Using Kenneth Burke to Symbolically Explore the Technological Worldview Discovered by Jacques Ellul
Mike Hübler, University of Alabama in Huntsville
Abstract: In the contemporary project of outlining the worldviews that influence rhetorical contexts, it has become increasingly meaningful to investigate the unique ideological climate precipitated by a technological society. This project carves out a route through which Jacques Ellul's insightful characterization of the technological society intersects Kenneth Burke’s various symbolic analyses of discourse in a technological society. Using Kenneth Burke's dramatism, several Ellulian dimensions of a technological worldview: technical autonomy, necessity and demystification, can be mapped onto a parallel grammar of symbols, a "drama" that features agency as its root term, and the inversion (or convergence) of the agent-agency ratio as its principle dynamic. The technological drama manifests itself in the technological society as a rhetorically dominant narrative that treats human artifacts as if they were primary agents and human artisans as if they were passive agencies through which technologies acted.
THE ART OF RHETORICAL EXPLORATION takes perhaps its most beautiful form on a canvas colored with vivid, concrete human contexts. Indeed, as far back as Aristotle’s notion of rhetoric as the "art of discovering all available means of persuasion," theorists have recognized the central role of context in both constraining and creatively expanding rhetorical choices. Understanding the significance of context as textual critics, we can paint with the extraordinary detail that Marie Hochmuth Nichols used, or with much broader historical, political and cultural strokes as are so notable in Edwin Black’s work. To contrast the styles of these two significant communication scholars, Nichols famously explicates Lincoln’s first inaugural address with seemingly exhaustive research of newspaper articles, speeches and other chronologically related texts that establish the scene, characters, and prominent arguments of Lincoln’s single speech. Black, on the other hand, groups together a broad expanse of rhetorical texts in order to establish that genres of persuasion exists, each characterized by particular stylistic and topical elements holding together over long periods of time. It is the direction of Black’s approach that emphasizes the rhetorical importance of worldviews widely dispersed and enmeshed in a social body over the situated context only relevant to explicating a single text. Identifying dominant worldviews that emerge in a society is a way of generally focusing theoretical investigations of the public discourses of that society.
Worldviews pertain to the elements of culture that texture rhetorical contexts. Cultural practices and social values encourage particular kinds of thinking and writing, making it essential for the rhetorician to elaborate on the kind of ideological climate in which texts are produced.1 By elaborating ideological climate I do not mean that we must identify the particular and personal sorts of worldviews that individuals may have fashioned. Rather, this kind of analysis outlines those prevailing worldviews that are available (even unavoidable) in a society, and that constitute at least the starting point from which individual perspectives emerge. Scientism, authoritarianism, socialism, theism, feminism, racism and egalitarianism are among the many worldviews that have comprised ideological climates at one time or another and consequently have drawn the attention of rhetorical theorists and critics (see, for example, Jamieson, 1976; Lessl, 1989, 1996; Campbell, 1995)
In the contemporary project of outlining the worldviews that influence rhetorical contexts, it takes no special insight to recognize the imperative of this paper, to outline the unique ideological climate precipitated by a technological society. From the first wood-carved hunting gear of Paleolithic times to the complex network of wires, routers, processors and digital information that constitute the present-day Internet, ample historical and archeological evidence exists to justify classifying human beings from all periods of history as homo faber, tool-using animals. But while much may be gained by recognizing technologies as ubiquitous in human culture, something about the modern technological culture seems also to deserve special classification.2
Past eras of social history have been defined by religions, political leadership, wars, tools, and, on occasion, by a single system of technical innovations. The present age, however, has gone by such names as the digital age, the media age, the technological age, the virtual age, the information age and by numerous other labels that signify the unprecedented centrality of multiple, advanced technologies. As Neil Postman argues, technologies no longer simply play a part in our social activities, they have literally begun to define human culture (1992, p. 28). In the face of this, many scholars have recognized the need to account for the unique role that technology now plays in human experience.3 Chiefly, it is the socio-political and moral import of the technical that compels humanists, not just engineers, to study it. A humanistic focus begins with the observation that we live in a world of technology, and leads us to the notion that a technological worldview frames human rhetorical activity.
Because influential philosophers and sociologists have elaborated on this worldview, the rhetorical focus here depends on critical insights adapted from outside of the field. In particular, Jacques Ellul’s description of the technological worldview offers an insightful starting point for the rhetorical exploration of societies that are inextricably bound to complexes of technical artifacts. In the next section, I will explore the significance of the technological "context" using Ellul’s position to establish a framework for discussing the relationship between technology and worldviews. Building on his socio-philosophical analysis, the rest of the essay sketches a rhetorical model of the technological worldview by synthesizing complementary dramatistic insights found inchoately distributed throughout Burke's writing. After reviewing how Burke's dramatism pertains to worldviews, the essay offers a kind of perspective by incongruity4 by revealing the ways in which subtle symbolic constructions frame human agents as being used by technological agencies, rather than the other way round.
Jacques Ellul and la technique
Philosopher and theologian Jacques Ellul, in his classic treatise on the technological society, uses the arbiter of worldview to distinguish between old and new technologies. Writing a half century ago,5 Ellul traces through the Enlightenment, French Revolution, and Industrial Revolution what he considers to be a profound change in the cultural pre-occupations of technically advanced civilizations. He characterizes the modern technological society by the pervasive presence of la technique, "the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity" (1955/1965, p. xiv). 6 Technique is a sociological drive to transform every human purpose and practice into a systematic and preferably quantitative method that can be measured in terms of its efficiency.
Techniques have been present, to some degree, in every phase of human activity. But the term la technique designates for the last century, the ubiquity and transforming power of technique that has fostered a politico-culturally dominant emphasis on efficient means over human ends. In advanced technical cultures, la technique now preoccupies all human endeavors with questions of process relative to speed, size, quantity, and time, often to the exclusion of questions about purpose, value, and improving the human spirit. Even the American family kitchen, Ellul notes, has been divided into quadrants and organized by the most efficient placement of appliances (1955/1965, p. 326).
La technique should not be confused with any singular technology, method or machine. Although, Ellul does depict the social effects of la technique as the process of human beings adapting themselves to machines, and he notes that machines epitomize pure rational method and efficiency, the central features of la technique (cf. 1955/1965, pp. 5, 395-398). The enduring value of Ellul’s perspective on technique is that he is less interested in the particular artifacts of an industrialized society or information economy (since these artifacts usually change faster than an editor can publish a critical essay on them) and more concerned with the general worldview arising from exponential growth and change in technical praxis.
It has already been noted by communication scholars in media theory that Ellul's work "offers a primary focus for theoretical considerations of modern communications media and their role in human society" (Christians & Real, 1979, p. 83). Ellul’s position also deserves the attention of rhetorical theorists because it makes obvious the role of humanists in critiquing technology. It is precisely human purpose, he believes, that has been displaced in the technological society by an obsession with efficient methodology. In other words, la technique has transformed government agencies, workplaces, educational institutions, and every facet of the human environment into laboratories that test for the efficiency of processes without investigating whether the processes themselves lead to a more civil society, or a happier employee, or a student of greater integrity.
I will use Ellul to build a description of the contemporary rhetorical context. To help explicate Ellul I will occasionally turn to Neil Postman, who many years later offered a less extensive but similar and more accessible socio-cultural critique of new technologies. Postman coined the term "technopoly" to describe "the submission of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology" (1986, p. 52). Technopoly, he argues, is an environment in which meaning can be found only in machines and techniques, not in the creativity and passions of the human spirit. A technopoly seems to be a society that is built upon Ellul's notion of la technique.
Ellul summarizes the unique conditions necessary for the formation of a technological society as follows: population growth, technical maturation, economic milieu, plasticity of a society, and technical intention (pp. 59-60). Economy, available technologies, and the mass of available workers (the first parts of his formula) are more or less the physical preconditions needed for an explosion of la technique. I will focus more attention on plasticity and intention, the latter parts of the formula that speak to the changes in perspective that restructures a society around la technique.
The physical preconditions necessary for a technological society appeared in Western history during the scientific revolution, which allowed more tools to be manufactured in a region and brought tools outside the boundaries of small localities to many regions. However, true technological societies emerged only when the French Revolution and the Enlightenment brought about the necessary social changes by mitigating certain traditional constraints of political hierarchy and religion on individual action and association. In these periods, social taboos that formerly checked the production of la technique eroded and judgments about the proper use and purposes of various techniques changed. After this time, familial and regional social enclaves gave way to more mobile societies and more vocational flexibility in workers, what Ellul terms the "plasticity" of a society. As families become less rooted in particular locations, trades and moral philosophies, employees become more fluid. Massive workforces can be and quite regularly are assimilated and reassimilated according to the ever-changing needs of new technical projects.
The last precondition for a technological society, "technical intention," is similar to what Postman describes as "the surrender of culture to technology." It is the condition of a culture that has allowed itself to be almost wholly defined by its techniques, as opposed to one that subjects the production and use of its techniques to its values. Designing, producing and distributing tools, technologies and other methodological phenomenon ironically becomes an intentional end, rather than a means to perpetuate social or individual goals. In the face of this attitude any skepticism about the social value of a technique tends to be labeled as old-fashioned and narrow-minded.
Once a technological society emerges, at least three fundamental principles sustain and expand it: autonomy, necessity and demystification. By autonomy, Ellul means that a society is so committed to la technique that every method and technological invention finds itself being developed and refined towards its most efficient form and use, as if it were impervious to human objection or intervention. Although he is much criticized for this apparently deterministic view of technologies, Ellul uses the term "autonomous" to make clear that because we have become so entrenched in la technique, no ordinary social effort to promote responsible use of technology or mitigate its presence will ever ultimately succeed in changing the technological scene. A vocal defender of Ellul's position, political scientist Langdon Winner, puts it this way, we are "inextricably caught up in exactly the forms of technology [we now have] and the future holds no significant alteration of existing technological trends" (1977, p. 361). While the notion of autonomy seems extreme, Winner agrees with Ellul that the hope that we can turn back the clock of "progress," or even moderate technological growth at this stage is equally naïve.
Autonomy means that the control of la technique appears to be, for all practical purposes, out of human hands. Each technique seems to follow its own efficient course without regard to its positive or negative moral effects. Postman partly explains this perceived autonomy of objects as a relationship between form and function. He observes that "the uses made of any technology are largely determined by the structure of the technology itself" (1986, p.7). Human action is partially constrained by the technical context, because prescriptions for action are embedded in technological artifacts.
When we combine the power of a technical structure with the cultural perspective of a technopoly, it means that "once a technology is admitted [into a society], it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do" (Postman, 1986, p.7). Environmentalists may, with limited success, decry a technique's effect on air quality; educators may momentarily force the question of pedagogical value on a classroom technology; and religious activists may temporarily halt the distribution of a technical product that strongly challenges the moral fiber of society. But in the end, a technological society will always set aside these humanist-based proscriptions when they conflict with the goal of bringing measurable improvements to a technique's efficiency. In effect, the ideology of a technological society enables la technique to follow its own course, and all questions of good and bad use will be dismissed as misplaced humanist preoccupations with the scientifically evaluated objectives of a technique. Ellul calls this deflection of human moral concerns the "moral autonomy" of technique.
That technology grows exponentially and irreversibly is a once controversial claim of Ellul that has gained wide acceptance. One can now make a living on the professional speaking circuit as a "digital futurist," predicting just how quickly and profoundly technologies will grow. Hardware manufactures, such as Intel, consider the regular, exponential advancements in their designs to be almost "natural," as evidenced in terminology such as "Moore’s Law." Borrowing from a scientific nomenclature reserved for well-established observations about nature, "Moore’s Law" predicts (so far with reasonable accuracy) that engineers will improve the speed of computer processors twofold every 18 months. One curious factor in Ellul's explanation of this growth is a characteristic of the technological worldview that he calls "technical necessity," the belief that "what can be produced must be produced" (cf. 1955/1965, p. 81). The technical possibility becomes a technical imperative. A culture committed to technical necessity brings about technical solutions to problems that may never arise, pushing the boundaries of the possible without concern for practical consequences. Such a worldview values advancement for its own sake.
Even without the drive of technical necessity, technical growth becomes an inescapable part of the contemporary context because each technique tends to create problems that can only be addressed by introducing new techniques (Ellul, 1955/1965, p. 92). Computers generate so much heat that cooling technologies are needed to keep them operating. The finished wood that smoothes out a basketball court also requires new shoe technologies to gain traction on the waxy surface and to minimize damage to athletes’ feet as they pound up and down the court. In fact, not only must la technique solve most problems unique to a technological society, each new technique used to solve a problem generally introduces a new problem into that society that again must be solved by another technique. Cooling technologies can create intrusive noises that require sophisticated noise-dampening technologies or they can use chemicals that require environmental technologies to safely contain. Basketball shoes, because of the sole that pads feet and adds traction, also increase the risk of ankle injuries that are treated with scientifically improved medicines and technologically improved surgeries, etc. Ellul believes that the cycle of technologies simultaneously solving old problems and creating new problems to be solved by future technologies stems from a kind of disequilibrium, not unlike the way removing pesky mice from a field upsets nature's equilibrium by leaving a long chain of predators with less prey.
The technological equivalent of natural equilibrium has, since Ellul, gained the attention of scholars such as Edward Tenner. Tenner carefully documents a special genre of self-perpetuating technical problems that he calls the "technological revenge effect." Medical technologies that stave off the sudden, traumatic deaths of newborns and children, create chronic illnesses that incessantly plague an even higher number of adults. While machines replace physical labor and all of its immediate dangers, they create sedentary jobs that result in long-term physical discomfort like carpal tunnel or back pains. In other words, Both Tenner and Ellul seem to agree that the cycle of problem solving/creating inventions may settle back into an equilibrium only when every part of a society has been transformed by la technique.
Finally, Ellul characterizes the technological society as one that demystifies the sacred value of every part of society except la technique. New technologies demystify the world around us. GPS systems that follow the technique of longitude and latitude can turn the darkest jungles into mathematical grids with predictable terrain. The fiercest storms lose their magnificence as they become confined to blotches of color on a meteorologist's radar screen easily viewed on a television set in the comfort of your home. No miracle can pass muster in the technological age without its mystery being challenged by an electron microscope, carbon dating, digital modeling, or some other technique. It seems "everything can be called into question (God first of all), except technical progress" (Ellul, 1955/1965, p. 82). The only sacred left in a technological society is la technique itself. And it is embraced with near dogmatic and perhaps naïve faith sometimes expressed in the belief that "whenever a difficulty arises, ‘technical progress will deal with it" (Ellul, 1990, p. 21).
Like technical necessity and autonomy, the sacred position of la technique in a society says more about the worldview espoused by its citizens than it does about the essence of technological artifacts, and it is this worldview that helps us make sense of contemporary rhetorical activity. La technique may be the most substantial element of the contemporary rhetorical context. Ellul's critique raises more questions about the ontology, epistemology and axiology of the technological society than about its discourse.7 It remains for critics to adapt his framework so it can be used to explore the discourse of a technological society. As technologies permeate more of our everyday activities they come nearer the center of our worldview, making it more important for rhetoricians to uncover how their presence impacts the modes of persuasion. New topoi, new forms of eloquence, and new communicative strategies arise, not just from the mediating effects of communication technology, but because of the way la technique infuses values, purpose, motivation, and the whole fabric of rhetorical contexts. Rhetorical theory can illuminate the technological society, but only if the relationship of rhetoric to technology is first made clearer.8
A Rhetoric of Technology
To fully define a "rhetoric of technology," or the overlapping spaces between rhetoric and technology, would require an additional essay. For the moment, a preliminary outline of the relationship between technology and rhetoric will serve to elucidate the need for theory-building that will open up within Ellul's concept of the technological society a possible entry point for rhetorical analysis. Communication scholars have looked, albeit infrequently, at the communicative dimensions of technology in five general ways.
First, in the "cybernetic" view, technology is taken to be a "speaker" and/or "audience" in the model of communicative interactions, rather than a channel through which human beings exchange messages (cf. Kaminski, 1997).9 From this perspective, the process of programming a VCR is a communicative interaction where you as "speaker" instruct the VCR as "audience." As the VCR responds with blinks, beeps, or text messages, it becomes a "speaker" providing feedback or additional suggestions. We communicate with technologies every time we set our alarm clocks, operate our garage door openers, and request money from Automated Teller Machines. It may seem awkward to count as "speaker" a machine that emits monotone sounds, displays canned text and gestures with mechanical movements, but cybernetics defines communication more by function than form. Further, the form sometimes does resemble more traditional communicative interaction, such as when we have "conversations" with automated phone services that feature voice recognition. The visual and oral signaling of technological artifacts count as intentional communication, whether they are viewed as deferred human communication (a planned response programmed by an engineer) or as machine initiated communication (the sentience imbued to machines by AI and other techniques).10
A second view of the rhetoric of technology finds rhetorical strategies and constraints embedded in objects, even when an inventor or manufacturer did not intend to place them there. Technological artifacts in this view do not have to literally emit messages of some kind to be labeled rhetorical. This is analogous to Langdon Winner's position that "artifacts have politics" sometimes beyond the political intention of their inventors or users (1986, pp. 19-39). For example, a nuclear reactor facility requires a more hierarchical, authoritarian governing system to control it, because of the extremely volatile, hazardous nature of nuclear reactions. No matter how democratic the nuclear scientists or engineers responsible for the plant, relying on a majority vote to make operations decisions might lead to a global scale catastrophe. The plant inherently, so to speak, requires a particular kind of political order.
What is added by saying that artifacts might be not only political, but also rhetorical? Clearly we attribute symbolic value to different technologies. Movie makers can persuade an audience that something very high-tech is happening in a scene, even without dialogue, because most movie-goers interpret shiny, aerodynamically shaped machines with many blinking LEDs as symbols of technological sophistication. We might also view the rhetoric of an artifact as the way its form determines its rhetorical function. Doug Brent and J. David Bolter (1991) have argued that hypertext technology inherently encourages textual links to competing ideologies and gives presence to marginal discourses. In part, this is because the personality and original purposes of its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee (see Weaving the Web), found their way into the design of hypertext, but not all of its potentials and constraints were anticipated, let alone intentionally designed by Berners-Lee.
A third view of the rhetoric of technology is found in media studies. Technology as media in some ways takes us farther away from traditional rhetorical studies, because of its association with mass communication; but in other ways it is a more conventional approach than the previous two, because it relegates technology to the more traditional role of "channel" within the communication model. Jim Chesebro (1989, 1995, 1999) has long advocated this media view, particularly out of concern that tools formulated to critique speeches will not suffice to illuminate the variety of rhetorics now produced by computer-mediated technologies. What differentiates the rhetorical approach to media from the mass communication perspective is the kind of questions asked of mediated discourse. The rhetorician might ask how media affect the linearity of arguments, the ethos of speaker, or the style of examples used in an appeal. Each communication technology constitutes a somewhat different form of "text" with its own rhetorical boundaries. It is also true that rhetoric about a medium ("You can't believe everything you hear on TV" or "the Internet is like the Wild West") affects the rhetoric carried by a medium, so that oral speeches carried by little more than air waves may still impact the rhetorical power of other mediated discourse. The rhetoric about a medium brings us to our last definitions of the rhetoric of technology.
The final two approaches both feature discourse. One approach stems from the more established subfield, the rhetoric of science. Because most rhetoricians of science engage the technical discourse of scientists, rhetoricians of technology influenced by this group take the "rhetoric of technology" to be the technical discourse of engineers or technical writers, comprising their particular forms of argument, the expectations of the technical audience, their understanding of expertise, and so forth. Certainly this discourse begets creative ideas that find form in new technological inventions and many of a society's perceptions about the nature of technology originate in technical discourse. Talk about technology, however, is not limited to the specialized forums of technical journals. A final approach to the rhetoric of technology discovers potent arguments and assumptions about technology in everyday public discourse that are used to move audiences to all sorts of activities, even non-technological ones. Politicians, educators, jurists, and all sorts of communicators persuade by invoking technological topoi and appealing to human fascination with technological inventions. For example, a legislator can successfully argue that funds be spent on new equipment rather than teachers' wages, because citizens believe that the growth of computers in the classroom is inevitable and because the mystery of computers seems to convince us that the very proximity of students to computers will make kids smarter.
The multiple intersections between technology and rhetoric, coupled with the profound effect of technology on worldview, underscore the importance of understanding rhetoric in a technological age. As one of many possible exploratory steps towards refining critical, rhetorical perspectives on what Ellul terms the "technological society," I will excavate the Burkean canon for relevant theoretical insights on the technological worldview. The use of Burke fits the purpose of this study for two reasons. First, Burke's approach to rhetorical studies easily lends itself to the study of worldviews (see Brown, 1978 and Brummett, 1979, as examples of incorporating Burkean methods into a rhetorical analysis of worldview or perspective). Kathleen Jamieson points to Burke's dramatistic pentad, in particular, as a way to explore the implications of a worldview (or a Weltanschauung) for discursive valuations (1976, p. 5). I will narrow my focus to Burke's dramatism and the pentad.
Second, a fresh reading of Burke yields a surprisingly large collection of references to technology, far more (even about the technological drama alone) than can comfortably fit under a single theme or in a single essay. Burke at times was so preoccupied with the social implication of technology that, as Michael Hyde notes, he considered technology to be the "master psychosis" of the twentieth century (Hyde, 1995, pp. 47-48; and see Burke, 1984, pp. 44-47). Nonetheless, only a few scholars have examined Burke’s critique of technology; and most of their work is in the form of brief newsletter articles, book introductions, and sweeping overviews (see Cathcart’s list of essays, 1993, p. 287 and Keller, 1996). Burke and Ellul seem to take parallel paths in their discussion of technological worldviews, however Burke allows us to look more closely and systematically at the way human symbols concede autonomy to technological artifacts, allowing the created to overcome the creator. The next sections of this essay represents Ellul's critique of the technological society in the rhetorical language of Burke's pentad, bringing discursive symbols to the center of the technological worldview. This analysis will be informed by various comments scattered throughout the corpus of Burke's writing that deal with issues pertaining to technology.
Symbolizing in a Technological Society
Defining and making use of pentadic analysis requires an understanding of its place within the broader context of Burke’s theoretical perspective of Dramatism. Dramatism, as the term finds its way from Burke into standard English dictionaries, is "a technique for the analysis of language and of thought as basically modes of action rather than a means of conveying information" (Burke, 1985, p. 89). A Dramatistic perspective views language not as a conduit for transmitting experiential data, but as a creative force that enables socio-moral institutions, identity, worldviews and all that makes human beings "persons" and not "things."
Viewing social life as drama is for Burke an ontology that underscores the unique symbol-using character of the human (Burgess, Burke, Brock, & Simons, 1985, pp. 24-28; Burke, 1966, pp. 2-5, 16, 53-54). Burke distinguishes humans from animals and, notably for this project, from machines, because the latter fall under the category of sheer motion, not symbolic action (1966, pp. 53, 63-64). Through symbols, humans have the ability not only to experience the smell and taste of an orange (as most mammals can), but to refer to this experience even in the absence of the orange. An orange grove can be imagined before one is ever encountered and the changes needed for a more transportable orange can be discussed in the abstract, allowing farmers to cultivate a more profitable orange crop. The word "orange" may further impact human interaction as it later comes to symbolize juiciness, or safety, or great football. None of these meanings arise in the world of motion. Sensations give us experience of the physical world, but words about sensations make public a system of knowledge and grounding for interpretation (Burke, 1985, p. 92). Human language moves beyond a world of immediate perception to a world of possibilities, from what is to what is not or what ought to be (cf. Burke, 1966, pp. 9-12).
Central to the whole of Burke’s philosophy is this distinction between the world of action and the world of motion. Burke explains, "By 'symbolic action' in the Dramatistic sense is meant any use of symbol systems in general" (1966, p. 63). Motion entails the sheer movements of the physical realm such as the shifting ocean tides or the circulation of blood in an organism, while action encompasses interpretation, moral valuing, spiritual reflection and other forms of symbolizing. Human beings participate both in the world of motion and the world of action (Burke, 1966, pp. 6-7, 23, 62).11 As organisms, humans have real bodies that move in accordance with the laws of physics like any animal or, for that matter, like an unconscious machine. The human organism may sometimes appears to be little more than a thing in motion, such as in Burke's example of troops ordered to march systematically, wave by wave, over a mine field until each mine has been exploded, but as bodies that use language something more seems to motivate our behavior. We also perceive and infuse the physical world with significance and meaning beyond its biochemical existence (Burke, 1966, pp.53-54). Humans are not, or at least do not ordinarily perceive each other only as automata that respond to an environment by reflex or programming. Instead, through the symbolically valuing of motions humans also act with apparent motive and meaning.
Technological artifacts play an obvious role in the world of motion, for instance as a mesh of wires pulsing with electrons, glass fibers transmitting light waves or even gears and belts pushing along the automated assembly of consumer goods. These artifacts move, in Burke's view, not by motive but by unreflective necessity. What electrons may signify to computer programmers and, in turn, what computers signify culturally to lay citizens of a technological society is another matter. A string of one's and zero's rendered into alphanumeric characters by an email program may be an act of power when it takes the symbolic form of an employee review, or the sheer physical presence of a cell phone that is Internet enabled may act as a status symbol at a business conference. To get at the signification and motives in symbols, such as those pertaining to technological motion, Burke offers the pentadic method.
The pentad maps a kind of "grammar" that is implicit in the way humans act with symbols, and is analogous to the grammar that governs the way sentences are constructed. The five key terms of the pentad--agent, agency, act, scene and purpose--frame symbolic action as a narrative or a drama in which human motive and perspective can be determined. As Burke explains, "any complete statement about motives will offer some kind of answers [sic] to these five questions: what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose)" (1945/1969, p. xv).12 The answers to these pentadic questions do not merely follow along the lines of a journalistic article structured by the 5-Ws: who, when, where, what, and why. It is by discovering in a narrative, an emphasis on one particular term, the relationship between the terms, and the nuances of language used in developing a term, that the pentad reveals something about the worldview of the rhetor.
A root term is what a critic takes to be the dominant pentadic term operating in a drama, a term to which all of the others might be reduced. For example, agent is the root term in the great American success drama. The rugged, bootstrapped individual (agent) dominates the action of this drama by overcoming unfortunate circumstances (scene), exploiting limited resources (agencies) and finding her own purpose. Identifying the root term of a drama brings to the fore the perspective from which the drama is told. Burke explicitly links root terms to particular philosophical perspectives. The great American success drama falls within the philosophical school of idealism, characterized by agent-centered narratives. The philosophy of materialism has a different root term, the scene. In the materialistic drama, social conditions, the natural environment or some other scenic element tends to direct the action, condition the agent, and embody whatever purpose exists in the drama.
A root term is also normally linked to another subordinate pentadic term, forming what Burke calls a "pentadic ratio." Pentadic ratios describe the relationship between important terms within a given drama. The way an agent is described has implications for what the agent is said to do (act) and the details of a scene can contain an image of the agent, etc. For example, the aforementioned idealistic American agents pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, an agent-act ratio. Similarly, in a good suspense novel, a dark scene might lead to a diabolic act, a scene-act ratio. In a typical drama, two terms standout in this ratio fashion, defining the drama against the background of the other three.
As a final example of how root terms and ratios uncover motive and worldview, consider the e-commerce drama. It might be described as a scene of fast-paced change guided by young, non-traditional agents using the bleeding-edge agencies of Internet innovations attempting to act deftly for the purpose of gaining market share. The parts of the narrative emphasized in an account of dotcom failures reflect the narrator's perspective. If emphasis is placed on the naiveté of the young dotcom CEO's who made foolish business decisions, the root term for the drama is "agent," and an agent-act ratio is at work in the drama. The "foolish" action follows unsurprisingly from the description of the agent as naïve. This view indicts the agents of dotcom ventures. Alternatively, the stock market's unprecedented growth, and rapid technological changes may be at the core of how this dramatic failure unfolds. From this more deterministic vantage, a volatile scene gave way to the act of bankruptcy for many online businesses. How we go about stabilizing e-commerce investments and revenues depends on how we symbolize about these past failures and what terms are associated with the elements of a drama.
An analysis of root terms and ratios will help relate the characteristics of a technological society to the symbol systems and worldviews of that society. However, before moving forward with a pentadic formulation of the technological worldview, it is important to note the flexibility in both the scope of the pentadic terms and the scope of texts to which they can be applied. An agent may refer to an individual such as a politician (cf. Kelly, 1984) or an entire population such as the Soviet Union (cf. Peterson, 1986, Birdsell, 1987). Likewise a scene may be a particular episode, such as a newsworthy hunting accident (Tonn, 1993), a larger historical event, such as the Dust Bowl (Peterson, 1986), or an entire epoch of human history, such as the Cold War (Birdsell, 1987). Most of the technological drama described in this essay will follow Burke's own tendency to use a wide scope. For example, "technology," in a general sense, is considered an agency. Also, while many critics have applied the pentad to narrow symbolic acts (such as the Maine Hunting incident in Tonn, 1993) or even single texts (such as the critique of Reagan’s Chernobyl speech in Birdsell, 1987), Burke generally uses a pentadic terminology to characterize large bodies of texts or broad philosophical perspectives. Again, this essay follows Burke's example by describing a broad techno-cultural perspective rather than the drama of any individual text about technology. However, if the technological drama presented here has merit, it should have application to specific instances of technological rhetoric and to more specific technological agencies, much like the application of Burke’s pentad has been easily applied to the evaluation of single texts.
Agent-Agency in the Technological Drama
To extrapolate la technique onto a dramatistic grid I will first locate technology in the instrumental category of agency. While the excavation of various Burkean texts turns up evidence suggesting technology might be labeled by every one of the pentadic terms (and we will see some of these creative term shifts later), technology is most intuitively associated with agency. Burke makes this association when he states that "mechanical inventions may be classed . . . as instruments" (1950/1969, p. 288). We might confuse Burke’s statement here as nothing more than the observation that technological artifacts belong to the world of motion, that mechanical inventions are an instrumental part of that world. However, in a similar description, Burke explicitly ties his pentadic term "agency" to the notion of machines as instruments: "Machines are obviously instruments (that is, Agencies)" (his parentheses, 1945/1969, p. xx).13
Technology can be further situated as the "invented" agency of the creative human agent, making obvious the agent-agency ratio present in the way we ordinarily think about technologies (cf. Burke, 1950/1969, pp. 289-290). For instance, Thomas Edison represents an important agent in the drama of American history because of his many technological inventions, and in more everyday kinds of discourse, NASCAR drivers (agents) are symbolically linked with the automobiles(agencies) that they maintain. But technology as agency does not offer much rhetorical insight, per se, into Ellul's notion of technologies or techniques as "autonomous." If anything, it seems to contradict this position. Autonomy implies some kind of reversal in the intuitive relationship between agent and agency, a drama in which technologies appear to follow their own course as agents, using human beings as mere agencies. Shifts in the referents of pentadic terms reflect creative rhetorical interpretations, and are not uncommon in the tradition of Burkean criticism (see Blankenship, Fine, & Davis, 1983 for a description of Ronald Reagan's powerful shift from actor to scene in the drama of presidential debates). Thomas Frentz and Janice Hocker Rushing (1988) discover just such an inversion in the "Frankenstein myth" of dystopian technological discourse. They explore various ways in which human agents grow distant from their technical agencies in the drama of modern science fiction films. The Terminator and Blade Runner films illustrate for them how a machine can be symbolically portrayed, not as a tool, but as an "agency-turned-agent with a purpose of its own" (1989, p. 64). I would add that the film, The Matrix, is an even more dramatic inversion of agent-agency as the artificially intelligent (AI) machines in the movie find electrical power by using human beings as biological batteries.
Whether future AI research actually ever produces a "Frankenstein" or a sentient being of any kind is not the critical point. Burke himself believed, perhaps prematurely, that "No one expects our machines to go on inventing themselves after the human race is extinct" (1950/1969, p.289). Likewise, whether Ellul's notion of technological autonomy is literally meant to be an ontological claim makes little difference to this project. The dramatistic perspective we are developing here discovers in the present symbolic activities of human beings, a drama of autonomous technologies.
Even narratives about technical autonomy do not have to constitute technological agency as obviously and dramatically as a "Terminator" or 2001's "Hal." I suspect the most influential dramas operate more subtly, without personifying technology. It is easy to feel out-of-control within ordinary technological narratives that forecast more emphatically every day how rapidly and radically technologies will grow. As the nightly news reminds us that the computer we just purchased is a "dinosaur," that our prized CD collection must give way to a new music medium, that our home appliances will soon exchange information across the Internet, ad nauseam, we are more likely to perceive technical change as agent rather than agency. Even the inventors of new media affirm the agent-agency shift. Nicholas Negroponte, Director of MIT's Media Lab, remarks:
I think of myself as an extremist when it comes to predicting and initiating change. Nonetheless, when it comes to technological and regulatory changes, as well as new service, things are moving faster than even I can believe--there is obviously no speed limit on the electronic highway. It's like driving on the autobahn at 160 kph. Just as I realize the speed I'm going, zzzwoom, a Mercedes passes, then another, and another. Yikes, they must be driving at 120 mph. Such is life in the fast lane of the infobahn. (p. 75).
Buckling up for the ride seems to be the only reasonable act available to the human agent in Negroponte's narrative. In his view, "Like a force of nature, the digital age cannot be denied or stopped" (p. 229). Whether or not the digital age brings digital consciousness to computers, the very process of technological change in this drama appears to be an agent of sorts, acting independent of human action.
The technological worldview implied in the inversion of agent-agency tends to characterize technique as out of human control. Ellul similarly proclaims, "let no one say that man is the agent of technical progress" (1955/1965, p. 80). As autonomy symbolically passes from agent to agency, the rise of the agency in the pentadic ratio leads to the lowering of agent. In other words, the agency-turned-agent that we have discussed so far also implies an agent-turned-agency, a narrative in which human beings view themselves as instruments of technology. Burke finds a similar pentadic shift in reductionist/mechanistic accounts of human beings when he observes that humans are commonly idealized "as a species of machine" as a consequence of the "great advances in automation and ‘sophisticated’ computers" (1966, p. 23, Comments). By their own symbolizing power, humans take on agency-like role of machines. Raymond Gozzi offers additional evidence of commonplace metaphors by which human beings are characterized as "machines" that can be "programmed" (1999, pp. 152-156).
The tension between agent and agency in the technological drama ultimately pushes agency (or the agency-idealized-as-agent) into the position of root term in such stories. Agency becomes the defining term of a technological drama and reduces all other terms to itself. Burke shares a similar view:
[M]odern science is par excellence an accumulation of new agencies (means, instruments, methods). And this locus of new power, in striking men’s fancy, has called forth "philosophies of science" that would raise agency to first place among our five terms (1945/1969, p. 275).
Burke's critique appears to be an insight into the philosophy of science, rather than technology, but he clearly associates the technological drama with the scientific. He compares science to the "accumulation of new agencies" and further subordinates science to technology when he claims that "In these utilitarian days, pure science must earn its way by serving applied science" (1941/1967, p. 65). In any case, I am suggesting that agency can also be viewed as the root term that dominates the worldview of the technological society.
The technological society exalts agency. It is therefore no surprise that Ellul identifies la technique as sacred in the technological society, because in dramatistic terms it embodies "perfect" agency and as the root term in a technological narrative it subjugates other symbols of agent, act, scene and purpose. Burke brings special attention to the subjugation of the pentadic term "purpose" in a technological society:
But though Rhetorical and Symbolic factors can surreptitiously reinforce the appeal of Agency, its prestige derives first from the Grammatical fact that it covers the area of applied science, the area of new power. . . .And since the requirements of such science favor the elimination of Purpose, or final cause, the means-ends relation provokes a shift to the term nearest of kin, which can supply the functions of purpose even when the term is formally omitted as a locus of motives (some emphasis added, 1945/1969, p. 286).
Applied science or technology is not only an agency-turned-agent it is a means turned into an end (a purposeless purpose). It is worth noting that Burke often associates the term purpose with mysticism or the supernatural (especially when it is the dominant term in a drama), giving us a vantage point from which to view the way technique debunks the sacred by eliminating purpose, and simultaneously becomes sacred, as agency turns into purpose.
The reduction of purpose to the root term of agency also tells us something about the worldview of a technological society. So much attention is focused on the development of means (techniques/technologies), that the end is truncated (human purpose for the technology). In the race to keep up with the fastest computer model and the latest release of the best word processor, so much attention is devoted to learning, debating, and bargain-shopping for these "means" that even professors forget to ask whether they have become better writers because of this updated agency. Likewise, legislators plan for the improvement of schools almost entirely in terms of technical goals such as acquiring educational software, multimedia stations and especially Internet connections without asking whether our children are becoming more intelligent or noble (cf. President Clinton's Education 2000 plan). Somehow the proximity of children to computers and digital information has been conflated with learning, a problem illustrated quite literally by at least one elementary school in Georgia whose closets had been filled with boxes of computers through a new lottery fund. The boxes could not be moved out of the closets and opened because the lottery money could not be spent on the human experts needed to install and maintain the computers, let alone on the human training teachers needed to best integrate networked computers into lesson plans and homework and the human training students needed to learn how to investigate research topics online (rather than find free music or pornography). The goal of educating children seems confused with that of educational technologies. In short, rather than being agencies by which humans achieve their purposes, technologies have become purpose.
Dramatism in the Technological Society
What has been carved out in this project is a route through which Ellul's insightful characterization of the technological society can enter the critical discussion of discourse in a rhetorical-technological context. His sociological philosophy of technology becomes a rhetorical philosophy of technology as ontological and epistemological claims are represented in the discourses about, constrained by and contained within technology. Using Kenneth Burke's dramatism we find in Ellul's assertions of technical autonomy, necessity and demystification, dimensions of a technological worldview perpetuated by the symbol-using/abusing power of human beings. This worldview is evident in a particular grammatical structure of symbols, a "drama" that features agency as its root term, and the inversion (or convergence) of the ratio agent-agency as its principle dynamic.
The characteristics of the technological drama outlined here act as a template for examining the kind of texts that commonly influence a technological society. Whether la technique is truly autonomous or not, the technological society adheres to a worldview that exalts the technical and creates a sense of autonomy through narratives that elevate the importance of means over the discussion of ends. The technological drama tends to treat human artifacts as if they were primary agents and human artisans as if they were passive agencies through which technologies acted. Examples of these narratives can easily be found in successful policy debates (Reagan's Star Wars proposal, Clinton's Education 2000 push for Internet connectivity, etc.), effective advertisements/sales (such as the emphasis on the technical specification of a stereo over the way it actually sounds to your human ear) and everyday conversations ("You can't stop progress").
Clearly there is much more to be said about a technological worldview. The partial account that I provide here is purposefully broad, so that it might be tailored to fit a variety of specific discourses. Among the significant particulars that might be added to the dramatistic model are Rushing and Frentz's description of the technological worldview as masculine, at least as it takes form in dystopian mythologies about technology (1989, p. 62). Recognizing a technological drama as masculine draws attention to the hyper-rationality of the ideal agent in a technological society (p. 72). Judy Wajcman has suggested further that this gendering exists in the "nature" of technological artifacts (2000). Along with the additional variables that might be added to a model of the technological worldview, the relationship among competing views of technology deserves consideration. A technological society typically comprises at least all of the following perspectives to which the technological drama may be adapted: the techno-enthusiast's faith in a technological utopia, the humanist's search for "appropriate technologies," the scientist's valuing of technological development through "risk-analysis," and the Luddites' rejection of technological artifacts.
The dramatistic model of technology outlined here has implications primarily for the rhetoric of technology as discourse. As the dramatistic view of technology develops, it should span the entire range of the rhetoric of technology. Robert Cathcart has already begun the development of a "philosophy of media form" (1993) as an extension of Burke's "philosophy of literary form." Cathcart's dramatistic account engages the technological mediation of symbols. Several other dramatistic approaches could be explored along the Ellulian lines I have already sketched. Burke's distinction between action and motion might be creatively used as an alternative rhetorical interpretation of the autonomy of technique. While Burke generally only classifies humans as species of action, and relegates technologies to the realm of sheer motion, at different places he also suggests that the relationship might be turned on its head in the same way that agent-agency is inverted.
In other words it is possible to conceive of "technology itself is an embodiment of essentially human motives" (1945/1969, p. 251) because it is a peculiar sort of motion only made possible by the creative human action of technical invention. Things bear a resemblance to their creators. On the other hand, technical praxis tends to reduce human action into sheer motion, especially in occupational roles that require extensive paper filing and data entry (cf. Burke, 1945/1969, p. 15). Humans find themselves reshaping their "psychological patterns in obedience to the patterns of [their] machines" (1984, p. 63). Human action transforms into mindless technical motion, and technical motion appears autonomous as action that reflect the creativity of technical invention. Such a theory of action-motion would also help expand the understanding of the rhetoric of technological artifacts themselves.
Another possible dramatistic approach to technology is through the notion of entelechy. Burke's entelechy, the human compulsion to track down all the symbolic possibilities implied by any given terminology (Burke, 1966, p. 72), might be used to explicate the phenomenon of "technical necessity," the belief that whatever is technically possible must be technically explored. A new technical terminology implies new possibilities for human action that, as beings "rotten with perfection" are difficult to ignore. As applied to Ellul, entelechy suggests that a range of terminologies centering around "efficiency" is being applied to all areas of human activity, from the political to the personal. The compulsion to apply the vocabulary of efficiency might be the dramatistic equivalent of being driven by technical necessity to invent every method and machine that is possible. Rushing and Frentz suggest, at least, that pure agency/efficiency is the perfect end (entelechy) towards which dystopian narrative of technology direct the agents of their drama (1989, pp. 64, 72).
In the end the project here is not just to illuminate the rhetoric of technology by sketching a dramatistic model of the technological worldview. It is to join Burke, Ellul and other critics of technology in the project of shaping culture so that it subordinates technologies to the creative improvement of the human condition and more clearly reflects upon their socio-moral effects.
Mike Hübler is a Lecturer in Communication Arts at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
1 No doubt there is an interplay among these variables. New texts may change a culture as much as the culture produces a new text, producing an ongoing cycle of social change. As well, we might argue that in some ways the "thinking and writing" of a society is their worldview. For these purposes I only the make the point that we can also take culture to be a collective set of values and norms that tend to socialize individuals into particular ways of thinking and writing.
2 Frederick Ferré, long-time editor of Research on Philosophy and Technology, fruitfully defines technology in this way, as any "practical implementation of intelligence" (1995, p. 26)
3 Martin Heidegger makes the distinction between more advanced and primitive technologies by claiming the latter tends to treat nature as a "standing reserve of energy." A windmill represents a more primitive technology that co-exits with the environment by producing energy only when nature itself does. Modern technologies look at the earth as a storehouse of electricity for its work, e.g. oil fields, coal mines, uranium, etc. Carolyn Miller (1977) makes use of Edward Hall’s nomenclature, high and low context technologies. Low context technologies are simple extensions of the human body, like a shovel that amplifies the reach and digging potential of the hand. More sophisticated artifacts tend to be high-context because they constitute a complex system of skilled workers and equipment in dynamic interdependence. As a media expert, Nicholas Negroponte makes the distinction between the old and new by the labels, atoms and bits. Old technologies are analog. They pertain to the physical world of friction, air pressure, light and sound waves, etc. New technologies are digital. They create, manipulate, and delete nothing more than symbolic one’s and zero’s.
4 The author wishes to thank one of the blind reviewers for helping to more clearly articulate the basic premise of the paper with Burkean concepts such as "perspective by incongruity," and the basic purpose of the paper, to critically and symbolically inspect the ways in which technology seems to usurp the power of its creators.
5 In 1950, Ellul finished his work, which he had titled The Technical Society. It took him five years to find a publisher willing to gamble on such an unusual subject. The editor insisted the title be changed to The Technological Society because he himself was planning to publish a book by Ellul’s original title. (Unfortunately, the editor’s alleged book never materialized.) It took ten years before an English translation was published, but the book has now been widely circulated in paperback as a classic treatise of the topic.
6 In his last treatise on the subject of la technique, Ellul reveals that his original intent for calling attention to the problems of the technological society was to prevent his native Europe from following the same path to which America seemed irreversibly committed. So in a sense, he was describing only modern American society as a technological society and forecasting the status of other incipient technological societies. He complains that instead of heeding his warning, critics dismissed his early work as deterministic and pessimistic. Thirty-five years later in his Technological Bluff, Ellul finds that his discussion of la technique has become nearly mainstream, but unfortunately he also believes most of the Western world has waited too long to undo its corrosive effects. A more contemporary critic, Neil Postman, brought new attention to la technique with his own work on "technopoly." Like Ellul did years ago, Postman only places America in the category of a technopoly.
7 Ellul's last published work, the Technological Bluff, comes the closest to exploring the arguments and assumptions which allow la technique to flourish. Discourse about the needs and benefits of la technique tends to be, according to Ellul, a "bluff." Ellul does not, as a philosopher, invoke rhetorical theory as a touchstone in examining the "bluff."
8 In this analysis, I will use the term technology to refer largely to the conglomeration of products and methodologies, from industrial machines and automobiles to DVD players and computer circuitry, that modern scientific and engineering research has helped bring into existence. By technological society, I mean to depict both the pervasiveness of technological devices in society and our utter dependence on (if not reverence for) these devices in daily activities. Most importantly, it is, I believe, nearly impossible to be a member of a technological society and refuse to make use of its technologies. (I cannot imagine how a graduate student could reach the goal of becoming a full professor without utilizing, to some degree, word processors, photocopiers, electronic library indices, e-mail, cars, and the like.)
9 "Cybernetics" is a term that dates back at least to Norbert Wiener's treatise on the Human Use of Human Beings (1965), and has been used to label internal biological communication, machine-to-machine communication and advances in robotics. I will use the term only to refer to communicative interactions between humans and machines.
10 Other more radical notions of cybernetics include "software agents," a kind of digital communication in which technological artifacts become both speaker and audience, and "cyborgs," a somewhat fanciful notion of human-machine hybrids discussed more in other fields of inquiry.
11 It is important for Burke in understanding the motion-action distinction that motion is a world which both constrains humanity and exists whether or not human beings do (cf. Burgess et al., 1985, p 28; Burke, 1985, p. 90; Burke, LASA). Metaphysicians may take exception to the motion/action distinction, claiming either that the only world that "exists" is that which a human creates or alternatively, reducing humans to chemicals or automata. Burke chooses to avoid this difficult metaphysical debate by granting that any number of reductive philosophies may be true. However, he claims that even if humans are nothing more than chemicals, they do not perceive themselves or each other as such. It is only this perception which he wishes to explore.
12 Much later, Burke suggests Attitude may be an appropriate sixth term for motive, creating a hexad. Not much is said about Attitude in the technological drama, although he does refer once to the "pro-technological attitude" as we described in the earlier section on Burke and Luddites.
13 Note that I take Burke’s references to "machines," as well as "mechanical inventions," "(new) weapons," "applied science," "technology," "(Big) Technology," and many instances of "tools," "instruments," and even "science" to all generally refer to some part of what I have defined as technology. In most case (I hope the ones that have chosen here), what Burke observes about the symbolicity of these various technologies, applies to the technological worldview in general.
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