immediate background urgently sandbagging a large levee. Rather comments: “Let me show you something here. As part of the desperate defense of Des Moines, these people under the lights and into the night, keep doing the back-breaking, hand blistering work of sandbagging; symbolic of what’s going on throughout the Midwest in the fight against rising water.” The remainder of the program covers the heat wave until the final live sequence with Dan Rather delivering his concluding comments:

If there’s good to be found in this flood, it is found in the faces of the brave people who live up and down the rivers of the heartland, the faces of survivors, hearty Midwesterners who refuse to back down, give up or give in. It is found in their enormous generosity, like the people of these sandbag lines tonight—neighbors helping neighbors with open arms and open hearts. We’ve seen it repeatedly since we’ve been here, friends and strangers sharing food, supplies, clothing, money and that most precious commodity: hope. I’m Dan Rather, and that’s 48 Hours.

From a cartographic perspective, a number of critical transformations in the symbolic landscape are significant. Primarily, these sequences repeat the progression of the prior sequences. Each sequence begins with the prominent ratio of scene-agent, as we witness specific agents controlled, “stranded,” “kidnapped,” and trying to overcome the scene.  As the sequence moves to the rescue operation and the “struggles” of the Camps to save their home, the dominant ratio shifts to agency-agent. In one instance, the agents achieve a modicum of success insofar as they are able to rescue Mrs. Adams. Yet the Camps are unsuccessful in saving the house.  Despite the shift to particular agents, the scene controls agents, whose agencies, in the end, are insufficient to gain control over the situation.

The program is tautological as it moves from scene-agent to agency-agent and back to scene-agent. The concluding moments present a large group of agents engaging in the agency of sandbagging, “refusing to back down, give up or give in.”  These agents are not in control of the scene; they are held hostage by the impersonal material scene, which is marked by its own destructive dynamism that lies uncharted, somewhere beyond the map’s edge.  These agents’ bodies are symbolically transformed into agencies, too,, with an almost instinctive mechanical motion. The episode presents agents that have no choice but to “bravely” engage in further interventions via agency to control the scene. 

Perhaps the most telling part of these sequences is when Rather asks Jones spontaneously, “Why did the Camps built their dreams on such low ground?” It is a perilous question because it risks blaming the victims, who are being transformed into brave survivors, locked in a heroic battle with nature. Here a small portion of the symbolic terrain points toward an agent-act ratio and an opportunity to explore another viewpoint about the situation and the relationship between individuals in society and their choices regarding the natural world.  Investigating the symbolic terrain of other orientations about the scene, however, is beyond the horizon of the program’s terminological landscape. Jones elides the agent-act question raised by Rather by indicating that the Camps had little choice about being there, because they “are children of the river.”  The shift is back to scene-agent; as the episode ends it leaves all other points of view unmapped. 

Lastly, as noted above, this symbolic map is reduced in both scope and circumference as it presents specific people in specific places of the flooding. Despite its limits in circumference and complexity, the symbolic terrain of Flood, Sweat, and Tears provides a relatively accurate representation of the fear, suffering, and hardship of specific individuals and communities impacted by the flood.  The map drawn by 48 Hours presents the events via a scene-agent ratio in contrast to the survey reports drawn by NOAA and the USACE, which present the events as scene-agency. While the reports provide significant scope, but little in the way of typographical complexity in circumference, 48 Hours offers a narrow scope, although similarly lacking circumference with its focus on the scene’s specific agents and communities.  Nevertheless, both maps present a narrow symbolic universe in which scene-agency and scene-agent are the dominant points of orientation, while the flood is implied to be a random act of nature. 

In the critical discussion below, Flood, Sweat, and Tears is considered in context of the media coverage of the 1993 flood and other natural disasters.   

Critical Discussion

From a global pentadic perspective, Flood, Sweat, and Tears is typical of much of the landscape of media coverage of natural disasters.24 Ted Koppel, the host of ABC’s Nightline, at the beginning of a special on the 1993 flooding, recognized that the public was growing weary of the repetitiveness of such coverage, commenting that the images and stories create “a sort of sensory overload” (Bettag, 1993).25  As Fry (2004) notes, television, in particular, with its “penchant for striking visual content,” uses “the camera lens to frame numerous images of drama and chaos” presenting the events “in such a way as to convey hopelessness, presenting them as battles between powerless humans and powerful nature” (pp. 723-724).  Much of this coverage invokes pity, fear, and sympathy from the public as it witnesses the relentless visual spectacles of calamity.26 Also typical of this type of coverage are narratives of individual survival, heroism, and rescue (like the Adams rescue) and stories of resiliency that convey a message of the triumph of the human spirit and ingenuity (agency) over nature.  Flood, Sweat, and Tears’ coverage is also typical because it includes a surveying of the scenes of destruction, with its focus on specific victims and survivors. 

Emblematic of this type of coverage is what could be called the “at war with nature” theme, where communities and individuals struggle against nature to save their lives and property, the pentadic ratio in these instances is scene-agent.  Whereas victims lack agency, survivors are portrayed as heroic agents.  Rozario (2007), commenting on the “media’s preoccupation” and “ubiquitous” focus during calamities upon human suffering and struggle against nature, notes that this helps “to ensure that disaster victims rather than, say, the homeless, the poor, and other victims of economic misfortune,” are “deemed uniquely worthy of attention and support from the government, the public, and philanthropic organizations” (pp. 142-143).

Missing from these preoccupations on human suffering and struggles is any consideration of how or why any specific victims come to be victims in the first place.  As long as natural disasters are viewed as “random acts of nature,” so too are the victims of disasters who are simply unlucky and misfortunate. Like much of the media’s coverage of the 1993 flood, Flood, Sweat, and Tears lacks any meaningful exploration of the relationship between victimhood and issues such as race and class and the acts, purposes, and agencies of the contemporary industrial-technological scene in the production of the flood.

The media’s representation of the victims paid scant attention to the poverty  of the Midwest’s flood plains and the Federally subsidized housing in those areas. In St. Charles County, MO, one of the worst struck counties during the 1993 flood, it was the poor who lived in the most vulnerable areas and were most likely to be dispossessed.27  “Awareness . . . that disaster policy is a product of political choices or the interplay of material interests” is “concealed under a rhetoric that cast rescue and relief as the heroic struggle of ‘man’ against ‘nature’” (Rozario, p. 141).

Consideration of sociological factors in becoming a victim of a natural disaster is typically absent in such media coverage, as Powell, et al (2006) note in their analysis of the media’s initial coverage of Katrina: “the mainstream media  . . . continued to fixate on the destructive force of Katrina’s winds to the exclusion of everything else, including race and racism” (p. 63).   As audiences across the country watched the spectacle of the tragedy, with countless images of blacks crowded on to rooftops, the media relentlessly presented dramatic footage of deaths, property damage, and the suffering of victims with little discussion of race or class as a factor.  When it became impossible to ignore race as an issue, the mainstream media “did not seek to discover how racism contributed to the catastrophe” as a structural issue in modern capitalist society, but rather limited its coverage to individuals (p. 64) such as President Bush.28  Nor was there any discussion of New Orleans’ “middle-class-oriented evacuation plan,” which was “predicated on people leaving in their own vehicles” (p. 65). 

Nevertheless, Katrina was a moment when it became impossible to avoid the relationship among race, class, and poverty and being a victim of Katrina.  The New Republic, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report each reported stories that drew “on the deep wells of sympathy traditionally reserved for disaster victims” and the “travails of the ‘other America’” (Rozario, p. 216).29  But the media did not quite close the circle by linking the coordinates of sociological factors of victimization with the regime of technological control over nature that had made Katrina’s impact possible.30  Rather the coverage, as the New Republic noted, revealed “not only that the poor had been abandoned but that this was symptomatic of a social order that treated the poor in general, and people of color in particular, with contempt” (Scheiber, 2005, September 19, p. 6). Jonathan Adler, writing for Newsweek, reached a similar conclusion, commenting that Katrina had “fixed [the] restless gaze of [Americans] on enduring problems of poverty, race and class that have escaped their attention” (2005, September 19, p. 42). The lesson of Katrina was not as much about the relationship among race, class, and poverty and being a victim of a natural disaster as it was about problems of race, class, and poverty in America. The media missed an opportunity to establish new coordinate lines for the mapping of natural disasters.  The fact that the Bush administration managed the rescue and relief so poorly only helped to further deflect media attention from the coordinates that linked a failed policy of technological mastery over nature with the political, economic, and sociological factors that contribute to being a victim of a natural disaster.31

By the end of July, 1993, it was clear that there were many lessons to be learned from the flood of the Mississippi. But what lessons did the media coverage develop? The July 26 cover of Newsweek, for example,proclaimed, “Deluge: Lessons of a disaster,” with an image of a man wading through water up to his neck. The primary message that Newsweek conveyed to its readers was that “the lesson of the disaster, which is the lesson of most disasters, is to never underestimate nature” (Adler, 1993, July 26, p. 23). USA Today raised more serious concerns over whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s investment of billions of dollars was “worth the cost,” and if development along the banks of the river had contributed to the damage (Taming River, 1993, July 15, p. 11A). On the same page was the USACE response, more than twice the length of the questions, which countered these inquiries by outlining how much damage had been prevented. As Brig. General Genega noted, “In the Midwest, the Federal flood-control structures in place have performed as they were designed and have prevented an estimated $8.2 billion in damages that would have otherwise occurred” (Genega, 1993).  Counter claims about how much money was saved by these structures were not developed.  In fact, “no one actually knows the total cost to the Federal government of the 1993 flood” since “there is no central database that records the expenditures by all Federal responding agencies for specific disasters and governmental units” (Platt, p. 232).  Nor was there any questioning of Gen. Genega’s assertion that flood-control structures “performed as they were designed” in the media’s coverage of the flood, when “environmentalists have long argued” that these structures “actually contributed to the destructiveness of floods” (Steinberg, p. xviii).  These treatments in the media’s “critical coverage” serve to reinforce the impression that the flood was a random and unpredictable act of nature for which no one is accountable.  Here again, the map of media coverage essentially masks the extent of socio-economic, socio-political factors, and human culpability in natural disasters. 

Natural disasters have proven to be difficult challenges for politicians and for rescue and relief by local, state, and federal agencies.32 Unfortunately, the media’s primary critical preoccupation, when considering human culpability in its coverage of disasters, is with the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of governmental agencies during rescue and relief—the failures of administrative agency.  This, too, deflects attention from the coordinates that link technological mastery over nature with the political, economic, and sociological factors that contribute to being a victim of a natural disaster.  Coverage by the media tends to invigorate the public’s expectation that government do everything it can to aid victims and prevent future damge. Ironically, these demands result in further industrial-technological attempts to control nature.  

Is there an analogue to the technological psychosis of the media coverage in public disaster management? A 1994 presidential report on floodplain management by the Galloway Committee made thoughtful and positive proposals for improvement but few recommendations have been carried out.  As the media moves on to new scenes of destruction and human suffering, the public’s horror and sympathy follow, with scant attention to the importance of human agency in the production of disaster risks.  Neither Congress nor the executive branch of government achieved more than a miscarriage of good intentions regarding the implementation of the policy recommendations of the Galloway committee.33  The levees and dams were rebuilt, higher and stronger —as in New Orleans--with little meaningful change in disaster management policy.  In a closed universe of discourse, where natural disasters are ubiquitously viewed as random acts of nature, “disorderly nature—as opposed to social and economic forces—is seen as the problem that technology must solve. But natural disasters are not simply scientific dilemmas in need of a technical solution. They are instead “the product of particular social and political environments” (p. 152). 

In an ironic signal of the supremacy of the technological psychosis, twenty-four hour cable news now transforms all major natural disasters into profitable spectacles of destruction, complete with an endless line of supernumerary victims--“the CNN syndrome”--while screening out the politics of disaster management policy.  Is it too idealistic to hope that the news media will develop a multi-focused approach that includes a wider circumference and scope of voices, representations, and experiences of disasters, one that stresses agents as more than either heroic or tragic victims frozen in a single moment of time and place?

With the pluralized dialectic operationalized through the pentad, Burke sought to displace the totalizing and authoritative privileging of any particular rhetorical construction or version of reality by seeking out “counter-statements”34 and “corrective rationalizations”35 to the dominant orientations of the technological society.  According to this mantra, any complete or well-rounded treatment of a subject needs to include the full panoply of discourses, representations, and orientations detailed in Burke’s discussion of the pentadic ratios because no single perspective is capable of being fully correct.  What, then, might a more well developed or well rounded and, by definition, more accurate symbolic map of natural disasters include? 

Given that the 1993 flood was among the longest lasting and most exhaustively covered disasters in American history, the media clearly had time to develop other aspects of its coverage than it did.  One can only wonder what Kim and Scott Camp and others impacted by the flood would have to say about the flood and flood management policy six months, a year, or five years after the media and the public turned their attention to the next catastrophe.  Perhaps the media could provide greater coverage on the history of flooding along the Mississippi (and other engineered scenes). Media could devote greater critical attention to the nation’s attempts at engineering the river to suit the needs of an advanced capitalistic industrial society and to the relationship of these projects with the entrenched interests served by such policies.  Perhaps the media could be more attentive to the critical discourses of those in the disaster research field, environmentalists, and naturalists, who have long challenged the orientations that have dominated the politics and policies of disaster management.  Perhaps media coverage could be more attentive to the federal, state, and local debates and decisions regarding disaster and flood control management policies, despite the fact that this type of coverage lacks the dramatic elements that typically invoke the interest and sympathy of the public.

Perhaps it is too unrealistic to imagine that the media can resist the technological psychosis of the age and address its pentadic preferences.  The media are, themselves, a form of agency, whose products are made possible by the technologies of advanced industrial capitalistic society--technologies that enable the disasters that become profitable media events.36  Anderson and Prelli, following Burke, suggest, it is “the function of intellectuals, or critics and of artists, to create [a] dialectical process through rehearsal of values and experiences antithetical to those privileged by the dominant scientific-technological orientation of our time” (p. 79) that can function as counterarguments and correctives. It is partially for the purposes of counterargument and corrective that this essay employed critical viewpoints from the disaster research field to fill-in some of the symbolic terrain and to provide greater circumference, scope, and depth of detail than that presented in the media. As noted in the introduction, this essay is limited to how the media respond to and construct meanings out of natural disasters as one aspect of the complex field of rhetorical activity occasioned by natural disasters.  In order for a more complete symbolic map to be drawn of the rhetorics of disaster, it would require greater critical attention by rhetorical scholars to the full panoply of symbolic representations--be they intuitive, visionary, revelatory, critical, or artistic--using a variety of critical methods of analysis.


This essay employed pentadic cartography in the analysis of media coverage of natural disasters with particular attention to the 1993 Great Flood of the Mississippi. I began with a discussion of pentadic analysis followed by a synoptic pentadic analysis of the survey reports from NOAA and the USACE informed by scholarship from the disaster research field that served as the baseline for the symbolic map of the 1993 flood. Next, I employed a detailed pentadic analysis of CBS’ 48 Hours: Flood, Sweat and Tears as an exemplar of media coverage of natural disasters that overstresses destruction and human suffering in which natural disasters are rhetorically constructed as “random acts of nature.”
In the critical discussion, I argued that media coverage ultimately masks motives associated with the inner workings of industrial-technological society, including factors such as: race and class, failures in mitigation, our own culpability in reoccurring disasters because of growth and development, and the political economy of capitalism.  I also argued that the rhetoric of the media functions to close the universe of discourse and contributes to a terminological vocabulary of motives, a technological psychosis, which constructs natural disasters as simply random acts of nature that technology can control.  The coverage by the media tends to reinforce the public’s demand that politicians and the government do everything they can to help the victims and prevent future recurrences without serious consideration of long term disaster management policies.  It is irrevocably hoped that this essay will provide the foundation for further critical engagements with the rhetorics of disaster.


1. See Fleetwood (2006); Hartman and Squires (2006); Hewitt (1995); Kline (2007); Pielke (1996); Perry and Quarantelli (2005); Platt (1999); Quarantelli (1995); Racevskis (1998); and Steinberg (2006).

2. The rhetorical analysis of disasters largely has been limited to specific case studies that typically are not natural disasters but rather political crises and technological accidents. See Bernard-Donals (2001); Courtright and Slaughter (2007); Gross and Walzer (1997); Lindsay (1999); Littlefield and Quenette (2007); Lule, 1990); and Waymer and Heath (2007).  For an interesting analysis of how photo coverage of Hurricane Katrina participated in the creation of a rhetorical situation see Booth and Davisson (2008).

3. For a purely scientific report on the history of the 1993 flood see Changnon (1996).

4. See Burke, (1969), 59-61; Brummett (1984a & 1984b); and Crable (2000).

5. I limit this analysis to coverage of natural disasters as opposed to human induced disasters like the BP oil spill, war, and terrorism.

6. As King (2009) notes “Anderson and Prelli's Pentadic Cartography, the system of rhetorical mapping . . . is now being hailed as one of the most original and generative uses of the pentad. It has been used to decode advertising, to critique politics, to provide a vocabulary for visual rhetorics, and it has unexpected uses. It has even been used . . . to map birth trauma and post traumatic stress in delivery rooms.”

7. See especially Dombrowsky (2005); Cutter (2005a, 2005b); Hartman and Squires (2006); Hewitt (1995); Perry and Quarantelli (2005); Platt (1999); Quarantelli (1995); and Steinberg (2006).

8. There are numerous exemplary critical studies that employ and discuss Burke’s pentad, among these are: Anderson & Prelli (2001); Birdsell (1987); Blankenship, Murphy, & Rossenwasser (1974); Blankenship, Fine, & Davis (1983); Brummett (1979); Conrad (1984); Fergusson (1966); Fisher (1974); Hamlin & Nichols (1973); King (1985); Ling (1970); Overington (1977); Signorile (1989); Tonn, Endress, & Diamond (1993); and Wess (2001).

9. The pentad enables the critic to consider the constitutive functions of symbolic acts to explore the motives and ambiguities that attend various “philosophic idioms” of action and motion by casting terms into materialism (scene), pragmatism (agency), mysticism (purpose), idealism (agent) as the terministic screens of realism (the act).  See Burke (1969, pp. 127-131).

10. Anderson and Prelli’s pentadic cartography has been used for a variety of rhetorical activities including their own analysis of a sixty second commercial and Marcuse’s social criticism; to chart the discourse of faith and politics (DePalma, et al., 2008); to analyze women’s maternity leave (Meisenbach, Remke, Buzzanell & Liu, 2008); to map birth trauma narratives (Beck, 2006); and to study the discourse of physicians and midwives testimony at the criminal trial of a midwife (Ropp, 2002).  For more on critical rhetorical approaches see McKerrow (1989).

11. See Burke (1984), especially pp. 44-49.

12. See Burke’s (1966) discussion on terministic screens, pp. 44-46.

13. Also see Burke (1969), pp. 184-287.

14. Interestingly, and perhaps indicative of the extent of the technological psychosis, is the emergence of post-structural thought wherein the agency of language displaces the agent as the locus of meaning and action (Crusius, 1999, p. 42) and (Oravec, 1989, p. 176).

15. See Burke (1969) especially pp. 127-131 and 286-287.

16. For a more complete explanation of the 1993 flood in hydrological and meteorological terms see Changnon (1996).

17. The cultural transition from viewing disasters as a deliberate “act of God” to a “random act of nature,” corresponds with the shift to modernity (Rozario, pp. 135-143).  In the act of God view disasters are constructed by employing the agent-agency ratio in which the scene is presented as an agency of God who acts purposefully to punish human transgressions.  An example is the Presbyterian Church minister who “compared the Asian tsunami to Noah’s flood and claimed it was an act of God to punish ‘pleasure seekers’ who broke the Sabbath”; the minister argued that “those who explained the disaster ‘simply as a natural phenomenon resulting from a movement in the earth’s crust underneath the ocean floor’ were forgetting that God ‘is in sovereign control of all events’” (English, 2005, February 10).

18. See Cutter (2005a, 2005b); Hartman and Squires (2006); Hewitt (1995); Perry and Quarantelli (2005); Platt (1999); Quarantelli (1995); and Steinberg (2006).

19. For more on the history of the Mississippi River Commission see Rozario (pp. 143-150); Steinberg (pp. 109-113); and Platt (pp. 2-8). For an excellent history of the 1927 flooding of the Mississippi and its political and social import see Barry (1997).

20. During the flooding President Clinton toured flooded areas and engaged in a number of town hall meetings, held a “flood summit” in St. Louis on July 17, held press conferences and exchanges with reporters, and gave three addresses on the flooding (See Clinton, July 4, 1993; July 8, 1993; and August 12, 1993).

21. For an astute discussion on the history of religious interpretations of natural disasters in American history see Rozario (2007). For examples of the types of religious responses to the 1993 flooding see (Merrell, 1993).

22. Also see Berrington and Jemphrey (2003).

23. All of the quotes in this section are from (CBS, 1993).

24. While this analysis focuses on the primary category of this coverage,analysis of all these categories would likely reach similar conclusions; namely, that the media implicitly and explicitly present natural disasters as random acts of nature and thereby narrow the range of political discourse and public policy toward natural disasters.  There are four readily identifiable categories of media coverage of natural disasters that intersect and overlap, these are: (1) the personal and communal struggles that focus on the impact of disasters on particular agents and communities; (2) the continuing coverage and updates of events as they unfold, including reports on weather conditions, the tracking of tornados, hurricanes, aftershocks, rising water levels, etc., (3) the emergency and political responses and relief efforts of local, State, and Federal agencies and officials; and (4) the critical accountability coverage that focuses on the effectiveness of political and institutional agencies in rescue, relief, and recovery.  The categories are drawn from scholarly surveys and overviews of media coverage of natural disasters. See especially Adams (1986); Berrington and Jemphrey (2003); Fry (2003, 2004, and 2006); Piotrowski and Armstrong (1998); Singer and Endreny (2009); Sood, Stockdale, and Rogers (1987); Svenvold (2005); Sturken (2001, 2006); and Walters and Hornig (1993).

25. Nightline shifted the emphasis of its July 13, 1993 episode from the “images of flooding and loss” to “words, the words of people who know and fear and love the Mississippi” (Bettag, 1993).  The shift was to a refreshingly original act-purpose ratio that explored the mystical ambiguities of the Mississippi as an agent.

26. For an overview of these stories see Des Moines Register (1993); Life Magazine (1993, September); U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency (2003).

27. For a fuller discussion of the relationship between Federal flood control policy, class and vulnerability during the 1993 flood see Platt (1999, pp. 215-240).
28. While no one in the media directly called President Bush a racist, rapper Kanye West’s accusation received wide coverage and comment. See Stein (2010, November, 2).

29. See Adler (2005, September 19); Scheiber (2005, September 19); and Zuckerman (2005, September 19).

30. The risk to New Orleans was well known; see Quindlen (2005, September 19).

31. For more on the Bush administration’s mismanagement of Katrina and the media’s coverage see Brinkley, D. (2007); Hartman and Squires (2006); and Horn, J. (2008).

32. For a synoptic history of rescue and relief policy in the U.S. see Platt (1999, pp. 11-46).  For a genre analysis on the history of presidential addresses on natural disasters see (McClure, 2011).  For more on Katrina as a political crisis of the Bush administration see Benoit and Henson (2009); and Bumiller and Nagourney (2005, September 4).

33. For the full Galloway committee’s report see Interagency Floodplain Management Review Committee (1994).

34. See Burke (1968), pp. 107-122.

35. See Burke (1984), p. 65.

36. See especially Fleetwood (2006); Sturken (2006); and Svenvold (2005).


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* Kevin R. McClure (PhD, The Pennsylvania State University, 1992) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at The University of Rhode Island. He can be contacted via email at

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Rhetorical Ingenuity in the New Global Realities: A Case of the Anti-Sweatshop Movement

Robin Patric Clair


The purpose of this project is to conceptualize, theorize and provide a representative anecdote of rhetorical ingenuity as it has surfaced in the contemporary history of the anti-sweatshop movement. Rhetorical ingenuity is a term derived from the work of Kenneth Burke (1969) based on the combination of imagination and inventiveness. The anti-sweatshop movement, part of the new global realities (Ingram, 2002), calls for more imaginative tactics and strategies. Special attention is paid to the proposition of and development of counter-organizations as forms of rhetorical ingenuity. Two parallel situations are compared where a traditional social movement tactic (i.e., the hunger strike) ushers in the example of rhetorical ingenuity through the development of new counter-organizations (i.e., the WRC and later the DSP), occurring in 2000 and the other in 2006. The purpose of rhetorical ingenuity to add to social moment theory is discussed in light of previous contributions. Finally, exploring the success of rhetorical ingenuity in social movements is considered for future research.

Rhetorical Ingenuity in the New Global Realities: A Case of the Anti-Sweatshop Movement

IN AN ERA OF UNPRECEDENTED GLOBALIZATION, the rhetorical methods of mobilization required to counter exploitation and to resist oppression demand new levels of ingenuity and tenacity (Bruner, 2002; Ingram, 2002).1 “Although global phenomena such as mass migration, the spread of disease, conquest, colonialism, and international trade are hardly new, the nature and shape of globalization has taken a new urgency since the 1980s,” and responses to it must keep pace (Ganesh, Zoller, & Cheney, 2005,  p.169-170; Ganesh, 2007). The urgency of which Ganesh et al. are speaking is evident in the tensions that are played out as people protest, sometimes violently, against corporate dominance, sweatshop labor, child labor, environmental exploitation, as well as cultural imperialism and political hegemony.

Mobilizing against the exploitive side of globalization has spawned numerous grassroots movements, the most famous of which may be the anti-sweatshop movement. Activist organizations that oppose sweatshops argue for better working conditions and higher pay as well as transparency of practices and accountability of management and owners. In the new global arrangement, thousands of small operations supply mega-corporations with parts or whole products, sometimes made under questionable conditions. Although advocates for reform are diligent, they face daunting circumstances; oftentimes, exposed sweatshops fold overnight only to reopen elsewhere under a new name. Corporations that buy goods from such factories claim that suppliers, who may be using sweatshop tactics, are not a part of the corporation, suggesting that the corporations are not accountable, thus, making social transformation difficult, at best. Countering this rhetoric requires both inventive and imaginative strategies.

The purpose of this project is to conceptualize, theorize and provide examples of rhetorical ingenuity as it has surfaced in the contemporary history of the anti-sweatshop movement. Special attention will be paid to the proposition of and development of counter-organizations as forms of rhetorical ingenuity. Two parallel situations will be compared where a traditional social movement tactic (i.e., the hunger strike) ushers in the example of rhetorical ingenuity (i.e., the counter-organization), one of which occurred in 2000 and the other in 2006.  The promise of rhetorical ingenuity to act as a viable strategy in social movements as a form of organizational rhetoric is discussed in the conclusion.

New Global Realities

Before exploring rhetorical ingenuity through the representative anecdote of the anti-sweatshop movement, it is important to define what is meant by the expression new global realities. One helpful typology is presented by Ingram (2002), who categorizes the problems of globalization into four main categories: “economic, environmental, socio-cultural, and political antagonisms” (p. 5). Ingram points out that it is difficult, at best, to suggest that these categories do not overlap and intertwine with one another. Nevertheless, his category scheme can be heuristic.

First, Ingram (2002) points out that with respect to “economic terms, globalization threatens the stability of national and local communities,” (p. 5) that rely on “special inducements,” especially in the way of tax exemptions. Corporate tax exemptions draw corporations to specific communities under the promise of creating more jobs for the local residents. However, the outcome rarely meets the expectations. Contemporary evidence of this practice and its devastating outcome came to light in 1998, following a special investigative report by Time magazine reporters which revealed that corporate inducements meant to create and save jobs within local communities never achieved such results. Instead, the practice of providing inducements merely created a system of “corporate welfare” (Special Report: Corporate Welfare, 1998). Ironically, the small community in Mississippi that initiated the inducement scheme was left in poverty as the company packed up and left years later when the inducements ran out (Special Report, 1998).

The practice of pitting communities against each other has now reached the global level with U.S. jobs moving off-shore at unprecedented rates. Off-shore, underdeveloped communities which may be geographically distant are tightly tied to industrialized nations’ economic markets, especially the U.S. market. Giddens (1999/2000; Castells, 2000) suggests that trillions of dollars exchange hands in the global market each day, increasing dependence of localized economies on large, volatile markets, thus creating an increased vulnerability for these small international communities.

Second, Ingram (2002) points out that in addition to economic issues, “environmental issues have become more complex in an increasingly globalized world” (p. 5). Like corporations that seek financial inducement to locate within certain communities, organizations today are seeking locations with low environmental standards. In addition to the point that Ingram makes, Gore’s (2006) award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth asserts the dangers of uncontrolled industrial pollution, mainly due to the increased manufacturing and societies’ gluttonous appetites for electricity, oil, and gas. Furthermore, manufacturing goods in countries with low environmental standards also means increased use of transportation fuels to move these commodities to markets around the world.

Third, socio-cultural concerns related to globalization reshape “nation-states, family structure, and gender roles” (Giddens, 1999/2000, p. 30). Lindsley’s (1999) study of the maquiladoras provides one of the best examples of this phenomenon. She studied U.S. American-owned factories in Mexico and found that the American organizational system eroded Mexican values of stability and trust. The hiring of a primarily female workforce from central Mexico left rural towns with fragmented families and  a gender imbalance. Hiring women instead of hiring men disrupted the gender roles within families. (There is of course a feminist side to this argument as well and will be discussed in the following paragraph.) With more men immigrating to the U.S. and more women moving to the maquiladoras the balance of community care was disrupted as well. In addition, the management style of Americans who continued to live in the U.S. just across the border from Mexico, driving back and forth from their families in the U.S. to their workplaces in Mexico, created an atmosphere of distrust between workers and managers. Workers felt the managers were not truly invested in their Mexican workforce.

Fourth and finally, Ingram (2002) suggests that antagonism between global and local identities may exacerbate isolation and frustration on the part of marginalized groups, but on the other hand, and as Marcuse (1999) points out, globalization may create empowerment. Ingram provides an example: “Global ties can provide valuable resources for challenging abuse, as the work of Amnesty International illustrates (Ingram, 2002, p. 7). Ingram also draws on Ehrenreich’s (2001) work to note that “Demonstrators in Italy were brutally beaten by Italian police trained by the Los Angeles County Sheriffs’ Department” (p. 28 as cited in Ingram, 2002). On the other hand, ripples of empowerment may also be seen as this story further unfolds. The trans-national press coverage of the beatings pressured the Italian Minister to resign, which “allowed for the articulation of resistance to police crackdowns” (Ingram, 2002, p. 7). The same complex coupling of oppression and resistance/empowerment could be noted of workers studied by Lindsley (1999). For example, exploited women workers experienced the ripple of empowerment as they engaged in factory work (Featherstone and United Students Against Sweatshops, 2002) which simultaneously exploited them through low wages while giving them freedom from patriarchal roles of femininity which offered no pay at all.

Thus, the political and cultural situations that arise out of globalization are more complex than meets the eye. In short, there are indeed new global realities which may lead to the possibility of, if not demand for, new forms of rhetorical strategies and tactics for social movements. Thus, the specific purpose of this project is to explore one contemporary, global social movement for evidence of emerging rhetorical ingenuity in light of the new global realities.

Rhetorical Ingenuity

Rhetorical ingenuity is tied to the concepts of invention and imagination. Beginning with invention, it can be noted that the definition has taken different forms over time. “The definition has changed and expanded from the Sophists to the Tagmemicists, from Aristotle to Burke” (Burke Lefevre, 1995, n.p ). Etymologically, the word ‘invention’ or ‘invent’ can be traced to the Latin terms inventio, venire, and vent, meaning come, find, or contrive. For Aristotle, rhetorical invention referred to the means by which arguments were developed and presented. Aristotle was especially attached to the invention of reason, but ethos and pathos played important parts as well. Cicero, having had the benefit of Plato’s Dialogues and Aristotle’s Rhetoric, was able to discuss invention at great length.  In Cicero’s work, De Oratore, invention parallels Aristotle’s in-depth discussion of artistic proofs that depended on logos, ethos and pathos. Whereas during the Enlightenment, scholars such as John Locke pushed forward the notion of a more scientifically oriented form of invention calling for less reliance on ethos and pathos as well as fewer arguments that could easily be dismissed as fallacies. This more scientific and rational model held sway for some time and went unchallenged until Francis Bacon begged for rhetoric to be grounded in reason that stirred the imagination (Bizzell & Herzberg, 2001).

Praising the work of Bacon, Kenneth Burke (1969) argued that the revitalization of the aesthetic side of invention, that is “the concern with ‘imagination’ as a suasive device does not reach full expression until the modern era” (p. 78). Attributing this rebirth of imagination to Bacon, Burke pointed out that Bacon believed that reasoned rhetoric should “fill the imagination.” Burke felt that too often imagination is relegated to the “lyric motive” rather than to the “dramatic motive” (p. 81). Burke provided an etymology of imagination, including a review of Longinus’s thoughts on the subject, and singled out the role of imagination in rhetoric as opposed to poetry:

After citing examples in poetry which “show a strongly mythic exaggeration, far beyond the limits of literal belief,” he [Longinus] says that the “best use of imagination” in rhetoric is to convince the audience of the “reality and truth” of the speaker’s assertions. He also cites passages from Demosthenes where, according to him, imagination persuades by going beyond mere argument. (“When combined with argument, it not only convinces the audience, it positively masters them.”). He ends by equating imagination with genius (megalophrosyne, high-mindedness) and with imitation. . . . . This is probably the highest tribute to “imagination” in all Greek and Roman literature (Burke, 1969, p. 79).

“Imagination,” Burke wrote, “does not require a presence of the thing imagined” (p.78).  This notion “opens another set of possibilities whereby imagination can be thought of as reordering the object of sense” ( p. 78-79).  In short, Burke calls for imagination to be given equal status with reasoned argument and represent and create possibilities.

Responding to this call, Ingram (2002) argues “imagination can open up different perspectives, which is important in a global scene” (p. 18). More recently, Symon (2008) suggests that scholars need to focus on rhetorical invention, especially in light of today’s era of globalization. Burke calls for both imagination and inventiveness and called for a term that addressed both simultaneously.

More specifically, Burke (1969) calls for the creation of a new term that blends and transcends the bifurcation imposed by earlier rhetorical theory, thus creating “a dualism whereby the same person can now subscribe to both poetic estheticism and scientific positivism” (p. 81). A term “whereupon it may also take unto itself the area of overlap between the two terms” (p. 81). Again, Burke calls for this term, but does not provide one. Such a term then should draw from both invention and imagination and express rhetoric that simultaneously exhibits inventiveness and imagination--rhetorical ingenuity is proposed here to meet that challenge.

Burke moved his discussion on the topic of this illusive term to the realm of idea and imagination, and argued “that there should be a term for ideas and images both” (p.86), a term that will bring the “body forth,” (p. 86). For Burke, this strategy that brings the body forth could be found in “identifications” (p. 86). Identification is one example of rhetorical ingenuity, but does not close the door on the possibility of other strategies fitting under this rubric. Indeed, any strategy that simultaneously draws from inventiveness and imagination to body forth what does not exist materially demonstrates rhetorical ingenuity.

Rhetorical ingenuity demonstrates the reasoned arguments advanced from invention as well as the aesthetic elements of imagination. Rhetorical ingenuity makes possible the intangible and attempts to give materiality to the nonobjective. Rhetoricians who conceive of skillful invention as reaching this simultaneous opposite fall short of promoting Burke’s ideas, as do those who linger in the forest of imagination alone;  those rhetorical projects that explore identification provide insight, but may be stopping short of discovering other forms of rhetorical ingenuity.

If we are to learn whether there are other forms of rhetorical ingenuity, beyond identification, then studies must explore instances that are both inventive and imaginative and that call for the materiality of the intangible. Althusser (1971) argued that the “subject . . . is the constitutive category of all ideology” as the “ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ individuals as subjects” (p. 171). McGee (1975) advances this notion from a rhetorical perspective, suggesting that “the people” are “conjured into objective reality, [and] remain so long as the rhetoric which defined them has force” (p. 242). Charland’s (1987) work, based on the rhetoric of interpellation (Althusser, 1971) and the political-mythical construction of the people (McGee, 1975), argued that the ‘people’ of a social movement are constituted in the rhetoric. They are not merely subjects that exist and identify with a discourse, but instead become embodied as a ‘people’ through and with rhetoric. This bodying forth of a ‘people’ is rhetorically ingenious; it systematically and rationally argues a ‘people,’ which did not previously exist, into existence. Strategies of inventiveness coupled with imagination—rhetorical ingenuity—may be able to body forth not only ‘people,’ but also ‘organizations.’

This study explores such strategies in a global social movement—the anti-sweatshop movement. More specifically this study explores the possibility that rhetorical ingenuity can body forth and materialize, not only a ‘people,’ but also ‘organizations.’ Just as Charland (1987) points out, “not all constitutive rhetorics succeed” (p. 141); likewise, not all attempts at organizational development will result in substantiated organizations. However, the success is not in question at this point; instead the possibility of rhetorical ingenuity that Kenneth Burke called for is in question—exploring if and how it exists in global social movements. With this purpose in mind, a history of the contemporary anti-sweatshop movement is provided, first to set the stage and second to provide details of specific strategies. The discussion will eventually compare two parallel moments in the movement that demonstrate the use of a traditional strategy (i.e., the hunger strike) to usher in a more rhetorically ingenious strategy (i.e., the bodying forth of a new organization). Comparing strategies in two different, but parallel, situations during the history of the contemporary anti-sweatshop movement may contribute to understanding the value and shortcomings of rhetorically ingenious strategies.

A Brief History of the Anti-Sweatshop Movement

In 1996, Kathie Lee Gifford, then co-host to Regis Philbin, faced criticism that her brand label clothing, which was being sold at Wal-Mart, had been stitched by the hands of exploited workers under sweatshop conditions (Galestock, 1999). Although the celebrity’s status brought the issue to public attention, Ebeneshade and Bonacich (1999) suggested that sweatshops had been in the country long ago and returned to the U.S. “in the late 1950s, when apparel firms began to run away from the New York area where unions were strong and could insist on decent labor standards” (p. 21). The authors suggest that as the clothing industry moved to the South and then into Mexico, companies found less stringent labor standards. As companies searched for cheaper labor sources, the apparel industry began to move offshore. Concomitantly, clothing imports from Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea increased, further elevating the demand for cheap labor markets. In addition, by the 1980s, the U.S. government encouraged company movement to the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico based on the belief that this would “not only help them to develop, but also to tie them to a capitalist development plan and to prevent revolutionary alternatives from emerging (as in Cuba, Nicaragua, and potentially El Salvador) . . . [such as] socialism” (p. 22). Such plans were supported with policies that took the form of the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). These policies increased the use of cheap labor, and eventually sweatshops existed not only in “Third World” countries, but made their way back to, if indeed they ever left, the United States. Activist Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee exposed Gifford’s sweatshops after years of in-depth research that discovered sweatshops in New York City (Jones, n.d.). An apologetic Gifford teamed with Robert Reich, then Secretary of Labor who had already been campaigning for three years to end these abuses under the slogan of “No Sweat.” Between 1993 and 1996, the government “recovered $7.3 million in wages for more than 25,000 garment workers” (Archived news release, U.S. Department of Labor, 1996), and this was considered the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

In the summer of 1996, the AFL-CIO initiated its summer internship program for college students, providing first hand experience to students who wished to learn about the labor conditions of garment and needle-workers. In the fall of 1996, students and activists “gathered in Madison Wisconsin, for the Youth-in-Action Conference” (Featherstone, 2002, p. 107).

President Clinton responded to public outcry (made more visible due to Kathie Lee Gifford’s public persona) by creating the Apparel Industry Partnership (AIP) “to create workable, enforceable labor standards” (Galestock, 1999, p. 1). In April 1997, the AIP unveiled its Workplace Code of Contact, rules regarding “forced labor, child labor, abuse, harassment, health and safety, nondiscrimination, freedom of association and bargaining, wages and benefits, . . . [rules for] contractors, suppliers, and the companies themselves” ( p. 1-2). The AIP also called for “the formation of the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to oversee the monitoring and evaluation of compliance with the code” (p. 2). The FLA was to be comprised of representatives of manufacturing, human rights and religious organizations, advocate groups, and universities. The establishment of the AIP led to the more refined FLA. These organizations were meant to address the outcry from concerned citizens.

Codes of conduct, written by the AIP, were disseminated to universities, even though many universities already had a code of conduct in place that were intended to regulate the apparel suppliers with respect to human rights. Universities have a particular stake in the apparel industry as they sell their logo items, not only in their own bookstores, but in a variety of other stores, raising money for scholarships and athletic programs. Financial stakes are intertwined with the educational and humanistic mission of universities. Many universities quickly signed the code of conduct agreement, but it failed to save them from reproach.

Critics, including Robert Reich, then Secretary of Labor, concluded that codes of conduct were not enough to keep owners from exploiting workers (Hunter-Gault’s, 1996). Jeff Balinger, Director of Press for Change, agreed with Reich and charged that the situation was more complicated than it appeared on the surface. He suggested that Western investors were not the problem. “Companies that open factories off-shore are, for the most part, paying fair wages; it’s the subcontractors who supply mainland operations, like Nike, that tend to be the problem,” Reich insisted. “For subcontractors,” he claimed, “a code is not enough.” “We want regular inspections by independent organizations that we can put some faith in, and not just a public relations façade” (Hunter-Gault, 1996).

The following year, in 1998, Duke students campaigned for their university to sign a code of conduct as an initial show of good faith. Duke University signed the code of conduct, and several other universities followed suit.  However, issues heated up in Washington D.C. and “several labor unions and religious groups resign[ed] from the FLA, objecting to the excessive influence of its corporate members” (Featherstone, 2002, p. 107). The FLA took the position that their organization could monitor subcontractors, while those who resigned and proposed to start their own monitoring organization (i.e., the Workers Rights Consortium—WRC) charged that industry could not possibly monitor itself any better than the fox could guard the proverbial chicken coup. After all, Nike was on the board of the FLA.

This conflict spawned one more organization, the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), which officially established itself in 1998. Nationwide student protests took place in 1999 at universities as well as at the World Trade Organization in Seattle, Washington. Small groups of USAS students, as well as garment workers around the world, held protests. In the spring of 2000, Purdue University students held their first hunger strike which lasted eleven days and resulted in the formation of the President’s Standing (Advisory) Committee on Marketing, Licensing, and Merchandising, to determine which organization (FLA or WRC) Purdue University should join. The WRC did not exist at this time as an officially documented organization. It existed only in the hearts and minds of the activists who argued on behalf of its right to exist. It was only a possibility voiced in the form of a rhetorical proposition as an alternative to the FLA. As such, it meets the criteria of rhetorical ingenuity—a combination of invention and imagination.

Eventually, the WRC, as a collective of university faculty and staff, union members, students, workers, and NGO members, moved from possibility to actuality and was able to take on the task of monitoring factories overseas. Thus, the WRC is an example of rhetorical ingenuity—it is rhetoric that existed as argument grounded in invention and imagination and culminated in the formation of an organization that brought material changes into existence. Achieving this end was not easy and required serious attention to social movement strategies in the new global era. For example, the membership base was drawn from both other-directed (e.g., students) and self-directed (e.g., workers) (Stewart, 1999), as well as other-directed and self-directed (e.g., union leaders) individuals who crossed national boundaries. Tactics drew from both the more pathos and traditional methods (e.g., hunger strikes), to the more ingenious methods (e.g., creating a counter-organization with a strategic plan) with some success. However, use of these same strategies will meet a very different end when applied six years into the movement. Thus, it is important to take a closer, longer, and more careful look at the anti-sweatshop movement as it unfolds.

Rhetorical Ingenuity in the Anti-Sweatshop Movement: A Case Study

In order to explore rhetorical ingenuity in the case of the anti-sweatshop movement without becoming so encumbered as to lose sight of the focus, I bracketed the movement historically and locally. That is, although the movement has a history that could be traced back to the early labor movement and a geopolitical parameter that could stretch around the world, this project set time and place markers while engaging in participant observation, reflecting on field notes, collecting artifacts, and interviewing participants. The speeches were collected either via public documents that are available on the respective organization’s web sites (i.e., FLA and WRC) or through participant-observation and note taking at public meetings. The public documents used in this study are available at the respective organization’s websites ( for the WRC and for the FLA). Documents were collected for a seven-year period, from 2000 to 2007. The documents were printed, organized by date of release, and collected into folders. Over 200 documents were collected and read. Of those, 65 documents from January 17, 2006 to December 12, 2006 deal with the topic of the Designated Supplier Program (DSP) and the counter project, the Soccer Project. They were selected for more intensive review because the DSP matches the WRC with respect to rhetorical ingenuity. These documents vary in length from short announcements to 25 page proposals. Although I only attended one public meeting at the national level, I attended nearly thirty local university meetings. The local university meetings are not open to the public; I attended as a Member of the President’s Standing Committee at Purdue University.

I also had access to the public activities of the student activists, as well as some of the behind the scenes activities (e.g., I housed three activists at my home—one worker from the Dominican Republic who had lost her job after rallying for a union and two national members of United Students Against Sweatshops—USAS). I also engaged in discussions with student members of Purdue Organization for Labor Equality—POLE (previously known as PSAS—Purdue Students Against Sweatshops). Using data from the university where I am employed was both opportune and crucially relevant, as certain students at Purdue University have been actively involved in the contemporary anti-sweatshop movement since its inception. Furthermore, the Purdue University students were the first group of anti-sweatshop students to stage a protest that included a hunger strike, and they did so more than once. Moreover, these students were actively engaged in efforts to get the university to join the WRC in 2000 and later the DSP in 2006.

The Anti-Sweatshop Movement: A Representative Anecdote

The Purdue University student hunger strike of 2000 was held in order to persuade the university president to agree to more than signing the code of conduct. It was intended to shake up the previous committee, advance a new committee to advise the president (e.g., the students demanded that female professors be included as members of the committee based on the argument that the issue largely affected women workers), and urge the new committee to recommend endorsing membership in the WRC, which was itself still in its imaginative stage. In addition, the student activists hoped to increase awareness of the issue. While some members of PSAS held the hunger strike, others went to classrooms and gave informative talks to students (one such student activist came to my classroom and gave a presentation on the topic).

The Purdue University student activists’ disagreements with the FLA hinged on two practices: lack of transparency and self-monitoring. Transparency referred to the FLA practice of allowing organizations to keep the names of the factories which supplied leading organizations with apparel from public view and from withholding information, such as salary figures or hours worked. Self-monitoring referred to the practice of organizations selecting and hiring their own private monitoring agency, which Applebaum and Bonacich (2000) explain as problematic because “The Department of Labor found that as many as two-thirds of self-monitored companies remained in violation of basic wage-and-hour laws” (p. B4). Based on this finding, concerned professors, students, and AFL-CIO leaders called for the formation of the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC).  Its founding conference, which moved it from a grassroots movement to a proposed nonprofit monitoring organization, was held April 7, 2000, in New York City. The WRC promoted the concept of raising global labor standards by calling for a living wage and promoting labor negotiations (Applebaum & Bonacich).  Universities were being asked to join the WRC rather than the FLA.

The cost to join either organization had been set at 1% of all revenues brought in by the logo apparel being sold for the university, an amount not to exceed $10,000.00 annually (e.g., Florida State University, “receives approximately $1.7 million in profits annually from university-licensed apparel,” [Fontaine, 2004, p. 1]). By April of 2000, five influential universities had left the FLA and joined the WRC. Only two universities (Brown University and University of Iowa) had joined both the FLA and the WRC, doubling their annual dues. This was not a practical choice for many universities due to the costs that would be incurred. The tension between members of the FLA and the initiators of the WRC increased. The matter appeared simple--The WRC needed members; the FLA feared losing members. Money was crucial for monitoring to take place, and the universities were providing that money through membership.

Bama Athreya (2000), committed human rights advocate and labor sympathizer, argued on behalf of the FLA, invoking ethos as the rhetorical appeal. Athreya’s arguments suggested that the FLA should not be “jettisoned”, as it has a working program that has made many advances, has the support of the government, and has a well-rounded board, including trade union representatives. As suggested, the arguments were grounded in ethos—character and credibility. In addition, Athreya argued against the WRC by pointing out that the WRC is a “fledgling organization” with no plan in place, a point made several times over. This ethos-based argument, intended to de-legitimate the WRC by calling it a fledgling organization, actually reinforced its status as an organization. That is, had the WRC been ignored, perhaps its legitimacy would have taken longer to develop. And had other language been used to describe it, such as a plan rather than an organization, a different image may have been created of the WRC.

Applebaum and Bonocich are members of the advisory council of the WRC; Athryea is Director of Asian programs at the International Labor Rights Fund, which is a Member of the FLA. Thus, in addition to ideological differences, organizational survival lay in the balance for the spokespersons on each side who were making public arguments in the form of scholarly work or as newspaper articles (Applebaum & Bonocich, 2000; Arthryea, 2000). The rhetorical strategy by which the FLA meant to discredit the WRC, ironically, lent credibility to the WRC as an organization. Even though the FLA had been established by the government and held institutional legitimacy, it reacted as if it had been seriously threatened.

Concurrent to the FLA-WRC debates, at Purdue University, President Beering ended the Hunger Strike of 2000 by promising a new committee comprised of two students (one from USAS and one Purdue’s student council), two faculty members, two administrators, and one Chancellor as director of the committee--President’s Standing Committee on Marketing, Licensing, and Merchandising. The president agreed to include one woman from a list generated by the students. Once the committee was formed, the president charged the members with advising him as to whether to join the FLA or the WRC. The committee spent months researching the situation and concluded that the university should join both the FLA and the WRC on the grounds that the WRC, working through NGOs, promised superiority in uncovering human rights abuses in sweatshops, while the FLA, working through government liaisons, promised superiority in the ability to enforce the code of conduct. The advice was sent to the president (One dissenting vote was noted, and a minority report was also provided that argued that the university should join only the FLA).  Purdue’s president promised the students, who in the meantime had changed their group name to POLE (Purdue Organization for Labor Equality), and the members of the advisory committee that he would engage in “dialogue” with both the FLA and WRC before making his final decision. In the end, the president decided to take the advice of the committee--Purdue joined both the FLA and the WRC, making it the third university to join both the FLA and the WRC.

The Hunger Strike of 2000 was quite successful. Students of the hunger strike had set up tents in the quad (the open space between buildings at the center of campus). Thus, they had been highly visible. They consumed nothing but water. They were antagonized by another group of students who didn’t seem to have any agenda or platform except to ridicule the hunger strikers. These antagonists set up grills and began cooking hot dogs and brats in front of the hunger strikers. Indeed, they even ordered pizza and had it delivered to the hunger strikers.

The traditional tactic of a hunger strike was invoked early in the movement, just a year after the first nationwide student protests, and launched the beginning of a long campaign. However, the students had no idea how long the campaign would last. At that time, 2000, the students’ demands were marginally met--the committee was reformulated, one woman was added, and the committee recommended the university join both the FLA and the WRC. The president did just that; although the student activists would have preferred more women on the committee and that the university join only the WRC.

As time passed, it became apparent that the fledgling WRC did indeed have a well-thought out plan and was quite capable of monitoring factories. As more members joined, the WRC obtained enough funds to put a legitimate monitoring practice into effect. Over time, the FLA relaxed its opposition to transparency, making public the names of suppliers and wages paid. Within a few years, the two organizations watched factories in a variety of countries (e.g., Mexico, Philippines, Indonesia,), which were in some cases owned by companies from other countries (e.g., a Korean man owned a factory in Mexico), and reported on abuses to the universities. An uneasy truce prevailed between the FLA and the WRC. However, both organizations discovered that gaining compliance from suppliers was not always easy. Some efforts resulted in fair treatment for workers, while others resulted in the midnight shut down and disappearance of offending sweatshops that would simply move to new locations, reopen and resume sweatshop practices. Nevertheless, the FLA and the WRC worked to keep the apparel industry as free of sweatshops as possible and seemed to be more compliant with each other’s ideological differences, until the WRC announced, in 2005, that monitoring efforts were not working well enough and proposed a new plan of attack—the Designated Supplier Program (DSP).

Rhetorical Ingenuity and the Genesis of the Designated Supplier Program

Simply put, the Designated Supplier Program (DSP) would designate which factories were meeting code. Factories would apply to the DSP by offering documentation of their high quality work standards. Instead of the WRC or the FLA having to chase down and ferret out the abusive factory owners, the factory owners had to apply for membership in the DSP.  This rhetorical strategy to end sweatshop abuse may evidence the highest degree of rhetorical ingenuity to date in the movement. It not only attempted to achieve its goal of ending sweatshop abuse, but it also attempted to usurp authority from the FLA. The strategy, both inventive and imaginative, supplied a well-reasoned argument in the form of a possibility—the DSP.

Instituting the DSP would end the need for monitoring organizations; this threatened the FLA. Of course the members of the WRC were not threatened, as their membership would administer the newly developed DSP. In addition, within a year of their efforts to get the university to sign onto the DSP, another hunger strike would be initiated and both rhetorical strategies would meet a very different end from what happened in 2000.

Details of the Designated Supplier Program

Members of the WRC posited that monitoring had been ineffective. They explained  that thousands of suppliers exist in the form of small factories and garment houses, some of which are more clearly organized than others. Some small operations exist in the shadows, making it difficult to monitor them. In order to truly oversee logo apparel production, the WRC asserted that those shops which were willing to follow the codes of conduct; be monitored; supply a living wage to the workers (living wage was calculated according to the wage necessary in the worker’s home country, and it included provisions for food allotment to feed one woman and two children, pay for basic health needs, rent, education, and bus fare to visit family once a year (“ WRC Sample Living Wage Estimates: Indonesia and El Salvador,” 11 pages at WRC website); allow the workers the right to form unions or other representative employee bodies without resistance from management during their organizing period; and allow workers the right to negotiate for better work conditions, be given a designated label. The DSP would oversee such a project. Universities that would join the DSP would agree to pay slightly higher prices for their merchandise (a proposed approximate increase of five cents per T-shirt/sweatshirt) because these suppliers would not be able to cut wages as had been a past practice. The licensee, therefore, had to commit to purchasing from the designated supplier.  Furthermore, the suppliers needed to make approximately two thirds of their production university logo apparel (a process which would be phased into practice), and  when possible, university orders would be regulated (e.g., a place in the playoffs can produce increased orders for the winning team’s logo apparel, causing management to demand unreasonable overtime from workers, often without overtime pay) (“WRC, The Designated Suppliers Program: An Outline of Operational Structure and the Implementation Process,” 13 page document at WRC website).

Rhetorical Turbulence as a Response to Rhetorical Ingenuity

The development of this program (DSP) as an organization of suppliers who meet certain standards and buyers who promote certain labor conditions and promise to adhere to certain buying practices (e. g, paying more for sweat-free products) is the most novel rhetorical strategy of the campaign to date. It attempts to body forth an organization and this attempt at rhetorical genesis does not go unnoticed. Earlier, the members of each group had hoped for the demise of the other. The WRC had hoped that it would replace the FLA and the FLA did not want any universities to join the WRC. Ironically, the rhetorical strategy led to the development of two monitoring agencies working on the issue. And most notably it was even possible for three universities, including Purdue University, to join both organizations. To the contrary, the FLA recognized the power of the DSP strategy to end its existence entirely, if indeed the universities accepted the counter-organization as the better solution. As such, this rhetorical strategy created a sense of heightened vulnerability that resulted in a flood of rhetorical messages, which I describe as rhetorical turbulence. Rhetorical turbulence is a flurry of rhetoric (questions, concerns, counter-arguments, symbolic actions, etc.) that follows a threatening, symbolic act of rhetorical ingenuity that is attempting to depose or negate one side of the dialectic.

The proposal for this new organization (DSP) from Scott Nova, Director of the WRC, was met with criticism in the form attacks: (1) pointed questions from the director of the FLA and (2) less antagonistic questions from university members of the FLA, university members of the WRC, and corporate managers. By February 2006, the FLA sponsored a teleconference to facilitate a discussion between all interested parties. In short, the FLA planned a defensive attack.

The FLA argued that they had already put into effect a plan for “sustainable improvement,” as they agreed that monitoring alone would not achieve satisfactory workplace conditions. The FLA explained that they were implementing a program in their A and B factories (where general apparel is made, but not necessarily university logo apparel) and hoped to move this plan into their C factories (primarily where university logo apparel is made) in the future. They had not disclosed this plan to the universities until prompted by the announcement of the DSP proposal. Even then, the details of the sustainability plan were not given to universities until later. However, a document entitled “Special Projects” was copyrighted in 2005 (“FLA Special Project: Soccer Project,” two pages at the FLA website) and lays out a general plan for “sustainable compliance.” This plan was to be implemented in either Thailand or China, in the “soccer products sector,” and involved training trainers to teach suppliers how to meet codes of conduct, set a “scorecard” to assess their compliance, set up a website to post results of the pilot project, and organize an “international stakeholder forum in mid-2006 to present a progress report on the project.” The final report on the plan’s progress was indeed made available to the public in August 2006, under the title of “FLA Soccer Project,” (“FLA Soccer Project: Interim Report August 2006,” 25 pages at the FLA website) approximately six months after the DSP program plan had been unveiled.

Uncertainty existed as to whether the WRC knew of the FLA’s intention to “train trainers,” whether it launched the DSP prior to the FLA’s “Sustainability Program,” or whether the FLA launched its program first. To understand why the WRC and the DSP ratcheted up the argument between one another requires understanding the details of the DSP. This plan was launched in October of 2005 by USAS under the slogan of “Sweat-Free Campus Campaign by holding demonstrations at more than 40 universities and colleges” (FLA, October 17, 2005 letter to constituents, p. 1 at the FLA website). At that point, when the details of the proposal were not yet clear, the FLA took immediate steps by releasing a letter commending USAS for its passionate commitment to workers’ rights. The FLA summarized the new plan as having “three issues: the complex nature of association, the wages of garment workers, and the impact that sudden production shifts can have on the structure of garment production and employment” (p. 1). Then the FLA argued that they themselves had already been working on these three issues for several years, specifically citing their “training of labor inspectors,” which began in “the Central American region in 2003;” a forum they sponsored on the practicality of a living wage in October 2003; and a “resolution” adopted by the FLA due to the expiration of the Multi-fiber Arrangement (MFA), which predicted a mass shift of garment suppliers to China within the next few years, in 2004. The FLA letter assured its members that the FLA was dealing with the issues. In short, there was no need to join the DSP, according to the FLA. The letter was signed by “Auret van Heerdon, FLA President and CEO” and discussed at the teleconference.

This letter of assurance relied on a tactic of ethos that had served the FLA well in the past, or at least until the details of the DSP were released. Furthermore, it hinted at the idea that there were no antagonisms to deal with as the FLA has been looking into the three issues of concern. However, of the three issues mentioned (i.e., union organizing, fair pay, and reasonable work hours) the FLA saw the issue of association (i.e., union organizing) as “complex.” Framing a concept like union membership as “complex” is a tactic that arose again when the FLA discussed both child labor and the living wage as “complex issues.” The strategy behind it was three-fold:  it portrayed the WRC as too naïve to understand complex issues; it portrayed the FLA as wiser and more experienced; and it obfuscated clear concerns (e.g., union representation, child labor) into confounded complications. The WRC countered with concerns that the FLA was anti-union.

Van Heerdon’s title is also of interest as a tactical maneuver meant to strengthen the legitimacy and credibility of the FLA. This government association, the Fair Labor Association, suddenly had a Chief Executive Officer. This highlighted the business savvy of the director. Even with these tactics, the teleconference did not end the concerns of university members of the FLA or the WRC. Thus, the two directors, Nova (WRC) and van Heerdon (FLA) exchanged further public dialogue following the teleconference.

First, fearing that it was being portrayed as anti-union, the FLA responded with a statement in February 2006 that included the following: “In summary, good labor relations and the ability of workers to negotiate and determine their own needs are the foundations which underpin sustainable improvements in workplace conditions” and that the FLA abides by “freedom of association.” However, they argued against the living wage, claiming that it “irresponsibly endangers the economic viability of factories” and that “the convergence of market forces and worker empowerment” should guide wage determination (“FLA, February 2006,” Fair Labor Association’s Approach to Sustainable Improvement of Labor Conditions in Factories, 3 pages at FLA website). It released a second document on February 17, 2006, which suggested that “FLA constituents” were raising issues and asking questions. In short, university members wondered if the DSP really could work, which would be a frightening proposition for the FLA. The FLA responded quickly with a rhetorical document. They framed this document in a question and answer format; the questions speak for themselves: 1) Are there anti-trust concerns? (e.g., Why is there no business letter?); 2) If union representation is mandatory won’t this rule out countries like China?; 3) Will having “a single organization” [meaning the WRC / DSP] as arbiter cause problems across the wide variety of countries involved?; 4) “Is the proposed path to achieving a living wage the best?”; 5) Is the proposed supply-chain model economically viable?; 6) “Who is going to pay for the cost increase, and how large will it be?”. Their own answers followed which were aligned with the FLA’s ideological positions, suggesting the DSP would create a monopoly, endangering free market practices (This document is dated February 16, 2006, but Nova describes it in his next document as having been “circulated to universities” on the 17th.).

On March 4, 2006, Scott Nova, President of the WRC responded in turn by writing a letter directed not to constituents, but directly to “Dear Auret,” making the argument more personal and suggesting that the FLA’s previous document had been rife with “inaccuracies,” “misconceptions,” and “misinterpretations” (p. 1). The letter reframed the “questions,” called them six “assertions,” and addressed each in turn in an 11 page attachment (WRC website). Later in March, the FLA released another document entitled, “FLA March 2006, Points for Schools to Consider Regarding the FLA Program and the Designated Supplier Program Proposal.” This document, in essence, was a revised version of the six questions document sent out earlier, with only slight rewording (e.g., Does it [DSP] pass muster under anti-trust law?) (FLA website). It is interesting and important to note that the FLA does not make the same mistake as in the past of granting the DSP organizational status--that is, this document clearly calls the DSP a “proposal.”

Some of the critical questions posed by the FLA, such as “Who will pay for the proposed increase?” and “Are there anti-trust concerns, Why is there no business letter?” were taken to heart by the initiators of the DSP. These WRC members further refined their economic plan and sought a business letter. Ironically, the counter-rhetoric of the FLA inadvertently helped the DSP refine its formation and move it toward materialization as an organization. Indeed, the FLA complained that the business letter  obtained was insufficient and so, in the meantime, the WRC sought a second business review letter and released it.

The assessment of Baker & Miller, PLLC, concluded on March 1, 2006, that universities joining the DSP would be acting in good faith and “To summarize [a number of legal positions] as long as a Licensee simply complies with and implements Program-related requirements included in a license at the insistence of the UL [University Licensor] it faces no significant risk of being found to have violated the U.S. antitrust laws” (WRC website). On March 28, 2006, the FLA increased its attack providing more specifics as to how the “business review letter,” written by Baker, had “critical” errors (“FLA March 28, 2006,” University Antitrust Considerations for WRC Designated Supplier Program, 3 pages at FLA website). On the same day, the FLA issued a letter “to the leadership of USAS,” who had started an “FLA Watch site,” much to the dismay of the FLA. The FLA letter debated USAS’s portrayal of the FLA as the “fox guarding the hen-house” (p. 1) and USAS’s portrayal of the FLA as incompetent and guilty of using cover-ups in its monitoring (FLA website). The next day, March 29, 2006, the FLA issued another attack entitled, “Is it the FLA versus the WRC, or the FLA and the WRC?” The two page flyer claimed that the WRC’s DSP plan shifted from “challenging factories to vouching for them” and, in a turnabout, the FLA claimed that “The FLA, from its inception, took the position that there needs to be a pool of preferred suppliers from which smaller licensees could choose” (p. 1 FLA website). This flurry of rhetoric was often one-sided in the sense that the FLA did not wait for responses from the WRC, but posted continually on its website.

The rhetorical turbulence was so intense that the arguments provided by the FLA lost their coherence over time. For example, the FLA argued against the DSP but by the end of this flurry of rhetoric the FLA suggested that they were the first, from the time of their “inception,” who wanted to create a designated group of suppliers. It is possible that this lack of coherence may actually have been a rhetorical tactic, known as superlative rhetoric (e.g., the first, the most, the best), that relies on ethos by positioning the FLA as the first to think of this possibility. Nevertheless, they had argued against it in previous posts.

At this point, the FLA wrote another document that assessed the debate. This document reframed the history, arguing that the FLA was the only recourse in 2000, at which point they had tried to include labor, but labor had threatened to exit (this exit is presumably due to the inclusion of big business on the FLA board) and so they had to make compromises to their ideal plan. They asserted that detractors criticized them and the detractors eventually developed the WRC. This meta-rhetorical tactic, rhetoric that summarizes and assesses the situation and claims awareness of the whole social movement, purports an omniscient view and asserts superior knowledge of the history. It was meant to bring control back to the FLA. Furthermore, the FLA portrayed itself as the hero and as the victim. It did not end there. They contended that the two organizations, the FLA and the WRC, had been able to collaborate by taking different approaches and that they should return to that arrangement, and perhaps even work on a joint plan. The desperation seemed obvious in the deluge and type of arguments the FLA promoted during this turbulent rhetorical period. The FLA rhetoric was eventually interrupted by the advent of a new “business review letter,” from the WRC. Scott Nova of the WRC secured another legal opinion (12 pages in length) to address the “business review letter” concern posed earlier by the FLA (WRC website). Nova sent this letter to the FLA and posted it on the WRC website.

On March 30, 2006, Auret of the FLA replied in the form of a letter addressed “Dear Scott.” The more personal address was followed with an apology for not getting back to him sooner and a compliment that the DSP language had been adjusted. However, at this point the FLA raised new concerns: the improbability of achieving compliance in a global supply chain and the sustainability of the DSP program. In the letter, Auret van Heerdon used child labor as an example, suggesting that in some countries, child labor is a reality that must be dealt with from various vantages including “the family, the education system, local economic development and the employer” (p. 2), hinting that the DSP could not deal with these issues, but perhaps the FLA could. Van Heerdon ended on a somewhat condescending note that suggested that the DSP demonstrates naiveté and was only “repeating the past mistakes of the 1990s” (FLA website). At this point, the FLA still relied on ethos by questioning the credibility of the WRC and promoting their own knowledge and experience, just as they had when the WRC first challenged the FLA. They also used the tactic of complexity to frame child labor just as they had used it to discuss the right to association (i.e., union organizing) previously. The FLA argued that children’s labor is necessary for the survival of the family in poverty-stricken areas and unions are not feasible in some countries.

These FLA arguments failed to persuade some key constituents and on March 21, 2006, University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Larry Billups, Special Assistant to Chancellor John Wiley, announced that UW-Madison would join the DSP and said, “We’re the first university in the nation to even acknowledge the DSP” (Pelzek, 2006).  Eight other universities quickly followed UW-Madison’s lead and joined the DSP. However, many more universities were still undecided, which led to the announcement of public meetings to be held.

On March 30, 2006, a joint forum was held in Berkeley, California; on March 31, 2006, a joint forum was held in Chicago, which I attended as an official representative of the university. I took copious notes and reported back to the committee. Several POLE students attended. Both Nova and van Heerdon gave eloquent speeches. The audience included representatives from several universities, students groups, suppliers and businesses. The forum addressed the DSP, but the FLA took the opportunity to promote “the FLA program—FLA 3.0” (a.k.a. the Soccer Report mentioned earlier). At this forum, Auret van Heerdon explained the FLA’s program as grounded in “root causes” and “best practices” and argued that this approach could achieve “sustainability.” Nova countered and explained how these “best practices” were not necessarily what was best for the workers.2 Both the FLA and the WRC argued that monitoring was not working and that it required more than a monitoring organization to end abuses. The FLA argued that its own FLA 3.0 Soccer Project was more than a monitoring organization. They planned to teach owners of factories how to be better businesspeople and treat their workers fairly. Therefore, the FLA 3.0 matched the DSP in creating a new program, but not one that could be described as a new consortium or a new organization.

In the meantime, student activists continued their rhetorical engagement. A demonstration with about 70 students was held in March 2006 at Purdue University. The independent campus newspaper questioned whether the students knew what they were doing, as the university already belonged to the WRC, and did not necessarily need another monitoring agency. On April 5, 2006, The Hartford Courant reported that “UConn backs Worker Rights Plan,” joining “about a dozen other universities” who signed onto the DSP as a working group that would help to iron out wrinkles in the DSP and help move it along to end sweatshop labor (Merritt, 2006). Others added their names to the list, while more conservative universities remained tied to the FLA.

Purdue University student pressure to join the DSP increased and conservative members of the Merchandising, Licensing and Marketing Committee felt that signing onto a group working to improve the DSP was tantamount to supporting or joining the DSP, which they were not prepared to do. The idea that the DSP existed only in the hearts and minds of the activists was nearly completely forgotten. Yet, it worked to the disadvantage of the activists this time instead of to their advantage, as it had worked before. In other words, when the WRC was perceived as an organization, it lent it more legitimacy and moved its materialization along, but when the DSP proposal was perceived as an organization it instilled fear into the conservative members of the Purdue University President’s Merchandise, Licensing, and Marketing committee, who expressed concerns about antitrust law suits.

On April 13, 2006, Purdue students protested again in the Memorial Mall and marched into the president’s office to protest the fact that President Jischke had thus far refused to sign onto the DSP.  No response followed. Students complained about the lack of dialogue. Classes let out and the summer passed without incident. However, when classes began in the fall, Purdue University had not yet given the POLE members a definitive answer. Demonstrations were revitalized, but failed to push the issue to a vote in September or October. The advisory committee did not give President Jischke a recommendation until November 15, 2006, at which time the committee did not recommend joining the DSP working group. The vote was 4-2 against the DSP (Press release from Martin C. Jischke, 2006). A minority report was written and submitted. The president made no final determination.

Frustrated by the negative committee vote and the lag in time awaiting the president’s decision, on November 16, 2006, “eleven students chained themselves together [‘with bicycle locks around their necks’] in Purdue President Martin Jischke’s office (Thomas, 2006). Following this event, which ended with the students agreeing to leave, several Purdue University students initiated a hunger strike. This would be the second hunger strike held at Purdue University. They camped out in two university buildings (Hovde and Stewart Center Hall); made signs; gave interviews to the Indianapolis Star, WBAA, Jouranl & Courier, Purdue Exponent, WLFI 18, as well as the Ball State and Purdue-Calumet student campus newspapers (Purdue Hunger Strike Update, 2006); and managed to get their picture and an article in The Nation magazine (Rothberg, 2006). After a short time, they consolidated their strike into the open, high-visibility lobby area of one building, Stewart Center, but the university deemed them a fire hazard and had them moved to a different and low-visibility area of the building. The students drank water, juice and other liquids and took vitamins for sustenance. Nevertheless, as students began to show signs of lethargy, dehydration and weakness, concerned parents called the university and their advisor, Prof. Berenice Carroll, grew more alarmed and worried about their physical health. She contacted me and asked me to accompany her to see the local priest from St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church who took up their cause, noting that the students were young, passionate, and dedicated, if somewhat naive. Shiela Klinker, a State Representative weighed in on the matter on behalf of the students. Letters were written to the local newspaper. Some described the students as having been persuaded by labor unions and argued that the students didn’t understand how sweatshops are good for the economy of under-industrialized nations. Although the students’ credibility was questioned, awareness was heightened. However, unlike the first hunger strike of 2000, which for the most part succeeded, the second hunger strike of 2006 failed to achieve the desired end.  Unlike the WRC, the DSP failed to materialize and instead continued to exist only in the hearts, minds, and rhetoric of its creators.

On December 12, 2006, Purdue University’s President Jischke officially announced that the university would not join the DSP. The following day, the students announced the end of the 27-day hunger strike and broke bread together, but refused to accept defeat, vowing that they would continue to fight in other ways on behalf of worker rights (Marburger, 2007; Hunger Strike Update, 2006). Purdue University remains a member of both the FLA and the WRC. However, the current president has disbanded the advisory committee and reasserted the university’s stand against the DSP.


Conceptualizing rhetorical ingenuity as simultaneously drawing from inventiveness and imagination to body forth what does not exist materially has been the heart of this article. Establishing rhetorical ingenuity as a third term, perhaps an umbrella term, leans heavily on the contributions of previous scholars, but most importantly on the insights of Kenneth Burke (1969), who provided ground-breaking insights into ideology and constructing, defining, and positioning the subject through rhetoric as well as how the subject legitimizes the ideological discourse. For Burke, a keen example of rhetorical ingenuity is found in the strategy of identification as it creates the subject according to discourse. This study has proposed the extension of Burke's insights by combining inventiveness and imagination into rhetorical ingenuity and applying it to the creative development of not only people but also organizations..

This project means only to be one small contribution to the body of knowledge concerning the rhetorical construction of the possible. It hopes to partner with scholars who focus on the construction of the subject by adding a place for organizations to be rhetorically materialized and to provide a term that seems conducive to discussing tactics and strategies, especially for social movements. This project has specifically looked at the rhetorical genesis of two organizations, the WRC and the DSP. As origins are indeterminate or at least ambiguous, I would like to point out that I could have focused on the rhetorical genesis of the FLA. I did not because I wanted to supply a representative anecdote that would offer both a fairly successful as well as relatively ineffective rhetorical genesis.

Clearly the relative success or failure of each deserves future attention. These organizations, the WRC and the DSP, existed as rhetoric and demonstrated inventiveness and imagination--rhetorical ingenuity. The WRC began as imaginative and inventive rhetoric that later materialized into an organization, meaning it had members, goals, duties, projects, active involvement with other organizations, and had an impact on people’s lives. The other, the DSP, failed to materialize in an active manner; it existed in oral and written rhetoric, but never materialized in the sense of carrying out its duties or impacting the lives of workers. Student activists still talk as if the DSP does indeed exist. Months after the President’s negative decision, I asked one student why he felt the university decided not to sign onto the DSP; his answer: “Yet.”

A thorough analysis of why the different tactics (e.g., the hunger strikes) and strategies (e.g., gaining control through the rhetorical genesis of organizations) met such very different ends is a matter for future scholars. I could offer conjecture at this point, but it would be incomplete without a full description of the micro and macro political situation which is so relevant to understanding the success and failure of social movements. Oftentimes, perhaps too often, the rhetorical choices are commended or blamed without taking into account the full rhetorical situation (Bitzer, 1968). For instance, in the case of Purdue University’s involvement with the anti-sweatshop movement, the outgoing president, President Beering, ended the first hunger strike by promising to restructure the advisory committee, including adding a woman, and assigning the members the task to make a decision as to whether to join the WRC or FLA. Outgoing presidents have more leeway with regard to decisions they make. The incoming president, President Jischke, was rescued by the committee’s recommendation to join both the FLA and the WRC. The third president during the period under review, President Córdova, faced a serious quandary.

President Córdova had agreed to and signed the letter of intent to support the DSP while she was at UC-Santa Barbara and before coming to Purdue University. Once she was faced with the same set of circumstances at a different university and completely different political environment, (she suggested that she had dealt with numerous unions in California, and that was the norm, but she found in Indiana, in general, unions are not supported and few exist on campus), she chose not to join the DSP. This example does not even begin to capture the national political picture between 2000 and 2006. Thus, it is important to note that tactics and strategies do not exist in a social movement vacuum. Indeed, like the new global reality, a complex set of circumstances surround the rhetorical enterprise. Thus, it would be premature to attempt to assign specific designation for the relative success or failure of the strategy in this specific case at this time.

The rhetorical genesis of organizations, specifically the WRC and the DSP, stands out as rhetorical ingenuity--both invention and imagination. The WRC and DSP challenged the FLA as well as the organizational structure of the new global corporations. But the DSP in and of itself, much like the WRC at its inception, does not exist in an active manner; it lives only in the imagination of the students, workers, and other activists. It is where imagination meets invention, where the lyric meets the dramatic; it is rhetorical ingenuity. These organizations either did or intended to address the complexities of the new global realties. How these actualized or imagined organizations move into the material realm deserves further investigation, especially if scholars are to assess what strategies and tactics will best alleviate worker exploitation in the global arena.


1. A portion of this article appeared in a related paper that received the Top Paper Award from the rhetoric division of CSSA in 2006. The author would like to thank Charles J. Stewart, Professor Emeritus at Purdue University for comments on an earlier draft. The author would also like to thank Dennis Yan for his help in collating documents and Erin Doss for providing helpful readings. Although this article relies primarily on textual analysis and the insights of Kenneth Burke, a second article based on the ethnographic methods (interviewing, observation, etc.) has recently been published by Cultural Studies <=> Cultural Methodologies. That article does not develop Kenneth Burke’s insights.

2. The FLA’s argument was further strengthened through the tactical use of business jargon – root causes, best practices and sustainability. While sustainability had been laced throughout earlier arguments, root causes and best practices may have sealed the deal for conservatives. The general idea of root causes and best practices are traced to business gurus, Peters and Waterman (1982). Van Heerdon allowed the jargon to surface through success stories. He relayed the story of one organization failing to be in compliance but when they searched for the root cause, they found that the employees had taken their masks and gloves off because they felt that it slowed down their work. Thus, the root cause approach showed that by teaching the employees the necessary safety guidelines and reasons for wearing their masks they could return to compliance. The root cause approach did not attempt to trace the root cause for having to wear the masks to begin with and thus is highly suspect. For example, small cotton processing plants in Africa require workers to wear masks as the cotton fibers can be dangerous to their lungs, but fine particle screens could be placed over the conveyor belt to reduce fiber pollution, possibly a more costly solution, but perhaps more comfortable for workers (See Zachary, 2007 for information on cotton production in Africa and a visual of a cotton gin in Zambia). This type of solution to the root cause is not considered by the FLA. Nevertheless, the business jargon reinforces the credibility of the FLA to deal with business issues. With regard to best practices, van Heerdon told the story of interviewing workers to find out their most serious grievances. A group of men reported that they were not paid enough to cover the costs of a funeral when a family member died. The solution van Heerdon promoted was to take a small portion of every man’s salary and put it into a joint funeral fund so that any man could draw from the fund when such sad circumstances presented themselves. The story ended there. Never did the FLA President and CEO consider raising the salaries of the men.

Counter-arguments by Scott Nova were equally persuasive to those in favor of the WRC/DSP.  He told stories of young Muslim girls who complained that their wages were being paid to their fathers. The WRC saw to it that their wages were paid directly to them. Once given the chance to handle their own finances, the girls flourished. Some even used “the money to return to school to complete their education.” This, Nova claimed, is directly dealing with the problems. He also addressed all of the concerns raised by the FLA and added testimonials concerning the legal decision and antitrust concerns. Nova assured the audience that the DSP would make it even easier to address the concerns workers were facing and at no risk to universities. The rhetoric of a living wage and union representation, although frightening to proponents of laissez-faire capitalism, acted as a similar tactic as the business jargon in that it gave the liberal constituents a comfortable form of talk to support their argument and provided the WRC with credibility during this time of rhetorical turbulence.    


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"Rhetorical Ingenuity in the New Global Realities: A Case of the Anti-Sweatshop Movement" by Robin Patric Clair is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at

Flash Flooding: A Burkean Analysis of Culture and Community in the Flash Mob

Rebecca Walker, Southern Illinois University


In 2003, writer and cultural critic Bill Wasik stunned the world with his newest experiment, the MOB Project, which flooded the streets of New York City with strange performances quickly labeled “flash mobs” by participants and local media. With the goal of understanding the communicative purpose and function of these new performance events, this project analyzes the eight original flash mobs of 2003 through the use of Kenneth Burke’s Pentad. Specifically, this essay explores the agent, agency, and scene of the flash mob, arguing that the scene was the dominant pentadic feature of Wasik’s act (the Flash Mob). Additionally, this paper examines the specific social, cultural and political influences of the flash mob and its participants with a particular emphasis on technology and the hipster subculture.


Date: Wed, 25 Jun 2003 21:45:21 -0700 (PDT)
From: The Mob Project
Subject: MOB #3
(Apologies to those who received an incomplete version before.)
You are invited to take part in MOB, the project that creates an inexplicable mob of people in New York City for ten minutes or less. Please forward this to other people you know who might like to join.
Q. For a mob to be inexplicable, does it need to take place in an otherwise empty space?
A. No.

A Scene

Fred has a nice action shot of MOBsters applauding. Notice the smiles. You couldn’t help smiling; it was gorgeous (Ginger).

The Scene

3 July 2003
I just returned from Flashmob #3. This was called “The Grand Central Mob Ballet,” and was supposed to involve claiming to be waiting for a train, and writing the word “MOB” on a one dollar bill, but none of that came into play. Instead, we got a form saying:

*** MOB #3 ***
Change of Plans
If you are reading this, we have decided to change venues.

By 7:02, walk out to 42nd St. and look for the main entrance to the Grand Hyatt.

Enter and take the escalator up one flight to the main lobby. Loiter until 7:07.

At 7:07, start taking the escalator and elevators up one floor, to the wraparound railing overlooking the lobby. Stand around it, looking down. Fan out to cover as much of the railing as possible. If asked why you are there, point down to the lobby and say, “Look.”

At 7:12, begin applauding. Applaud for fifteen seconds, then disperse in an orderly fashion (Note: the exit on that floor is not a pedestrian exit.).(Danzig)


Figure 1. Man, Myth, Morland. 2 July 2003. Web. 12 July 2010. 

Figure 2. Man, Myth, Morland. 2 July 2003.Web. 12 July 2010. 

Figure 3. Man, Myth, Morland. 2 July 2003. Web. 12 July 2010. 

Figure 4. Satan’s Laundromat. 2 July 2003. Web. 12 July 2010. 


Consider, for a moment, Figures 1 and 3. Figure 1 depicts multiple flashmobbers gathered against the hotel railing, gazing down upon the lobby, as instructed. Many, although not all, appear to be with friends or loved ones, evidenced by arms around shoulders and other close, open body language. In the hallway, a singular individual in a suit walks by, casting what one can only assume to be a bewildered sideways glance at the flashmobbers lining the balcony. Perhaps this individual wonders at what they are all staring. According to Figures 2 and 4, which depict the empty atrium lobby below, they were an audience for nothing. Now look at Figure 3: Two individuals—perhaps friends, perhaps strangers—stare down into the lobby like all the other flashmobbers. However, the angle from which this photo is shot intrigues: the photographer of Figure 3 seems interested in capturing at least two things: first, the similarity of the two individuals in the forefront, whose skin color may differ, but whose clothing and body positions seem to almost mirror one another; and second, the picture of what falls in these individuals’ direct line of sight—other flashmobbers on the opposite side of the balcony, engaged in the exact same activity (staring down into the empty lobby below). In a sense, these flashmobbers at the far opposite end of the atrium balcony serve as another reflection, or mirror, of the two in the forefront. One begins to realize, or merely infer, that this flash mob—maybe even all of flash mob creator Bill Wasik’s original eight mobs—are not simply about the absurdity of the act, but also the communal nature of the action. Wasik himself supports such a claim, in his description of Mob #3, depicted above:

Then, all at once, we rode the elevators and escalators up to the mezzanine and wordlessly lined the banister. The handful of hotel guests were still there, alone again, except now they were confronted with a hundreds-strong armada of hipsters overhead, arrayed shoulder to shoulder, staring silently down. But intimidation was not the point; we were staring down at where we had just been, and also across at one another, two hundred artist-spectators commandeering an atrium on Forty-second Street as a coliseum—style theater of self-regard. After five minutes of staring, the ring erupted into precisely fifteen seconds of tumultuous applause—for itself—after which it scattered back downstairs and out the door, just as the police cruisers were rolling up, flashers on. (58)

Three of Wasik’s comments in this account stand out as strikingly important, and heretofore unexamined. First, Wasik takes care to point out one unifying characteristic of the flashmobbers—their shared status as members of the hipster subculture. Second, Wasik specifically mentions the scenic or spatial element of this particular mob, whose goal was to “commandeer” a space in two different ways. In so doing, he highlights the different nature of this mob from most, if not all, of the other seven, as a non-verbal performance event. Mob #3 was physical in nature—its directive being to move bodies around in a space and have those bodies engage in a shared act, applause, before dispersing out of the space. Finally, Wasik’s use of language points toward the communal or community-building nature of this mob. Wasik’s mob participants look across “at one another” and his mob applauds “itself,” acknowledging the “we” of community created in the act of participation.

As products of the digital age, flash mobs require a certain level of technological advancement to form, namely e-mail and text message technology created in the latter part of the 20th century. Every flash mob begins with an e-mail (often from an anonymous account or organizer using a pseudonym) announcing the date and time of occurrence, along with either a set of instructions for action or the promise of instructions to be delivered on site. Recipients then forward this e-mail to others in cyberspace through computers and cell phones, forming the mob (or at least its virtual potential) with each successive email or text message. Usually, upon arrival, participants are given instructions on fliers detailing what they should do during the flash mob. As a rule, flash mobs tend to last no longer than ten minutes (Wasik 66). Participants arrive at a site, perform their action(s), and then leave, often just before the police arrive. These actions range from shopping en masse for a rug, to pointing at a fast food menu and mooing like cows, to pretending to stand in line for Strokes tickets (Johnson, Wasik). This article uses Burke’s Pentad to examine the scene, agent, and agency of the eight original flash mobs organized by Bill Wasik in 2003, ultimately arguing that the scene served as the dominant factor for determining the agent and agency of Wasik’s act (the flash mob). However, before I begin this examination, a more brief description of these eight mobs, ending with a detailed depiction of Mob #3, offers the reader a shared point of departure.

Bill Wasik, cultural critic and Harper’s Magazine editor, produced eight flash mobs that acted upon the streets of New York City in the summer of 2003. The first, an utter failure, occurred on June 3, 2003, at the site of a Claire’s Accessories store in the East Village’s Astor Place. Mobsters were instructed to gather inside the store and on the street at 7:24 p.m., at which time those outside the store would point at those inside and chant “Acessories!” until the mob dissipated at 7:31 p.m. However, as stated earlier, the mob failed because one of the individuals receiving an e-mail invitation informed the police of its occurrence. When potential members of the flash mob arrived upon the scene, they found six police officers and a police truck blocking their entrance to the store.

Wasik remedied this problem by only disseminating a spot at which to gather and receive further instructions for his subsequent mobs, thereby preventing any potential participants from alerting the police as to their actions or site. Mob #2 occurred a few weeks later on June 17, when a few hundred people gathered in Macy’s rug department to shop for a “love rug” for their supposed commune in Long Island City. After a few minutes of shopping, the mob abruptly left the store. Mob #3, described below, took place in early July at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, where mobbers lined the atrium balcony, stared at each other, and then burst into spontaneous applause before quickly leaving the site.

Wasik’s fourth mob took place on July 16, 2003, at Otto Tootsi Plohound, an expensive shoe store. Participants gathered to pretend they were tourists from Maryland, proceeding to examine and appreciate the store’s expensive footwear as if the shoes were relics from another universe. Mob #5 followed, where participants gathered along a ridge in Central Park West and made a variety of natural and ironic bird calls before leaving. Often the most discussed of Wasik’s eight mobs, Mob #6 occurred at the Toys ‘R Us in Times Square on August 7th, 2003, when participants gathered to cower in false capitulation before the store’s animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex, leaving just as police arrived.

Wasik’s last two mobs took place outdoors, with Mob #7 occurring on the sidewalk outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where participants lined up single file, informing anyone who asked that they were waiting for tickets to a concert by The Strokes, a popular hipster band. Wasik’s final mob took place in an alcove on Forty-Second Street, where mobsters gathered to await instructions from “the performer.” The performer turned out to be a portable radio, or boom box. However, the mob was so large and unruly that they failed to hear the performer’s instruction. When a participant (later discovered to be a local performance artist) opened his briefcase to reveal a neon sign reading “Café Thou Art” and then proceeded to hold up two fingers of his right hand, participants believed this man to be “the performer” and began chanting “Peace!” over and over for about a minute before dispersing.

When viewed within the larger context of all eight mobs, Mob #3 gains added significance as the last of Wasik’s highly self-reflexive first three mobs. Mobs 1–3 focus largely on the mobbers themselves—they are the accessories (Mob 1), they are a commune (Mob 2), they applaud themselves (Mob 3). After Mob #3, Wasik’s mob project turns toward the other, if only in jest. The performers play with tourists (Mob 4), nature (Mob 5), religion (Mob 6), and culture (Mob 7). Wasik’s final mob shifts the game completely by telling his performers, the flashmobbers, to simply serve as an “enthusiastic audience” for a sidewalk performer (Bemis). The move from self to other seems more than coincidence. I believe Wasik used his first three mobs to create a scene, and in so doing, created a community, a powerful “we” whose influence and membership expands to this very day.

Crucial to the creation of Wasik’s scene was the socio-cultural and historic climates of New York City in a post-9/11 era, as well as the spatial layout of the city itself. These material and philosophical realities created the environment, or scene, where Wasik’s acts took place. Drawing upon Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic theory, I argue that the scenic element—more than anything else—allowed for the act (the creation of Wasik’s flash mobs) to occur. In addition, two other heretofore unexamined elements—Wasik’s agents, the hipster subculture, and his primary agency, cellular phone technology—function as tangential, necessary elements in the more dominant scene. I first examine these secondary components and ultimately end with an extensive discussion of scene and its relationship to culture and community in the flash mob.


Noted literary critic, philosopher, and rhetorician Kenneth Burke expanded the fields of contemporary rhetoric and performance studies exponentially through his Pentad, created as a method for divining rhetorical motives out of literary dramas. According to Burke, in order to understand motives, one must begin by identifying and examining the five elements (or questions) of his Pentad: “what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose)” (xv). Contemporary rhetoricians use Burke to examine not only literary dramas, but also those occurring in politics, media, and society. Performance teachers often use Burke in their introductory classes as a way to teach students how to examine and perform literature. Taking cues from both, I expand and apply Burke’s Pentad to the flash mob, a contemporary performance event, to identify the flash mob’s components and examine the relationship between them.

In simplest terms, the agents of the eight original flash mobs in this study are New York City hipsters of 2003. Although one might argue Wasik, as originator of the idea of the flash mob and sender of the invitational e-mails, is the primary agent of the flash mob, he places himself within the larger group of actors by retaining his anonymity and e-mailing his original and subsequent invitations not only to his friends, but also to himself.2 As such, anyone who shows up and takes part in one of these flash mobs becomes an agent of the act. Before examining the particular makeup of the New York hipster of 2003, further elaboration on Burke’s theory of the Pentad is necessary.

Identifying the five elements of the Pentad in regard to a particular act is the first step in determining its motives. The second, and ultimately more important, step examines the relationship between each of the parts. Burke labels this relationship their ratios or “principles of determination” (15). In other words, Burke highlights the intermingling between elements, those points where one part of the Pentad merges with or strongly differentiates itself from another. Within these ratios, Burke locates the dramatic tensions that reveal the motivations behind particular rhetorical strategies. Burke identifies and discusses ten possible ratios arising from his Pentad; I focus on two: scene-agent and scene-agency. These two ratios, unlike the other seven, directly address the subjects of this essay: the scene, agent, and agency of Wasik’s flash mobs, as well as the dominant relationship existing between them.

Burke describes the scene-agent ratio as a “synecdochic relation . . . between person and place” (7) or perhaps more simply as the “container and thing contained” (3). The container referred to here is the scene and the agent the thing contained. Burke provides literary examples for this ratio; however, as I am expanding Burke’s analysis outside of the literary realm into contemporary culture, I suggest a more apt example from the days following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The scene left by Katrina was one of utter devastation and destruction for the residents of both New Orleans and south Louisiana. Although many agents engaged in various acts, the entire nation looked toward one agent in particular—President George W. Bush. The scene of Katrina called for a response of urgency on the part of the President, the expression of concern, perhaps even a disheveled physical appearance as evidence of long nights spent working on solutions to such devastation. As such, the scene controls, or dictates, the requirements of its agent and act. President Bush’s initial act—the flyover of the area days after the hurricane—inspired outrage among residents because it appeared more the act of a curious tourist than that of a concerned President. In other words, the agent did not suit the scene.

I argue that the agents of the original eight flash mobs do suit the scene. Modern hipster subculture emerges out of a distinct and particular socio-cultural and historical scene, which I discuss in the final section of this paper. Furthermore, Wasik states that the entire impetus for flash mobs came out of his and his friends’ own fascination with being a part of “the scene”:
seeing how all culture in New York was demonstrably commingled with scenesterism, the appeal of concerts and plays and readings and gallery shows deriving less from the work itself than from the social opportunities the work might engender, it should theoretically be possible to create an art project consisting of pure scene—meaning the scene would be the entire point of the work, and indeed would itself constitute the work. (58)

In short, the very essence of the modern hipster lies in her association with and participation in the scene. However, before I address the scene-agent ratio in the flash mob fully, let me return to the question of the modern hipster: who is she, and how does she differ from other historical “hipsters”?

The term hip most often connotes youth culture and the materials associated with it (e.g., the new, often wacky clothes, music, and books that the youth of America deem fashionable at any given moment). New York Times reporter John Leland’s recent Hip: The History explains the connection between youth and hip, arguing that “hip is a culture of the young because they have the least investment in the status quo” (22). Hip, then, is often something new or different from the everyday. But where did hip come from? While acknowledging the cultural influences of the European avant-garde, Leland locates hip in the Americas, emanating along with the African slave trade. In his opinion, hip originates out of the exchange of African and European cultures on the plantation, with each group taking bits of the other’s culture and accumulating (and often refashioning) those bits into their own. For Leland, hip originates in America, particularly in the acquisition of African culture, without which he argues, “there is no hip” (18).

Following Leland, one’s hipness appears rooted in their knowledge of African-American culture. The term hip itself is often attributed to be a derivative of the African word hipi, which loosely translates as “to open one’s eyes” (Fletcher).3 Our modern understanding of hip and hipsters, however, arises out of the jazz and art scene of America in the 1930s and ’40s. Jazz, a uniquely American musical blend of African and European styles, produced a unique subculture among its largely black musicians, one which middle-class white youths found fascinating and ultimately sought to emulate. Shortly after World War II, rising young authors such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg sang the praises of the burgeoning hip/jazz scene in their novels and poems, becoming the faces of hipster culture. Norman Mailer, American playwright and novelist, sought to define the movement and its members, famously referring to them in his essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.”

Mailer’s essay extends the notion of hip beyond an adoption of black culture by highlighting the existential nature of the youth within the subculture. According to Mailer, young people strongly affected by both fear of the atomic bomb and loathing of conformity in middle America sought escape (and possibly rebellion) through their association with jazz and black America as well as their idealism of vagabond travelers such as Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty. A similar desire to escape the middle class and associate the self with the other or the unknown is evident in both the hippie and punk subcultures of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

However, the hipsters who chase hip are more than just vanguard thinkers and lovers of difference; they are also trendsetters. Hip perseveres because hip sells itself to the mainstream. In Hip: The History, Leland writes “where religion creates workers, hip creates consumers” (342). Hip is not simply a fascination with the dark other, or a reaction to the time in which one lives; it is a product to be sold. For Wasik’s New York hipsters of 2003, hip certainly involved all three.

Wasik’s hipster, or the modern hipster, is almost always defined by her appearance. Some writers focus on the hipsters’ physical appearance, describing them as “fashion-conscious twentysomethings hanging about and sporting a number of predictable stylistic trademarks: skinny jeans, cotton spandex leggings, fixed-gear bikes, vintage flannel, fake eyeglasses and a keffiyeh” (Haddow). Other journalists focus their depictions on the hipster’s psychological stance, arguing that “everything about them is exactingly constructed to give off the vibe that they just don’t care” (Fletcher). Some take these psychological descriptions a step further creating categories of hipster psychosis: “We know that there are Sweet hipsters, who practice the sort of irony you can take home to meet the parents, and there are those Vicious hipsters, who practice the form of not—quite-passive aggression called snark” (Lorentzen).
Critics often deride the modern hipster’s ironic stance and particular fashion sense as empty trademarks pointing towards a hollow society, or as some say, “the dead end of Western civilization” (Fletcher). Such remarks usually stem from the modern hipster’s fashion sense, one that, according to columnists like Christian Lorentzen, “fetishizes the authentic and regurgitates it with a winking inauthenticity.” In this reiterated fashion, the modern hipster, although a definite product of her time (both historically and capitally), distinguishes herself from her predecessors. Whereas 20th century hipsters borrowed from contemporaneous aspects of the other’s culture—such as jazz—to create their fashion, or simply created their own—as in punk—the 21st century hipster recycles the fashion of their predecessors.

Some of these reclamations appear to serve as acts of identification, others as desperate attempts to collage a new identity out of an older, more established one. An example of the former appropriation is the keffiyeh—a scarf originally worn by Jewish students and Western protestors as a symbol of support for Palestinians—now sold in a variety of colors and patterns to teenagers at the local Target. Douglas Haddow, cultural critic, provides further examples:

The American Apparel v-neck shirt, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and Parliament cigarettes are symbols and icons of working or revolutionary classes that have been appropriated by hipsterdom and drained of meaning. . . . such things have become shameless clichés of individuals that seek to escape their own wealth and privilege by immersing themselves in the aesthetic of the working class. (1)

These appropriations differ from those of early 20th century American teenagers wearing black turtlenecks and berets. The modern hipster revisits the past in search of authenticity, instead of looking around in the present for inventions of new meaning. Although one might argue such scavenging and re-assembling serves as a form of invention, many reporters and cultural critics view this desire to forage the past and assemble some sort of new meaning from its symbols and trends as a cannibalistic act:

Those 18-to-34-year-olds called hipsters have defanged, skinned and consumed the fringe movements of the postwar era—Beat, hippie, punk, even grunge. Hungry for more, and sick with the anxiety of influence, they feed as well from the trough of the uncool, turning white trash chic, and gouging the husks of long-expired subcultures—vaudeville, burlesque, cowboys and pirates. . . . Simlarly, they devour gay style. . . . these aesthetics are assimilated—cannibalized—into a repertoire of meaninglessness, from which the hipster can construct an identity in the manner of a collage, or a shuffled playlist on an iPod. (Lorentzen)

Whether cannibalistic or inventive, the modern hipster sets herself apart as more of a historian and collage artist than an adventurer or explorer.

In 2009, music and entertainment magazine Paste published a two-page photo spread portraying “The Evolution of the Hipster 2000–2009” (Kiefer). Serving as an ironic timeline of the modern hipster’s appearance and perseverance on the cultural scene, Paste’s evolution points out many of the modern hipster’s recycled identifications in the names given to each year’s hipster: The Twee, The Fauxhemian, The Mountain Man, The Vintage Queen, The Meta-Nerd (Kiefer). Paste titles Wasik’s hipster, the hipster of 2003, “The Scenester,” writing “a gaudy tattoo appears on her chest, and she is never spotted without her iPod” (Kiefer). While this iPod is the only description in Paste’s entire evolution that references modern technology of any sort, the title “Scenester” excites me most. This label validates my contention that Wasik’s hipster of 2003 emerged not only as a product of her historical and socio-cultural scene, but also defined herself by participation in the scene of her own hipster subculture. Stated differently, Wasik’s hipster not only wore the proper clothes, acquired the newest gadgets, and cultivated the proper attitude of ironic distance and nonchalance, she desired to be a part of something: to be seen in the scene.

In 2003, Wasik, out of a desire to comment upon the prevalence of scenesterism within his own New York hipster subculture, created the flash mob, and inadvertently produced the newest scene of which to be a part. In the e-mail for Wasik’s first mob, he provides a frequently asked questions section. He answers the first question, “Why would I want to join an inexplicable mob?” with evidence of the scenester nature of the mob, stating, “Tons of other people are doing it” (Wasik 57). While this might explain why participants took part in the first two or three of Wasik’s mobs, it fails to provide an answer for why the mobs became so popular, not only within the New York hipster subculture, but within youth culture at-large. Perhaps the most important question we can ask of the flash mob’s hipster is not why she showed up, but why she kept coming back.

To answer such a question, I turn to the historical hip predecessors mentioned earlier—the beats, the hippies, and the punks. Each of these subcultures united themselves in fashion as well as in artistic taste, much like Wasik’s hipster. However, aside from a love of the same music, the same books, the same clothes, or the same art, something else also united each of these groups—participation in the scene of their particular era, a participation that yielded a feeling of separation from the mainstream, but togetherness with one another, a feeling Victor Turner labeled communitas. The term refers to a feeling of shared togetherness or communal spirit. One might achieve such a feeling by hanging out within the scene of a particular subculture; however, one is much more likely to experience communitas, at least according to Turner, if she engages in communal activities. Beats traveled together, hippies protested en masse, and punks raged as one. Modern hipsters, at least up until Wasik’s flash mob, failed to engage in any sort of communal activity outside of hanging out and traveling within their own scene—attending the same concerts, gallery openings, book signings, etc. What Wasik, unknowingly in my opinion, provided was a communal act—the flash mob.

Turner believed in a dialectic existing between ritualized, highly structured social forms of behavior, such as religious rites and playful, anti-structural forms of behavior, such as festivals and celebrations. Communitas exists within both realms of performative behavior. In other words, one might experience communitas while holding her hand to her heart and singing the national anthem alongside thousands of other fans in a sports stadium as well as begging for beads with fellow Mardi Gras revelers. With the flash mob, Wasik inadvertently provided a feeling of communitas between strangers engaged in a shared activity. If Wasik’s goal was to create an art project that mocked his own community’s lack of substance—the fact that they were “scenesters” appearing at the same spots just to be a part of the scene, not out of a love of the art within it—he probably did not plan on the power of such a “scene”: its ability to bring strangers together through shared physical activity:

You didn’t have to feel like you were cool. . . . It got a lot of people to do something . . . just because they thought it was a clever idea and they wanted to see what would happen. . . . but while a Web page can give you some notion of being part of a group, it’s very different to then find yourself in a physical space with all those people. It’s a virtual community made literal. Again, these weren’t people who knew each other. It wasn’t an established group who decided to put on an action. Whoever got the e-mail would attend, and they represented the interconnectedness of people in a city. (Bemis 4)

Wasik’s particular choices of place for the flash mobs also added to this communal feeling. Wasik purposefully chose small places in which the flash mob—even if it only consisted of a hundred people—appeared large and powerful. Furthermore, the flash mobs contributed to a feeling of hipster communitas by creating a performance in which hipsters highlighted their own “otherness” through showcasing traits such as their ironic humor and technological savvy. In sum, flash mobs were created by hipsters, for hipsters, or as Wasik reasons, “flash mobs were gatherings of insiders, and as such, could hardly communicate to those who did not already belong” (64).

By emphasizing the communal nature of the flash mob, I hope to draw attention towards the mob’s role as an influential performative act, undertaken by agents out of both curiosity and a desire for community. In so doing, I want to provide an alternative narrative of the flash mob, one in which the flash mob exists as more than the fad of a post-hip generation, a narrative which unfortunately tends to prevail among scholars of “hip:”

Urban anthropologists can spot post-hip by its prefixes and quotation marks, a politically incorrect mix of neo-shitkicker, neuvo-blaxploitation, and kimchi kitsch. To the above inventory, add metrosexuality, McSweeney’s, Vicodin, flash mobs, smart mobs, thumb tribes, “extreme” everything, free folk and the return of no wave (Leland 340).

The above definition and others like it relegate the flash mob to the category of trend and the modern hipster to the realm of ironic collage artist, assertions which are both somewhat unfair. Wasik’s flash mobs definitely excited many as the next new thing; however, their spread, continuation, and refashioning into new performance styles over the following nine years speak to their power as more than mere trend. As for the modern hipster, she may indeed be post-hip—fractured, wandering, in search of a center. However, if so, she is only a product of her time, a thing contained by a larger container which she did not make. In sum, she is a product of her scene—shaped by its structure and influenced by its technology.


At present, a decade into the twenty-first century, one easily forgets the truly radical nature of the mobile phone and its offspring: text messaging. Take someone’s mobile phone away for a day, however, and she begins to remember. Recently, I went without my mobile or “cell” phone for two days, and after the first hour of sheer panic, I recalled what life was like before the cell phone. I racked my brain for the phone numbers of my friends and family, all of which were stored in the memory of my phone, and realized I only remembered two. I phoned these two numbers from a family member’s archaic “land” line and realized the need to introduce myself to the person on the other end of the line—something I rarely do these days, as my phone’s caller identification system usually does this for me. Finally, as I spent a whole two days without my cell phone, anxiously wondering who had called and/or texted, I slowly realized the power my cell phone possessed. I wondered what Donna Haraway would think of me—a cyborg, yes, perhaps, yet also a woman relying upon Steve Jobs’ software to act as memory bank and personal identifier in her stead. Losing my mobile phone highlighted how essential a part of me it had become.

Haraway’s theory of the cyborg offers an insightful view into the relationship between humankind and the tools we create. Haraway, a feminist philosopher and biologist, defined the cyborg in her seminal “A Cyborg Manifesto” as “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (149). Haraway used her fictional and ironic cyborg manifesto to comment on both feminist theory and the technophobia she found arising in the latter part of the twentieth century. Her theory provides an understanding of the relationship between human and machine that is neither diametrically opposed nor completely fused, but rather based in an exploration of boundaries and borderlands. As Haraway, herself, reasons:

Cyborg imagery can help express two crucial arguments: . . . first, the production of universal, totalizing theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality; . . .  and second, taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so means embracing the skillful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts. . . . Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia. . . . It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories. (181) 

Haraway’s manifesto allows scholars to shift from an assessment of the power relations between a woman and her machine to an acknowledgement of the assemblage they jointly create. In Wasik’s flash mob, such an assemblage functioned as the primary agency (or means of production) of the act.

When Wasik’s flash mobs first appeared in 2003, most journalists linked their appearance more to the internet than to mobile phones, reporting that flash mobs were “arranged via Web sites and e-mails” or the even more vague description that they “organized anonymously through the internet” (Shmueli, Johnson). While true, to a certain extent, such reports fail to address the mobile nature of Wasik’s communiqué. A year earlier, in 2002, two mobile phones appeared on the market containing a surprising new feature—a full QWERTY keyboard—allowing for the rapid expansion and proliferation of one of the mobile phone companies’ pre-existing technologies: text messaging. One of these phones, the Blackberry 5810 (labeled “Crackberry” by many due to its addictive nature), contained an additional advantage: the combination of Blackberry’s existing e-mail, organizer and keyboard technologies with voice (or cell phone) capabilities. In so doing, Blackberry created the ideal conditions for the advent of Wasik’s flash mobs: mobile mass communication.

Communication scholar Judith Nicholson addresses this change in her article “Flash Mobs in the Age of Mobile Connectivity.” Nicholson argues:

Flash mobbing shaped and was shaped by a worldwide shift in mobile phone use from private communication characterized primarily by mobile phoning in the 1980s and 90s to more collective uses dominated by mobile texting in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This shift was evident in a corresponding change in sentiments and concerns regarding direct one-to-one mobile phone use versus indirect one-to-many mobile phone use. (2)

Nicholson’s quotation acknowledges the symbiotic relationship between the flash mob and the mobile phone, noting that each shaped the other. Mobile phone technologies, such as texting and e-mail, allowed for the rapid forwarding of Wasik’s initial e-mail, as his “inexplicable mob” invitation quickly bounced from one individual’s contact list to another’s. In turn, the advent of Wasik’s flash mob as a pop culture phenomenon spread large around the world showcased the possibilities for mobile mass communication contained in new mobile phone technologies.

As scholars such as Nicholson and Howard Rheingold point out, however, the powerful nature of mobile mass communication appeared on the public’s radar as early as the late 1990s, due to its use in the anti-globalization movement’s protests, most notably those of the World Trade Organization protestors in Seattle in 1999. Rheingold also describes the use of text-messaging and SMS (Short Message Service) technology to organize protests calling for the resignation of President Estrada in the Philippines in 2001. More recently, the world not only bore witness, but also took part in the 2009 Iranian election protests via the so-called “Twitter Revolution” by rapidly re-tweeting the updates of Iranian protestors under attack by the government. The mobile phone’s proliferation, along with its portability and advanced technological capabilities, contributes to its dominance as the preferred medium of one-to-many mass communication—not only for activists and politicians, but also for anyone with a regularly updated Twitter account.

Unlike the Philippine revolution and WTO protests, flash mobs (as an elaborate inside joke enacted upon the city of New York) promote play, and therefore stand out as one of the first cases in which mobile phone technology and one-to-many mass communication were used to stage a public performance without an overt political agenda. The idea of the flash mob is nothing really new. Similarities exist between the flash mob and similar performances created by Dadaists, Surrealists, Situationists, Happenings artists and even the Yippies. However, the speed and ease of the flash mob separates it from its predecessors. I do not want to suggest some inextricable link between the flash mob’s popularity and the rise of mobile mass communication. Rather, like Bill Wasik, I believe the flash mob’s appeal to be rooted more in its creation of community than in its use of technology. As Wasik writes, “I myself believe that the technology played only a minor role. The emails went out a week before each event, after all; one could have passed around flyers on the street, I think, to roughly similar effect” (58). Wasik and his flash mobbers used modern mobile mass communication technologies not so much because they were hip or trendy, but because they were readily available.

Kenneth Burke’s work supports the above. In Grammar of Motives, he writes, “Pragmatist philosophies are generated by the featuring of the term, Agency” (275). In other words, when making a choice between one form of agency and another, agents tend to choose that which is practical. Sending an email appeared more practical to Wasik than passing out fliers. Forwarding that email via their mobile phones seemed more practical for his flashmobbers than relaying the message in person. Consequently, I argue that the agency of the flash mob arose out of the technocultural scene in which it occurred, one which made mobile phones the easiest and most practical method of communication between Wasik and his attendees. Scene dominated and contained the flash mob’s agency, mobile mass communication, as powerfully as it contained its agent, the modern hipster.


On September 11, 2001, two hijacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, one hijacked airplane crashed into the outer barrier of the Pentagon, and a fourth airplane crashed on a field in Pennsylvania, after passengers valiantly fought back against the terrorist hijackers intent on crashing it into the White House. As the first attack on American soil since the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor, the events of 9/11 changed America forever. For the first time in over sixty years, Americans lived in fear of outside invaders, and of an enemy who might strike at any moment. As a response, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act in October of 2002, dramatically reducing the restrictions placed upon law enforcement regarding the surveillance of American citizens deemed to be terrorist suspects, as well as increasing law enforcement officials’ ability to detain and deport suspected terrorist immigrants. A few months earlier, in March of 2002, the Homeland Security Advisory System emerged, as the result of a Presidential directive. The system consisted of a color-coded scale, used to inform Americans of the specific threat level of terrorist attacks: severe (red), high (orange), elevated (yellow), guarded (blue), or low (green). Each day, Americans could turn on their televisions to their morning talk shows, or monitor radio or internet broadcasts, to be advised of the specific threat level of terrorist attacks, which usually lingered between yellow and orange, the elevated or high end of the scale. The Department of Homeland Security, a new government agency designed to combine and focus the attempts of the FBI, CIA, and other intelligence agencies, debuted in November of 2002 as the result of the passage of the Homeland Security Act. Finally, on March 19, 2003, President George W. Bush appeared on television to declare war on Iraq, providing Americans with a visible and known enemy in the heretofore vaguely-worded war on “terror” itself. Two months later, President Bush appeared again, landing in full pilot combat gear on an aircraft carrier full of soldiers, to announce (somewhat prematurely) America’s mission accomplished, and declare an end to major combat in Iraq. One month later, on June 3, 2003, Bill Wasik attempted his first flash mob at a Claire’s accessory store in New York City’s Astor Place, a primary shopping center and hangout spot of the hip, neo-bohemian East Village.

By aligning these events, I do not wish to assert that Wasik’s mobs were a reaction to 9/11. Instead, I argue that Wasik’s mobs are products of their time, reactions to a heightened level of surveillance, a desire for community, and perhaps, even to the President’s admonitions for Americans to get back to normal by going shopping.4 In this section, I seek to address both the historic and sociocultural scene described above, as well as the physical scenes chosen by Wasik for his eight flash mobs. In so doing, I hope to provide an understanding of the flash mob in relation to its context, and draw attention to the fact that the scene, or container, is often more important than the things it contains: acts, agents, and agency.

Nicholson alludes to the effect of context upon the mob when she queries, “Can flash mobbing . . . be considered a response to the social and political conditions of 2003, particularly conditions that existed in New York where the trend was started?” (11). According to Christian Lorentzen, cultural critic and writer for Time Out New York, the answer is yes. In his infamous Why the hipster must die article, Lorentzen points to the loss of menace among the modern hipster subculture, arguing, “[Norman] Mailer, who traced hipster psychosis to the Holocaust and the atom bomb, would likely point to September 11 as the event that left hordes of twentysomethings whispering, ‘We would be safe’” (1). For Lorentzen, the recycling of trends among hipsters and lack of an overt agenda in the flash mob allude to the effects of fear upon the youth of America following the events of 9/11. Others disagree, locating the power of the flash mob within its very existence in a post 9/11, hyper-secure society. In a 2003 article for the Chicago Tribune, reporter Maureen Ryan quotes the words of one particular flash mob participant: “Honestly, it seems like a way to tweak the nose of those responsible for security, since things have gotten so tense since Sept. 11, flash mobber Eric Longman said via e-mail, ‘Remember, the 1st Amendment specifically protects the right of the people to peaceably Assemble’” (1). Whether the flash mob is a safe, sterile event created by the modern hipster out of a desire for safe artistic play/transgression, or the slightly more risky tantrum of a surveillance-weary youth culture, it undoubtedly exists as a product of its historical time, specifically of the events of 9/11. As such, the flash mob sits as a marker of its time, a monument to the effects of 9/11 upon the consciousness of America and its youth.

Douglas Haddow, writing for Adbusters in 2008, ends his article entitled, “Hipster: The Dead End of Civilization” with the following:

We are a lost generation, desperately clinging to anything that feels real, but too afraid to become it ourselves. We are a defeated generation, resigned to the hypocrisy of those before us, who once sang songs of rebellion and now sell them back to us. We are the last generation, a culmination of all previous things, destroyed by the vapidity that surrounds us. The hipster represents the end of Western civilization—a culture so detached and disconnected that it has stopped giving birth to anything new. (1)

Haddow’s rant, while somewhat melodramatic, speaks to the sociocultural scene of the flash mob. At the dawn of a new millennium, the modern hipster finds herself the focal point of a generation trying desperately to find itself. Amidst a terror-stricken and surveillance-laden backdrop, she turns towards conspicuous consumption, as so many youth before her have done. However, even here, she finds no novelty, only recycled artifacts of older generations readily available for ironic display. She frequents those establishments full of like-minded and similarly dressed souls, purchasing communion through participation in the so-called scene. Her rebellion consists of a well-rehearsed posture of ironic distance—an ability to mock the mainstream, as well as her own scene, instead of seeking to change it.

Wasik’s flash mob also mocks the mainstream, as well as the hipster subculture from which it is constructed. However, the physical nature of the mob—its ability to appear and hold dominion over an actual space, if only for a moment—provides the modern hipster with something new: the ability to act out. While full of self-reflexivity and ironic commentary on its own participants, the flash mob also acts as a form of cultural noise: the tantrum of a childish subculture against the authoritarian structure(s) monitoring its every move. When viewed in such a light, one begins to see the flash mob as more than a mere prank. Instead, the flash mob appears as a slightly subversive, and also somewhat safe, playful form of cultural critique.

As a reminder, Wasik chose retail stores as sites for four of his eight mobs: Claire’s Accessories, Macy’s, Otto Tootsi Plohound, Toys “R” Us. These choices might lead the critic to believe Wasik wanted to make some commentary on capitalist culture in America. However, when viewed within the broader historical timeframe, another distinct possibility appears. In his address to the nation on September 21, 2001, President Bush took special care to ask Americans for their “continued participation and confidence in the American economy” (1). Although Bush’s request was rather typical, in light of the fact that the attacks of September 11th as well as the destruction of the World Trade Center created a slump in both the stock market and general economic activity, the media reacted rather strongly to his request. Headlines such as “If in doubt, go shopping” and quotes such as “And for God’s sake keep shopping!” flooded the newspapers and magazines, and even led to critiques by both Barack Obama and John McCain in the 2008 Presidential election (Riddell; Pellegrini). As candidate Obama once quipped, “Instead of a call to service, we were asked to go shopping” (Ferguson). When read in such a light, one might argue Wasik’s flash mobs take on the role of cultural critique. Nicholson, when discussing the sites of Wasik’s eight mobs, suggests “these sites were potentially made even more significant to Americans in light of George Bush’s plea to get back to normal living following the 9/11 attacks by going shopping” (9). Against the backdrop of earlier generations who supported their war efforts through rationing and volunteerism, the directive to conspicuously consume given to the millennial generation may have felt like a slap in the face—a dismissal of their abilities due to their inexperience. After such dismissal, one naturally seeks to act out.

Wasik, however, offers a different perspective on his choice of locations for the mobs. According to him, the scenes of his inexplicable mobs served two purposes: first, to comment on the changing nature of public space in America; and second, to “create an illusion of superior strength” (Wasik 65). Although in most early interviews Wasik denies the existence of any political aim at work in the flash mob, by 2004 he admits to at least one, the liberation of public space. In an interview with LA Weekly, Wasik acknowledges:

The more I did them, the more I realized the mobs actually did have a deeply political value. The nature of public space in America today has changed. Its shopping malls, large chain stores, that kind of thing. The presumption is that you’re going to purchase something, but once you try to express yourself in any other way, suddenly you’re trespassing. New York City is blessed with a bunch of real public spaces, but at this point, if you’re young in America, chances are you have grown up without authentic public space. I discovered it was political to go into one of those stores. (Bemis)

In this sense, one might argue that the sites of the flash mob, at least to some extent, are dictated by the overarching historic and sociocultural scene. These dictates may be obvious and apparent, such as the shift in location from Grand Central Station to the Grand Hyatt Hotel due to increased security threat levels mentioned earlier. Others may be more subtle, such as the use of mass shopping in the Macy’s and Otto Tootsi Plohound mobs to highlight the overarching spread of corporate or retail space and the diminishing of space in which we can freely exercise our right to assemble. I hope to explore whether or not Wasik and his flashmobbers purposefully sought to communicate such sentiments in future research. Regardless of intent, Wasik’s mobs emphasized the changing nature of public space in America, thereby contributing to the production of the larger sociocultural scene while simultaneously existing as one of its productions.

Necessity also contributed to Wasik’s choice of venue. In order to create the feeling of a group of insiders—a community—Wasik needed to make the mob feel powerful. As he takes care to remind the reader, flash mobs “drew their energies not from impressing outsiders or freaking them out but from showing them utter disregard, from using the outside world as merely a terrain for private games” (65). Although often prodded by bloggers and other mob participants to hold mobs in more open spaces, where more than a few employees and passersby could witness their “game,” Wasik sternly refused. In Wasik’s opinion, in order to make the mob feel big, he had to choose venues which were small, and easily overpowered by a few hundred participants. To do otherwise, and set the mob inside a large, open space, would only serve to highlight its frailty—its rather small size of participants. Wasik elucidates on this aspect of the mob in his 2006 coming-out article: “I never held mobs in the open . . . but this was entirely purposeful on my part, for like Colin Powell I hewed to the doctrine of overwhelming force. Only in enclosed spaces could the mob generate the necessary self-awe; to allow the mob to feel small would have been to destroy it” (65). Wasik uses Howard Dean’s rapid rise and decline in popularity during the 2004 election as an example.

Prior to the Iowa caucuses, Dean’s campaign appeared at the forefront, thanks in part to a virtual community of chat rooms, bloggers, and other online web supporters. According to Wasik, before the caucuses, Dean supporters were on the rise, due to the confined communal nature of Dean’s online virtual community, which led supporters to believe they were part of Dean’s faceless, “seemingly numberless throng” (65). However, when a paltry number of Dean volunteers showed up on-site in Iowa to travel door-to-door and wrangle support before the caucus, the Dean campaign allowed itself to feel small and outnumbered, thereby (at least in Wasik’s opinion) destroying its chances at success. For Wasik, small, enclosed venues were imperative to the success of the flash mob, for without such sites participants would not feel part of a powerful, “hip” game, but rather mere participants of a silly and unsuccessful prank. As such, Wasik used the scenes (physical sites) of his flash mobs to create a feeling of scene (in a sociocultural sense) within his flash mob.

Finally, the flash mob managed to create a scene entirely its own by employing carnivalesque tactics to dominate and transform physical space. By employing these tactics and creating a carnival-like atmosphere of fun and frivolity that simultaneously provided participants with an opportunity to blow off steam, flash mobs unknowingly seduced a larger audience, that of the public and world at large. After all, who doesn’t enjoy a little transgression, a little reversion, and a little carnival now and then?

Flash mobs share a number of similarities with aspects of carnival emphasized by Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World. To begin with, the choice of a public forum such as a department store or downtown city street, as opposed to a more traditional theatrical venue, situates the flash mob as “a play without footlights” (235). One of the foundational aspects of Bakhtin’s carnival is that it occurs in the marketplace—the public forum—and thereby erases the usual boundaries between spectators and participants. As anyone who has attended a Mardi Gras festival can tell you, no one simply watches a carnival. Even those who choose not to participate in the throwing and catching of beads and excessive eating and drinking still participate in the carnival. This is primarily because carnival time is a specific sort of time—one which is calendrically regulated and set apart as distinct. Therefore, even the solitary citizen who does nothing during carnival season but sit inside his house and peer out the window at the activities below is a participant, as he is not living life as usual, but as though on vacation from the normative behaviors and structures of society. In much the same manner, the flash mob operates under a distinct set of temporal rules that allow for an inversion of typical structural patterns.

The strictly regulated ten minute time period of the flash mob allows the rapid formation of a likeminded mass or mob out of a throng of distinct, singular identities. During the brief interval in which the mob swarms a specific site, they are able to disrupt its typical operating patterns of behavior. An example of this disruption and inversion can be found in Bill Wasik’s sixth mob in 2003. In Mob #6, Wasik instructed participants to gather in front of a robotic dinosaur in the Times Square Toys “R” Us and—on cue—fall to their knees and cower before the dinosaur for a set time before leaving. This cowering of the participants took the form of individuals sitting on their knees, arms extended above their heads and repetitively bowing to the floor. In the normative, rule-based act of consumption typical of such a corporate, public space, consumers arrive at a site (such as Toys “R” Us), peruse the products for sale, perhaps asking for help, and then carry their chosen purchase to a cash register where they pay for their goods and exit. Consumers are not supposed to fall to the floor and raise their arms in adoration or capitulation to an item on display, such as the robotic dinosaur. When employees of the Toys “R” Us witnessed this behavior, they were unsure of how to respond, and although the mob participants were doing nothing illegal, they quickly called the cops who managed to turn off the dinosaur just as the mob was dispersing. Other spectators—such as out of town tourists shopping in the Toys “R” Us that day—were compelled to stop their normal behaviors (shopping) and engaged in extraordinary behaviors (such as taking pictures of the mobbers). In these small ways, both store employees and random customers were forced to acknowledge an inversion of structure and react to it, thereby becoming participants in the carnival-like atmosphere the mob created.

Although flash mobs portray a number of the characteristics of carnival outlined by Bakhtin—the inversion of hierarchical norms, an emphasis on the marketplace or public square, the formation of a large crowd of like-minded individuals, and the display of silly, somewhat foolish behavior—the flash mob is not a carnival. Rather, the flash mob should be discussed as a carnivalesque form of performance, referring to its carnival-like properties, yet distinguishing between this fractured form of a carnival and the carnivals of the medieval period to which Bakhtin devotes most of his attention. Bahktin explains that despite the efforts of bourgeois culture to stifle carnival and its forms, carnival did not die, rather, “it was merely narrowed down” (“Rabelais” 276). Peter Stallybrass and Allon White detail this narrowing down of carnival as a four-part process in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. According to the authors, institutions of law and order sought to wipe out carnival and festivity from European life between the 17th and 20th centuries. All sorts of ritualistic and carnival behaviors came under attack—feasting, fairs, processions, rowdy spectacles—and were suddenly subject to strategic forms of surveillance and control via the state. However, the rising nation states sought to co-opt carnival for their own purposes, reinventing it as military parades and national holidays.

Other factors, such as the rise of industrialism and the movement of people from rural country areas to large cities, where squares were quickly replaced by business districts, also contributed to the so-called disappearance of carnival. However, as Stallybrass and White remind us, carnival did not disappear. It managed to be both everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The first process involved in the breakup of carnival is fragmentation. Certain elements of carnival began to be separated from others, in an attempt to maintain a more regulated control over the participants’ actions. For example, feasting becomes separated from performance, spectacle from procession, etc. Simultaneously, carnival became marginalized, both in terms of social class and geographical location. Until the 19th century, carnival was something in which all social classes participated, and it was only with the rise of the bourgeois as a class that carnival became seen as part of the culture of the Other—the uneducated, unrefined, improper other of the lower classes. Similarly, carnival, which had historically run rampant throughout entire towns, began to be pushed out of wealthy districts and neighborhoods, and eventually out of the town itself into the countryside or coastal locations.

The third process involved in the narrowing down of carnival is sublimation. Carnival behaviors involving excess and the grotesque become sublimated into the private terrors of the isolated bourgeois individual. In other words, those excessive appetites and grotesque bodily functions celebrated in carnival—feasting, drinking heavily, defecation, and waste—become the very things bourgeois members of society find repulsive and seek to hide from others. Finally, the behavior of the bourgeois body—particularly the female body—and not only its desires become controlled during the fourth part of the process: repression. In carnival, the grotesque body of the people is articulated as both social pleasure and celebration. Literally placed outside and apart from the carnival body, the female bourgeois body which longs to take part in the festivity creates a pathological phobia of being associated with the carnival body, knowing that if she were to give into her desires and join in, her status as different and therefore proper would be lost. This behavior is typical of the entire bourgeois class of the 19th century, who might allow the existence of fragmented, marginalized forms of carnival out of sentimentality for the past, but could never fully engage with it. Rather, they were forced to remain inside and apart, thereby defining their status as other and more proper against it.

Flash mobs, then, are a carnivalesque type of performance born from the fragmentation of carnival. In our post 9/11, terror-filled global society, one does not come across too many manifestations of the carnivalesque. As the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization protests taught us, crowds are often viewed as threatening, even when their actions may be non-violent in nature. Furthermore, a seemingly purposeless gathering of people engaged in silly sorts of actions stands out in our often humorless society. When faced with a performance such as the flash mob, one is forced to question what the purpose or goal of such a carnivalesque form of action might be. An initial answer lies in the realm of laughter, which Bakhtin reminds us is liberating in and of itself. Although fragmented and incomplete, notes written by Bakhtin towards the end of his life seem focused on the unique and powerful potential of laughter:

Irony (and laughter) as a means for transcending a situation, rising above it. Only dogmatic and authoritarian cultures are one-sidedly serious. Violence does not know laughter. . . . The sense of anonymous threat in the tone of an announcer who is transmitting important communications. Seriousness burdens us with hopeless situations, but laughter lifts us above them and delivers us from them. Laughter does not encumber man, it liberates him. (“Speech Genres” 134)

If laughter is liberating, then in the case of the flash mob, from what exactly are both its participants and observers liberated? Clearly further research into the flash mob’s purpose is required to answer such questions.


Flash floods, like the flash mob, distinguish themselves by their rapid appearance, dissemination, and domination/destruction of low-lying areas. They emerge on the scene without warning and within a matter of hours change its familiar appearance and function completely. Usually, after the rain stops falling, the flood disappears or dries up, often disappearing as quickly as it developed. Flash floods, like flash mobs, surprise us because they are unexpected, and as such, tend to leave us at a loss for what to do, other than notify the authorities of their occurrence.

In the introduction to Perform or Else, Jon McKenzie locates and describes performance as the “embodied enactment of cultural forces” (8). Although I disagree with many of McKenzie’s arguments, I find this definition of performance to be of use when considering both the scene as well as the purpose of the flash mob. Like most performances, Wasik’s eight flash mobs, as well as their subsequent offspring, provide their participants with an opportunity for the physical expression of cultural fears, desires, and tensions. Through careful analysis of their various components, we discover the objects of those fears, desires, and tensions: surveillance, community, space, and power.

In this article, I outlined the specific attributes of Wasik’s flash mobs’ agent (the modern hipster), agency (mobile mass communication), and scene (small, enclosed pseudo-public spaces in New York City’s post 9/11 society). I also discussed the dominant nature of the flash mob’s scene as the overarching container of its agent and agency, as well as the possibility for community building and communitas existent in the actions of the flash mob. Keeping these discussions in mind, future investigations of the flash mob’s purpose should focus not simply on why--but rather, why this particular type of performance, at this particular time, in these particular places, through these particular means, and perhaps most importantly, for this particular audience? Such questions, while obvious and mundane, serve as signposts leading to the Burkean scholar’s ultimate goal: discovering what Wasik’s eight original flash mobs communicate.


1. A term taken from ancient Greek theater, a skene is the structure facing the audience forming the background, or scenery, on which performances occur.
2. In a 2004 interview with LA Weekly, Wasik states, “I e-mailed the invitation to myself, then forwarded it from my own account to about 50 people.”
3. Others locate the origin of the term in “hop,” a slang term for opium, placing hip’s origins within both drug and Eastern culture (Fletcher).
4. In his first official address to the nation following the attacks of 9/11, President Bush made a point of encouraging Americans to continue supporting the economy. Media outlets created a number of news stories focusing on this admonishment, which I discuss in detail later in this essay.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington, Indiana UP, 1984. Print.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin, U of Texas P, 1986. Print.

Bemis, Alec Hanley. “ ‘My Name is Bill . . . ’: A Q&A with the Anonymous Founder of Flash Mobs.” LA Weekly. 5 Aug. 2004.Web. 4 April 2009. 

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

Bush, George W. “Presidential Address.” Capital Building, Washington, DC 20 Sep. 2001.

Danzig, David. “Flashmob #3.” The Official Record: A Blog by Someone Who Doesn’t Like or Understand Blogs. 3 July 2003. Web. 12 July 2010.

Ferguson, Andrew. “Self-Interest is Bad?” 21 July 2008. Web. 13 Aug. 2010. 

Fletcher, Dan. “Hipsters.” Time. 29 July 2009. Web. 28 July 2010.

Ginger. “mob rulz! (revised).” You Listen to Me, Mr. Kick Ass: Ginger’s Follies, Foibles and Fixations. 3 July 2003. Web. 23 Mar. 2009. 

Haddow, Douglas. “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization.” Adbusters 79.29 (July 2008). Web. 28 July 2010. 

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991: 149–181. Print.

Johnson, Mark D. “Good Mob, Bad Mob: The Art of the Flash Mob: an Amusing Concept Easily Ruined.” The Partial Observer. 24 Sept. 2003. Web. 4 Dec. 2005.

Keifer, Kate. “The Evolution of the Hipster 2000–2009.” Paste . 3 Dec 2009. Web. 28 July 2010. 

Leland, John. Hip: The History. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Print.

Lorentzen, Christian. “Kill the Hipster, Why the Hipster must Die: A Modest Proposal to Save New York Cool.” Time Out New York 609 (2007): 1. Print.

Mailer, Norman. “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on theHipster.” Dissent (Summer 1957). Print.

McKenzie, Jon. Perform or Else. New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Nicholson, Judith. “Flash! Mobs in the Age of Mobile Connectivity.” The Fibreculture Journal. 6 (2005). Web. 29 Oct 2009.

Pelligrini, Frank. “The Bush Speech: How to Rally a Nation.” Time. 21 Sep. 2001. Web. 13 Aug. 2010.

Rheingold, Howard. Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2002.

Riddell, Mary. “If in Doubt, Go Shopping.” The Guardian. 30 Sep. 2001. Web. 13 Aug. 2010.

Ryan, Maureen. “All in a Flash: Meet, Mob and Move On.” Chicago Tribune. 11 July 2003. Web. 8 Aug 2010.

Savage, Sean. “Upcoming flash mobs.” cheesebikini?. 26 Jun 2003. Web. 12 July 2010.

Shmueli, Sandra. “ ‘Flash Mob’ Craze Spreads.” 8 August 2003. Web. 12 Nov. 2005.

Stallybrass, Peter, and Allon White. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1986. Print.

Turner, Victor. “Liminality and Communitas.” The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago: Aldine, 1969: 94–113, 125–130. Print.

Wasik, Bill. “My Crowd: Or, Phase 5: A Report from the Inventor of the Flash Mob.” Harper’s Magazine 312.1870 (2006): 56–66. Print.

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"Flash Flooding: A Burkean Analysis of the Scene-Agent and Scene-Agency Ratio in the Flash Mob" by Rebecca Walker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The Story of King/Drew Hospital: Guilt and Deferred Purification

Jim A. Kuypers and Ashley Gellert            


In this study we use a dramatistic perspective to explore the absence of guilt as a determining factor of the continued hierarchical destruction in the Martin Luther King, Jr./Charles R. Drew Medical Center. This public hospital’s history of patient mortality dilemmas was featured in the Pulitzer Prize-winning public service series authored by the Los Angeles Times staff. We examine the hierarchical relationships within the hospital especially in terms of Kenneth Burke’s trio of guilt, purification, and redemption. We found that without recognition of guilt and fitting purification, redemption remained out of reach, and the polluted hierarchy further grew.

THE PULITZER PRIZE IN JOURNALISM is widely recognized as the ultimate award for journalistic excellence.  Among these total awards the prize’s three oldest categories stand out: editorial writing, public service, and reporting. The public service category is of special interest since these series exhibit not only excellence in writing quality, thus making for fine reading, but have frequently served to inspire the public in such a way that societal change is enacted.  Recent winners have included the “exposure of the high death rate among construction workers on the Las Vegas Strip amid lax enforcement of regulations, leading to changes in policy”, the “mistreatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital, evoking a national outcry and producing reforms”, and a “comprehensive probe into backdated stock options for business executives that triggered investigations, the ouster of top officials and widespread change in corporate America.”1 Although not all winners exhibit a series of stories culminating in some type of action or shift in societal thinking, this pattern—excellence in reporting dramatically exposing a societal ill followed by reform—is present in an overwhelming number of articles, particularly those written since the 1970s.

To better understand the rich rhetorical culture the Pulitzer Prize in public service represents, we examine a series of 2004 Los Angeles Times prize-winning articles regarding medical malpractice and patient mortality issues at Martin Luther King, Jr./Charles R. Drew Medical Center in South Los Angeles. Although the articles, if separated, could be viewed as “disconnected bits of discourse,”2 their status as a series unites them and, when combined with their plotlines of hierarchical dilemmas, creates a rhetorical effort ripe for study from a dramatistic point of view.

Of particular note, these articles present a major exception to the pattern of exposure/action found in the majority of public service winners. Instead, the King/Drew articles exhibit all the elements of a major societal drama, but, subsequent to their publication, no real action surrounding King/Drew occurred; far from it, the situation persisted, eventuating with the hospital’s closing in 2007. Intrigued by this, we sought to discover how the authors of the article series could write in such a manner to receive a Pulitzer, yet also write in such a manner that their exposure of a gross societal ill was unable to motivate South Los Angeles’ community members, hospital staff, and supervisors to societal action and redemption.

In order to better understand the relationships among the journalists, the community, King/Drew hospital, and the lack of action regarding the hospital’s history of medical inadequacies, we employ a two-tiered pentadic analysis to explore both the journalists’ motives underpinning the news series and the King/Drew world they create. Few studies have examined news articles from a Burkean perspective. Two examples include Brian L. Ott and Eric Aoki’s framing analysis of Matthew Shephard’s murder3 and Daron Williams and Jim A. Kuypers’ pentadic analysis of NASCAR driver interviews.4 These studies examine journalists’ influence on story content and agents within news coverage, respectively, as separate elements. In this study, however, we unite these two elements to evaluate journalists’ role as agents in writing this news series, then also examine, in terms of story content, how the King/Drew agents function in the scene the journalists construct.

Following a brief discussion of how we use dramatism in this essay, we move to our actual analysis. The first portion of the analysis is external in orientation because it considers the journalists’ role as agent within the overall situation and their use of the news series as a means to provide residents of South Los Angeles with reformed healthcare. The second portion of the analysis is internal in orientation because it considers the hospital’s situation as mediated and constructed through the journalists’ act of writing the news series. Finally, we unite the external analysis of the journalists’ agenda for writing the news series and the internal analysis of the journalists’ constructed situation within the King/Drew hospital. This allows us to explore the dramatistic cycle inherent within the overall situation; we are thus able to explore the journalists’ act of writing the news series and, as a result, see how they created a scenic motive that actually perpetuated the very acts that occasioned the writing of the articles in the first place. We feel that this reconstructed scene hampered efforts of the public and hospital agents to move through the cycle of redemption. Importantly, then, the journalists’ act of writing the series thwarted the dramatistic cycle and the societal action that Pulitzer Prize-winning public service articles aim to achieve.

A Dramatistic Point of Departure

As Burke explains, “Dramatism is a method of analysis and a corresponding critique of terminology designed to show that the most direct route to the study of human relations…is via a methodical inquiry into cycles…and their functions.”5 In this essay, we view dramatism as the study of the hierarchies within society and the subsequent actions of the people within those hierarchies as they build relationships, acquire responsibilities, accept or reject their positions, and strengthen or destroy the structure. This rhetorical perspective explores drama through language, specifically how language becomes a form of action for people within hierarchies. According to Bernard L. Brock, Robert L. Scott, and James W. Chesebro, “hierarchy generates the structure of our dramatic society. In society, the social, economic, and political powers are unevenly divided. Power endows individuals with authority. Authority, in turn, establishes definite relationships among people, reflecting how much power they possess.” 6 Given this power distribution inherent within society, Burke notes that the formation of hierarchies is “inevitable.”7

Just as hierarchies are inevitable within society, so is the struggle over power within them. C. Allen Carter warns that as people within hierarchies “consolidate their…position by asserting themselves over those beneath them…abuse of power is endemic.”8 He continues to remind us that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely those goaded by the hierarchical order” because people are always working to achieve new positions and thus new levels of power and responsibility within a hierarchy.9 This hierarchy, along with its resulting distribution of power, forms a type of societal pyramid with different layers of people in varying positions stacked upon each other with the few most powerful on top and those with less power at the bottom. People have different responsibilities to themselves and others surrounding them depending upon their position within this intricate societal structure. The relationships that people build with others on different hierarchical levels internally cement the structure. Once given a place within the hierarchy, we can choose to accept or reject not just that position but also the relationships and the personal and interpersonal responsibilities that accompany that position.

With acceptance, the structure remains strong and unified,but “when people reject the traditional hierarchy,” write Brock, Scott, and Chesebro, “they ‘fall’ and thereby acquire a feeling of guilt.”10 Be that as it may, Edward C. Appel notes that guilt can also be the result of not working to “improve or at least maintain [the] social and ethical standing” that accompanies one’s position within a given hierarchy.11 With this guilt comes the need to purify through mortification, “self-sacrifice that relieves guilt,” or victimage, “the purging of guilt through a scapegoat that symbolizes society’s guilt.”12 Burke views this dramatic form, in a large sense, with humans “in principle in revolt against the principle of authority. This condition is indigenous to the nature of the idea of Order.”13 Burke sees victimage as a natural response to guilt, where humans act and do not think about how their rejection of the hierarchy led to their guilt.14 He also finds that “the compensatory sacrifice of a ritually perfect victim would be the corresponding ‘norm.’ Hence, insofar as the religious pattern (of ‘original sin’ and sacrificial redeemer) is adequate to the ‘cathartic’ needs of a human hierarchy . . . it would follow that the promoting of social cohesion through victimage is ‘normal’ and ‘natural’.”15

Although the guilty have two purification options, Rise Jane Samra is quick to note that the type and magnitude of purification expressed must fit the magnitude of the rejection. She writes that, “the act of purification must be appropriate to the sin of the guilty for the drama to succeed as an act of redemption.”16 Redemption is achieved when the purification of the guilty matches the magnitude of his or her rejection, and when society’s perception of the actions of the guilty are reset. Burke explains the function of guilt, purification, and redemption in terms of a system, or “perfect mechanism,” of many parts where each piece is integral to the function of the whole.17 This speaks to the complementary nature of rejection and purification, and the crucial need to achieve redemption in order to allow the mechanism to function. If just one element from this system is absent, then the mechanism will stop, or continuously cycle through guilt and attempts at purification until either redemption is achieved or the hierarchy crumbles from within.

Sometimes, critics can help to re-build a hierarchy by exploring what events have weakened it and by concurrently determining what types of relationships and events would strengthen it. Brock writes that critics working to achieve this hierarchical reconstruction “can explore efforts to transform the hierarchy with an eye toward strengthening them and bringing them to full fruition in…relationships that better promote justice.” Additionally, he notes that through such exploration, “motives that perpetuate social inequality can be transformed into motives that perform social justice.” 18 Brock also acknowledges that critics do not always revitalize a hierarchy because new relationships that emerge might not serve to generate social justice for the people who inhabit that hierarchy.  Although Burke writes that hierarchies are “inevitable,” he is quick to note that this does not mean “that any particular hierarchy is inevitable; the crumbling of hierarchies is as true a fact about them as their formation.”19 We believe that the Los Angeles Times journalists who authored the Pulitzer Prize-winning series can be viewed as the critic about whom Brock writes because of their efforts to expose the problems that plagued the King/Drew hierarchy through their news series. Ultimately, the scene and relationships the journalists revealed prevented them, having been agents, from revitalizing the hierarchy from within. Once a hierarchy crumbles, no social action will be able to repair that societal structure.

An External View: The Journalists’ Act and Purpose

Burke believed that drama was everywhere, that people’s lives were “saturated” with dramatic language and action.20 The Martin Luther King, Jr./Charles R. Drew Medical Center situation is just such an example. King/Drew serviced the minority communities in South Los Angeles—once primarily black, now predominantly Latino—many of whom are unemployed with 36% living below the poverty level.21 The hospital was born from the 1965 Watts race riots, where then South ‘Central’ Los Angeles’ residents demanded equality in basic aspects of daily living. A study of the riot’s causes found that the residents saw a great need for quality, accessible healthcare for the local minority population.22 Days after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, ground broke for the medical center; seven years after the Watts riots, King/Drew opened its doors.23 It is named in honor of Dr. King and Dr. Charles R. Drew, who helped develop blood banks in the United States following World War II.24 Despite its residents’ and namesakes’ hope for equality, the dream was eventually deferred by employee negligence, charges of nepotism, graft, medical malpractice, and avoidable patient deaths.

For 32 years, patients died at the hands of nurses and doctors because of careless medical mistakes. Many of these incidents would be buried along with the patients through waivers and the blind eyes of the hospital supervisors. However, these secrets were exhumed in 2004 in a series written by the Los Angeles Times regarding the hospital’s history of dilemmas, patient stories, grief, and loss. Two consistent themes unite the articles within the series: the need for the guilty to take responsibility and redeem themselves in the eyes of the South Los Angeles residents, and the persistent need for quality, affordable healthcare. The latter issue helped to ignite the 1965 riots led by the community’s minority population and, once again, called residents to the picket lines. This time, however, it was to demand support for a hospital that provided them with healthcare services that were both desperately needed and responsible for killing their family members, friends, and neighbors.25

If we look at the Prize winners in the public service category, it is safe to assume that the King/Drew series was meant to serve as a call to action for community members and health officials to finally solve the hospital’s patient care dilemmas. Within this series, the journalists could encourage community members and the hospital’s staff to reform their actions to better support the hospital’s purpose of healing and serving the community, and thus working against its current actions that resulted in gross medical malpractice suits. Yet, because of the conflict between the journalists’ efforts to reconstruct the scene within the hospital to achieve social change and the ultimate role that such scenes played in overwhelming and masking the agents responsible for the hospital’s state, we are inclined to believe that the public and hospital’s agents were never able to respond to the action the series prescribed. In short, our journalist agents’ act was to write the series with the purpose of producing a mechanism of change within the societal hierarchy. Looked at Dramatistically, this externally understood act-purpose ratio dominated the situation and would seem to suggest the potential for a positive response regarding King/Drew. This changes considerably when one examines the scene that the journalists actually created through their stories; that is to say, from an internal point of view.

An Internal View: Voices of Agents Create a Scene

When considered in terms of Burke’s pentad, three clusters of agents arise in the dramatistic world that journalists from the Los Angeles Times created: supervisors, doctors, and nurses. These agents are responsible for caring for the hospital’s patients, providing actions that would reinforce the hospital’s purpose of healing and serving South Los Angeles’ minority community.  Of major concern in the series, however, was the perversion of this purpose—the hierarchical confusion, lack of supervision, and gross medical malpractice. However, the purpose and disordered hierarchy, though accurate and well constructed by the journalists, was rendered impotent through the journalists’ construction of the agents responsible for the King/Drew situation. The stories, viewed collectively as the journalists’ act, constructed agents of the hospital who, in speaking with their own voices, focused not on purpose or redemption, but instead created an overwhelming, chaotic scene. The result of this dramatic world is a scene that reinforces the King/Drew agents’ dangerous actions and prevents the hospital from achieving its purpose in the community.

Supervisors’ Role as Agents

Five supervisors comprise the first cluster of agents in King/Drew: Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Gloria Molina, Zev Yaroslavsky, Michael Antonovich, and Don Knabe. They are responsible for governing the hospital.26 It is their job to remain updated with employee discipline, medical malpractice, and personnel issues, in addition to ensuring that the hospital meets accreditation standards and receives necessary funding. Because of their role as hospital overseers, they have received much of the blame for allowing King/Drew to reach the state of woeful inadequacy in terms of healthcare, employee relations, and mortality rates. Also known as the “little kings,” this group is responsible for establishing and enforcing laws and regulations for, in this case, the King/Drew hospital and its employees. According to one reporter, the supervisors “are both the executive and legislative branches of county government which gives them broad powers with few checks and balances.”27

Such limited regulations create issues for the supervisors, hospital, and employees when the supervisors create rules—including the need for them to be kept current with doctors’ and medical staff’s malpractice issues, the consequences for which are punishments at work and reports to the Department of Health Services—but do not follow through with such consequences. For example, just one doctor in a five-year time span, from 1999-2004, was reported to a disciplinary committee; however, numerous patients died from medical staff negligence within that same time frame.28 This is just one example of the consequences resulting from the hospital’s governing system, but it continued to occur as the hospital had yet to learn from its mistakes.

The supervisors were portrayed as making claims that they were not updated on new medical malpractice, negligence, and disciplinary issues among the hospital’s staff. For example, Burke was quoted as stating that, “We have not had the information that there were these kinds of problems,” problems that Molina deemed “astounding,” after government inspectors accused the hospital of negligent patient care in 2003.29 Yaroslavsky expressed similar surprise, demanding to know why he and his fellow supervisors were not told “that [King/Drew] was going to hell in a handbasket.”30 But the Los Angeles Times reporters reveal that the supervisors were told, for if they were not so informed the hospital would not have been able to settle malpractice suits brought against it and its employees by patients and their families.31 Since King/Drew spent $20.1 million on such suits between 1999 and 2003, we feel there is little merit to the supervisors’ claims, and yet, the supervisors were ultimately portrayed as operating out of a sense of ignorance. 32

Due to the investigations the supervisors finally realized the correlation between inaction with staff disciplinary problems and the accumulation of patient care dilemmas. They had two choices: make serious changes to the hospital in an effort to curb patient fatalities and injuries, or continue to allow the hospital’s doctors to get away with gross malpractice. The supervisors chose the former and, in addition to hiring consultants and health department managers to investigate the hospital’s problems, they decided to close the trauma, radiology, and neonatal care units to afford more time repairing the damage in the hospital’s remaining units.33

Some believed the efforts made were minimal, the easy first steps to achieving a lofty, integral goal. For example, Connie Rice, a Los Angeles civil rights attorney, stated that she does not want King/Drew to “bring in this consultant to do tooth whitening and flossing [when] we need root canals and dental implants.” Rice called for greater enforcement of the new rules the consultants might have suggested and stronger measures that truly ensured patient safety and progress.34 But others, like Fred Leaf, Department of Heath Services Chief Operations Officer, are pleased by King/Drew’s efforts to make the hospital a safe place for patients to receive medical treatment. Leaf acknowledged the situation, stating that, “obviously, something like this is terrible,”  then continued by suggesting a positive aspect to the situation noting that community members “can believe, you can bet, that every time something occurs, safety process doubles. . . . I think we’re doing everything we can to assure there’s a safe environment.”35

Supervisor Burke agrees that “considerable work” has begun on restructuring the hospital to ensure patient safety. Yaroslavsky further considers this work as “a major step…a beginning at MLK.”36 However, with such a long history of negligent patient care, Burke is unsure of how long such a process will take. Furthermore, she admits that she does not “know that you can correct all of the problems from 25 years in three months. It’s going to take awhile because there’s still a lot of people to be removed and there has to be a whole discipline approach—so that when people do something . . . you can hold them accountable. And that has not been done there.”37

Although it is possible that measures were taken to heighten patient safety each time a medical negligence issue arises, as Supervisor Burke suggests, these measures have simply failed to prevent repeated instances from occurring. This is evidenced by the frequency with which patients have died at doctors’ and nurses’ hands for much of the hospital’s lifetime. Regardless, the most recent limited changes have forced the hospital to close several of its units, sending frustrated community members, who are grateful for nearby medical attention, to protest outside the hospital. According to one activist named Mobley, “We have to stand together to fight this battle. . . .” A community member who has fought for the hospital since its first days, Mobley insisted that, “We have to rise every morning under God’s will…to save Martin Luther King.”38 Lee Russell has joined Mobley’s plight to save the hospital. Russell, who was brought to King/Drew after a shooting and stabbing incident, noted that he would have died had the hospital’s trauma unit been closed when we was injured.39

The supervisors seem to share community members’ struggle, for they are conflicted between recognizing the need for a local hospital in South Los Angeles; yet, they strongly suggest that they are frustrated by the inferior care that King/Drew provides. For example, Yaroslavsky stated that, “ If there is one thing that has been certain at King/Drew over the last few years, if not longer, it’s that aberrations happen too often, and that is obviously of great concern and frustration. I’m really at my wit’s end. . . . It doesn’t seem to stop. It doesn’t seem to end.”40 Gloria Molina is similarly disappointed with herself and fellow supervisors at their failing efforts to solve King/Drew’s problems, stating that, “We [the supervisors] should all be embarrassed, all of us collectively because we have failed the community.”41  King/Drew had failed its local community, particularly the minority communities for which it served as a symbol. The supervisors even acknowledge—somewhat—their role in helping to perpetuate the malpractice that prevented the hospital from healing and serving South Los Angeles’ impoverished community.

Importantly, though, their inability to act responsibly and govern the hospital by establishing and enforcing rules as well as disciplining the medical staff—responsibilities given to them through their role as the hospital’s supervisors—was mediated through an ever pervasive sense of scenic domination: “things are so bad” that supervisor actions were never enough. They “did the best” they could “under the circumstances,” but their actions alone could never be enough. Thus, medical malpractice and disciplinary issues went unreported and undetected. The supervisors failed to solve King/Drew’s problems and create and maintain a safe environment for patients seeking quality healthcare; it was simply, though, not their fault. In short, they did act, yet the scene remained so powerful that their actions were impotent.

Doctors as Agents

The  doctors are the second cluster of agents within King/Drew. The supervisors are not solely responsible for allowing doctors to get away with incompetence and malpractice. If not for the doctors’ gross medical mistakes and subsequent malpractice suits, King/Drew’s supervisors would not have had to minimize and hide employee negligence and disciplinary problems. Yes, the supervisors are responsible for governing the hospital, but the doctors are responsible for healing patients and saving their lives, not ignoring patients while their lives and livelihood are taken away. As supervisor Molina stated, “If doctors, nurses, and administrators keep failing us, this hospital is going to sink. . . . That’s my fear.”42 Molina believed that employees need to be held accountable as well, because they currently are not, as is evidenced by the unreported accounts of patient negligence, co-worker assaults, and the hospital’s use of waivers and lies to hide the truth behind patients’ encounters with King/Drew.

The hospital staff failed the community through its acts of staff negligence and disciplinary problems that plagued King/Drew for much of its life. Just after the hospital opened in the early 1970s employees were caught working while inebriated and stealing medication from the pharmacy to sell outside of work. By the end of that decade, King/Drew had earned the nickname, “Killer King,” and was known for its unsanitary conditions, employees who worked under the influence of alcohol or drugs, employee absenteeism, and numerous patient deaths.43

Two doctors exemplify King/Drew’s deadly legacy. The first is Jonathan Heard. Heard, a surgeon at King/Drew, was brought before the supervisory board after he accrued several malpractice suits in 10 years. These charges included administering a police officer a lethal blend of heart medication while treating him for gunshot wounds, perforating a patient’s esophagus during surgery (leading to a serious infection), and billing a man’s insurance company for an appendectomy when in reality Heard had simply stitched through the patient’s intestines leading to an infection that another doctor had to surgically repair.44 According to Heard, these instances are not atypical for doctors. As he declared at one supervisory board meeting, “I want you to find me a surgeon that works in a high-risk field and find one that has not had any type of adverse action against him. . . .”45

The second doctor, Dennis Hooper, was responsible for similar medical malpractice issues during his tenure at King/Drew. A pathologist, Hooper frequently misdiagnosed patients; he often reported that some had cancer when their biopsies were in fact benign, and at other times he failed to identify malignancies. These mistakes led to unnecessary medical procedures and to patient deaths. As one example, Hooper misdiagnosed Johnnie Mae Williams with uterine cancer, which required her to endure an unnecessary radical hysterectomy. Hooper’s colleagues at King/Drew were appalled by his performance. Dr. Timothy Dutra, a fellow pathologist at the hospital, noted Hooper’s disregard for his careless mistakes, stating that, “He would make these casual diagnoses that were wrong and they didn’t seem to bother him.”46

Frustrated by Hooper’s negligence, Dutra and four colleagues wrote to their administrators about Hooper’s fatal errors and malpractice suits. But nothing came of it, perhaps because the administrators say they never received the letter. According to Dutra, “Here you had five pathologists signing a letter listing causes and telling administrators in no uncertain terms that this pathologist has competency problems. . . . And there was no response.”47 So Dutra went above his administrators and began writing first to the hospital’s supervisors and eventually to the South Los Angeles auditors and state medical board. It was county auditors that finally investigated Hooper’s performance at King/Drew, but by the time they recommended disciplinary action, Hooper had already left to work at a San Antonio hospital.48

King/Drew is a teaching hospital affiliated with Charles R. Drew University. As the supervisors failed in their responsibilities to ensure that the hospital fulfills its purpose of healing and serving the community, some doctors associated with the university similarly reject their responsibility to oversee residents, and as such, mistakes have led to patient deaths and injuries.While completing her OB/GYN residency at King/Drew, Dr. Penelope Velasco had three medical malpractice suits brought against her, two of which were related to delivery delays that resulted in physical and mental impairments or death in babies. The third suit was the result of Velasco stitching through a patient’s colon when operating to remove ovarian cysts. The error proved fatal when the patient died 12 days later, after Velasco and her supervising doctors failed to notice the mistake. Like Dr. Heard, Velacso sees such errors as commonplace in her field, stating that, “It’s just the nature of medicine, the nature of life.”49

Additionally, convicted child abusers without the appropriate education have been hired as physicians’ assistants, like Andrew Josiah, who “spent his nights working at King/Drew and his days at the halfway house where he was serving out a sentence for felony child abuse...[after] trying to choke his 12-year-old son.”50 Furthermore, people who failed or dropped out of medical school—and thus did not have medical licenses—were also hired to staff the hospital.51

Nurses as Agents

The hospital’s nurses are the third cluster of agents within King/Drew. Nurses have been known to leave their shifts early, thus abandoning their patients and leaving them without care. They have also been noted to take meals when unauthorized to do so and to turn off patient monitors on their own initiative. In all of these instances, there have been patient deaths. One such instance involved a two-year-old who was on a ventilator. His nurse, without leave, left early for dinner, and the toddler suffered “profound mental retardation” after his breathing tube came loose and none of the other employees checked on him.52 Another case involved a 28-year-old AIDS patient, on whom a nurse was supposed to check. The nurse left before checking in on him that evening at 6 p.m., but falsified his chart to make it seem as though she had visited him at that time; in reality, the patient died at 5 p.m., alone, after his monitors had been turned off earlier.

Furthermore, nurses administered the wrong medicine to patients, including William Watson, who was hospitalized for meningitis. Watson received Gleevec, a chemotherapy drug, when nurses failed to check his chart after a mistake was made in the pharmacy. Watson survived, but his eyes swelled to the size of golf balls over the four days that he was given the drugs. Once nurses discovered the mistake they had the patient sign a waiver, telling him, “We can just forget about it, and squash it like it never happened.” He signed the waiver because he had not known better.53 Other times, nurses failed to provide basic care and assistance to patients. One case is that of Robbie Billbrew, who has hospitalized for her problems in a unit that provided patients with additional nursing attention than regular patients receive. Yet Billbrew received little care from her nurses let alone additional care, leaving her daughters to tend to their mother’s bedsores and clean her breathing tube. “We had to do everything,” recalls Cynthia Millage of the basic care she had to provide her mother.54

As dangerous as the hospital is when its employees are at work, there have been numerous times when doctors and nurses simply fail to show up for their shifts. Entire units—from orthopedic suites to emergency rooms—have temporarily closed as a result and patients are left without medical staff to treat them and are thus forced to travel to another of the county’s hospitals for treatment.55

Considering Failed Redemption

The Los Angeles Times series provides copious evidence to support the hospital staff’s collective inaction regarding these gross accounts of patient deaths, injuries, and staff inadequacies. Yet the journalists’ act of writing the series ultimately created a scene constituted by a disordered hierarchy and confusion regarding responsibility for patients that perpetuated the staff’s medical malpractice. This scene was powerful, so much so that it prevented the social action required to allow the hospital’s agents to act in a way that would support the hospital’s purpose and also create a new healthy scene marked by quality healthcare. Essentially, the journalists’ act of writing solidified the hierarchical break within the King/Drew hospital by enabling those involved to avoid purifying their evident guilt regarding the hospital’s inability to serve the community because of its gross issues with medical malpractice.

Within King/Drew’s hospital hierarchy, members have positions of superiority and domination beginning at the top with supervisors, followed by the hospital’s doctors, nurses and other staff, then the patients and their families. The people who comprise the more powerful positions in the hierarchy—namely, staff—have responsibilities to other members of the hierarchy and themselves depending upon their position within this medical social structure. King/Drew’s staff had a responsibility to heal and serve the community through quality patient care and ensuring such care through regulations within the hospital. When the staff refused to accept these responsibilities—by not enforcing regulations to curb patient deaths and staff negligence and making numerous significant medical errors resulting in patient deaths—they rejected their positions within the hospital’s hierarchy and a polluted hierarchy only reinforced itself.

When we view this through Burke’s notion of Motivation, we can better understand how the series of articles failed to establish a redemptive cycle. We saw that the journalists’ act was the series of public service stories. The purpose of these stories was to shed light on a rather intractable and deadly problem with King/Drew. The way in which the journalists described the situation (our external analysis) could have, in Burkean terms, constructed a motive for action within those reading the articles. By analyzing the manner in which the journalists described the situation, we can then determine how the journalists named “their structure and outstanding ingredients, and name[d] them in a way that contain[ed] an attitude toward them.”56 Within this attitude lies the motive at the heart of the journalists’ act of writing the stories. However, within their act, the journalists created multiple competing agents (supervisors, doctors, and staff), each of which discursively constructed a powerful scene (our internal analysis), one that eclipsed the act and purpose of the journalists.

Put another way, the journalists’ act of writing was done with the purpose (we assume here) of exposing the negligent acts of King/Drew staff. However, in the act of writing about these acts, the journalists instead created (through their reported descriptions given by the supervisors, doctors, and staff) a disordered scene of such proportions that it was no longer just part of the hospital staff’s (agents) description. Instead, the scene created overpowered the described acts. Thus, we begin the award-winning series with an act-purpose ratio and end it with a scene-act ratio.

Viewed externally, the pentadic elements of the situation showed a domination of acts. The journalists set out to show the problems with King/Drew and detailed dozens of negligent acts that had occurred at the hospital throughout the years. In explaining a stress upon acts, Burke writes that “things are more or less real according as they are more or less energeia [activity] (actu, from which our ‘actuality’ is derived). [F]orm is the actus, the attainment, which realizes the matter.”57 Externally, this domination of acts suggests a philosophical realism influences the apprehension of the situation and subsequent discourse. Realism is the belief “in the real existence of matter as the object of perception (natural realism); also, the view that the physical world has independent reality, and is not ultimately reducible to universal mind or spirit.” Such a motivation stresses “the existence of objects in the external world independently of the way they are subjectively experienced.”58 The journalists put forward a narrative that stressed the heavy reality of the situation, the facts that show the pattern of abuse and neglect. As Brock, Scott, and Chesebro note, “the realist grammar begins with a tribal concept and treats the individual as a participant in substance.”59 In this sense, the hospital agents were envisioned to work together to compound the problem; in this way, they would also, we assume in the eyes of the journalists, accept responsibility to mortify or to be scapegoated.

When one moves from viewing this situation externally to internally, from journalists as agents in the act of writing to an internal understanding of the text they created, one finds a noticeably different construction of events. Instead of having the (external) act of writing with the (external) purpose of exposing the hospital’s sins, the writers constructed too detailed a world, one in which the hospital agents came alive and were allowed to create their own scene in their own words. The acts described above are still the acts of the hospital supervisors and staff. However, when one looks at the series of articles as a single text created by the journalists, examining it internally for pentadic elements, one finds not the act taking dominance, but rather a powerful tripartite agent creating a dominating scene. In short, we move from the act as dominant to a scenic domination at the root of the failure to establish a cycle of order.

The scene is a cacophony of negligence, malpractice, and entrenched systemic failure. Since there are three clusters of agents, each points to the others, and each points to a problem (scene) larger than itself. They construct, and are interpolated into, a scene so dominating, that they could do nothing. Even when specific acts of malpractice and negligence are mentioned in the articles, they fail to provide traction for change. This “scenic collection of acts”60 instead functions as a background of sorts, directing attention away from culpable agents and onto instead a hopeless situation. This scenic domination suggests a philosophical materialism operating throughout the collective stories of the hospital agents. Of materialism, Burke wrote “that metaphysical theory which regards all the facts of the universe as sufficiently explained by the assumption of body or matter, conceived as extended, impenetrable, eternally existent, and susceptible of movement or change of relative position.”61 It is “the theory which regards all the facts of the universe as explainable in terms of matter and motion. . . .”62

Burke suggests that this understanding allows us to view action as reduced to motion when scene dominates. According to Jim A. Kuypers:

In this sense, only the material is significant; that which is observable, touchable, and measurable takes precedence over other concerns. The observable, touchable, and measurable are the assumptions of a positivistic science. This materialistic motive also allows pressure to be placed upon those interpellated within the scene. We are a part of that which is occurring, but we are not necessarily able to remove ourselves from it. The previously described acts emerge out of the scene. Although the realism attached to the acts seem to place principle over material objects, by describing the scene as the dominating genesis, [the hospital staff] allowed for the situation to control the acts.63

There is a certain determinism operating here, a domination of the mind by the scene. Viewed another way, one could construe outside elements as pushing or coercing the hospital agents to act in a particular way. Of note, though, is that even with a scenic domination, an agent could be empowered to act, to initiate a redemptive cycle. This obviously did not happen in the King/Drew situation, neither by the journalist agents nor the hospital staff agents. But why not?

Viewing the redemptive cycle as a form of narrative provides us with insight into the failed King/Drew restoration. Edward C. Appel offers insight into viewing the redemptive cycle as a narrative: “the terms of the guilt-redemption cycle can be viewed or can function as both a nontemporal logic (that is, as a dialectic) and a narrative progression (that is, as a drama), not just as a temporal ‘process’ . . . or temporal sequence. . . .”64 The Pulitzer Prize articles were, at their core, constructed as a narrative, a series that worked to tell the story of King/Drew. Appel suggests that there is “an equivalency” among the terms of the pentad and “the terms implied by the idea of order”; in some senses, they are “interconnecting stages, moments, or concepts.”65 Accordingly, when “viewing the terms of the pentad dialectically the ‘features of action’ may take on any combination; when viewed dramatically, however, ‘they progress from disordered scene to sacrificial act to redeemed purposes and agencies.’”66

Recall, though, that the journalists’ act-purpose ratio gave way to the scene-act ratio contained within the narrative itself. If we view all of this externally, we could well see a grammar of interconnected pentadic terms for the situation, something that produces a static view. However, if we look at the situation internally, then we can see the interconnected pentadic terms as a drama, one in which the various elements could be drawn out “into a temporal succession.”67 From this point of view, a disordered hierarchy is presented as the (1) scene; this scene required (2) agents to offer sacrifice/purification in the form of an act, which, in turn, would lead to a new order with (3) agencies and purposes commensurate to this new order. This dramatistic cycle, however, rises or falls on the willingness or ability of an agent to assume mortification or scapegoating; either way, it necessitates an agent who would offer “redemption through his acts. . . .”68

Such was not the case with King/Drew. The journalists simply failed to provide a way to challenge the powerful scene that they had created. As J. Clarke Rountree, III has written, “relations among grammatical terms function as rhetorical constraints that do not dictate action, but shape the interpretation of action. By extension, these constraints function when one attempts to account for any sort of action, whether undertaken by one's self or another.”69 In a sense, the trouble was institutional, thus no single agent was powerful enough to challenge the problem—one scapegoat or one act of mortification was insufficient. The journalists presented a domination of acts—from the act of writing, the journalists created a series of acts within their text. However, these acts were so well described that they created a scenic oppression; moreover, the acts were allowed to be explained by well described agents (supervisors, doctors, and staff) in such a manner that “act as dominating” gave way to “scene as dominating”: human action was replaced by human motion. The agents (supervisors, doctors, staff) are prisoners of the scene. Because of this, the cycle of redemption simply stalled. No moral agent stepped up to act after the series of articles. No redemption: the agencies and purposes were never truly presented as open to transformation. Instead, there was simply a non-act, the allowing of things to remain the same. Guilt and pollution remained, and the scene continued to dominate. The agents and their purposes continued down the same path.

Viewed in this manner, the staff simply failed to purify at a level appropriate to its guilt. Although they acknowledge disappointment and embarrassment in the current supervisory system, as well as the consequential patient deaths their medical mistakes accrued, they did not purify at a level appropriate to their rejection, guilt, or to the consequences that their inaction has created for the hospital. Simply stating embarrassment and frustration (at the scene) cannot possibly purify the supervisors because these purification attempts are meager mortification compared to the hospital’s accumulating number of patient deaths and medical malpractice fees.

Redemption Deferred

Years after the 2004 LA Times series ran, King/Drew continued to crumble. The hospital lost its accreditation in 2005, and in 2006, the hospital lost $200 million of its total $380 million budget after failing to pass a federal Medicaid and Medicare inspection in 9 of the 23 examined areas.70 With such a devastating loss, the hospital’s