A Rhetorical Journey into Darkness: Crime-Scene Profiling as Burkean Analysis

Jennifer MacLennan, University of Saskatchewan

Abstract: This essay focuses upon dramatistic nature of crime scene profiling, the technique used to infer the motivations that underlie a baffling but increasingly familiar human act: the “stranger killing.” It argues that this technique of interpreting the symbolic “text” of the crime scene is essentially a rhetorical method that employs—with different names—the elements and ratios of Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic pentad. My study, like other broad applications of Burkean principles, both validates Burke’s observation of the ubiquity of the two principal dramatistic ratios (act-scene and scene-agent) and affirms the symbolic infusion of all human action, including acts of identification through extreme mortification.


THE MAJOR FEATURE OF ANY STORY of unprovoked violent crime is the baffling question of why such acts occur. Because they are typically random, and because they appear to be without motive as it is commonly understood, these crimes compel our attention even as they terrify and confound us. “Who done it? and Why? That’s what we all want to know.”1

Serial crimes and explosions of mass violence, though different in many ways, alike suggest a level of anger and socially-motivated vengeance that is particularly difficult to understand. However, the work of scholars such as rhetorical critic Jeanne Fisher and Canadian anthropologist Elliott Leyton,2 as well as that of numerous criminologists, journalists, and other violent crime specialists,3 suggests that such acts can be interpreted—once we understand how to “read” their meaning. Learning how to do so is from a practical perspective a matter of some urgency, since numbers of multiple and serial murderers are rising. As Elliott Leyton explains, “until the 1960s, they were anomalies who appeared perhaps once a decade; but by the 1980s, one was spawned virtually each month. . . . According to unofficial US Justice Department estimates, there may be as many as one hundred multiple murderers killing in America.”4

No one knows with certainty what produces a mass murderer or serial killer,5 although the theories are numerous. Some experts emphasize nature over nurture as the root of such psychopathic behavior;6 others point to a difficult childhood in which a violent or murderous attitude may have been “formed and damaged early;”7 still others reach for a social explanation.8 Whatever the full explanation, however, the motive for such violent acts seems to be part of a larger pattern of social estrangement, profound psychological division, and the desire for symbolic transcendence. The messages such criminals leave behind in the remnants of their acts can help us to put an end to such rampages, “if only we could figure out how to interpret their words and actions” (AM 22).

Finding answers to questions of meaning and motive behind random violence is the purpose of criminal profiling, a method of analysis established in the early 1980s by the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit. Profiling is founded on extensive and systematic study of the offenders and the acts they commit; as a method of analysis, it works on “the principle that behavior reflects personality,”9 and treats the violent act as a kind of drama of revenge and transformation. Profiling assumes that the crime scene contains patterns that give clues to the violent or serial offender’s background, behavioral quirks, even physical characteristics. These patterns can be unearthed through a systematic investigation of key elements of what, where, when, and how, which in turn lead to answers to the questions that most elude us: Why? and ultimately Who?

As prominent FBI profiler John Douglas explains, “everything we see at a crime scene tells us something about the unknown subject . . . who committed the crime.”10 These clues, when carefully analyzed by an experienced profiler, can therefore be “used to draw a . . . portrait of the likely suspect.”11 Douglas describes profiling as a form of applied psychology, and likens it to medical diagnosis (AM 18). However, the subtle process of “reading” the crime scene is actually more akin to rhetorical criticism, in that both are concerned with studying and interpreting the symbolic products of human action. People rely on symbolic means to make both “their grandest and [their] most heinous statements,”2 and their acts constitute expressions of their psychological and social meaning. As Leyton argues, unprovoked violent crimes can best be understood as messages of retaliation against the social order “in which the killer states clearly what social category has excluded him.”13 The profiler “reads” the crime scene in exactly the way a critic studies any other text, revealing its symbolic structures and deciphering its message in order to understand, as Kenneth Burke would have it, “what people are saying—or trying to say.”14 The challenge for the profiler-critic is to discern the patterns in the offender’s drama, in order to “figure out what’s going on and, more important, answer the question Why? . . . What makes people commit the crimes they commit in the way they commit them?” (AM 10).

The reading of symbolic human acts to uncover the motives encoded in them is a fundamentally rhetorical activity, and the more opaque the motivation for the act, the more it cries out for rhetorical analysis. This is certainly true of violent crime; as Douglas observes, “in the case of every horrible crime since the beginning of civilization, there is always that searing, fundamental question: what kind of person could have done such a thing?” (MH 13). In an attempt to find a way of answering these questions, John Douglas and his partner Robert Ressler undertook a comprehensive study of incarcerated felons, gathering valuable information into a systematized and usable data bank (MH 118–20). What they assembled was, in essence, a “grammar” of the symbolic elements of violent crime, and they discovered that the language of a crime scene, like any other system of symbolic representations, has conventional elements and structures that the profiler can learn to interpret. In fact, says Douglas, for an experienced profiler, “the crime itself begins to talk to you” (JD 19).

In this paper, I propose to demonstrate that the technique of criminal profiling, as a system of interpreting the symbolic “text” of the crime scene for evidence of the criminal’s personality, is essentially a rhetorical method that employs—albeit with slightly different names—the elements and ratios of Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic pentad. As Burke explains, “any complete statement about motives will offer some kind of answer 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).”15 Burke believed that, since all human action is infused with symbolicity, “a rhetorical motive is often present where it is not usually recognized, or thought to belong,” and he sought to expand the scope of rhetorical analysis not only to cover instances of overt discursive persuasion, but to illuminate “human relationships generally.”16 He proposed dramatism, with its five key terms and its emphasis on the relationships between scene-act and scene-agent, as the primary method. Burke’s approach treats dramatistic analysis not as a metaphorical or analogical system of enquiry; instead, it is a practical method that can be applied directly to human behavior, because “people do literally ‘act.’“17

Burke places the key ratios of scene-act and scene-agent “at the very center of motivational assumptions,”18 thus emphasizing the shaping power of scene in all rhetorical interactions. Scene is certainly the generative term in profiling, an inevitable focus since the profiler’s analysis has to begin with the crime scene. By studying the relationship between this scene and the violent act, an experienced profiler can make inferences about the offender’s attitude and motivation, two important features in eventually discovering his identity.19

Though it is unlikely that Douglas’ system of profiling is explicitly derived from Burke’s dramatism, its essentially dramatistic form is, according to Burke, inevitable, since “any study of human relations in terms of ‘action’ could . . . be called dramatistic.”20 Profiling clearly studies human relations in terms of action, albeit of a particular kind, and it treats this action as a form of communication, in which an offender makes “the statement about himself and the people around him that he’s been trying to make unsuccessfully for many years” (AM 282). Burke and Douglas alike treat symbolic acts, however inscribed, as rhetorical texts that can be read and interpreted using dramatistic methods; as Burke notes, while most of us communicate our messages through our verbal expressions, “others carve theirs out of jugular veins,”21 an observation that opened the possibility of profiling long before Douglas and Ressler began their investigative project in 1978. My study, like other broad applications of Burkean principles,22 at once affirms the “textual” nature and symbolic infusion of all human action, and validates Burke’s observation of the ubiquity of the two principal dramatistic ratios (scene-act and scene-agent) as a means of “getting at” questions of motive. These two ratios necessarily figure prominently in profiling, since the investigator has no choice but to begin with the crime scene as he attempts to decipher the meaning and motive of the act. From these, the profiler is able to infer information about the offender’s attitude, another key element in eventually identifiying the perpetrator of a violent crime. Although I will draw from numerous sources for this analysis,23 I will focus primarily on the presentation of profiling by John Douglas in such works as An Anatomy of Motive, Obsession, Mindhunter, and Journey into Darkness.24

Kenneth Burke proposed dramatism as a means for “pondering matters of human motivation.”25 In a parallel fashion, John Douglas and his colleagues at the FBI introduced the system of criminal profiling as a means of understanding “where the motive comes from” in the case of otherwise baffling violent crime (AM 17). Both profiling and dramatistic analysis confront that most perplexing of all human issues, “what people are doing and why they are doing it.”26 Douglas, like Burke, links his project to the “central issue of what we call, for want of a better phrase, the human condition” through its focus on the questions “How? Why? Where? Who?” He likens the profiler’s concern with motive to that of “novelists and psychologists, . . . philosophers and theologians, social workers evaluating cases, [and] judges at sentencing hearings” (AM 17). Burke similarly observes the preoccupation with motives found in nearly all human endeavor, including “systematically elaborated metaphysical structures, in legal judgements, in poetry and fiction, in political and scientific works, in news, and in bits of gossip offered at random.”27 Inevitably, the form of queries into motive in all these fields will manifest the key terms of dramatism, since, as Burke notes, “all statements that assign motives can be shown to arise out of [the terms of the pentad] and to terminate in them.”28 Thus, Douglas and Ressler could not have avoided a dramatistic approach in their development and refinement of crime-scene profiling.

Just as the rhetorical critic recognizes that discourses are “the external signs of internal states, [that] certain features of a linguistic act entail certain characteristics of the language user,”29 so the profiler relies on the fact that “every crime scene contains a profile of the perpetrator.”30 Like rhetorical analysis, criminal profiling “suggests that there are strong and multifarious links between a style and an outlook, and that the critic may, with legitimate confidence, move from the manifest evidence of style to the human personality that this evidence projects.”31 In both cases, the critic assumes that symbolic acts, as well as being “motivated by the situation in which they take place,”32 are also consistent with the attitudes and character of the agent. “If you want to understand Picasso, you have to study his art,” Douglas explains. “If you want to understand the criminal personality, you have to study his crime” (MH 344). With this and similar statements, Douglas links act and agent by a process of inference from the dominant ratios of scene-act and scene-agent. This link, Burke’s agent-act ratio, is what enables the investigator to move from the features of scene to a profile of the offender. This emphasis on the ratios of scene-act and scene-agent, and by inference, of act-agent, is what marks profiling as a dramatistic method; the profiler studies the dynamic relationships among act, scene, and agent in order to interpret the symbolic strategies embedded in the artifact. This process narrows the field of suspects so that the offender may be identified and apprehended.

While the correspondences between Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic theories and the method and theory of profiling as described by John Douglas are immediately apparent in their parallel analytical patterns of agent-act-scene-agency-purpose and who-what-where-when-how-why,33 a careful comparison reveals deeper philosophical and theoretical connections that go well beyond mere method. It is these deeper connections that this paper will explore in depth. The most striking of these is the way that both dramatism and profiling treat human action as symbolically infused. As I will show, both systems also emphasize the situated nature of symbolic acts, and stress the motivational force of the scene-act ratio. Both insist on the profound and predictive relationship between the agent and his acts; both also recognize the role of attitude in an individual’s choice of symbolic expressions, while at the same time maintaining a distinction between attitude and agency. Interestingly, both systems of analysis can trace their roots to literary forms,34 and not coincidentally, both Douglas and Burke turn to drama for an analytical framework.

More subtle still, as I will show, is the manner in which the two systems treat form. As I will also demonstrate in the body of this discussion, for both Douglas and Burke, form is a manifestation of human desire arising out of the hierarchic motive. As such, it is an expression of attitude, and bears the marks of the agent’s state of mind and desire. In both systems, estrangement is the origin of the universal drive to transcendence, culminating at its most desperate in an act of redemption and reidentification achieved through victimage—itself “a highly Dramatistic concept,”35 according to Burke. As I will demonstrate, both systems see the symbolic act as fundamentally rhetorical, as a kind of message of transformation and consubstantiation. And just as Burke applies his system of textual analysis to the motivational profiling of one of the twentieth century’s most infamous criminals, Adolph Hitler,36 so Douglas demonstrates the usefulness of his profiling method to understanding the subtext of such literary works as Othello” (AM 371–74).

The applicability of Burke’s dramatistic method to an analysis of motive in violent crime has already been demonstrated.37 What I hope to do here is to trace these deeper parallels, to go beyond pointing out that Burke’s five key terms are duplicated in Douglas’s analytical framework of who, what, where, how, and why (AM 4; 10; 11; 17; JD 340–41; MH 13; 24; 68). I hope to reveal that the two systems are in fact independently-arrived-at configurations of a single philosophical phenomenon: a conviction about the profound and inescapable relationship between scene, act, and agent, and a like belief in the central importance of intention and attitude in the symbolic choices of an agent.

I. The Symbol-Using Animal

The most fundamental correspondence between the two systems of motivational analysis depends on their shared assumption that human action is symbolically infused. The first clause of Burke’s famed “definition of man” establishes the foundation for all that follows in both systems.38 Burke’s is a dramatistic definition, focused on the nature of and reasons for human action. The symbol-using animal, “in keeping with his nature as an agent,”39 depends on symbolically infused action to create a sense of identification and social belonging, but as a result of that same symbolic nature, experiences just as profound a sense of division. The creation of identity, as Burke reminds us, depends not only on the stressing of commonalities, but also on something he calls “congregation by segregation,” identification by the stressing of some difference shared in common.40 Thus victimage is, for Burke, “the major temptation in the . . . systems by which men build up their ideas, concepts, and images of identity and community.”41 The more tenuous a person’s hold on his identity, the more likely he is to depend on victimage as a source of social identification.

Profiling, with its necessary focus on victimage as the outcome of failed social identifications, is dramatistic in exactly the sense Burke describes, in that it insists on human intention and choice as the source of symbolic representations, rather than seeing violence as simply the result of illness or compulsion (AM 30; JD 128; MH 174)—in Burke’s terms, it insists on viewing the crime as the product of action rather than motion.42 Says Burke, “Action involves character, which involves choice. . . . Though the concept of sheer motion is non-ethical, action implies the ethical, the human personality.”43 Like Burke, Douglas insists that, in analyzing the motives for violent behavior,

the crucial word is “choice.” With the exception of a very few truly insane (and generally delusional) individuals, these men choose to do what they do. They may obsess about hurting women. They may be motivated to act out their obsessions. But in fact, they don’t have to behave in this manner. They are not compelled. They choose to do it because it makes them feel good (AM 30).

It is this relationship between action and character that makes profiling possible at all; in turn, its effectiveness validates the dramatistic principles that link act to agent and scene.

Another important feature shared by the two systems is the distinction between practical and symbolic acts. For Douglas, as for Burke, the former are a means to a pragmatic end—for example, an armed robber kills a witness who might be able to identify him. While we do not need dramatistic methods to understand the reasons for practical acts, symbolic acts, by contrast, invite and sustain more thorough rhetorical inquiry, since their motives are not so immediately discernible. Burke explains the difference between a symbolic act and a practical act in a fashion similar to Douglas’s characterization:

If a man climbs a mountain, not through any interest in mountain climbing, but purely because he wants to get somewhere, and the easiest way to get there is by crossing the mountain, we need not look for symbolism. But if we begin to discuss why he wanted to get there, we do get into matters of symbolism. For his conception of purpose involves a texture of human relationships; his purposes are “social”; as such, they are not something-in-and-by-itself, but a function of many relationships; which is to say that they are symbolical. 44

Unprovoked violence of the type and scale studied by profilers is clearly not pragmatic, since the victims are typically strangers whose deaths are of little practical consequence to the offender; instead, such killing is purely symbolic, having both compensatory and transformative effects. As Douglas explains, “the kind of criminals we deal with don’t kill as a means to an end, such as an armed robber would; they kill or rape or torture because they enjoy it, because it gives them satisfaction and a feeling of domination and control so lacking from every other aspect of their shabby, inadequate and cowardly lives” (JD 29).

Burke reminds us that rhetoric “involves the use of symbolic action to produce effects ‘beyond’ the act.”45 The violent acts of serial killers and those of mass murderers function in exactly this way; the meaning of each act transcends the act itself, and operates on both individual and social levels. On the individual level, such acts are performed for the psychological satisfaction of the offender, providing the personal power he craves. As Douglas notes, random violence, particularly the deaths of innocents, provides “a means of empowering this inadequate personality” (AM 276). He explains how this empowerment is achieved:

Being able to manipulate, dominate, and control a victim, to decide whether that victim lives or dies, or how that victim dies, temporarily counteracts, for some, their feelings of inadequacy. . . . It makes them feel grandiose and superior, as they believe they are entitled to feel. In other words, raping and murdering sets the world right with them. (AM 28–29)

At the same time that they symbolically affirm the offender’s personal power over a helpless victim, these violent acts also have a public function: they are intended as a kind of “statement” about the offender and his relationship to the social order. Unable to achieve a position of status by any other means, the killer achieves it by violence, a way that is doubly rewarding in that it also punishes society for rejecting him. As Leyton explains, “as a result of his perceived exclusion from the social order to which he wishes to belong, the perpetrator attempts to remedy this ‘injustice’ by seeking revenge through symbolic scapegoats—his victims.”46 In reflecting on his acts of violence, one perpetrator reported that

it wasn’t just deaths I wanted. It was, like I said, somewhat of a social statement in there too. . . . My little social statement was, I was trying to hurt society where it hurt the worst, and that was by taking its valuable . . . future member of the working society; that was the upper class or the upper middle class, what I considered to be snobby or snotty brats.47

Killing innocent victims allows the offender to lay symbolic claim to their lives and social representation, to define what they are, and in the process to redefine himself, transforming himself from a “deeply inadequate nobody who wants to be a somebody” (MH 338) into a powerful figure of fear and awe. Through the ritualized sacrifice of a victim-scapegoat, the killer hopes to subsume what the victim stands for, and in so doing compensate for his inability to achieve such distinction himself. The impulse to slaughter as a transformative motive is predicted by Burke in his discussions of the universal drive toward identification:

An imagery of slaying (slaying of either the self or another) is to be considered merely as a special case of identification in general. Or otherwise put: the imagery of slaying is a special case of transformation, and transformation involves the imagery of identification. That is: the killing of something is the changing of it, and the statement of the thing’s nature before and after the change is an identifying of it.48

Even the offenders themselves on occasion recognize the symbolic import of their actions. The murderer of a young teenager describes how her death functioned as a ritual act of consubstantiation: “Shari is now a part of me. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Our souls are now one. . . . Four fifty-eight, Saturday, the first of June, we became one soul” (MH 302). Similarly, California’s “Coed Killer,” Ed Kemper, explains of his victims that “alive, they were distant, not sharing with me. . . . When they were being killed, there wasn’t anything going on in my mind except that they were going to be mine” (MH 108).

In addition to providing compensatory relief, the act also offers the possibility of transcendence—that is, a fulfillment of the offender’s desire for importance and social value. After all, as Burke points out, acts have the power to “make or remake [the individual] in accordance with their nature. They would be his product and/or he would be theirs.”49 The killer thus remakes himself in the image of the act he performs—a daring act of power and possession that exalts him as it depersonalizes the victim and punishes the social hierarchy. Douglas observes this motive in Mark David Chapman, the murderer of John Lennon: “once he had squeezed the trigger and Lennon had fallen, Chapman was no longer a nobody. His name would be forever linked with his hero’s” (AM 303). Media attention to his crime completes the transformation, according him celebrity status and public awe. For instance, the young gunman who murdered eighteen people in a German high school in April 2002 told friends before the attack, “One day I want everyone to know my name; I want to be famous.”50

For Douglas, as for Burke, such unprovoked violence originates in the interaction between the symbolic scene and the attitude of the agent, which in the case of the typical violent predator, is marked by a deep sense of inadequacy coupled with an equally pervasive sense of significance. As Douglas explains:

Most violent offenders, we found after some study, had two factors warring within them. One was a feeling of superiority, grandiosity: societal mores were not meant for them; they were too smart or too clever to have to start at the bottom and work their way up, or to live by the normal rules that govern a relationship. The other, equally strong feeling was of inadequacy, of not being able to measure up, of knowing they were losers no matter what they did. And since the first feeling generally made them unwilling to study, work, pay their dues, whatever you want to call it, they often were, in fact, inadequately prepared for a job or a relationship that would give a normal person genuine satisfaction. This just reinforced their outsider status. (AM 28)

When the two features of attitude cannot be resolved, the offender resorts to his transformative act of victimage as a means of repudiating his sense of powerlessness and lack of control over his life. But symbolic acts, whatever their ritual significance to the offender, have practical consequences, and “what is defined in terms of sacrifice by one is thought about in terms of senseless killing by another.”51 For the sake of the human beings who are brutalized and killed, such acts must be prevented. In order to do so, we first need to understand what drives them.

II. The Scene Contains the Act

Part of the answer to this question can be found in the second major parallel between the two systems of analysis: their emphasis on the “situatedness” of symbolic acts, or what Burke terms the scene-act ratio. Central to Burke’s conception of human relations as a drama is the “principle . . . that the nature of acts and agents [will] be consistent with the scene.”52 As he explains in A Rhetoric of Motives, “an act of persuasion is affected by the character of the scene in which it takes place and of the audience to whom it is addressed.”53 According to Burke, an understanding of scene is essential to an understanding of motive; indeed, “motives are shorthand terms for situations.”54 As a result, symbolic acts can best be understood as primarily “strategies for meeting and overcoming a situation, or possibly learning to bear it if it cannot be overcome.”55

Burke elaborates on the interdependence between scene and act, and its contribution to motive, arguing that “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.”56 Both literally and figuratively, it is scene that unites agent and act, serving as a “fit container” for both.57 Like Burke, Douglas turns to a dramatistic model as “the only way to figure out what had happened at a crime scene,” since it allows the investigator to “understand what had gone inside the head of the principal actor in that drama: the offender” (AM 16). With its focus on motivation and action, drama not only provides an effective analytical structure for understanding human action, but points to the essential role of conflict in human relations. As Burke summarizes, “if action, then drama; if drama, then conflict; if conflict, then victimage.”58

The crime scene not only serves as a key feature of the “text” of a criminal act, but, more important, it actually contributes to the performance of the act. Douglas, like Burke, rejects a purely psychological explanation of human behavior, and instead finds the key to motive in the interaction between the scene and the agent. “What a lot of people in the psychiatric and judicial communities don’t seem to grasp,” says Douglas, “is that violence is situational. It has to do with the environment and the opportunity” (JD 177). Accordingly, what Burke calls “the motivational force of the scene”59 is so important to profiling that it has become, for Douglas, “one of the points I make over and over again” (AM 236).

Understanding the contribution of scene to motive also requires understanding its relationship to the attitude of the agent, who is, like the act, “contained” or shaped by the context. As Burke explains, “one set of scenic conditions will ‘implement’ and ‘amplify’ given ways and temperaments which in other situations would remain mere potentialities.”60 Douglas concurs:

What my colleagues and I have found and have tried desperately to get across is that dangerousness is situational. If you can keep someone in a well-ordered environment where he doesn’t have choices to make, he may be fine. But put him back in the environment in which he did badly before, his behavior can quickly change. (MH 350)

Thus, many violent criminals are “model prisoners” when incarcerated, since their environment exerts a high level of control over their behavior. In a literal sense, then, this highly structured scene “contains” the agent.

As both Douglas and Burke make clear, the scene contributes more to the commission of the act than physical constraints and structure; it is an emotionally powerful component of its meaning. As Burke explains, the “scene both realistically reflects the course of the action and symbolizes it.”61 In other words, the scene not only records the event, but itself inscribes the meaning of that event. Douglas thus observes that “the crime scene becomes psychologically part of the killing” (MH 304) and what can be reconstructed from the scene is not merely the sequence of events that took place, but also the relationships encoded in the ratios of scene-act and scene-agent. Douglas recounts that the big breakthrough in profiling came with the realization of “how much you could learn about criminal behavior and motives by focusing on the evidence of the crime scene” (MH 81). Thus it is that, for Douglas as for Burke, motives “cannot be separated from the situation to which they are responses. They are the terms that make action understandable.”62

IV. The Dancing of an Attitude

In addition to their foundational concern with the relationships between scene-act and scene-agent, a critical component in both systems is the fusion of agent and act known as attitude. “The attitude,” Burke tells us, “is the mental component of the actor,”63 an element important enough to an understanding of motive that Burke expressed regret at having left it out of his original formulation.64 Attitude may be understood as the expression of the agent-act ratio, the relationship between a person’s acts and his character. Thus, according to William Rueckert, the foremost interpreter of Burkean theory, “representative symbolic acts are images of the self which performs them, and analysis of such symbolic acts will reveal ‘some underlying principle of the agent’s character, some fixed trait of his personality.’“65 Profiling relies on such a relationship between the agent’s attitude and his representative acts, as Douglas emphasizes in his observation that “all this comes down to one thing: behavior is consistent. Even in its inconsistencies, it’s consistent” (JD 359).

If an agent’s character is reflected in his attitude, the drama played out in each significant scene is one of building and maintaining identity. Thus, a series of symbolic acts may be characterized as “a restatement of the same thing in different ways . . . a character repeating his identity; . . . the sustaining of an attitude.”6 These efforts at “sustaining an attitude” are decipherable by those who have learned to read the language of symbolic victimage, which like any language has its conventional elements.

Attitude can thus be considered as the point at which act and agent coalesce, a predisposition or tendency in the agent toward a given pattern of acts. It is, says, Burke, “the preparation for an act, which would make it a kind of symbolic act, or incipient act.67 In other words, the agent’s representative symbolic acts exist virtually within him, in the form of attitude, prior to the actual commission of the deed. Thus, the violent criminal’s “will toward manipulation, domination, and control, if allowed free rein, could easily result in murder” (AM 42). None of this is to discount the contributions or importance of scene in the making of an act, however. Douglas points repeatedly to what he calls “precipitating stressors” arising out of the scene (AM 192; JD 104, 249), the most common of which “have to do with jobs and relationships—losing one or the other—but any type of hardship, particularly an economic one, can trigger the violent outburst” in an offender whose attitude predisposes him toward such acts (JD 104). For Douglas, as for Burke, attitude inclines the agent toward certain patterns of acts, but it is the interaction between agent and scene that precipitates the acts themselves. This is true even for violent offenders, as can be seen by the fact that “many men who are violent and very dangerous in the outside world do okay in prison where life is highly structured and they don’t have the opportunity to be harmful to innocent people” (JD 364).

In his discussions of attitude, Douglas makes two sets of distinctions that strike me as very Burkean. The first is that between signature, which could be understood as the encoding of attitude in the arrangement of the scene, and modus operandi (MO), the encoding of agency. Signature is the word Douglas uses to describe the “unique element and personal compulsion” that is evidenced in the arrangement of the crime scene (MH 59). The term refers to the “element or set of elements that make the crime and the criminal stand out, that represent what he [is]” (MH 59). MO, by contrast, emphasizes the means or agency of the crime, and serves a merely pragmatic purpose. “It’s what the perpetrator does to commit the crime” (MH 252), “the means by which the crime is carried out” (AM 58).

Because MO is part of the agency by which the crime is committed rather than part of the psychological or attitudinal component of the act, it “changes as the offender becomes more experienced and proficient” (AM 72). Signature, by contrast, has no such pragmatic function; instead, it is pure symbolism—“the aspect of the crime that emotionally fulfills the offender” (AM 58). Signature is central to the symbolic “message” an offender hopes to encode, and thus is part of what Rueckert calls his “unified attitude.” Unlike MO, signature therefore is related to the ritualistic, transformative elements of the act, and is thus “a critical clue in coming up with the [unidentified subject’s] personality and motive” (AM 58). Signature represents the offender’s “personality [as] reflected in the particulars of the specific crime he chooses” (AM 72); since signature is part of the motive for the crime, it tends to “remain relatively the same” across crime scenes left by the same offender (AM 58).

Douglas also distinguishes between motive—which means, as it does for Burke, the underlying reasons for the commission of the act, which are embedded in its symbolic meaning for the agent—and intent, which “refers simply to the deliberateness of the act—consciously choosing to commit the crime” (AM 73). While a recognition of intent keeps the act in the realm of choice and therefore of action, and places responsibility for the act squarely on the agent, it does not explain the agent’s reasons for committing the act, which are “deeper and scarier” than the pragmatic purposes that underlie ordinary crimes (AM 101). This is the province of motive, which is thus linked both to signature and to attitude.

Attitude, as we have already seen, is a necessary condition for, and in the appropriate circumstances can precipitate, a given act or set of acts. For Douglas as for Burke, “the agent is the author of his acts,”68 and thus we can expect symbolic acts to “reflect a correspondence between a man’s character and the character of his behavior.”69 Recalling Burke’s distinction between symbolic and practical acts, and Reuckert’s assertions about an agent’s creation of a “unified attitude,” we can conclude that the symbolic acts an individual commits are designed to both express and establish his identity. Douglas’s notion of signature focuses on the symbolic element in an act that the agent does not for practical purposes but “because he is interested in doing it exactly as he does it.”70 By signature elements, Douglas explains, “we mean the things [a violent offender] does that aren’t necessary to the commission of his crime but are important for him to get emotional satisfaction out of the deed” (AM 322). Because the symbolic acts are performed for psychological and rhetorical rather than pragmatic purposes, there is an element of consistency about them that the offender cannot entirely bring under conscious control, and that causes him to both select and arrange components of the crime scene. As Burke explains, “when a state of mind is pronounced in quality, the agent may be observed arranging a corresponding pattern in the very properties of the scene.”71

V. Attitude as Incipient Form

As symbol-users, we form our identities in largely symbolic ways through a dialectic which, according to Rueckert,

is the natural and inevitable result of the complex and ever-changing conflict relation between the human agent and his scene. This dialectic of existence—the drama of human relations—centers in what Burke speaks of as every man’s attempt to build himself a character in order to establish and maintain an identity.72

The form in which that identity is expressed reflects the conjunction of act, attitude, and scene. Thus, the violent criminal chooses a form for his message that fulfills him psychologically and emotionally. For example, such features as “‘overkill,’ posing of the victim, torture, or ritualized mutilation” (MH 256–58) are not essential to the commission of the crime, but they are essential to the offender’s personal fulfilment in performing the act. The form of the act is the expression of signature, and is therefore “related to . . . ‘identity.’“73 Its role is to establish and express the offender’s power to “manipulate, dominate, and control” the victim. While the offender can choose to commit the act or not, and while the specific means he uses to effect the deed may change, “what he won’t change is the emotional reason he’s committing the crime in the first place” (JD 39). That emotional motivation is what produces the signature element in the form of the crime, which will be recreated over repeated crimes by the same offender, even in cases where it has become known to authorities, and “even if it makes carrying out the crime riskier or more difficult” (JD 145). Recreating this form in subsequent acts is a kind of ritual behavior that is itself part of the motive for the crime, and as such it contains symbolic elements that the offender will choose to repeat in order to obtain fulfilment from the act. “You might think that forearmed with some of my strategy, the killer may be able to avoid the traps we’d set up for him. But I can tell you from long experience, the more behavior he’d show us and the more we’d have to work with” (JD 69).

Douglas’s concept of signature, then, is the transformation of attitude into form. Burke observes that “a work has form in so far as one part of it leads [its intended audience] to anticipate another part, to be gratified by the sequence.”74 The audiences for the violent offender’s act are multiple, including not only the media and the public, but also police and authorities who discover and study the crime scene; the victim, for as long as she remains alive; and, perhaps most important, the offender himself, who may even record the crime to be replayed and relived later, as Charles Ng and Paul Bernardo did. After all, as Douglas points out, “the crime—what he did to another person, the way he exerted power and control—was the most intense, stimulating, and memorable experience of his life” (AM 23) As his own audience, the killer is gratified by the signature sequence of the transformative act of scapegoating. But, since “we are capable of but partial acts, acts that but partially represent us and that produce but partial transformations,”75 the gratification is temporary, and the act must be repeated if the affirmation it provides is to be sustained. In other words, each individual act is but a single instantiation of a larger, unified act of transformation, and its repetitive form bears within it some predictive evidence of the offender’s subsequent behavior.

Because the function of form is to direct the attention, form can be considered one of what Burke describes as “the basic stratagems which people employ, in endless variations, and consciously or unconsciously, for the outwitting or cajoling of one another.”76 The offender can choose to carry out the act or not, but once the act has been initiated, the very sequence of its form creates a narrative momentum with its own kind of inevitability. Burke describes form as following “the arrows of desire,” which “are turned in a certain direction” by the very structure of the act; form thus represents both evocation and fulfillment of desire.77 Certainly the “plot” of the kind of violent crime described by Douglas “follows the direction of the arrows”78 of an offender’s desires, and equally—if Leyton is correct—of society’s values. In its various aspects, whether conventional, repetitive, or progressive, form consists of those elements that allow us “to recognize [the] rightness of a form after the event.”79

The plot of the offender’s drama is one of transformation, in which he redefines himself, the victim, and the social scene through a process of victimage; it is, in effect, the fulfillment of a script he may feel originates in the social order itself. And perhaps it does: Burke, Douglas, and Leyton alike suggest that society contributes to the formation of motive for such acts. Indeed, Leyton posits that, far from being a threat to the social order, a violent offender’s acts are instead an expression, even an endorsement, of the existing social hierarchy; they are “the logical extension of many of the central themes of [the surrounding] culture: of worldly ambition, of success and failure, and of manly avenging violence.”80 Thus multiple offenders become, in effect, “enforcers of the new moral order.”81 The scene itself, infused with what Burke refers to as “the spirit of hierarchy,” gives rise to the fulfillment of its own structures in the very form of the crimes produced within it, demonstrating once again “the perennial vitality of the scapegoat principle.”82

As we consider the power and role of form, we are reminded of Douglas’s observation that “it’s as if each of them is writing a novel about himself in which the final chapter is violent death” (AM 239). The final chapter, according to the dictates of form, is presaged by the initial chapters, where the predominant conflicts, the primary characters, and the key setting within which the plot unfolds are laid down. Nevertheless, despite the precipitating stressors in the scene and enticements of form, it is important to note that the act itself remains in the realm of “choice,” as Douglas repeatedly insists, and these agents “choose to do it because it makes them feel good” (AM 30).

The emotional and psychological fulfillment of the act are the results of a killer’s asserting an identity that he cannot otherwise achieve or sustain. Douglas points out that, if a predatory offender isn’t “neutralized” he will sooner or later reoffend, since the pattern in such cases is escalation. Such an offender will “not . . . stop on his own” (AM 356). Dramatistic analysis confirms what experience teaches: the desired transformations achieved through these “turbulent” acts are only temporary, and must be repeated with increasing intensity if the offender is to sustain the identity he has created. The extent of the agent’s estrangement and inadequacy also reveal why, in the end, the mere fantasy of transcendence is inadequate to sustain the attitude; to do so, the act must be performed for real. This is why violent and exploitative fantasy plays such an important role in the initiation and escalation of violent acts, and why it must be recognized for the danger that it poses—whatever its alleged “artistic merit.”83


Unprovoked violent crimes have become a form of public communication in which the message is one of “domination, manipulation, and control” (MH 105)—not just of the victim, but of the police, the media, and the public. As messages of retaliation against a social order, such acts imbue with power and social significance an “inadequate, helpless, hopeless, and impotent” individual who typically believes that he has been “unfairly maligned by those around him or by society in general” (AM 127). According to Jeanne Fisher, who specifically applied dramatistic methods to the analysis of a brutal, unprovoked killing, such individuals are typically “unable to use rhetorical strategies and patterns for socialization, conflict resolution, need fulfilment, and manipulating [the] environment,” and as a result “rely upon violent means”84 to achieve the kind of social satisfaction that has been lacking in their lives. Both Elliot’s and Douglas’s research bear out Fisher’s assessment.

It is clear that the unprovoked violence studied by profilers is not, as it is sometimes thought, motiveless crime; “there is, in fact, no such thing. Every crime has a motive,” even when that motive is not immediately evident to the casual observer (AM 45). In fact, Fisher points out that it has been our “inability . . . to understand fully [the] motive” of this kind of violence that has made it so terrifying and at the same time has compelled our attention.85 Dramatistic analysis substantiates this assertion, but it also suggests a further, somewhat darker possibility: perhaps on some level our fascination with these horrific dramas also represents a glimmer of recognition that these acts originate—as do the killers themselves—in the very social order that they attack.

The inadequate individual described by Douglas is steeped, as we all are, in a social context that glorifies “worldly ambition, . . . success and failure, and . . . manly avenging violence.”86 But most of us do not bring to this social scene the antisocial attitude that predisposes a predator to seek violent solutions to his feelings of inadequacy. Unable to attain social affirmation by legitimate means, he chooses a “turbulent act” that provides satisfaction on two levels. First, he achieves a sense of empowerment through his ability to exercise total control over a helpless victim. More than this, however, he is also granted instant celebrity as his messages of manipulation and control are displayed by the media for mass public consumption. Unfortunately for the individual victims of such brutal acts, their families, and their communities, the killer’s symbolic redemption comes at a terrible cost, one that we are not prepared to pay. Given the powerful symbolic motivation for the predator to continue his acts, how can we put a stop to the carnage?

Dramatistic analysis may provide one means. Well before Douglas and Ressler started their investigations, Virginia Holland saw that dramatism could be useful as “a means of developing a rhetorical critic who is a more expert judge as a social critic.”87 Holland predicted that dramatism, by enabling us to uncover “a correlation between [an agent’s] profession or his beliefs, and the strategies he uses” would in time “suggest a method of analysis which would give greater insights into the sociological and psychological factors that influence [agents], and into sociology and psychology per se.88 While Douglas’s system of profiling was designed as a practical method that “would help us learn more about real applied criminal psychology, not in an academic sense but in a way that would help in the field, in finding real offenders and solving real cases” (AM 19), it also points to broader social implications.

As an FBI profiler, Douglas’s first concern has been to put an end to the violent rampages of individual criminals. In this context, the starting point of the method is the crime scene itself, which encodes the remnants of the violent act. However, in Douglas’s books, “scene” is also conceptualized more comprehensively: while the violent criminal leaves his imprint on the crime scene, the larger social scene has left its own marks upon him, and thus is implicated in how he has turned out:

It’s my experience that serial killers are made rather than born . . . but it is unquestionably true that some kids, from as early as you can observe them, are far more aggressive than others, have far poorer impulse control, are noticeably antisocial. . . . If you start out with a kid predisposed like this, throw him into a severely dysfunctional environment, and then don’t do anything to intervene, you are pretty likely to come up with a violence-prone adult. (AM 38–39)

For Douglas, as for Burke, the explanation for symbolic acts can be found in the intersection of attitude, form, and scene; thus, not only does the crime scene offer an image of the offender, but the offender in turn offers an image of his social context, an implication also confirmed by Elliott Leyton. Douglas recognizes that an ability to read the attitudes of predators such as Ted Bundy, the self-described “most cold-hearted son of a bitch you’ll ever meet,” 89 can help us to end his specific acts of victimage, but he also emphasizes that such understanding can help us learn how to prevent the production of others so socially estranged that they turn to violence for social fulfilment. Because violent predators “are more ‘made’ than ‘born,’“ intervention is possible—if only “somewhere along the line, someone who provided a profound negative influence could have provided a profound positive one instead” (MH 383). Profiling can help us to identify how, and when, such intervention is needed.

Douglas’s work points toward the value of profiling beyond its usefulness as an investigative tool. A dramatistic approach teaches us how to “read” the symbolic messages of violent offenders, not only for the scene-act ratio laid out in the crime itself, but for the scene-act and scene-agent ratios that can help to explain how it is that two children who are “more aggressive than others, have far poorer impulse control, are noticeably antisocial” (AM 38) can turn out very differently, one of them a violent predator and the other a responsible citizen. In order to prevent the “manufacture” of more criminals of the type he studies, Douglas emphasizes the “absolutely vital” need for “recognition of serious behavioral problems with kids and intervention at an early age” (JD 363). Profiling can help to identify some of the behavioral problems that presage a violent and predatory adult. For example, Douglas and Ressler found “striking common denominators” in the experiences of their interview subjects, among them “at a very early age the formation of what we refer to as “homicidal triangle” or “homicidal triad.” This includes enuresis—or bed-wetting—at an inappropriate age, starting fires, and cruelty to small animals or other children” (JD 36). While Douglas stresses that not every child who displays such behavior become a violent adult, “the combination of the three was so prominent in our study subjects that we began recommending that a pattern (rather than isolated incidences) of any two of them should raise a warning flag for parents and teachers” (AM 37).

As Holland foresaw, the real value of a dramatistic form of analysis lies in its capacity to account for the social component of motivation and human action. While Douglas emphasizes that a violent predator’s acts are a product of choice, he also points out that the form and kinds of symbolic expressions the offender selects are shaped in part by the scene in which his drama takes place. “Twenty-five years of observation has told me that criminals are more ‘made’ than ‘born,’“ he explains (MH 383), and “the only thing that is going to cut down appreciably on crimes of violence and depravity is to stop manufacturing as many criminals” (JD 371). Ideally, reading the scripts of such acts in their incipient form can allow us to intervene while prevention is still possible, before violent fantasy becomes brutal reality. At the very least, understanding form and motive can help us to prevent additional acts of violence by repeat offenders. Only through such understanding can we hope to identify alternatives to the brutal price currently being extracted by those whose sense of estrangement drives them to seek redemption through acts of victimage.


1. John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, The Anatomy of Motive (New York: Pocket Books, 1999) 11. Future references to this work, abbreviated as AM, will be placed in parentheses following quoted material in the text.

2. Jeanne Fisher, "A Burkean Analysis of the Rhetorical Dimensions of a Multiple Murder and Suicide" Quarterly Journal of Speech 60 (1974) 175-189; Elliot Leyton, Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986).

3. For example, Ray Surette, Media, Crime, and Criminal Justice, 2nd ed. (Belmont, CA: West/Wadsworth, 1997); Nick Vandome, Crimes and Criminals (Edinburgh: Chambers, 1992); Stephen G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth, Ted Bundy: Conversations with a Killer (New York: Signet, 1989); John Bartlaw Martin, Why Did They Kill? (New York: Bantam,1953).

4. Leyton 16.

5. There appear to be some common patterns in their development, however: most act out their murderous fantasies on animals before progressing to brutalizing people, most show patterns of arsonist behaviour during childhood and adolescence, and most exhibit enuresis (bed-wetting) well beyond childhood. These features make up the so-called "homicidal triad" described by Robert Ressler, Ann Burgess, and John Douglas. Additional behaviour patterns, including obsession with firearms, isolation in social situations, seemingly idle threats, and casual talk of murder, have also been found to be significant. See Amy Goldman, "The Life of a Child: Childhood Traits of Serial Killers," online, 15 February 2001, Accessed

6. Robert D. Hare, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopath Among Us (New York: Simon & Schuster [Pocket Books], 1993).

7. Fisher 189.

8. Leyton.

9. John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Journey into Darkness (New York: Scribner, 1997) 26. Future references to this work, abbreviated as JD, will be placed in parentheses following quoted material in the text.

10. John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit (New York: Pocket Books, 1995) 13-14. Future references to this book, abbreviated as MH, will be placed in parentheses following quoted material in the text.

11. Dale Myers, With Malice (Milford, MI: Oakcliff Press, 1998), excerpts online, 29 August 2000, .

12. David Payne, "Dramatistic Criticism." Modern Rhetorical Criticism, 2nd ed., ed. Roderick P. Hart (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997) 283.

13. Leyton 27.

14. Payne 283.

15. Burke, "Key Terms," A Grammar of Motives (1945; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969) xvii.

16. Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (1950; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969) xiii, xiv-xv.

17. Kenneth Burke, Dramatism and Development (Barre, MA: University of Massachussetts Press and Barre Publishers, 1972) 12.

18. Kenneth Burke, "Container and Thing Contained," A Grammar of Motives 11.

19. The choice of the masculine pronoun is deliberate, reflecting the fact that the overwhelming majority of serial murderers are male (exceptions include Aileen Wuornos and Karla Homolka).

20. Kenneth Burke, "Interaction: Dramatism," International Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences , Vol. 6 (New York: MacMillan Co and The Free Press, 1968) 449. Burke seems to apply this notion fairly broadly, arguing elsewhere that even Aristotle is "highly Dramatistic" in his approach. See Dramatism and Development, 12.

21. Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose, 3rd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954) 76.

22. For example, Donovan Conley, "The Courting of Dennis Rodman: A Study of Rebellion, Attitude, and Pentadic Populism," paper presented to the conference of the Northwest Communication Association (April 1997); Barry Brummett, "Symbolic Form, Burkean Scapegoating, and Rhetorical Exigency in Alioto's Response to the 'Zebra Murders,'" Western Journal of Speech Communication 44 (1980): 64-73; Barry Brummett, "Burkean Scapegoating, Mortification, and Transcendence in Presidential Campaign Rhetoric," Central States Speech Journal 32 (1981): 254-64; Marie Hochmuth, "Burkean Criticism," Western Journal of Speech Communication 21 (1957): 89-95;

23. For example, Wayne Petherick, "Criminal Profiling: How it Got Started and How it Is Used," online, 29 August 2000, ; B.E. Turvey, Criminal Profiling: an Introduction to Behavioral Evidence Analysis (London: Academic Press, 1999); Janet L. Jackson and Debra A. Bekerian, eds., Offender Profiling : Theory, Research and Practice, Wiley Series in Psychology of Crime, Policing, and Law (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997); E.W. Hickey, Serial Murderers and Their Victims, 2nd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1997), among others.

24. John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Anatomy of Motive; John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Journey into Darkness; John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, MindHunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit (New York: Pocket Books, 1995); John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Obsession (New York: Scribner, 1998). Future references to these latter two works, abbreviated as MH and OB respectively, will be placed in parentheses following quoted material in the text.

25. Burke, "Key Terms," xv.

26. Burke, "Key Terms," xvii.

27. Burke, "Container and Contained," xvii.

28. Burke, "Key Terms," xviii.

29. Edwin Black, "The Second Persona" Quarterly Journal of Speech 56 (June 1972): 132.

30. Myers.

31. Black 141.

32. Burke, Dramatism and Development 24.

33. Megan Huston, "Criminal Profiling as Rhetorical Analysis: An Application of the Dramatistic Pentad," MA Thesis (Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan, 2001).

34. Long before the first successful real-life criminal profile was offered by James A. Brussel, a New York psychiatrist, both Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle portrayed the process in their works. See, for example, Edgar Allan Poe, The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841; New York: Penguin Books, 1985), and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holms: All Four Novels and 56 Short Stories (New York: Bantam Classic and Loveswept, 1998).

35. Kenneth Burke, Dramatism and Development 12.

36. Burke, "The Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle" The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973) 191-220. Burke notes that, although when he wrote the article he had not yet given his system "the trade name 'Dramatism,'" his analysis was based upon the same "interrelated principles of method." See Dramatism and Development 20-21.

37. Fisher; Huston.

38. Kenneth Burke, "Definition of Man," Language as Symbolic Action (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966) 3.

39. Burke, "Container and Contained" 19.

40. Burke, Dramatism and Development 2.

41. Burke, "Definition" 2.

42. Burke, "Interaction: Dramatism" 447.

43. Burke, "Definition of Man" 11.

44. Kenneth Burke, Attitudes toward History, 2ed. (1937; Los Altos, California: Hermes Publications, 1959) 165 - 166.

45. Kenneth Burke, "The Party Line," Quarterly Journal of Speech 62 (February 1976) : 66.

46. Leyton 27.

47. Leyton 59, 61.

48. Burke, Rhetoric 19-20.

49. Burke, "Container and Contained" 16.

50. American Press, "Expelled Student Kills 17 in High School Rampage," Star Phoenix (27 April 2002) A1.

51. Joseph Gusfield, "Introduction," Kenneth Burke on Symbols and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1989) 18.

52. Burke, "Container and Contained" 3.

53. Burke, Rhetoric 62. See also Lloyd F. Bitzer, "The Rhetorical Situation," Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (Winter 1968): 1-14.

54. Burke, Permanence and Change 29.

55. Virginia Holland, "Kenneth Burke's Dramatistic Approach in Speech Criticism," Quarterly Journal of Speech 41 (1955): 353.

56. Burke, "Container and Contained" 6-7.

57. Burke, "Container and Contained" 3.

58. Burke, "Interaction: Dramatism" 451.

59. Burke, "Key Terms" xxii.

60. Burke, "Container and Contained" 19.

61. Burke, "Container and Contained" 3.

62. Gusfield, "Introduction" 11.

63. Burke, "Key Terms" xv.

64. Kenneth Burke, Dramatism and Development 23.

65. Rueckert 45.

66. Kenneth Burke, Counter Statement (1931; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968) 125.

67. Burke, "Container and Contained" 20

68. Burke, "Container and Contained" 16.

69. Burke, "Interaction: Dramatism" 447.

70. Burke, Attitudes toward History 165 - 166.

71. Burke, "Container and Contained" 11.

72. Rueckert 42.

73. Burke, Attitudes toward History 165 - 166.

74. Burke, Counter Statement 124.

75. Burke, "Container and Contained" 19.

76. Burke, Grammar xvix.

77. Burke, Counter Statement 124.

78. Burke, Counter Statement, 124.

79. Burke, Counter Statement 125.

80. Leyton 2.

81. Leyton 300.

82. Burke, "Interaction: Dramatism" 451.

83. Kirk Makin and Robert Matas, "Top Court to Rule on Child Porn," Globe and Mail 23 January 2001: A3; Canadian Paediatric Association, "Paediatricians, Child Psychiatrists Condemn B.C. Court Ruling on Pornography" [News Release] 2 February 1999), online, 11 April 2002, http://www.cps.ca/english/publications/ ReleasesAdvisories/PornographyRuling.htm.

84. Fisher 189.

85. Fisher 181.

86. Leyton 2.

87. Holland 358.

88. Holland 357.

89. Leyton 86; Michaud and Aynesworth 3.

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Action, motion, and sanity

Of the many significant points that Jennifer MacLennan makes here, the one that strikes me the most involves the distinction between action and motion—and, by extension, between things and persons. In Language as Symbolic Action, Burke tells us that “the difference between a thing and a person is that the one merely moves whereas the other acts.” On the face of it, this distinction would imply that even the most deranged killer is acting. A killer, after all, is a person.

But the issue becomes more complicated when Burke adds, “Often it is true that people can be reduced to terms of sheer motion.” The example he gives is that of the German attack on a Belgian fortress in World War I:

The approach to the fortress was known to be mined. And the mines had to be exploded. So wave after wave of human flesh was sent forward, as conditioned cattle, to get blown up, until all the mines had been touched off.

So if people can be reduced to terms of sheer motion, why can we not say that stranger killers have been? Their “actions” seem insane—more like sheer motion. Their homicidal movements seem parallel to the suicidal movements of the German soldiers.

Unfortunately, these killers have more in common with us than we may like to admit. Like us, they perform acts linked to agent and scene:

It is this relationship between action and character that makes profiling possible at all; in turn, its effectiveness validates the dramatistic principles that link act to agent and scene.

And that commonality, in turn, allows for identification—even with people we’d prefer to think are very different from us. Consider what would happen if we attempted to profile the scene left by Hurricane Katrina, a case of genuine, literal motion, and you’ll see how it differs from the acts of a stranger killer.

In short, this essay not only sheds new light on Burkean principles and crime-scene analysis, but helps us better understand the nature of stranger killers, as well as our identification with them.

Tom Wright
Department of English
Kansas City Kansas Community College