Volume 10, Issue 1 Summer 2014

Contents of Issue 10.1 (Summer 2014)

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colombian Corruption

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

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


Text Selection

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

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

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

Cluster Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Corruption as Decay

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

Corruption as an Illegal Practice

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

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

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

Corruption as a Piñata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corruption as an Irregular Action

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

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

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

Corruption as an Unethical Behavior

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

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

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

Corruption as a Normal Practice

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

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

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

The Agon(s) of Corruption

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


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

Polysemous Nature of Corruption

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

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

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

Normalization of Corruption

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Works Cited

AICM. Estudio general de medios. 2011. Web. 16 Mar. 2012.

Antequera, Juan Carlos, and Obregon, Rafael. “La radio como dinamizadora de procesos sociales y culturales en Barranquilla (Colombia).” Investigación y Desarrollo. 10 (2002):146-169. Print.

Berthold, Carol. “Kenneth Burke’s Cluster-Agon Method: Its Development and an Application.” Central States Speech Journal 27 (1976): 302-309. Print.

Boggs, Carl, and Dirmann, Tinna. “The Myth of Electronic Populism: Talk Radio and the Decline of the Public Sphere.” The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy  5 (1999): 65-94.

Bonilla, Jorge Ivan, Restrepo, Adrian, Vásquez, Katalina, and Betancur, Juan Gonzalo “Cinco estudios de caso sobre buenas prácticas para superar el conflicto armado en Antioquia: Claves, lecciones y balances”. Comunicación, desarrollo y cambio social. (2011): 241-286. Ed. J. M. Pereira, y A. Cadavid. Bogotá: Editorial Pontificia Universidad Javeriana. Print.

Boyd, Alice. “Corruption Trial Opens Against Ex-Minister Arias.” Colombia Reports. 13 Oct. 2011. Web. 12 Jan. 2012.

Breit, Eric. “On the (Re)Construction of Corruption in the Media: a Critical Discursive Approach.” Journal of Business Ethics 92 (2010): 619- 635.

Burke, Kenneth. “The Meaning of C. K. Ogden.” New Republic 78 (1934): 328-31. Print.

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

—. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. Los Altos: CA: Hermes, 1954. Print.

—. Attitudes Toward History. Los Altos, CA: Hermes, 1959. Print.

—. Language as Symbolic Action. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966. Print.

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

—. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State UP, 1941. Print.

Centro Nacional de Consultoría. Estudio continuo de audiencia radial. 2011. Web. 20 Feb.2012.

Cepeda, Fernando. La corrupción en Colombia. Bogotá: Tercer Mundo Editores, 1997. Print.

Cepeda, Fernando. "La financiación de la política y la corrupción". 9th International Anti-Corruption Conference, IACC,  Durban, South Africa. Oct. 1999. Web.14 Apr. 2012. 

Colombia. Secretaría el senado. Agro Ingreso Seguro: Ley 1133. 9 abr. 2007. Web. 22 Mar. 2012.  

Duzán, Maria Jimena. “El periodismo entró a la Unidad Nacional”. Revista Semana. 10 Sep. 2011. Web. 22 Mar. 2012.

Ekströ, Mats. “Announced refusal to answer: A study of norms and accountability in broadcast political interviews”. Discourse Studies 11(2010): 681-702. Print.

“Exministro de Protección Social se pronuncia frente al « carrusel de la salud»”. Revista Semana. 30 Nov. 2011. Web. 22 Mar. 2012.

Fedesarrollo. "Causas de la corrupción". La corrupción en Colombia. (1997): 49-57.  Ed.  F. Cepeda. Bogotá: Tercer Mundo Editores. Print.

Foss, Sonja. “Women Priests in the Episcopal Church: A Cluster Analysis of Establishment Rhetoric”. Religious Communication Today 7 (1984): 1-11. Print.

 —. Rhetorical CriticismExploration and Practice. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland, 1989. Print.

Giglioli, Pier Paolo. “Political Corruption and Media: The Tangentopoli Affair.” International Social Science Journal 48 (1996): 381-94. Print.

Hutchby, Ian. Confrontation Talk: Arguments, Asymmetries, and Power on Radio. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1996. Print.

Intermedia. Urban Colombia: Communication profile. Ago. 2010. Web. 15 Jun.2013.

Jarso, James. “The Media and the Anti-Corruption Crusade in Kenya: Weighing the Achievement, Challenges, and Prospects.” International Law Review 26 (2011): 33-88. Print.

Jain, Arvind, ed. The Political Economy of Corruption. New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Jasinski, James. Sourcebook on Rhetoric: Key Concepts in Contemporary Rhetorical Studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001. Print.

Kaplún, Mario. “Why Educate?” Communication for Social Change Anthology: Historical and Contemporary Readings. (2006): 147-156. Ed. A. Gumucio-Dragon, and T. Tufte. South Orange, NJ: Communication for Social Change Consortium. Print.

Lalinde, Ana Maria. “Radio informativa: ¿Es posible la participación?” Signo y Pensamiento 33 (1998): 47-58. Print.

Lynch, John. “Race and Radical Renamings: Using Cluster Agon Method to Assess the Radical Potential of ‘European American’ as a Substitute for ‘White.’” KB. Journal 2 2006. Web. 16 Mar. 2012.

Mastrini, Guillermo, y Becerra, Martin. “Estructura y dimensión de las industrias infocomunicacionales en América Latina." Palabra Clave 12 (2005): 9-28. Print.

Mejía, Gabriel, y Gómez, Juan Carlos. "Para entender la radio comunitaria hoy.” Signo y Pensamiento 38 (2001): 140-47. Print.

Mockus, Antanas. “¿Por qué competencias ciudadanas en Colombia?” Bogotá: Al Tablero 27 (2004): 1-3. Print.

Montilla, Gabriela, and Jackman, Robert. “Sources of Corruption: A Cross-Country Study.” British Journal of Political Science 32 (2002): 147-70. Print.

Morales, Fernando. (2011, December 1). “Colombia otra vez rajada en percepción sobre corrupción.” El Espectador 1 Dec. 2011. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.

Mwakawago, Daudi.. “Radio as a Tool for Development.” Communication for Social Change Anthology: Historical and Contemporary Readings. Ed. A. Gumucio-Dragon and T. Tufte. South Orange, NJ: Communication for Social Change Consortium, (2006): 307-13. Print.

Neckel, Sighard. “Political Scandals: An Analytical Framework.” Comparative Sociology 4 (2005): 101-11. Print.

Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Pásara, Luis. El conflicto entre medios de comunicación y justicia. MA Thesis. Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. 2003. Web. 6 Feb. 2012.

Pinseler, Jan “The Politics of Talk on German Free Radio Stations.” Westminster Papers in Communication & Culture 5 (2008): 67-85. Print.

Pizano, Daniel. “Nos chupó la corrupción.” Revista Semana. 27 Feb. 2011. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.

Prisa. “Caracol Radio Consolidates Its Lead with 8,826,600 Listeners.” 6 Feb. 2010. 15 Jun. 2013.

Programa Agro. “Programa Agro Ingreso Seguro ha beneficiado a hijos de políticos y reinas de belleza.” Revista Cambio. 23 Sep. 2009. Web. 12 Jan. 2012.           

Restrepo, Juan. "El escándalo: Una construcción social y política de la corrupción en los medios de comunicación.” Escribanía 15 (2005): 69-77. Print.

Roeh, Itzak. The Rhetoric of News Radio in the Israel Radio: Some Implications of Language and Style for Newstelling. Bochum, Germany: Studienverlag & Brockmeyer, 1982. Print.

Rønning, Helge. “The Politics of Corruption and the Media in Africa.” Journal of African Media Studies 1 (2009): 155-71.

Samper, Daniel. “Nos chupó la corrupción.” El Tiempo. 27 Feb. 2011. Web. 2 Mar. 2011.

Semana, (2011, July 30). “La hecatombe del ‘irremplazable.’” Revista Semana. 30 Jul 2011. Web. 1 Aug. 2011. 

Solimano, Andres, Tanzi, Vito, and Del Solar, Felipe. Las termitas del Estado: Ensayos sobre corrupción, transparencia y desarrollo. Santiago de Chile: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2008. Print.

Tumber, Howard, y Waisbord, Silvio. “Political Scandals and Media Across Democracies.” American Behavioral Scientist 47 (2004): 1143-52.

Turbide, Oliver, Vincent, Diane, and Laforest, Marti. “The Circulation of Discourse: the Case of Deprecating Remarks on Trash Radio.” Discourse Studies 12 (2010): 785-801.

Ureña, Nubia Esperanza. "Corrupción y ética: Polos opuestos de la misma realidad". La corrupción en Colombia. Ed. F. Cepeda. Bogotá: Tercer Mundo Editores, 1997: 211-31. Print.

Vaca, Hernando. “Procesos interactivos mediáticos de Radio Sutatenza con los campesinos de Colombia”. Signo y Pensamiento 58(2011): 254-69.   

Vargas-Hernández, José. “The Multiple Faces of Corruption: Typology, Forms and Levels.”Contemporary Legal & Economic Issues 3 (2009)269-90.

Yusha'u, Muhammad. “Investigative Journalism and Scandal Reporting in the Nigerian Press.” African Journalism Studies 30 (2009): 155-74.

Podcast Reference List

Charry, Juan Manuel. "Intervención de Saludcoop, llegó tarde el gobierno?" Hora 20. 12 May. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.

Esguerra, Juan Carlos. "Cuestionamientos a Conservadores: La corrupción es de un solo partido?" Hora 20.  14 Mar. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.

Flores, Juan Carlos. "Fiscalía imputa cargos contra Andrés Felipe Arias: Irá a la cárcel?" Hora 20. 21 Jul. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.

Forero, Alvaro. "Hacia dónde va la imputación de cargos contra Andrés Felipe Arias?" Hora 20. 13 Jun. 2011. 10 Nov. 2011.

López, Claudia. (2011, July 26). "  Por intentar obstruir la justicia: Andrés Felipe Arias a la cárcel" Hora 20. 26 Jul. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.  

Nieto, Rafael. "Facultades a Santos: Una reforma para el fin de la corrupción?" Hora 20. 15 Mar. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.

Palacio, Diego. "Escándalo por nuevo cartel de la salud, un nuevo carrusel de corrupción?" Hora 20. 5 May. 2011. Web.

Rangel, Alfredo.  "Hacia dónde va la imputación de cargos contra Andrés Felipe Arias ?" Hora 20. 13 Jun. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.

Robledo, Jorge Enrique. “Por intentar obstruir la justicia: Andrés Felipe Arias a la cárcel .Hora 20. 26 Jul. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.

Santos, Alejandro. "Facultades a Santos: Una reforma para el fin de la corrupción?" Hora 20. 15 Mar. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2011..

Touffou, Marie. "La corrupción en Colombia vista por los analistas internacionales: Problema cultural, nacional o universal?" Hora 20. 13 May. 2011. Web 10 Nov. 2011.  

Uribe, Néstor. "Cuestionamientos a Conservadores: La corrupción es de un solo partido?" Hora 20. 14 Mar. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Reflections on the First European Kenneth Burke Conference

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

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


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

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

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

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

Keynote Speakers

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

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

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

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

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

Plenary Sessions

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Cahil, W. (2011). Kenneth Burke’s pedagogy of motives, KB Journal, 7(2). http://www.kbjournal.org/william_cahill

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

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

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

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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

Derek Pigrum, University of Bath


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

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

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

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

Auerbach’s “Topics”

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

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

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

Erasure, Restitution and “Self-Address”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stimulus of the Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Pursuit of “Pure Persuasion’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tusa, John. Frank Auerbach. Interview.BBC-Radio 3 (7 Oct. 2001). http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00nc4kl

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

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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

Odile Heynders, Tilburg University


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

The Poet Laureate as Public Intellectual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burkean Perspective on Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Poems of the Poet Laureate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Responses and Engagement

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

6. For more biographical information, I refer to his official website < http://www.ramseynasr.nl> [Accessed on 9 May 2013].

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15. Party for Freedom.

16. Zizek: Liberal multiculturalism masks an old barbarism with a human face. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/oct/03/immigration-policy-roma-rightwing-europe >[Accessed on 21 May 2013]

17. Translation Hans Verhulst, Tilburg University.

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

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

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

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

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

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

23. As stated on the PVV website, accessed on 8 October 2013: <http://www.pvv.nl/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=716.

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

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

< http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/poem/item/15988/auto/THE-HUDSON-SONNETS > [Accessed on 8 October 2013]

25. http://www.volkskrant.nl/vk/nl/2844/Archief/archief/article/detail/1054562/2010/11/17/Zo-erg-is-het-niet-Berlusconi-blijft-ook-bezig.dhtml > [Accessed on 21 May 2013]

26. See: <http://www.decontrabas.com/.services/blog/6a00d8341c6d0253ef00d8341c6d0353ef/search?filter.q=nasr > [Accessed on 21 May 2013] and <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVXKX8O9H38 > [Accessed on 21 May 2013]

27. Pownews 29–10–2010.

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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

Marco Hamam, Università di Sassari (Italy)

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

1. Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the contrary, detachment is seen as characterized by:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Examples of Code-Switching

I.a. Sociolinguistic conventions

I.b. Transcription conventions

/ short pause (less than 1’’)

// medium pause (nearly 1’’)

? interrogative intonation

| conclusive intonation

. . . hesitation

as far as the Arabic transcriptions are concerned

: or :: vocalic lengthening

ɂ glottal stop that is etymologically a /q/

[yixlaɂ à x l q]

/ð/ ḏ

/θ/ ṯ

// ḏ̣

I.c. Glosses and other abbreviations

2 second person

excl part exclamatory particle

imp imperative

f feminine

m masculine

p person

pl plural

poss possessive marker

rel relativizer

s singular

voc prep vocative preposition

EN English

SP Spanish

HI Hindi

SA Standard or Substandard Arabic

NA Native Arabic

EA Egyptian Arabic

YA Yemeni Arabic

4.1. Excerpt 1

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

(1) EN à SP à EN dialogue

(Gumperz 83–84)

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


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


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

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


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


se me acababan los cigarros en la noche (SP)

my cigarettes would run out on me at night


I’d get desperate(EN)


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

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


you know.(EN)

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

4.2. Excerpt 2

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

(2) We-code vs. They-code

code-switching they code à we code

code-switching we code à they code


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

4.3. Excerpt 3    

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

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

(3) SA à EA monologue

(Holes 34); glosses added, transcription adapted

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







bi-ntiṣa:ra:tihi /


voc prep

my brethren

we look


With-its victories

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







we look

at-the -past

with-its battles

we look


With-its martyrs

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





bi-n-naṣr [ . . . ]


and-we look



we raised them


and-we remember

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






our flags


they were stained



our blood stained flags.




xwa:ni /



bi-ntia:ra:tu /


voc prep

my brethren

we look

at-the -past

With-its victories

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



bi-maʕarku [ . . . ]





we look


with-its battles

we look



with-its martyrs

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

nbuṣṣ [ . . . ]





bi-n-nar [ . . . ]


we look




we raised them

with- the-victory

And-we remember

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










they were stained

with-the- blood


our blood stained flags.

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

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

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

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

4.4. Excerpt 4

(4) SA à EA monologue

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

transcription slightly adapted

            The ousted Egyptian Ḥusnī Mubārak addressing a speech.


θa:niyan /



fi l-miza:ni

t-tuga:ri /

ʕan ṭari:qi


redressing of




By way of

Secondly, redressing the deficit in the trade balance, by




l-ʔisti:ra:d /




increasing of


and-controlling of


so-issue of



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


maṣi:riyya /






l-fiʔa:t /



it has to



interest of



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





ʕibʔ /



fi maṣr /






and-responsibility of


in Egypt

who is involved in Egyptian production.


l-muʔassasa:ti /



min agli


of all





security of

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


l-maṣri /





 the Egyptian economy [ . . . ]


da ʔana


ʔana kunt /

fi šarm iš-ši:x /




excl part I


I was

in Sharm El Sheikh

you (pl) know



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



fi l-fallaḥi:n

di /


di /



we were

we make them

at the peasants




and-we fix them

with reed

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



wi-nṭayyarha /


mi l-barazi:l /



and-piece of


and-we let them fly

we bring them

from the-Brazil



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


ha:yif /

bi-yʔul lak

wi-da mablaġ? /



masal /



he tells you

and-this amount


I give


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


mi l-barazi:l


they buy them

from Brazil!


They buy them from Brazil! [applause]

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

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

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

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

4.5. Excerpt 5

(5) SA à EA monologue

Mattā al-Miskīn (Hamam 262);  glosses added

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




yasu:ʕ il‑masi:h


fi kull



wa‑mašlu:l /

he was


Jesus the-Christ

he sees

in every




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





xa:liqihi | /




he was

he sees

in him

image of

his Creator

he was

he sees

isn’t it (that)

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









come on

we make



our image

so-he was

he takes delight


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





xayran |




he wanders

he makes



in going about doing good all day long.



fi l‑maʕmu:diyya

ɂal lina






in the-Baptism

he said-to us


excl part


you became

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

wla:di /



ʕamali /


Ɂide:ku /

zayy ma

my children

dress me.imp


my work


your hands


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










I stretched them





wear yourselves out


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



fi l‑giba:l





in the-mountains



and day, then climb the mountains and pray.

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

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

4.6. Excerpt 6

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

(6) YA à SA monologue

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

         A Yemeni Islamic cleric talking about the Islamic banking



yugu:l lak

bi-šarṭ /





he says to you

on-one condition




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



ği:b lak

al-muhandisi:n [ . . . ]


he said


I bring to you



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




ʔaz-zira:ʕi /




l-xabi:r |

it came




take it



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




he studied



Once it has been examined by the expert:




na:ğiḥ /




fi: l-ʔida:ra /






we will share

with you

in the-management

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




ʕank |


for us


for you

a representative from our side and one from your side,



kaða:               wa-kaða:




such and such


and the administration should be as such and such

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Alfonzetti, Giovanna (1992). Il discorso bilingue: italiano e dialetto a Catania. Milan. Franco Angeli.

Auer, Peter (1995). “The pragmatics of code-switching: a sequential approach.” In Milroy & Muysken (1995). pp. 115–135.

Bakhtin, Michail (1981). The dialogic imagination. Austin. University of Texas Press.

Bassiouney, Reem (2006). Functions of code switching in Egypt: evidence from monologues. Leiden. Brill.

Berruto, Gaetano (2007). Fondamenti di sociolinguistica. Bari. Laterza.

Blom, Jan-Petter & GUMPERZ, John (1972). Social meaning in linguistic structure: code- switching in Norway. In John Gumperz and Dell Hymes (ed.). Directions in Sociolinguistics. New York. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. pp. 407–434.

Burke, Kenneth (1941). The Philosophy of Literary Form. Louisiana. Louisiana State University Press.

Burke, Kenneth (1969). A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley & Los Angeles. University of California Press.

Burke, Kenneth (1961). The Rhetoric of Religion. Berkeley & Los Angeles. University of California Press.

Burke, Kenneth (1966). Language as symbolic action. Berkeley & Los Angeles. University of California Press.

Burke, Kenneth (1969). A rhetoric of motives. Berkeley & Los Angeles. University of California Press.

Burke, Kenneth (1972). Dramatism and Development. Barre, MA. Clark UP.

Burke, Kenneth (1976). Above the Over-Towering Babble. Michigan Quarterly Review, 15(Winter 1976). pp. 88–102.

Burke, Kenneth (1984). Attitudes Toward History. University of California Press.

Ferguson, Charles Albert (1959). Diglossia. "Word." 15. pp. 325–340.

Fernandez, Mauro (1993). Diglossia: a comprehensive bibliography, 1960–1990, and supplements. Philadelphia. John Benjamins.

Gee, James Paul (2005). An introduction to discourse analysis: theory and method. Cambridge. Routledge.

Goffman, Erving (1979). Footing. Semiotica. 25(1–2). pp. 1–30.

Grassi, C., Sobrero  & A. A., Telmon T. (2003). Introduzione alla dialettologia italiana. Rome-Bari. Editori Laterza.

Grosjean, François (1982). Life with Two Languages: an Introduction to Bilingualism. Cambridge, Massachusetts/London. Harvard University Press.

Gumperz, John (1982). Discourse strategies. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Gusfield, Joseph R. (1989) (ed.). Kenneth Burke: on symbols and society. Chicago & London. The University of Chicago press.

Halliday, Micheal A.K. (1992). Lingua parlata e lingua scritta. Firenze. La Nuova Italia [Italian translation of the original H.M. (1985), Spoken language and written language. Oxford. Oxford University Press).

Hamam, Marco (2011). Loci and rhetorical functions of diglossic code-switching in spoken Arabic: an analysis of the corpus of homilies of the Egyptian hegumen Mattā al-Miskīn (1919–2006). Doctoral dissertation. Rome/Louvain-la-Neuve.

Holes, Clive (1993). “Theuses of variation: a study of the political speeches of Gamal Abd al-Nasir.” In Eid & Holes (eds.) (1993). Perspectives on Arabic Linguistics V. Amsterdam/Philadelphia. John Benjamins Publishing Company. pp. 13–45.

Hymes, Dell (1962). The Ethnography of Speaking. Anthropology and Human Behavior. Ed. T. Gladwin, W. C. Sturtevant. 13–53. Washington, D.C. . Anthropological Society of Washington.

Hymes, Dell (1968). Review of Language as Symbolic Action. Language 44(3), pp. 664–68.

Hymes, Dell (1989 [1974]). Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach. Philadelphia. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Hymes, Dell (2003). Now I Know Only So Far: Essays in Ethnopoetics. Lincoln (NE). University of Nebraska Press.

Jordan, Jay (2005). “Dell Hymes, Kenneth Burke’s ‘Identification,’ and the Birth of Sociolinguistics.” Rhetoric Review 24, pp. 264–79.

Lakoff, Robin Tolmach (1979). “Stylistic strategies within a grammar of style. Language, sex and gender.” In Orasanu, J. et al. (eds.) (1979). Annals of the New York Academy of sciences. 327. New York. pp. 53–78.

Lindsay, Stan A. (1998). Implicit Rhetoric: Kenneth Burke’s Extension of Aristotle’s Concept of Entelechy. Lanham, MD. University Press of America.

MARÇAIS, William (1930). La diglossie arabe dans l’enseignement public. Revue pédagogique. 54(12), Algiers. pp. 401–409.

Radcliffe, Krista (2005). Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Carbondale, IL. Southern Illinois University Press.

Saeed, Aziz T. (1997). The pragmatics of codeswitching from fusha Arabic to aamiyyah Arabic in religious-oriented discourse. PhD dissertation. Muncie (Indiana). Ball State University.

Taine-Cheikh, Catherine (2002). “De la variation linguistique dans le prêche populaire mauritanien.” In Rouchdy, Aleia (2002). Language contact and language conflict in Arabic: variations on a sociolinguistic theme. London. Routledge Curzon. pp. 177–202.

Tannen, Deborah (1980). “Spoken and written language and the oral literate continuum.” In Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society. Berkeley. University of California at Berkeley.

Tannen, Deborah (1982). Oral and literate strategies in spoken and written narratives. Language. 58(1). pp. 1–21.

Tannen, Deborah (2007[1989]). Talking voices: repetition, dialogue and imagery in conversational discourse. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Weiss, Matthew (2008). Kenneth Burke on Motion and Action: The Problem of Dualism. Paper presented at “Kenneth Burke: transcendence by perspective,” 7th Triennial Conference for the Kenneth Burke Society, June 29-July 1, 2008. Villanova University. http://terpconnect.umd.edu/~jklumpp/kbworkshop08/readings/weiss.pdf

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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

Pierre Smolarski, University of Applied Sciences Bielefeld


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


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

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

The Image of the City

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Circular Motive Structure

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

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

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

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

The Elements of the City Image

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

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

The Linear Elements

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

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

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

The Punctual Elements

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

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

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

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

The Laminar Element

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

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

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

City Form

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

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

Some Remarks on Urban Environmental Design and Signage

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited Alexander, Christopher. Notes on the Synthesis of Form. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1964.

Alexander, Christopher, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Bauer, Erwin K., and Dieter Mayer: Orientation and Identity: Portraits of International Way Finding Systems. Vienna: Springer, 2009. Print.

Blankenship, Jane, and Edward Murphy, and Marie Rosenwasser: “Pivotal Terms in the Early Works of Kenneth Burke.” Landmark Essays on Kenneth Burke. (1993): 71–90. Ed. Barry Brummett. New York: Routledge. Print.

Brown, Warner: “Spatial Integrations in a Human Maze.” University of California Publications in Psychology. 5(5) (1932): 123–34. Print.

Buchanan, Richard: “Declaration by Design: Rhetorik, Argument und Darstellung in der Designpraxis.” Design als Rhetorik. Grundlagen, Positionen, Fallstudien. (1985): 49–80. Eds. Joost, Gesche; Scheuermann, Arne. Birkhäuser: Basel. Print

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. Los Altos, CA: Hermes, 1959. Print.

—. Counter-Statement. Berkeley: U of California P, 1931. Print.

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

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

—. Permanence and Chang:. An Anatomy of Purpose. Los Altos, CA: Hermes, 1954. Print.

Clark, Gregory. Rhetorical Landscapes in America. Variations on a Theme from Kenneth Burke. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2004. Print.

Hanzen, Markus. “Identität als Orientierungsmaßstab.” Orientation and Identity. Portraits of International Way Finding Systems. Ed. Erwin K. Bauer and Dieter Mayer. Vienna: Springer. Print, 2009. 21–24. Print.

Hill, Charles A., and Marguerite Helmers. Defining Visual Rhetorics. New Jersey: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Hunt, Wayne, Gerry Rosentswieg, and Eric LaBrecque. Designing and Planning Environmental Graphics. New York: Madison Square P, 1994. Print.

Joost, Gesche, and Arne Scheuermann. Design als Rhetorik. Grundlagen, Positionen, Fallstudien. Birkhäuser: Basel, 2008. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. Kritik der Urteilskraft. Stuttgart: Reclam,1963. Print.

Kaufer, David S., and Brian S. Butler. Rhetoric and the Arts of Design. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1996. Print.

Krippendorff, Klaus. The Semantic Turn. A New Foundation for Design. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2006. Print.

Lakoff, George. Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987. Print.

Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City. Cambridge: MIT UP, 1960. Print.

Mikunda, Christian. Der verbotene Ort oder die inszenierte Verführung. Unwiderstehliches Marketing durch strategische Dramaturgie. München: Redline Wirtschaft, 2005. Print.

Rapoport, Amos. The Meaning of the Built Environment: A Non-Verbal Communication Approach. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1982. Print.

Rosch, Eleanor. “Principles of Categorization.” Cognition and Categorization. Ed. Eleanor Rosch and Barbara B Lloyd. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1978. 27–48. Print.

Scheuermann, Arne: Visuelle Rhetorik 2: Regeln, Spielräume und rhetorischer Nullpunkt im Informationsdesign am Beispiel des öffentlichen Verkehrs. Bern University of the Arts. 2012. Web. 15 July 2014.

Schirra, Jörg R.J., and Klaus Sachs-Hombach. “Bild und Wort. Ein Vergleich aus bildwissenschaftlicher Sicht.” Essener Linguistische Skripte—elektronisch. Jg. 6, Heft 1, 2006. S. 51–72. Print.

Seifert, Jörg. Stadtbild, Wahrnehmung, Design. Kevin Lynch revisited. Gütersloh: Bauverlag, 2011. Print.

Stegmaier, Werner. Philosophie der Orientierung. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 2008. Print.

Tolman, Edward C. “Cognitive Maps in Rats and Men.” 55.4 The Psychological Review (1948): 189–208. Print.

Wagner, Kirsten. “Die visuelle Ordnung der Stadt. Das Bild der Stadt bei Kevin Lynch.” Historisches Forum 8 (2006): 101–21. Print.

Wess, Robert: Kenneth Burke, Rhetoric, Subjectivity, Postmodernism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visualizations and Infographics

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

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

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

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

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

Visualizations as Terministic Screens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expanding the terministic screen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Works Cited

Antonelli, Paula. States of Design 04: Critical Design. 2011. Web. 20 Feb. 2013. https://www.domusweb.it/en/design/2011/08/31/states-of-design-04-critical-design.html.

Badiou, Alain. Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism. Trans. Ray Brassier. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003. Print.

Beach, J.M.. A Sociology of Knowledge: Dramatism, Ideology and Rhetoric. Austin: West by Southwest, 2012. Print.

Bonsiepe, Gui. “Visual/Verbal Rhetoric.” Looking Closer 3. Ed. Michael Beirut, et al. New York: Allworth, 1999. 169–173. Print.

Buchanan, Richard. “Design and the New Rhetoric: Productive Arts in the Philosophy of Culture.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 34.4 (2001): 183–206. Print.

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

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

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

—. The Philosophy of Literary Form. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1941. Print.

Bygrave, Stephen. Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric and Ideology. London: Routledge, 1993. Print.

Card, S. J. Mackinley, and B. Schneiderman. Readings in Information Visualization. San Fransisco: Morgan Kaufmann, 1999. Print.

DiSalvo, Carl F. “World Wide Web Interfaces and Design for the Emergence of Knowledge.” Design Issues 18.1 (2002): 68–77. Print.

Dunne, A. and F. Raby. Design Noir. The Secret Life of Electronic Objects. Basel: Birkhäuser, 2001. Print.

Ehses, Hanno. “Rhetoric and Design.” Design Papers 5: Rhetorical Handbook. Ed. E Lupton. Halifax: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1988. 3–6. Print.

Foss, Sonja K. “Theory of Visual Rhetoric.” Handbook of Visual Communication: Theory, Methods, and Media. Ed. Ken Smith, et al. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005. 141–152. Print.

Gadney, Max. PSFK. 2012. Web. 8 May 2013. http://www.psfk.com/2012/05/data-visualization-vs-infographic.html.

Hall, Peter. A Good Argument. 2009. Web. 8 Dec. 2010. http://www.metropolismag.com/March-2009/A-Good-Argument/.

Hall, Peter. “Critical Visualization.” Design and the Elastic Mind. Ed. L Hruska and R Roberts. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2008. 120–131. Print.

Hildebrand, David L. “Was Kenneth Burke a Pragmatist?” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 31.3 (1995): 632–658. Print.

Hill, Ian. ““The Human Barnyard” and Kenneth Burke’s Philosophy of Technology.” KB Journal 5.2 (2009). Web. 12 Jun. 2013. http://www.kbjournal.org/ian_hill.

Kinross, Robin. “The Rhetoric of Neutrality.” Design Issues 2.2 (1985): 18–30. Print.

Kosara, R. The Difference Between Infographics and Visualization. 2010. Web. 8 May 2013. http://eagereyes.org/blog/2010/the-difference-between-infographics-and-visualization.

Kostelnick, Charles. “Melting-Pot Ideology, Modernist Aesthetics, and the Emergence of Graphical Conventions.” Defining Visual Rhetorics. Ed. C Hill and M Helmers. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004. 215–242. Print.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd edition. London: University of Chicago, 1996. Print.

Lanham, Richard A. The Economics of Attention. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2006. Print.

Lupton, E and H Ehses. “Applying Rhetoric to Graphic Design.” Design Papers 5: Rhetorical Handbook. Ed. Ellen Lupton. Halifax: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1988. Print.

Manovich, Lev. What Is Visualization? 2010. Web. 1 Nov. 2010. http://manovich.net/index.php/projects/what-is-visualization.

McCoy, Katherine. “Information and Persuasion: Rivals or Partners.” Design Issues 16.3 (2000): 80–83. Print.

Sanders, Liz. “On Modelling: An Evolving Map of Design Practice and Design Research.” Interactions 15.6 (2008): 13–17. Print.

Tufte, Edward. Beautiful Evidence. Cheshire: Graphics Press, 2006. Print.

—. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Cheshire: Graphics Press, 1983. Print.

Tyler, AC. “Shaping Belief: the Role of Audience in Visual Communication.” Design Issues 9.1 (1992): 21–29. Print.

Wurman, Richard. Information Anxiety 2. Indianapolis: Que, 2001. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj, ed. Mapping Ideology. London: Verso, 1994. Print.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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

Yakut Oktay, Bogazici University (Istanbul, Turkey)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All We Are—Pentadic Analysis of 24

Who we think we are—exceptional victims in exceptional times


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blaine Mayer: By torturing Mr. Hadad!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who we might become—No time for excuses

Agency and Purpose

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Works Cited

Allen, Michael. “Divided Interest: Split-Screens Aesthetics in 24.” Peacock. 35–47. Print.

Aitkenhead, Decca. “One Hour with Kiefer Southerland.” The Guardian. 2 Feb. 2009. Web. 1 March, 2013.

Blakesley, David. The Elements of Dramatism. Boston: Longman, 2002. Print.

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

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

—. “The Philosophy of Literary Form.” The Philosophy of Literary Form. Studies in Symbolic Action. 1941. 3rd ed., Berkeley: U of California P, 1973. 1–137. Print.

—. “Literature as Equipment for Living.” The Philosophy of Literary Form. Studies in Symbolic Action. 1941. 3rd ed., Berkeley: U of California P, 1973. 293–304. Print.

—. Permanence and Change. An Anatomy of Purpose. 1935. 2nd rev. ed., Berkeley: U of California P, 1954. Print.

Caldwell, Anne and Chambers, Samuel A. “24 after 9/11. The American State of Exception.“ Peacock. 97–108. Print.

Cavelos, Jeanne. “Living with Terror. Jack Bauer as Coping Mechanism in Post-Traumatic Stress Disordered America.” Jack Bauer for President: Terrorism and Politics in 24. Ed. Richard Miniter. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2008. 1–16. Print.

Dana, Rebecca. “Reinventing ’24.’” The Wall Street Journal. 2 Feb. 2008. Web. 1 March 2013.

“Day 2: 8:00 A.M.—9:00 A.M.” 24: Season 2. Writ. Joel Surnow and Michael Loceff. Dir. Jon Cassar. Twentieth Century Fox. 2003. DVD.

“Day 2: 9:00 A.M.—10:00 A.M.” 24: Season 2. Writ. Joel Surnow and Michael Loceff. Dir. Jon Cassar. Twentieth Century Fox. 2003. DVD.

“Day 2: 10:00 A.M.—11:00 A.M.” 24: Season 2. Writ. Howard Gordon. Dir. James Whitmore, Jr. Twentieth Century Fox. 2003. DVD.

“Day 2: 11:00 A.M.—12:00 P.M.” 24: Season 2. Writ. Remi Aubuchon. Dir. James Whitmore, Jr. Twentieth Century Fox. 2003. DVD.

“Day 2: 4:00 P.M.—5:00 P.M.” 24: Season 2. Writ. Howard Gordon. Dir. David Ehrman. Twentieth Century Fox. 2003. DVD.

“Day 2: 5:00 P.M.—6:00 P.M.” 24: Season 2. Writ. David Ehrman. Dir. Rodney Charters. Twentieth Century Fox. 2003. DVD.

“Day 2: 07:00 P.M.—08:00 P.M.” 24: Season 2. Writ. Evan Katz. Dir. Frederick King Keller. Twentieth Century Fox. 2003. DVD.

“Day 2: 10:00 P.M.—11:00 P.M.” 24: Season 2. Writ. Robert Cochran. Dir. Ian Toynton. Twentieth Century Fox. 2003. DVD.

“Day 2: 4:00 A.M.—5:00 A.M.“ 24: Season 2. Writ. Robert Cochran and Howard Gordon. Dir. Ian Toynton. Twentieth Century Fox. 2003. DVD.

“Day 2: 6:00 A.M.—7:00 A.M.” 24: Season 2. Writ. Evan Katz and Gil Grant. Dir. Jon Cassar. Twentieth Century Fox. 2003. DVD

“Day 7: 08:00 A.M.—09:00 A.M.“ 24: Season 7. Writ. Howard Gordon and Joel Surnow and Michael Loceff. Dir. Jon Cassar. Twentieth Century Fox. 2009. DVD.

“Day 7: 09:00 A.M.—10:00 A.M.“ 24: Season 7. Writ. Howard Gordon and Evan Katz, Joel Surnow and Michael Loceff. Dir. Jon Cassar. Twentieth Century Fox. 2009. DVD.

“Day 7: 07:00 A.M.—08:00 A.M.“ 24: Season 7. Writ. Manny Coto and Brannon Braga, Howard Gordon. Dir. Jon Cassar. Twentieth Century Fox. 2009. DVD.

Fournier, Knut. “Torture Justification in 24: Aesthetics of the Bush Administration.“ Les Cahiers de l’Unite, 3 (2012). Web. 30 March 2013.

Furby, Jaqueline. “Interesting Times: The Demands 24’s Real-Time Format Makes on Its Audience.“ Peacock. 59–70. Print.

Griffin, Em. “Dramatism of Kenneth Burke.“ A First Look at Communication Theory, 6th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2006. 329–37. Print.

Herbert, Daniel. “Days and Hours of the Apocalypse: 24 and the Nuclear Narrative.” Peacock. 85–95. Print.

Jackson, Richard. Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counter-Terrorism. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2005. Print.

Jermyn, Deborah. “Reasons to Split Up: Interactivity, Realism, and the Multiple-Image Screen in 24 Reading 24.” Peacock. 49–57. Print.

McCabe, Janet. “Damsels in Distress: Female Narrative Authority and Knowledge in 24.” Peacock. 149–61. Print.

Mendelson, Scott. “Zero Dark Thirty Doesn’t Endorse Torture, and Neither Did 24.” The Huffington Post. 16 Jan. 2013. Web. 1 March 2013.

Mikos, Lothar. Film- und Fernsehanalyse. Konstanz: UTB Verlag, 2008. Print.

Monahan, Torin. “Just-in-Time Secuity. Permanent Exceptions and Neoliberal Orders.“ Peacock. 109–17. Print.

Nelson, Aaron Thomas. “Simulating Terror. Why Bush’s Critics Love 24 Even Though it Supports the Bush Doctrine.” Jack Bauer for President. Terrorism and Politics in 24. Ed. Richard Miniter. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2008. 77–86. Print.

O’Brien, Meredith. “24 writers urged to be careful of portrayal of Muslims.“ The Huffington Post. 18 Jan. 2007. Web. 1 March 2013.

Peacock, Steven. Reading 24. TV against the Clock. London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2007.

—. “It’s about Time.” Peacock. 1–9. Print.

Poniewozik, James. “The Evolution of Jack Bauer.“ Time Magazine, 14 Jan. 2007. Web. 1 Jan. 2013.

Treat, Shaun. “Scapegoating the Big (Un)Easy: Melodramatic Individualism as Trained Incapacity in K-VILLE.“ KB Journal 5.1 (2008). Web. 28 March 2014.

Weber, Cynthia. Imagining America at War: Morality, Politics and Film. London, New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Woolf, Paul. “‘So what are you saying? An oil consortium’s behind the nuke?’ 24, Programme Sponsorship, SUVs, and the ‘War on Terror.’” Peacock. 73–84. Print.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.