[KB] Burke, Rhetoric of Neutrality

Cerling, Lee cerling at marshall.usc.edu
Fri Apr 17 22:57:32 EDT 2015


On Christian rhetoric justifying war, *First Things* is a journal that has regularly published essays using (Christian) Just War theory in the past to justify (or not) certain wars.  One of the more interesting and perhaps provocative was one by Darrel Coles, entitled "Good Wars," which was already in press, and just happened to come out in the October issue of 2001, just days after 9/11.

On the subject of the rhetoric of neutrality, there is a fantastic book review by Thomas Haskell regarding Peter Novick's book on the history of the American Historical Association's century-long quest for objectivity.  His article is entitled "Objectivity is Not Neutrality:  Rhetoric Vs. Practice in Peter Novick's *That Noble Dream*".   Apparently, the article was later turned into a book with a similar name.

As I recall, Haskell argued, quite persuasively to my mind, that, while it is true to say that it is impossible to achieve a "neutral" stance or view or description of anything, it does not follow that we cannot therefore strive for and achieve something that can fairly called "objectivity."  That is, we err when we conflate the concept "neutrality" with "objectivity"; and when we do so, it leads to a host of other errors, not least of which is pessimism about the possibility of achieving "objectivity" and fairness.  As a prime example, he argues that Novick's book is itself not "neutral" about the history he is telling, but that he presumes that Novick would himself maintain that the book is fairly, and (by extension) objectively, telling the history of his field.

In any event, it is a terrific exchange, and Novick's book, and Haskell's review, and Novick's response, are all well worth reading.

Best regards,

Lee Cerling

Sent from my iPad

On Apr 17, 2015, at 12:06 PM, Clarke Rountree <rountrj at uah.edu<mailto:rountrj at uah.edu>> wrote:

Speaking of attention-drawing: while everyone's following Pierre's thread, let me throw in a question about a class and a scholarly colloquium I plan to put on in the fall: The class is on the rhetoric of war. Does anyone know a good book on the subject? (I know Ivie has lots of useful work in the area.) Also, I'm trying to put together a Southern Colloquium on Rhetoric for Jim Darsey. (He's hosted several of these half-day events for the past few years.) That one will be on rhetoric, war, and religion. Do you have any suggestions for representative rhetorical artifacts that grapple with, say, Christian justifications for war? Or notable essays that tackle the issue?



On Fri, Apr 17, 2015 at 2:02 PM, Clarke Rountree <rountrj at uah.edu<mailto:rountrj at uah.edu>> wrote:

May I suggest another literature that might be useful. There is a line of argument concerning "antirhetoric" or rhetoric that pretends not to be rhetorical. An early discussion of this is found in an essay by Michael Calvin McGee and John R. Lyne, "What are Nice Folks Like You Doing in a Place Like This? Some Entailments of Treating Knowledge Claims Rhetorically" (in John S. Nelson, Allan Megill, and Donald N. McCloskey, The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences: Language and Argument in Scholarship and Public Affairs, pp. 381-406). They note: "The dialectic that undergirds the turn to rhetoric in contemporary letters lies in an opposition between passionate and prejudiced social reason (traditionally associated with the rhetoric of marketplace and forum) and an antirhetoric of cool, comfortably neutral technical reason (associated in the public mind with computing machines and sterile laboratories)" (389). Later they admit "there is a sense in which antirhetoric's appeal to objective knowledge and its accompanying denunciation of rhetoric is one of the most effective rhetorical strategies available. No one was a greater master of the strategy than Plato. In our time, masters of the rhetoric of science command the most formidable rhetorical ethos. Theirs is the chaste rhetoric that pretends not to be rhetorical" (393, endnote omitted).

Neutrality draws upon the ideals of science--or perhaps even a commonsense perception that one is not "placing a thumb on one side of a scale" in communicating. It is powerful BECAUSE it denies its rhetoricity. It draws on a sensibility that suggests "that's the way it is--the plain, unvarnished truth."

Of course Burke points out that any terminology necessarily draws attention to some things and not other things (not to mention often carrying connotations and other values with them); in this sense, there is no neutral vocabulary (for why should we attend to this rather than that?).

Good luck!


On Fri, Apr 17, 2015 at 12:55 PM, <wessr at onid.orst.edu<mailto:wessr at onid.orst.edu>> wrote:
Hi Pierre, good to hear your project is progressing. I remember our talk in Ghent.

Here are a few Burke texts that come to mind:

(1) "Our Attempt to Avoid Mere Relativism," the final section of "Terministic Screens."

(2) RHETORIC OF MOTIVES, p. 201 (juxtapose with Bentham)


Of these, (3) might be most useful for creating, as you put it, an "atmosphere of neutrality in specific contexts."

I think Burke would oppose any theorizing of neutrality that eliminated motive on the ground that that is a kind of dramatistic self-contradiction (such theorizing is itself an act, so must have a motive). But there is an alternative: (3) suggests the possibility of "a level of motivation which even wholly rival doctrines of motives must share in common." A motive shared by all is in a sense neutral to all.

Good luck with your project.


Quoting Pierre Smolarski <pierre.smolarski at fh-bielefeld.de<mailto:pierre.smolarski at fh-bielefeld.de>>:

Dear Greg,

sorry I didn't express myself good enough: Of course there is no such thing as neutrality. pure neutrality would be unperceivable or at least totally boring. But of course there is the phenomenon, or better: the effect of neutrality. To call a house a house seems to be very neutral. Scienctific maps look as if they where neutral, etc. So do you mean by saying "there cannot be a rhetoric of neutrality" that there cannot be a strategical, rhetoical use of neutrality (as effect)? That there cannot be an attempt to create images or find words that will (in the eye/ear of the audience) have an effect of neutrality? Being a mediator, for example, is only possible if both side trust in your neutrality. Being a successful mediator so means, to create an atmosphere of neutrality. This creation would imply (I guess) some strategies: How to appear as neutral as I can? This understanding of neutrality does not contradict the idea of terminsitic screens. Moreover: Maybe neutrality has its own terministic screen?

Burke is - by discussing Bentham in his Rhetoric of Motives - talking about neutrality: There he points out: "Where inducement to action is concerned, a genuinely neutral vocabulary would defeat its own ends: for there is no act in it. It would give full instructions for conditioning - but it could not say to what one should condition." Thats a great and right statement so far it reaches. But how far is that? Asking a designer of timetables and plans for train-stations, he said: "We just deliver (neutral) information for the persons, who want to travel by train. We give them what they should know." Nearly the same answer you can get from almost every information-designer. But is information neutral? For Burke, there is no 'should' in neutrality and therefore no direction, no act. In the answer of the designer you see: there is a 'should' even in the claim of neutrality. It is the Information you should know! At least the product (timetable, plan, map, whatever) has to persuade of its own value.

My kind of thinking is maybe to confus and to of course not elaborated enough, yet. That's exactly the reason for me to contact you. A 'rhetroic of neurality' should be an enquiry about the strategies used to create an atmosphere of neutrality in specific contexts. Even if neutrality does not exist, it can be a powerful motive, or not?

Best Regards,

Am 17.04.15 16:53 schrieb Gregory Desilet  <info at gregorydesilet.com<mailto:info at gregorydesilet.com>>:

It strikes me that Burke would be a theorist providing the paradigm rationale for why there cannot be a ?rhetoric of neutrality.? Burke shows why every use of language is necessarily partisan. See his essay ?Terministic Screens.?


On Apr 16, 2015, at 5:58 PM, Pierre Smolarski <pierre.smolarski at fh-bielefeld.de<mailto:pierre.smolarski at fh-bielefeld.de>> wrote:

> Dear Burkeans,
> while writing my PhD Thesis on 'Rhetoric of Design', I'm now at the point discussing rhetorical dimensions in information-desgin (especially in map-design, timetables at busstops, etc.) Long story short: This chapter is (or should be) embedded in a 'Rhetoric of Neutrality'. My question is: Is Burke writing somewhere about this topic?
> The simple baseline goes that:
> neutrum = neither of both
> Since rhetoric is based on 'one of both' (metaphorically: 'both' means the possibility of choice, the Agon; 'one' means the attitude, the partisanship, the aim of persuasion) it is contrary to the neutral 'neither of both'. Neutrality negates the rhetorical usefulness and/or meaningfulness of the Agon. Not in the way of 'neither of both, but a third' (this wouldn't break the logic of the agon), but in the way 'neither of both as third' (this might be the kind of neutrality of switzerland) This kind of neutrality is obviously. It is the disputatious position of having no position. (The use- and meaningfulness of the rhetorical agon is only negated on the first level. On the meta-level, concerning the motives of neutrality, there are still rhetorical strategies at work.)
> From there we come to other forms of neutrality: the (sorry or my english) 'one of one' (going with terms like: the truth, the causal, the logical necessary, the natural, the antipersuasive (close to the sense of Kierkegaard) and, maybe: denotation) The neutrality is here not obvious, everything seems to be as it is: It is what it is. So is it. (Thats maybe the point, where scientific maps claim there objectivity and neutrality)
> Another form of neutrality might be the 'both of both' (going with terms like: mediation, diplomatic, etc.)
> Mayber everything is confusing: So my question is just: Is there any rhetorical theory of neutrality? (Kinross is not very helpful)
> Thank you much and greatings from Bern in Switzerland
> Pierre Smolarski
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Dr. Clarke Rountree
Chair and Professor of Communication Arts
342 Morton Hall
University of Alabama in Huntsville
Huntsville, AL  35899
clarke.rountree at uah.edu<mailto:clarke.rountree at uah.edu>

Dr. Clarke Rountree
Chair and Professor of Communication Arts
342 Morton Hall
University of Alabama in Huntsville
Huntsville, AL  35899
clarke.rountree at uah.edu<mailto:clarke.rountree at uah.edu>
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