Issues of KB Journal

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

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 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 to 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 supervisory board was left with difficult decisions. How many other units would need to be closed? And should King/Drew’s managerial duties be transferred to a credible hospital, such as one of the UCLA Medical Centers, which would provide South Los Angeles’ residents with the services that King/Drew would no longer have? Despite the dangerous environment and incidents that led to the hospital’s failed inspection and funding cuts, community members were angered at the prospect of once again having limited access to healthcare, despite its inadequacy. Limited care, even very poor, seemed better than no care at all.

One community member angered by this situation was Mollie Bell. Bell, who helped fight to promote the need for quality local healthcare in South Los Angeles during the Watts riots, saw the potential hospital closure as a return to the 1960s, when residents—many of whom did not have personal transportation—had to travel to other communities to seek medical treatment.71 Others, including the Los Angeles County Medical Association’s (LACMA) and California Medical Association’s (CMA) presidents—Dr. Ralph DiLibero and Dr. Michael Sexton, respectively—shared Bell’s distress. Both spoke about the detrimental effect this limited access to medical care would cause South Los Angeles’ residents and made statements supporting the hospital’s supervisory committee in its efforts to salvage the hospital’s services. In a press release issued by the CMA, DiLibero stated that “LACMA thanks the…County Board of Supervisors for their continued reasoned and deliberate positive response to this healthcare delivery crisis…and all the efforts that have been put forth to correct the mistakes of the past and to create an effective, safe, and perpetual healthcare system.”72

We do not feel, however, that the Board of Supervisors was responding appropriately to solve the hospital’s history of patient negligence and redeem its reputation; this is evidenced by the hospital’s failed federal inspection and loss of over half of its budget. This ineffective leadership would continue, despite the hospital’s partnership with Harbor-UCLA Medical Center after the 2006 funding cut. By 2007, still more patients had died from nursing negligence, one of whom collapsed in the emergency room and writhed in pain as employees ignored her. During this same year, the partnered hospital failed yet another federal inspection, forcing it to close in spite of residents’ and hospital leaders’ arguments to keep it open.73

Without purification, there was no redemption, and a broken hierarchy persisted. Instead of guilt, purification, and redemption, denial, obfuscation, and rationalization was allowed to thrive in the scene the reporters crafted. We believe a contributing factor in King/Drew’s demise was the inability of its supervisors and doctors to acknowledge their collective guilt; they simply failed to try to purify in ways that were appropriate to the magnitude of their hierarchical rejection. This lack of fitting purification is why the hospital’s efforts to change its policies and redeem its reputation failed. Without the right form of purification, redemption could not be achieved, thus allowing the dramatic cycle of destruction to continue within the King/Drew hospital. Regardless of how many consultant teams were hired and units were closed, the hospital continued to provide inadequate healthcare and to steal its patients’ lives and livelihood while those at the top of the hospital’s hierarchy failed both to accept their positions and responsibilities and to appropriately purify to achieve redemption and thus end the cycle of destruction.

Undoubtedly, the Pulitzer Prize-winning series on King/Drew makes for heart-wrenching and intense reading; these are very good stories. However, the stories’ scenic focus allowed for those responsible for the chaos to elude responsibility by simply blending into the scene, pointing to the acts of others, and continuing acts of medical malpractice. The reporters created a world in which the hospital’s agents were subordinated to the scene, and in such a state, those in King/Drew need not, or could not, take on the necessary guilt, since the guilt was a systemic problem 32 years in the making. It is possible that purification was unattainable after 32 years of accumulated medical malpractice fees, patient deaths, and staff negligence because the magnitude of purification must match the magnitude of guilt that the agents have acquired. Those decades destroyed the hierarchical relationships that cemented the hospital’s structure. King/Drew had begun to crumble long before the Los Angeles Times published its series, and it is possible that too much time and too many failed attempts at purification prevented the hospital from re-establishing its integrity and strength. Sometimes a building simply cannot be refurbished, and it must be torn down.

Burke believed that drama was everywhere and once wrote that “the drama . . . may be studied as a ‘perfect mechanism’ composed of parts moving in a mutual adjustment to one another like clockwork.”74 But King/Drew was imperfect. The drama only works when all of its parts of guilt, purification, and redemption are present and functioning once a hierarchical rejection has wrenched this mechanism. Without just one of these elements, the drama will continue to cycle until its interior structure crumbles, as was the result of King/Drew.

By first focusing on the journalists’ actions in writing the series and then conducting a similar analysis of the dramatic world that they created within King/Drew, we were able to explore how King/Drew’s scene allowed for persistent medical malpractice actions that prevented the hospital from fulfilling its purpose of healing and serving the community. Finally, by uniting both pentadic analyses, we were able to identify the missing piece to resolution despite many attempts to solve the hospital’s problems.

Because the dramatistic application revealed an integral part to the hospital’s failure after numerous employees’ and supervisors’ rejection of their hierarchical position, it might be useful to apply the same perspective to other Pulitzer Prize-winning public service series to determine if cyclical series of events are perpetuated by the absence of a similar dramatistic element. Or the reverse, one could ask if prize-winning stories which were followed with some form of action allowed for a dramatistic cycle to properly function. Was the transgressed hierarchy identified, guilt assumed, and redemption achieved? However, since only one such series was examined in this case, similar studies would have to be conducted to determine a definite correlation between Pulitzer-winning series and missing dramatistic elements.


1. “Public Service,” (accessed February 8, 2010).

2. “Public Service,” 319.

3. Brian L. Ott and Eric Aoki, “The Politics of Negotiating Public Tragedy: Media Framing of the Matthew Shepard Murder,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 5, no. 3 (2002).

4. Daron Williams and Jim A. Kuypers, “Athlete as Agency: Motive in the Rhetoric of NASCAR,” Kenneth Burke Journal 6, no. 1 (Fall 2009).

5. Kenneth Burke, “Dramatism,” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. III., David L. Sills, ed. (New York, Macmillan/The Free Press, 1968): 445.

6. Bernard Brock, Robert L. Scott, and James Chesebro, “Rhetorical Criticism: A Burkeian Approach Revisited,” Methods of Rhetorical Criticism: A Twentieth-Century Perspective 3rd Ed/ (Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1990): 185.

7. Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1950): 141.

8. C. Allen Carter, Kenneth Burke and the Scapegoat Process, (Norman: OK, University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), 10.

9. Carter, 10.

10. Brock, Scott, and Chesebro, 185.

11. Edward C. Appel, “Implications and Importance of the Negative in Burke’s Dramatistic Philosophy of Language,” Communication Quarterly 41, no. 1 (Winter 1993): 60.

12. Brock, Scott, and Chesebro, 187.

13. Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1970), 231.

14. Burke, “Dramatism,” 450.

15. Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change, 3rd ed. (Berkeley; University of California Press, 1984), 284.

16. Rise Jane Samra, “Guilt, Purification, and Redemption,” The American Communication Journal 1, no. 3 (May 1998): 2, (accessed October 22, 2009).

17. Burke, “Dramatism,” 449.

18. James F. Klumpp, “Burkean Social Hierarchy and the Ironic Investment of Martin Luther King,” in Kenneth Burke and the 21st Century, Bernard L. Brock, ed. (Albany, State University of New York Press, 1999): 237.

19. Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives, 141.

20. Floyd Douglass Anderson, Andrew King, and Kevin McClure, “Kenneth Burke’s Dramatic Form Criticism,” in Rhetorical Criticism: Perspectives in Action, ed. Jim A. Kuypers (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009),146.

21. Los Angeles Almanac, online version at

22. “Editorial: Fulfilling the Wrong Dream,” Los Angeles Times (December 12, 2004): 1, (accessed October 24, 2009).

23. “Brief History of King/Drew Medical Center,” (July 12, 2004): 1, (accessed November 22, 2009).

24. “Brief History of King/Drew Medical Center,” 2.

25. Mitchell Landsberg, “Why Supervisors Let Deadly Problems Slide (part 1),” Los Angeles Times (December 9, 2004): 1, (accessed October 24, 2009).

26. Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber, “For Days, Potent Drug Given to Wrong King/Drew Patient,” Los Angeles Times (February 26, 2004): 1, (accessed October 24, 2009).

27. Landsberg, “Why Supervisors Let Deadly Problems Slide (part 1),” 2

28. Steve Hymon, Charles Ornstein, and Tracy Weber, “Massive Overhaul of Ailing Hospital Urged,” Los Angeles Times (December 23, 2004): 4, (accessed October 24, 2009).

29. Mitchell Landsberg, “Why Supervisors Let Deadly Problems Slide (part 1),” 2.

30. Landsberg, 2.

31. Landsberg, 2.

32. Mitchell Landsberg, Charles Ornstein, and Tracy Weber, “Deadly Errors and Politics Betray a Hospital’s Promise,” Los Angeles Times (December 5, 2004), 5.

33. Mitchell Landsberg, “Why Supervisors Let Deadly Problems Slide (part 1),” 1.

34. Steve Hymon, Charles Ornstein, and Tracy Weber, “Massive Overhaul of Ailing Hospital Urged,” 2.

35. Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber, “For Days, Potent Drug Given to Wrong King/Drew Patient,” 2.

36. Landsberg, Ornstein, and Weber, 6.

37. Ornstein and Weber, “For Days,” 2.

38. Landsberg, Ornstein, and Weber, 3.

39. Landsberg, Ornstein, and Weber, 4.

40. Charles Ornstein, “Clamp is Left in King/Drew Patient,” Los Angeles Times (July 13, 2004): 1, (accessed October 24, 2009).

41. Mitchell Landsberg, “Why Supervisors Let Deadly Problems Slide (part 1),” 2.

42. Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber, “For Days, Potent Drug Given to Wrong King/Drew Patient,” 3.

43. Mitchell Landsberg, “Why Supervisors Let Deadly Problems Slide (part 1),” 3.

44. Ornstein and Weber, “Other Doctors Faulted,” 1.

45. Ornstein and Weber, “Other Doctors Faulted,” 1.

46. Tracy Weber and Charles Ornstein, “One Doctor’s Long Trail of Dangerous Mistakes (Part 3),” Los Angeles Times (December 7, 2004): 5, (accessed October 24, 2009).

47. Weber and Ornstein, “One Doctor’s Long Trail,” 2.

48. Weber and Ornstein, “One Doctor’s Long Trail,” 3.

49. Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber, “How Whole Departments Fail a Hospital’s Patients (Part 4),” Los Angeles Times (December 8, 2004): 4, (accessed October 24, 2009).

50. Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber, “How Whole Departments Fail a Hospital’s Patients (Part 4),” 3.

51. Ornstein and Weber, “How Whole Departments,” 3.

52. Steve Hymon, “The Lost and Bereaved: a Damaged Boy,” Los Angeles Times (December 8, 2004): 1, (accessed October 24, 2009).

53. Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber, “For Days, Potent Drug Given to Wrong King/Drew Patient,” 2.

54. Ornstein and Weber, “For Days, Potent Drug,” 6.

55. “Editorial: Perilous Chairs,” Los Angeles Times (December 7, 2004): 1, (accessed October 24, 2009).

56. Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form, 2nd ed. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967), 1. See pages 6, 298-304, as well. Andrew King provides a detailed discussion of Burke’s notion of motive in, “Motive,” The American Communication Journal 1, no.3 (1998), ( For additional insight, see, J. Clarke Rountree, III, “Coming to Terms with Kenneth Burke’s Pentad,” The American Communication Journal 1, no.3 (1998),

57. Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 1969), 227.

58. “Realism,” Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition (OED2). On-Line version.

59. Bernard L. Brock, Robert L. Scott, and James W. Chesebro, eds., Methods of Rhetorical Criticism: A Twentieth-Century Perspective, 3rd ed. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990), 188.

60. Jim A. Kuypers, “From Science, Moral-Poetics: Dr. James Dobson's Response to the Fetal Tissue Research Initiative,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 86, no. 2 (2000): 154.

61. Burke, Grammar of Motives, 131.

62. Burke, Grammar of Motives, 131.

63. Kuypers, 154-155.

64. Edward C. Appel, “Position Paper: Using Kenneth Burke in Rhetorical Criticism.” Paper presented at the Kenneth Burke Society Conference, New Harmony, Indiana, 1990, p.4.

65. Appel 5.

66. Kuypers, quoting Appel 5.

67. Burke, Grammar of Motives, 264; see also 15-16.

68. Kuypers. For a discussion of the linkage between the pentadic terms and the cycle of order see: Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion,180-189.

69. Rountree.

70. Sonya Geis, “South-Central L.A. Hospital in Critical Condition,” Washington Post, (October 4, 2006): 1, (accessed November 23, 2009).

71. Geis, “South-Central L.A. Hospital in Critical Condition,” 1.

72. Rebekah Alperin and Karen Nikos. “LACMA and CMA Statements on King/Drew Medical Center and the Threat to L.A. County Health Care,” California Medical Association, (October 2, 2006): 1, (accessed November 23, 2009).

73. Garrett Therolf, Mary Engel, and Jean-Paul Renaud, “County Medical Crisis Deepens,” Los Angeles Times (April 11, 2008): 3, (accessed November 23, 2009).

74. Burke, “Dramatism,” 449.

* Dr. Jim A. Kuypers (Ph.D., LSU) Department of Communication at Virginia Polytechnical Institute and State University. Ashley Gellert (M.A. Virginia Polytechnical Institute and State University), Department of Communication. They can be reached at and

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"The Story of King/Drew Hospital: Guilt and Deferred Purification" by Jim A. Kuypers and Ashley Gellert is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Introducing Kenneth Burke to Facebook

Tonja Mackey


The following feature draws a parallel between the “Burkean parlor” and the social networking site, Facebook. It also applies the Burkean pentad to the principle of motive behind Facebook users. In addition, it details several different types of Facebook pages and the growth patterns of each regarding purpose.

I am at your mercy. I don’t dare to bore you. But let us not forget that I have a stance of my own. You are for me magic, music, and mystery. But I can magically, musically mystify you too.

—Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (1969)

FACEBOOK WAS FOUNDED IN 2004 TO HELP PEOPLE “communicate more efficiently with their friends, family, and coworkers….in a trusted environment,” (Facebook Factsheet). Currently, there are over 500 million active users on Facebook who create profiles enabling them to construct online identities and post unlimited messages that they want their friends to read. These forums are used for many purposes, and sometimes users’ online identities are contradictory to their real-life identities. Additionally, posts can often include inaccurate information, either intentionally or unintentionally. Both of these instances call into question the ethos of the rhetorical venue, which is not so different from real life. Regarding Kenneth Burke’s philosophy of literary and social analysis, when Facebook users post a ‘status’ on Facebook, they are making a comment about society, or about themselves in relation to society. In actuality, these users are constructing their versions of reality through this online social venue, which can be compared to Kenneth Burke’s argument that language is a creator of and response to what is going on in the world. Likewise, Facebook comments are responses to what is going on in the world of the users. Such users are expressing their opinions, usually embedding one-sided arguments within those messages in order to persuade their “friends.” Users from all walks of life participate in this online community. Burke’s five principles of act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose can be applied to the argument that users are responding to and acting within society, both in the online community and within the real world. Hence, users create identities and alter realities through invented personal narrative. I will argue that the community of Facebook (FB) validates Kenneth Burke’s theories of dramatism, symbolic action, and the concept of language as the key to creating the world as we know it. Weiser explains that “dramatism is an understanding of language as the basis of human interaction with our world…language is more than a conveyer of meaning; language is the maker of meaning” (3). Burke argues that language is symbolic action. We have made, and continue to make, our realities through language. Facebook is a portal through which language (meaning) is spread.

In A Grammar of Motives, Burke defines act as something that takes place “in thought or in deed,” and scene as the site where said action takes place (xv). In comparing Facebook to “[Burke’s] ‘scene,’ setting or background, and ‘act,’ action,” one could say that the forum (portal) is the scene, and the action is the post. “And using ‘agents’ in the sense of actors,” one could say that the actors are those who are doing the posting, or the Facebook users. Therefore, the scene contains the action and the online representation of the agents, but the agents produce the action. Just as it is a “principle of drama that the nature of acts and agents should be consistent with the nature of the scene,” the statements made on Facebook are expected to remain consistent with the nature of the community of ‘friends’ (Burke, Grammar 3). However, the expansive nature of ‘friendship’ on Facebook undermines this expectation and makes one wonder if the environment is really as “safe” as the creators intended.

Never before in history has the average person had the ability to interact socially, politically, educationally, and commercially with such a diverse range of people. Distance transcends the World Wide Web, making the ability to converse with someone halfway around the world a simple task. Social networks such as Facebook not only allow for this ease of interaction, but also expand conversations to include larger groups of people. Conversations occur among users who may or may not know each other; they just have to have a common friend. Facebook allows anyone to interact at any time, hence a unique example of the Burkean parlor:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you what it’s about. In fact, the discussion had long begun before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all of the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (Philosophy 110-111)

Facebook presents a parallel to the Burkean Parlor: You arrive home late from work one evening and log on to FB. You find your wall (messages from friends) full of new posts. Many of your other friends, as well as some of their friends, have made comments on said posts, some emotional (or heated), some not so much. You read and you think for a while before you decide if there is anything you’d like to add to anyone’s comments, or, perhaps, you read something that prompts you to post a hasty response that, later, you wish that you had dwelled on for a while first. You grow tired, so you post a “status” (often a discussion starter) of your own, knowing that you’ll log back on tomorrow to see who has responded to you. And so it continues, day after day. Weiser argues that Burkean “dramatism explores and encourages dialectic (the celebration of differing perspectives) and transcendence (the search for points of merger) in a parliamentary debate…,” (xiv). While FB offers the potential to celebrate differing perspectives and mergers, in reality, most FB users are asserting their own opinions without offering much evidence to engage in persuasive discourse.
In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins speaks of communities “defined through voluntary, temporary, and tactical affiliations, reaffirmed through common intellectual enterprises and emotional investments” (27). Facebook users interact on a voluntary basis within defined communities. There are two types of Facebook profiles: personal and organizational. With personal profiles, users must request to become “friends” of other users before they are allowed to post any type of messages on each other’s profile pages – called “walls.” When users post something on their wall, that message, consequently, posts to the walls of all of their friends. Supposedly, users feel that their posts are important enough that each of their friends will want to read or know the content, and, if not, the users suffer the consequences of either being told so or being ignored completely. Organizational profiles allow FB users to “like” a particular page. Examples of these types of profiles include those of public figures, institutions, and causes. Rather than request a friendship, users who want to be part of a community click on the “like” button and are typically automatically accepted.

Individuals typically create the personal profile. Someone requesting friendship normally knows the person of whom they are requesting, or is at least a friend of a friend. However, these communities can become quite extensive. In looking at one college student’s network, I find 852 “friends.” This nineteen-year-old white male uses his profile to post photos and an occasional “this is what I’m doing” or “this is what I think” type post. Personal FB posts fall into several different categories, though this list cannot be all inclusive: (1) to spread the word about something, (2) to express an emotional response to something (I.E. pleasure or disgust), (3) to seek acceptance or agreement, (4) to post a meme, saying, or other expression, (5) to post a video (personal or otherwise), (6) to post personal photos for friends and family to see, (7) to promote a cause, or (8) to find and correspond with a distant friend or family member.

Organizational profiles reach beyond the local network and allow users with common interests to interact. These profiles typically include fan pages, political pages, advertisements, news, education, and businesses. Colleges and universities typically use these type profiles and post comments that they think will be of interest to their students.  Though it’s impossible to see who maintains it, Jacques Derrida has an organizational FB profile with 29, 321 people who “like” it. On his page, I find posts written in English, French, Spanish, and Chinese, at minimum. Though these users do not know one another, they still interact and converse about a common interest (that is if they speak the same language). On a bit larger scale, current pop culture icon Miley Cyrus has 11,925,278 “likes,” while Michelle O’Bama has 4,165,559.  The First Lady posts frequently, almost daily, concerning her various projects and causes. On March 31st, Mrs. Obama (or her aide who maintains her profile; we can’t tell) posted a link to a YouTube video that shows her interacting with children who are planting the 2011 vegetable garden at the White House. This is done as part of the First Lady’s outreach program, called “Let’s Move,” that targets childhood obesity. This one post has 6967 “likes” and 563 comments. Again, not all of the posts are in English, though the majority of them are. Not surprisingly, there is a mix of favorable and unfavorable comments, some related to the original topic, some not. Though not many could condemn the First Lady for encouraging children to have healthier eating habits, there are obvious political repercussions that simply go along with having a public profile that anyone can respond to. The number of “likes,” or followers, that an organizational (or personal) page gets certainly attests to the popularity of the creator of the page (agent).

In A Rhetoric of Motives Burke speaks of Alice in Wonderland, “communication between the classes,” and “social courtship” (267); likewise, Facebook provides the ability to invent a virtual fantasy, a never-ending hole of noise and news in which members fall through judgment, risk, and the wonder of uninhibited expression. Burke states that “Pure persuasion involves the saying of something, not for an extra-verbal advantage to be got by the saying, but because of a satisfaction intrinsic to the saying…It intuitively says, ‘This is so’ purely and simply because this is so” (Burke, Rhetoric 269). Burke compares this to an “ultimate” motive rather than an “ulterior” one. Users find Facebook a venue through which they can “shout from the rooftop” beliefs that they want the whole world to hear. Not all Facebook posts, however, are without ulterior motive. Some use this forum to express an opinion or make a claim that they would never verbally shout to such a large crowd, sometimes with the intent to provoke. The ability to write something rather than say it to someone directly removes the author from the possibility of face-to-face confrontation, thereby making them feel safer to say what they really want. At present, the user doesn’t have to think about what they will say the next time they have to confront that person (or people). Some users don’t think about how their FB world affects real world circumstances.

Language as the key motive for all actions involves a difference between the verbal (or written) and non-verbal (thought) in that “before man added the verbal to the non-verbal nature, there were no negative acts, states, or commands” (Rueckert 130). The ability to express negative thought essentially creates negative circumstances. Facebook is a great venue through which to communicate, advertise, and connect with others. However, online social networking systems are also used to trick and bully others through the manipulation of self and language. It is incredibly easy to create a fake identity through which to prey on unsuspecting victims. The Megan Meier Foundation (1420 “likes” on Facebook) was established to “bring awareness, education and promote positive change to children, parents and educators in response to the bullying and cyber-bullying in our children’s daily environment” (Megan Meier Foundation Mission Statement). The Foundation is run by Tina Meier, whose daughter, Megan, had an online relationship (on MySpace, another social networking venue) with a fictitious friend, Josh. According to the foundation and reported through various news sources, the parent of an estranged friend of Megan’s created an account using a fictitious name and the photo of a “hot” guy Megan’s age to lure her into talking with him. The two quickly became online friends and thirteen year old Megan rushed home from school each day to communicate with the allegedly homeschooled young man. Eventually, “Josh” began to post mean comments about Megan and she didn’t understand why. She became very emotionally distraught when, in a final post, Josh told Megan that she was a horrible person and that the world would be a better place without her. The next day, Megan’s mother found her unconscious in her bedroom; she died the next day, three weeks before her fourteenth birthday. The Megan Meier Foundation’s Facebook page includes many comments of thanks from kids who attend schools that the foundation has visited with their program. Many are simply thanking them for coming and wishing them the best with their mission; however, many are thanking them because they identify with Megan; they too have been or are being picked on online. These “acts” involved a manipulative “agent” misusing “scene” and “agency” with a misguided “purpose.” While the initial purpose of the act was likely not the outcome, this act is an example of language acting as a key motive or scene for all of man’s acts (Rueckert 130). Language was manipulated; there was no truth in the scene or the acts; language created the negative scene that could not be sustained. Writing a fake reality online altered Megan’s real life, as well as her family’s, in an irreparable way.

Anytime Facebook users click on the profile of another user, they can see how many “friends” he or she has. In a world where social status is so important to school-aged children, students view these numbers as having significant importance. FB has been accused of causing “friendship addiction” and “fueling insecurities in users” (“Facebook to Blame”).  In addition to creating online versions of their true selves, social networking sites enable users to try out virtual identities or misrepresentations of themselves in order to attain more friends. “While some argue that the Internet erases difference…available rhetorical features enable individuals to construct not only a representation of their offline selves but also to experiment with and create new identities” (Leonardi 3). Leonardi continues to argue that this creation of new self can also change the way users, and others, perceive themselves offline. In essence, we create ourselves with language when we write. Hence, there are real life implications to what we post about ourselves online. In writing an online identity, it’s not hard to venture into the genre of fiction. Burke asserts, “You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his” (Burke, Rhetoric 55). This assertion contends that imitation within the “act” of creating an identity through language is probable. In addition, “the linguistic motive eventually involves kinds of persuasion guided not by appeal to any one local audience, but by the logical of appeal in general” – or socialization (Burke, Rhetoric 129).

In A Grammar of Motives, Burke quotes Aristotle: “Men, individually and in common, nearly all have some aim, in the attainment of which they choose or avoid certain things. This aim, briefly stated, is happiness and its component parts” (292). He goes on to list Aristotle’s seven causes [motives] for human actions: “chance, nature, compulsion, habit, reason, anger, and desire” (292). Burke presents a broader umbrella under which to classify these motives: freedom and necessity (74). Necessity, however, is a matter of opinion, and freedom has its boundaries before affecting others. In the Megan Meier’s example above, the mother of the friend who created the fake profile may, in some twisted way, have been trying to attain happiness for her and her daughter, but did not consider (or care about) the cost, or unhappiness, that their actions would create for someone else.

However, happiness, freedom, and necessity came together, for good, in Jeff Kurtz’s Facebook story. In early 2011, thirty-five year old Jeff Kurtz’s kidneys began to fail. His wife, Roxy, posted a Facebook message about his health problems and word began to spread, quickly. Ricky Sisco, from a nearby city in Michigan, responded to Jeff’s need for a kidney transplant by donating one of his own – to a complete stranger. These two men had no prior connection other than friends in common on Facebook. This social network, originally developed to make communication easier, served that purpose for this act/scene/agent/purpose. Without this venue, it is not likely that the two men would have ever connected. It’s not often that one’s plea for a kidney is put in a newspaper.

The following examples are actual posts from Facebook both on national and local levels, personal and corporate. Agent, scene, act, agency, and purpose will be looked at in terms of intent, originality, and effectiveness. The agent (FB user), the scene (the online community of FB), the act (the actual posting or thought processes leading to it), the agency (language, words, pictures, videos, etc.) all combine to achieve various purposes, sometimes undeterminable, but perhaps the most important element of the pentad. Burke argues that there may be disagreement about the purpose of acts or the character of the agents, but motive will always answer questions about “what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose).

The following post has been circulating for about ten years: “Don't buy the patriotic PEPSI CAN coming out with pictures of the Empire State Building and the Pledge of Allegiance on them. Pepsi LEFT OUT two little WORDS on the pledge, ‘UNDER GOD’. Pepsi said they did not want to offend anyone. So, if we don't buy them they won’t be offended when they don't receive our money that has the words ‘In God we Trust’ on it!!! How fast can you re-post this??” (Random post spreading via Facebook) This is a post with an undeterminable original author that is currently (April 2011) spreading by way of FB. It is designed to appeal to the emotions of patriotic and religious, specifically Christian, users. The purpose is to keep users from buying Pepsi products. FB gives those who want to spread the word about this a means through which to do so. It is likely that they would not have the means to advertise this through a television commercial or a highway billboard, but average Joe Smith can start an Internet campaign that has the possibility of reaching a national audience. Could a grassroots campaign like this hurt Pepsi Co.’s business? Of course it could, but not substantially. The quote originally began spreading via email around November 2001 after the terrorist attacks when Dr. Pepper designed a can with the Statue of Liberty with the caption “One Nation…Indivisible” ( The quote, originally aimed at Dr. Pepper, evolved to include Pepsi and Coca-Cola as well. Pepsi has never designed a can with the Statue of Liberty on it. The spreading of Urban Legends has spread to Facebook.

Another campaign currently circulating on FB is political in nature. “Gas is to jump up to $5.00 a gallon by Memorial Day. Obama said ‘get used to it and trade in for an energy efficient car.’ With unemployment above 10% in many states, can you afford a trade in? Re-post if you want Obama to ‘get used’ to being a one-term president! I will gladly re-post to get him out of office!!” (Random quote spreading on Facebook). On Wednesday, April 6, 2011, President Obama participated in a town hall meeting at a factory in Pennsylvania. When questioned about the high prices of oil, Obama suggested that all citizens consider driving more energy efficient vehicles. Obama’s quote was distorted into the above flippant sounding answer that sounds like he wasn’t interested in offering a solution to the oil crisis. He did not say, “Get used to it.” He told the audience that if anyone was driving a vehicle that got eight miles per gallon, they should trade it in. However, the FB post appeals to the unemployed, and there are many. The implication of the post is that unemployment is Obama’s fault, and the purpose is to keep him from winning a second term. In this case, the text has been manipulated to fulfill the author’s purpose.

On April 7, 2011, the Associated Press (AP) reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is replacing the five-level color-coded terrorist warning system, which ranges from low to severe with a simpler, more specific, two-level system of “elevated” and “ imminent.” AP also reported that these alerts may be publicized through Facebook and Twitter, “when appropriate,” but only after federal, state, and local leaders have been notified. By doing this, DHS is acknowledging the scene of Facebook as a valid means through which to alert citizens about the threat of national terrorism. The Department of Homeland Security already has an official Facebook page with 14,464 followers. A recent post includes a blog about the new National Terrorist Advisory System (NTAS) (April 20, 2011): “For Americans, this will mean some visible changes. You won’t hear the old color-code announcements when you go to airports, or see them when you visit a government website. Instead, when a threat arises that could affect you and your family, you will hear about it through an NTAS Alert issued by DHS through official channels, such as the DHS website, the news media, and via social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter.” Fifty-nine followers “liked” the post; however, there were thirty-two comments to the announcement, most of which were negative expressions toward the DHS itself: “Oh, absolutely, we believe everything you say in Washington,” “Lame, harder to follow than a simple color,” “We don’t need your ‘protection’ DHS. We need protection from you.” For the most part, rather than responding to the topic of the DHS’s post, citizens used comments as a forum to express displeasure with the department. Despite consistently negative remarks posted on the page, DHS continues to maintain the page and attempt to educate the public through FB updates.

Another way that FB can be used is to spread a cause established on a local level to the national level. On April 1, 2011, “The Caring Tree Project” had 37 followers, or users who liked their page. By April 23, that number grew to 346. The mission of “The Caring Tree Project” is to “educate consumers about cost-saving opportunities to buy your favorite products and services, including home buying and home-related products” (Caring Tree Project Facebook Profile). The project began a contest in which other FB users could submit photos of a boy or girl-scout in uniform. The owner of the photo with the most votes (in the form of “likes” by members of the FB community) will win an iPod. Naturally, anyone who submitted a photo invited all of their friends to join the community so they could vote for their friend’s picture. The company in Hanover, Maryland has reached Northeast Texas by way of the Girl Scouts of America. By April 30, 2011, the page had 342 followers. The page obviously grew during the contest and had support of those who entered, but when the contest ended, followers dropped off the site.

On the more local level, day-to-day posts by the average user vary in terms of purpose, content, format, and length. Some status posts get no comments, while others initiate the Burkean Parlor-type conversation. Many use the forum for a “this is what I’m doing right now” type post. “Standing in the Wal-mart line…again,” “Heading to Dallas for the weekend,” or “Just got home from a great night out,” are common examples. Users create pages to promote a cause or send invitations to events. A local group formed a team for Race for the Cure and solicited sponsorship from their friends through FB invitations. The local college’s drama department sends invitations to plays through FB announcements. Individuals, as well as teams, can elicit support through FB messages. In addition to global announcements, FB users can send private messages to other users. FB has a calendar to help users keep up with and wish friends “Happy Birthday.” All of these acts are purpose driven by the agent, through the scene by way of the agency. The subject matter and content style are as varied as the personalities of the users. It would be interesting to study if the writing style of the agents affects the perceived validity of their comments. Are FB users judged for their writing style, grammar, and punctuation?

While the acts and agents are various and complex, agency is a bit more limited within the community. The agencies through which FB agents can act are written language, pictures, videos, songs, and links to other content. For example, to wish a friend happy birthday, a user might simply post “Happy Birthday” on a friend’s wall, or may link to a digital birthday card that is sponsored by another link on the web. Either way, the user is using language to perform the act of wishing a friend a “Happy Birthday.” To acknowledge Burke’s theory of symbolic action, we have to ask, do these acts, through agencies, improve or alter reality for the individual? Imagine getting a “wall” full of “Happy Birthday” wishes, but then imagine getting only two or three.

Visual rhetoric is a prevalent means through which FB users express themselves. Users can express themselves through the use of “emoticons”, facial expression icons that visually, or pictorially, express a mood or temperament. Users can add a smiley face to something they have written, an icon that represents a shocked or unbelieving look, or a frown- face that expresses dislike for something. Users can post family vacation photos (they’ll post only the good ones, right?), videos, or simply capture a picture of the web to express a thought or idea. In addition, they can add captions or explanations of when and where, etc. the photo was taken. Proud parents post pictures of children, friends may post videos of activities they have participated in with others, or someone may post pictures after an event. As with comments, friends of the ones who post can “like” photos. As of now, there is no “dislike” button on FB, though someone has created a FB page titled “Create a Dislike Button,” and it features 125,049 followers discussing their desire for one.

In a final analysis, the “Arkansas Severe Weather Watchers” (ASWW) FB page exemplifies just how quickly word can spread through this venue when agents are producing significant, relevant information. During the week of April 25, 2011, virtually the entire state of Arkansas (AR) was under severe thunderstorm or tornado warnings. On Monday evening, Vilonia, AR was hit with a mile-wide tornado that destroyed the small town. On Monday afternoon, ASWW had 4500 followers (likes). By 11:00 Monday night, the page had 8000 followers. The following shows how quickly the page grew in popularity over the next several hours: 6:00 Tuesday morning – 14,000 followers; noon on Tuesday – 18,871 followers. By 10:00 on Tuesday evening, the page had 30,000 followers, and the numbers continued to rise. At noon on Wednesday there were 31,242 followers. The most significant rise in followers was occurring as news channels were predicting “treacherous,” “catastrophic,” weather conditions across Arkansas. As the weather improved, the rise in membership began to slow down.

ASWW was providing an immediately pertinent service of interest to citizens of the state of AR. Updates were frequent and informative; they posted every time they learned of any type of weather warning in AR. They posted so frequently that a small number of users began complaining that they were getting too many posts to their walls. ASWW’s response (as if they had to respond or justify at all) was, “If you don’t like the updates, simply ‘unlike’ our page. You’ll stop getting them.” Those who complained also received negative comments back from other ASWW followers. It is impossible to tell if they “unliked” the page, but the comments ceased. While a page such as this one has the potential to create panic or an alarmist reaction, the honorable purpose of trying to inform the public in advance of when it is necessary to take cover supersedes that risk if lives are saved due to their diligence.

As of today, FB has always been free of charge to users, but occasionally a rumor will surface that the owners are going to start charging a fee. So many people are such frequent users of FB, if they were unable to have access, they would likely suffer withdrawal symptoms. One study proposes that a Facebook addiction should be added as a subcategory of Internet spectrum addiction disorders and possibly added to the next update of the DSM (Karaiskos, et al).  FB is accessible through mobile devices such as iPads and smart phones. Users can receive instant alerts when they receive messages. Instant communication with anyone, anywhere, is available at any time. If this widely-used venue suddenly became inaccessible, the lifestyles of many would significantly be altered, through a feeling of extreme disconnect from friends. The web pages of most organizations that maintain a FB page include a button so that site visitors can instantly “like” them on FB and become a follower. For some, consulting, reading, and writing on Facebook is, or is becoming, a way of life. Users stay connected with each other socially, stay informed about events, and keep others informed about information they find important. Through the scene of Facebook, agents act, or react, with an intended or unintended purpose through accessible agencies. Users create an online world through language.

Works Cited

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

---. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U P, 1941. Print.

---. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. “Facebook to Blame for ‘Friendship Addiction’.” Therapy Today 19.9 (2008): 10. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Apr. 2011.

Facebook Factsheet. Facebook Pressroom, 2011. Web. 28 Apr. 2011. <>.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York U P, 2006. Print.

Leonardi, Marianne. Narrative as Self-Performance: The Rhetorical Construction of Identities on Facebook Profiles. Diss. U of New Mexico, 2009. Dissertations and Theses: Full-text, Proquest. Web. 13 March 2011.

Rueckert, William H. Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1963. Print.

Weiser, Elizabeth M. Burke, War, Words: Rhetoricizing Drama. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2008. Print.


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A Note on the Writing of A Rhetoric of Motives

Michael Feehan


In a letter of April, 1989, Kenneth Burke suggested that the process of writing A Grammar of Motives contributed significantly to the choice of identification as key term for A Rhetoric of Motives. Burke proposed two representative anecdotes for the study of the composing process of the Rhetoric: The story of the shepherd that appears in the Rhetoric and the story of some children who are born without the capacity to feel pain from the external world. If we follow out these leads, using the methodology of the Grammar to look at the work of writing the Rhetoric, Burke says that we will see how identification emerged as a “positive negative,” a program for negative thinking. We might also learn more about connections between the Grammar and the Rhetoric.

IN A LETTER OF APRIL, 1989, KENNETH BURKE SUGGESTED that the methodology developed in A Grammar of Motives opened the way to the choice of identification as the key term for A Rhetoric of Motives:

First, note the basic difference between the topics in Aristotle’s Rhetoric and my five terms (later hexed), with their ratios and circumferences. His topics  are telling you what to say in what you intend to write. My terms were telling you  what to ask about the form and structure of a work that was already written. You could do some real work in showing how I thus ran into the kind of  questions introduced in terms of “identification.”

Burke repeats the argument he presented in the 1978 article “Questions and Answers about the Pentad” to the effect that the methodology of the Grammar looks to completed discourses, in which the “structure had already implicitly supplied the answers,” allowing the critic to prophesy after the event (332). The methodology of the Grammar was not designed for finding content to fill the blank page, but to dig into the inscribed page, to work backwards to the issues that have already emerged through the composing process.

However we may wince at this argument, we get a glimpse here into Burke’s conception of a comprehensive dramatistic methodology for the study of the imputation of motives. We can only study the imputation of motives if some motive has already been imputed. Were we, on the other hand, to create a metaphysics of motives, we might study motives “in themselves”; indeed, we might even presume, for the sake of argument, that no motives actually exist. However, for a study of the imputation of a motive, we must look at an act of some actual person in some actual place and time through some actual medium for some actual purpose. As Robert Wess says, “In GM itself, circumference is deployed as a grammatical principle to insure that discourses are legitimated as grammatical only if they, in their varying ways, legitimate action” (181). In the methodology of the Grammar—circumference, the (hexed) Pentad, and ratios—Burke intends to analyze actions, what’s already happened.

In his letter, Burke asks us to look at the writing of the Rhetoric as a development out of and through the writing of the Grammar. This suggestion is especially ironic given Burke’s oft repeated narrative of the genesis and development of the Grammar: Burke tells us that the Grammar emerged unexpectedly through his attempts to write a book “On Human Relations.” As he began work on that book, he discovered that he would need two books: A rhetoric for the study of humans in interaction and a symbolic for the study individual humans. As Burke started work on the Rhetoric and the Symbolic, he realized that he needed to introduce the whole project with a representative anecdote (the U.S. Constitution) and that realization led him to the further realization that he needed a pre-pre-introduction to lay out a rock bottom logic of analysis on which the entire project could be built. Thus, A Grammar of Motives (GM 317, 340, CS 217–218, Jay 292).

Now we are to a study how the methodology constructed in the Grammar led Burke toward the key term of the Rhetoric, “identification.” Although the Grammar emerged as an unintended by-product of planning the Rhetoric and Symbolic, once Burke had written the Grammar, that very work of writing gave shape to the focal concern of the Rhetoric.

If we look at Burke’s letters from around the time he was writing the Rhetoric, we see Burke on an emotional merry-go-round. In a letter of October 13, 1945, to Malcolm Cowley, Burke wrote: “The Rhetoric should be the easiest volume of the three to write” (Jay 270). Four days later, Burke wrote to William Carlos Williams that “at the moment I’m lying sluggish sans breeze, not yet having got the new direction going for the next book” (East 82). Burke had outlined a general sense of his new direction in the October 13 letter to Cowley: “to keep the book from disintegrating into particular cases . . . I want it to be a rather philosophizing on rhetoric” (Jay 270). During the writing of the book, Burke told Malcolm Cowley that he was writing the book “from the middle out” (Jay 274). And, as David Blakesley points out, Burke suggested a primary writing problem to Hugh Dalzeil Duncan, the monumental status of Aristotle’s Rhetoric: “‘There goes Aristotle, stealing my thunder again,’ he [Burke] would say. ‘That guy makes me tired’“(Blakesley 2). To philosophize about rhetoric, Burke would have to go beyond, or around, Aristotle.

To allow us to follow the methodology of the Grammar toward the Rhetoric, Burke proposes two representative anecdotes for studying the writing of the Rhetoric, both, though in quite different ways, concerned with questions of property and identification:

On p. 27 in my RM, for instance, note how the principle of identification  serves implicitly as a negative, in identifying the shepherds as guardian of his  sheep, yet while he is also identified with an employer who intends to sell them in  the market for mutton. And as for Mary Baker G. Eddy’s “scientific”  identification of pain with error, recall the anecdote of some children who are  born without the normal sensitivity to pain from external contacts, and who as a  result never learn how to move without calamities. Nothing is more real than the  admonishments of pain.

And, all told, I have ended up with a “positive negative,” with an  appropriate “rationale,” in my summings-up.

Burke’s suggestion that we study anecdotes takes us to the “dramatistic approach to dramatism”: “The informative anecdote, we could say, contains in nuce the terminological structure that is evolved in conformity with it. Such a terminology is a ‘conclusion’ that follows from the selection of given anecdote. Thus the anecdote is in a sense a summation, containing implicitly what the system that is developed from it contains explicitly” (GM 60). In his letter, Burke asks us to use anecdotes as clues to the process that led Burke from the methodology created in the Grammar to the choice of identification as key term for the Rhetoric.
For his first anecdote, Burke directs us to the discussion of the shepherd that appears in the section of A Rhetoric of Motives headed “Identification and the Autonomous.” We should note for future reference that the section on autonomy immediately follows the section headed “The Identifying Nature of Property.”

The shepherd appears to be autonomous, literally alone in the fields with her sheep, yet the shepherd is also connected to the merchant who will sheer and slaughter the shepherd’s sheep—for thirty pieces of silver. Our “view” depends on circumference, the scope of our use of the term “shepherd.” The appearance of autonomy arises from a strategic narrowing of circumference.

“Identification” is a word for the autonomous activity’s place in this wider  context, a place with which the agent may be unconcerned. The shepherd, qua  shepherd, acts for the good of the sheep, to protect them from discomfiture and  harm. But he may be “identified” with a project that is raising the sheep for  market. (RM 27)

Cut the merchant out of the discussion and we see the shepherd as exclusively devoted to the health and wellbeing of the flock. Step back from our focus on the open fields and we see the shepherd as a cog in the wheels of commerce—a mere lackey of the capitalist system. The role of the shepherd in the drama of sheepherding changes as her relation to the overall drama changes. Thus the shepherd may be The Good Shepherd or Judas, depending on the scope or reduction of our perspective.

With the story of the shepherd, we find just the kind of sliding back and forth among categories that Burke intends as the hallmark of his Grammar: The shepherd is Agent to his sheep who are the instruments (Agency) of his goals (Purposes) of care and nurture. Widen the circumference and the shepherd becomes one of the merchant’s instruments (Agency), one functionary in a triad of shepherd-sheering-slaughter for the Purposes of marketing and profit, the sheep merging into Scene as aspects of the world of production and consumption that makes the merchant’s work possible. Ratios change with changes of circumference; values and valuations change with changes of circumference.

For the present discussion, Burke wants us to see how these considerations might lead to the questions implicit in the concept of identification, how ambiguities of circumference and ratio might lead to thoughts about the process of creating consubstantiality. The connection perhaps becomes more clear if we look at the section of the Rhetoric immediately preceding the discussion of the shepherd, “The Identifying Nature of Property,” looking at the linkage of property, shepherd, and identification. The story of the shepherd tells us that considerations of property, when viewed from various circumferences, shows us how the roles we play change depending on scope and reduction, show us how persons can become instruments.

In the surrounding of himself with properties that name his number or establish  his identity, man is ethical . . . But however ethical such an array of identifications  may be when considered in itself, its relation to other entities that are likewise  forming their identify in terms of property can lead to turmoil and discord. Here  is par excellence a topic to be considered in a rhetoric having “identification” as  its key term (RM 24).

Again, circumference comes into play: A person working alone to create a self through connections with various properties—material, emotional, metaphysical—may be seen as ethical, may be treated in isolation, under the sign of symbolic. Yet, place that same person in a shared barnyard with other persons pursuing the same or similar patterns of self-creation and battles over ownership of properties inevitably erupt. At some moment even the most sophisticated of us will cry, “Mine.”

David Blakesley (3) again hits the right note in looking at a letter from Burke to William Carlos Williams, dated February 1, 1947, in which Burke focuses his discussion of rhetoric on the individual’s identifications with property: “My own notion, reduced to its simplest form, would run like this: The individual, to be moral, social, communicative, etc., identifies himself with ‘property.’ Property may be of many sorts. Capitalist property, property in methods of working, property in wife and children, property in convictions, property in one’s job, etc. Such properties lead to conflict, (as one man’s area of integration encroach upon another’s). . . . The Rhetoric, if it turns out as planned, should show the many ramifications of property” (East 111). When the Rhetoric finally emerged, property had been demoted, had become one among the many factors involved in the question of identification.

Questions surrounding property in all its guises allow to us to see what would otherwise be invisible, the process of identity formation through contact with the world. Problematically, a narrow focus on a single individual struggling with naming her number may prevent us from seeing how other people’s motives influence that individual’s developing sense of self. Questions surrounding identification stand at the crossroads between the symbolic and the rhetoric. “In pure identification there would be no strife. . . . 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” (RM 25). By turning from the individual in isolation to a consideration of the variety of individuals in collaboration with that individual, expanding the scope of circumference, we move toward a comprehensive understanding of the range of that individual’s properties. “When two men collaborate in an enterprise to which they contribute different kinds of services and from which they derive different amounts and kinds of profit, who is to say, once and for all, just where ‘cooperation’ ends and one partner’s ‘exploitation’ of the other begins?” (RM 25). No one may say, once and for all, what is the right name for the relationships operating in a given collaborative event, whether cooperation or exploitation or some combination of the two. The issue of naming properties is irreducibly arguable, inherently rhetorical. We will never all always agree on the right name for our properties.

And so, we study the shepherd and the merchant, two actors in complex, ambiguous collaboration regarding a common property. A narrow circumference creates the appearance of autonomy and allows the participants to deny any inherent discord, but put the two together and who’s to say which is the Real Shepherd? The assignment of (hexed) Pentadic terms, a survey of the ratios and an analysis of the functions of Circumference focus our attention on two connected, but often conflicting kinds of identification implicit in the concept of a shepherd.

For his second anecdote, Burke directs us to the story of the child who does not feel pain from external contacts. From Burke’s perspective, “Nothing is more real than the admonishments of pain.” In the Grammar, Burke situates the body as the starting point of dramatistic analysis: “This is contained in our formula: the basic unit of action is the human body in purposive motion. We have here a kind of ‘lowest common denominator’ of action, a minimal requirement that should appear in every act, however many more and greater are the attributes of a complex act” (61).

For Mary Baker G. Eddy, “Matter cannot be sick, and Mind is immortal. The mortal body is only an erroneous mortal belief of mind in matter” (372). Eddy’s rejection of pain is literal and unequivocal: “The effect of mortal mind on health and happiness is seen in this: If one turns away from the body with such absorbed interest as to forget it, the body experiences no pain” (261). We see here the first phase of Eddy’s dialectical process for transcending the realm of the body. By our nature as fallen creatures, we appear to be trapped in mortal bodies with mortal minds. If we can learn to focus our attention in just the right way, even our limited mortal mind can escape the limitations of the body. This first step, achievable by an initial understanding of the interpretive scheme constructed by Eddy in Science and Health, can lead to an entry into Immortal Mind and eventually to an escape from mortality itself.

The dramatistic perspective begins from a stance diametrically opposed to Christian Science. Burke insists on the body as the irreducible sine qua non for both motion and action. Eddy denies the body any legitimacy at all; any bodily claim is error. When we set these two positions side by side, Burke asks us to see the “positive negative.”

The best available discussion of the concept of “positive negative” appears in Richard Coe’s article, “Defining Rhetoric—and Us.” Coe is here discussing the second clause of Burke’s “Definition of Man”: “inventor of the negative”(LSA 9–13).

Still, Burke is right to add this second clause, for many crucial features of  language, culture and humanness fall under the heading of “the power of negative  thinking,” which Burke calls “my positive negative." We are for the  most part logical positivists . . . we believe in the positive  facts of practical realism and can grasp the virtues of negativity only with  difficulty (often only with the aid of Asian spiritualism or Hegelian philosophy).

Burke thinks of the “positive negative” in terms of Greek drama,  especially Oedipus and the Orestia, juxtaposing Aristotle’s Poetics with his  Rhetoric. Antigone is Hegelian, he says. Pain is a “positive negative” as in  catharsis “a message, not an error,” as when it tells us to remove our fingers from  a hot stove (personal communication, 31 August, 1989) (42).

Negative thinking allows us to see the limitations of claims about facts, allows us to see facts from varieties of perspectives, to break out of our occupational psychoses to recognize the values implicit in all claims about facts. (For a connection to Korzybski see Nicotra 345).

Negative thinking creates a positive result, a result which is inherently dialectical: We go to the theater of tragedy knowing that we will be drawn into unwanted, even painful experiences, but we go with an expectation of release (and perhaps enlightenment) that can arise through the pain. Just as physical pain sends messages to the body, symbolically induced pain sends messages to the psyche. In the language of the Grammar: “One of the most common fallacies in the attempt to determine the intrinsic is the equating of the intrinsic with the unique. . . . We cannot define by differentia alone; the differentiated also has significant attributes as members of its class” (48). We must carry dialectical thinking with us as an active tool in everyday life.

Then Burke says in the April, 1989, letter, that “all told, I have ended up with a ‘positive negative,’ with an appropriate ‘rationale,’ in my summings-up.” The concept of identification exhibits the characteristics of a positive negative: First, note the inherent dialectical character in any given identification, then look for ways to use that dialectical term positively in action.

Burke’s identification differs from some psychological theories of identification in rejecting the idea that identification involves a merger so complete that the separate identities dissolve into one. Burke’s identification reaches toward consubstantiality not transubstantiality. “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” (RM 20). Burke here shows the pervasive power of “insofar” throughout the Boikwoiks, and centrally for the Rhetoric: “insofar as their interests are joined.” Each participant remains doubly distinct: (1) Bodies never merge; my toothache is always only mine and quintessentially real; (2) Identification among participants occurs only for those motives at risk in the given rhetorical situation. We join in celebrating The Good Shepherd because we focus only on the guardian aspect of the shepherd, ignoring the market. We may all join in opposing the latest war, but we will adjourn to quite different venues after the rally.

Burke’s “positive negative” choice to set identification as key term for the Rhetoric arose through the program for systematic negative thinking he had constructed in the Grammar. Circumferential thinking helped him to see the role of transcendence in judgments about relations between individuals and society. Circumference advances on earlier terms for perspective by incongruity, because circumference is recursive, directing us to see changes in value emerging through a variety of changes in scope. We may learn more about the recursive nature of circumference along lines Robert Wess suggests. “While it is perhaps easiest to think of circumference from the standpoint of scene, as in the range of scenes in which Stephen Dedalus places himself, circumference is not limited to scene. In the chapter on idealist terminologies [see GM 181] for example, Burke marks the shift from Berkeley’s agent to Hume’s as a ‘narrowing of circumference’“ (151). Burke reminds us (GM 316, RM 111) that forgotten aspects of a dialectical process may reappear in cognate terminologies at higher levels of transcendence—treating circumference through the rhetorical concern for hierarchy.

The terms of the (hexed) Pentad and its ratios helped Burke to see how shifting perspectives can change our thinking about people’s roles, even to the point of seeing people as agents from one perspective while from another perspective seeing those same people as agencies. The (hexed) Pentad, adapting Aristotle’s terminology for drama, provides a comprehensive taxonomy (when mood, quo modo, is included—hexed) of dramatistic roles. Ratios among the terms allow us to see the dialectical interchanges among the roles.

From the evidence that Burke was, during the early phases of writing the Rhetoric, thinking of human interaction in terms of property, we may infer that property was insufficiently “positive negative.” Given a society steeped in positivism, nothing is more heavily weighted toward the positive than property. Although Burke speaks a good deal about property as both a term for material possession and for internal aspects of persons, the physicality of properties tends to overwhelm their metaphorical value. Identification starts a step back from the physical, resisting efforts to make identification an exclusively positive tool in rhetorical action.

And, of course, identification resists the purported rationality of property ownership and exchange, reaching into the realm of the nonrational. Although Burke rather disingenuously says in the “Introduction” to the Rhetoric that identification is “but an accessory to the standard lore” (xiv), he argues that identification provides a significant new line of investigation quite different from the traditional concern for rational deliberation, “an intermediate area of expression that is not wholly deliberate, yet not wholly unconscious” (xiii). The term “identification” will allow us to set beside Aristotle’s focus on persuasion, Burke’s own amalgam-on-a-bias of Freud and Marx, the family drama and symbols of authority (PLF 305–313).

No doubt these speculations will be superseded by further revelations from the Burke archives as scholars find more unpublished information about the writing of A Rhetoric of Motives, as Blakesley has already done with Burke’s letters, Zappen with unpublished ancillary documents and Crable with manuscripts. We might set Burke’s “positive negative” beside Crable’s and Zappen’s recent studies of the function of dialectical symmetry in the overall design of the Rhetoric.

We might look closer at the intertwining of concepts between the Rhetoric and the Grammar along lines that Robert Wess suggests: “‘Ultimate’ [as used in the Rhetoric] corresponds to ‘circumference’ and ‘substance’ [as used in the Grammar]” (205). Extension should be possible along the lines of Elizabeth Weiser’s study of the composition of A Grammar of Motives, expanding the circumference of the issues raised in this note from the intertextual impact of the Grammar on the Rhetoric to a view of Burke’s interactions with his friends, the nation, J. Edgar Hoover, et al., as WWII ended and the Atomic Age began. Burke devoted several passages of the Rhetoric to the Cold War (see Wess 195). In his letters to William Carlos Williams, Burke said, that the Rhetoric would “mitigate the imperialist itch [of the United States]” (East 111)

Burke returned to his concern with properties and persons in his last sequence of published work, the Afterwords to Permanence and Change and Attitudes Toward History and the article “In Haste.” There, Burke proposed a dialectical program pairing the personalistic principle with the instrumentalist principle, asking us to look at the ways in which those two principles interact and even interchange. His principle anecdote, analyzed in “In Haste,” is the medieval process of vassalage through which people voluntarily became instruments of the local warlord for purposes of periodic maintenance and improvement of roads (Agents choosing to become Agencies).

Works Cited

Blakesley, David. “William Carlos Williams’s Influence on Kenneth Burke.”  KB Journal. Conference Paper Repository. 1997. Web. 4 April 2012.

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

—. Counter-Statement. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968. Print.

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

—. “In Haste.” Pre/Text: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory. 6.3–4 (1985): 329–77 [339- 42]. Print.

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

—. Letter, 13 April 1989.

—. “On Persuasion, Identification, and Dialectical Symmetry.” Ed. James Zappen.  Philosophy and Rhetoric. 39.4 (2006): 333–39. Print.

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

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

—. “Questions and Answers about the Pentad.” College Composition and  Communication. 29.4 (December 1978): 330–35. Print.

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

Richard Coe. “Defining Rhetoric—and Us.” Journal of Advanced Composition 10 (1990): 39–52. Print.

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

East, James, H. The Humane Particulars: The Collected Letters of William Carlos  Williams and Kenneth Burke. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P, 2003. Print.

Eddy, Mary Baker. Science and Health: with Key to the Scriptures. Boston: Christian  Science P. Soc., 1875, 1906. Print.

Jay, Paul. The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley, 1915- 1981. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990. Print.

Nicotra, Jodie. “Dancing Attitudes in Wartime: Kenneth Burke and General Semantics.”  Rhetoric Society Quarterly 39.4 (2009) 331–52. Print.

Weiser, Elizabeth M. Burke, War, Words: Rhetoricizing Dramatism. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P, 2008. Print.

Robert Wess. Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, subjectivity, postmodernism. Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.

Zappen, James P. “Kenneth Burke on Dialectical-Rhetorical Transcendence.”  Philosophy and Rhetoric 24.3 (2009): 279–301. Print.

* Michael Feehan is Staff Attorney for the Bureau of Legislative Research in Arkansas. He can be reached at

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Divination and Mysticism as Rhetoric in the Choral Space

Grace Veach


This paper examines the element of rhetoric that dwells outside of the logos, specifically as it is described in Gregory Ulmer’s chora and in Kenneth Burke’s references to the mystical. When Gregory Ulmer introduced divination into Electronic Monuments, his 2005 book advocating the commemoration of the abject, he reintroduced the idea of rhetoric as a link to the unknown. This move actually refers to a long tradition; in fact, Kenneth Burke had laid groundwork for Ulmer, as had Ernesto Grassi. Together, these three theorists lay out possibilities for making a space in rhetoric for the mystical and the divinatory; the demise of modernism may mean that we are once again ready to hesitantly approach the unknown through the equally mysterious medium of language.

GREGORY ULMER AND KENNETH BURKE BOTH POSIT A REALM OF LANGUAGE that connects the City, with its logical, reasoned commercial interactions, with the abyss, the realm into which the human can peer, but not venture. Ulmer uses the term “chora” to describe this intermediary space. In the chora, events are random, not causal, and it is up to the symbol-using animal to make sense of these random events, images, and encounters. The ability to do so productively can be intentionally refined; Burke, Grassi, and Ulmer each approach this technique in ways that demonstrate the power of metaphor and the performative in the rhetoric of mysticism.

Ever since Gorgias, the old Sophist, acquitted Helen by attributing to rhetoric powers comparable to magic, rhetoric has been linked to the mystical, the unknown, and that which is beyond the natural. Yet the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason and science, forced this strand of rhetoric largely underground. When Gregory Ulmer introduced divination into Electronic Monuments,his 2005 book advocating the commemoration of the abject, I had almost forgotten this characterization of the discipline. Although Ulmer’s connection of rhetoric with divination seemed at first to come “out of the blue,” I realized that he was refreshing a long tradition; in fact, Kenneth Burke had done groundwork for Ulmer in several of his works. Together, Burke, Ulmer, and Ernesto Grassi lay out possibilities for making a space in rhetoric for the mystical and the divinatory; the demise of modernism may mean that we are once again ready to hesitantly approach the unknown.

In his 2007 article “Toward the Chōra,” Thomas J. Rickert postulates that the little-used rhetorical term “chōra” might be a rhetorical space where rhetorical work that mingles reason and mystery might take place. Although Plato uses the term interchangeably with “topos,” Rickert teases out the meaning of “the outskirts of a city” for chōra. The repetitive movement between the city proper and its outskirts evokes the original Homeric meaning of chōros, a dancing space (254). In the sense that chōra is non-city, it carries a sense of place not-yet-formed, which Rickert associates with the initial state of invention “in the sense of finding ways to actualize or enact what are initially only ideas, feelings, or intuitions” (257). Ulmer’s choice of the word “chōra” as the site of invention for his electronic monuments, then, deliberately situates the divinatory work of rhetoric outside the site (topos) of rhetorical invention that emphasizes argumentation and logic. Another feature of the chōra, situated as it is surrounding the city, is that it occupies the space between the city and the abyss. The abyss, of course, brings the unknowable, thus the ineffable, to the borders of the known, where, as Kenneth Burke famously writes, humans “build their cultures by huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss” (Permanence 272). The abyss represents that space where foundations fail; the chōra represents the expansive space between certainty, reason (the city), and the unspeakable.

In his book, Electronic Monuments, Gregory Ulmer begins in the chōra, which he claims that Plato interpreted “as a third metaphysical entity, as the space or region in which being and becoming interacted” (Electronic Monuments 6). For Ulmer, chōra leads toward divination early in the book, when he writes that “chōra is about the crossing of chance and necessity” (39). As opposed to topoi, where the rhetor purposefully seeks answers, the chōra is a space of potential; as the querent mindfully dwells within the chōra, the answer to her dilemma may arise by chance. The ability to recognize the kairotic coincidence of need and solution is the skill the rhetor needs in this moment; Ulmer writes, “’Chora’ names the memory or memorial operation of sorting or ordering of that which remains undifferentiated” (125).  Thus chōra names a place of action, of assigning potential meaning to a seemingly random occurrence.  Calling on Aristotle’s distinction between essential and accidental qualities, Ulmer distinguishes literacy from electracy, his term for electronic literacy, by using these same categories. Thus “a topos collects entities into universal homogeneous sets based on shared essences, necessary attributes; chora gathers singular ephemeral sets of heterogeneous items based on associations of accidental details” (120). The accidental quality of the chōra establishes it as the place for non-logical combinations, i.e. divinations.

In moving to the level of the self, Ulmer theorizes that there is a point, the “punctum,” which is the response of the subject to that in an image or a text which disturbs, unsettles, or disperses the audience. The subject’s response results in the construction of a MEmorial, an electronic monument, which maps her attempt to fill in the gap that occurs as a result of the punctum. Ulmer calls this mapping function “choragraphy”; it is not “choreography,” a map of the movements of a dance, but a map that is generated within the organizing space of the chōra. When Ulmer writes, “the challenge is to locate and engage with the hole that necessarily opens onto the outside of every whole” (85), he relates the individual to what he calls the “group subject.” In attending to her own punctum, the mapping egent (i.e. electronic agent) offers her partial solution to the gap she has intuited. Ulmer goes on to remind the reader that “the paradox of modern knowledge circulates around the incompleteness theorem postulating the paradox that no system is able rigorously to account for itself. There is a blind spot at the very core of clarity” (85). The blind spot Ulmer refers to is similar to that which Derrida refers in “The Principle of Reason”; in Derrida’s case, that which is built on reason fails to account for the use of reason as foundation (10), thus creating an abyss. In both situations, that which is foundational cannot be explained with regard to itself and must call upon some radically different principle. For Ulmer, the egent resorts to choragraphy, invention which takes place between chaos (the abyss) and reason (the city).  

The link between the chōra and divination results from several elements characteristic of the chōra.  As the site of mystery, the chōra is the home of the sacred, the metaphorical, the random, and many other communicative acts that employ indirection rather than direction. Ulmer quotes Bataille: “In the sacred place, human existence meets the figure of destiny fixed by the caprice of chance: the determining laws that science defines are the opposite of this play of fantasy constituting life” (125). “Destiny fixed by the caprice of chance” is a fairly accurate definition of divination. Ulmer’s association of the chōra with chance, mysticism, emblem, music, and dance links meaning with that suggestion-which-is-not-quite-meaning, in a way that is somehow both inside and outside of language. Ulmer adds to the literate pair signifier/signified a third element to represent the electrate age; the chōra, the “third space” is represented by the image or emblem. Divination, then, is one possible means of linking the punctum, the perceived hole in the subject, with its destiny as suggested by the invention of the querent within the chōra; this encounter will be mapped through choragraphy.

Once Ulmer actually introduces the concept of divination within Electronic Monuments, he approaches it via “the magic tool,” to Ulmer a dowsing rod in the shape of a Y. He writes, “this transversal of instances constitutes a kind of divination process, shared among all those holding the ends of the virtual wishbone [another Y] . Together we are like those dowsers who wandered over the grounds of certain premises…” (163). Note that the divination to which Ulmer refers is here a collective process; the entire egency (electronic agency) searching together for meaning. He recalls the generation of his juxtaposition of divination with deconsulting (consulting regarding the punctum):

The chief addition to deconsulting … that resulted from the Miami experience was the syncretism of poststructural poetics with the Afro-Caribbean epistemology of divination. The formal operations of divination lent themselves well to choragraphy as sacred space … applied to cognitive mapping. Divination as an interface for consulting makes mystory [the individual’s electronic memoir] intuitively intelligible. A person with an intractable problem consults a diviner, who uses a chance procedure to connect the personal problem with the collective cultural archive. (213)

Ulmer imagines divination acting upon the punctum as one member of the deconsultancy speaks as “querent” and posits a “burning question.” He writes, “the querent…makes the final decision on the answer based on an emotional experience of recognition” (214). Ulmer calls this specialized application of divination “choramancy.” The specific mapping addressed by the choragraphy, which includes divination, is that of a maze or a branched tree (i.e. a rhizome). Ulmer: “The ubiquity of references to Borges’s ‘forking paths’ in hypermedia poetics is not only about linking, but about ethics. In the face of a collective amnesia, the Real presents us with a materialized rebuke: Don’t you see that every action—every click—is a choice?” (254). Completing the circle, Ulmer ends Electronic Monuments by calling on egents to “think at the speed of light,” a process which he terms “flash reason” (262). Flash reason equates to an electrate version of intuition, as Ulmer explains in his blog: “The immediate relevance for us is engagement with dimensions of experience that exceed the reach of language or discourse. The task of flash reason is to develop an image metaphysics that ontologizes this register of experience. Flash reason supports collective epiphany” (“Lord Chandos”).

Although Ulmer refers to divination several times in Electronic Monuments, the sudden introduction of the apparently occult into rhetoric might surprise the reader. While Kenneth Burke does not go so far as Ulmer does in opening the door to explicitly mystical practices, his rhetoric certainly paves the way for—and perhaps explains to some extent—Ulmer’s approach.  In her book Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edge of Language, Debra Hawhee devotes a chapter to Burke’s approach to mysticism. Hawhee believes that Burke’s encounter with mysticism led him to “a critical method that foregrounds the body as a vital, connective, transformational force” (33). This focus on the body may have been a result of Burke witnessing the mystic G. I. Gurdjieff’s 1924 visit to New York. Gurdjieff led a dance troupe that was certainly known to Burke and his circle; the troupe’s “performances aimed to alter existing habits radically, to revitalize bodies, and communicate sacred and vital knowledge through those bodies” (Hawhee 40).  It is no coincidence that dance is involved in mysticism; once again, choreography leads to its near-cognate, choragraphy. Dance, as an embodiment of mysticism, necessarily occupies space in the chōra.

Hawhee cites Burke’s embrace of the mystic P. D. Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum; Burke termed Ouspensky mysticism’s “apologist of distinction” (37). In his book, Ouspensky relates art and divination: “The artist must be a clairvoyant [i.e. a far-seer]: he must see that which others do not see: he must be a magician: must possess the power to make others see that which they do not themselves see, but which he does see” (quoted in Hawhee 37).  Although Ouspensky generalizes here about the artist, his description could as easily portray the rhetorician, who sees and then seeks to share her vision. Burke picks up this metaphor of sight in Permanence and Change. “When traditional ways of seeing and doing (with their accompanying verbalizations) have begun to lose their authority” (223) mysticism will come to the fore.  He apparently felt that he was living in such a time; he describes American culture of the 1920’s and 1930’s as a situation in which “precisely the resources which could make us joyous are allowed to mark the centre of our disasters” (quoted in Hawhee 35).  Ulmer too expresses concern for “the centre of our disasters” (i.e. the punctum); in Ulmer’s vision, however, it is not only the task of the artist, but of any who wish to become egents, to explain the punctum via the Electronic Monument.

Burke does not use “chōra” terminology; it would be up to Derrida to later revive the term. His descriptions of mysticism make frequent use of the choral metaphors we have come to expect, however. In Rhetoric of Motives, for example, he writes “there is a ground, in both agent and scene, beyond the verbal” (324). Assuming that the verbal is represented by the city, the chōra is that which is beyond and surrounding the verbal.  Burke seems to be referring to the abyss when he writes that “there are also sources of mystery beyond rhetoric….found in fears that arise from the sense of limits (so that one says in effect: ‘Another perhaps can go beyond that point, but not I’—or ‘Maybe I can go beyond that point after preparation, but not now’)”(Rhetoric 180). The city (logos) is therefore a place they can visit, but the chōra, with its uncertainty and its proximity to the abyss and its ephemeral boundaries is their true home. In Burke’s overall scheme this makes sense; because humans are the symbol-using animal, the place where body and mind both hold sway would be humankind’s natural dwelling place.

Even though logical argument composes a large field within rhetoric, there has always also been a parallel path for rhetoric in which it is “the speech that acts on the emotions” (Grassi 200). In “Rhetoric and Philosophy,” Ernesto Grassi illustrates the difference between rhetorical speech and philosophical speech through the example of Cassandra and the Chorus in Agamemnon. Cassandra, the prophetess or diviner, “knows nothing of cause and effect,” but “speaks only through images and symbols” (205). The only way that Cassandra and the Chorus can communicate is through metaphor, the special language which connects logic and emotion through intuition, or flash reason.  Burke identifies oxymoron as the characteristic rhetorical figure of the mystical, referring to a “‘truth’ beyond the realm of logical contradictions, and accordingly best expressed in terms of the oxymoron” (Rhetoric 331). The space opened in the oxymoron’s juxtaposition of contradiction is nothing more than the chōra being employed in discourse to extend meaning beyond the effable.

In spite of their seeming agreement to this point, regarding the extra-logical space which is home to both mysticism and rhetoric, Burke and Ulmer do differ significantly regarding the mystical. For Ulmer, divination is a means of invention which can be encountered within the chōra and which the querent (the rhetor) can shape into a pattern that reveals a message relevant to the query. In other words, the motivating force behind divination is ultimately the rhetor herself. For Burke, however, there is always a hint, the merest possibility, that the rhetor is not alone in the mystical activity. So rather than communicating with one’s own unconscious mind, one is communicating with the true unknown. Burke writes, “mystery arises at that point where different kinds of beings are in communication” (Rhetoric 115). Later, he elaborates:

Implicit in persuasion, there is theology, since theology is the ultimate reach of communication between different classes of beings….prayer has its own invitation to the universalizing of class distinction, the pleader being by nature inferior to the pled-with….One cannot without an almost suicidal degree of perfection merely pray. One must pray to something. Hence, the plunge direct to the principle of persuasion, as reduced to its most universal form, leads to the theologian’s attempt to establish an object of such prayer; namely: God….In sum, we are suggesting: The ‘theology’ that Marx detected in ‘ideological mystification’ is the last reach of the persuasive principle itself. (178-79)

Burke, Ulmer, and Grassi have all made a special place for mysticism within rhetoric, but how might this knowledge assist the rhetor in effecting social change? One key is in the power of metaphor. Grassi makes special note of this in the example from Agamemnon described above. In their book on metaphor, Lakoff and Johnson explain that metaphor “unites reason [i.e., philosophy] and imagination [i.e., poetics]” (193). Burke illustrates the rhetorical power of metaphor at the beginning of The Rhetoric of Motives, when he describes how Milton used the biblical story of Samson to rhetorically identify with this blind hero:

In saying, with fervor, that a blind Biblical hero did conquer, the poet is ‘substantially’ saying that he in his blindness will conquer. This is moralistic prophecy, and is thus also a kind of ‘literature for use,’ use at one remove, though of a sort that the technologically-minded would consider the very opposite of use, since it is wholly in the order of ritual and magic (5).

By pairing the rhetorical strength of the metaphor with Burke’s concept of identification, the rhetor employs a powerful appeal to the audience. This is in essence the technique that Gorgias uses in his Encomium of Helen when he compares the power of persuasion to witchcraft (metaphor), and reminds his audience that they themselves have been won over by words (identification):  “So that on most subjects most men take opinion as counselor to their soul, but since opinion is slippery and insecure it casts those employing it into slippery and insecure successes” (11).

The mystical and divinatory are also key in practicing and interpreting the performative in rhetoric. Both mysticism and divination involve physical practices, as does the chōra, with its rootedness in “choreography” and with its connotation of movement to and from the city. For Ulmer, one of the ways to perform divination is to move through a space and take note of recurring themes within that space as they might apply to the query. Burke expresses this more generally by describing mysticism as the way that body opens access to spirit (Rhetoric 189). Performativity can function in ways that do not easily fit into any of the classical rhetorical appeals, yet it remains firmly linked to rhetorical practice. In his book Acts of Enjoyment, Thomas Rickert quotes Žižek to emphasize this: “Leave rational argumentation and submit yourself simply to ideological ritual, stupefy yourself by repeating the meaningless gestures, act as if you already believe, and belief will come by itself” (115).  Here is the opportunity for positive change. C. S. Lewis writes of the power of pretending to transform or to be transformed: “Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already” (161). Burke generalizes this when he writes “action is not merely a means of doing but a way of being” (Grammar 310). How mysticism and divination participate in rhetoric is indeed a mystery in itself. Perhaps allowing openness to the possibility of non-intentional (i.e. mystical, divinatory, intuitive, epiphanic, performative) cues is the first step. By being attentive to these cues, or at the very least to the individual’s interpretation of them, the rhetor can access a new level of possibility for inventing meaning in the world.

Works Cited

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

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

---. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. New York: New Republic, 1935. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of Its Pupils.” Diacritics 13.3 (1983): 2-20. Print.

Gorgias. “Gorgias' Encomium of Helen.” Web. 17 Nov. 2010.

Grassi, Ernesto. “Rhetoric and Philosophy.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 9.4 (1976): 200-216. Print.

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

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003. Print.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1960. Print.

Rickert, Thomas J. “Toward the Chora: Kristeva, Derrida, and Ulmer on Emplaced Invention.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 40.3 (2007): 251-273. Print.

Ulmer, Gregory. Electronic Monuments. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005. Print.

---. “Lord Chandos.” Heuretics: Inventing Electracy 4 July 2010. Web. 27 Nov. 2010.

*Grace Veach is a doctoral student in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of South Florida and Dean of Library Services at Southeastern University at Lakeland, Florida. Her research interests include Kenneth Burke, literacy and St. Augustine. She can be reached at

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Volume 7, Issue 2, Spring 2011

The Spring 2011 issue begins with an editorial from KB Journal editor Andy King, "Burke on the Persistence of Myth and Ritual." Features in this issue include Barton R. Horvath, “The Burke I Knew”; Gretchen K. G. Underwood, “From Form to Function: In Defense of an Internal Use of the Pentad”; William Cahill, “Always Keep Watching For Terms: Posthumous Interview With Kenneth Burke (Report of Six Visits with KB 1989-1990 in Andover New Jersey)”; William Cahill, “Cahill’s Photo Gallery: Pictures from the Interview”; Andrew Kidd, “Kenneth Burke and the Contemporary Philosophy of Science”; Rosemary Royston, “Positive Indemnification Through Being the ‘Occasional Asshole’: A Burkean analysis of Dear John by Poet Tony Hoagland.” This issue also includes articles by Ted Remington, “Ceci N’est Pas Une Guerre: The Misuse of War as Metaphor in Iraq”; Abram Anders, “Pragmatisms by Incongruity: ‘Equipment for Living from Kenneth Burke to Gilles Deleuze”; Brian O’Sullivan, “Crimes of Juxtaposition: Incongruous Frames in Sullivan’s Travels”; Stephanie Grey, “A Perfect Loathing: The Feminist Expulsion of the Eating Disorder”; William Cahill, “Kenneth Burke’s Pedagogy of Motives”; Drew M. Loewe, “‘Where Human Relations Grandly Converge’: The Constitutional Dialectic of Hizb ut-Tahrir”; Jeffrey Carroll, “The Song Above Catastrophe: Kenneth Burke on Music.” Additionally, there is a review of Mark A. Huglen and Basil B. Clark’s Poetic Healing: A Vietnam Veteran’s Journey from a Communication Perspective and a Scholar’s Note from Mary Hedengren.

Editorial: Burke on the Persistence of Myth and Ritual

The View from Andy King’s Camera Obscura

“MALCOLM COWLEY AND I CAME LATE to reading Alan Fraser’s famous work, The Golden Bough; Malcolm wondered why a man like Alan Frazer who dismissed all myth and ritual as superstition and primitive survival would have  spent so many years recording all those sacrificial and ceremonial practices if he thought they were so stupid," said Kenneth Burke to Bill Bailey and I as we picked over the remains of a meal in Tucson in 1971.  I don’t remember much of the rest of our late night conversation because at that point we had just broken into Bailey’s second bottle of claret.  Although we weren’t exactly legless, the rest of Burke’s wonderful language has long faded in my memory but I can still pretty well recall the general outlines of the conversation.

Burke said that while Cowley and some of his other friends had experienced The Golden Bough as an emancipatory and liberating experience, he felt that Frazer’s core idea was utterly and crudely false.  Fraser, a proudly lapsed Scottish Calvinist and rationalist, argued that myth and ritual were remnants of our primitive and superstition-laden past.    Burke on the other hand felt that the hardy survival of so many myths—creation, redemption, guilt and sacrifice, and charismatic transformations of spirit—proved the opposite.    Burke believed that myths were not illusions and mistakes, but rich systems of understanding human experience and powerful generators of social behavior.   His famous Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle with Hitler as tribal medicine man and cunning magician came out of his understanding that myth and ritual are brutally alive in the present.  Perhaps as a result of his translation of Thomas Mann’s works, Burke further rejected Max Weber’s then received wisdom of the disenchantment of the world and the triumph of Enlightenment mechanistic thought.  So much of Mann’s work was founded on the myth of the questing hero and his work was informed by pagan ideas of the spirits of locale and middle air.

One could speculate that Burke’s reconnection with myth and ritual eventually led him out of communitarian politics and toward the ecology movement.  Burke himself had been in the grip of the agrarian myth as had Alan Tate and the Agrarians of the 1920s who sought an intermediate place between civilization and wilderness—Robert Penn Warren’s “cultivated state of grace.” As there is a piece by a Thoreau scholar in this issue I am reminded of Burke’s mixed feelings about Henry David Thoreau.   Burke had sought Virgil’s “unbeastly pastoral” in Northern New Jersey in the 1920s and his difficult experience there allowed him to expose Henry David Thoreau as a “fraud who mistook suburbia for wilderness.” Burke described   Walden Woods in Concord in the following manner:   “I think it is not a hell of a lot more than a big grove of oak trees added to a couple of orphan wood lots.  And I am told that what Thoreau lived on was supposed to be the twelve acres owned by Emerson.”  But in the long run Burke forgave Thoreau’s wilderness fantasy reminding us that it was Thoreau who had written that the wilderness was really an imagined realm inside ourselves.  I hunted down Burke’s long ago reference and found it in Thoreau’s book American Landscape (New York, 1991).  “It is vain to dream of a wilderness distinct from ourselves.  It is the bog in our brain and bowels, the primitive vigor of nature in us that inspires the dream” (pp. 126-27).

Burke’s genius was that he was able to take myth seriously without being utterly dazzled by its poetic power. He could appreciate myth without debunking it and yet without surrendering to it blindly.  This wonderful sense of balance is illustrated throughout his Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle, surely one of the grandest pieces of rhetorical criticism ever written and a style model for the ages.

Despite Burke’s harsh indictment of Southern agrarian literature as “a kind of gritty Sociology”,   he always admired their keen portrayals of the survival of myth in the modern world. It has become a literary commonplace to note that Faulkner’s Flood story recalibrated the river legends of Isis and Osiris, and Tate’s Ode to the Confederate Dead reanimated sacrifice and resurrection.  For him the work of Tate and Warren and Faulkner and Welty illustrated the generative power of myth in shaping our social relations and providing what the artist Bailey called “the narrative night music that helps us make sense of this buzzing burbling  daylight  world.

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The Burke I Knew

Barton R. Horvath

I TAUGHT WRITING FOR MORE than forty years on the agricultural campus of a large Mid-Western university.  Year after year I assigned students to write essays using extended comparison and then was bludgeoned by five dozen dreary essays comparing oats and barley, hard red winter wheat and Kansas Spring wheat, and the manners and morals of two rival National Football League quarterbacks. These essays were stapled and stuffed into cardboard folders of Lincoln green, the traditional color of Christian Hope.  But my early hope died as   over the decades the essays bludgeoned me with their slipshod sentences, their mindless conclusions, their sentimental blather, and their teeming grammatical barbarisms.  The red knuckled children of the farm and the workshop were more like the thick tongued warrior, Ulfila than the lyrical Thomas Cranmer, more thundering Odin than John Milton, more Tarl the Viking berserker than melodious Dante.  Devoutly did I seek, fervently did I pray, earnestly did I call out for a diamond in the rough. No diamond in the rough ever showed up; thus, my intellectually empty and spiritually joyless years in the composition classroom.

I seldom went to conferences and my single and well focused research interest was in the work of Henry David Thoreau, the man Emerson said “could have been a great admiral, a great statesman, a major poet, but ended up having done nothing more significant than organizing a huckleberry party.” I felt a strong kinship with Thoreau.   Passed over by our contemporaries, I believed that he and I drew our thought from a deeper source.  We were lonely keepers of the literary flame.

One year I went to a dreary conference on Emerson at Purdue. Except for two or three papers that touched on Emerson’s relationship with Thoreau I found the papers incredibly boring.   One paper explored Emerson’s relationship with the new invention of the telegraph.    Another plumbed the depths of his contempt for the American university. Even more sleep-producing presentations concerned his reflections on walking, national character and farming.  But during the conference I heard that the great Kenneth Burke was giving a lecture on campus.  My friend, Roger Clement Knox, urged me to go telling me that Burke was “an original thinker, not the usual academic piss ant.”

I forget the title of the lecture except that it was about the moral geography of America.   I had a good deal of difficulty following the lecture which seemed to lurch off in several different directions at once.  However, during the lecture Burke uttered a sentence I will never forget.   He said (in effect for I wrote down what may be a garbled version of his exact words) “For Henry David Thoreau and the early Transcendentalists there could be no middle ground between nature and the wilderness.  They did not permit equivocation.  For people like Thoreau, nature must be the virgin and culture the whore.”   Burke went on to say that there was nothing uniquely American about these observations. They were inherited  themes, the  exhausted sentiments of the Old World, the warmed over Classicism of Goethe and Schiller and Fichte,  and the hard cheese stale folk tales that Washington Irving stole from the European arcana.

I was so infuriated by these perspectives that I considered shouting Burke down.  After the lecture I cornered him and attempted to refute him.The little man was actually delighted by my fury. My objections were like rich wine to him.  “I understand you.  I fully understand you,” he kept saying happily.   His replies were astoundingly civil and good humored.  After two hours of argument I was exhausted but Burke was still going like the Energizer Bunny.   His stock of information about Thoreau was immense.  Several people joined us and no matter what observation was made, Burke seemed to have what I can only call “instant context”. 

We continued our argument through correspondence.  But Burke as a letter writer seemed far less fluent than Burke as a debater.  Although he never convinced me that Thoreau was the last flatulent echo of the Greco-Roman agrarian tradition, I shall never forget the electricity of that encounter at Purdue.

That was a long time ago.  Burke is long gone.  Cox is gone.  My Lincoln green composition folders went into the paper shredders a couple of decades ago.  But Burke’s stream of argument, example and narrative and the little horns of hair standing up above his ears are still vividly alive in the black projection room of my mind.

He was always a man apart from anyone else, a man you remembered forever.   In his thought he had spanned cultures, nations, and centuries.   He interrogated Aquinas in his midnight study, traveled with Cervantes to Lepanto, and sparred with Carlyle in the Bobby Burns Tavern in Edinburgh.  For more than seven decades he lived the life of the literary intellectual largely outside the university.  We will not see his like again.  The breed is extinct.

*Dr. Barton R. Horvath is a pseudonym for a professor of Rhetoric who spent more than forty years teaching composition at a large upper Midwestern university (also not named by him).  He also taught a well known undergraduate course on Transcendentalist Literature featuring the work of Channing, Emerson, and Thoreau.
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From Form to Function: In Defense of an Internal Use of the Pentad

Gretchen K. G. Underwood, Penn State Greater Allegheny


One of the early lessons that all Burkean scholars must learn is that “everything is more complicated than it seems” (Rueckert, 1982, p. 267). As a society we seek out user-friendly interfaces that enable us to interact with a variety of tools and ideas, but often forget to look beneath the surface. This essay asks readers to look beneath the surface, to explore the depths of the pentad so that the complications of what Burke created are not lost by our focus on act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose (i.e. the interface). This essay identifies how the pentad first began to take shape through Burke’s definition of form as “the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite” (1968, p. 31), and traces Burke’s discussions of both form and the pentad to help readers to unravel the complications beneath the surface of the pentad.

IN A LETTER TO MALCOLM COWLEY in 1940, Burke wrote,
I am going to try once more to carry out my resolve to do no further development of my ideas for the Human Relations book, and simply edit the notes already taken. I see a way of making a very neat monograph of my five terms, ‘act, scene, agent, agency, purpose’ and how they behave implicitly and explicitly in all the ways in which people attribute motives to one another’s acts. I think this might prove to be as fertile an essay for me personally as my ‘Psychology and Form’ one was. (Burke & Cowley, 1989, p. 233)

Whether or not Burke’s prophecy became reality, it is clear that Burke’s work on the five terms was taking form even before its first mention appeared in print in his book Philosophy of Literary Form (1941), and long before it debuted as “the pentad” in A Grammar of Motives (1969a). This focus appears to have continued throughout the remainder of his career; as Rueckert (1982) contends, “if there is a single overriding lesson to learn from Burke, it is that everything implies everything else, and everything is more complicated than it seems” (p. 267).

In reviewing the writings of secondary sources, and exploring the ways in which the pentad has been put to use by others, it becomes apparent that the pentad is much more complicated than it seems.1 The following essay will demonstrate how Burke’s definition of form (1968, p. 31) anticipates his introduction of the pentad, and more specifically his internal use of the pentad, as developed in A Grammar of Motives. Accomplishing this task will require an exploration of Burke’s definition of form, his references to the five elements of the pentad throughout the “Boikwoiks,” and his continued development and explications of the pentad through his works on dramatism, logology, and rhetoric.

Rueckert suggests that the overarching themes and approaches developed by Burke began to take shape as early as the 1930s, though “most of what is essentially Burkean is present somewhere in A Grammar of Motives, A Rhetoric of Motives, and the uncollected parts of ‘A Symbolic of Motives,’ the three works that formulate and develop dramatism as a system” (Rueckert, p. 243).  These ideas were continually revisited and redefined throughout the Burkean opus (“Boikwoiks”).

In an essay on the pentad, Burke sets out “an account of how one thing led to another. It starts with the theory of form as the arousing and fulfilling of expectation” (1978b, p. 331). Burke argues that his “job” was to develop a method that could be used to help critics frame questions that would help them uncover the motives and assumptions implicit within a text (Burke, 1978b, 332).

In Counter-Statement, Burke defines form as “the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite” (p. 31). Within Burke’s essay, “LEXICON RHETORICÆ,” (1968, p. 123-183), readers find the further development of Burke’s theory of form; “a work has form in so far as one part of it leads a reader to anticipate another part, to be gratified by the sequence” (1968, p. 124). The appetite essential to form is often created by a series of temporary frustrations – moments when we are unable to clearly identify with one another  – which are adequately resolved when we finally see ourselves as consubstantial with another either because our interests are joined with theirs or we are persuaded to believe that they are joined (Burke, 1969b, 20-21); 

the poignancy of the rhetorical situation attains its fullness in spontaneously arising identification whereby, even without deliberative intent upon the part of anyone, we fail to draw the lines at the right places. In effect the situation is thus as though there were two salads, side by side. They look alike, and we might call them both by the same name, though unbeknownst to us one happens to be wholesome, the other contaminated. The rhetorical situation, as I see it, comes to a head in faulty identifications of this sort (Burke, 1973b, p. 271).

Our failure to properly draw the lines is the result of the inherent ambiguity of language. By invoking what Burke refers to as “ritual drama” (1973a, p. 103), and others have referred to as archetypal metaphor (Fisher, 1984), a rhetor asks her audience to become consubstantial in order to collectively participate in an experience. Fisher believes that even if we were able to access the truth, archetypal metaphors are the only resources that we have that allow us to share our knowledge with others. Archetypal metaphors provide us with a way of communicating with others, and understanding one another’s thoughts and actions.

Burke suggests metaphors allow us to make the connections that our rational language cannot allow us to make; connections that we see only in our dreams (1984, p. 90). Metaphors help us to see “the thisness of that, and the thatness of this” (Burke, 1969a, p. 503), in the way that our subconscious minds see them but our rational minds have tried to filter out. Burke suggests, in A Grammar of Motives, that we substitute the term “perspective” for metaphor, because, he argues, metaphor is simply a way of making connections between two previously unrelated things.  Metaphor helps us to create a common language for and way of thinking about an object, emotion, or situation;  it helps others to understand how one person perceived the world around her at a particular time by making implicit connections to experiences that each has had in common.

Burke tells us that communication requires a certain degree of ambiguity because no two events, ideas, things, or acts are identical (1969a, p. xix).  “To tell what a thing is, you place it in terms of something else…we should consider each thing in terms of its total context, the universal scene as a whole…to define a thing in terms of its context, we must define it in terms of what it is not” (Burke, 1969a, p. 24-25).  Because of this paradox of substance, we look to the interrelationship among the five terms of the pentad in order to explore the arguments implicit to the transformation of one thing to another (Burke, 1969a, p. xix).

Among the basic propositions Burke makes regarding Dramatism, he argues there is, conceivably, a formal structure (principle) intrinsic to all communication, and this structure accounts for the collapsing of the division between the realms of the symbolic and the non-symbolic into the logological reduction that enables us to understand that a symbol is a symbol even before we consciously recognize its potential meaning.  “In keeping with his specific nature as the symbol-using animal, he necessarily sees the non-symbolic realm (of motion) in terms of the symbolic mediums through which he contemplates the nonsymbolic realm and thereby in effect translates it” (Burke, 1973b, p. 263).  Further, Burke proposes we “take ritual drama as the Ur-form, the ‘hub,’ with all other aspects of human action treated as spokes radiating from the hub” (1973a, p. 103).  This hub becomes the point of translation that makes individual human action and motivation consubstantial with the actions and motivations of others.  “The social sphere is considered in terms of situations and acts… [and] ritual drama is considered as the culminating form” (1973a, p. 103).  When a writer describes an event in her life as a “quest for the truth”, her reader is able to anticipate a story in which the writer will describe the obstacles she had to overcome in order to reach her reward.  Insomuch as the story conforms to the reader’s expectations, the drama is form.  Through the cathartic act of writing her book, the writer seeks to justify (for both herself and others) her actions in terms of a specific situation, the quest for knowledge.  The ritual drama that she creates by the invocation of the quest narrative ultimately serves to make writer and reader(s) consubstantial.

Accepting ritual drama as the hub of human action, Burke turns to work out his first statement of what will become, in A Grammar of Motives, the pentad.  Burke insists, if we extend our scope on the ritual drama beyond the connection between the situation-act pair to include act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose, we may move a step closer to uncovering human motivation (1973a, 106).

These five terms, with a treatment of the purely internal or syntactic relationships prevailing among them, are I think particularly handy for extending the discussion of motivation so as to locate the strategies in metaphysical and theological systems…Hence, one will watch, above all, every reference that bears upon expectancy and foreshadowing, in particular every overt reference to any kind of ‘calling’ or ‘compulsion’ (i.e. active or passive concept of motive). And one will note particularly the situational or scenic material (the ‘properties’) in which such references are contexts; for in this way he will find the astrological relationships prevailing between plot and the background, hence being able to treat scenic material as representative of psychic material” (Burke, 1973a, p. 106: footnote).

In other words, Burke argues the scene or context in which an act takes place may provide us with clues regarding the motivations of the author or those motivations that the author wishes to identify with a particular character with in the ritual drama.

Burke’s connection of drama and dialectic further suss out for us the connection between form and the pentad.  Burke states, “Plato’s dialectic was appropriately written in the mode of ritual drama” because at the heart of dialectic is a concern for “the ‘cooperative competition’ of the ‘parliamentary’” (1973a, p. 107).  According to Burke, the greatest mistake that a political leader can make is to silence the opposition and thereby remove cooperative competition.  In so doing the leader locks himself into a description of reality which, when it fails to accurately reflect reality, is more easily refuted by the opposition.  “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” (Burke, 1969a, p. 59).

Through this argument Burke suggests that it is our collective and competitive collaboration that enables form to be developed.  Our desire to create a faithful reflection of reality drives us to select metaphors and ritual dramas, from our bank of options that we share in common with other members of our society or culture, that will create and satisfy our appetites. Through this reflective selection we are able to whet the appetite by the selection of a metaphoric scene, act, agent, agency, or purpose; through identification and with the collaboration of the audience via the dialectic we are able to satisfy that appetite in a way that is not possible without the dialectic.  Collaboration also allows us to maintain a degree of ambiguity sufficient for the development of form.  “The hypertrophy of the psychology of information is accompanied by the corresponding atrophy of the psychology of form” (Burke, 1968, p. 33).  Increased information leads to a lack of form because there is no longer a need to crave when you know that you will be fed, and “the drama, more than any other form, must never lose sight of its audience: here the failure to satisfy the proper requirements [including a need for ambiguity] is most disastrous” (Burke, 1968, p. 37).

Form requires the use of style in a way that implicitly encourages ambiguity.  The pentadic ratios act as a type of synecdoche: “by the logic of the scene-agent ratio, if the scene is supernatural in quality, the agent contained by this scene will partake of the same supernatural quality” (Burke, 1969a, p. 8).  Burke explains how the circumference of the scene can expand or contract in order to meet the needs of an argument.  “The main point is that any change in circumference in terms of which an act is viewed implies a corresponding change in the quality of the act’s motivation.  Such a loose yet compelling correspondence between act and scene is called a ‘scene-act ratio’” (Burke, 1967, p. 332-333).  By substituting a part (such as the assumption of a supernatural scene) for the whole we allow a necessary degree of ambiguity to flourish.  “There is implicit in the quality of a scene the quality of the action that is to take place within it.  This would be another way of saying that the act will be consistent with the scene” (Burke, 1969a, p. 6) just as “the contents of a divine container will synecdochically share in its divinity” (Burke, 1969a, p. 8).  By describing the scene as supernatural, we transform the remaining elements described by the pentad in ways that transcend their individual uniqueness (Burke, 1970, p. 9).  A “summarizing word is functionally a ‘god-term.’ …Is there not a sense in which the summarizing term, the over-all name or title, could be said to ‘transcend’ the many details subsumed under that head, somewhat as ‘spirit’ is said to ‘transcend matter’” (Burke, 1970, p. 3) and therefore introduces the ambiguity necessary to sustain form.

Likewise, “if we arouse in someone an attitude of sympathy towards something, we may be starting him on the road towards overtly sympathetic action with regard to it” (Burke, 1969a, p. 236) because we have substituted a partial response which may then consume our other responses.  Burke describes a hero as a man whose actions are heroic, “his ‘heroism’ resides in his act” (1969a, p. 42).  The implicit connection is made explicit in the ratio: actor is to act as implicit is to explicit (Burke, 1969a, p. 7).  At the same time, we may associate the term hero with a particular profession or type of actor.  Here we synecdochically imbue the actor with status because of his potential agency, “heroism resides in their status” (Burke, 1969a, p. 42).  In this way, we can only discuss and make claims about the status of an actor or the scene in which his acts took place by considering the various pentadic aspects involved (Burke, 1968, p. 141). “In this sense we would restore the Platonic relationship between form and matter. A form is a way of experiencing. ... The universal experience are implicated in specific modes of experience: they arise out of a relationship between the organism and its environment” (Burke, 1968, p. 143, 150).

Burke suggests by making explicit the implications of the interrelationships among the various elements (i.e., act, scene, agent, agency, purpose) that define a situation, we may better understand human motivations.  Therefore, the elements of the pentad “need never to be abandoned, since all statements that assign motives can be shown to arise out of them and to terminate in them” (Burke, 1969a, p. xv-xvi).  Invocation of any individual element in order to describe an aspect of the human condition provides us with a means of achieving consubstantiality with another by way of a common, albeit ambiguous, understanding of the world.  “The universal experience are implicated in specific modes of experience: they arise out of a relationship between the organism and its environment” (Burke, 1968, p.150).  The invocation of a scene that contains a hero creates an appetite for a story in which the actor behaves (acts) heroically. We experience consubstantiality with the author of our story only in so far as she adequately satisfies our appetite by maintaining the relationship between the actor and the act that we crave.  If “a form is a way of experiencing” (Burke, 1968, p. 143), then form stems from our common understanding of the relationships between organism and environment.

In later discussions of the pentad and human motivation, Burke claims, consubstantiality is an essential part of human interaction.  “Substance, in the old philosophies, was an act; and a way of life is an acting-together; and in acting together, men have common sensations, concepts, images, ideas, attitudes that make them consubstantial” (Burke, 1969b, p. 21).  Burke’s definition of form implicitly anticipates this need for consubstantiality and the ratios of the pentad provide an explanation of the mechanism through which we become consubstantial: we are able to identify with others because we share a bank of common resources that suggest certain scenes require certain types of actors and actions, and vice-versa.  The equations that Burke establishes in the ratios are possible because identification of “one part of it leads a reader to anticipate another part, to be gratified by the sequence” (1968, p. 124).

Dramatism is not drama; it is the systematic use of a model designed to help us define and place the nature of human relationships and the relations among our terms of the discussions of such matters. To move from the observation that ‘a character in a play acts in character’ to a corresponding concern with an ‘agent-act ratio’ is by no means to be speaking metaphorically. There literally is some kind of consistency between a man’s character and his actions. Similarly, there literally is a ‘scene-act ratio,’ involving respects in which men’s acts are influenced, or are interpreted as being influenced, by their situations (Burke, 1978a, p. 29-30).
This literal connection between the elements of the pentad, as described in the ratios, is the missing link that explains how we convert the non-symbolic into the realm of the symbolic in order to identify with others.  Form becomes the appeal (Burke, 1968, p. 138) that allows us to bring substance to existence through the pentadic ratios. In his essay on “The Nature of Form”, Burke sets out the five aspects of form: progressive (further divided into qualitative and syllogistic progressions), repetitive, conventional, and minor or incidental.  In particular, the connection between syllogistic progression which follows from the argument that “given certain things, certain things must follow, the premises forcing the conclusion” (Burke, 1968, p. 124), and qualitative progression which Burke suggests means that certain qualities are precursors that prepare us to accept other claims of quality made in an argument, we can see how Burke’s definition of form anticipates the pentad.  These two key assumptions about form are the underlying features that allow humans to view imbue an actor within a scene with transcendent qualities stemming from the scene.  This behavior is then reinforced through repetitive form as time and again we see the same situations with a new costume (Burke, 1968, p. 125).  Each time we are able to recognize (consciously or subconsciously) a pentadic ratio in a new guise, we have the opportunity to challenge the association or to identify with the messenger.  Identification maintains the form, while our objections work to reduce ambiguity “plus the vexing fact that each ‘solution’ raises further problems. (Confidentially, that’s ‘the dialectic.’)” (Burke, 1970, p. 275).
* Gretchen K. G. Underwood is an Adjunct Instructor of Communications at Penn State Greater Allegheny.  She can be contacted via email at or by phone at 412-805-7546.


1. As an example, see Blakesley, D. (2001). The elements of Dramatism. Boston: Longman. Blakesley provides readers with several examples of the external use of the pentad. An external use is characterized as an application in which a critic reviews a text by asking “the five W questions” (who, what, where, when, and why) in order to determine what is taking place. This use is juxtaposed with an internal, or implicit use of the pentad, characterized by the application and consideration of the pentadic ratios (GM, 3) as a means of reduction to the text’s “underlying atomic constituent” (GM, xxii).  Although D. Burks suggested, in personal correspondence, that Burke was always flattered by any application of his work, the latter (internal use) will be considered in this essay to be his preferred use.  Burke argues his intent was for the critic to focus on the ratios among the terms rather than the terms in and of themselves (Q&A, 332) because, “whether explicitly or implicitly, the nomenclature of every text embodies ‘equations’…implicit in the idea of an act there is the idea of an agent; and for an agent to act there must be a scene” (Q&A, 334-335).

Works Cited

Burke, K. (1966). Language as symbolic action: Essays on life, literature, and method. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burke, K. (1967). Dramatism. In L. Thayer (ed), Communication: Concepts and perspectives. Washington, D.C.: Spartin Books.

Burke, K. (1968). Counter-statement. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burke, K. (1969a). A grammar of motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burke, K. (1969b). A rhetoric of motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burke, K. (1970). The rhetoric of religion: Studies in logology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burke, K. (1973a). Philosophy of literary form: Studies in symbolic action. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burke, K. (1973b). The rhetorical situation.  In L. Thayer (ed), Communication: Ethical and moral issues. New York: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers.

Burke, K. (1978a). Rhetoric, poetics, and philosophy. In D. Burks (ed), Rhetoric, philosophy, and literature: An exploration. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.

Burke, K. (1978b). Questions and answers about the pentad. College Composition and Communication: 330-335.

Burke, K. (1984). Permanence and change, an anatomy of purpose. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burke, K. & Cowley, M. (1989). The selected correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fisher, W.R. (1984). Narration as human communication paradigm: The case of public moral argument. Communication Monographs, 51, 1-22.

Rueckert, W.H. (1982). Kenneth Burke and the drama of human relations. Berkley: University of California Press.
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“Always Keep Watching for Terms”: Visits with Kenneth Burke, 1989-1990

William Cahill, Independent Scholar


The interview provides a look at Burke in his twilight years as well as something of the sound of his eloquent but halting talk in that period.  Burke's ideas in the transcriptions offer insights about his method and philosophy that could prove helpful to scholars but would also make a useful introduction to Burke as a philosopher of language.  They also tell the story of humorous profound American thinker still vigorous in a green old age.

DRIVING UP AMITY ROAD, a narrow, quiet lane running through a little New Jersey Highland valley, we had glimpsed darkly shaded clay tennis courts and a sinuous, brimming pond on the lower side of the lane and then the frame house, sided with cedar shakes behind which dark screen forsythia came into view.  The house was on the upper side of the road, quite close to the pavement.  A large maple hid one side of the house, whose curtainless windows framed stacked books almost from their sills to their upper sashes.  A small porch-roof projected above the front door, which met the road with a few narrow mossy stone steps. A large galvanized mailbox at the foot of stone steps by the front door said “Burke” and a note on the door told visitors to come around back. 

The house was set on a narrow ledge under the shoulders of a dark hill forested with oaks, maples and hemlocks.  A stream swelled in summer to a pond in the low ground traced the bottom of the little valley below it.  Stone paths led to the back of the house, opening to a grassy, sunlit crescent of grass keeping back to tall trees of the hillside.  The lawn was edged with lilacs, forsythias, peonies, hostas, bluebells, daffodils, poppies and crocuses, as well as milkweeds and wild grasses.  This was the Andover, New Jersey home of philosopher, poet and critic Kenneth Burke.  Standing in his kitchen, Kenneth Burke greeted us with a wave through the window, inviting us in.

Robert Brewer and I were two among an intermittent stream of visitors who came to Kenneth Burke’s home in Andover, NJ in his later years to talk with him about his writing and his philosophy.  Burke loved to talk and was a generous host.  I was a schoolteacher and graduate student who had recently read Burke in university courses.  One of my professors, Janet Emig, who had assigned two of Burke’s books in a course I was taking, mentioned one evening in class that Burke lived in New Jersey and that Andover wasn’t far from our university.  Emig suggested, “Some graduate student from here [Rutgers] should go up there to Andover and talk with Burke.”  This precipitated our contact with him, which is described in the following pages with transcriptions from Burke’s conversation on several visits in 1989 and 1990, when Burke was in his early nineties.

Kenneth Burke (1897-1993), author of A Grammar of Motives (1945), A Rhetoric of Motives (1950), Language as Symbolic Action (1968), and other works on the philosophy of language, was a poet, novelist, literary critic, music critic, editor, composer, and teacher, and rhetorician.  Burke was born in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.  He attended Peabody High School there and moved to Weehawkin, New Jersey with his parents after graduation.  Burke attended Ohio State and Columbia Universities without taking degrees.  In the late nineteen-teens he lived in Greenwich Village in New York studying classical texts, medieval philosophy and poetry, modern literature, and languages on his own and writing poems and stories.  His first publication was a poem, “Adam’s Song, and Mine,” in Others, in 1916.  From 1920 to 1929 he worked as an editor and music critic at The Dial magazine with Marianne Moore and others.  He assisted with that magazine’s first publication of “The Waste Land” and contributed translations of French and German works, including Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (in March 1924).  During these years of literary and critical apprenticeship Burke participated in New York’s literary culture in a complex way; as a junior editor and critic at The Dial which published many major figures in modern writing, and as contributor and editor with friends of his generation for avant-garde little magazines such as Secession and Broom.

Burke's first book, The White Oxen (1924), was a collection of stories. His novel Towards a Better Life, written as a series of “declamations” by an anxious self-loathing protagonist in love with a woman he is not sure he deserves, was published in 1932.  Three books published in the 1930s, Counter-Statement (1931), Permanence and Change (1935) and Attitudes toward History (1937), developed ideas of criticism and literary form.  In the latter two he began to write about social experience as having the form of the drama and social action.  This was the beginning of his philosophy of “Dramatism,” which characterized human action as symbolic in the same sense that literature was, operating on principles that could be understood through the study of poetics.  Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941) included essays exploring poetics through ideas from psychoanalysis and the psychology of addiction.  A Grammar of Motives (1945) studied philosophies as actions, working out a scheme (the “Dramatistic pentad”) for analysis of theoretical texts as agendas for living that emphasized alternately action, the agent, scene, purpose, and agency or means of action, or various “ratios” of these elements.  Burke’s decision in the early 1940s to make a symbolic analysis of philosophies expanded his thinking as he theorized about all writing and expression as symbolic action.  A Rhetoric of Motives (1950) showed how identifications operated in social life through compelling associations of terms that built our social order.  Burke’s conception of identification showed it to be an ineluctable linguistic process that could be understood and managed in action through careful criticism.  This led Burke to the idea that human characters were held together as expressions of motives by the same principles that held poetic texts together, which would be the subjects of his “symbolic of motives,” a study in poetic principles, and an “ethics of motives,” a projected study in the formation of the poetics of character.  The latter two works were never completed.  But as he worked on these projects Burke also developed his theory of symbolic action as distinct from the realm of motion, the sheerly physical aspect of the world, which action shaped and influenced.  His idea of “the thinking of the body” addressed the question of how people might understand this influence.  These latter ideas are clear in many of the transcribed remarks from Burke’s conversation printed below.

Burke's studies of The Book of Genesis and St. Augustine’s Confessions became The Rhetoric of Religion (1961), in which he analyzed as a compulsion of language to generate the divine as a fundamental human orientation, his theory of “logology.”  Burke’s writing after this turned to a critique of technology, which he saw as an expression of language that created monstrous social projects whose criticism should be sensed in ecological awareness.  Burke’s ideas about language and criticism anticipated postmodern theoretical ideas and his understanding of rhetoric, identification and argument have influenced speech and composition theory as well as criticism.

Language involves us in hierarchy and guilt, Burke claimed in many of the pieces he wrote for his unfinished Symbolic of Motives. It structures in our expression involving us always in the commitments of meanings our words brought to us—though we might think things transpired the other way around. Things are the signs of words, as he eventually put it (in an essay called “A Theory of Entitlement”); our world is so mediated by language, and language by our past uses of it, that everything in the world of human action speaks to us persuasively, compelling us to believe in the order they have borrowed from the language people have imbued them with.  Our bodies, too, then become signs of the words we have lived with and through, which are the leading and shaping actions of our lives.  No wonder that a man who thought like this would attend keenly to anything that was said, including everything he could remember having said or written in his long life.  Burke was committed to listening critically to the action of language in the world, starting with this action in himself.

Burke had also been a teacher through much of his life, relating his teaching closely with his writing and his belief that understanding the meaning implicit in his expression could be helped by hearing what others read in it. He seems to have made this a principle, at least for himself, of teaching and giving talks at universities, as well as a principle of writing. He remarked to me that in teaching he never like lecturing as much as a seminar, saying he found lecturing “too much like talking to yourself.” A seminar could bring questions that would prompt new thinking. Burke’s teaching career started with temporary appointments at the New School and the University of Chicago in the 1930s and continued through the rest of his life with visiting professorships at many institutions. He was a professor at Bennington College in Vermont between 1943 and 1962.

Burke’s wrote poetry throughout his life. His first collection, Book of Moments, was published in 1955 hisCollected Poems in 1968, and a further collection, Kenneth Burke: Late Poems, 1968-1993, edited by Julie Whitaker and David Blakesley, was published in 2005.

Music had also been important to Burke since he was young. Talking to me he recalled how his father would take him for walks in Pittsburgh and stop outside a black church in the East Liberty neighborhood where they lived to listen to spirituals sung by the congregation. Burke said his father would not dare go in and that he held the normal prejudices of his class, but that these dissolved when he heard the music. He said he believed his father deliberately walked by that church on Wednesday evenings because he knew the congregation would be singing. Several times in our talks Burke sang spirituals. His voice was too hoarse to do them justice, but their words and his spare rendering of their rhythms carried the songs nevertheless. Burke said he began studying music in high school, learning piano. He said he had a feeling for music, if not technical mastery and used this in improvising. His lessons were with a piano teacher who rented rooms above the office of his family’s physician in Pittsburgh. (The physician was Malcolm Cowley’s father; Burke pointed out that Cowley, too, took piano lessons, but from another teacher, who was more expensive.) Burke said his father, James Leslie Burke, had written music and had a song published. The elder Burke had taught himself to play piano by ear; Burke’s mother could sing and they accompanied each other often on Sunday afternoons in their apartment in Weehawkin. Burke said his father also wrote sonnets a few of which were published.

Kenneth Burke was ninety-two at the time of our first visit. When we asked him how he was doing, he said, “Oh, hanging on, you know. Force of habit. Burke had long white hair combed back from his temples, penetrating blue-gray eyes appearing slightly unequal, prominently flared nostrils, and thick, expressive lips. A neatly trimmed Vandyke beard accented the triangularity of his portrait. A purple lesion marked his lower lip toward one corner of his mouth. Burke’s face was smooth, faintly stained with age spots, but barely wrinkled. His right ear was slightly deformed, its lobe broadened and flattened, something he concealed in early photographs but mentioned obliquely in his writing. His hands and wrists were muscular and articulate as a pianist’s; they played out his turning thought in vivid gestures, some heavy, others light and melodic. His fingernails were clipped to sharp points he used in lifting papers. On these visits he dressed in striped Oxford or plaid shirts with the collar unbuttoned, chinos, and, when it was cool, tweed sport coats with pens in their outer breast pockets. He wore leather sneakers and walked carefully in short, shuffling steps, usually, I noticed, humming a tune to himself as he went. All the time,” he shouted once quite suddenly, you live in fear of falling. Always in fear of falling. It’s goddamn boring. His back was hunched and twisted. Walking, he would balance with a cane, which he held to a pivot when he stopped to talk. He put on glasses when he went out.

We usually spoke in Burke’s kitchen, where he read his mail. Burke would sit at one end of the maple table there, which was strewn with books, letters, manuscripts people had sent him, announcements for conferences, pages of notes he had written. A similar mass of books and papers lay on the floor beneath the table, where he could just reach it. He said he had trouble finding things since his wife died, which was in 1969. On the walls were inked drawings she had done, one showing a cat in nine expressions, another of herons at a pond, and a third of a rustic mill. Behind him in a corner was a heavy dark cabinet on which he kept his telephone and several photographs, one showing him with his wife dressed in city clothes on a sidewalk in New York. Also on the cabinet was a small black, gray and white painting of a labyrinth of stairs, towers, and passageways by Burke’s son, Michael Burke.

At the entrance to the next room, a portable manual typewriter rested on the corner of a table, touching the window sash, which held it from falling, a sheet of paper typed a third of the way through still in is carriage. I remember seeing that on another visit, when the machine was perched in a similar way, the page was different. He had been writing. The machine sat among papers—envelopes, letters, the New York Times Book Review, typed pages with handwritten notes—with no apparent order. The light from the window read the words in the carriage, the letters and numbers on the keys, and a few exposed lines of writing thrown into diverse perspectives.

For Burke, talk and correspondence, poetry and fiction writing, were ancillary to the project of writing critical essays about texts as a search for principles of language that could outline for us the structure of our action in the world. He seemed to be still thinking his way through the implications of his writings on language and human action. He spoke of his writings as a body of work he or others could draw new conclusion from. He said he wanted people now to tell him what he had said. Always the critic, Burke wanted to hear what people thought his writings meant. He valued expression as a wellspring of clues about what he saw as our life as bodies that learn language.” “Five books have come out on me,” Burke said, “and I’ve got to answer them.” “I wanted to ask you about books,” I said. “Well,” Burke answered, that’s rather awkward, because mostly I’m reading Burke at the moment.

Brewer and I came late in the day each time and Burke would talk late into the night. I still remember the cool blackness of the New Jersey Highland hillside where he lived when we would say good-bye and walk invisibly to our car. Burke’s talk rambled, sometimes responding to a question, sometimes starting a line of reflection or recitation that went beyond anything we had asked him or any comment we had made. Brewer silently took the pictures that appear here while Burke talked and I took notes. I read more between visits and my notes seemed more and more revealing as I did so.

Burke’s speech in these interviews was difficult. He spoke haltingly and did not finish some sentences. His pronunciation tended to slur some syllables, obscuring some words, but the momentum of his sentences carried through these imperfections and as his meanings came clear these elisions almost seemed strategic, as if his clipping and slurring of syllables were necessary economies made to get things said in spite of the voice’s dwindling power. His speech would sometimes fade entirely, like a distant radio signal, but he persisted. His handwriting had slurred, as well, his written words flattening into illegible lines with minimal figuring has his pen moved across the paper. On one visit I noticed a musical score note book among the papers and books he was reading. It lay open to pages scrawled with penciled notations. He joked that posterity might be interested in these, if anyone could read them. He said he found he could not read his notations himself and had given up the project.

Though his talk was sometimes hard to follow, much of what he said echoed the themes of his books, or rippled from the contours of their thought. I had thought to make a formal interview, but found Burke’s talk too incomplete for this. I recorded what he said to me, mostly on tape and sometimes in a notebook. What follows here are transcriptions of those tapings and notes. Burke sometimes had trouble starting a sentence and repeated its opening words until he could get it going. These have been omitted silently. Burke said “by God” and “my God” in many of his sentences and I have left most of these in because they seemed expressive and dramatic. In making these transcriptions, I have used dashes to indicate pauses in Burke’s speech or places where he substituted one word for another. Where his speech trailed off, I have not indicated this if his next remark fit clearly with what he had been saying. Thus the transcriptions in some places have a fluency that Burke’s speech lacked. In most of the places where he repeated a word several times at the start of a sentence, I have given the word just once. Where words are italicized for emphasis, the emphasis is from Burke’s speech.

Burke’s talk in these visits flowed like an erratic stream, moving around obstacles age had put before him, but finding its way. Here and there the currents would eddy and slow, but then resume with vigor. A good host, Burke recited anecdotes from his literary career for his visitors and said things that helped elucidate his theory. But he also mentioned new things he was thinking about, as in his remarks on binding and loosing,” which he said he was still trying to understand. His rambling stream of talk seemed to have several currents with their own sources and directions, but the currents joined with the main stream of his ideas about language theory and critical method. This is not unlike the spirally approach to topics Burke used in many of his essays and books. I have left the transcriptions in their original order. Reading through them, they seem in their meandering to represent the drama of my experience meeting Burke.


The following transcriptions were made on June 5 and August 11, 1989, and on January 2, June 1, and June 13, 1990. Those from January 1990 were from a visit with Burke at his son Michael’s home in New York; the others were at Burke’s house in Andover, NJ.

June 5, 1989:

When we arrived for the first visit, Burke said he had to “get into a groove or he wouldn’t be able to talk. He gave me two photocopied sheets, one the “Poem” printed that year in Hebert W. Simons’ and Trevor Melia’s The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, and the other a typed page on “constitutions” that he wanted to talk about.

Burke mentioned working with Marianne Moore (1887-1972) at The Dial. “Marianne,” he said, “made a deal. ‘I want it understood, Mr. Burke, I have no appreciation at all for your stories.’ ‘All right, that’s a deal.’ And we got along fine that way. She’s the one finally ended up getting me The Dial award for my Towards a Better Life story. So she changed her attitude on that. She finally, when the poems came out—I had dirty poems, too. She said, ‘Well, he’s in a tradition there, a great tradition: Baudelaire, Rabelais and Aristophanes.’ ” He said he had been thinking about his theory of “two constitutions” that he had spoken about in Seattle at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, but then turned to an old subject close to his beginnings as a theorist. “Where I first got the word ‘symbolic action’,” Burke said, “was from [Bronislaw] Malinowski, The Meaning of Meaning, that Ogden and Richards got out [in19--]. There’s a supplement in there [by Malinowski] and he tells us that language is not to tell you what things are, it’s to get you to do things. And he tells you, it’s a form of action, and his simple example—these people, a tribe that lives by the sea—and a tribe further in—and [they] fish for them, and transfer [the fish to] them. And then he gives you the whole terminology that they have. They have a wonderful way of catching these fish. You don’t realize it, but fish catching itself is—the most marvelous thing. You get this great cooperative act. This whole group know when to get the things, where to get them, and what to do, and they call back and forth to one another—and in this great cooperative act they got the fish and then they go back home and, by God—on the way back they have a game competing in their boats. You’ve got three kinds of language out of that one thing, which started out of that one business, the one when you’re using it to catch the fish. And I think that that notion, that’s the instrumental principle.

Among the things Burke talked about in our meetings was his theory of “Two Constitutions” and he gave me a photocopy of typed page on this. The single-page text was written to develop the ideas of "Two Constitutions" Burke had recently spoken about at the “4 C’s” (the Conference on College Composition and Communication) in Seattle. “The one constitution,” Burke told me, “gave us two constitutions.” “Nobody [at the conference] ever murmured about it,” he said. “My God, maybe they took it for granted or something.” The Founding Fathers, Burke’s typescript explains, had originally given the country a constitution based on the civilization or technology of their time, economically grounded in slavery and other means of production. But the Constitution actually had become double as another kind of constitution, a technological one, developed from the original. This other was “constitution” had developed as an abstract one, an “artificial intelligence,” in the form of the country’s gross national product, which measured productivity as a whole. The Constitution, as a document, Burke theorized, could be seen as a political means for organizing groups within the country as a pluralistic society to “compete” rhetorically for the right expression that would apportion these things in the ways they wanted. Thus the Constitution was a technological and a political document. “You see,” Burke said, “I was against technology for a long time, until I realized, by God! Environmentalism’s attack on the world is really an attack on—if you attack technology, you need technology to say what’s wrong with it. The only person I can think of to give you a really radical attack on technology would be St. Augustine. He’d probably say it took your mind off God.” “One thing it [technology] has done,” Burke said, “It’s led to a whole new system of perception.” Technology, he continued, “often introduces things that throw all your plans, your original constitution, out of line.

Referring to someone who had said to him, “You kept the same thing all your life, Burke said: "Yes, kept the same theory, developed it, but kept the same thing. I started out—my first book, Counter-Statement, was the transformation I needed. I started out with theory of form. I put it under literary form, and after I’d worked on it a while, I finally discovered, my God, form was the arousal of expectation in the audience. Shakespeare, his stuff. By God, if anybody ever worked on his audience! Therefore I had a double thing as I started. I started out with the theory of form as self-expression and then theory of form as communication and for a long time I worked with those two, self-expression and communication. Then [I] found out something, a third thing was needed here—like the last stage of Joyce, the end of the line—and I found out, by God, where this thing originally started. I had a secular conversion and I left Columbia. Dick McKeon, a boy I knew very well, was in philosophy, medieval philosophy. He was a Catholic, from his family, but he lost his faith, but loved, like me. I don’t believe, but I love the theology. My dad—I made a deal with him, let me out and I’d go down to the Village [Greenwich Village in New York] and I’ll sit there and do my work, and I did, I did all the work. Dick and I were going along with a class with a Jesuit scholar giving a talk on fides quaerens intellectam, ‘faith seeking understanding.’ I’d been trying all that time to get from feelings of theology to secular equivalents of them, [linking] the idea of faith with the idea of self-expression. Your impulse, your faith, comes in as your self-expression and then the intellect, fides quaerens intellectam, ‘faith seeking understanding,’ that would be your communication. I worked on these two that way and then finally I got to the stage where, the third stage, and it transferred medieval thought. When you get to the third stage, it’s just fulfilling, you see, you finally get—what I decided to call it is the technical equivalent of inspiration, technological inspiration. You see, you’re really inspired when your vocabulary takes over. You start using words and words finally get you going and then the thing comes to life. When you get to Joyce’s last stage everything he does is carrying out; he’s inspired in that sense all the time. His terms have taken over. ‘Faith seeking understanding’ would be your way of building yourself up so that other people will follow you.”

Burke recounted attending and speaking at a memorial for Malcolm Cowley, who had recently died, at the Century Club in New York. He recalled belonging to the club once but then quitting because he could not afford it. He mentioned that he sat next to Daniel Aaron at the memorial and that Aaron had recently reviewed The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley (edited by Paul Jay, New York: Viking, 1988) for The New Republic. Burke told me he had been asked to speak at the memorial and chose to remember his high school days with Cowley in his talk. “Ellsworth Avenue was a street that we went [on] when I started to go to Peabody High School where Malcolm went. Malcolm was further down in East Liberty than I was. We found that we’d started each going over to the library at the same time. We used to walk to this library—in those days you walked, you know—and so we arranged to go down at the same time. Well, then I started—and the idea is this—this is going back, of course—birds like to fly, and sometimes fly either to get something or to get away from something, and fish like to swim, and we like to verbalize—and I had to tell my joke about ‘chewing the phatic communion’… And so then, we started out just talking back and forth, just talking, and then, by God, first thing you know we began to have something to talk about. We had to talk about classes. We’d talk about our teachers, our games, our courses. We were all interested in what we were taking there. And we got all this stuff going that way. And then, as Malcolm points out [in Exile’s Return, 1956, p. 21] lots of books [at the library] had restrictions, because some of them were a bit sexy, but most of them were just—oh, Bernard Shaw, people like that. Some of them were just too far out. We found out that some of the librarians would give us these books, some wouldn’t. So then we’d talk about that. We got our education by getting the ones that would give us these restriction books. But the whole point was, by that time, whenever I thought of something I thought I was talking about it to Malcolm. Sometimes [if] I was just reading something I would, just naturally, it was just something I did, I thought I’d tell Malcolm about it. And this time I thought—by God, I suddenly started thinking again into what I was going to say to Malcolm the next time I saw him.” Burke said that Cowley at the Century Club memorial for Cowley he had started to cry. “By God, I felt like a damn fool. I’ve known Malcolm longer than anybody in his whole family knew him. It’s the damnedest thing. When I wrote to Muriel [Cowley] about Malcolm, I said, ‘We should have died at the same time, I wish we had, but not yet!

Asked what differences he saw between himself and Cowley, Burke replied: “He and I were doing the same job, but with this difference. He got the more literary end of it, the more Bohemian end of it, and I had done this work with [Joris Karl] Huysmans [1848-1907] who actually started out—he was an understudy of Zola. His A Rebours [1884]—he [was] transforming and ended up a straight royalist, a believer. Coming through all this stuff, I had read a lot of medieval stuff, poetry, and when I got into [Remy] de Gourmont [1858-1915], Latin Mystique [1892], that was the book I needed. De Gourmont had no belief at all in theology, in religion, but he loved the beauty of the thing, you see, the beauty of the language, and, my God, that Latin Mystique of his is a wonderful book, in that respect. You’ll find in some of my early stories my use of some of the material that I got in him. And then also he put me on to some of the early Christian poets. The language was always the belief; it was always the language. When they started to modernize the Church, that’s the last chance I ever had. I could only get a thrill out of the rituals of the Church.” Then returning to his thought about Cowley, Burke said: “I was going on to what it is to be a symbol-using animal in general; he was sticking to what it means to be a literary [type]. We have an overlap, but there’s always a lot of differences in there, and that’s where we worked all our lives.” Cowley had written a sort of sociology of the twentieth century American writer in The Literary Situation, 1954.

Burke told of his childhood fall from a second story window, which resulted in a neck injury and persistent “fits,” delaying his starting school: “What happened was, I had this broken neck. I had fits and I didn’t go to school until I was about eight years old. Ironically enough when I got there in the first grade Miss Clancy—at that point, I couldn’t read. They gave me a dictionary and I carried the dictionary around and they never told me how to read the damn thing. It was funny, carrying the dictionary around. The Catholics always had these books of piety, these books of miracles and stuff like that. I remember one of them was Christ going up to heaven on a ray of light. I didn’t want to go to heaven. I wanted to put it off. Every once in a while I’d see a ray of light coming down through a cloud that way—well, [he would say] ‘This is it’—and I’d have one of my fits again. I got the fits until a doctor came, or my dad came home, either one. They’d fix me up. Every night I had this dream, this fall I had, oh, my God, going out a second story floor, I lost my grip. But Miss Clancy, she created a class to read this book, Heidi [Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning, by Johanna Spyri 1860. Oh, boy. That’s where I first got my dislike of technology. Heidi is a wonderful book. There’s a lot of stuff in it, reactionary stuff that I didn’t know about at all. All I [would] know is there was this one little kid up on a cavern on the mountainside, lived up there with the sheep. My whole business, the technology thing, I’d kept this a long time, and then I had a problem about it, because, my God, technology is in, and I felt so bad about it. I finally solved that problem for myself: technology is your whole feeling of—what’s the word for it—oh, God damn it, what’s the word I’m trying to get—the word for attack on pollution—environmentalism is technology’s self-criticism. If you say something is polluting, you’ve got to get a technological expert to tell you what it is. If anything in the world, I’m a critic; and that solved everything for me.

“I don’t think that technology can give you a vision, but it gives you a conceit and the conceit is that we are the only animal that, by God, it’s as though nature had done this job of producing someone who could talk.”

August 11, 1989:

I asked Burke if he would talk more about his childhood fall from a second story window in our August meeting: “Oh, yes. Oh, that was—that was, the trick was, I had this fall. I had a broken neck, literally a broken neck. When I was a kid, around the back of my neck there, I was young, and they said my neck was actually broken, and I could push a little spot there and make my heart flop. Until a few years ago I could do that, push there and make my heart flop—and I think it had a lot to do with my sleeping problem. But anyhow, I didn’t go to, didn’t go to school, and I was so irritated that during that period [that] my mother never taught me anything about reading—she just thought it was something that was taught at school, you see, and I could have read. They gave me a dictionary, and I carried that damn dictionary and didn’t know a word in it. And so, then, later on I was—the best thing that ever happened to me—because when I got to words, by God, I loved ’em so—boy I ate ’em up from that time on. I learned what words are!” “My mother,” Burke said, “she wasn’t intellectual herself, she never thought of this, doing it that way. She thought it [learning to read] would be done at school. The first place I went to school,” Burke said, “in Bruxton—Bruxton is one of the low suburbs of Pittsburgh.” He told more of his first reading at school, Heidi, saying his teacher “used to teach us and read us little bits of Heidi and Heidi gave me my whole feeling about, dislike of technology. She [Burke’s first grade teacher] kept the kids busy… if they didn’t stay good, she wouldn’t read them their Heidi every day. The whole class went for that damn book. But later on I realized it was quite a reactionary book, in a way, but I didn’t know. I got this beautiful Swiss landscape. But then after I’d gone through school for a long time I knew what I wanted to do. I had two years of Greek and six years of Latin and they still wouldn’t let me take any Medieval Latin at school. That you had to take at graduate school and I was still taking regular [undergraduate courses]. I was going to Columbia then and finally I made a deal with Dad. I said, ‘Pap, I’ll make a deal with you.’ I said, ‘Let me stop, send me down to the Village and just give me enough to live on and I’ll go one with my work.’ And I did. People used to come and look and say, ‘By God, there was a guy that was really working.’ I went over my Greek. I became a Loeb’s Classics scholar of Greek. I had all the basic texts.” I asked Burke why he was so interested in Latin: “Well,” he said, “for one thing, I just took a shine to language. I learned Esperanto, a wonderful language—if you know Latin, you almost know it already—and I took to languages very much—did my German, and I made a living a long time translating from German.” On learning German, Burke said, “I went to school on that, started out in school, and then I took a course—I started it for pronunciation. I took a course with Berlitz. But, I always said, I got so deep into—well, of course, the book that made a terrific difference to me, the one book in the world that made a difference to me was Remy de Gourmont’s Latin Mystique. That thing—you see, de Gourmont was not a believer. He was completely a disbeliever, but he knew, he saw the beauty of, well, the beauty of religion, and he had this book, a marvelous book—you should have a look at it. You’ll never get over it; it’s got all kind of stuff. Now that I’m back with religion again, not as a believer, but as a lover, I find that—I always say, even an amoeba may have religion, but he doesn’t have theology. And why I like is theology.” “Another twist I got into,” Burke said, continuing on his beginnings, “was—you see, Malcolm [Cowley] got his start out of [Henry] Murger, Scene de la Vie de Boheme [1888], ‘Scenes of the Life of the Bohemian.’ Then I got into the French, to Huysmans. Huysmans had originally been an understudy of Zola—a materialist, a materialistic thinker—and, by God, when he began to write, he had to get converted. The book that made sense to me was A Rebours. That book—you go through that thing, he goes through that line there and comes out—he’s converted. I got into that for a while. I realize I was in a whole stage of my life that’s completely lost; I’ve lost it totally. I’ve got to go back—and I began to realize how deep it was with me; I followed this fellow so damn thoroughly. And then I got into—even anti-Semitism, a literary kind. Hitler fixed me up completely. I was very anti-Semitic, but I certainly got over it. I was wild about Spinoza, Bergson.” Burke noted that anti-Semitism was common enough in those days and in his family, though he was now “ashamed of it.” Burke continued: “I got over the damn thing, but it was there for quite a while. One thing I always loved was literature that—battles, all kinds of fighting, and so in Cicero’s ‘Oration against Catiline’—I remember, I used to love that thing, read it over and over, in all its venom. Then, my God, at that stage, a certain leftover of the Civil War, of the French Revolution, a Catholic movement, intellectual Catholics who attacked that whole war, and I got into that. I’m trying to get it straightened out now. But what I felt was, when they started fixing up the Church, modernizing the rituals, and so on, my only chance of ever being saved was, if they kept the Latin.”


Burke described his getting a job at The Dial as fortuitous: “They were looking for Malcolm [Cowley] for it,” he said. “I didn’t find this out till later. They couldn’t find Malcolm. You see, they [Schofield Thayer and James Sibley Watson, The Dial’s publishers] were both Harvard men, so they naturally got work in that way. Malcolm was much more able to get around than I ever was. I don’t know what would have happened to me [if it] hadn’t happened that way.”

About age, Burke remarked, “I’ve found out when you get old, there’s two of you. There’s you and your body; and your body sets the rules, house rules, and, by God, you obey the house rules, or else [it’s] out with you, kid.”

“My whole thing now,” Burke said, “I’ve got my technology business. Did I tell you this thing? There’s different languages. Even when you’re learning the same language, you’re learning a different language. And your body, see, all what we call psychogenic illnesses—that’s your body, you taught your body that. It’s just a matter of languages. You learn a language in such a way that you end up with—well, like [Marcel] Proust, you end up with asthma, and then somebody else turns up with stomach ulcers.”

January 2, 1990:

Referring again to psychogenic illness: “When I wrote Towards a Better Life, that was written in high blood pressure and when I wrote the sequel I turned it around. I turned my whole method of writing around. I changed my ways of writing and my thinking. Whereas before that I thought always that you fought your enemy, I began to realize, my God, your enemy is useful to you. He’d tell you something your friend wouldn’t tell you. I really felt that—get a nice mean enemy and you learn a lot from him. I had Sidney Hook, when I wrote my Attitudes toward History. He reviewed it as though I was a Stalinist. I’d used the word ‘bureaucratization of the imaginative’ and he thought I’d universalized the thing in order to save Stalin.” Sidney Hook (1902-1989), philosopher and social critic, had died he summer before Burke made these remarks. Burke mentioned at this point his plan to write letters to people who had died, including Hook. He said that he could never pronounce Hook’s name correctly after Hook’s attack on Attitudes toward History, thereafter dubbing him “Shitney” Hook. The problem had a precedent, Burke said, in the Bible, the pet insult becoming his “shibboleth.” He said he would have to tell Hook about this in the letter he planned to write him, to clear the air; after that he would say to Hook, “You’re a good man,” and go on to tell him, “You did misunderstand me.” With this, Burke returned to the Cowley theme. “Everything I wrote, I always told Malcolm about it,” he said, but “that began to break down” shortly before Cowley died. “While Malcolm was still alive,” Burke said, “he said he didn’t want to talk about ideas anymore.” On the Century Club memorial for Cowley Burke said: “When I got back [to the Century Club, which he had belonged to years before] I felt the whole place was different and sensed a terrible feeling that something had gone and then I started to cry and then I was so damn vexed because after all I was a rhetorician. If you [a rhetorician] cry, you should do it purposely! And if you did it on purpose, it would be awful! Either way, it was awful, you see. One is professional crying and it would be a dirty trick.”

Responding to a question about technology: “It’s critical, criticism. Permanence and Change—the book starts out with criticism: the wily trout, food as bait, the critic. And at the end of the book, I end up with a little routine of the poetry of cooperation. Then competition is a phase of cooperation—can’t compete without having an organism that has great cooperation in all its parts. Well, that’s all just conceits,” Burke said, emphasizing the word. “Nothing—no visions, just conceits.”

June 1, 1990:

Burke mentioned several times that he was trying to understand the phrase “binding and loosing” that he thought represented something he had written about years before and that might be a lead into a new idea. “In my head, the words ‘binding and loosing’ is a formula—the keys, the powers of binding and loosing is a way of working at form and I cannot locate it again. I don’t know where the hell I got it and why it disappeared. It’s sort of, well, making a contract; ‘binding and loosing,’ making a contract with God, or something like that, a serious contract. You make a vow, a votary of some sort, that’s the ‘binding’. If a person can be bound to kill a pagan, for instance, you’d bind him. In war we all have binding and loosing. A man in war is supposed to kill the enemy, yet ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is a famous law, you see. That sort of thing has to change the thing around. The pacifists get out of war that way. Pacifism would be a ‘binding and loosing’ kind of thing I have in mind.”

Burke wanted me to read his essay on Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand.” “The trouble about this thing—” Burke said, “this is just note-taking, and therefore it’s not finished at all. I’m in this absurd position of showing you how, when something’s unfinished, [you are] supposed to finish everything.” “Your notion is that you’re supposed to finish,” I said. “Yes,” Burke said. “I take notes. The way I taught my course up at Bennington, I realized—I found out that I was really teaching them what is called ‘Deconstruction’ I told them, ‘Anything could come out of your note-taking’. Anything went. The first half of the year they’d take notes while I was talking—take anything out of it—each would be making it—analyzing—making it—the terminology of a book. The usual thing that would happen, they’d got to a—and some word—they’d write that down in the book. They’d get certain words that fit their scheme. They could even do that, you see. Quite possible—somewhere it fits in that—the two books overlap. Anything goes in your first draft, that way. Then we had this term off—an administrative problem up there, Bennington was too damn cold to heat in the winter. The winter term off, they would get jobs or something. The first half of the term, they’d take notes on the book. And then I would have a discussion with them and they’d show me their notes to show me what they got out of it. The midterm [they would] show me a copy of all the material. And when they got back [he would ask them], ‘Now what could you prove out of all this? Just use what you’ve got proof of, how it develops, and work out this theory. That’s the way I taught, started out, to take notes. And this example, this story of Hawthorne’s, the story of ‘Ethan Brand’—I used to take notes on ‘Ethan Brand’. I’ve got all kinds of notes in there. To give a good example of what I meant by note-taking: for instance, if I started writing a review, the first thing I’d get would be—after I’d read a few pages I’d get the title I wanted for it. At first I wouldn’t even know what the title was for it. For instance, one thing you can try to do with titles: If the title is formal, then you could look for individuating terms for it. For instance, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: I would say the first section is the introduction; the introduction is preparation, building of the terms; and I say that the name for that is ‘The Pandybat’, because the pandybat starts it all going there. The priest takes his hand”—here Burke made a slapping gesture on his own hand to illustrate. “Then the last chapter, which could be the completion of the thing, I would use some word like ‘The Refusal’, something like that. The idea would be this: in that chapter, when he’d been asked to become a priest and the priest holds—takes his hand and starts asking him to become a priest, he pulls his hand away, no violence, but he pulls away. And then he crosses a little stream, a little bridge over the stream, and he goes this way, and four priests are going this way. He’s going out, going in, like that. I use terms—imagistic terms, like that. In that case I would tentatively—if he’d called it ‘The Pandybat’, I would have called it something else; I would have taken a formal name for it. That’s the idea. It’s a tentative way. You see, what I figure is that everything you do, you keep looking for titles for your work and for what titles are going on in the meantime. You get the idea? You always keep watching for terms. That’s why I keep watching out all the time. You find out—but I find out I gotta put in one place, sometime soon, all my definitions I’ve given. Each one of those definitions has been a stepping forward in my way of working things out. And what I find out when I said, ‘We are bodies that learn language’, the last step I got in that definition of ‘the symbol-using animal’: ‘that learn language’—it brought out certain things I hadn’t thought of before. Things that you do as a body and things that you do with language.”

Continuing is talk about the relations of the formal and individual meaning, Burke talked about a connection between his writing and music. “I discovered that because of my interest in music I have a twist in my writing that’s never been developed. What I did finally, to at least make it useful—since I write so badly now, I can’t read my writing anyhow—the idea was that I would write down anything that happened that I got a tune. I’d just write down the tune and then—say a phone call came, a person called up about something or other and then I would—immediately a tune occurred to me—what did that have to do with the phone call? Then I would write down, ‘Phone call with so and so; who said such and such’. Every tune is a response to a situation and I have a whole way of working that way, a twist. But the idea is that anything goes in your first draft. That’s a law. Anything goes in the first draft. You see I have [an essay called] ‘Auscultation, Creation, and Revision’. Auscultation is the pulse-beat, then creation is the relation in the formula—” “The nearest approach—apostrophes—poetry that is very apostrophic, like a sudden splurge, a sudden expression, is the nearest you get to symbolism and reality—and verbal reality. You get an attitude. The attitudes in poems are that sort. I’ve got a whole theory coming from that thing I quote about moods in poems, ‘Our moods don’t believe in each other’. The absolute—and Emerson uses his symbolic words and his analogical words and his ritualistic—very interchangeable all the time. That thing I did on his ‘Eye, I, Aye’ gives a good example of that. But here’s—this thing—this thing can get—.” At this point Burke resumed looking among the papers on his table for his “Ethan Brand” essay, which he wanted me to read. The essay is “Ethan Brand: A Preparatory Investigation,” The Hopkins Review 5 (Winter 1952): 45-65.

“I found out that a poem or tune or idea,” Burke continued, “occurs after—a tune occurred to me after a phone call, then I wrote that down and wrote down what happened when I got this phone call. Somehow that’s a response to that. You try to get’ em. It’s rough. You try to do as you can. Now next time—my tune varies quite a bit. Suppose I find, here’s another tune, a totally different relationship, that has this same damn tune turns [sic] up in there. Well, then I think, my God, it’s a matter of putting that—a totally different world—that’s my real world—that’s what this other thing—and I began to work—it’s spying on yourself.” Burke related this to his memories of Malcolm Cowley, picking up again the theme of their mutual discovery that their talking together on the way to and from the library in their high school days became the beginning of shared interests that lasted and developed over their literary careers. “In those days you walked to the big public library. We found out we were walking over certain hours, at the same time, so we agreed to go over together. Well, the first thing you do, walking with somebody you don’t know—I use Malinowski’s idea of ‘phatic communion’—and I had a pun on it, ‘chewing the phatic communion’—then gradually, we began to have something to talk about. We’d talk about our teachers, we’d talk about our courses, and our fellow students. The first thing you know, by God, we had a whole world to go with. Then we were terribly interested in our reading at that time. Particularly, we’d found this way of getting the minor restriction books. The minor restriction books were—by God, they weren’t porn. Never got any porn. They were just books that—oh, George Bernard Shaw was ‘minor restriction’. We found out certain librarians would give us books, certain ones wouldn’t. Then we’d talk about which ones we’d know—if we went to her, might get a book. [Another librarian] gave us all the writers he could. Some of those were a little on the edge of porn. Schnitzler, for instance, had a lot of stories of, well, whores, and things like that, not in a big way, but a little bit on the side. Then the articles published in The Smart Set [were] right on the edge.”

Burke made his way back to Remy de Gourmont. “When I began to lose my religion, he [de Gourmont] taught me the beauty of Latin literature, and I got it all in poems. I went from truth to beauty. ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty; that is all you need to know’—you get that in Keats, you know. I had my analysis of ‘Ode to [sic] a Grecian Urn’, which, by the way, Denis Donoghue mentions in a book he just got out and sent to me. He, finally, after all these years, disagrees with my analysis if the ‘Urn’. But the irony is that I also have a second analysis of the ‘Urn’. Remember the D. H. Lawrence ‘How I Learned Dirty Words’: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty; body is turd, turd body, that’s the miracle.’ The irony is that I had both. The way I get into the other one, there’s a formula; I get Freud in there. Freud had a thing called the cloacal theory. Freud becomes, ironically enough, a Trinitarian. Well, I carried out the cloacal theory to perfection in this thing. I take it that Freud’s Trinitarian theory is the real truth about the body. The body is the way of seeing tings. You see, my notion is that poetry is very radical. Of course, in Flaubert, in his Education of St. Anthony, there he ends up with matter and matter is just simply filth. He ends up in getting the final reduction of reality, material things. He never got over that. It had a terrible effect on me. I had a period when I really saw everything in those terms. I find I analyze a poem in which I analyze, analyze my own stuff, my poem on the cloacal theory, ‘Ecclesia’—there’s a formula of ‘church over a sewer’ [Collected Poems, p. 84]—a strange thing—and how real is that? I went to the last minute here; didn’t get changed into modern plumbing till very late, till Libby [Burke’s second wife] was having trouble. Had to do it then. But, by God, I had staying at the place up the hill for a while. He was a psychoanalyst and the kid—finally he had to get away because his kid was so horrified, because they had the ‘can’ out there and the kid—he finally decided the kid was too mixed up. He found out that carrots, for instance, were born in the dirt. The kid couldn’t take it. I said, ‘My God, if you’ve got a kid that can’t take the reality of the body.’ ”

Again on the subject of “tunes,” Burke said, “I find that when I take a bath it is a ritual. I have a way into it, a way of developing it. I had a funny thing happen. I happened to fall over backwards on the floor—got careless, fell over backwards onto the floor. My God, I couldn’t get up. I wasn’t hurt in any way, but it took me almost an hour to get up and the only way I could do it was this: I had a tune, the tune was finishing up, you see, leaving, and at this interval I dropped to the floor. I had to get myself turned over, had to get pushed up, and this damn tune, that notion wouldn’t go that far. Finally, I had to give up the tune entirely and make another tune, like starting out, not finishing up. I threw the tune away, threw the old tune away. I made a new one. As soon as I did that, I got up, no problem at all.”

Burke in his nineties thought he might rely on others writing about his work and the subjects he studied to give insights about their meaning, which he would accept if they were thoroughly worked out, whether they affirmed his conclusions or not. “I’m the eponymous founder of six Kenneth Burke societies and I’ve worked out this theory of ‘operation benchmark’ and ‘operation benchmark’ is: Anybody can belong to any of these societies; if he disagrees with me completely, he has to say, ‘Burke says this and I say that’.” A few minutes later, talking about people who had written recently about him, Burke said: “You see, what I’ve found is that I’m asking them, ‘What am I saying?’ I’m not telling them anymore; I’m asking them, ‘What am I saying?’ ” On one of my visits, a phrase similar to this was written on a sheet in the carriage of Burke’s typewriter.

Returning to his thought on ‘binding and loosing,’ Burke said, “I’ve got a feeling I did something along that line. My ‘Perspective by Incongruity’ is mixed up with that. I’d put two things together that before weren’t together. So I’m sure that the principle of ‘binding’ is there in that sense, but what the devil goes on from there I don’t know.” With this he turned to the philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952): “Santayana was a wonderful guy who didn’t believe in religion except as a trick. He was a regular Marxist in [relation] to religion, but he liked the idea of it. He started with the principle of solipsism. You go from solipsism to high development of nomenclature, solipsism to your secularized theology—‘Realms of Being’, he calls them. His psychology is completely secular. There’s a principle of transcendence in your body and all that is your tricks with language. He’s my patron saint, you know. Somebody told me up at Boston once, the James boys were afraid of him. They didn’t—he wasn’t right.”

Burke spoke again of his religion in childhood. When he was young, he said, he “got tied in with the Christian Scientists and the whole thing there is the verbal cure. I was a Christian Scientist. The thing about Mary Baker Eddy is that she—it was a science. The whole thing was a matter of error. Sin was an error and pain was an error and that’s where I lost my religion, my faith in Christian Science. Pain—my God—there were actual people in institutions that didn’t have pain, when they were young, children that didn’t fight, they didn’t have their sensations and therefore they didn’t know how to take care of themselves. Pain is your great admirer and the trouble is we have so many painkillers we haven’t learned to [use] pain [in this way] anymore.” Burke said his had lost his faith in Christian Science when he was in high school. He remembered a Christian Science practitioner who came to his home when he was about six and prayed for him when he had a swelling that his family feared was tuberculosis. “The thing burst and I got better,” he said. But he had a cousin who had gone to a regular doctor for the same thing and had died. Christian Science seemed better than medicine, Burke said, because in those days all the doctors did was to put poultices on these swellings, which didn’t work. Referring to his cousin, he said, “They put poultices on his, and they burst inside and choked him. The marvelous thing is I did get better from it. I remember going to school with that damn thing; if it burst, I’d come home.” Burke related his memories of Fourth of July fireworks and tetanus infections kids incurred from being wounded by them to his realization that Christian Science’s doctrine of “error” couldn’t be true. “We got these big enormous things, lit ‘em and they’d blow up. They all came from China. The Chinese, they had corked them with mud and that mud was Chinese dirt, full of tetanus. You see, after the Fourth of July in those days there would be these stories of people dying of tetanus. It was fantastic. You get one of these damn things that blows up and you get a wound; once you get that dirt put into your blood you’re done for. I knew that tetanus was a bug; there’s no error about that. That was accurate and if you got tetanus in your blood stream it was tetanus did it, the bug that did it, not any error. It was a standard thing after every Fourth of July. Kids’d pick up something and thought it was done and just as they’d get there it would blow up belatedly. There were several of those things. There was tetanus; that was one. There was sleeping sickness and there was—oh, what the devil—whooping cough. Whooping cough was a terrible thing. There were four of those things they already knew, other than the one you get when you get bitten by a dog or something—rabies. They had four of those things lined up that way, the beginnings of your modern medicine. There was no error about those.”

I asked Burke about his remark that while at Columbia he had started to think a metaphysic could be turned into a psychology. “I started in belief,” he said. “And of course psychology—the whole idea of cure, belief—I knew stories about people who would die. This other business, turning it around, and you just tell yourself you’re feeling good. Certainly, there’s no question about it; you can worry yourself more really than you have to.”

Turning back to “Ethan Brand,” Burke said, “You see, what I did on the thing, I first ‘joyced’ the name: ‘Heathen-Ethan-Heathen Brand’; and then the ‘Brand’ is ‘burnt’: ‘Heathen Burned’. And of course the whole story is about his burning, the lime kiln, you see. ‘Kill’ is a pun on ‘kiln’: ‘k-i-l-n’, ‘kiln’. People say ‘kill’ but it’s really ‘kiln’. One of the first things I do, tentatively, in everything I read, I look at the man’s name, try hexing it, try ‘joycing’ the name. You see, you take—well, the best example I have of that is ‘Flaubert-Bouvard’. ‘Bouvard’ as ‘Bovary’—‘Bouvard et Pechuchet’ and ‘Bouvard’ and ‘Bovary’. He said himself, ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi’. He was very delicate about names like that.” Continuing, Burke said: “Also I think my trick with ‘Perspective by Incongruity’—my word for the opposite of the imaginative was ‘bureaucratization’, and I remember when Bill Brown discovered ‘Bureauke’—‘Burkeratization of the imaginative.”

Burke said that in hindsight he realized that in writing Towards a Better Life “I was “building a life for myself.” “Justice is when you do it all to yourself. That’s the basic rule: you finally punish yourself.” Quoting the last words of Towards a Better Life, “Silence, that the storm will be heard descending in all its fullness,” Burke said: “My God, here I’m gonna spend my life talking and here—with silence. What have I done to myself? Why did I put that curse on myself?”

Burke mentioned that in high school he had admired Jack London. “He [London] had a theory of what we would call ‘magic’, I guess. He was a socialist, very leftist, but very snooty about the white as the greatest race on the earth. Working it out that way, his idea was that they were the only ones that could see this great socialist wish carried through. They had a superior way of looking at things, racists.”

Speaking again of Marianne Moore Burke mentioned someone he had recently met who had been studying Moore. “She specialized in Marianne Moore and her idea was obviously that Marianne Moore had no sex in her and I thought that was so goddamn dumb. She was the most sexy woman I ever met and yet she didn’t know it herself. She taught me to flush. Certain associations would make her flush. Taught me for a while; I could flush for a while. But, my God, we had a sort of—it had water in it—big fountain there, big can for our water, and sometimes the water wouldn’t come down right and she says, ‘Oh, you just put your hand right up in there’ and the great—oh!” But sex, Burke said, “was the last thing she ever thought about. I was [once],” he said, “in an awkward position to come to her defense. There was a guy up in Bennington tried to say, ‘Tell me this, was Marianne Moore your mistress?’ I said, ‘My God! Now I’ve seen the world!’ If I had been wise, I would have said, ‘I’m not saying.’ ”

Burke showed us two books he had annotated as examples of his “indexing,” which he made into a technique central to his teaching, writing, and reading. This was Burke’s method of listing key terms from a work that he thought might as a set represent the work’s “motives,” an interpretive technique he developed for his unfinished “Symbolic of Motives.” He thought his “Ethan Brand” essay represented the method clearly. It also assumes an important role in his educational scheme in “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education,” published in Modern Philosophies and Education, the 1955 Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, by the University of Chicago. (This essay is the subject of an anecdote Burke told a moment later.) One of the books Burke showed us was Wilhelm Windelband’s 1901 History of Philosophy, which he said was from his study at Columbia; the other was William H. Rueckert’s Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations (1982). Both books were copiously annotated in pencil. Burke opened their indexes side by side on a desk to show that he would add terms to a book’s index as he read it. Paging through Rueckert’s book he told an anecdote. “Did I ever tell you about this essay I did in the—theories of education. Maritain did Catholicism, I did theory of language, and so on. I started to use this book that year [with] the kids [at Bennington], [asking them to] just take one of these things at a time and discuss it this way, and I had my own chapter in there. Coming back on the train down from Albany to New York, I could see a guy that was looking at my book sitting next to me. Finally he says, ‘Pardon me, I wonder if you could answer some questions about that book. There’s a chapter in there that didn’t make any sense to me. I wonder if you would help me. It’s the one of Burke.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I won’t say I can speak for Burke, but I could say what it means to me.’ So he says, ‘Take some sentences; start from them. What does this mean? What does he mean by that?’ I’d say it the other way, you see, and then, [the other man would say] ‘Well, why didn’t he say that?’ Finally, we were all this way and by God he got into the swing of the thing and he began to see it. Then, we got into New York, time to close up, and he said finally, ‘You’ve done a wonderful good, because my sister [is] up in Columbia, the girls’ school there, and she’s doing this chapter on Burke and she asked me to help her. I couldn’t make any sense. My God, you sound wonderful.’ And then he introduced [himself to] me. He says, ‘I happen to be down on Wall Street’. And I said, ‘You know who I am?’ ‘You’re not Burke, are you?’ The kids [at Bennington] thought it was a damn lie.” Burke opened a folded letter he found in one of the books on the desk. It was from teacher, critic, and poet Elder Olson (1909-92) about Towards a Better Life. The letter, which Burke read interpreted Birle’s novel as “euphuistic.&rdquo: “It never occurred to me,” he said.  “It’s true in a sense.  The book is really euphuistic.  You see, Euphues is a guy that can’t tell what his name is until he sees his girl.  I never thought of it before.  I must remember I’ve got it [the letter] in there, when I go over that book.”  Then he turned to the Windelband volume, showing his notes in the text, his underlining and circling.  “It’s the one I studied at Columbia.  The last part of this thing, back there, you get into this theory of values.  I’ll never forget Nietzsche’s ‘transvaluation of all values’.  That’s where this comes out.”  Burke said he could show us similarly annotated volumes of Aquinas and Freud.  “And this book,” he said.  “Boy, I used this thing.  And that last chapter.  I didn’t even study that when I was up there [at Columbia University], but I got working on it myself, later.”

June 13, 1990:

Showing again the annotated copy of Windelband’s History of Philosophy, and referring to Kant, on whom he had written notes at the back, Burke commented:  “He was all based on knowledge and apparently he never knew a woman.”   The notes said: “Immediate knowledge, knowing is feeling.”  “Get that, too,” he said.  “Those are good notes.  His third book is feeling, it can’t be either proved or refuted.”  I read some of the notes aloud, with Burke reading silently:  “Kantian epistemology might be the most ingenious symbolic structure ever made, in its way of growing from itself.  With regard to the thinking of the body, I can’t keep from wondering whether this fantastically inventive solution to the problem of knowledge could possibly have been thus thoroughly pursued if he had ever known a woman.”  Burke said he wanted to show me his notes in Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, but couldn’t find the volume.  “By God,” he said.  “They’re wonderful notes.”  Burke’s attention just then was distracted to the facet of his kitchen sink, which dripped almost imperceptibly.  “Look at that damn thing,” he said.  “That thing—you turn that thing off, and you go—twice, lately, I’ve come out and that thing was doing that all night long.  The last minute, isn’t good enough.  You’ve got to come back and close it again.  And it costs me money.  Money, money, money, money!”

“I told you my new scheme,” Burke said, referring to his being the “eponymous founder” of several “Kenneth Burke Societies.”  “[For] anybody [that] belongs to the society,” Burke said, “for the whole thing: ‘operation benchmark’.  In other words, anything you start, you locate it, and you don’t have to agree with me on anything.  ‘Burke says this, I say that’.  Then I say, ‘If it’s right, and they got me, and there’s nobody in my society that can take care of it, then, by God, he’s right and I’m through anyhow.  I saw an ad for a paper on Coleridge.  I’ve got to get some people in my group to look at that for me.  In my Philosophy of Literary Form all my work I did on Coleridge—terrific amount of work on Coleridge—analyzed all his magical poetry, his ‘Ancient Mariner’, all his opium stuff.  If he’s found a different way, then our outfit should do one of two things: either bring him in, or else, ‘What the hell’s the matter with you.  You didn’t mention Burke.’  I swear to God I don’t see how the hell they can beat me on that that I did on Coleridge.  I’d be surprised.  Anyhow, there’s certainly something he can add to the Burke stuff on Coleridge.  If he does it some other way entirely, that’s something else, but I don’t see how in hell he could do anything without saying, ‘Burke said this and I say that’.  I took all Coleridge’s poems and analyzed them on different aspects of the drug addiction business and ended up with ‘Kubla Khan’.  I had a whole new thing I did on ‘Kubla Khan’.  It’s in Oscar Williams.  It’s one of my analyses where I say why I’m doing it at the same time.” (The essay is in Williams’ Master Poems of the English Language, 1966, reprinted as “Kubla Khan: A Protosurrealist Poem” in Burke’s Language as Symbolic Action.)

Reading an article on Aquinas in The New York Review of Books, for June 22, 1990, Burke said he was thinking of animals’ souls.  The animal, he said, “can’t reflect on things, because he hasn’t got words to reflect on.  I always say, ‘An amoeba may have religion, but doesn’t have theology’.  One of the great problems that you find about rhetoric in this thing too is that often—you see, in the Middle Ages, theology was knowledge and you had questions.  We treat science that way now, but we admit that science always changes.  The Church couldn’t do that.  The point is that the relation between belief in theology and rhetoric would be like the Stoic one, science and rhetoric: Science was your knowledge and rhetoric was what you do about it, how you get people to act.  In all those guys the soul was just a thinner matter.  Everything was matter.”

Burke stood at his kitchen counter, leaning on it over an open page of the New York Review of Books, talking about an article he had been reading.  “Peristroika,” he pronounced, saying that he had been figuring out how to say it in a way that would reveal some pun within it.  He had heavily underlined the page.  (On another visit, in the same place he had a paper copy of Language as Symbolic Action, the binding cracked and the book divided in two, open to two essays he was reading together.)  He had notes penned in the margins of the paper, paragraphs reddened with his underlining and circling.  His marginal notes were words he wanted to remember particularly.  He said he had to check on “Kulaks” as the term for those in Stalin’s Russia who exploited peasants.  “Intifada is the PLO resistance movement,” he said.  “I have to learn all these damn words.”  He punningly linked “Peres”— then the Israeli prime minister—and “perestroika” and suggested jokingly that Peres “ought to get a little perestroika.”

Speaking again of constitutions, Burke said, “I say that we’re the symbol-using animal.  Well, what’s so basic about that?  Well, you organize.  What it is that organizes the symbol-using animal, is a constitution.  It’s a constitution that is a way of living together.  One thing about it, our way of living is self-constituted.  We actually have a written constitution.  We’re the only one that has a written constitution.  You tell me that we can ever do it any other way.  We’ve got something here that, if you’re gonna change it, [you might] change it all kinds of ways, make it some kind of Fascism, or anything.  There are so many attempts now to gain control of this whole system by the big information racket.  I say that it may go this way, it may go that way, but we’re in it now to stay and we’re gonna go on from there.  You can’t make one [a constitution] that will stick.  Animals, they have a way of doing things and that’s the way they do them.  But with a person, you make a constitution, and every few years a new twist in your constitution.”


On this visit, I walked down to Burke’s pond, which filled the little valley across the road.  The pond dates to about 1930, when Burke dammed the stream running there, paying for it with money he received from the 1929 Dial Award, which he was given “for service to literature.” In its springtime fullness the pond’s waters would be visible from the front windows of Burke’s house.  He joked, “Other people that got that award, their money might have gone over the dam, but, by God, I got the dam.”  He called it “Lake Bottom.”  The dam was cement, some 21 inches thick and more than fifty yards long, giving an eight-foot head of water for the pond.  It had a few cracks, some patched with tar, some with mortar, and it was colonized with moss and lichen medallions.  The water poured through a spillway eight feet across, rushing down a cement ramp with the sound of a torrent, foaming and roiling there, resuming again, after being part of this human artifice, its nature as a narrow stream disappearing among alders, willows, viburnums and maples, and thence under an unpaved lane.  Six cement steps descended alongside the spillway to the stream, the uppermost bearing the imprint of a foot, large enough to be an adult’s, and the lowest seven handprints and the small rounded figure of someone’s buttocks.  Catching water splashing from the spillway, the handprints when I was there were visited by the red-spotted newt, coming to drink.  The torrent is loudest down there, racing from the pond and disappearing beneath the bushes.  Beyond its spillway, the dam makes an oblique turn, flanked on its downstream side with swamp bushes and trees, its watery boundary brimming against the concrete.  The view up the pond mirrored the shrubby, sedgy banks, thickly growing trees, and the oblique descent of a wooded hillside defining the valley.  The pond was long and sinuous, its banks tangled with viburnum and maple, cattails and sedges.  On my springtime visits I could hear frog choruses ringing there at night and songbirds in the daytime.  Pumpkinseeds lurked in the shallows and larger fish briefly touched the air making slowly fading concentric rings on the surface farther out.  The pond’s surface was littered with pollen, leaves, drowned insects collecting as detritus behind shoreline snags where water-striders skated.  Swallows darted in looping curves after insects above open stretches of the water.  The air was cobwebby along the path leading to it, thick at night with moths and mosquitoes.  When I returned Burke repeated William Carlos Williams’ comment on the pond: “It’s still wet.  Still wet.”

The last recording I had from these visits is of Burke reading his inscription in my copy of his Collected Poems, by the poem “Lines from out my Scatteredhood.”  The words are illegible in the volume.  The inscription said “Aubade, a morning song.  An aubade, a morning song, as versus a song of mourning.”  “You see,” he said, “here it is the last thing in the book.  I ended on a good note.  Pointing to the piece on the opposite page, he read, “the chance to have lived / the need to die” and remarked that that poem had been “an answer to Schopenhauer, I guess.”

* William Cahill is an independent scholar who is affiliated with the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University.  He can be contacted via email at  

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"“Always Keep Watching for Terms”: Visits with Kenneth Burke, 1989-90; by William Cahill is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at

Kenneth Burke and Contemporary Philosophy of Science

Andrew Kidd, University of Minnesota

KENNETH BURKE CRITICALLY RESPONDED to numerous academic trends throughout his long career and one of his earliest such intellectual engagements was with the Logical Positivist movement in philosophy, which enjoyed an influential, albeit brief, period of prominence in the 1930s. Although positivism was breathing its last gasps as a major philosophical force by the time The Grammar of Motives was published in 1945, its influence remained strong enough that Burke felt obliged to respond to the scientism which still permeated the academic hallways of the time. Burke tried to present an alternative to a model of empirical thought which he felt was excessively reductionist and overly rash in its rejection of metaphysical thought or linguistic alternatives to the positivist model of inquiry. In its place, he advocated a “critical realism” which tried to accommodate the notion of an objective reality existing independently of the individual, with an equal acknowledgment of the role language plays in our own specific interpretations of reality (Brock, 1999; Heath, 1986).

Ironically, while Burke was putting forth his logocentric alternative to empiricism of the Logical Positivists, philosophers of science themselves were also coming up with their own alternatives to a philosophy which left too many gaping holes, and came to similar conclusions with their own models of inquiry. “Scientific realism,” the most prominent of these alternatives to logical positivism, came about from philosopher’s attempts to explain how a scientific theory is able to “work” even when it is based in non-observables. Accordingly, scientific realism postulates that our theories in science work because they are literally true, and that the acceptance of theories as true hinges on how well they are able to explain and provide a generalized description of external reality through the fulfillment of the required axiomatic propositions, and not on empirical claims (Psillos, 2002; Van Fraassen, 1980).

Although one would expect the Burkean scholar to welcome this move away from the extreme empiricism of the Positivists, the rationalist alternative of scientific realism poses its own problems to a symbolic study of rhetoric. For one, scientific realism proposes that language and other forms of symbolic interaction are a form of “mental toolkit”, which enables us to provide literal representations of reality while Burkean models, as well as most schools of the rhetoric of science, necessitate that we view our symbolic models not as literal but as figurative representations that can be interpreted as true. This is also a similarity that logical postivism has with the Burkean model of rhetoric as well as other interpretative models, although the similarities end there; logical postivism insists that the use of linguistic terms or statements, including the axioms of geometry and mathematics, are only valid to the extent that they correctly correspond to an empirically verified proof.

In an attempt at reconciliation between the positivist and realist schools, Van Fraassen (1980) has tried to return the philosophy of science to empiricism, while at the same time retaining those aspects which the scientific realists had done right, beginning a new conversation in the philosophy of science which has continued for some twenty-five years now. Van Fraassen’s notion of “constructive empiricism” hinges on a notion similar to that of scientific realism, that theories are sets of models and statements which serve as a useful description of physical reality when they are shown to “work” properly. However, according to Van Fraassen, a good theory need not necessarily be true, nor is truthfulness arbitrarily assigned when a theory is found to fulfill certain axiomatic propositions. Rather, the truthfulness of a theory is confirmed if and only if it is found to fulfill the tests of empirical adequacy, but it is not necessarily “inadequate” if it does not meet these tests. Moreover, Van Fraassen rejects the rules of linguistic determinacy which both logical positivism and scientific realism insist upon; instead, any form of symbolic representation, regardless of whether or not it meets propositional rules, may constitute a valid basis for a scientific model so long as it is stands as an accurate description (Van Fraassen, 1980). Here, we find ourselves edging closer to the Burkean conception of science, with a theory’s validity dependant on well it uses language to explain - or more accurately, persuade - the audience of its truthfulness.

What we are interested in here is less an attempt to draw analogies between Burke and contemporary philosophy of science than a desire to examine what is the relevance of this modern philosophy to a Burkean model for studying the rhetoric of science. It shall be demonstrated that Van Fraassen’s model of constructive empiricism is useful in explaining how the four master tropes described by Burke in A Grammar of Motives. To undertake this task, Tietge’s application the four master tropes to a study of scientific discourse shall be used as the theoretical basis for a synthesis of Burke and Van Fraassen.

The Four Master Tropes and The Philosophy of Science: A Dialogue

We begin by examining Tietge’s description of how Burke’s four master tropes correspond to scientific practice. According to Tietge, the general statements Burke makes about science as an extension of the human symbol-making capacity in the Grammar of Motives necessarily lends itself to a discussion of how we relate the role of the four master tropes in communicating knowledge and meaning in scientific discourse. Accordingly, the key rhetorical features of scientific expression have their corresponding equivalents in Burke’s tropes. “Reduction”, the representation of features and phenomena in mathematical form, has its counterpart in the trope of metonymy. “Perspective” has its counterpart in the trope of metaphor, as it involves the attribution of features to an object of phenomenon which it actually does not have, but is useful in providing a simplified understanding (as when physicists describe quarks as having “color”: naturally, it is impossible for them to actually have colors as we know them but the metaphor has proved highly useful in explaining how the particles interact). “Synecdoche’s” counterpart is found in the use of representation of science, the inductive use of specific examples to establish universal principles; “dialectic” has its counterpart in irony, using examples to describe how outcomes differ from predictions or expectations (Tietge, 1998).

In using Burke’s four master tropes as a means of explaining and situating scientific practice, Tietge arrives at conclusions which parallel those which Van Fraassen derived from his notion of constructive empiricism. Both Van Fraassen and Tietge describe their individual interpretations as moves away from scientific realism, although the definitions of ‘scientific realism’ used by both scholars differ slightly and should be clarified before proceeding further. The scientific realism Van Fraassen is responding to specifically maintains that scientific theories, while capable of being either true or false, are to be considered literally true when their predictive value in explaining the world existing outside the mind has been validated and is also a rationalist response to the extreme empiricism of the logical positivists who focused on the use of observed evidence and argumentative structures in theory (Van Fraassen 1980). Van Fraassen is similarly critical of logical postivism but also maintains that weaknesses exist in the precepts of scientific realism, which must be further examined as well if we are to come up with an accurate model of how science proceeds.

On the other hand, the philosophy of scientific realism which Burke described and responded to, in a conversation continued by Tietge, encompasses the key assumptions of the philosophies of both scientific realism and positivism. The Burkean reply to scientific realism, that theories and observations are as much functions of symbolic action as other forms of rhetoric are, is further extended by Tietge to describe science as an ordering of observations and predictions through the use of language in an understandable manner (Burke, 1945, Tietge, 1998). As such, scientific theories are not literal descriptions or interpretations of objective reality as scientific realism insists, nor are they mere linguistic or social constructs as some of the more extreme constructivists would have us believe. They are, instead, an attempt to place in order our observations and interpretations in a manner which is clear, coherent, and understandable to their audiences, be them other scientists or the lay audience as a whole. If they fall short of a complete or accurate description of external reality it is less a failing of the theories themselves than of the very nature of language itself, subject as it is to ambiguity and imprecision, to say nothing of individual preference and competence in the selection of tropes (Tietge 1998).

It is at this point that we are able to proceed to a synthesis of Burke’s four master tropes with Van Fraassen’s constructive empiricism. Van Fraassen opposes logical positivism on the basis that a theory’s validity need not hinge on observables, be they direct observations of phenomena or observations of their effects. In turn, he also opposes realism on epistemological grounds, arguing that claims about what is and is not observable are not to be accepted as literal representations of reality but as linguistic constructs. Theories and models are as much “inventions” as they are explanations and may be defined and defended through any conceivable application of language (Van Fraassen, 1980). This is in part the same approach to science which Heath identifies in Burke’s approach: viewing theories as perspectives on reality instead of representations of reality itself and holding that language is as real as the theories it defines (Heath, 1986).

There is, however, one area where Burke and Van Fraassen are very much at odds and it is at this point that the four master tropes come into play. Van Fraassen holds that scientific theories and models are still primarily mental constructions and, as such, can be defined through any language by any means or manner we choose. We need not even define models in terms of any form of regimented or formal language, and can merely consider them to be abstract objects so long as some form of linguistic representation is utilized. Although a theory may not necessarily be literally true or empirically verifiable in order to be valid, a theory which both satisfies the given axioms and is empirically verifiable may be viewed as literally true (Van Fraassen, 1980).

For the Burkean scholar, however, “any old language” simply won’t do, nor can the theories and models be conceived or interpreted without the use of some systematic application of language and symbols. The Burkean perspective also encounters friction with the notion of constructive empiricism in that it denies that we can satisfactorily maintain that any theory may be viewed as literally true given that the limitations of language necessarily mean that we cannot provide a full description (Heath, 1986). Here is where the four tropes become useful: we may use them to more precisely define the use of language in the construction of scientific theories and models. This has a precedent in Schiappa’s (1993) synthesis of Burke with Kuhn’s philosophy of science, where it was demonstrated that the linguistic tropes were consistent with the epistemological pragmatism in scientific theories put forth by Kuhn. As noted by Schiappa, Burke provides the sort of social philosophy of language which Kuhn viewed as necessary for the advancement of the philosophy of science. This, according to Schiappa, leads to a pragmatic approach in which paradigms are selected on the basis of their utility and language becomes the basis of shared claims and concepts through which said paradigms are both developed and selected. The following will attempt to do for scientific realism and constructive empiricism what Schiappa did for Kuhn: demonstrate that Burke’s approach to rhetoric, embodied in the notion of the four tropes, provides a vehicle for linguistic analysis in Van Fraassen’s philosophy of science. The key difference is that whereas Schiappa argues that that combining Burke and Kuhn leads to a social constructionist viewpoint, the synthesis of Burke with Van Fraassen leads to an approach where hypotheses and models are more appropriately regarded as mental constructs with social interactions nonetheless playing an important role in the evolution and maturity as theories.

The Four Master Tropes and Constructive Empiricism: A Synthesis

Using examples found in Van Fraassen’s text as well as those who have responded to him in the unending conversation of the philosophy of science, we can demonstrate how the four master tropes become the source of description in the empirical construction of scientific theories. The first of these tropes we shall try to use in this manner is metonymy, and as this corresponds the most closely to the quantitative models and representations used in the sciences, it is probably the most important of the four tropes in this regard. Theories and models themselves, when viewed according to constructive empiricism, become a form of metonymy, as they serve as a reduction of observable phenomena to a statement which can be adequately be expressed linguistically. Whereas the other tropes rely on the imprecise definitions of formal language, the use of mathematics to provide for a metonymic reduction of objects allows for a more accurate model, although not a perfect one. Giere (1985) has responded negatively to both Van Fraassen and the more hardcore realists’ claims of isomorphic closure in scientific modeling; that is to say, the notion that any quantitative model which satisfies the required axioms may be regarded as a complete and accurate representation of object or phenomenon. The notion of “constructive realism” put forth by Giere argues against this claim in a manner similar to Heath’s interpretation of Burke (1986), although arrived at independently. According to Giere, the precise geometric models used by Van Fraassen are not valid analogies to scientific theories, as no quantitative model can ever provide an exact and complete representation of an actual object. Although Tietge maintains that metonymy is somehow separate from the other tropes in its use of a more precise language in the invention of theories and models, when we take Giere’s arguments into account we find that it too is subject to the same linguistic limitations which restrict the other tropes. Metonymy is still a trope apart, however, in the sense that it is used a form of persuasion almost exclusively within the rhetorical community of scientists where it occurs, and it also serves as the “root trope” from which the use of metaphor, dialectic, and synecdoche all spring forth. Whenever any one of the other three tropes is used in constructive empiricism, it is as usually as a means of either re-interpreting a metonymic model or to supplement it (Tietge, 1998).

Giere further argues that instead of relying on certitudes, a model’s validity can be evaluated on the basis of how similar it is to an actual object and on certain specified degrees of realism. Accordingly, just about any form of representation which meets the tests of empirical adequacy maybe considered valid. Here, we have the basis for an understanding of the use of synecdoche in the use of models which serve as the representations of nature which a theory aims to describe. Since we cannot ever have a complete representation of reality, we rely on synecdochal models which derive general principles from representations of specific objects. The validity of the use of synecdoche in a particular model is therefore dependant on the tests of empirical adequacy such as those insisted upon by Giere or Van Fraassen. Moreover, since theories in scientific realism are viewed as endpoints instead of reductions, they rely largely upon a linguistic approach; thus, theories serve as linguistic representations of physical reality and models, in turn, serve as representations of theories. If metonymy is the trope which corresponds to the understanding of theory in constructive empiricism, then synecdoche corresponds in parallel to theory in scientific realism.

Trying to locate the role of metaphor and especially irony in either scientific realism or constructive empiricism proves to be rather more problematic. As Burke himself noted in A Grammar of Motives, these tropes tend to shade into one another in a manner which makes them hard to define; this, added to the fact that contemporary philosophy of science has still only made a tentative investigation of the roles of metaphor and irony in science, means that the status of these two tropes in probing the validity of scientific theories and models remains up in the air. Both Tietge and Schiappa, however, have attempted to demonstrate how the Burkean definitions of metaphor and irony have a role in scientific understanding. In trying to explain the use of both metaphor and irony in scientific discourse, Tietge uses the examples of Charles Darwin’s (1959, cited in Tietge, 1998) use of the term “community of descent” to both provide an understanding of the deeper implications of natural selection through the use of metaphor, as well as an example of irony in the way that it inverts an accurate interpretation of what the theory of evolution truly means. Metaphors such as “community of descent” and “natural selection,” as noted by Tietge, have a certain degree of cognitive power as they serve as a means by which representations of nature can be done so linguistically in a manner which is not necessarily exact but which is sufficiently pragmatic to provide a reasonable conceptualization of a working model.

It has been further noted by Giere (1999) that we cannot establish perfect analogical models in a theory because the similarities can never be fully exact and therefore definitions of the individual objects can never be fully precise. Metaphor especially embodies this double-edged usefulness of analogy in science; but just as metaphors are essential to conceptual understanding in language, so too are models essential to the foundations of scientific theories. As noted by Psillos (2002), scientific realism views model construction in science as being guided by an analogical approach based upon substantial similarities which are either formal (derived from mathematical descriptions of a system) or material (descriptions of purely physical properties), and can then be tested against the phenomena they intend to describe. Although models are on one level synecdochal in the perspective of scientific realism just as they are in constructive empiricism, given that they are representations of larger structures which eventually lead to the development of mature theories, their dependence on analogies based on substantial similarities makes them metaphoric as well.

As for irony, it is perhaps best reinterpreted as a form of dialectic, which is also how it was interpreted by Schiappa (1993). Although a dialectic interpretation fits well with the Kuhnian view of science as a series of competing paradigm shifts, it is less comfortable with either scientific realism or constructive empiricism, both of which conform with the traditional view of science as eventually moving towards an accurate vision of physical reality differing primarily in how that vision is represented mentally and linguistically. Irony is then perhaps best defined, in the context of both scientific realism and constructive empiricism, in terms of models being adequate, but not exact, representations, so that the observed outcomes are not always as expected. Needless to say, irony is more suited to constructive empiricism and other pragmatic theories than to scientific realism, where, as Psillos maintains, “belief in truth is better” (1999, p. 204). The history of science is replete with examples of irony where the outcomes of observables did not match those of predictions, the most famous being perhaps the null effect of the Michelson-Morley experiment and the nonexistence of the hypothetical planet Vulcan, the puzzling outcomes of both of which were later resolved by, respectively, Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity. In constructive empiricism, an ironic outcome does not necessarily constitute a failure of a theory if it continues to meet certain other tests for empirical adequacy. Both Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory and Newton’s gravitational theory continued to meet those tests and continue to be considered adequate even though they have been supplemented by new theories necessitated by new knowledge borne by new observations.


Hopefully, the reader has brought back from the preceding article two key impressions. The first of these is that Kenneth Burke’s four master tropes have a renewed importance in social and rhetorical studies of science given the emphasis on language and symbolic systems that preoccupies much contemporary philosophy of science. The second impression is that there is room for a dialogue between both the rhetoricians and philosophers of science that will allow both sets of scholars to work towards a greater understanding of how scientific theories are developed. If this dialogue is to be successful, however, both sets of scholars must try to go beyond the tropes to other discourse rules and structures which are used in science, as well extending the scope of their investigations beyond the hard sciences of physics and biology typically used as subjects, to encompass theories in sociology, economics and psychology as well.

In addition to asking what rhetorical theory can provide to the philosophy of science, we should also be asking ourselves what the philosophy of science can provide for rhetoric. The preceding paper provided only one side of a conversation; I happily invite the other side to join in.

*Andrew Kidd is at the Department of Communication Studies at University of Minnesota. He can be reached at
The author wishes to thank Arthur Walzer of the University of Minnesota for his assistance with an earlier draft of this paper.

Works Cited
Brock, B. L. (1995). Evolution of Kenneth Burke’s criticism and philosophy of language. In B.L. Brock (ed.) Kenneth Burke and contemporary European thought, (pp. 1-33). Tuscaloosa AL: University of Alabama Press.

Burke, K (1945). A grammar of motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Giere, R. N. (1985). Constructive realism. In P. M. Churchland and C. A. Hooker (Eds.) Images of science: Essays on realism and empiricism, (pp.75-98). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Giere, R.N. (1999). Using models to represent reality. In L. Magnani, N.J. Nersessian, and P. Thagard (Eds.) Model-reasoning in scientific discovery, (pp.41-57). New York: Klewer/Plenum.

Heath, R. L. (1986). Realism and relativism: A perspective on Kenneth Burke. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press

Psillos, S. (2002). Scientific realism: How science tracks the truth. London and New York: Routledge.

Schiappa, E. (1993) . Burkean tropes and Kuhnian science: A social constructionist perspective on language and reality. Journal of Advanced Composition 13, 401-22.

Tietge, D. (1998) The role of Burke’s four master tropes in scientific representation. Journal of Technical and Writing Communication 28, 317-324

Van Fraassen, B.C. (1980). The Scientific Image. Oxford UK: Clarendon Press, a division of Oxford University Press.

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"Kenneth Burke and Contemporary Philosophy of Science” by Andrew Kidd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at


Positive Identification through Being the ‘Occasional Asshole’: A Burkeian Analysis of “Dear John,” by Poet Tony Hoagland

Rosemary Royston, Young Harris College


This paper gives a brief overview of the redemption drama as found in the work of rhetorician Kenneth Burke and applies this drama to the poem “Dear John” by Tony Hoagland. The poem is examined through the Burkeian lens, with special attention to the elements of the redemption drama, while also highlighting the use of humor as an effective rhetorical strategy.

RECALL A TIME WHEN someone said something inappropriate – how the moment was uncomfortable, yet, upon the apology from the offender and the forgiveness of the offended, everyone is suddenly at ease. A moment such as this is exactly what contemporary poet Tony Hoagland describes in his poem “Dear John.” In fact, when examining “Dear John” through a Burkeian lens, it is easy to identify Burke’s redemption drama. In the text, Communication Criticism: Approaches and Genres, Karyn and Donald Rybacki describe the redemption drama as a social drama that involves the elements of guilt, purification, and redemption (72). Yet for this drama to be effective, the main concept of Burkeian rhetoric, identification, must be present. Burke saw society as a collection of various hierarchies, with individuals and groups engaging in ongoing struggles (Rybacki 71). Because there are a number of hierarchies (political, social, economic) an individual is unable to satisfy all the rules imposed on him. In his text, The Rhetoric of Religion, Burke outlines the redemption drama in short verse, where order represents the many expectations or “commandments” found in society:

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

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

Through Guilt
To Victimage
(hence Cult of the Kill)… (4-5).

To summarize, in no way can an individual satisfy all of the expectations of the many hierarchies with which he is engaged When the individual fails to keep “order,” he feels guilty. He then needs to redeem himself for his failing and either be the victim or name a victim for the shortcoming. In the end, redemption is needed to alleviate the sin or shortcoming.

However, for this social drama to work, the reader or listener must identify with the rhetor, which in this case is a poet. Without identification between the two, then, the redemption drama will fail as the reader must experience the guilt (even if vicariously) and witness both the redemption and the purification of the speaker. In his work, The Rhetoric of Redemption, Bobbit posits a key question in regard to the redemption drama, “How does the rhetor take the listener from guilt to redemption…how does he or she achieve symbolic purification for the audience?” (41). This paper will examine how the poet does just that, allowing the reader to vicariously experience not only the poet’s faux pas but also his purification and ultimate redemption. As this social drama is enacted, one will also see how Hoagland utilizes many rhetorical strategies in his poem, such as narration, description, and justification. But inevitably it is his use of humor which allows the reader to enter and exit a social drama with an unexpected amount of ease.

All humans yearn for acceptance. We all wish to be a part of a group where shared beliefs, interests, or values exist. And within the first stanza of “Dear John,” the poet describes his desire to be liked as he attempts to make friends with someone to whom he has just been introduced. However, his attempt at bonding fails miserably, as he writes, “I never would have told John that faggot joke / if I had known that he was gay” (1-2). Immediately the reader is thrown into a social drama. The poet admits to cracking a bad joke and instead of welcoming his potential new friend he has likely offended him. The poet continues, “I really shot myself in the foot with that Neanderthal effort / to make a witty first impression” (3-4). Within these four opening lines, the reader has had two opportunities to identify with the poet. First, all readers can identify with the wish to be liked. Secondly, readers (if honest) can also remember a time when they, too, said something inappropriate and offended someone. Yet a glimpse of the character of the poet is revealed as he admits to his “… Neanderthal effort / to make a witty impression” (3-4). Instead of being defensive or making a quick exit after his faux-pas, the reader understands that the poet feels guilty and the next stage of the drama begins: purification.

Purification is evident as the poet justifies the impetus for his off-color joke. The poet simply wants John, the “skinny guy from New York City,” who has just arrived in Vermont and is “nervous about how real the maples really were” to feel comfortable (5, 9-10). After all, the only Vermont John is familiar with is the one “…from the pictures on the side / of a gallon can of Log Cabin maple syrup” (7-8). Hoagland continues, “so I made my tasteless remark to put him at his ease” (11). The reader now has further insight into the character of the poet – he is the type of person who admits to a mistake and whose basic motivation was to make a new person feel comfortable.

Hoagland’s strategy for keeping the reader engaged in the scene has been not only to describe the situation and to justify his acts, but also to use humor as a rhetorical strategy. His humor is directed not only at the outside drama, but also at himself in the form of self-deprecation. In fact, he finds a type of freedom in being a self-acknowledged jerk, as he writes,

there’s something democratic
about being the occasional asshole—
you make a mistake, you apologize
and everyone else breathes easier—(16-19).

The elements of the redemption drama are now all evident: guilt in being the “asshole,” purification through explanation of motive, and redemption as “everyone else breathes easier” (19). Because the poet recognizes his “male idiocy,” apologizes, and is forgiven, he and John become friends (12). The friendship is the ultimate form of redemption as it affirms that the poet has been forgiven. The poet describes how John helps him “…through the whole lesbian thing / when Margie decided to take her feminism in a recreational direction” (20-22). In turn, the poet buys John “…a recording / of simulated gunfire and police sirens” to help him sleep through the quiet Vermont nights (22-23).


In fact, not only does the poet become friends with John by the end of the poem, he has come to love him,

---not for his cuteness (he is)
or for his endearing manner of being always on the brink
of falling apart,
but precisely because he doesn’t ever threaten to love me back (30-33).

At this point in the poem, a shift occurs. The Burkeian social drama has taken a twist, moving away from a generalized outside audience to a much more internal and personal one. The poet continues in the confessional mode,

On someone like that you can lavish your affection
in perfect safety—
that’s nothing to be proud of, I suppose—
and yet, obscurely, I am (34-37).

In short, the poet feels safe in “lavishing his affection” on John simply because John never “threaten[s] to love [him] back” (33-34). This personal observation tells the reader much about the poet’s persona and his view on love. Clearly, the poet is more comfortable loving someone who does not threaten to return the adoration. And while the generalized outside audience has somewhat disappeared, an opportunity for readers to identify with the poet remains. However, any identification occurring will be on a subjective level. Not all people are fulfilled by unreciprocated love. Yet some readers will find this personal revelation similar to their own life situation and will identify. In his ending, the poet has veered away from speaking solely to an outside audience and turned to an interior view – it is as if he is having a conversation with himself to which the reader is privy.

To return to the initial question posed by Bobbit, the rhetor, or poet, has taken the listener from guilt to redemption by becoming the sacrificial lamb at his own hand. Because of the multiple opportunities for consubstantiation or identification, the reader experiences the poet’s guilt, purification, and redemption. Even though the poet takes on the role of the “occasional asshole,” the reader vicariously experiences every crucial element of this social drama. By sacrificing himself through admission of guilt and self-deprecating humor, the poet pays for his sin and is redeemed through the reciprocal friendship. Ironically, it is the freedom experienced from being an “asshole” that enables the redemption drama to operate on both a universal level and a personal level, and it is the rhetorical strategy of humor that allows the reader to have a few chuckles along the way, moving in and out of this social drama with ease.

* Rosemary Royston is a poet with a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Spalding University. She currently works as the Vice President for Planning and Assessment at Young Harris College. She can be reached at


Works Cited


Bobbit, David. The Rhetoric of Redemption. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.,

Burke, Kenneth. The Rhetoric of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

Hoagland, Tony. “Dear John,” What Narcissism Means to Me. Minnesota: Graywolf Press,

Rybacki, Karyn, and Donald Rybacki. Communication Criticism: Approaches and Genres.
California: Wadsworth, 1991.

"Positive Identification through Being the ‘Occasional Asshole’: A Burkeian Analysis of “Dear John,” by Poet Tony Hoagland"; by Rosemary Royston is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at



Ceci N’est Pas Une Guerre: The Misuse of War as Metaphor in Iraq

Ted Remington, University of Saint Francis


On the occasion of the end of the official “combat mission” in Iraq, it is worth examining the role rhetoric played in what some have termed one of the longest wars in U.S. history. But that raises the question.  Was what happened in Iraq, at least after the initial invasion in 2003, a “war?”  Everyone from the most hawkish of hawks to the most peaceful of doves chose war as the term with which to refer to the United States’ involvement in that country.  But was this term literal or metaphoric?  If the former, was it accurate? If the latter, what were the rhetorical (and political, social, and global) consequences of its use?

I use this question as a starting point for a meditation on the larger theme of the rhetorical role of metaphor as described by Kenneth Burke.  Given Burke’s admonishment to beware the dangers of understanding the symbolic literally, I suggest taking a closer look at the distinction between metaphor and simile, not simply as literary tropes, but as conceptual tools for ordering the world.  I particularly look at the Burkean triad of the Order, Secret, and Kill (in Rhetoric of Motives) to understand what’s at stake in our symbolic choices.The metaphor/simile distinction allows us to more fully understand the role of the symbolic in Burke’s ultimate goal: the purification of war.  Understanding the rhetorical and philosophical consequences of the metaphor/simile distinction gives us a tool to move toward (but, of course, never fully arriving at) transcendence.

Returning to the specific case study of Iraq, I close by hypothesizing how using the term war was a rhetorical choice that blocked the way to peace.  Even those who most opposed U.S. policy in Iraq rhetorically empowered the rationale for never-ending conflict when they referred to their position as “anti-war.”  A keener understanding of the role of the symbolic in structuring our motives, as provided by Burke, coupled with an appreciation for the distinction between simile and metaphor (something even Burke spends little time discussing) provides us one way of moving toward a better life.

ALL METAPHORS ARE FALSE, all similes are true.  We rarely note this fact, given its obviousness.  Metaphors say two different things are the same, while similes say two things resemble each other.  No matter how alike two things are, they are never identical, and no matter how different they are, there are always qualities they share (even if that quality is something as vague as “existence.”).   To say, “Juliet is the sun” is to lie—Juliet and the sun are not one in the same.  But saying “Juliet is like the sun” states something demonstrably true. Regardless of the radiance of her beauty, Juliet and the sun share qualities in common, even if that quality is simply their existence in Romeo’s world.

At first blush, this seems like mere wordplay. But of the many lessons Kenneth Burke teaches us, one of the most central is this: pay attention to tropes and their use.  In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke warns of the dangers of confusing the literal and the symbolic. I would add that ignorance of how different figures of speech operate make this confusion much more likely.  This is particularly true in the case of metaphor, which is, on the surface, a claim that could be taken literally.  It does not call attention to its own figurativeness the way simile does.  Burke defines metaphor as the trope that allows us perspective—itself a metaphor that implies distance.  But what if a metaphor actually collapses that distance?  What happens to the perspective then?  And what are the consequences?

I suggest that the consequences can be grave indeed, particularly when the metaphors lead us to the deadly cooperation Burke most wanted to save us from: war.  In this essay, I suggest that the word “war” itself has become an uneasy and unstable metaphor, not offering perspective, but creating a deadly myopia.  Specifically, the word “war” in relation to United States involvement in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, while often used as a factually accurate term, was not appropriate on a literal level.  It must be metaphorical, then.  But its metaphorical aspect, while crucial to its power as a rhetorical term, went unnoted.  The president, the press, protesters . . . all invoked “war” when referring to the conflict in Iraq.  Yet the consequences of this trope remain unacknowledged.  Most problematically, the insistence on using the term “war” brought about the deaths of tens of thousands of human beings by making U.S. disengagement from Iraq problematic, thus drawing out the occupation and its attendant violence for the better part of a decade.

This essay aims to acknowledge the consequences and suggest a Burkean antidote.  I make a number of specific assertions:

  • the situation in Iraq did not meet the literal definition of “war” after 2003
  • the continuing use of “war” to describe the situation in Iraq was a figurative use of the term, one loaded with rhetorical weight
  • the unproblematic use of the term by virtually all parties shows us the power of war as a representative anecdote (as Burke describes in A Grammar of Motives)
  • the metaphor of war holds a powerful allure, even for those who oppose U.S. policies in Iraq

My hope is that this examination of a specific case of the power of tropes to shape our collective lives together can shed some light on our journey toward a better life.  In this effort, I pull broadly and freely from Burke’s work rather than working through a single specific concept.  When using ideas of some critics, this might be unseemly liberty-taking.  I hope and trust, however, that I am working within the spirit of Burke’s ideas and his own idea of the critical enterprise.  I take as my guide Burke’s own words from A Rhetoric of Motives:

So we must keep trying anything and everything, improvising, borrowing from others, developing from others, dialectically using one text as comment upon another, schematizing; using the incentive to new wandering, returning from these excursions to schematize again, being oversubtle where the straining seems to promise some further glimpse, and making amends by reduction to very simple anecdotes.  (265)

“War” As a Metaphor We Live (and Die) By

Within hours of the attacks of September 11th, 2001, the word “war” became the dominant term to describe the situation facing the United States (Montgomery).  This became explicit with the coining of the phrase “war on terror.”  Any number of commentators have noted the problem of waging “war” on a concept, and it would be hard to argue that this use of the word “war” is not in large sense metaphoric, as it is in the phrases “war on poverty” and “war on drugs” (John, Domke, Coe, and Graham; Smith; Goodall; Ivie; Stahl).

But the invasions of Afghanistan and later Iraq made the metaphor real.  Although war was not declared in either case, the events in both countries surely fit the general definition of the word—an ongoing military conflict between two nation states.  But by this definition, the “wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq ended after a matter of weeks.  This is particularly true in the case of Iraq, where the opposing army was disbanded, the leader of one of the nations involved was forced into hiding (and eventually captured), and the armed forces of the other nation occupying its adversary. 

Yet, despite the surrender of the opposing army, the word “war” continued to be used to refer to the situation in Iraq. At first glance, this seems fair.  After all, armed conflict continued, with far more U.S. service members (as well as Iraqis) killed after the fall of Saddam Hussein than were killed during the invasion.

Still, the situation did not fit the definition of “war.”  There was not one conflict between two nations, but a series of conflicts among a wide variety of entities with shifting alliances.  There was no capturing of territory or even pitched battles.  Rather, Iraq suffered through sporadic, spasmodic fits of violence among any number of groups, including the United States military.  It is a bloody and chaotic occupation of a defeated country, not a war.

Despite this, the word “war” continued to be used to describe Iraq, not only by the Bush administration, but by journalists and those opposed to the administration’s policy.  So, we find not only Bush referring to himself as a “war” president, but also reporters discussing legislation on funding “the war in Iraq” and groups protesting U.S. involvement in Iraq printing bumper stickers saying “End this endless war.”

Why War?

Why would “war” be the chosen metaphor for Iraq?  Burke would have a ready answer to this question.  As he writes in A Grammar of Motives, war offers a powerful and comprehensive representative anecdote not simply for armed conflict, but for conflict (and hence the human condition as a whole).  If one is looking for a means of drawing a collective together for action (as was the case with Bush and his policy in Iraq), war is a perfect vehicle since, as Burke notes, “war draws things to a head as thoroughly as a suppurating abscess, and is usually, like revolution, the dramatic moment of explosion after an infinity of minute preparatory charges” (Burke, Grammar of Motives 329).1

This explains the lure of war as metaphor for Bush, but what about the media?  Why the unquestioning use of the word “war” despite the clear problems with using it literally?  One might suggest that the singular power of a political leader such as Bush to frame the issue in terms of his choosing makes the press’s acceptance of the term inevitable.  But plenty of examples exist of the media not simply accepting a president’s favored terminology.  So, where does the media’s motivation lie2

Again, Burke offers an answer.  Noting that the press in a capitalist democracy largely gives itself over to propagandizing for private business, Burke suggests that the press serves its master by celebrating the destructive component of the military (part of the public sector).  This contrasts with its dialectical opposite, the constructivist private sector.  Collective sacrifice is fetishized only when it is in the service of “booty” (Burke’s term).  Burke, who suggested this in looking back at the actions of the press leading up to and through World War II, would likely point out the extent to which the benefits of the invasion and occupation of Iraq landed in the laps of private industry.  At the same time, true collective sacrifice for the greater good (e.g., higher taxes to pay for the invasion) has not only been ignored, but actively discouraged, as in Bush’s exhortation for consumers to spend more money at the mall as a response to the terrorist attacks.

To the extent that militaristic adventuring serves private gains, and the press serves as a propagandistic tool of private industry, it should not surprise us that our media continued to label the occupation of Iraq as an ongoing “war.”  This was not in deference to the Bush administration as much as it was to corporate forces, which were the ones to collect the booty.  In fact, the situation in Iraq served as an almost comic exaggeration of the motives Burke describes.  Writing half a century ago, Burke says: “I have never heard it said that we should let out our wars to private contractors, so far as the recruiting of a fighting force itself is concerned” (Grammar 395).  With the advent of Blackwater, KBR, and a host of other private “contractors,” the corporate/military synergy described by Burke reached an extent in Iraq that even he might have had trouble believing.

Finally, we have the use of “war” by those who specifically opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and oppose the continued occupation.  Even Barack Obama, as both candidate and as president, continued to invoke the term “war” for the situation in Iraq, despite his opposition to the initial invasion. If “war” is the metaphor of choice largely because it serves the purposes of those who profit from U.S. policy in Iraq, why should those who opposed this policy also embrace "war"?3

Again, Burke’s discussion of war-as-anecdote sheds light on the question.   War, he notes, need not be used only as a constitutive anecdote (saying what we are), but as an admonitory one (one that warns us of what we may become) (Grammar 330). That is, “war” can be used as a means of insisting on the necessity of peace.  Those who implored us to “end this endless war” used “war” because of the power of the word to stand for all that we fear.  Calling for an end to the “war” frames a policy debate in nearly metaphysical terms, asking us to turn away from the most hideous and cruel aspect of ourselves and toward the better angels of our nature.

This goes some way in explaining the acceptance of the “war” trope by Barack Obama.  Although opposed to the initial invasion and promising to bring the troops in Iraq home, candidate Obama repeatedly referred to the situation in Iraq as a “war.”  After becoming president, Obama continued to use the term in discussing Iraq, despite his efforts to bring U.S. troops home as promised during the campaign.  It might make sense for Obama to abandon the “war” metaphor precisely because that would allow him to undercut the rationale the continued presence of the military in Iraq and make ending the occupation of Iraq less rhetorically tricky.  So why did he continue to invoke “war?”

Part of this might be explained by the fact that the situation in Iraq had already been rhetorically framed as a “war,” and to not use this trope might make Obama seem out of touch with the “reality” of the situation, as popularly understood.  On a deeper level, however, Obama may well have been using “war” for the same reasons critics of the Bush policy did: it served to dramatize the situation.  By ending the “combat mission” in Iraq, Obama could claim to have ended the “war” in Iraq, an achievement that looks much better on a presidential resumé than ending an “occupation.”  Such framing portrays Obama as triumphing over “war,” the ultimate evil, by putting an end to it.

Yet Burke warns that there are limits to the power of “war” to serve the function of the ultimate “thou-shalt-not”, noting:

It may be doubted whether a purely admonitory idiom can serve even the deterrent role for which it is designed; for it creates nothing but the image of the enemy, and if men are to make themselves over in the image of imagery, what other call but that of the enemy is there for them to answer?  (Grammar 331).

Burke’s rhetorical question takes on even more weight given that one of Obama’s leading reasons for drawing down combat forces in Iraq was to aid in persecuting the United States’ other “war” in Afghanistan.

Burke’s discussion of war as a representative anecdote takes place in context of a search for an overarching constitutive anecdote for the human condition.  One can raise the objection that to apply this to the much more tactical situation of the rhetoric of the Iraq conflict is to conflate two very different issues.  I agree.   Burke’s discussion of the lure of war as a lens through which we can understand human nature does suggest some answers to the question of why “war” would become the metaphor of choice for the Iraq.  However, I do not suggest that Bush, the media, or those opposed to U.S. policy in Iraq proposed war as an overarching representative anecdote for humanity.

To apply this observation to the specific and narrow case of the rhetoric of the Iraq conflict, I use another Burkean concept, the terministic screen.  (It strikes me that when Burke talks about a “representative anecdote,” he is talking about the equivalent of a terministic screen writ large.). The adoption of “war” as the controlling metaphor for American involvement in Iraq colored our understanding of it in particular ways, ways that are not in the control of those who use the word.  

In Attitudes Toward History, Burke notes that “[e]ven if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality” [Burke’s emphasis] (Burke, Attitudes Toward History 45).  A terministic screen “necessarily directs the attention into some channels rather than others” (45).  If, for varied reasons, “war” has been chosen as the terministic screen through which we view Iraq, we should look at what it draws our attention to and what it deflects. 

“War” suggests at least three specific qualities of the conflict in Iraq.  First, it views the United States engaging a singular, monolithic “Enemy” that must be defeated.  Wars are fought against someone.  Second, it lets us see only two possible outcomes: victory or defeat (surrender). In war, one side wins, the other loses.  Lastly, it portrays the conflict in Iraq as a defense of the United States itself.  Wars are fought to defend one’s own way of life.  Even wars of aggression are sold to the citizens who fight them as the only way to defend their own homes, families, and livelihoods. 

What is deflected?  The complex, chaotic nature of the multiple conflicts and shifting alliances in Iraq, where even those collectively labeled “insurgents” are often battling each other, and today’s “warlord” is tomorrow’s valued “tribal leader.”  So is the possibility of negotiation.  In war, peaceful settlement happens after one side conquers the other.  Withdrawal of troops equals surrender.  Finally, the terministic screen of war obscured the nature of U.S. interests in Iraq, which are primarily economic and geo-political “booty,” not the immediate safety of Americans.

The collective mythic understanding of war in America amplifies these distortions.  World War II remains the archetypal war in America’s collective consciousness, a “good” war where “citizen soldiers” “liberated” oppressed people terrorized by an undeniably evil enemy.  We see the potency of this when we reflect on Bush’s rhetorical linkage of Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler before the invasion.  When the United States fights a war (says the myth), it is a good war against an evil enemy, and victory is the only acceptable, indeed the only possible, result.

One might think that the specter of Vietnam would act as a corrective to this triumphalism, but in fact, it simply shows the dangers of not seeing a war through to victory.  To give up a war (rarely is the word “lose” used, even in reference to Vietnam) invites dishonor and raises the dangers of falling into a “syndrome.” 

To sum up: “war” was the dominant term used in the public sphere to describe U.S. involvement in Iraq.  This is despite the fact that the literal meaning of the word bore little resemblance to the situation on the ground after 2003.  Its use was a rhetorical choice made by a variety of voices for a variety of reasons, all of which were tied to war’s natural appeal as a representative anecdote for human action. The term “war” was a figure—a metaphor—which created a terministic screen through which we viewed events in Iraq that necessarily drew our attention to certain aspects of the situation while obscuring and distorting others.   Most problematically, it placed possible topics of debate and policy decisions squarely “out of bounds.”

The Lure of War

In the previous section, we considered possible motivations for the use of the war metaphor in conjunction with Iraq.  We noted that those who supported the invasion and occupation, those reporting on it, and those opposed to it—including Obama—had particular reasons for using this term, despite the gap between its literal meaning and the situation on the ground.  In this section, I push this discussion further, speculating on deeper, more visceral motivations for the adoption of this metaphor by all parties.  While the previous section looked at different motivations among these three groups, I now move to looking at the lure of war as a metaphor in a way that is shared among all who use it, drawing together even those who see themselves as enemies.

Specifically, the term “war” serves as a seductive term of mystification, invoking deep-seated myths of human action at its highest and most dramatic levels.  This lure transcends the particular positions of those involved in the rhetorical give-and-take.  All involved, including those who label themselves “anti-war,” participate in the thrill that this invocation provides. “War” becomes what Burke describes as a “grounding” term that allows opposing factions to transcend differences.  It is the shared battlefield for those on opposing sides, and as such, it “transcends their factionalism, being ‘superior’ to it and ‘neutral’ to their motives, though the conditions of the terrain may happen to favor one faction” (Rhetoric of Motives, 11).  Yet, while this lure is equally powerful, the ramifications of adopting the war metaphor are not equal. I suggest that this metaphor serves the interests of those in favor of the continued occupation of Iraq. 

In his book War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, former war correspondent Chris Hedges describes how war holds a perverse attraction for us at both individual and communal levels.  He states that

[t]he enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life.  I can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.  Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent.” (Hedges, 3).
[t]he enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. I can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent.” (Hedges, 3).  

Hedges speaks candidly of how, despite coming face to face with war’s horrors and suffering tremendously as a result, he personally found himself addicted to the visceral thrill of participating in war, even as a neutral observer, to the point of being willing to risk death, if only it would allow him to live for another moment in this heightened state of human drama and avoid being taken back to the humdrum routine of a life of peaceful ordinariness (5).

This heightened state of being, this sense of being involved in a cause that draws us to the most meaningful of actions, does not operate only on the level of the individual but on the level of the social as well.  For Hedges, this is most clear in the strength of patriotism’s grip on us during times of war.  Such is the power of nationalism that it can, at times, relieve us of our moral judgment and sense of individual autonomy.  War is the ultimate expression of this drive for collective action, of dissolving the self into the social.  While myths of nationalism are often invoked during peacetime for “benign” ends, they also “are the kindling nationalists use to light a conflict” (Hedges).

The myth of nationalism is the overarching lie that grounds and justifies the innumerable other lies that are told to justify and carry out war, including the most barbaric atrocities. It is also this myth that makes such lies believable.  Hedges cites examples of otherwise intelligent, educated people, from the former Yugoslavia to Argentina, willingly believing the most outlandish, risible claims because they were in the thrall of the nationalist myth. 

In both the description of the allure of war on the personal level and its collective seductiveness as the epitome of social action, Hedges (while not referencing Burke) describes processes akin to mystification.  Personal pain, uncertainty, and collective anxiety are numbed by the narcotic of war, a situation that replaces reality with a simplified vision of a world of black and white, right and wrong.   But more than assuaging the anxieties that are inherent in the scramble of life, war holds out the promise of personal and collective transformation through participation in human action at its most dramatic levels.  This is what Burke terms the “special” form of mystification that is used in overt deception (as opposed to the general sort he believes lurks in any mode of persuasion), that creates the “misunderstandings that goad to war” (Rhetoric of Motives, 179).  When such mystification involves issues of war and peace, they invoke “ultimate choices,” for “[m]en must make themselves over profoundly, when cooperatively engaged in following such inescapable purposes.  And as the acts of persuasion add up in a social texture, they amount to one or the other of those routes—and they are radical, no matter however trivial the errors by which war is permitted to emerge out of peace” (179). 

In understanding the fundamental allure of the metaphor of war that lays at the foundation of any particular invocation of it by various parties, we should note this promise of transformation.  Hedges notes the ability of war to provide an almost drug-like state of euphoria on a personal level.  But it would be a mistake, and underestimation of war’s power, to suggest that war holds out only illusory promises of transformation.  As William James notes in his essay “The Moral Equivalent of War,” war calls for demonstrations of the highest of human values.  Militarism, James notes, “is the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood, and human life with no use for hardihood would be contemptible” (James, 664).  War calls on universally acknowledged ideals of bravery, sacrifice, loyalty, ingenuity, tenacity and evokes them within the most extreme of situations, where individual and collective survival are placed in the balance.  Only pointing to the horrors of war will never do away with war, since “the horrors make the fascination” (661).  Only when we create a peaceful alternative, one that calls for peaceful purposes on those qualities fostered by war to facilitate killing and destruction, can we hope to do away with war’s gruesome allure.  

This discussion has suggested reasons why the invocation of “war” carries weight beyond the parochial interests of particular interest groups.  Its lures are manifold.  It soothes individual and collective frustrations that emerge in the give-and-take of life, and it calls on qualities that are, in and of themselves, laudable and even necessary for the health of a society.  Above all, as Burke, Hedges, and James all note, war holds out the promise of life lived at its most dramatic and intense limits.  It is presented to us as the human drama played out in the most visceral of ways, and this drama depends on the very things that make it abominable. 

But what does this do for us in terms of our specific topic, the use of war as a metaphor for the U.S. actions in Iraq beyond 2003?  Obviously, it gives us a better sense of what might motivate those inclined to favor these policies.  It even suggests reasons for why the media adopted this metaphor so readily.  Hedges’ personal experiences serve as a synecdoche for the allure war has for those who tell its story.  War is the ultimate story.  Even those who, unlike Hedges, are far from the actual slaughter and immune from the visceral thrill of life lived in extremis, partake in the vicarious thrill of telling the ultimate story.  And attendant with this are the lucrative rewards of serving up the ultimate story to audiences who, likewise, wish to partake in this communal action from a distance, if in no other way than bearing witness to it.

But what of those who opposed the invasion and occupation?  Why would they invoke the war metaphor?  I suggest it is because war provides, to use Burke’s terminology, a grounding term for transformation (Rhetoric of Motives, 10-11).  If war is, as Hedges suggests, a higher mode of being, then to oppose war itself becomes a higher mode of being.  “War” as a term provides a place of transcendence—a common ground that both sides accept.  I have argued that the acceptance of this particular common ground greatly favors those who supported the invasion and occupation, but one does not need to look very far to see why the allure of the war metaphor would blind activists on the other side to its perils. 

An anecdote might help illustrate this phenomenon.  As a college student during the first Gulf War in 1991, I saw many of my fellow students become fascinated with recreating an anti-war movement reminiscent of the Vietnam-era protests of the 1960s and 70s (which was part of their mythic past rather than remembered past, given that these students were just being born at the height of the antiwar movement).  Although there was no serious consideration of a draft, informational meetings were held about how to achieve conscientious objector status and the ramifications of signing up (or not) for selective service.  Protests were planned.   Fliers were put up. 

Certainly much of this activity was based on sincere and thoughtful disagreement with the specifics of the foreign policy decisions of the first Bush administration.  But even as a student myself, it was clear to see that there was another motivation—a craving to create anew the drama and passion that these students had read about from their parents’ generation.  The desire to transcend the humdrum existence of a student at a small college in the Midwest was powerful and understandable.  “War” carries a cachet as a modifier, whether it comes in the phrase “war president,” “war correspondent,” or “anti-war protestor.” 

In a Burkean sense, “war” as a term connotes drama, both personal and social, at its highest level.  To play with Burke’s metaphor of a “battleground” term, one could reframe this dramatistically: “war” provides all involved, regardless of their animosity toward one another, the grandest of stages.  That this stage is fit only for putting on the bloodiest of tragedies is lost on the participants.  Or, if not lost, it actually heightens the perverse attraction of the term (as Hedges and James say of war itself) as a scene for human drama. 

The particular danger for champions of peace in setting foot on this stage is that the invocation of war is powerful and activates deep seeded narratives.  Yes, war can be framed as the ultimate evil, as the perverse result of human cooperation at its blackest.  As such, it seems an inviting target.  Yet, to grant the figurative use of this term is a devil’s bargain—a Trojan horse that seems promising but brings defeat.  “War,” particularly in the context of American political rhetoric, conjures up images of victorious soldiers vanquishing a hated and evil enemy, of making the world safe for democracy.  Were we closer in time to the Civil War, or had we had the European experience of the world wars in the twentieth century, perhaps our collective vision of war would be more realistic.  But, despite involvement in Korea and Vietnam, our myth of war is still based largely on Greatest Generation triumphalism.  In that context, it is difficult to persuade Americans, let alone those elected to represent them, to unilaterally disengage from a “war” without the requisite signs of victory.  Such signs were in abundance at the end of the actual war in Iraq: enemy POWs, a bombed capital city, effigies of the enemy leader ripped from their pedestals, etc.  But an occupation does not lead to a triumphal march through the streets or a treaty signed on a battleship.  It cannot provide victory of the sort that the “war” metaphor promises.  By invoking this metaphor in the case of Iraq (and Afghanistan, for that matter) we frame the conflict in a way that makes it extraordinary difficult to bring ourselves to break off from it.

This is not to say, of course, that “war” should never be used.  Nor is the case being made that the issue is whether “war” is being used correctly in a legalistic sense.  The objection to the use of “war” in the case of Iraq is not that the invasion and occupation did not occur under the auspices of a formal declaration of war.  Certainly American involvement in Korea and Vietnam deserved to be called “wars” regardless of whether they were declared or not.  Insisting on not calling something a war will not necessarily make it easier to end.  In fact, in the case of both Korea and Vietnam, surely the hesitance by political leaders to call these episodes “wars” made it easier, not harder, to escalate them.  The argument is simply that, in the case of Iraq, the use of “war” to describe the conditions after spring 2003 was figurative and that the adoption of this figure by all involved was both understandable and, from the point of view of those who labeled themselves “anti war,” tragically counterproductive.

The Cult of the Kill

As we have seen, “war” possesses a terrible power as a representative anecdote, so much so that in the case of Iraq, it is invoked unquestioningly by all parties concerned, despite the fact that it does not describe the situation on the ground.  This discussion focused on Burke’s observations about war’s constitutive powers as a term—its socio-political power.

But there is another level.  Other forces are at work which are more deeply psychological.  Again, Burke offers us a vocabulary with which to talk about them, particularly his idea of the “Cult of the Kill.”

The Kill, the climax of the order-pollution-guilt-purification-redemption narrative, describes the destruction of the scapegoat—a sacrifice—that purges collective sin (or, more properly, the guilt created by the sense of having sinned).  For Burke, of course, this process should be symbolic.  Yet the symbol of The Kill, like the term “war,” is dangerous in that it is easily misunderstood or pursued so feverishly that it becomes an end in itself.  In its most destructive form, it becomes literal.  It takes the form of conflict rather than becoming a symbolic way of transcending conflict through dialectic.  In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke tells us why this is:

[G]enuine peace today could be got only by such a dialectic that risked “contamination” by the enemy.  Or rather, by such a dialectic as sought deliberately to give full expression to the voice of the enemy, not excluding it, but seeking to assign it an active place in an ultimate order.  But when confronting the need for “dyings” and new “births” thus dialectically encouraged, men seem to prefer the simple suicide and homicide of militarist devotion, having persuaded themselves that the further dialectical growth of doctrine would be immoral.  (Burke, Rhetoric of Motives 263)

This aptly captures the tenor of the war rhetoric of the Bush administration (and many others) from September 11, 2001, through the invasion of Iraq, and beyond.  Understanding underlying causes for the attacks, or even focusing strictly on eliminating those most responsible for the attacks, were lost under the rhetoric of “evil” that placed any dialectic out of bounds and symbolically conflated the 9/11 hijackers, Osama bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein into one looming threat that had to be destroyed through “simple homicide”—what Burke would call an example of the “’scrupulous’ preference for militaristic solutions over peaceful solutions” which is part and parcel of the deception used to invoke a devotion to killing (Rhetoric 264).

Here, Burke delves more deeply into the power of war as symbol, a power that goes beyond its use as an anecdote to its deeply entrenched psychological seductiveness.  Just as it “draws things to a head as thoroughly as a suppurating abscess,” it draws people together: “we cannot deny that consubstantiality is established by the common involvement in a killing” [Burke’s emphasis] (p. 265).  Burke immediately follows this statement with the warning, “But one must not isolate the killing itself as the essence of the exaltation” (Rhetoric 265).  The problem, as Burke himself realizes, is that the awful lure of the literal understanding of the kill as a replacement for the messier, more complicated dialectic of peace can overwhelm us.4

The invasion and occupation of Iraq in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks gives us an all-too-vivid example of Burke’s fears about the perversion of The Cult of the Kill.  We collectively enact an Abrahamic sacrifice of our sons (and daughters) in an effort to rid ourselves the “evil” that we have allowed to harm us.  But this act itself causes guilt. (How could it not?)  And more sacrifice is required.  Thus, we get the often-invoked argument that if we were to leave Iraq, those who have fallen already “will have died in vain.”  More killing is required to stave off the terrible guilt that would come from asking ourselves, “Why did we do this?” and not having an answer worthy of the sacrifice.  And so more are killed.  And the potential guilt grows.  And the killing must continue, ad infinitum.

The way out, Burke tells us, is through a simultaneous dying and not-dying—dying dialectically.  The first step in this, I am arguing, is to “refigure” the situation in Iraq, denying it the lure of war by critiquing the metaphoric discourse that dominates the discussion of Iraq and offering an alternative discourse based on simile that points out similarities and differences and opens the way for multiple perspectives.  But, as our discussion of the Cult of the Kill suggests, we cannot simply change the way we talk about Iraq.  We have to find an alternative way of feeling about it as well.  We must find an alternative mode of symbolic dying that allows for consubstantiality, purging of guilt, and dialectic with the “enemy” that does not stress the image of the kill over this dialectic, which, Burke reminds us, leads towards the Holocaust rather than away from it (Rhetoric 254). 

Responses to the Metaphor of War

What would such a “refiguring” look like?  Let me briefly offer two suggestions for how, on a practical level, the metaphor of war could be dismantled in a case like Iraq, the first a “negative” solution, and the other a “positive” one.

The first and most obvious response is to point out the mistaken use of the term “war” and refuse to use it.  Such action could be taken by any and all inhabitants of the public sphere, from the president to the average consumer of the news.  Barack Obama could have, both as candidate and as president, reframed the narrative of Iraq as of a war won, followed by an occupation and a return home.  This could have mobilized the dominant American narrative of war—World War II—in a positive way, suggesting that the war had been won, and now we had to “bring our boys home.”  This would not automatically mean that there would be unanimity about the proper course of action; even those accepting this framing of the issue might point out that the United States maintained a significant presence in Europe for decades after the end of World War II and that this presence was necessary for the region’s stability.  But that debate—whether to end an occupation outright or greatly reduce troop levels participating in it—would be much more easily won than a debate about ending a war.

Similarly, critics of the war metaphor could point out the inaccuracy of the term “war” when used in a way that denied its figurativeness.  Journalists could pointedly not use it and critique those who did. When journalists did use it, readers, listeners, and viewers could contact news organizations and point out that the term “war” was misleading and carried an inherent bias.  Self-aware activists could pointedly talk about ending the “occupation” rather than the “war,” and call out their fellow activists who had been lured into adopting this metaphor.  Lastly, students of public discourse could speak up about the inaccuracy of the term and expose the interested motives behind its use.  No doubt there would be many who would turn a deaf ear to such critique, but the more often efforts were made to problematize the unthinking use of the war metaphor—however humble such attempts might be individually—the more difficult it would be for this metaphor to be taken literally.

There is a second, more positive, approach that could be taken as well.  This would be a Burkean solution in that it would invoke the trope of irony to expose the figurative nature of the term “war” as applied to Iraq.  Critics could insist on taking the war metaphor literally themselves, and push for this understanding to be played out to its logical end.  If we truly are at war, then we are fighting for our survival.  If that is the case, then every conceivable action should be taken that would ensure victory.  A move could be made to institute a draft to ensure enough troops to fully pacify Iraq.  Rationing should be put in place to make sure the military has the finest of all material goods in any quantities needed.  A congressional declaration of war should be made to unequivocally commit ourselves to the task at hand. War taxes should be levied so that we are truly supporting our troops by more than affixing a bumper sticker to our SUV.  The use of atomic weaponry should be openly considered as a viable option.

Such suggestions, whether advocated by elected representatives or their constituents, would be ironic to the degree that they would be made not for their own sake, but to reveal the fact that many who support the continued occupation under the cover of “winning the war” would balk at enacting them. Yet, when this happened, those who demurred from supporting these acts could be asked why they are not in favor of doing all that might help to win the war.   Again, this might not yield immediate results.  There is no guarantee that it would yield any results at all.  But using irony to unmask the metaphorical use of “war” would make its invocation more problematic.    Unfortunately, such tactics went largely unused by those opposed to the continued occupation of Iraq, with a few scattered exceptions, the most notable being Representative Charlie Rangel’s yearly introduction of a bill to reinstate the draft. 

Conclusion: Toward the Purification of the “War” Metaphor

How does this discussion help us move toward a better life, toward a “purification of war?”

“War” as a term for the occupation of Iraq cut off the way to peace.  It was invoked by people on all sides without much attention being paid to whether it is being used literally or figuratively.  Of course, Burke would instantly note that simply by virtue of the term “war” being a symbolic construct, it is figurative.  Moreover, it convinces us that the conflict in Iraq was not simply “like” war in some respects, but was war, and with that comes a host of associations that conceal facts, motivations, and possible courses of action.  The war metaphor holds out appeal to all involved in the debate, even to those who oppose the conflict. Most importantly, it tells us that the way forward must be through what Burke calls the Cult of the Kill, this time understood literally, either through destruction of the “enemy” or through an act of collective suicide (“surrender”). 

The job of the rhetorical critic is, first, to point out the figurative nature of the term “war” as applied to Iraq and to make explicit the consequences, intended or not, of its use.  The rhetorical critic must show how the use of war cuts off certain paths of action and obscures ways of looking at the issue that might prove productive.  The critic can point out that the conflict in Iraq might be like a war in some respects.  The simile is true.  But it cannot be called a war in any but the most figurative of senses.  The metaphor “We are at war in Iraq” is a lie.

Of course, the ultimate Burkean goal before us is not simply to point out the problems with “war” as a term in the particular case of Iraq, but to move us toward a symbolic transcendence of war itself.  But in the case of the “war,” we at least have one clear, albeit small, step we can take toward that goal.  The role of the rhetorical critic is to refigure the metaphor of war, to rehabilitate it, so that it can play the role Burke envisions for metaphor—a tool with which to gain perspective.  To do this, however, we must acknowledge that any term we choose will always be imperfect.  Only by synthesizing multiple perspectives can we hope to grasp the state of the world.  This way lies the ironic, the comic, and the humane. 

* Dr. Ted Remington is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  He can be reached via email at

An earlier draft of this paper was initially delivered at the Seventh Triennial Conference of the Kenneth Burke Society, June 29-July 1, 2008


1. It is beyond the scope of this essay to offer a catalog of the numerous ways Bush and other administration officials have invoked “war” to describe the post-invasion occupation of Iraq, but a few representative examples might be in order.  In an address to the nation on December 18, 2005 (more than 18 months after the invasion of Iraq), Bush said, "not only can we win the war in Iraq, we are winning the war in Iraq.”  Nearly a year later, in announcing the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Bush said, “America remains a nation at war . . . In this time of war, the President relies on the Secretary of Defense.”  At the same announcement, the new nominee to be Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates, said, “[T]he United States is at war, in Iraq and Afghanistan.”  Speaking of Iraq in his 2007 State of the Union speech, Bush said, “This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we're in. Every one of us wishes this war were over and won.”  A year later, on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Bush conceded, “No one would argue that this war has not come at a high cost in lives and treasure.”  In all of these cases, Bush’s word choice states or implies that the “war” in Iraq is ongoing and didn’t end after the occupation of Baghdad. 

2. Again, an exhaustive study of the use of “war” by the media in referring to the occupation of Iraq is beyond the scope of this essay, but there are many examples.  A New York Times article discussing the role of the Iraq issue in the 2008 presidential campaign noted that “Democratic contenders and the presumptive Republican candidate, underscoring how much the economy has overshadowed the war in Iraq, even as the fifth anniversary of the start of that war approaches on Wednesday.”  The following day, an Associate Press story on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq stated that “Activists cite frustration that the war has dragged on for so long and hope the more dramatic actions will galvanize others to protest.”  An article in USA Today about an Army college football player drafted by a professional team who will avoid having to serve in Iraq observed, “more than 4,000 servicemen and women have been killed in the war that's been going on for more than five years with no end in sight.”  As with the rhetoric used by Bush himself, the word choice in each example suggests that the “war in Iraq” is ongoing and current.

3. Several of the leading groups opposing the continued occupation of Iraq prominently invoke the term “war” in their messages to this day.  On its homepage, the group United for Peace & Justice demands that the government “stop sinking billions more of our tax dollars into war.”  In describing their group on its website, CODEPINK says that it “is a women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement working to end the war in Iraq.”  An organization of those with family members in the military, Military Families Speak Out, features a call to the Democratic presidential candidates on their website, demanding “Senator Clinton and Senator Obama: use your leadership now to end the war in Iraq!”  And Iraq Veterans Against the War embeds the term in their very name, saying on their website that the group’s purpose is “to give a voice to the large number of active duty service people and veterans who are against this war.”

4. Under the heading of “meaningful coincidence,” it is difficult to read Burke’s section in A Rhetoric of Motives on Order, the Secret, and the Kill without marveling at how the imagery he uses prefigures the symbolic condensation of the events of September 11, 2001 and Iraq.  A recurring image in Burke’s discussion of the Cult of the Kill is that of a father and son standing on top of a tall building in New York City, with the father startled by the sudden thought of throwing his son over the edge.  Burke closes the section with the following paragraph:

“And when our friend, standing with his son in that high place, felt ‘infanticidal’ impulses, perhaps he was but manifesting roundabout the fact that he felt exalted, as though he and his son shared the attributes of the Ultimate Father and the Ultimate Son in heaven.  Even though he may not have got to such feelings by true religious reverence, he could have got to them by the temptations of social reference.  For here was the principle of hierarchy materialized, as he stood atop a high building, while that building itself represented nothing less than the straining social hierarchy of the great modern Babylon.  ‘And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.’ (Revelation 17:5).” (Rhetoric 266-267).

What would Burke have made of the fact that the destruction of two of these monuments to the “straining social hierarchy” in this “great modern Babylon” would be symbolically linked to the invasion and occupation of the land that was once ancient Babylonia?

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"Ceci N’est Pas Une Guerre: The Misuse of War as Metaphor in Iraq" by Ted Remington is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at

Pragmatisms by Incongruity: ‘Equipment for Living’ from Kenneth Burke to Gilles Deleuze

Abram Anders, University of Minnesota Duluth


Kenneth Burke’s sociological criticism of literature as “equipment for living” situates the work of art as a response to a situation that is essentially social; literature serves a therapeutic role insofar as it diagnoses and dissolves maladaptive social categories and orientations. Burke’s complementary notion of “perspective by incongruity” describes the way in which artists push a system of belief or interpretive scheme to its limits by deliberating creating effects which escape its means of formalization. In the work of Gilles Deleuze, we encounter similarly the artist of literature and discourse who assumes the role of a physician of culture and seeks to produce new possibilities for life by multiplying available perspectives for action. In judging whether the rhetorical appeals and interpretive schemes they offer are medicine or poison, our criteria shall be whether they constrain, narrow, or otherwise limit life (gridlock), or whether they provide new possibilities, experiences, and configurations of knowledge for living (counter-gridlock). Through the incongruous imbrications of Burke and Deleuze, we discover a resonant pragmatism in which art, literature, and ethics become something more than tools for refining the ways in which we currently experience the world. Rather, they offer means for a way out of the orientations which configure and constrain our capacity to actualize potentials for a better tomorrow.

So I should propose an initial working distinction between “strategies” and “situations,” whereby we think of poetry (I here use the term to include any work of critical or imaginative cast) as the adopting of various strategies for the encompassing of situations (1). – Kenneth Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living”
Moreover, the writer as such is not a patient but rather a physician, the physician of himself and of the world. The world is the set of symptoms whose illness merges with man. Literature then appears as an enterprise of health … (3). – Gilles Deleuze, Essays: Critical and Clinical

MANY SCHOLARS STUDYING KENNETH BURKE’S work have focused on resituating his work in the context of the problems that he wrote to solve.  After all, this historical approach is entirely in keeping with Burke’s own theory of dramatism and understanding of the critical or imaginative process; his works should be recognized as responses to specific situations.  As Clayton Lewis argues, Burke should be seen as responding to an overemphasis or privileging of “scene” in the explanation of motivational factors.  That is, against the scientific or technocractic tendencies of his era, Burke sought to reintroduce the individual, the personal, and the poetic as factors worthy of consideration (368).  However, as Carol Blair has countered, such readings tend to “settle Burke down” and have “transformed him into our kind of humanist, our source of precept … Burke has much more to say than we have allowed him to say” (Qtd. in Hawhee 130).  Perhaps, it could be said that we have been too pious in our readings of Burke; that is, too beholden to a particular orientation or view of “what goes with what” in dealing with his work.

Certainly, the present study will be an exercise in impiety as far as traditional readings of Burke have gone.  Yet, following his early work Permanence and Change, such impiety is entirely in keeping with his championing of “perspective by incongruity.”  In attempting to open up our understanding of Burke’s work and his value for today, I want to focus on this early work in conjunction with two other thinkers, William James and Gilles Deleuze.  All three were pragmatists of one sort or another: James seeks to understand individual psychology philosophically and develops an anti-foundationalist approach to truth he describes as a radical empiricism; Burke builds on pragmatist influences and provides a novel turn in situating the problem of interpretations of reality as a matter of rhetoric—of an agon of appeals that can only be adjudicated on the basis of ethical and pragmatic grounds; finally, Deleuze offers a version of radical empiricism that is surprisingly complementary  to both thinkers—his  writings in literature in particular can be seen as a poststructuralist explication of Burke’s perspective by incongruity.

The immediate reason that it makes sense to put Burke and Deleuze in conversation is that they both approach literature from a perspective immanent to life.  Burke’s sociological criticism of literature as “equipment for living” focuses on the poet as responding to a situation that is essentially social.  Thus, the literary work is an attempt to encompass a particular problem.  In this approach, Burke offers an approach that “would derive its relevance from the fact that it should apply to both works of art and to social situations outside of art” (Philosophy 303).  Deleuze, for his part, also seeks to undermine the categories by which literature is normally analyzed and understood in order to emphasize the artist as one who explores possibilities of life.

Important work has yet to be attempted exploring these two thinkers as heirs to different branches of a similar intellectual line.  Both are heavily influenced by Bergson and Nietzsche; however, the main emphasis for the current project and the main connection I will explore between them lies in the pragmatic aspects of their thought.  As Armin Frank argues, “in keeping with Burke’s essentially pragmatist outlook, he postulates a continuity between artistic and non-artistic intellectual activities” (Frank 95).  Deleuze, for his part, approaches literature through the categories of the clinical and the critical. 

Against the clinicization of literature (i.e., treating it as an example to be diagnosed and analyzed psychoanalytically or otherwise), Deleuze focuses on the writer as a critic, or in Nietzschean fashion, as a physician of culture.  Thus, rather than a “symptom” of culture, the writer should be understood as someone who engages it in a critical and creative fashion.  In attempting to influence the approach or attitude of interpretation of literature, Deleuze seeks to alter the conditions of its enunciation:

This practice corresponds to a fundamental axiom in Deleuze’s philosophy, often described as ‘radical empiricism’ or even ‘pragmatism’; that is, the condition of a statement on literature is at the same a condition of literary enunciation itself, and the criteria by which literature appears as an object of real experience are at the same time the conditions of each particular expression or enunciation (Lambert 140).

In Burkean terms, such an emphasis points out the way that interpretations not only guide our experience of the world or of an object (such as literature), but in turn configure our possibilities for action.  As we shall see, this fundamental aspect of Burke’s thought is best understood through an investigation of its pragmatist context.  This will be the aim of the first section of my essay.

However, the primary goal of such an introduction is to clarify the way in which orientation as a condition of experience is implicated as an important ground of ethical contestation for Burke.  In his analysis of social change (and by extension, the role of literature and the poet), Burke offers perspective by incongruity as a primary means of opening up possibility.  It is a tool for challenging and reshaping the orientations through which we experience the world.  As Ross Wolin argues, “Perspective by incongruity, in simple terms, pushes to the limit our ability to generate meaning and make sense of the world through rational, pragmatic means. Perspective by incongruity is a violation of piety for the sake of more firmly asserting the pious” (76). As I will argue, the “pushing of limits” is the essential feature of Burke’s perspective by incongruity; the expansion of boundaries becomes “the pious.” In other words, through an engagement with pragmatism and the work of Deleuze it will be shown that Burke’s perspective by incongruity and approach to literature as equipment for life ultimately locates the highest ethical value in the pursuit of new possibilities for life.

Perspective by incongruity is not, as a casual read might have it, a tool for refining the way in which we currently experience the world or a critical method for better comprehending reality.  Rather it is the pursuit of an interval, a slender space of possibility, discovered once we understand language as force.  In his most direct engagement with the force of language, The Rhetoric of Religion, Burke describes this space in the following fashion: “But once the successiveness of time (and its similarly indivisible partner, space) introduces the possibility of an interval between the command and the obedience, by the same toke there is the possibility of disobedience” (278). As Barbara Biesecker argues, it is Burke’s concern for the conditions of human possibility that has proven most prescient and relevant to the problems confronting us today; and, it is perhaps the most useful aspect of his thought for helping us encompass a host of contemporary problems often associated with life in postmodernity:

What Burke intimates [in the previous quote] is that situated within the “interval” is the possibility for a future that is not simply a future-present, but a radically other future whose conditions of realization are given over to us as a promise but whose actualization rests solely upon us (102).

It is my contention that perspective by congruity can be read profitably as a tool for producing such futures; and, furthermore, that Burke’s approach to literature is one that respects the poet as a figure fully invested in the same project.  Ultimately, the value of linking Burke and Deleuze together is that it amplifies this shared commitment and attitude toward literature and its powers of ethical, social transformation.  Burke and Deleuze radicalize traditional, Romantic notions of the value of literature and art, insisting that great literary artists not only inspire, reflect, or influence society, but also exercise profound forces for discovering and shaping our collective futures.

Of course, my goal is not so much to offer a simple synthesis or explanation of the correspondences of these thinkers.  After all, such an approach would merely flatten out what is unique to each.  Rather, I am seeking to trace a strain of radical empiricism or pragmatism that runs through each of them, in order to modify and fashion it, to creatively imagine it for our contemporary situation.  This is itself a pragmatist approach. It seeks not to establish its truth in a foundation or lineage (history of ideas), or solely by its systemic coherency (idealism), but rather to evaluate it on the basis of its use for today:

Deleuze’s own image for a concept is not a brick, but a “tool box.”  He calls his kind of philosophy “pragmatics” because its goal is the invention of concepts that do not add up to a system of belief or an architecture of propositions that you either enter or you don’t, but instead pack a potential in the way a crowbar in a willing hand envelops the energy of prying (Massumi xv).

By placing Burke at the center and working forwards and backwards through James and Deleuze, I will seek to contextualize his thought in a way that brings fresh insight to the fore—that unleashes, in a new way, the energy for “prying” it provides.  In the pragmatist tradition and following Deleuze’s exhortation, I am interested in discovering a set of approaches or interpretations that have value for encompassing the problems we face today—theory as a tool box to be judged by its pragmatic value. 


Undoubtedly, part of William James’s lasting appeal is that he straddles or mediates the opposed philosophical temperaments that he characterizes as the “tough-minded” versus the “tender-minded.”  James’s radical empiricism or version of pragmatism was an attempt to walk a slender line between the rational idealists and the scientific empiricists of his day.  Against the tender minded rationalists, James held that as empiricists we “give up the doctrine of objective certitude,” though “we do not thereby give up the quest or hope of truth itself” (Pragmatism 17).  For pragmatists including James, John Dewey, and Charles Peirce, truth is something that “happens to an idea” (92).  As anti-foundationalists, they set themselves against any philosophy that would maintain an ideal realm that can be discerned through rational thought and is seen to support or exist behind “reality.”  Rather, truth is merely “whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons” (James, “The Will to Believe” 37). Such a view denies Platonic ideality—the possibility of universal or certain truth.

Truth is for pragmatists primarily a matter of ethical or pragmatic value. It is a tool for engaging the world and better managing experience. Yet, this practical emphasis also cuts against the scientific empiricism of the day by pointing out that “the trail of the human serpent is … over everything” (Pragmatism 33).  Burke clarifies this point in his explanation of Dewey, “a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing” (Permanence and Change 49). As Burke explains, when looking at criminality, for example, we may focus on individual responsibility and the psychological development of the criminal; however, this would blind us to the structural social factors that produce criminality in society.  At the same time, focusing on the latter would blind us to the former and incline to us to read criminality as purely determined by social forces foreclosing the possibility of individual agency.

For Burke and James, there are neither pure ideas nor pure facts that exist outside of human, social, and historical modes of experience and thought. It would seem that as tool users, all we have are tools that achieve certain results. There is no pure, unmediated experience, ideal or material.  James characterizes the general approach this way: “The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences.  What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true?” (Pragmatism 26). Rather than depending on an a priori foundation for truth, pragmatists look to the effects or value of an idea or theory.  To return to the previous example, the two approaches to criminality—emphasizing individual responsibility or social determination, respectively—cannot be adjudicated on the basis of their “rightness” or correspondence with reality.  It is a chimera to think such a judgment is possible.  Rather, these ways of engaging the social experience of criminality must be decided on the basis of their pragmatic value and/or ethical appeal.

James argues truth is simply the body of tools, ideas, and theories that have proven useful, accreting through history, comprising our body of “common sense.”  Beliefs and habits are levels of socialized knowledge that are adapted and modified over time through experience both in society and the individual.  Habits are shortcuts for repetitive action, while beliefs characterize the basis for means selecting in undertaking action. A belief is a bet on the future developed with reference to an interpretation of the past.  This idea is a link between the thought of James, Dewey, and Burke.  As John McGowan characterizes Jamesian belief, it is something that changes, but not by individual volition:

Beliefs, then, appear as fundamental commitments that play a crucial role in laying out just what world it is that I find myself in.  Maybe “commitments” is the wrong word, since I don’t choose them.  “Orientation” might be better. My beliefs locate me; they are the coordinates of my positioning in a world (126).

Thus, our beliefs are inherited through the processes of socialization and to a degree they pre-configure the lens through which we will view the world and the frame the ways in which we will act. In this way, the experiences which form the basis for the continued development of truth are already mediated by our beliefs or rather experienced through our orientation (as a body of beliefs or general understanding of the world). 

Furthermore, as James explains, new beliefs gain acceptance on two levels. First, the degree to which they provide novel and pragmatically useful ways of engaging experience; yet, primarily, by the degree to which they can be incorporated into the prior body of belief and system of common sense through which we experience the world. Thus, belief tends to self-perpetuating; new beliefs are often read as true (corresponding to reality) because they correspond to beliefs we already hold and accurately engage the ways we already experience the world. For James and Burke, such a recognition presents a problem for discovering possibilities of thought and action that are not completely determined or configured by the frameworks and orientations of language, belief, and habit.  As James put it:

between the coercions of the sensible order and those of the ideal order, our mind is thus wedged tightly. Our ideas must agree with realities, be such realities concrete or abstract, be they facts or be they principles, under penalty of endless inconsistency and frustration (Pragmatism 96). 

As I will attempt to show, for James, Burke, and Deleuze, the primary motivation in all of their works can be seen as an attempt to create a space for possibility and for human agency in a field of experience that appears socially configured through and through. 

However, it is important to keep in mind that for pragmatists recognizing the “trail of the human serpent” cuts against two kinds of absolute determination: on one hand, it undermines an idealist or rationalist account of a priori foundations, teleological ends, or transcendental design; on the other hand, it unsettles the mechanical causation logic of materialist accounts of reality. As Burke argues, “this point of view does not, by any means, vow us to personal or historical subjectivism.  The situations are real; the strategies for handling them have public content; and in so far as situations overlap form individual to individual, or from one historical period to another, the strategies possess universal relevance” (Philosophy 1). This pragmatist approach to truth, belief, and social action carves out a space of experience that is conditioned, yet contingent and never fully determined either ideally or materially. This is the slender space in which our minds are wedged tightly.

Before moving on to discuss the strategies for producing possibility, it will be helpful to illustrate the ways in which this pragmatist legacy or radical empiricism operates in Burke’s work and more fully sketch out his theory of orientation. In keeping with the pragmatist emphasis on last things (uses and effects) over first things (a priori foundations), James and Dewey especially are often wont to describe belief and truth as a “bet” on the future.1 As Dewey notes, we often think of experience as what is “given.” However, in its “vital form,” it is “experimental” and “characterized by projection, by reaching forward into the unknown; connexion with a future is its salient trait” (7). A primary target of pragmatist critique is the way in which ethical and pragmatic claims for the value of a particular approach to experience are presented as descriptions of “how things are.” Thus, in the attempt to influence belief and therefore action (especially in scientific discourse), a common strategy is to offer such arguments as a value free description of what “is.” As I discussed before, this is also a primary feature of the tenacity of particular orientations or belief systems in general: the correspondence of a theory with what has been “given” or inherited is often taken as correspondence with reality.  If we understand reality as something human beings produce, then this is a very different claim than that forwarded by foundational theories that claim access to some stable, universal, a priori reality.

Of course, emphasizing this aspect of pragmatist thought leads us directly to Burke. As many scholars have noted, a primary feature of Burke’s work is his attempt to understand interpretation as a matter of appeal—a thoroughly ethical, rhetorical affair. In his attempt to do so, Burke utilizes techniques and adapts arguments that bear a clear influence of pragmatism.  In his conception of orientation, for example, Burke makes the classic pragmatist move of focusing on belief as a “bet” on the future:

It forms the basis of expectancy—for character telescopes the past, present, and future. A sign, which is here now, may have got a significance out of the past that make it a promise of the future. Orientation is thus a bundle of judgments as to how thing were, how they are, and how they might be (Permanence and Change 14).

For Burke, attempts to shift the way we understand how things “were” and “are” should be recognized as attempts to influence how they might be.  In engaging such attempts to shift orientation, we must take care to understand the way they make their “appeal” and can only evaluate them on the basis of their pragmatic and ethical value for the future.  As Wolin argues, in Permanence and Change, Burke seeks to write:

[a] book of ethics, if ethics refers to the general governance of action, covering all that affects the decision to take a course of action (chiefly attitudes, values, and procedures). Burke subsumes traditional concerns about good and bad, making orientation, interpretative methods, and means selection the very center of ethics (77).

However, following this pragmatist trajectory, we might rather say that Burke is making an argument about truth or “knowing,” itself; that is, he subsumes truth into the “very center of ethics.” Or, to put it more radically, Burke makes of truth an essentially ethical and rhetorical enterprise. Of course, these are rather broad claims. In order to more closely investigate these pragmatist influences and the development of Burke’s theory of orientation, I would like to examine an example of a pragmatist tactic taken up and revolutionized by Burke. 

A common object of pragmatist critique is the fallacy of “substance” in rationalist or idealist philosophies. As James points out: “Truth ante rem means only verifiability, then; or else it is a case of the stock rationalist trick of treating the name of a concrete phenomenal reality as an independent prior entity, and placing it behind the reality as its explanation” (Pragmatism 99). Originating in Charles Peirce’s work, “How to Make our Ideas Clear,” this critique points out the way in which the Platonic idea is an abstraction from experience that is made to stand in as the explanation of it. James offers the following illustration:

Climate is really only the name for a certain group of days, but it is treated as if it lay behind the day, and in general we place the name, as if it were a being, behind the facts it is the name of … The fact of the bare cohesion itself is all that the notion of substance signifies. Behind that fact is nothing (Pragmatism 43-4).

Of course, in such examples the fallacy of the idealist approach is readily apparent. Across a variety of milieus and examples, Peirce and James regularly and readily diagnose this idealist error of positing the abstract description of an experience as the cause of the experience itself.

Burke, however, provides a novel twist on this pragmatic critique by applying to the question of human motivation. In his discussion of motivation, Burke points out that a description of a motivation is merely a short hand for the situation in which it is encountered. Thus, an individual may react to a particular situation comprised of “danger-signs,” “reassurance-signs,” and “social-signs”:

By his word “suspicion” he was referring to the situation itself—and he would invariably pronounce himself motivated by suspicion whenever a similar pattern of stimuli recurred. Incidentally, since we characterize a situation with reference to our general scheme of meanings, it is clear how motives, as shorthand words for situations, are assigned with reference to our orientation in general (Permanence and Change 31).

In a manner similar to the pragmatists, Burke points out that we often abstract our typical “reaction” to a situation and place it as the cause behind the situation.  However, such an abstraction has the matter backwards.  Furthermore, this move to abstract motivation from the situation covers over the role of orientation or belief in the matter:

Stimuli do not possess an absolute meaning … Any given situation derives its character from the entire framework of interpretation by which we judge it.  And differences in our ways of sizing up an objective situation are expressed subjectively as differences in our assignment of motive (35). 

The degree to which we correctly grasp the motivation of an individual is really the degree to which we diagnose his/her situation through the framework of a shared orientation.  Thus, for Burke, as for James, the way we experience reality and the way in which we act is largely determined by the orientation or interpretive scheme that we “believe” in. 

Expressed this way, the room for “possibility” becomes rather narrow. However, insofar as in any given age and society there exist competing orientations, socialization is not a completely determining force, and, even in a particular orientation, a particular interpretation of a situation, there can be further room for maneuvering. We might consider Burke’s discussion of complementary proverbs that agree on the situation but diverge in their attitude (i.e., glass half-full, glass half-empty). However, the key point here is the way in which interpretation governs human action through the presentation of a limited choice or frame for action. 

Ultimately, for Burke, it is in the competition of schemes of interpretation that true possibility exists; and, it is in this arena of competition that rhetoric and social struggle make their entrance into our exploration of pragmatisms: “Any explanation is an attempt at socialization, and socialization is a strategy; hence, in science as in introspection, the assigning of motives is a matter of appeal” (24-5).  If belief configures experience and is produced through socialization, then the rhetorical analysis of explanations is an important matter indeed.   Burke’s innovation is to recognize that if belief or orientation is a matter of socialization, then we must consider language as a force that has an impact on the way we experience and act in the world.2 As Paul Jay writes:

Burke’s intervention in the contest of interpretive theories is essentially pragmatic and ethical: he rejects any notion that such theories can be grounded in a transcendental way, insisting instead that the legitimacy or validity of such a system must be grounded in the nature of its ethical and pragmatic claims (541).

In Burke’s thought, situations and motives are thoroughly constructed and largely configured by the interpretive schema, systems of belief, or orientations that ground our experience.  Thus, the true arena of human possibility is in the contestation and judgment of orientations and the question of interpretation as rhetorical appeal.

As Wolin interprets this stage of Burke’s thought, it marks a shift from an earlier concern for “how an individual constructs symbols to deal with social and political structures”:

in Permanence, he is more interested in how our culture constructs social and political institutions (which operate to a great extent through symbols) to deal with what are principally symbolic structures.  As Burke said, in Permanence he “now stressed independent, social, or collective aspects of meaning, in contrast with the individualistic emphasis of his earlier Aestheticist period” (85).

I would argue this shift entails a corresponding emphasis on a Jamesian understanding of belief as inherited orientation. For Burke, human beings are not simply critics of experience; all living things are critics in this sense.3 As we encounter the world, we do not deal with unmediated stimuli to which we respond and adapt. As Burke notes, “stimuli do not possess an absolute meaning” (Permanence and Change 35). Rather, our experience in the world, our role of critics, is often as critics of criticism. In Permanence and Change, Burke pushes a Jamesian conception of belief to its logical conclusion by emphasizing interpretation—the attempt to shift our orientation—as the primary focus in the pursuit of possibility. This entails a focus on the social and collective aspects of meaning as a battleground for ethical (truth) claims. The following section will be to explore such attempts to shift perspective in light of these pragmatist insights.

Perspective by Incongruity

According to Burke, both Marx and Freud have produced “terminologies of motive,” ways of talking about a reality which the talking itself creates. His point about them is a double one: while neither is more than an interpretation or a perspective, this does not mean they are simply at play, since they are purposeful and instrumental, aimed at change (or cure) (Jay 541).

Two important interpretive schemes that sought to shift perspectives on social phenomena in Burke’s day were Marxism and psychoanalysis.  As Jay points out, Burke was interested in learning from the powerful influence these discourses were able to effect in society, but at the same time he sought to recognize their role as perspectives amongst possible others.  Debra Hawhee situates this emphasis as owing to the influence of Nietzsche:

Nietzschean perspectivalism, as Burke saw it, described not only the multiplicity of interpretive frameworks available to and deployed by humans, but also—and more importantly—the transformative power of the slightest shifts in what Burke would call orientation (133-4).

For Burke, discourses such as Marxism and psychoanalysis attempt to reinterpret our experience on the basis of an appeal that they can improve our orientation to experience; that is, they offer new outlooks meant to give a better grip on life and a sounder basis for action and to resolve the dilemmas that outmoded orientations have left us in. 

As Burke argues, trained incapacity or occupational psychosis (concepts he adapted from Thorstein Veblen and Dewey respectively) is descriptive of orientations that have proved maladaptive in changing circumstances. Marxism and psychoanalysis each provide strategies meant to address the symptoms of such outmoded orientations and resolve the problem by a new interpretive scheme of the situation.  Of course, a new interpretation and understanding is also a new terminology of motive.  That is, insofar as motives are shorthand for situations, redefining the situation implies a different motivation and consequently a different program of action.

While such broad social discourses may have the great reach and power of socialization, the phenomena of resolving a problematic situation by a new schema of interpretation is everywhere on the human map.  To illustrate this point, Burke offers the relatively mundane example of proverbs: “The point of view might be phrased this way: Proverbs are strategies for dealing with situations.  In so far as situations are typical and recurrent in a given social structure, people develop names for them and strategies for handling them” (Philosophy 296-7).  Thus, in keeping with his emphasis on the rhetorical nature of such interpretive schemes, in his later essay, Burke recharacterizes them as “strategies” for encompassing situations.  Poetry and literature, then, share in a similar effort to discover new ways of understanding experience and situations that implies new programs of action.

Keeping in mind the pragmatist foundation Burke is working from, the shift in perspective or interpretive schema can have profound effects: “altering what one can perceive and, thus, act upon, is transforming reality itself … Literature is equipment for living because it is direct, effective action upon the terms and the relations in which they stand to one another” (McGowan 142).  The point is thoroughly pragmatist.  However, again it is necessary to emphasize Burke’s key innovation respective to pragmatism: namely, if truth is always instrumental—an interested, useful enterprise—attempts to provide new interpretations are never disinterested or simply attempting to better describe reality. “A better description for what purpose and to what end?” Burke might ask. 

As Jay points out, Burke appreciated that “… Marxism contributes to the critique of ideology and helps demystify political rhetoric, while it is itself both a rhetoric and an ideology” (544). To cite Burke himself on this point:

Class-consciousness is a social therapeutic because it is reclassification-consciousness. It is a new perspective that realigns something so profoundly ethical as our categories of allegiance … The new classification thus has implicit in it a new set of ideas as to what action is, and in these ideas are implicit a new criteria for deciding what means-selection would be adequate (Permanence and Change 113).

In summary, interpretive schemes or perspectives are properly strategies for encompassing specific situations.  Often new schemes arise to resolve some problem encountered as the incapacity of a prior orientation; thus, they are therapeutic in aim. These new schemes are necessarily interested in seeking to frame a new motivation as a program for action.  Thus, Marxism and psychoanalysis provide interpretations that critique the old orientation, but are rhetorical insofar as they seek to supplant it and imply a new relation to experience.  Yet, from a pragmatist perspective there is no recourse to correspondence with objective reality to judge these new interpretive schemes. Rather, they must be considered on ethical and pragmatic grounds.  Whether Marxist, psychoanalyst, or literary figure, “the poet is, indeed, a ‘medicine man.’”  Regardless of the medium, “the situations for which he offers his stylistic medicine may be very real ones” (Philosophy 65).

For a more extended treatment of perspective by incongruity as therapeutic, Burke turns to psychoanalysis. As Burke characterizes it, the essential strategy of psychoanalysis is that “it effects its cures by providing a new perspective that dissolves the system of pieties lying at the roots of the patient’s sorrows or bewilderments. It is an impious rationalization, offering a fresh terminology of motives to replace the patient’s painful terminology of motives” (Permanence and Change 125). Through a renaming of the situation, the psychoanalyst seeks to dissolve the “psychosis” that arose from the old orientation. Thus, “it changes the entire nature of his problem, rephrasing it in a form for which there is a solution” (125). The radical aspect of Burke’s description is that the diagnosis is itself the solution. 

To be more specific, the patient suffers from a problem wrapped up in his orientation or interpretive scheme of his situation. Psychoanalysis in the act of diagnosis supplants this interpretation with a new one which, when successful in its appeal, dissolves the problem along with the situation. Hence, Burke’s curious suggestion that such therapy operates by “misnaming” the problem: “The notion of perspective by incongruity would suggest that one casts out devils by misnaming them … One 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” (Permanence and Change 133). Such a reading would sit at odds with a reading of Burke that would describe the symbolic action of poetry and literature as a thinking through of alternatives or as a preparation or practice for “real” action. Rather, the strategy for encompassing a situation often presents itself as a diagnosis of the problem—a diagnosis that dissolves old categories and offers new ones that provide a means of escape from the distressing situation.  Read this way, Burke anticipates a rather Deleuzian formulation of the poet or writer as a physician who diagnoses illness as an enterprise of health.

However, lest shifts in perspective appear as too easily achieved and possibility too readily attained, Burke also cautions that orientations can be rather persistent and self-sustaining though vulnerable after a particular fashion:

An orientation is largely a self-perpetuating system, in which each part tends to corroborate the other parts … However, for all the self-perpetuating qualities of an orientation, it contains the germs of its dissolution … The ultimate result is the need of a reorientation, a direct attempt to force the critical structure by shifts of perspective (Permanence and Change 169).

It here that Burke’s Nietzschean debt comes to the fore. Insofar as Deleuze is similarly indebted, this is a key hinge shared in their thought.  Following Nietzsche, both consider language as invested by force. Insofar as interpretive schemes structure experience, the rhetorical contestation of perspective is a form of critique that takes its aim at the seed of dissolution in an unhealthy orientation: “It would seem to me that a system so self-sustaining could be attacked only from without” (61). This space of the “outside” occupies an important place in work of many post Nietzschean thinkers including Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze;4 Deleuze argues that the outside of an orientation, of language, or a system is encountered as its limit. 

Burke, for example, argues that orientations find the seed of their own destruction in inexorably carrying out their logic to absurdist extremes.5 The limit of an interpretive scheme is that sooner or later it produces effects that escape its own self-logic; that is, it inevitably encounter its “outside.” Deleuze’s favorite example is the way that in modern writers, “language seems to be seized by a delirium, which forces it out of its usual furrows.” In seeking a new perspective, the writer pursues a “foreign language … hollowed out in one language [which cannot occur] without language as a whole in turn being toppled or pushed to limit, to an outside or reverse side that consists of Vision and Auditions that no longer belong to any language” (Essays 5). These visions or auditions are effects that escape their own formalization; that is, they are effects that cannot be reconciled or captured by the system that they escape.  For Deleuze, modern literature in most radical manifestations strains the limits of meaning; it makes language “stutter” and strains our ability to “understand” it. In doing so, it eludes the orientations that would seek to contain it through interpretation. In this way, literature creates possibility by offering a possibility that is not yet “formalized” or actualized in meaning; this is the essence of its possibility and creativity.

For his part, Burke cites approvingly the decomposition of language by literary figures such as James Joyce. These stylistic attacks on an orientation from its limit are precisely examples of the most radical kind of perspective by incongruity that Burke describes:

Were we to summarize the totality of its effects, advocating as an exhortation what has already spontaneously occurred, we might say that planned incongruity should be deliberately cultivated for the purpose of experimentally wrenching apart all those molecular combinations of adjective and noun, substantive and verb, which still remain with us (Permanence and Change 119).

Amidst these grotesque gargoyles of language, the proliferating incongruities of the modern age, Burke asks: “Out of all this overlapping conflicting and supplementing of interpretive frames, what arises as a totality? The only thing that all this seems to make for is a reinforcement of the interpretive attitude itself” (118). Though Burke begins with a rather mild invocation of perspective by incongruity as a tool for overcoming trained incapacity, he ultimately reaches a Nietzschean apotheosis in which perspectivalism as tool for creating possibility becomes a good in and of itself.

Hawhee argues the perspectivalism of Nietzsche which Burke takes up is not only a way of considering the claims of any individual interpretation but a means of reflecting on the “consequences or effects produced by perspectivalism,” itself (134). As she goes on to cite Deleuze, perspectivalism reinforces this interpretive attitude as a means of creating new possibilities for life, as an enterprise of health:

As Gilles Deleuze puts it, “Nietzsche demands an aesthetics of creation” … Insofar as all language forces an encounter with the world, art transforms even as it produces knowledge.  Deleuze writes, “In Nietzsche, ‘we the artists’ = ‘we the seekers after knowledge or truth’ = ‘we the inventors of new possibilities of life’” (138).

It is in this sense that perspectivism becomes something more than a tool for refining the ways in which we currently experience the world.  Rather, it becomes a method for discovering a way out of the orientations which configure experience. 

In the Jamesian idiom, perspective by incongruity acquires its “cash value” by virtue of offering a greater space for human possibility.  Insofar as it proliferates the possibilities of experience, of knowing, of acting, and of being in the world, Burke deems it a welcome relief from metaphysical claims that so often tend to rationalist or materialist determinism: “Rather than a ‘three-dimensional … organic experience,’ Burke favors an ‘x-dimensional … theoretical experience,’ hence allowing for differences, contingent valuations, multiple possibilities. Thus, he writes, ‘the more we can avoid the metaphysical the better’” (Hawhee 132). The revolutionary potential of Burke’s x-dimensional, theoretical experience is that it seeks to coordinate its many incongruous perspectives without sublimating their energies and possibilities to pre-ordained orientations or determinist ends.


Remember, the big traffic jam in New York when the subways stopped?  That’s when I learned the word gridlock.  Gridlock means you can’t go any way. The traffic is so jammed, it can’t go forward, backwards, or sideways. What I had was counter-gridlock. I went every which way (Burke, Qtd. in Hawhee 139).

For Burke, as for James before him, the difficulty of clearing a space for human action in a world that seems increasingly confusing and constraining was a primary concern. In James, this challenge took the figure of being wedged tightly between sensible and ideal orders and the concomitant necessity of discovering new opportunities heretofore unrevealed in the accumulated “truths” of history which configure our experiences of reality. Burke further sharpens our sense of this difficulty and identifies the pressing and essential task of a “criticism of criticism,” a need to unwind the tangled field of our interpretation (Permanence and Change 6). While on one hand there is a need to overcome the priests of culture who “devote their efforts to maintaining the vestigial structure” (179), in works like “Counter-Gridlock” Burke seems equally concerned by the rapid pace and proliferation of new contexts and socialization processes of his era’s emerging mass communication culture.  Experiencing the quickening pace and amplifications of modernity, Burke felt acutely the danger that the incapacities of our training may outpace our ability to diagnose and discover adaptive perspectives for them.

Hence, the importance he placed on poetry and literature, for “poetry, broadly defined, is a locus of perspective by incongruity, a place where incongruous metaphors can be pushed together to create new ways of viewing the world—a counter-gridlock.” (Hawhee 139). In fact, Burke names this task as the explicit aim of literature and poetry: “So I should propose an initial working distinction between ‘strategie’ and ‘situations,’ whereby we think of poetry (I here use the term to include any work of critical or imaginative cast) as the adopting of various strategies for the encompassing of situations” (Philosophy 1). If we experience reality through the categories of our orientations, then any attempt to resolve the “problems” produced by these situations are necessarily attempts to think and explicate their “outside.” That is, the orientation itself is the problem to be encompassed.  As Greg Lambert points out, this is precisely the value literature offers for Deleuze:

In a diagnostic and critical vein, certain literary works can be understood to produce a kind of ‘symptomatology’ that may prove to be more effective than political or ideological critique in discerning the signs that correspond to the new arrangements of ‘language, labour, and life’ to employ Foucault’s abbreviated formula for the grand institutions of instinct and habit (135).

Thus, in the war of medicine men, of priests and prophets who strive, respectively, to constrain or open up possibilities of life, literature is a powerful ally for the latter. In judging whether the rhetorical appeals or interpretations they offer are medicine or poison, our criteria shall be whether they constrain, narrow, or otherwise limit life, or whether they provide new possibilities, experiences, and configurations of knowledge for living; or, to put it after a Nietzschean fashion, the question is whether they imply modes of action and existence that are sickly (gridlock) or healthy (counter-gridlock).

Echoing the pluralism of James, Burke describes a universe that is essentially plastic to human “knowing”—a universe open to a multiplicity of interpretations and implicated becomings:

When a philosopher invents a new approach to reality, he finds that his predecessors saw something as a unit which he can subdivide, or that they accepted distinctions which his system can name as unities. The universe would appear to be something like cheese; it can be sliced in an infinite number of ways—and when one has chosen his own pattern of slicing, he finds that other men’s cuts fall at the wrong places (Permanence and Change 103).

In Deleuze’s idiom the attempt of literature to encompass a problem or situation and define a strategy takes the form of a diagnosis: “The doctor certainly does not “invent” the disease, but rather is said to “isolate” it: he or she distinguishes cases that had hitherto been confused by dissociating symptoms that were previously grouped together, and by juxtaposing symptoms that were previously dissociated” (Smith xvi). It is in this particular sense that writers are Nietzschean physicians of culture; and, it is by the means of diagnosis that writers seek to develop programs of action for responding to situations as problems.

However, such an insight is one that Burke himself makes, though in his own idiom: “the poem is a sudden fusion, a falling together of many things formerly apart—and the very force of this fusion leads one to seek further experiences of the same quality” (Permanence and Change 158).  As Hawhee explains,

considered figuratively, this statement can apply to almost any act: the carving of the veins, for example becomes through the act of materially fusing razor and flesh.  Poetry, then, produces effects, effects that, at times, may in turn produce unexpected results, thus creating more and sometimes endless opportunities for becoming (138).

In his analysis of psychoanalysis, Burke argues that psychoanalytic therapies work primarily as a form of interpretive appeal. As we previously noted, in the secular conversion that psychoanalysis attempts, the diagnosis is itself a solution for the problem insofar as it reconfigures the situation in a way that dissolves the prior orientation and motivation. 

It is precisely this figure of secular conversion and this type of rhetorical, interpretive appeal that Deleuze sees as the most powerful capacity of literature: “There is no literature without fabulation, but as Bergson was able to see, fabulation—the fabulating function—does not consist in imagining or projecting the ego.  Rather, it attains these visions, it raises itself to these becomings and powers” (Essays 3). In its most elementary sense, fabulation as a fable is akin to Burke’s discussion of the proverb. It is an attempt to encompass a particular situation and formulate an attitude (a program of action) towards it. 

Fabulation posits an attitude or interpretation of situation that is a rhetorical appeal for action which seeks to unleash a revolutionary force. However, what distinguishes it from the proverb is its reliance on a retelling of history that is properly a prophecy—both a vision of the future and a lesson for its achievement. Thus, fabulation derives transformative possibility, in its latent or virtual state, from the situation itself.  As a reinterpretation of reality, it is an appeal that seeks to transform society. As Burke would put it, insofar as it is an explanation that would shift or transform our orientation, and consequently how we experience the world, it is an “attempt at socialization”; that is, it is an attempt at “conversion.”

Consequently, fabulation, insofar as it is a means of socialization, seeks to create a people.  It should be seen as active, transformative ethical vision rather than as positing an ideal world to be attained.  As Lambert explains, fabulation is a type of appeal that turns the incongruities of an individual writer into a socializing force in language:

What is the power unleashed in revolution but the ideal game deployed within what is essentially a fiction; that is, the power to select and re-order the objects, artifacts and meaning that belong to a previous world?  Utopia, then, rather than designating a static representation of the ideal place, or topos, is rather the power of the ‘ideal’ itself, which can bifurcate time and create possible worlds (148).

In this sense, fabulation echoes the Jamesian “will to believe.” This ethical vision is not derived from any first principle and cannot properly be a system of rules, dogmatism, or moralisms.  Rather, it is a revolutionary force for life.  To return to Burke, we might note the way in which he characterizes the incantatory mode of literature in which an artist like Joyce sets the task of “externalizing the internal” (Philosophy 112). In this incantatory mode, literature “functions as a device for inviting us to “make ourselves over in the image of the imagery” (116). This is the socializing aspect of the writer’s vision; literature is always an appeal to shift our interpretation of the world.

Deleuze argues that the modern writer seeks to raise a personal vision to the level of a language, a language meant for a “people who are missing”: “The ultimate aim of literature is to set free, in the delirium, this creation of a health of this invention of a people, that is, a possibility of life. To write for this people who are missing … (‘for’ means less ‘in the place of’ than ‘for the benefit of’)” (Essays 4).  Thus, the writer seeks not his own diagnosis and healing, his own strategy for encompassing a situation, but to launch a rhetorical appeal for a new orientation that carries with it a program of action, a way of being:

For Deleuze, every literary work implies a way of living, a form of life, and must be evaluated not only critically but also clinically.  “Style, in a great writer, is always a style of life too, not anything at all personal, but inventing a possibility of life, a way of existing” (Smith xv).

It is in this sense that Deleuze can declare that “Literature is a passage of life that traverses outside the lived and liveable” (Essays 1). Out of an engagement with problems of the “lived” the writer seeks a diagnosis that is properly a perspective by incongruity. It is a reformulation of orientation through a new interpretation.  It is rhetorical, pragmatic, ethical and an enterprise of health. This is finally the pragmatist thread that unites James, Burke, and Deleuze:

The agonistic space of literature allows the conflict of various attitudes without any avowal that there is a correct, final, or totalizing attitude … Literature dramatizes possibility—recalling the Jamesian insight that only the existence of options and the capacity, but not the necessity, to exercise some but not all of those options render action thinkable and desirable (McGowan 133).

The point is not that literature can simply “dissolve” our problems. However, literature’s dramatic role is not separate from life itself; rather, it can diagnose particular configurations of “gridlock” and map the lines of flight and effect a “counter-gridlock” through its diagnosis and marshalling of the strategies of perspective by incongruity. For Burke, literature is equipment for life; for Deleuze it is an enterprise of health; for all of us, it a means of creating possibilities that make “action thinkable and desirable.”

The ethical and pragmatic value of literature for life is that it embraces and pursues an attitude towards truth and ethics and valorizes possibility as such. As Wolin avers, “Burke’s genius as an ethical theorist lies in his refusal to supplant traditional ethics with another system equally fixed.  He offers instead a basic position toward ethics, a flexible attitude or approach” (77). As Hawhee argued of perspectivalism, the value in such an ethics is not only in its recognition of all ethical systems as contingent and pragmatic, but that it provides a grounds for reflecting on the “consequences or effects produced by” a “flexible attitude or approach,” itself. 

Thus, Burke’s genius is not only to frame an ethical attitude as opposed to a code, but to also to argue and even demonstrate through the prolific inventiveness of his career that this attitude is itself a highly adaptive strategy for pursuing the “good life.”  Ultimately, both Burke and Deleuze in their pragmatist approaches to literature and life heed the Nietzschean insistence that the “good life” is the pursuit of “an overflowing and ascending form of existence, a mode of life that is able to transform itself depending on the forces it encounters, always increasing the power to live, always opening up new possibilities of life” (Smith xv).  However, like the Jamesian “will to believe,” these ethics only emerge from a profound confrontation with the ‘slender space’ of human possibility: wedged between the socializing forces of language and the necessities of our historical circumstance, the pursuit of possibility and ethical action is a highly situated affair.  In the most difficult and compromising of circumstances and in the face of the most systemic and intractable problems, the space can be narrow indeed.

Our heightened contemporary sense of these challenges is one of the reasons that Burke is important as a resource. As Biesecker argues, one of most relevant aspects of Burke’s thought for today lies in his attempt to theorize human possibility while taking seriously the coercive force of language as it operates through socialization:

[Burke offers a] retheorization of the relation between subject and structure and, hence, of social change that discerns in the symbolic or discursive practices of the present the opening for a future that is something other than a repetition or projection of the self-same (88).

In the pursuit of tools for grasping and capitalizing on this opening for the future, Burke’s perspective by incongruity and his formulation of literature as equipment for life are of extreme value: they are possible means of “prying” open the traffic jam of postmodernity and countering our contemporary forms of “gridlock.”

*Abram Anders is an Assistant Professor of Business Communications at the University of Minnesota Duluth.  His research interests include ethics, new media, professional communications, rhetorical theory, and technology.  He can be contacted at

AUTHOR NOTE: This article was invaluably improved thanks to the assistance and advice of these readers at Pennsylvania State University: Richard Doyle, Jeffrey Nealon, Jack Selzer, Xiaoye You, and Robert Yarber.


1. For James, pragmatism is primarily a method of focusing on the value, use, and aim of “truth” rather than its foundation: “The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts” (Pragmatism 29).

2. But the question of motive brings us to the subject of communication, since motives are distinctly linguistic products.  We discern situational patterns by means of the particular vocabulary of the cultural group into which we are born.  Our minds, as linguistic products, are composed of concepts (verbally molded) which select certain relationships as meaningful.  Other groups may select other relationships as meaningful.  These relationships are not realities, they are interpretations of reality—hence different frameworks of interpretation will lead to different conclusions as to what reality is” (Permanence and Change 35).

3. For example, consider Burke’s opening discussion of the fish who encounters “jaw-ripping food.”  In characterizing a change in behavior towards similar “food,” Burke describes criticism as a process of revising behavior: “I mean simply that in his altered response, for a greater or lesser period following the hook-episode, he manifests the changed behavior that goes with a new meaning, he has a more educated way of reading signs.  It does not matter how conscious or unconscious one chooses to imagine this critical step—we need only note here the outward manifestation of a revised judgment” (Permanence and Change 5).

4. For more on this point, consider Massumi (xiii) and Lambert (139).

5. I call both of these “heresies” because I do not take a heresy to be a flat opposition to an orthodoxy … I take heresy rather to be the isolation of one strand in an orthodoxy, and its following-through with-rational-efficiency to the point here ‘logical conclusion’ cannot be distinguished from ‘reductio ad absurdum’” (Philosophy 113).

Works Cited

Biesecker, Barbara A.  Addressing Postmodernity: Kenneth Burke, Rhetoric, and a Theory of Social Change.  Tuscaloosa:  University of Alabama Press, 1997.

Buchanan, Ian and John Marks, Ed.  Deleuze and Literature.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000.

Burke, Kenneth.  “Literature as Equipment for Living.”  Philosophy of the Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action.  3rd Edition.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.  293-304.

---.  Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose.  1954.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

---.  Philosophy of the Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action.  3rd Edition.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

---.  The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. 1961.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari.  a thousand plateaus:  capitalism and schizophrenia.  Trans. by Brian Massumi.  1987.  Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

---.  Essays: Critical and Clinical.  Trans. by Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

---.  “The Need for A Recovery of Philosophy.”  Creative Intelligence: Essays in the Pragmatic Attitude.  New York: Holt, 1917: 3-69.

Frank, Armin Paul.  Kenneth Burke.  New York: Twayne Publishers, 1969.

Hawhee, Debra.  “Burke and Nietzsche.”  Quarterly Journal of Speech.  85 (1999): 129-145.

James, William.  Pragmatism.  Edited by Bruce Kuklick.  1907.  Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1981.

---.  The Will to Believe: and other essays in popular philosophy.  New York: Dover Publications, 1956.

Jay, Paul.  “Kenneth Burke and the Motives of Rhetoric.”  American Literary History.  1.3 (1989): 535-553.

Lambert, Gregg.  “On the Uses and Abuses of Literature for Life.”  Deleuze and Literature.  Edited by Ian Buchanan and John Marks.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000: 135-166.

Lewis, Clayton W.  “Burke’s Act in A Rhetoric of Motives.”  College English.  46.4 (1984): 368-376.

Massumi, Brian.  “Translator’s Foreword: Pleasures of Philosophy.”  a thousand plateaus:  capitalism and schizophrenia.  Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.  1987.  Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 2003: ix-xv.

McGowan, John.  “Literature as Equipment for Living: A Pragmatist Project.”  Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal.  (2003): 119-148.

Peirce, Charles S.  “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.”  Popular Science Monthly.  12 (January 1878): 286-302.

Smith, Daniel.  “‘A Life of Pure Immanence’: Deleuze’s ‘Critique et Clinique’ Project.”  Essays: Critical and Clinical.  Gilles Deleuze.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997: xi-liii.

Wolin, Ross.  The Rhetorical Imagination of Kenneth Burke.  Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.

"Pragmatisms by Incongruity: ‘Equipment for Living’ from Kenneth Burke to Gilles Deleuze; by Abram Anders is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at

“Crimes of Juxtaposition”: Incongruous Frames in Sullivan’s Travels

Brian O’Sullivan, Saint Mary’s College of Maryland


Increasingly, rhetoricians are taking notice of the intertwining of “serious” discourse with comedy, humor and satire. Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era, for example, includes an array of articles that recognize the “discursive integration” (Baym 2005) of news and politics with comic entertainment. Rather than seeing this integration as a degradation of news into infotainment, Baym sees it as a creative response to the need to make important information competitively appealing in the “televisual sphere” of a post-modern consumer economy. But does the framing of journalism and politics as humor or clowning leave room for the possibility of serious, constructive action?

A KIND OF COMMENTARY IN advance on this “postmodern” problem is offered by Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941), a seminal film-about-film which has often stymied viewers by its seemingly incoherent muddling of serious themes and low comedy.  Sturges’ film takes as its central question whether or not comedy is relevant in a world of economic depression and war—and it arrives at an ambivalent conclusion.  In exploring this question, Sturges (1898-1959) paralleled his near contemporary, Kenneth Burke. Burke’s frames, along with his concept of perspective by incongruity, provide robust and flexible equipment for analyzing the discursive integration of the humorous and the serious in the mass media. The idea of comic framing has already been applied to Saturday Night Live (Smith and Voth), for instance, and Kaylor has recently applied comic, burlesque and satirical (as well as epic) frames to reviewing the controversy over Judge Roy Moore’s courtroom display of the Ten Commandments. To frame serious matters comically and comic matters seriously, or even comically, is to partake of the spirit of Burkean “counterstatement”—the principle that active inquiry and flexible thinking require every settled perspective to be unsettled by contrary perspectives.  This unsettling approach serves as an antidote to false certitude and leaves us self-reflectively aware of the absence of a firm foundation for action—though still in want of such a foundation. Through Burke, we can see Sturges’ apparent muddling as a productive, and disquieting, example of perspective by incongruity. Like Burke, Sturges finds no particular perspective—or genre—adequate in itself.

The Problem and the Plot

Sturges, in his memoirs, retrospectively took a dim view of the genre mixing in his film:

Sullivan’s Travels started with a discussion about movie-making, and during its unwinding tried a little bit of every form that was discussed. It made for some horrible crimes of juxtaposition, as a result of which I took a few on the chin. One local reviewer wanted to know what the hell the tragic passages were doing in this comedy, and another wanted to know what the comic passages were doing in a drama. They were both right of course. (Sturges 195)

The notion that tragic passages were incompatible with comedy and comic passages incompatible with drama echoess 1930s and 40s Hollywood marketing demands. Predictability was commercially important, especially as movie-making became more capital-intensive, and most especially in times of hardship when audiences were thought to want the reassurance of the familiar without too much intellectual challenge or provocation (Harvey 410). Burkean rhetorical theory, however, makes it possible to understand Sturges’ “crimes of juxtaposition” as intentional, strategic violations of the Hollywood rules. “Burke,” as Hatch (744) puts it, “offers a comic corrective, ‘perspective by incongruity,’ which transcends the serious commitments of each distinct perspective of human motives and can appreciate their differences as complementary, not conflictual.” This complementariness, however, is perhaps only available at a certain level of abstraction—that is, from a kind of critical metaperspective. In Sturges’ film, the divergent perspectives and genres are complementary only in that they all contribute to the whole narrative and its critique of its own medium and social context. The incongruity between these perspectives allows Sturges to expose a false choice offered by the Hollywood machine, in which it sometimes seemed that directors could only choose between going through the crowd-pleasing motions of formulaic comedy or making solipsistic gestures at symbolic action in serious (but seriously unpopular) drama.

Initially, Sturges, by his own account, intended the film as a rebuke—a “comic corrective,” even— to some whom failed to respect the purity of the comic:

After I saw a couple of pictures put out by some of my fellow comedy-directors, which seemed to  have abandoned the fun in favor of the message, I wrote Sullivan’s Travels to tell them that they were getting too deep dish; to leave the preaching to the preachers. (195)

Sturges’ peers, driven by the seriousness of the times, were making films that mixed “comedy” (or humor, or satire) with “deep dish,” or ponderously grave, social and political messages. Capra, for example, was criticizing political corruption in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Luvitch was satirizing Soviet totalitarianism in Ninotchka.  As Sturges saw such projects when he set out to make Sullivan’s Travels, they were subordinating the primary imperative of cinematic comedy—to make people laugh—to external agendas. As Moran and Rogin have pointed out, Sturges feared that Capra and company were losing the appeal of comedy in the process of trying to harness that appeal to a Popular Front; these directors seemed overly optimistic about their ability to critique capitalist corruption within a capital-driven medium. In the first half of Sullivan’s Travels, Sturges mocks the errant comedy directors by portraying the vain efforts of his protagonist-director to transcend genre and make a socially important work. As the film goes on, however, it portrays real injustice, and its satire shifts to target social conditions, thus undermining the notion that laughter by itself is a sufficient goal. This ambiguity of genre can profitably be understood, and can in turn illuminate, Burke’s literary categories and genre-based frames for narrating history.

Before discussing the film from divergent perspectives, a synopsis will be helpful. The protagonist, John L. Sullivan, is a Hollywood slapstick director who decides to cast comedy aside and make a saga, O Brother Where Art Thou, which will speak to the serious issues of the Great Depression. Studio executives, appalled at the idea of a project that sets social commentary above profit, tell Sullivan that he can’t succeed because he “[doesn’t] know what trouble is”; a pampered studio executive, he lacks the perspective necessary to represent the suffering of the masses.  Sullivan takes the criticism to heart—and he is propelled also, perhaps, by his sense of being trapped in a gilded cage with all the comforts Hollywood has to offer but without a real purpose, stuck in a sham marriage designed as a tax write-off by the accountant who has now taken up with his wife.  Sullivan resolves to travel the country in the guise of “tramp” so that he can learn enough about the lives of the poor to portray them empathetically in his film. Much of the first half of the movie concerns itself with Sullivan’s vain attempts to escape from Hollywood and see the real world; he is trailed by a “land yacht” sent by the studio executives who are trying to protect their prime talent, and when be he convinces his handlers to leave him alone, he hitches a ride only to be dropped off back in Hollywood.

Finally, however, Sullivan, along with a female travelling companion and love interest he meets along the way, does manage to move among the poor as one of their own.  In a long silent montage in the middle of the film, Sullivan and his companion (who is never named in the film, and who is known in the credits only as “The Girl”) witness a poignant yet sentimental tableau of deprivation, as they sleep in flophouses and rummage in garbage cans. Unlike their “fellow” impoverished, however, they are able to leave their deprived state and return to the comforts of the land yacht at will—and in fact, they run to that comfort after they apparently rummage in the wrong garbage can (although viewers are spared the apparently revolting sight that the protagonists see in that can). Sullivan now feels he knows enough about trouble to make O Brother Where Art Thou, and, as studio publicists prepare to tell his heroic story, he returns to the poor to reward them with handouts of cash for helping him learn what he needed to know. However, in the process of making this “last hurrah,” Sullivan is mugged, rendered amnesiac, and presumed dead. In his confusion, he quarrels with and strikes a railroad employee, and he is sentenced to a chain gang. In scenes reminiscent of I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (as noted by Moran and Rogin 131), the prisoners’ life is represented in ways that are more gritty and realistic than the film’s earlier representations of poverty. After running afoul of the warden and spending time in a “sweat box,” Sullivan apparently finally does “know what trouble is.” However, rather than confirming his ambition to leave slapstick behind, Sullivan’s time as a prisoner leads him to an epiphany about the value of laughter. When the prisoners are welcomed to a local African-American church to watch a Walt Disney cartoon, Sullivan is startled by the almost ecstatic laughter of his fellow prisoners. The cartoon depicts a hapless dog, Pluto, getting trapped in fly paper and otherwise stymied; although, or perhaps because, the film depicts a kind of imprisonment, the real prisoners watching it forget their troubles and are transported by laughter. Sullivan himself joins with the prisoners and their hosts in the laughter—thus becoming, for the first time in the film, unambiguously part of a social body; as Moran and Rogin (133) observe, the camera pans back to show the director as part of the masses. After Sullivan returns to Hollywood by “confessing” to his own murder and thus getting himself in the papers and getting the attention of his old friends and employers, he reunites with The Girl, whom he can marry now that his estranged wife, believing him dead, has remarried. He startles his employers by renouncing his ambition to make O Brother Where Art Thou; though they believe the film can now be a sensation and commercial success, he says, amazingly, that he has not “suffered enough” to make the film faithfully. Sullivan tells them what he has learned about the importance of laughter: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Do you know that laughter is all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. Boy!”

But this gushing line seems hollow. If laughter alone is “all some people have,” it hardly seems sufficient—especially after the film has shown us the suffering of the poor and imprisoned. And even as the film breaks up into a tableau of laughing faces—with Sullivan’s and his fellow prisoners among them—laughter alone seems an inadequate response to real suffering. Sullivan seems to have been co-opted back into his world of oblivious luxury.  This has left critics puzzled as to Sturges’ point. Although he claims, in his memoir, to have begun with the intention to remind his peers that laughter is a worthy goal, he seems to ultimately arrive at this conclusion only facetiously. If Sullivan’s ambition to speak for the poor was self-righteous and presumptuous, his retreat from that ambition is nevertheless callow and quitistic. Thus, Moran and Rogin (107) call the film “oddly self-cancelling” and suggest that it brilliantly critiques cinematic activism while still leaving the impression that dumb laughs are not enough—and without proposing an alternative to activism. Harvey suggests that its picaresque digressiveness makes it sometimes less purposeful than some of Sturges’ other films, though he also finds it ultimately also a bit too “blatant” in its “preachment against preachments.” Sturges, as we have seen, agreed with critics who found that the film erred by mixing comic and tragic idioms. I argue, however, that this muddling was key to Sturges’ innovation.

Perspective by Incongruity: The Method of a Clown

Sturges’ retrospective worries about his film’s “crimes of juxtaposition” are symptomatic of the “occupational psychoses” of a Hollywood writer/director and a critic. An “occupational psychosis,” as Burke reads Dewey’s term, is a “pronounced character of the mind” that arises from and supports a particular way of making a living (PC 40). Writers have their own occupational psychoses; professional writers, Burke says, have found their audiences and made their livings by specializing in particular sensibilities: “One became adept a kind of barometric response to the concerns of others. The type ranges from Broadway drama, through Hollywood, to simple reporting” (PC 48). The subtype of “Hollywood” is still further subdivided by Sturges, in his concern for the proper domain of “comedy-directors.” Comedy-directors, according to Sturges, specialize in “fun,” and straying into “message” compromises their professional integrity. He nevertheless does so stray in Sullivan’s Travels--but in his retrospective doubts about his “crimes of juxtaposition,” the Hollywood occupational psychosis is amplified by the critic’s. “Paradoxically enough,” says Burke, “perhaps the specifically writer’s psychosis, as opposed to any other, is to be seen in criticism, though it is usually the critics who are plaguing the poets with the charge of specialization” (PC 48).  The typical modern critic’s sense of superiority is partly “justified,” however, in that the critic’s “essayistic” mode of writing is better suited than poetic writing to the dominant occupational psychosis of the modern world: the technological psychosis (PC 48). For Burke, whereas primitive magic sought to control nature and religion sought to control human relations, science, the “third great rationalization,” is “the attempt to control for our purposes the forces of technology, or machinery” (44). The occupational psychosis of technology is to see values primarily or only in terms of machinery, or as “tools or weapons in the struggle for existence” (PC 45). For instance, to the extent that Hollywood writing and filmmaking aim to become “barometers” of the concerns of the movie-going public in order to fund the Hollywood machine, they reduce art to “tools or weapons” and are unable to perceive alternative purposes or principles—except, perhaps, in the light of perspective by incongruity.

The term “occupational psychosis”—and with it, the related but more explicitly ambivalent term trained incapacity--is an example of “perspective by incongruity,” which Burke  defines at an elementary level as “taking a word usually applied to one setting and transferring its use to another setting” (PC 90). Perspective by incongruity “violate[s] the ‘proprieties’ of the word in its previous linkages,” (PC 90) and thus has the capacity to startle us out of rigid preconceptions. Like Shakespearean metaphor, it has the power of “revealing…hitherto unsuspected connectives which we may note in the progressions of a dream. It appeals by exemplifying relationships between objects which our customary rational vocabulary has ignored” (PC 90).  Among Burke’s examples are “that big dog, the lion” and “man as the ‘ape-God”; depending on how we are used to categorizing “lion” and “man,” these verbal innovations may provide a “sudden flash” that disrupts, or shines light on, our categories (PC 90). Thus, “perspective by incongruity” is not only a category which the terms “occupational psychosis” and “trained incapacity” exemplify, but also a corrective to these limitations which these specialized perspectives entail. Though we are trained to see in certain ways and not in others, we can glimpse in other ways by the “flash” of perspective by incongruity.

Burke’s idea of enlightenment through violating proprieties is reflected by Sturges’ praise of clowns—those specialists who make an occupation of impropriety. Sturges dedicates the film to clowns:

To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated.
Clowns are by nature improper and incongruous; they are defined by “defiance of normal rules of behavior, or of physical logic” (McManus 13). The clown in fiction “is either too smart or too dumb” to be bound by conventions, and he or she thus struggles with problems whose solutions are obvious to “normative characters” and the audience. The clown’s novel solutions to these problems make us laugh and/or think (McManus 12). In its method of revelation by impropriety and surprise, clowning is like perspective by incongruity.


And by taking on the perspective of tramp, buffoon or clown, Sullivan enacts a kind of perspective by incongruity; he becomes what we might think of as “’that big dog,’ that penniless tramp, a Hollywood director,” in order to surprise himself and his viewers into seeing differently.  For Sturges as for Burke, “trained incapacity” and “occupational psychosis” are obstacles to identification across socio-economic class; the capitalist and the laborer cannot see from each other’s occupational perspectives.  Sullivan seeks to overcome these obstacles by literally walking in the shoes of another class. The attempt is not unpredecented; as Schocket explains,

Between the depression of the early 1890s and progressive reforms of the 1910s, a number of white middle-class writers, journalists and social researchers ‘dressed down’ in order to traverse with their bodies what they saw as a growing gulf between the middle class and white working and lower classes. (Schocket 110).
In a sense, this masquerade might be seen as an attempt at Burkean identification and consubstantiation. As Schocket shows, however, such experiments frequently led to “the translation of class conflict into class difference and then into cultural difference” (127). Instead of consubstantiation, they lead to a substantiation of perceived differences, essentializing poverty as a distinct identity or way of being.


To more effectively communicate to and for the poor, the filmmaker cannot simply imitate the poor; though the naiveté of such a procedure is initially lost on Sullivan, it is not lost on Sturges. Though the film may have been intended, if Sturges’ memoir is to be believed, as a satire on directors who turned their attention from comedy to social problems, it became also, sometimes by turns and sometimes simultaneously, a satire on the social problems itself, a light-heartedly humorous story of a clown, a modern quest romance, a tragedy and a comedy. By reading the film successively as each of these (following the structure used by Kaylor in his study of a religious-political controversy through several frames), I will show how the incongruous rhetorics of the film self-consciously reflect the complex relationship between a socially conscious filmmaker and the viewing public.

Satire: Scapegoating the Director

Insofar as Sturges originally intended the film as a rebuke to wayward comedy directors, he framed it as satire. Oddly, though, to the extent to which Sturges satirizes his peers, he commits the same sin of which he accuses them—for to satirize is not only to play for laughs, but also to have a “message.” This ambiguity as to whether Sturges divides himself from his targets or identifies with them is characteristic of the satirical frame as described by Burke.

The satirical frame, as Burke describes it, is more a “frame of rejection” than a “frame of acceptance”; it is a narrative strategy that tends to be used oppositionally to break with the prevailing order, not to reaffirm it. Burke agrees with Wyndham Lewis that satire is “an attack ‘from without’” (AH 49). Though Burke self-deprecatingly describes one of his own attempts at satire as a bit of “clowning” (“Why Satire” 22), the satirist is not ordinarily equivalent to a clown. Aas Wickberg points out, whereas medieval fools served as “an object of laughter, the butt of all jests,” neoclassical wits and satirists actively directed raillery at others and made their targets ridiculous (52). But Burke adds an important caveat to the “from without” formulation: he believes that satirists characteristically externalize their own shortcomings in order to satirize them as if  “from without” (i.e., as if from a detached critical perspective). “The satirist attacks in others the weaknesses and temptations that are really within himself,” Burke says (AH 49). The best satirists, such as Swift and Juvenal, Burke argues, display a “strategic ambiguity” (AH 49), subtly empathizing with their targets and criticizing themselves.

Such a strategic ambiguity is made apparent by the opening moves of Sullivan’s Travels. First, to slow and sentimental music, a female, well-manicured and tastefully bejeweled pair of hands opens an envelope bearing a “Paramount” seal. The envelope contains a frontispiece; the male and female leads, both in “tramp” clothes and with his hand on her shoulder, gaze solemnly down at a landscape full of Lilliputian-sized, indistinct fellow tramps, who form a queue extending beyond the horizon. The frontispiece is reminiscent simultaneously of Gulliver’s Travels (already evoked by the film’s title) and Grapes of Wrath, forecasting the ambiguity as to whether the film is a Swiftian satire or a “straight” social commentary. The mediation or constructedness of the film is inescapable; the elegant hands that opened the envelope frame the frontispiece—reminding us, together with the towering protagonists, that our view of the poor in this picture is heavily mediated by the affluent. The frontispiece teaches us to be skeptical of this very film along with the films it satirizes.

The strategic ambiguity continues as a page turns, and in place of the frontispiece the credits roll, with the sentimental music reaching a crescendo at “Written and Directed by Preston Sturges”—still a rare credit in 1941, and one that suggests to viewers that the story about to unfold reflects the imagination of one man more than it reflects shared reality. A page turns again, and Sturges’ credit gives way to his dedication “to the memory of those who made us laugh.” This leads us to expect, perhaps, a movie that pays homage to the kinds of tramps known to moviegoers through Keaton, Chaplin, and others, to whom the clothing of the protagonists in the frontispiece alludes. But the white page of the dedication  abruptly fades to black, to be replaced by a darker scene, accompanied by frenetic music; two men—one clad in darker and one in lighter clothes—struggling on the outside of a train, from which they eventually fall into a river, under the title “The End.” This “ending,” as Ames (81) observes, ejects us from one cinematic illusion into another, making us aware that we have been watching a film within a film, and prompting us to be suspicious of further tricks.

At the same time, the film-within-a-film frames the film as a clash between the interests of labor and capital. Sullivan has shown the film as an example of the kind of work he would like to do, but it also seems to be an implicit, perhaps unwitting, ironic comment on his relationship with the executives.  The swirling of the river into which the antagonists have fallen gives way to the swirling of tobacco smoke as we see Sullivan, haloed in the backlight, gesturing wildly and expostulating to studio executives on this allegory of social struggle. In this struggle, Sullivan views himself as “labor,” of a sort; he grumbles that he is “just a minor employee” of the studio. However, their relationship is not so allegorically “black and white”; while Sullivan is wearing light colors in contrast to the executives’ dark, his suit is offset by a dark boutonniere, just as his ideological purity as “labor” is mitigated by his interdependence with studio “capital.” Indeed, he hints that the social problem film will serve his and the executives’ interests as members of a capitalist class; when an executive calls the film he has screened “Communism,” Sullivan calls it “an answer to Communism,” suggesting its utility for capitalists who must mollify labor in order to avoid revolution. The executives are not notably persuaded by this argument, but they are persuaded by profits. Though they believe the public is hungry for Hey, Hey in the Hayloft 1941, and not for O Brother Where Art Thou, Sullivan is a proven moneymaker, so they are resigned to humor him in his humorless project—as long as the film can have “a little sex in it.” Sullivan is only slightly grudging in agreeing to include “a little sex”; he has become idealistic, but not to the point of ignoring marketability altogether. In the rhetoric of the smoke-filled viewing room and the opulent office adjoining it, the persuasive factor is not logos or ethos or pathos, but the inartistic proof of money.

This inartistic proof operates two ways, however. The executives manage to convince their “minor employee” that he has been too rich and too comfortable to speak for the poor. Sullivan has not suffered enough to make a movie about suffering—and he takes this criticism to heart, though not with the result the executives intended. Instead of abandoning the project, he resolves to develop an ethos of experience and suffering that will validate his new, serious cinematic rhetoric. Or maybe he will just dress up as a hobo and go slumming as a way of feeding his ego. Here, the strategic ambiguity of satire arises from contradictory repulsions. The film signals us to be repelled by the mercenary outlook of the dark-clad executives yet it signals this so ham-handedly that we are alerted to be skeptical of the self-appointed cinematic white knight, Sullivan.

And the next scene amplifies this skepticism; here Sullivan is clearly not a neoclassical wielder of ridicule, but a simple object of laughter—the image of the clown, buffoon or fool to which the film is dedicated. Wearing a tattered coat and with sack tied to a stick over his shoulder, he practices his role, he trudges towards a mirror, shoulders slung low;  he is accompanied by cartoonish, comic music, and even his valet tells him that he might be overdoing it a little. While Sullivan thinks that dressing in a hobo’s clothes is part of a sober sociological experiment, the viewers can share Sturges’ joke that Sullivan is really just making himself a Charlie Chaplin character—a recognizable cinematic “tramp” as defined by generic conventions. At the same time, viewers get a hint of Sullivan’s real motivations when his estranged wife calls about her alimony check. The romance of a quest to save the poor and the American way—and now the even greater romance of a quest in search of suffering—seem to be less about altruism than about freedom from a bad marriage and from a comfortable but sterile existence. For Sullivan, the silly tramp costume represents freedom. As Sullivan will realize later, “tramps” are essentially outlaws; they are outside the social system in which every law-abiding citizen has an assigned and inescapable place, and thus they have a kind of freedom. If, as McManus argues, clowns typically acknowledge and break invisible walls that separate the fictional world occupied by characters from the “real” world occupied by viewers, Sullivan goes further; here, the rules at issue are those that make the viewers’ own world a kind of fiction or “imaginary representation” (Althusser)—rules of ideology that determine the sphere or action open to particular classes.


Sullivan, like the typical clown, is both too stupid and too smart to follow the rules. He is “too stupid” in that he doesn’t realize the ethical and physical hazards of class travestitism. He is warned of the risks of class masquerade by his butler, Borroughs.  In a close-up which confers a remarkable gravitas upon an already grave actor, the butler warns Sullivan that the poor resent “invasions of their privacy” and that “poverty is an affirmative evil…to be shunned, sir, even for purposes of study.” And the butler also warns Sullivan that he may be swallowed by this evil; in what may be an allusion to the turn-of-century transvestisim examined by Schocket, Borroughs tells Sullivan of his previous employers who went adventuring “similarly accoutered” in 1910, and “have not been heard from since.” Burroughs’ speech is a key epideictic moment in the early part of the film; his critique reinforces a suspicion that has already been with a viewer who paid attention to the film’s dedication to clowns—the suspicion that Sullivan’s preference for suffering over comedy may be misguided.

But Sullivan is also “too smart” for the rules in that he is learning a clown’s evasive maneuvers. This point is comically dramatized in a tumultuous chase scene immediately after Sullivan’s confrontations with Burroughs and the executives at his home. Now on the road, Sullivan tries to elude the Hollywood land yacht and the comforts of his class. The velocity of his escape, aided by a child in a model whippet tank, pays homage to the slapstick of silent movies while also foreshadowing continued topsy-turvy social mobility and turmoil. In the process, a black cook is dosed in white floor and a police officer soaked in mud; the humor here is an example of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque, as hierarchical social distinctions are inverted and dissolved in laughter. This scene exemplifies Bergson’s claim about laughter—that it exposes and defuses the tendency for human behavior to become rigid or automated and devoid of the flexibility and fluidity that conscious choice makes possible (Bergson 10). In Burkean terms, laughter reveals the fissure between action and motion. In the chase scene, we laugh at Sullivan’s incongruous ability to evade and outwit the massive machinery behind him—and perhaps even to evade the occupational psychosis of technology as embodied by this machinery. Sullivan sees the mechanized chase as the sign of things to come at the end of the chase scene. “What a future!,” Sullivan sighs at the end of the chase scene, after the has asked his young tank driver’s age and learned that he is only eight. Clearly he is contemplating the boy’s potential future as a getaway driver or some other kind of speed demon; but at the same time, he might be imagining a larger future in which the world of “moving pictures” has developed into a technological world of unconstrained motion and velocity. Thus, the pursuit of a tramp by a massive land yacht is satire in the sense that Burke describes in his Hellhaven writings—an enetelechial extension of a situation’s negative tendencies towards their dystopian extreme.

Here we again see the satirist’s “strategic ambivalence,” or displaced self-criticism. As an innovator in the still-fledgling enterprise of moving pictures, Sturges is part of a technological movement towards the incipient culture of technology and speed that he satirizes. Conversely, when he satirizes traditional rather than emerging value systems, he also reproduces and exploits the sins of those systems; the carnivaleseue accidents of the cook and the police officer—who are thrust into white face and black face—parody the American minstrel tradition and the stereotypes that carried over from that tradition into film, just as the film parodies social problem cinema. Such an upheaval of values is characteristic of what Burke sees as a transitional time between dominant psychoses—a time of the “bureaucratization of the imaginative.” Deprived by that bureaucratization of a stable moral standpoint, Sturges faces a problem that Bakhtin saw and that literary theorist Linda Hutcheon has called the “paradox of parody”: parody is simultaneously critical and conservative, exploiting and reinscribing what it critiques. Though Hutcheon is addressing parodic imitation, this paradox applies to satire of social realities as well, and it marks of one of the frustrations and limitations of the satirical frame. For Sturges, the comedy-director caught up in the paradoxes and ambiguities of message is necessarily inclined towards losing “the fun” (Sturges 195).

Humor: Dwarfing the Situation

Much of what Sturges calls “comedy” Burke would call “humor.” Most modern “comedians,” Burke notes, are actually humorists, in that they promote an “attitude of ‘happy stupidity,’ in which the gravity of life simply fails to register” (AH 43). This attitude is exemplified by “some childish quality of voice” that is found in Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor and their peers, “the stutterers and the silent” (AH 43). In the company of these peers it is not hard to imagine the old John L. Sullivan, whose oeuvre included such titles as Hey, Hey in the Heyloft and Ants in Your Pants 1941. The childishness and seeming powerlessness of such humorists leads not to their destruction by a cruel world, but to laughter—and this provides otherwise fearful audiences with momentary relief. Humor “takes up the slack between the momentousness of a situation and those in the situation by dwarfing the situation” (AH 43). The humorist diminishes and trivializes problems by turning them into jokes. Humor “specializes in incongruity”—and specifically in the incongruity between small agent and vast situation—but, unlike the grotesque, humor represents incongruity in such a way that it produces the relief of laughter.

Sullivan’s dissatisfaction with his previous films is similar to Burke’s view of humor as a strategy for living. Like the sentimental, in Burke’s view, humor provides an illusory relief by portraying the world as simpler and more hospitable than serious adults typically find it to be. Unlike comedy, humor and the sentimental tend to “gauge the situation falsely” (AH 43). Once Sullivan realizes just how falsely his lighthearted cinematic romps are gauging the situation of the Great Depression and the war in Europe, he responds, in effect, by trying to shift from the humorous to the heroic as a strategy for bridging the gap between human beings and their situation.

“Humor,” for Burke, “is the opposite of the heroic” (43); both humor and the heroic (in particular, the epic) respond to incongruities between a finite individual and the infinite, and infinitely troublesome, world. The epic resolves this incongruity by magnifying the hero. Ancient epics magnified the image of the warlike hero, Burke suggests, in promoting the values of courage and strength that were thought necessary to the defense of the tribe. Epics endow their heroes with virtues such that they appear adequate to the greatest challenges presented by the world.  In a sense, Sullivan’s ambition is epic: he recognizes the vastness of the challenge of representing the poor in cinema, yet he imagines himself adequate to meeting that challenge. The problem for Sullivan is that he is only imagining; he is not, in fact, at all adequate to comprehending the experience of the poor and making himself their spokesman. In his belief that he is adequate to this challenge, Sullivan repeats the error of “gauging the situation falsely”—even though he waxes eloquent about the extent of social problems, he still dramatically underestimates the difficulty of understanding and addressing them. Sullivan, in short, is a mock-heroic hero. As he sets out to cross the landscape of American Depression—the kind of Eliotic waste land that haunts the literature of the twenties and thirties—the viewer knows he is doomed to epic failure. Thus, while attempting to make his own epic, Sullivan becomes the butt of Sturges’ humor. And when the fictional director realizes the falseness of his heroic pose, he returns to humor. For Sullivan, both humor and heroism have now been revealed as false—but humor at least appears to be useful. It provides needed, regenerative relief to the prisoners, and it creates a sense of community between them and their African-American hosts

But when Sullivan fully embraces humor, the portrayal of his character, in the eyes of many viewers, may edge from the humorous towards the unwittingly burlesque. His final line (“There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Do you know that laughter is all that some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. Boy!”) exemplifies the child-like voice or “happy stupidity” that Burke finds among humorists—but if we laugh at it, we probably laugh dryly, and we are perhaps more likely rejecting its stupidity than accepting its happiness. To whatever extent we cringe at Sullivan’s willful obliviousness at this moment, we are reading Sturges’ scripting of Sullivan as something closer to the burleseque—that narrative strategy which features its targets’ flaws to the exclusion of their virtues—than to humor. Any laughter at Sullivan’s misrecognition of himself and his situation does not so much provide relief as express judgment.

And yet Sullivan is rewarded by implicit engagement to The Girl. A Hollywood comic paradigm seems to require this happy ending. The competing demands of humbling Sullivan and marrying him to the Girl posed a problem that Sturges confessed being unable to solve:

The ending wasn’t right, but I didn’t know how to solve the problem, which was not only to show what Sullivan learned, but also to tie up the love story. It would have been very easy to make a big finish either way, but one would have defeated the other. There was probably a way of doing it, but I didn’t happen to come across it. It might be profitable for a young director to look at Sullivan’s Travels and try not to make the same mistakes I did. (Sturges 195)

But Sturges’ dissatisfaction with his own work is premised on the assumption that there had to be a “big finish” that resolved the problems of the film one way or another. We might instead read the vexed ending as a realistic “gauging of the [vexed] situation.” If the ending is unsettling—shouldn’t it be unsettling? The Great Depression and World War II were unsettling, to say less than the least; the question of whether comedies could be “serious” works in such times was unsettling. It is perhaps necessary that the film should have an unconvincing end. The film trains us to be skeptical of Hollywood; it must, then, draw some of our skepticism towards itself.

Romance: Courting Freedom

But to be successful entertainment, a film had to do more than court skepticism; it also needed, in the words of Sullivan’s boss, “a little sex.” More than that, it needed romance. If Sullivan cannot escape Hollywood literally, neither can the story Sturges is telling about Sullivan escape Hollywood conventions. Just as the studio executive cautioned Sullivan that his movie must have a little sex in it, Sturges puts a little romance, if not actual sex, in Sullivan’s Travels. Yet while the satirical frame tends to keep Sullivan trapped in Hollywood, the romantic frame impels him to wander. In an odd sense, the Paramount marketers actually advertised the film’s “romantic frame” as an alternative to comedy and tragedy; the film’s tagline reads “A Happy-Go Lucky Hitch-Hiker on the Highway to happiness! He wanted to see the world . . . but wound up in Lover's Lane!” (IMDB). This tagline emphasizes the film’s “love story,” but the film is also a romance in another sense: it enacts what Burke, in A Rhetoric of Motives, calls “the ‘principle of courtship’” (208). This principle is “the use of suasive devices for the transcending of social estrangement” (208). Taking her cue from this principle, Lewis approaches interreligious dialogue from through a “romantic” frame, seeing a kind of “courtship” between fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists. This romantic frame is useful for understanding Sullivan’s Travels as an attempt to “woo” a movie-going audience to transcend social estrangement and identify with the downtrodden.

The difficulties of such “wooing” are made apparent in Sullivan’s first stop after he ditches the land yacht. Promising to meet his exhausted pursuers in Las Vegas, he nevertheless finds himself back at the movies. He is hired as a laborer by an amorous widow with designs on him based on misrecognition of his socio-economic needs and vulnerability; her “courtship” of him parodies, in effect, the kind of cross-class courtship that Burke envisions:
If a woman of higher social standing (a ‘woman of refinement’) were to seek communion by profligate abandonment among the ‘dregs of society,’ such yielding in sexual degradation could become almost mystical. (208)
But instead of a socially recognizable “woman of refinement” who courts the economic “dregs of society,” Sullivan’s Travels presents a backwoods petty doyenne who reaches across class lines to court a supposed tramp who is actually a wealthy Hollywood director. The lack of authenticity of their “courtship” frames an example of the inauthenticity of socially conscious film; the widow takes him to a sad, serious movie, which proves to be a claustrophobic experience, in which the audience seems neither entertained nor edified but merely bored.  This does nothing to jolt Sullivan out of his ambition to make serious films, but it does seem to fuel his desire to be free (while also foreshadowing the frustration of that desire). That night, he escapes from the bedroom in which the widow has locked him; he hitches a ride—and finds himself again in Hollywood.


To escape Hollywood will require a more convincing instance of the principle of courtship. When Sullivan meets the Girl, there is again a misrecognition of social disparity. Though leaving Hollywood in poverty, she can at least afford a bus ticket and a plate of ham and eggs for someone who appears to be a penniless tramp; she believes she is doing a favor for someone who is socially inferior to her. She doesn’t know that he is among the directors she has been trying to “court” to advance her career. Her attempt to reach out to the poor is, unknown to her, a farce, and to the viewer she appears at first only to be present for a gag and as a concession to Hollywood conventions and marketability. As he tells a police officer who has pulled him over as an apparent hobo who seems to have stolen John L. Sullivan’s car, and who asks him what The Girl is doing in this picture, “there’s always a girl in the picture; haven’t you ever gone to the movies?”.

When The Girl learns Sullivan’s true identity and becomes an ally in his project, their relationship becomes a truer courtship in Burke’s sense of the word; they are partners from across a social gulf, bringing disparate perspective together. She is crucial in helping Sullivan escape; in keeping with the conventions of screwball comedy, which Sturges himself had played a leading role in creating, The Girl is in some ways more savvy and gritty than her male co-protagonist, and it is only with her as companion that he manages to break out of the Hollywood bubble. Moreover, The Girl disguises her gender in order to travel inconspicuously with Sullivan; she adopts gender tranvestisim in order to facilitate what Schocket calls “class transvestitism.”  With The Girl, Sullivan finally gets his first taste of the open road—they hop onto freight car, and, though sneered at as amateurs by their fellow travelers, they make it off alive.  They accidentally find themselves in Las Vegas; though they are glad to find the land yacht, as they are hungry and penniless, Sullivan yearns to continue his adventure. It seems he will be sidetracked by a fever—but it is in that fever that he has his epiphany about the freedom of tramps. He realizes that “some invisible force”—the invisible hand of capitalism, perhaps—keeps him and others in place, as if saying “as you were, so you shall remain.”  And “tramps,” Sullivan imagines, get in trouble because they are outside the system that the invisible force protects. After Sullivan has this realization he and The Girl escape their handlers and enter the world of breadlines, shelters and revivals, and the film blends slapstick humor with gritty realism. In a long, silent montage in the middle of the movie, the two protagonists move among scenes of the gravest suffering—even passing under the shadow of a hanged body in one scene—but they also laugh at vermin-induced dancing, and we laugh at the quirks of their shelter-mates and the ridiculous extremities of their circumstances . The montage provides a funnyhouse version of the mutually destructive complicity between labor and capital seen at the beginning of the film; while Sullivan wears a sandwich board for Mo’s tailor shop (“Don’t look like a tramp! Slightly damaged misfits.”), the girl carries a picket sign protesting Mo’s exploitation of union labor. We begin to see that poverty and comedy are not mutually exclusive. It is here that the “paradox of parody” leads Sturges’ film to become more progressive than he may have meant for it to be; whereas he may have set out to tease directors who had gotten too invested in a high-minded, activist role, he does some of their work for them by showing audiences what suffering looks like.

But despite the success of courtship at broadening the film’s perspective, Sullivan, at first, is unable to bring his relationship with The Girl to the happy ending suitable to a comedy; trapped in a tax shelter marriage, Sullivan is unable to propose to the Girl, and unable to wriggle out of the fiction he has made for himself. This frustration seems to confirm Sullivan’s intuition that an “invisible force” keeps everyone in place; rather than a “mystical” fulfillment of romance, the film seems headed towards tragic acceptance—a reaffirmation of resignation to the existing order, with all its inequities and encumbrances on freedom.

Tragedy: Victimage and Transformation

Sullivan’s hubris in trying to escape this system leads to his tragic downfall: amnesia and imprisonment. Amnesia serves as a symbolic death, wiping away Sullivan’s prior identity as a wealthy director. Sullivan’s misrecognition—indeed, his non-recognition of himself—leads to a tragic reversal. For the movie to end at that point would have seemed to validate two seemingly quite different positions: that of the socially conscious “deep dish” directors whom Sturges professedly wanted to rebuke, and that of Burroughs in his admonition to Sullivan. The tragic ending would show that the deep dish directors were right that the times demanded tragedy rather than unalloyed comedy, and that Burroughs was right to warn that poverty is “to be shunned, even for purposes of study.”


By such closure the film would complete the mortification of the commercial individualist that was, by Burke’s reckoning, the original function of tragedy. In Burke’s imagination of the passage from the primitive to the classical, tragedy displaced epic when “warlike” virtues (AH 35) became outmoded due to “the individualistic development of commerce” (AH 37). As merchants gained wealth and power not rooted in “the earlier primitive-collectivist structure” (AH 37) of tribes and communities, the peoples’ “fear of self-aggrandizement was strong” (AH 37). Tragedy gives vent to this fear by symbolically humbling and expelling the hubristic self-aggrandizer.

On the other hand, the problem with a tragic frame for the Great Depression is that tragedy is a frame of acceptance—and the Depression exposed and aggravated social injustices that were not acceptable. In the absence of a “primitive-collectivist structure,” humbling one capitalist among many—especially when the one humbled capitalist had pro-social ambitions—would do little to satisfy any “fear of self-aggrandizement.” We would simply be told that directors should stay in their place and the impoverished masses should stay in theirs—not a particularly satisfying prospect for anyone.

Accordingly, the movie continues beyond its tragic “ending” to enact a more productive aspect of Sullivan’s symbolic death, which allows Sullivan to discover a remnant of “collectivist structure.” Death in literature, as Burke argues in his discussion of Lycidas in A Rhetoric of Motives, is often a symbolic action that prepares the way for transformation (RM 3-6). Sullivan’s amnesia wipes out his old substance—his identity as wealthy director. Needing new ground on which to stand, he is enabled to identify with the poor and reach the moment of consubstantiality in the church, at the movies.  There, the film provides an epideictic answer to Burroughs in the person of an African-American preacher who welcomes the prisoners to a picture show. Whereas Burroughs argued that “poverty is to be shunned,” the preacher suggests that poverty is to be engaged; he tells his congregants that they are not to shun “those less fortunate than ourselves,” but to welcome them. The preacher also serves as an answer to the awkward minstrel-show parody of race relations in the land yacht chase scene; whereas that scene merely inverts racial roles, the preacher reconciles them; singing “Let My People Go,” he includes the white prisoners in his congregation’s aspiration to freedom. When the congregation and the prisoners, watching Pluto’s humorously entrapped antics, laugh together, Sullivan finally experiences consubstantiality with a community.

And only after discovering the value of laughter does Sullivan move toward a comedic end, reversing the transformation worked by his amnesia. In making this move, he depends on upon the fixed social boundaries that he once, as a clown, transgressed; he had told the prison trusty, much to the latter’s innocent surprise, that “they don’t send picture directors to a place like this for a little disagreement with a yard boss”—and it turns out to be true, at least, that directors don’t stay in prison. “I killed John L. Sullivan,” Sullivan proclaims loudly in the presence of the warden, thus getting his picture in the newspaper and bringing about his rescue by The Girl and the studio.  Like the imagery of killing and suicide Burke discusses in his analyses of Milton’s Lycidas and many other literary and rhetorical works, Sullivan’s “killing” of Sullivan is a transformative symbolic action (RM 3-6). It is his final clown-like act of transgression—but also an act of reaffirmation. “He’d have to be a Houdini to get out of this one,” Sullivan’s business manager had told his wife on hearing the news of his “death.” And indeed, in his clowning, the director has also become an escape artist. He escapes even his marriage: “You’re free,” the girl tells him, after giving him the news of his wife’s remarriage. “Not for long,” he replies, smiling. “Freedom” is redefined from the individualistic economic liberty of the rich to free participation in community and family. Sullivan has escaped tragedy and is about to attain the classic comedic conclusion, a wedding.

Comedy: Man in Society

“Rather than seeking death or banishment of the scapegoat, [comedy] attempts to shame or humiliate the protagonist into changing his or her actions,” as Smith and Voth paraphrase Burke. Sullivan has, indeed, been humiliated into changing his actions; he has abandoned his hubristic view of himself as an American savior. And he reaches the threshold of the traditional comic closure: marriage. Yet Sullivan’s own perspective at the end of the film is more humorous than comic; Sullivan chooses “happy stupidity” and the renunciation of any social purpose beyond the relief that laughter brings.

Comedy, as Burke understands it, is not to be confused with humor; its objective is not necessarily to produce laughter, but to promote a humane and tolerant, yet not passive, attitude of acceptance (AH 107). Indeed, contrary to Smith and Voth, comedy is not always about shame and humiliation, but it is necessarily about sharpening our awareness of our own, inevitable, human foolishness—so that self-knowledge may be tempered or mitigated, though it cannot be eliminated. The comic frame, according to Burke, entails self-observation without passiveness; the true comedian has an ironic detachment, but that detachment provides a space for reflection and judgment, not for ultimate resignation and withdrawal.

“The progress of humane enlightenment,” Burke says, “can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken” (41). If, for a moment, we view Sullivan’s newfound advocacy of the humorist’s perspective as “not vicious, but…mistaken”—if we do not sneer but smile and shake our heads at his blithe acquiescence to a situation in which laughter is “all some people have,” and at his abandonment of the ambition to expose and change the material conditions of that situation—then we see the film not as either burlesque or tragedy but as comedy. Sullivan chooses to make a humorous film; but Sturges, in large part, has made a true comedy.

Yet, it could only be comedy “in large part” because pure comedy would not ring true. “An ideal world is one in which comedy would be a perfect fit. But to say as much,” Burke laments, “is to disqualify comedy, since this is so far from being a perfect world” (72). Some recent Burkean scholars have tried to reconcile the potential of “comedy” with manifestly tragic aspects of history. Condit, Farrell and Hatch have all recognized that recognition of the tragic construction of history is ubiquitous in Burke’s thought and may be a necessary predicate to the reconciliation and healing Burke seeks; as such, they have suggested that we should think of this reconciliation and healing not as simply “comic” but as “tragicomic.” For Hatch, “tragicomic framing” is a way of confronting the need for racial reconciliation without excessive scapegoating; the tragicomic frame recognizes tragic history while projecting a comedic conclusion.  Sturges achieves a kind of tragicomic framing by incorporating the tragic realities of destitution and chain gangs in the midst of laughter. But in doing so, and in allowing his fictional director only the most tentative and questionable of triumphs, Sturges acknowledges, like Burke, that “this is far from being a perfect world.”

Discursive (Dis)integration

Sullivan’s Travels influenced the Coen Brothers’s playful version of the tragicomic corrective in O Brother Where Art Thou, the film that takes its name from the abandoned project in Sullivan’s Travels. This O Brother has been called a comic epic of the American South (Ruppersburg). It is not the “deep dish” panorama of suffering that Sullivan imagined, but it is a film that incorporates chain gangs and the Ku Klux Klan into an irreverent, non-formulaic comedy. Indeed, it represents a pastiche of every stereotype of the racist South. Like Sullivan’s Travels, then, it encourages us to laugh with our eyes open, without obscuring the reality of injustice and of suffering. As another encomium to clowns, and an homage to Sullivan’s Travels itself, O Brother Where Art Thou, with the new televisual satires, testifies to the continuing relevance of Sturges’ film as well as the growing relevance of satire, humor and comedy to serious discourse. This rhetoric seeks to induce in the audience the clown’s outsider perspective, free of the blindspots of insiders well-socialized in a discourse.

O Brother Where Art Thou, like Sullivan’s Travels, can be accused of “crimes of juxtaposition.” So can, for example, Jon Stewart, who was told “I thought you were going to be funny” when he reproached the Crossfire hosts for insufficient seriousness in their debates on public affairs. But as these “crimes” have become more ubiquitous, they have come to seem less criminal. While Baym’s concept of “discursive integration” is useful in conveying the convergence of discourses that formerly seemed mutually exclusive, we might equally well speak of discursive disintegration, as the boundaries and definitions of particular frames or genres no longer seem very clear. “Disintegration,” in this sense, need not be a pejorative term; if occupational psychoses are being disintegrated, ground may be prepared for consubstantiation and a more inclusive conversation.

At the same time, Sullivan’s Travels, together with Burke, cautions us not to be too sanguine about the prospect of salvation though comic framing or through perspective by incongruity. To expose the dysfunctionality of dysfunctional perspectives is not to produce a functional perspective. The film’s ungainly conclusion—suspended between the Hollywood happy ending and tragic loss—reminds us that there is no simple solution to the problem of making art in a troubled world. Humorous news and serious satire provide an abundance of counterstatement, but they do not provide the abiding and definitive statement which we continue to crave. Art, and mass media, will be troubled and troublesome. 

*Brian O'Sullivan is an Assistant Professor of English at St. Mary's College of Maryland.  He can be reached via email at

In this way it is quite like much of the satire in the contemporary “televisual sphere”. The Daily Show, as Morreales points out, insistently critiques the very blending of entertainment and new that it exemplifies.

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