Volume 14, Issue 1 Summer 2019

Contents of KB Journal Volume 14, Issue 1 Summer 2019

The Inaugural Address of Donald J. Trump: Terministic Screens and the Reemergence of “Make America Great Again”

Jim A. Kuypers, Virginia Tech
Caitlin McDaniel, Virginia Tech


Using Burke’s notion of terminological screens, we perform a cluster analysis on Donald Trump’s inaugural address. We discovered keywords that appeared to point to Trump’s stock campaign phrase, Make America Great Again: we, Washington, D.C., people, you/your, and America. Our analysis seeks to explain how the phrase's rhetorical presence in Trump’s inaugural address opened and closed possibilities for unity and division, and ultimately allowed for an inaugural speech reception on par with prior presidents

On Friday, January 20, 2017, an estimated 31 million viewers tuned in to watch Donald J. Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States (“Nearly 31 Million”).  His inaugural address, officially titled, “Remarks of President Donald J. Trump—As Prepared for Delivery,”1 was his first opportunity to approach the American people, not as a partisan and contentious political candidate, but as their president for the next four years. There is no doubt that this past presidential election cycle was among the most divisive between the two parties in modern history, especially considering the exchange of words the two presidential candidates had towards one another; President Trump’s inaugural address was an opportunity to put all of the stories, rumors, and his controversial rhetoric as a candidate behind him. Since the founding of the American Republic, presidents have delivered such addresses,2 and because of this tradition, certain characteristics overtime have emerged and coalesced to form generic expectations.  As Lee Siegelman noted, “presidents have become more and more likely to employ language that is accessible to the masses, have invoked more and more unity symbols, and have done more to establish links with traditional American values” (Siegelman 90).3  Inaugural addresses are important because they “commemorate the nation’s past . . . envision its future, and to try to set the tone for the next four years” (Siegelman 81).

During his campaign Trump had one particularly hard worked and controversial stock phrase he used to motivate his supporters and relay his message--Make America Great Again (MAGA). He used this phrase throughout his campaign as a rhetorical touchstone for the changes he wanted to make to the country if elected.  Of note is that even as the phrase’s rhetorical presence runs throughout the inaugural address, Trump used it only once.  The phrase captures the essence of his rhetorical efforts in a campaign that ultimately persuaded over 63 million Americans to support him with their votes.  Trump’s persuasiveness in capturing approximately 46% of all votes cast (Hillary Clinton capturing roughly 48%) bears investigation.  Understanding Make American Great Again, a stock phrase containing the rhetorical essence of his persuasive appeals, is especially important to this goal.  Our purpose, however, is not to understand the term in relation to Trump’s base, but to understand how Trump attempted transition from the term’s initial partisan implications to opening up its meaning to a more inclusive view of America when he became president.  Does the presence of the term open up, in Burkeian terms, possibilities for increased consubtantiality?  Or does it continue to appeal only to a partisan base, thus closing off possibilities for greater unity?

In the pages that follow, we use a form of cluster analysis as a means to discover the rhetorical workings of the phrase Make America Great Again as Trump transitioned from candidate and president-elect to president.  Moreover, through this analysis we discovered that even as Make America Great Again was technically used only once in the inaugural speech, offering a break from the campaign trail and its contentiousness, the terminological screen surrounding the phrase ran strongly throughout the speech, thus offering ideational continuity with Trump’s prior rhetorical efforts.4  For our analysis we first provide a brief history of Trump’s road to the White House that includes a summary explanation about the Make America Great Again phrase associated with Trump and his campaign. We next provide a brief overview of terminological screens and cluster analysis.  We then examine Trump’s inaugural address and offer insights into both the workings of terminological screens and Trump’s use of Make America Great Again. 

Donald J. Trump’s Road to the White House

Trump began his presidential journey on July 16, 2015 when he announced he was running as a potential presidential nominee for the Republican party (Kimble). In the months that followed, he made his stances on issues known through campaign rallies and GOP debates; he eventually won a string of primary races, landing him as the GOP candidate on July 19, 2016, surpassing the minimum 1237 minimum delegate votes required by 204 (Kimble). He continued his journey to the White House through three intense debates with the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton (“Timeline”). Throughout his run as a presidential candidate, he used the Make America Great Again phrase repeatedly, finding it quite attractive to his supporters. Although losing the popular vote (46.2% to 48.1%), Trump won the 2016 election with 306 of 538 electoral votes (“Presidential Election Results”).5

The “Make America Great Again” Campaign Phrase

MAGA hatThrough the phrase Make America Great Again, Trump in part asserts that the current state of America had declined from previous generations, and was in a diminished state at the time of the campaign due to a variety of reasons which he repeatedly stressed during the campaign.6 The slogan quickly caught on, and a signature red hat was created and worn by Trump and many supporters at various rallies across the nation during the campaign season. Far from being a quickly thought up campaign gimmick, the slogan had actually been in Trump’s mind prior to his announcement to run for office; he trademarked the slogan days following Romney’s loss to Barack Obama in 2012 (Engel). What, though, does this phrase mean? In an interview with CSPAN, when asked how he would “make America great again,” Trump explained:

we are going to bring back jobs from China, from Mexico, from all of the places that have just absolutely taken our jobs; we’re just being stripped, we’re being stripped of our jobs, we’re being stripped of our money. We’re going to strengthen our borders, we’re going to build a wall, we’re not going to have people pouring in here, we’re going to change health care, we’re going to take care of our military, we’re going to take care of our vets.  We’re going to make our country potentially better than it has ever been. (“Donald Trump”)

This was not the only time Trump made references to this phrase throughout his campaign. During a campaign speech in Wisconsin in 2016, Trump used the Make America Great Again phrase to end his campaign speech after touching on some of the similar ideals that were suggested in his CSPAN interview. During the rally he stated, “on crime, I am going to support more police in our communities, appoint the best prosecutors and judges in the country, pursue strong enforcement of federal laws, and I am going to break up the gangs, the cartels and criminal syndicates terrorizing our neighborhoods” (“Full Text”). During the same campaign speech, he also mentioned his goal to reestablish law and order in America: “We will once again be a country of law and order, and a country of great success.” He goes on to promise the American people that he will be tough on terrorism when he stated, “to defeat crime and Radical Islamic Terrorism in our country, to win trade in our country, you need tremendous physical and mental strength and stamina. Hillary Clinton doesn’t have that strength and stamina. She cannot win for you.” Trump ties these ideals and his plans regarding a greater America together at the end of this campaign speech when he stated, “Together, We Will Make America Strong Again. We will Make America Safe Again. And We Will Make America Great Again.” This campaign rally was just one of the many references expressing his ideas on what would make America once again great.

In his first speech as the official Republican presidential nominee, Trump established a vision about a less safe America created by previous administrations through focusing in on four specific areas: crime, immigration, the economy, and terrorism (Kuypers, “Presidential Nomination” 144). Through the terministic choices he made during his campaign, starting with his first speech as the official nominee, Trump suggested that America was losing against other nations in trade, and also failing to live up to each generation’s promise to leave a better standard of living to its children.  Of note is that he emphasized the use of the word “we” in these speeches, which acted to enjoin “empowered citizens, as individuals, to work toward success in a resurging America—with Trump as their voice directing a tone deaf Washington to essentially get out of the way so The People can act” (Kuypers, “Presidential Nomination” 150). The themes he focused on in his nomination address, as well as his vision for reinventing America, undergirded future mentions of Make America Great Again throughout his campaign, on election night, and following his victory.  For instance, the month before the election, in an interview with conservative talk show host Sean Hannity, Trump clarified his stock phrase while hinting at those themes once again. This time, however, he used the phrase Make America Great Again and then followed it with reasons why he felt America diminished in its current state: “I can only say we’re going to make America great again. We have so many problems. Our taxes are too high. We’re going to reduce them. Our borders are weak. Our regulations are crazy, drugs are pouring into our country. People are coming into the country that we really shouldn’t have come into the country” (“Interview”). That he associated the phrase with these ideas so late in the campaign suggests a continuity of meaning over time as he used it. Nor did this change after he won the election.

During his first speech as president-elect—his victory speech—he presented similar ideas including fixing the inner cities, taking care of veterans, and fixing America’s economy.6 As president-elect, Trump continued his focus on a unified effort by using “we” instead of “I” when he stated, “Working together, we will begin the urgent task of rebuilding our nation and renewing the American dream” (“Transcript”).  And in a post-victory rally in Youngstown, Ohio, the word “we”rhetorically acted to unite “the people” (Trump supporters and willing moderates) and to stand against the current government state. Trump in that speech asserted, “In America, we don’t worship government” (qtd in Abramson), emphasizing his camp’s belief of why America is different from other nations. He also stated in this same speech, “We are keeping our promises to the people, and yes, we are putting finally, finally we are putting America first.” Also during this rally he focused on asserting how his policies would bring jobs back, allow the rule of the law to be enforced, and restore military readiness.  All of these themes had been central to Trump’s campaign. The continuation of language suggesting how to fix and improve the country as a unified “we” was a theme common within Trump’s rhetoric prior to his first official speech as President.

The use of Make America Great Again continued even after being elected as President.  When discussing an open Senate seat in a “Make America Great Again” rally in Pensacola, Florida, on December 8, 2017, Trump stated, “we need someone in the Senate who will vote for our make America great again agenda, which involves tough on crime, strong on borders, strong on immigration. We want great people coming into our country. Building the wall. Strengthening our military. Continuing our great fight for our veterans” (“President Donald Trump”). These concepts and ideas used when describing this phrase had been consistent throughout his entire campaign, in the moments leading up to his first speech as President, and after.  Before turning to see how this phrase manifested itself in the inaugural address, we first explore the Burkeian concepts of terministic screens and cluster analysis.

Terministic Screens and Cluster Analysis

Kenneth Burke emphasized that our grammatical choices can reveal the meaning behind rhetorical artifacts, and that terministic screens can be used to understand how “what we say we know is filtered through our terms” (Blakesley 95). It is the “capacity  of language (terminology) to encourage us to understand the world in some ways, while filtering (screening) other interpretations out” (McGeough and King 148). The idea behind a terministic screen can be used with the analogy of a photograph, just as the lens of a camera is responsible for creating new perspectives with the same object, a terministic screen filters a view based on the specific terms used. Since terministic screens have that filtering affect, “our attempts to describe or interpret reality are limited initially by the terms available to us, and then further, by which ones we choose” (Blakesley 96).

How we use our language, the choices we make concerning specific words and phrases, shed light on the underlying assumptions that inform our understanding of the world.  When critics examine the choices made by communicators, they can see how key terms coalesce, interact, to form terministic screens.  According to Kenneth Burke, “even if 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 extent it must function also as a deflection of reality” (Burke, Language 45).  There is nothing inherently special about this process; the everyday words we use can show how communicators make some aspects of their reality more salient than others.  Thinking of terministic screens, “whatever terms we use … constitute a … kind of screen [and this screen] directs [our] attention to one field rather than another” (Burke, Language 49).  This directing action is an inducement of sorts, strong or weak, to see the world in a particular fashion.  These screens are also “indicative of the internal thinking of the communicator [for the nature] of our terms affects the nature of our observations, in the sense that the terms direct the attention to one field rather than to another. Also, many of the ‘observations’ are but implications of the particular terminology in terms of which the observations are made” (Burke, Language 46).  

From a dramatistic point of view, such screens work in the service of either continuity or discontinuity, depending upon the person uttering them and the audience receiving them.  For Burke, there are “terms that put things together, and terms that take things apart” (Burke, Language 49).  In other words, terministic screens can also act toward composition and division, since all “terminologies must implicitly or explicitly embody choices between the principle of continuity and the principle of discontinuity”(Burke, Language 50).

With this in mind, we can examine Trump’s inaugural address to see how his language choices “open up possibilities for unity, for consubstantial co-existence even while representing different political views . . . or, alternatively, we see how [his] terms diminish the strength of a consubstantial moment by stressing division” (Kuypers, “January 1832”).  Lawrence Prelli and Terri S. Winters made a cogent observation on this point, that the “notion of terministic screens enables us to scrutinize how efforts to come to terms with problematic situations often involve similarities and differences about what meanings to reveal and conceal, disclose and foreclose.  At stake in efforts to ‘screen’ meanings terminologically is the adequacy of underlying perspectives in depicting a situation’s reality” (226).  Of course, Burke noted that “much that we take as observations about ‘reality’ may be but the spinning out of possibilities implicit in our particular choice of terms” (Burke, Language 46), and it is here that Paul Stob observed that terministic screens “speak to the point at which language and experience move together.  They emphasize the way that terms push us into various channels and fields, which continually shape and reshape our vision and expression” (146).  As Jim A. Kuypers wrote, terministic screens allow

us to infer the various means whereby identification occurs, so we can see how they open up or close down possibilities for consubstantiality.  Burke ascribed a strong influence to terminological screens; not so much in the sense of once uttered that they impose or compel a particular way of viewing the world, but rather they are indicative of the internal thinking of the communicator.  These screens potentially have an influence upon those hearing the discourse. . . .  (Kuypers, “January 1832”)

The practical implication for such an understanding is highlighted by Sarah N. Heiss: “Rhetors’ word choices reflect, select, and deflect particular understandings of the world. In sharing that understanding, they create the communicative possibility for an audience to develop, alter, or extinguish their understanding of that same topic. In turn, rhetoric serves to influence how audiences will then experience and share their world with others” (538).

It is important to note that there are different methods though which we can examine terministic screens to look for worldviews and new meanings. According to David Blakesley, “Burke suggests that we develop methods for choosing terminologies, for elaborating their scope and circumference, and for complementing our choice of terminologies with others that might encourage alternative perspectives or express new relationships” (97). One way critics can discover this range of meanings is through the use of a cluster analysis. Using cluster analysis, a critic can develop an idea about the rhetor’s thoughts and intentions by looking at keywords located throughout the discourse. Blakesley described this type of analysis as “a much-practiced form of dramatistic analysis that reveals the repetitive nature of a writer’s associational (and terminological) logic” (103).

Cluster Analysis

It is well-known that Kenneth Burke viewed rhetoric dramatistically, and that fruitful analysis can be had “via a methodical inquiry into cycles or clusters of terms and their functions” (Burke, “Dramatism” 445).  According to Adriana Angel and Benjamin Bates, “terministic screens are vocabularies or lenses that speakers use to define and understand the world, [and] the method of cluster analysis allows researchers to study the way in which those terms group, relate, and distinguish from others.” The process of cluster analysis often involves examining common themes associated with keywords found within a rhetorical artifact, and figuring out how each cluster compares to another in order to “understand in what ways a writer’s work is an answer to his or her situation, and importantly, whether it is an answer with which we might identify” (Blakesley 104). Once the keywords are identified, a critic can map the language surrounding these keywords to form an interpretation about what is meant and how terms form the overall theme of the rhetor’s work. Doing this can map common themes among certain keywords that form relationships with others and how “these formal relationships express a logic rooted in the writer’s psychology” (Blakesley 104).

Cluster criticism is amenable to different forms of analysis. For instance, it may be used to examine one specific word and meanings behind that one word. Angel and Bates used this type of analysis in their critique of Columbian radio conversations surrounding the word “corruption.” Their analysis consisted of four steps. First, they focused on the terms that “guided the consecutive search for other terms” (Angel and Bates), meaning they found main terms that radio hosts used when they defined or described the term corruption. Second, they examined the radio talk surrounding corruption by identifying terms used by the speakers when referring to corruption. Third, they identified clusters of terms that showed patterns of meaning, which were based on similar ideas that speakers use when referring to corruption. Finally, they determined the rhetor’s motives behind the meanings associated with key terms.

Although cluster criticism can be used to look at one word and meanings associated with that one word, it can also be used to examine meaning behind multiple key words and their role in various contexts by examining multiple artifacts. Robert S. Littlefield and Andrea M. Quenette used this method in looking at media portrayals of authority figures within two different news outlets. They specifically compared different media outlets and their interpretations of authority, specifically in natural disasters to evaluate how media outlets interpret authority figures during a time of crisis.  They sought to understand whether or not the personality or actions of those authority figures were perceived positively or negatively within each newspaper based on the clusters surrounding the key words they were examining, and whether or not this  helped explain media framing of events in society. They identified mentions of authority figures in the two publications they examined and found five common authority-related key words to examine. Once they found these words they looked to the two outlets to determine how the newspapers portrayed these authority figures, based on clusters of words surrounding them, in either a positive or a negative light.

Cluster analysis can be applied in other ways in addition to the two we have provided here, such as using the method in conjunction with others, to analyze political rhetoric from prominent leaders. Daniel S. Brown and Matthew A. Morrow, for example, used a variety of rhetorical strategies including Burke’s cluster analysis, Weaver’s concept of ultimate terms, and the examination of Biblical metaphors to analyze Margaret Thatcher’s “Sermon on the Mound” speech. They conducted this analysis after discovering the criticisms behind the speech which referred to it as “a failed attempt to garner support and move her listeners toward her viewpoint” (Brown and Morrow 45). Brown and Morrow analyzed the work of Thatcher first through her use of “Ultimate Terms,” or more specifically, “god terms” and “devil terms” to determine how combining her perspective on both religion and politics may have affected her intended audience. Once they established the “god” and “devil” terms to examine, they examined ideas clustering around the god term of “Christianity” and the devil term of “politics” to analyze the speech to determine its meaning. This cluster analysis was then followed by an analysis of a Biblical metaphor Thatcher used in her speech. Through conducting this analysis, they discovered that “the effect of her sermon was considerably less than a resounding success because of her misuse of Ultimate Terms and unfortunate choice of biblical metaphor” (Brown and Morrow 52). As evident through this example, cluster analysis can be used with other rhetorical strategies to examine and provide an explanation for why certain ideals expressed by a rhetor of an artifact may not always be effective or appropriate in reaching the intended audience, and how expressing certain worldviews through word choice can affect how others perceive the meaning of the artifact.

Now that we have discussed the perspective of cluster analysis and the basic themes surrounding the Make America Great Again phrase used by Trump prior to being sworn in as president, we analyze through a cluster analysis how key words presented in his inaugural address act to constitute the phrase Make America Great Again.  We seek to discover how he used specific terms to reflect on past administrations, describe the condition of the country, and invent the future under a new Trump administration.  Additionally, we seek to understand what potential such screens held for helping or hindering the creation of a uniting vision for the country and shifting power from the politicians in Washington and returning it to “the people.”

Analysis of the Keywords

Trump’s inaugural address lasted approximately 15 minutes and contained 1433 words, which made it the second shortest inaugural address in presidential history (Rossman).


During the campaign, Trump was dissimilar both to most of the other 16 potential Republican nominees and to his eventual presidential opponent, Hilary Clinton. He had not served any terms in local, state, or national government prior to his current role as president. Instead, his world was that of business. During his campaign he stressed the phrase Make America Great Again, and our concern here is to discover how this term appears in his inaugural address.  Although Make America Great Again appears only at the end of his speech, clusters of terms exist throughout the speech that suggests a strong rhetorical presence of the term.  To investigate its terminological presence, we engage in an inductive cluster analysis of the phrase Make America Great Again, looking for terms that surround and inform its presence in the speech.

After reviewing the speech in both text and video form, we discovered keywords that, taking both frequency and emphasis into account, appeared to point to Make America Great Again: “we,” “Washington, D.C.,” “people,” “you/your,” and “America.” We analyzed and evaluated the  cluster of words surrounding these keywords; in doing so, we were able to demonstrate how the groupings surrounding those key terms lended themselves to reveal the inner workings of the Make America Great Again phrase. To begin, we examine the use of the word “we.”


“We” was among the most prevalent terms used in the address.  Trump used this word to share his vision of unity among Americans to create an “our” shared vision instead of a “my” (Trump’s) vision for the country. His first line of the inaugural address begins with the common theme expressed in his other rhetoric: a group effort is necessary to fix the country. He stated, “We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and to restore its promise for all of our people.” The first cluster of words surrounding the first use of we, (rebuild and restore), are those of promise and unity, and he used these words to exhibit potential change in America. In that first line, he continues to emphasize the group effort that will take place under his administration to change Washington, D.C. instead of emphasizing how his individual administration will enact the change. Seemingly, all actions that will be taken under a Trump administration are constructed as a “we” not “I.”

The word “we” was used to serve as an exhibition of what the American people will be doing during a Trump administration. He used this word to recognize the transfer of power from the past administration to a present, unified we, and how this we would be changing the course of America: “We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power.” Other words Trump used within the context of  we throughout the address were positive words such as: citizens, restore, rebuild, grateful, one nation, share, friendship, goodwill, rediscover, stand, one heart, one home, one destiny, and protect. These words were used by Trump to attempt inclusivity and deliver his promises about transferring power from the government back to the people, and focusing on returning America to a strong and safe state. In this manner, the slogan Make America Great Again entails a group effort, because “we share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny” according to Trump.

Washington, D.C.

Toward the beginning of his inaugural address, Trump focused on the negativity in the country caused by actions of those running the Federal Government. Words that surrounded and that were associated with “Washington, D.C.” included politicians, small group, prospered, power, reaped rewards, flourished, protected, victorious, and celebrated. These words framed Washington, D.C. under past administrations—Democrat and Republican—negatively by demonstrating how the Capitol region and those who worked the system benefited in the past; this is the “establishment,” the problem to be corrected.

Trump stated: “For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s Capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.” By discussing the Capitol and those politicians associated with running Washington, D.C., Trump painted a picture in which Washington, D.C. ruled the people, and that the small group associated with it benefitted and thrived, while the people did not. Instead, they suffered while the Washington, D.C. establishment benefitted, which shows evidence of the presence of negative aspects of this terminological screen. His word choice surrounding the keyword of “people” further extends this negative view of the suffering that took place in a corrupt Washington; the people suffered under old administrations, but will succeed and be protected under Trump’s new vision of America.


As mentioned above, “the people” are closely linked with Washington, D.C.  There is a clear shift in the speech regarding the people of America; this takes place right after Trump’s shift from America’s past into the present. The people have been hurt by Washington, D.C.:

Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.  For many decades, [Washington, D.C.] has enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry….  [It has] Subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military; defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own; and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America's infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. [It has] made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon….

There are both negative and positive keywords associated with the term “people.” The negative words surrounding “people” are associated with the negative actions of the establishment politicians associated with the politicians in the capitol of Washington, D.C.  The people here are associated with a negative experience, emphasizing the people suffered and did not share in the “wealth” and “bore the cost” of the establishment politicians and their actions.  Trump’s rhetoric then shifts from a focus on past administrations to a future embracing the changes that would be made under his administration; here we see the beginnings of a shift between negative words surrounding the keyword people into more positive clusters of words, which is evident when Trump stated, “January 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”

This arrangement between negative clusters being in close proximity to positive clusters surrounding the words referring to Washington, D.C. makes this a pivotal cluster term, one that is both past and future cause for the American scene.  The past/present Washington, D.C. acting upon the people is now to be replaced with a positive future: “That all changes right here, and right now, because this moment belongs to you.” Those positive words surrounding “people” throughout this speech include: rulers again, government controlled by, off of welfare, back to work, live together, good, and pleasant.


Not only did President Trump repeatedly refer to those watching and those who voted as the people, but made it more personal by using the second person, using the words “you” and “your,” and by referring to January 20th as “your day,” and stating that “This is your celebration. And this the United States of America is your country.” Once again, there were clusters of both negative and positive words surrounding the use of you/your. The majority of the words surrounding “you” emphasized the power of individuals to make changes under the new administration. Positive words that clustered around the keywords in second person include: moment, belongs, define, day, celebration, country, part of movement, ignored, voice hopes, dreams, courage, goodness, and love. Negative clusters surrounding you/your include: ignored, not victories, not triumphs. Just like the other negative clusters surrounding the key words, the majority of the negative words surrounding you/your are found in the beginning of his speech following his discussion of establishment politicians and the Capitol. In the past, “you” suffered, but this will no longer be the case under the new administration.

The positive clusters associated with you/your, just like other positive clusters from other keywords, come once the president began talking about the future state of the nation. Trump used the first positive cluster to detail who made the Make America Great Again movement to the White House possible. The first use after the transition of the word your from past to future, focused on positive words such as, “celebration, day, country, everyone listening.” He used the second person to illustrate changes that “you” will see how the power takes a shift from “them” (the establishment) back to “you,” in this case, the American people. The repetition of the word “your” seemed to be used to create a personal connection to voters, attempting to assure both supporters and non-supporters alike that a Trump White House would benefit them, just as promised: “Your voice, your hopes, and your dreams, will define our American destiny. Your courage and goodness and love will forever guide us along the way.” The fight to restore power from Washington, D.C. back to the people to which Trump alluded would not be won by him alone, but with the help of “you,” the people watching and the people who elected him.  We see at the end of the speech the clear switch from the initial clusters of negative terms to positive associations with Make American Great Again: “We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action—constantly complaining but never doing anything about it.  The time for empty talk is over.  Now arrives the hour of action.  You will never be ignored again.  Your voice, your hopes, and your dreams, will define our American destiny.  And your courage and goodness and love will forever guide us along the way.”


Throughout his campaign, Trump attempted to create an image of a “greater America,” where illegal immigration would be minimized, where jobs would be recreated, and where “the people,” and not the establishment, would be the first priority. In his speech these policies emerged, most clustering around the word “America.” Except in a few areas, this word was expressed mainly in positive terms throughout the speech: united, unstoppable, wealthy, proud, safe, heart, fight, spirit, your country, oath of allegiance, first, great, and winning. There were, however, a few negative words surrounding “America”: carnage, left behind, fallen infrastructure, and expense. Once again, the negative connotations are associated with the actions by the Washington, D.C. establishment the President discussed early in his speech (and throughout the entirety of his campaign). We also see those themes involving bringing back jobs to America and Trump’s claim to make America safe again by fixing immigration policies, which were two items he referred to when using the Make America Great Again slogan in prior speeches and interviews (“Donald Trump”).

Although initially the term America had a few negative clusters of terms associated with it, once Trump shifted from the “they” of D.C. establishment to the “we” of the people, the cluster of terms surrounding America became positive and more pronounced.  The positive connotations focused on what would occur if “the people” became united, on how the country would achieve greatness again. Under his administration, Trump promised that “we will make America strong again, we will make America wealthy again, we will make America proud again, we will make America safe again and yes, together, we will Make America Great Again.”


Although stated explicitly once only, the terminological resources of Make America Great Again run strong throughout Trump’s address. Certainly cluster analysis can be used to find a rhetor’s thoughts and intentions, and can be used also to show a pattern of continuation of prior rhetorical elements in later works by the same rhetor.7 Through our analysis of key words and phrases emphasized by Trump during both the delivery of the speech and in the speech’s transcript we discovered the presence of Make America Great Again through the identification and examination of clusters surrounding the five key terms: We, Washington, D.C., People, You/Your, and America.

In doing this, we discovered how Trump used his inaugural address as an opportunity to highlight his plans for change to the United States through the comparison of his view of past/present America with a future of the country under his presidency, one he stressed in his speech to be created by all citizens. Through the comparison between clusters around the key words we identified, and the shifts between Trump’s language when referring to the past and future of America, we were able to identify in particular why it was important for Trump to reform Washington, D.C. and how he relayed he would act with all people to create a better America. In his address, he first identified those actions that contributed to the tainted condition of Washington, D.C. and why it needed to be changed, using the speech as an opportunity to foreshadow future policy changes. We found here that the key terms pointing to his phrase of Make America Great Again were used in both a negative and positive manner. Negativity appeared when Trump referred to actions in the past, while key terms were used more positively when describing the future of America. For example, one of the key terms, “we,” acts as a pivot term, one that demonstrates both the people as hurt by Washington, D.C. (for instance, “We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon”) and the people that can come together now to “make America great again” (for example, “We will bring back our jobs.  We will bring back our borders.  We will bring back our wealth.  And we will bring back our dreams”). This repetitive use of we acted to demonstrate Trump’s belief that in both the past and in the present, Americans were suffering as a result of the current state of Washington; that Americans were being negatively impacted by the actions of establishment political figures, and were losing jobs to other countries. However, the use of we also made evident that for Trump, under his new administration, Americans would benefit, and all would have a part and a voice in a better America. This use of we showed at a minimum Trump verbalizing a potentially inclusive element, and that the promises he made in his campaign were to be achieved through a group effort, showing to those who voted and those who were skeptical that he intended keep his campaign promises and address the flaws he identified in the system.8

The suffering of which Trump spoke appeared throughout his speech, but especially near the key term of Washington, D.C. and those terms surrounding it. Washington, D.C. was used as the term of comparison between past and present; in a sense, another pivot term.  Through the clusters of words surrounding it, Trump described Washington, D.C. as a cause of a decaying America. This focus on the negative America was experiencing may have been an attempt to reach those who doubted his intentions in taking office.  For Trump, festering issues such as immigration, crime, the economy, and political corruption were harming the American people: “For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries while refusing to defend our own; and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.”  During his campaign he identified flaws in the system and, in his address, he relisted those flaws, thus offering continuity with previous messages.

Part of this effort involved Trump pointing out the reasons why “the people” were weary with the government, emphasizing how “you,” the voters, led the Make America Great Again movement by taking action into “your” own hands.  “You” suffered in the past, Trump asserted, so “you” voted for change. Recognizing this in his address Trump stated, “you came by tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.” In the physical delivery of his speech, he took special pains to emphasize “our” several times with reference to all Americans and “our” country.  He also emphasized “you” as in “the people.” Throughout his address Trump acknowledged the work of the American people and how they brought change to the country and how the people would take part in “a great national effort to rebuild our country and to restore its promise to for all of our people.”

Addressing “the people” directly was important to Trump as evident in both the written version and in his delivery of the address. Successful or not, he expressed a sentiment to unite all Americans, those who voted for him and those who did not, and again exhibited his intentions to keep the promises he made during his campaign. From the start of the speech until its conclusion, “the people,” as he conceived them, even those who doubted or opposed him, were the heart of the speech. As such, power would be restored to “the people,” policies would be changed, and as a united country, “we,” not Trump alone, would Make America Great Again: “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.  When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” With this emphasis on coming together as one, concluding his speech, Trump asserted: “Together, We Will Make America Strong Again. We Will Make America Wealthy Again. We Will Make America Proud Again. We Will Make America Safe Again. And, Yes, Together, We Will Make America Great Again.”

Clearly we see the presence of Make American Great Again throughout the speech.  Moreover, we see how terminological screens can work, tapping into circumstances, generic expectations, and the prior knowledge of the audience.  Because many in the audience had closely followed Trump during the campaign, they were familiar with the terms and themes generally used when Trump mentioned Make America Great Again, thus even without even saying it, terms were able to form a screen that pointed to its ultimate use in the conclusion of his address.

As expressed by Burke, the word choices made by speakers do select, deflect, and reflect their understandings of the world. Along these lines, Heiss suggested that when speakers shared such understandings that they “create the communicative possibility for an audience to develop, alter, or extinguish their understanding of that same topic” (536). Certainly we see in Trump’s speech a particular reality expressed, one advanced by Trump both in the campaign and in his inaugural address. Importantly, we can see how Trump was able to verbally express a desire to work with the opposition while at the same time maintaining the meaning behind his campaign and thus not alienating his base.  Although Make America Great Again is a contested phrase, we are inclined to believe that Trump’s terministic screens filtering audience perception toward its ultimate use at the end of the speech did allow at least for some possibilities of a more inclusive understanding of the term than that suggested on the campaign trail.

Such possibilities are part of inaugural addresses,9 and for Trump, such possibilities take on even greater importance.  His divisiveness as an incoming president is unprecedented in contemporary memory, and he delivered his address with the lowest initial job approval rating since such records were kept.  According to Gallup: “Trump is the first elected president in Gallup's polling history to receive an initial job approval rating below the majority level. He starts his term in office with 45% of Americans approving of the way he is handling his new job, 45% disapproving and 10% yet to form an opinion” (Saad).  Such a handicap for his first major speech as president underscores the potential power of his terministic screens when audience feedback of his speech is examined.  Although we have shown theoretically through our critique ways that Trump’s speech opened up possibilities “for unity, for consubstantial co-existence even while representing different political views” (Kuypers, “January 1832”), discovering its effect in reality is difficult to measure; however, polls taken after the speech do suggest that America was uncertain about how his speech solicited unity or promoted division. Rasmussen, for example, found that a small percentage more of “voters thought President … Trump's inaugural address … more likely to drive Americans further apart (38 percent) than it is to bring them together (36 percent), [with] twenty-one percent saying it would have no impact” (Freeman).  Other polls, however, showed his speech with rather strong approval numbers when comparatively viewed.  For instance, Politico found that “49 percent of those who watched or heard about the speech [said] it was excellent or good, and just 39 percent rat[ed] it as only fair or poor. Fifty-one percent of voters described the speech as 'optimistic,' 46 percent of respondents [said] the speech was 'presidential,' and 44 percent [said] it was 'inspiring…’” (Sherman).  Moreover, sixty-five “percent of those surveyed reacted positively to the ‘America First’ message, the cornerstone of the Trump campaign and governing posture” (Sherman). Rassmussen also found that 52% of likely voters agreed with Trump’s use of America first in his speech, with 37% disagreeing (“Voters Agree”).

Although split concerning the unifying or dividing qualities of the speech, Gallup found that “Americans' reactions to the inaugural ceremonies for Donald Trump were more positive than negative. Thirty-nine percent say they are more hopeful about the next four years based on what they saw, heard or read about Friday's inauguration, 30% are less hopeful, and 30% say what they heard or read made no difference” (Jones). Of note here is that these results are “similar to what Gallup measured for George W. Bush's and Barack Obama's second inaugurations, but much less positive than it was for Obama's first” (Jones).

Certainly Trump’s terministic screens were composed of language accessible to the masses.  Perhaps he could have incorporated more unity symbols, but with polling suggesting that American response to his speech is similar to other inaugural addresses, given by presidents from both parties, and who were viewed as considerably less divisive, something other is operating here.  As Siegelman suggests, inaugural addresses are important because they “commemorate the nation’s past . . . envision its future, and to try to set the tone for the next four years” (81). Trump did meet those generic expectations, and though denounced by political elites and the mainstream American press,10 his Make America Great Again theme resonated with his audience enough to overcome his dismal initial approval rating to produce a speech generally on par with other presidential inaugural addresses.


An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Southern States Communication Association Convention, Montgomery, 2019.


1. Unless otherwise noted, quotations of Donald Trump are taken from “Remarks of President Donald J. Trump-As Prepared for Delivery.”

2. Most of these speeches can be found at the Avalon Project at Yale University: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/inaug.asp

3. See, too, for generic characteristics, Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, “Inaugurating the Presidency,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 15, no. 2, 1985, p. 396, and Tammy R. Vigil, “George W. Bush’s First Three Inaugural Addresses: Testing the Utility of the Inaugural Genre,” Southern Communication Journal, vol. 78, no. 5, 2013, pp. 427–46.

4. Emma Frances Bloomfield and Gabriela Tscholl have suggested there is an enthymematic dimension to this term’s use.  See, “Analyzing Warrants and Worldviews in the Rhetoric of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton: Burke and Argumentation in the 2016 Presidential Election,” KB Journal, vol. 13, no. 2, 2018. https://kbjournal.org/analyzing_warrants_bloomfield_tscholl

5. Ultimately, Trump lost 2 and Clinton 5 electoral votes due to faithless electors.

6. This is something noted by other scholars, who also note the lack of this in the Hillary Clinton Campaign.  See, for instance, Stephanie A. Martin and Andrea J. Terry, “Social Media Candidate Attacks and Hillary Clinton’s Failed Narrative in the 2016 Presidential Campaign,” The 2016 American Presidential Campaign and the News Media: Implications for the American Republic and Democracy, edited by Jim A. Kuypers, Lexington Books, 2018.

7. This is not dissimilar to detecting the presence of a “rhetorical signature.”

8. See “Trump-O-Meter: Tracking Trump's Campaign Promises,” to make an assessment of Trump’s promise keeping.  One interesting feature of Politifact’s site is that it assigns “stalled” as a judgmental category, taking into account situations all presidents must face that could impact promise keeping. www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/promises/trumpometer/browse/.

9. See Siegelman; Campbell and Jamieson; and Vigil, for examples.

10. See Mediaite for examples: Justin Baragona, “He’s Kidding, Right? Trump Thanks Media For ‘GREAT’ Reviews of Inauguration Speech,” Mediaite, January 21, 2017, https://www.mediaite.com/online/hes-kidding-right-trump-thanks-media-for-great-reviews-of-inauguration-speech/.

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Rotten with Consensus: Toward a Dialectic Transformation of Genocide

Victoria Houser, Clemson University


In this article, I examine a terminology of violence rooted within political consensus. Taking the Rwandan genocide as a case study, the article argues that a Burkean dialectic transformation of terms offers a way to understand violent conflicts with an agonistic approach. Arguing against consensus, the article puts Burke into conversation with Chantal Mouffe to show where merger might be possible amongst antagonistic parties.

The magical decree is implicit in all language; for the mere act of naming an object or situation decrees that it is to be singled out as such-and-such rather than as something other.

—Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form

Throughout his extensive work, Kenneth Burke points us to the inextricable link between human action and the power of language. Burke’s oeuvre gives us a beautifully complicated study of the human animal who uses words to simultaneously define and create reality. The ability to name reality contains an explicit power; it is a power that creates social and cultural understanding. A study of terminology, then, is like looking at a map of the human condition. In this article, I examine a specific vocabulary of violence centered around the terms genocide and colonization and the social realities conjured by these terms. Drawing from Hannah Arendt’s delineation of power and violence, power provides the ability to name implementations of violence, while violence in a pure form most closely resembles events like massacre (43). For example, labeling the mass killings of April 1994 in Rwanda as a genocide points to the specific power inherent in naming the implementations of violence. This power reveals a certain sovereignty of the Western hegemonic state to define and create reality in that the term genocide emerged from the aftermath of the Holocaust. The sovereignty of naming violence becomes insidious as soon as a group loses power over linguistic transformation of social reality, for in the removal of one’s capacity to create meaning through language pure violence manifests in opposition to power.

To understand the particular implementation of violence in Rwanda it is necessary to examine the power of colonization that suffocated the parliamentary “wrangle” of democracy and would have stifled dissent had the dissent been found in the minority. Dissent coming from the Hutu majority (making up over eighty percent of the population) erupted in a “pure”,1 form of violence, resulting in over 800,000 Tutsi lives being taken in a matter of months. The mass killings of the Tutsi came about as an implementation of violence in response to power. That is to say, the power of colonization. In the specific case of Rwanda, the oppression rooted in the Belgian colonization directed the implementation of violence that led to the genocide in 1994. What went wrong? A people dispossessed of power and unable to participate in their rhetorical, social, and political reality grew weary of being trapped in a binary that disavowed their identity. In the wake of colonization pure violence appeared to be the only “way out” once the dialectic process of political agonism was no longer viable.

When the mass killings erupted in 1994, a response was required from the world. Naming the violence in Rwanda as genocide positioned the country of Rwanda within the homogeneity of Western power since genocide is a term created by the West to make sense of the reality of the Holocaust. This naming hides or negates the structural linkage of power and violence (perpetrated by the colonization) while also denying any possibility of dialectical transformation or agonistic negotiation. While those in power may be able to outlaw terms by substituting others, they can’t eliminate their function or the situations they name. Burke offers dialectic and Chantal Mouffe, agonism, as methods to reveal the systematic ways violence and power are wielded without consequences for the wielder, conjured instead as if by magic rather than a direct consequence of the tyranny of words. Because closely policed linguistic consensus creates a scenario in which violence continues to manifest in a form of conflict that seeks to remove enemies rather than engage with them, the tensions inherent in Burke’s dialectic transformation are necessary for us to dwell within as a way of moving toward understanding through both identification and difference. This article explores the roles of language, power, and agonism in the Rwandan genocide, arguing that the hegemonic power of consensus involved in naming the events as genocide strips away the rhetorical function of agonism and diverts the attention away from the crimes of colonization.

In what follows, I examine moments of potential linguistic transformation in Rwanda to illustrate how political consensus quickly turns treacherous in its demands for all citizens to be in agreement about specific ideological concepts of power. Following Mouffe, who opposes the very concept of consensus as creating a false impression of a peaceful post-conflict environment, I see Rwanda’s post-genocide power implementing many of the same strategies of consensus seen in the colonization preceding the massacre. As I will demonstrate in this scene, when consensus purifies the realm of post-conflict political action, it strips any person living on the fringes of the majority of their ability to act rhetorically. This purification contributes to the very scenes of violence which the consensus attempted to root-out. Consensus, in this case, reinforces violence. Following the genocide, those who took political power in Rwanda established a particular ideological narrative of the genocide and insisted that all citizens act and re-act in relationship with the terms of this narrative. A consensus was established regarding the political identities and activities of all citizens in relationship to the national conflict. Of course, this model fails because the narrative of the genocide unfolds and reveals itself with nuance and complexity, requiring many stories, perspectives, and rich variety of terms with which to read the details of the conflict. The reduction of the conflict to a single narrative, especially one issued from the ruling political powers, constructs grounds for continued, unproductive animosity among citizens.

Agonism and the Dialectic

Although Mouffe argues that consensus derives from dialectical processes, her understanding does not derive from Kenneth Burke’s particular reading of the dialectic as a contribution of terms participating in a development of irony. In this context, agonism and dialectical process work toward the same goal, not to purify the conditions of violence, but to open up the possibilities of difference. In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke warns that “the very ‘global’ conditions which call for the greater identification of all [people] with one another have at the same time increased the range of human conflict, the incentives to division” (34). These incentives to division contain the possibility of removing the characteristic nature of rhetoric which, at its heart, requires agonism—a wrangling of distinct human motives in which beings can be neither purely identified with each other nor purely divided from each other. Agonism’s counterpart, total unification, disallows terms to work upon each other dialectically, but requires all terms and identities to be summarized underneath a single generating principle. Consensus, then, creates a system in which members must be either purely identified or purely divided underneath the summarizing terms. When the summarizing terms, or the generating principles, represent scenes of violence, political consensus becomes particularly dangerous for many because those who do not or cannot share the summarizing terms (which could be either material or ideological) that have been established by the ruling power are quickly excised through force.

Agonism allows for conflict with the enemy without the need to destroy the enemy. It offers the option for a “wrangling” of ideas, for rhetoric to work and play within scenes of conflict as actors continuously, dialectically negotiate terms.

Burke’s dialectic and the development of terms takes a central role in the process of understanding and circumventing the derivation of consensus that disallows the heterogeneity of voices. In her discussion of Burke’s dialectic, Elizabeth Weiser writes, “Dialectic, the conversation that argues the various perspectives on any situation, produces conclusions that are ironic rather than pure” (“Burke and War” 299). The significance of moving away from “purity” for Burke suggests that the idea of arriving at a conclusion, a consensus, would necessarily remove the ambiguities of difference. Beyond removing difference, it also purifies the forms of power and violence, making them appear as the same. As Weiser points out, Burke’s dialectic does not aim at purifying or “making whole,” but rather at an engagement with identification and division as ambiguous perspectives contributing to the parliamentary wrangle of human deliberation. Consensus forms itself around the kind of purity that would situate violence as a distinct form, one unto itself, one that could be eradicated by subsuming violent acts under a single term, such as the term genocide.

 Political consensus, when held to be entirely right, not only fails to perform a dialectic development but involuntarily contributes to the conditions of pure violence that result in massacre. Arendt situates consensus as such saying, “A legally unrestricted majority rule, that is, a democracy without a constitution, can be very formidable in the suppression of the rights of minorities and very effective in the suffocation of dissent without any use of violence. But that does not mean that violence and power are the same” (42). Bringing this back to Burke’s dialectic, the ambiguities of power and violence could be found most noticeably in an “interaction of terms upon one another, to produce a development which uses all the terms” (GM 512). The dialectical development of agonism, for Burke, then becomes realized in the actual terms, in the language itself. The terms chosen to discuss the powers, the actions, the truths, the scenes, the players are in themselves the dialectic. In line with this, agonism emerges in the babel of the parliamentary exchanges of political powers and participatory citizens engaged in the project of democracy. This form of engagement, opposed to Arendt’s description of the unrestricted majority rule, most closely resembles the kind of agonism that would treat adversaries not as enemies to be destroyed, but as participants in a dialectical development of political thought and action.

In his keynote address delivered at the 2017 Kenneth Burke conference, James Klumpp works through the Burkean dialectic while unpacking the meaning of conflict and the importance of tension to human understanding. Referring to the etymology of the term conflict Klumpp explains that the word initially meant to strike together, and in order for a “striking together” to be possible two elements must be present: “(1) difference and (2) a vector that hurls the aspects of that difference into each other: to strike together” (emphasis in original, par 9). As Klumpp points out, the dialectic work of language within conflict is the work of difference moving toward merger; and for merger and understanding to be possible, tension and difference must be allowed to work through communities as well. Division and difference appear most markedly in the symbolic action of the terms working together to create meaning. While words do work to reveal the differences and agonism inherent in political and social hierarchies, terms do not ever do this simply or completely. “Words do not define through their platonic ideal,” says Klumpp, “but through their relationship with other terms. These dialectics mark tensions, and they make the case for the centrality of tension” (par 12). Terms, working together, create meaning and perform change.

In this way, the dialectic transformation that Klumpp gestures toward in his keynote becomes essential for understanding agonism as operating within the tensions between power and violence. This particular tension arises with the highest of stakes in situations where political consensus silences the dialectic counterparts to power; that is, the oppressed. When those experiencing oppression are unable to voice their dissent because the power of unrestricted consensus denies them access, violence in its pure form takes over what we would have in the merger of agonistic politics. When a consensus is drawn up over a word that is charged with inherently violent meaning, the powers dictating (literally) that term, channel the attention away from a dialectic agonism (a Burkean dialectic) that would lead toward merger and into a kind of consensus that cuts away difference, resulting in violence in its pure form.

While some form of consensus is always necessary to find the ground from which to engage in political deliberation, Mouffe argues that dissent must always accompany it. Without the possibility of dissent, consensus has the potential to induce violence and annihilation of an enemy through the reification of the rhetorical, ideological constructions of difference. From Burke’s critical rhetorical perspective, these differences and identifications take root in language, the terministic screen, channeling our attention into some places and deflecting other possibilities. This would lead us to consider how the act of naming, in itself, influences and shapes the experiences of the symbol using animal (LSA 45). Reification of these terministic screens occurs when the ideological is made to look material, making identifications and divisions appear as the natural and only possible form of any given group consciousness (Lukács, “Reification”). In this thread, Burke stipulates that ideology is, of course, “but a kind of rhetoric” since the ideas carry “inducements to some social and political choices rather than others” (88). Where consensus is at play, in the way that Mouffe outlines as the complete elimination of divisions, it constructs an ideology of identification that removes the potential for dialectic transformation and rhetorical engagement. Mouffe openly states that this elimination or ignorance of divisions removes the potential to engage in the political: “It is only when division and antagonism are recognized as being ineradicable that it is possible to think in a properly political way” (15). Division then becomes the necessary ground for agonism, or genuine political action.

In Burkean terms, the symbolic constructs and determines the conditions for agonism; it is the very nature of the symbolic that the political constructions take life and exercise power. In “The Symbolic Inference,” Fredric Jameson explicates Burke’s treatment of the nature of the symbolic as an ideological method: “The symbolic act therefore begins by producing its own context in the same moment of emergence in which it steps back over against it, measuring it with an eye to its own active project” (512). Terms not only select, reflect, and deflect realities, they constitute the world itself at the moment of their emergence. So, when the terms of consensus emerge, the construction of a scene for dissent also emerges. It is the denial of this scene, the removal of the terms for dissent or rejection of the hegemonic which eliminates the possibility for rhetorical, political action. With this removal of the necessary rhetorical dissent and divisions, consensus only operates in favor of the existing hegemonic power and always silences those who are being oppressed by this power. James Kastely writes, “For Burke, human aggression runs deep, and any effort to address its current manifestations has to contend with aggression as an essential part of symbolicity, one that is often motivating disputes about property and fueling antagonisms and misunderstandings within hierarchies” (“Love and Strife” 173). Kastely points us to the same central need that Klumpp points to in the dwelling with Burke’s dialectic as it wrestles with the tensions of symbolic moments. Consensus removes the tension, and the removal of the tension subsequently removes the possibility of understanding.

After a genocide there is of course a temptation to remove all tension by creating and serving an ideology of pure identification without difference. One of the most significant elements of the Rwandan reconstruction was the drive to articulate a complete consensus over the labeling of whole people groups as either “killers” or “victims” within the genocide. Here we see the breakdown of the dialectic development as the consensus attempts to remove all ambiguity surrounding the material events of the genocide. This kind of reductive political model is the very one instituted by the Belgian colonizing power in Rwanda in the early 1960s. During that time, the colonizing power stripped individuals of their identity and instituted a system in which ethnicity remained the only possible screen for viewing one another. The harm caused by this removal of ambiguity, the attempt at removing the grounds for agonism—or the ability to wrangle various identifications and divisions with one another—removed the capacity of parliamentary exchange and eventually led to the act of the genocide itself. Stripping people of their ability to act rhetorically leaves them with little else beyond the naked act of brutal force.

Consensus in Rwanda: The Unrestricted Power of Colonization

To get any sense of the scene in Rwanda, we must look at some of the structural violence built into the condition of the genocide. Most people in the scope of the West are aware that some atrocious massacre happened in Rwanda in 1994, and many may even be familiar with the details of the political struggle between the ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi. Still, the conditions of the socio-symbolic, rhetorical violence extending back even before the Belgian colonization in the 1930s remain rather untouched. A scholar once told me that investigating the Rwandan genocide forced him into an encounter with his unexamined and unconscious racism, because it brought to light his ideological assumption that the genocide was just a brutal display of violence committed by uncivilized people. It surprised him to learn of the political nuance and systemic oppression attached to the strife—nuance being something he would not have assumed about a “Third World” country. This same view is seen buried throughout the Western world as an inability to engage with conditions of violence that are a direct result of power intertwined with ignorance of its implementations.

Now, this brings me to one of the main staging grounds for the genocide, that is, the political wrangle over the linguistic, rhetorical, and material conditions of the genocide. The terms genocide and colonization desperately need to be placed within a dialectic transformation. Rwanda’s conflict provides a particularly poignant ground for this kind of linguistic transformation as a nation that experienced a genocide tangled up in the roots of a colonization. Genocide of course directs us to the 1940s. On December 9th, 1948, the United Nations held the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in which the connotative constructs of that term were soundly decided. Following the atrocities of the Holocaust, the convention created a powerful terministic screen, one that would be almost impenetrable once applied. The opening statement of the Convention’s document reads: “Genocide is a crime under international law, contrary to the spirit and aims of the United Nations and condemned by the civilized world” (emphasis added, 278). What of those other worlds then? Those nations outside the hegemonic power of the Western worlds are not only denied the possibility of deliberation and intervention when mass violence occurs, but they are also denied the power of the linguistic transformation of the term itself. If it is a term co-incidental with the civilized world, then only within the “civilized world” can it be employed, engaged, and agonized.

Arthur Klinghoffer argues that one of the major weakness of the Genocide Convention is that it did very little to protect people in violent situations against mass killings (121). Perhaps a bit obvious, Klinghoffer rebukes the Convention’s work because the most that the statement against genocide can possibly achieve is prosecution of perpetrators in the aftermath of the crime. Extending this view in a dialectic fashion, this also sets up a terministic screen for genocide as a possible form of pure violence. In the case of Rwanda, the United Nations refused to label the violence as genocide, annihilating the potential process of intervention even while hundreds of thousands of people were being hacked to death in their homes. In his essay, “Reading the Rwandan Genocide,” Peter Uvin writes, “The numbers [of killings] beg two crucial questions: What brought this country to that point? What has been the role of the international community in all of this?” (75). Of course, there cannot be simple answers to two questions of this size. The issues of consensus and enforcement of ideological identification situate these questions in a larger schema of political powers of colonization. While Uvin focuses on the international scene as a function of intervention in the slaughter, I want us to think about how the roots of the genocide extend into the international scene of colonization and the implementation of power that led to the genocide.

Near the beginning of the colonization, the Belgians conducted a kind of census in which they issued ethnicity cards to every Rwandan citizen, forcing them to carry the linguistic marker of either Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa. The consensus of identification in Rwanda begins with the colonizers situating all Rwandans within the linguistic labels of their ethnicities, a move that could even be viewed as a potential “symbolic means of inducing cooperation” through fostering identity within the groups (Burke, RM 47). However, cooperation completely disintegrates as soon as one looks at the ways in which these rhetorical identifications and divisions manifested in material reality. The Hutu constituted about eight-five percent of the population, while the Tutsi consisted of approximately fourteen percent and the Twa one percent. Philip Gourevitch points to this administration maneuver to label and confine as a form of apartheid rooted and established in the myth of Tutsi superiority. Whatever the Tutsi might or might not have believed about their superiority washes into the Belgian identification of the Tutsi ethnicity as superior. Within this structured census, the Hutu were barred from administrative and political positions. They were stripped of any positions in which they would have power over Tutsi. Gourevitch writes, “Nothing so vividly defined the divide as the Belgian regime of forced labor, which required armies of Hutus to toil en masse as plantation chattel, on road construction, and in forestry crews, and placed Tutsi over them as taskmasters” (57). The colonizing power reified the symbolic construction of ethnicity, and an institutionalized racism seeped into the ground of Rwanda. So, this first form of a political consensus (carried out by the colonizers) demonstrates the early signs of the insidiousness of a consensus built upon exclusion and demarcation of the other as “less than.”

Addressing the issues inherent in these ideological identifications, Catherine Newbery explains that the colonizers wished to preserve what was left of the “traditional” roles in the old hierarchy, placing the Tutsi as rulers over the Hutu “peasants” (7). Newbury writes, “particularly onerous demands of the colonial state and its chiefs fell most heavily—if not exclusively—on rural cultivators classified as Hutu” (8). This kind of political consensus resulted in the genocide. The identification and division being “pure” in form left no possible option for the Hutu to resist the ideological form of their oppression. Under these conditions of power in its pure form (that of the colonization), the Hutu’s ideological oppression was made to look material as it took on the form of the Hutu’s identification as peasant to the Tutsi’s ruling class. When the Tutsi claimed independence from Belgium in 1962, the real work of the genocide began. “Under the guise of social justice,” writes Joseph Sebarenzi, “the Belgian government systematically took away power from the Tutsi and gave it to Hutu” (13). Now both the oppressor and the oppressed shared a common enemy in the Tutsi, and when consensus shifted to favor the Hutu there was no possibility for rhetorical engagement. The system of political consensus as a binary that continuously marks “us/them” does not allow for the ambiguities and tensions of a dialectical engagement towards agonism and merger. Here we have the conditions for genocide inherent in the initial political consensus. All that was needed to tip the scales was the shift of the hegemonic power to favor the unrestricted majority, and that unrestricted majority desired slaughter.

Perhaps more interesting than these movements toward the genocide, is what came next. Throughout the bloodshed of the mass killings, the UN opted out of naming the violence as genocide for reasons already mentioned. This linguistic decision presents a rhetorical movement toward purity of the term genocide. It cannot be used except under the most severe circumstances and only under circumstances that align with Western ideological constitutions of the “civilized world.” Part of this stems from a certain purity of the condition of genocide as it is attached to the events of the Holocaust, and this leaves little room for ambiguity within the term. Burke would have us move away from the use of pure terms and toward the dialectic transformation that allows for the possibility of many meanings. The movement away from purity or “correctness,” as Burke would have it, is a movement towards the ambiguity of language. This means that we must necessarily allow for the understanding or the examination of “incorrect” ways of co-operation. When we allow for only one totalizing and correct terministic screen, then we set up a condition in which the “incorrect” screen becomes the problem which must be excised. This is where Burke’s dialectic as terms working together in a contributory fashion—rather than as counterparts of each other—situates a response to genocide which might allow for ambiguities. In this frame, the most tragically ironic (dialectic) of divisions is that one which builds on a collection of “cooperative acts” (or a collection of identifications) for one catastrophic conflict: “We refer to that ultimate disease of cooperation: war. (You will understand war much better if you think of it, not simply as strife come to a head, but rather as a disease, or perversion of communion)” (RM 22). This is precisely what occurs within the UN’s refusal to engage with Rwanda’s massacre as genocide—a collection of identifications and co-operative acts which divided the West from Rwanda and resulted in one catastrophic perversion of communion.

Much has been said about this “opting out” of confronting the genocide (Gregory Stanton, “Rwandan Genocide”), but more important here is the deflection of reality through the terms employed by the West. This deflection positions the material violence of the genocide within a larger narrative of hegemonic forces. In this case, Mouffe’s “competition amongst the elites” shifts from the competing voices amongst the elites in Rwanda over the reified (or ossified) positions of power—those provided through colonization—into the competition among the hegemonic voices of the West. Sebarenzi describes this competition best in his articulation of the colonizing powers. Sebarenzi illustrates the scene in which Western powers sit down and draw lines throughout Africa, thereby divvying up human bodies and resources. It was there that the colonization of Rwanda began: in a competition among elites for power. In many ways, the failure to label the mass killings in Rwanda as a genocide exposes the very condition of the West’s complicity. Through the labeling of the Rwandan violence as genocide, we see a violence strictly confined to the nation’s problems. The issue with this screening lies in the understanding that Rwanda’s implementations of power were generated and imposed by Western forces. While the screen of genocide would have provided a particular way of “seeing” the mass violence (a screen which may or may not have led to intervention) it always already masks the problems of the West’s complicity in the genocide. The term genocide, in this case, is the pharmakon. It is both the poison and the cure—the catch is that the cure exists for the West as a solution for intervention in a problem it created. Only in labeling the genocide as genocide is the West now absolved of its crimes. Under that screen it is a Rwandan problem, and any intervention on the West’s part would be from a position of great “humanitarian effort.” So, perhaps a better scenario would be one in which we do not call the violence in Rwanda a genocide but a colonization. This does not quite solve the problem of pure violence, though. What occurred in Rwanda was a response to the implementations of power through the colonization, which is why an agonistic, dialectic transformation becomes essential to wrestling with the post-conflict scene.

The uniformity of consensus in post-genocide Rwanda operates as a narrative which maintains permutations of violence through the process of silencing dissent, or at least disallowing dissent. The narrative in Rwanda works like this: the political powers set in place after the genocide brand one ethnicity with a single term (killer or victim), a consensus forms around the “reality” that Hutu are perpetrators, genocidaires, and killers. The counterpart to this identification is that the Tutsi are victims, oppressed, and slain. This particular narrative of consensus removes the ability to allow for a great variety of terms to work as contributory to the development of forming a peaceful communion in the country. The consensus removes Burke’s dialectic function which would allow for co-operation of identifications and divisions. Yet the peace established by President Paul Kagame was a peace completely predicated on the consensus of division between the Hutu and Tutsi, a consensus which stripped the human agents of their ability to act rhetorically.

Susan Thomson explains that the government policy of national unity posits these identities of all Rwandans in a victim/killer dialectic, saying, “this means that survivors (read former Tutsi) and genocidaire (read former Hutu) have been cast into the essentialist categories of victim and killer, and as such have become the protagonists of the fiction of national unity” (444). Similar to the kind of reification of identity during the Belgian colonization, a consensus was enacted by the political powers to maintain an antagonistic divide between groups of people. This enactment of a consensus about the ideology of the genocide still works to mask the “competition amongst the elites.” While, as Thomson says, the political powers in Rwanda work to construct a form of national unity, the crimes of the West go largely unchecked. What then occurs within the consensus is the replacement of one violent power with another, and antagonism presides in place of a true agonistic political situation. Thomson argues that Rwanda is an army with a nation rather than a nation with an army—this idea certainly maintains the notion of complete antagonism in which, as Mouffe argues, one would need to eradicate the enemy rather than work alongside them. Here we see the need for a Burkean approach to the agonism Mouffe argues for in the political realm.

Agonism Towards Merger

Burke’s understanding of the dialectic of identification and division gives us an approach to antagonistic forces and invites a willing agonism, a wrangling of human identity, as a way to avoid the kind of “efficiency” of eradication. What Rwanda sees now is not a complete division but an obsessive over-identification with the events of the genocide. This dictates much of the meaning surrounding all political engagement, and it is this form of consensus that Mouffe strongly opposes. In this form of antagonistic consensus lies the exact ideological structure that led to the implementations of violence in its pure form of massacre. The consensus works to evade what Klumpp discussed as the “tensions of the moment,” but at what cost? Evading these tensions, insisting on pure identification, and enforcing an ideological paradigm that removes ambiguities eventually thrusts enemies together in a way that situates violence as the only possible form of evasion. Merger and understanding are not to be found in the realm of consensus.

Agreeing with Mouffe’s call toward agonism, that political engagement that allows one to meet with an adversary without needing to eradicate difference, Burke’s dialectic transformation of terms provides another way of thinking through conflict. In that rhetorical sphere, it becomes possible to do as Klumpp suggests and “strike together” rather than against in conflict. Togetherness is the base of the dialectic and the fulcrum of agonism. It does not mean that differences are eradicated or that in striking together one group must strike against another group. Instead, the dialectic work of difference and strife leads us to consider the possibilities of merger within the union of agonism. Striking out together towards understanding through tension. The agonism that Mouffe calls for must root itself in Burke’s dialectic effort. There we will be able to see and grapple with the tensions between a great many linguistic meanings, from colonization to genocide and what comes after.


1. Burke’s “Paradox of Purity” gives another way to think about the distinction between violence without power (massacre) and the violence emerging from power. He explains that a “pure” personality would be non-personality. Gesturing to Hegel Burke says, “Pure Being would be the same as Not-Being” (GM 35). In this sense, “pure” violence could be seen as the equivalent of “not-power.” It is a type of motion that occurs when people are disposed of the power of language, that is, in a construction of consensus that disallows dissent.

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Shifting Blame: C. Everett Koop’s AIDS Rhetoric of Guilt and Redemption

Darlene K. Drummond, Dartmouth College


C. Everett Koop narrated two distinctly different stories about AIDS, one for general audiences and another for black audiences. His approach demonstrated an evolution in scapegoating rhetoric from agent to scene that positioned blacks as immoral, culpable in the spread of the virus, and ultimately responsible for meeting their own health care needs.

In July 1982, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), a publication of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) revealed 34 new cases of a rare pneumonia among male and female racially Black, Haitian IV drug abusers. The disease became known as the 4-H disease as four groups of people were categorized as high-risk for contracting AIDS (i.e., heroin addicts, homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and Haitians). The CDC began tracking AIDS by race officially in 1983 with a report of two female cases –one Black and the other Hispanic, with no risk factors other than having sex with infected males. In a second report that year, the CDC detailed 16 cases of male heterosexual, non-IV drug users found in prisoners in New York and New Jersey. Seven were Black, seven White and two Hispanic.  From 1981 through 1988, Black Americans accounted for 26% of AIDS cases with Black homosexuals disproportionately affected compared to other racial groups, and with heterosexual contact and intravenous drug use as the primary modes of transmission (Sutton et al. S351).

C. Everett Koop became the most prominent and visible spokesperson on issues impacting public health in the United States in his role as Surgeon General during Ronald Reagan’s presidency from 1981–1989. His impact, documented through films, television interviews, editorials, medical publications, hundreds of speeches, and media caricatures, spanned such issues as smoking, abortion, domestic violence, disability rights, and AIDS (Schraufnagel 276). For example, he published eight scientific reports that established the addictiveness of nicotine and the dangers of smoking that led to the passage of legislation requiring warning labels on cigarettes. These warnings led to a decrease in smoking rates saving thousands of lives (Arias 396). Many believe he applied rigid scientific principles to issues of health, elevated the position of Surgeon General, and became one of the most trusted people in America (Kessler et al. 7109).

Becoming the spokesperson on AIDS was one of Koop’s most difficult challenges. He was prevented by the Reagan administration from discussing AIDS publicly from 1981- 1986 until the release of the Surgeon General’s Report on AIDS (Memoirs 194-239). Two studies exist on Koop’s AIDS rhetoric. The first assessed the 1986 report, while the second interrogated Koop’s 1988 direct mailer to U.S. citizens. Tina Perez and George Dionisopoulos in their 1995 Communication Studies article focused on the conservative politics of the Reagan administration and perceptions of the sexually explicit language included in the 1986 Surgeon General’s Report on AIDS. They argued that Reagan’s attempt to employ a strategic silence backfired as the public increasingly viewed AIDS as the major health issue of the time especially after the release of the report. They also concluded that many people probably thought that his conservative, anti-abortion, fundamentalist views would lead him to write a water-downed, vague document about immoral behavior in support of the Reagan Administration’s efforts to keep AIDS out of the spotlight. Robin Jensen and Abigail King (593-598) critiqued Koop’s 1988 “Understanding AIDS” mailer. They concluded that Koop’s portrayal of his protagonist, AIDS, in educating the American public, created comparisons that presented AIDS as an entirely unique problem requiring unparalleled preventive behavior.  His central authoritative metaphor they labeled “the surgeon’s plague,” which “equated AIDS with an unprecedented plague” based on Koop’s authority and the research of experts that differentiated it from previous plagues.  In addition, they described a second authoritative metaphor that they labeled “the general’s war.”

Both studies give us insight into the handling of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s by examining key documents written and designed for mass distribution to general audiences. However, neither informs us of how Koop addressed the subject of AIDS in person before different audiences. Since the Black community was disproportionately affected by AIDS in the 1980s, it is reasonable to assume that prominent health officials like C. Everett Koop would specifically seek out and accept opportunities to address key social, political, and educational groups within this community. Of the nearly 350 speeches delivered by Koop during his tenure as Surgeon General, only three were delivered before predominantly Black audiences – a major civil rights organization, a public forum, and high school. My essay extends the aforementioned works by examining the rhetoric of Koop before two different audiences. I compare and explain his rhetoric in his boilerplate speech, The Current Crisis in AIDS, designed for general audiences, and his Address delivered to a predominantly Black audience, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Both speeches are part of The C. Everett Koop Papers made available online to the public through the Profiles of Science database of The National Library of Medicine. I sought answers to the following questions: Did Koop’s AIDS message developed for general audiences remain the same or change before predominately Black audiences? If changed, how and why? 

To answer these questions, I examined the text of each speech to identify which, if any, term of Kenneth Burke’s pentad as presented in Grammar of Motives, --act, scene, agent, agency, or purpose, was featured “in developing a vocabulary designed to allow this one term full expression with the other terms being comparatively slighted or being placed in the perspective of the featured term” through its accompanying  philosophy: if scene then materialism, agent then idealism, agency then pragmatism, purpose then mysticism, and if act then realism (127–28). I argue that Koop narrated two distinctly different stories about AIDS, by featuring different pentadic terms for general audiences and Black audiences that demonstrated an evolution in scapegoating rhetoric from agent to scene. I assert that each approach was grounded in the invocation of science as authoritative and the conservative sociopolitical climate of the decade. Through the process of victimage Koop shamed Black audiences by distancing the moral from the immoral, encouraging moral panic, implying black-on-black crime and evoking the name of Ronald Reagan. He offered redemption through education for both audiences but advocated self-determination for Black audiences. Thus, his rhetoric of guilt and redemption positioned the Black community as immoral, culpable in the spread of AIDS, and ultimately responsible for meeting its own health care needs.

The Current Crisis in AIDS Speech: Blame the Agent

After the release of the 1986 report, Koop averaged 65 requests a day and began delivering speeches to the public in 1987. Since he could not fulfill all speaking requests, he created a video presentation on February 18, 1987 for general audiences based on the 1986 report and titled it, The Current Crisis in AIDS. Koop called it his primer on AIDS and used it as his first opportunity to voice concern about the rise of AIDS among black and brown people (Reminiscence Current Crisis). The speech was delivered orally on numerous occasions before state legislatures, public forums, schools, universities, national and international organizations.

In The Current Crisis in AIDS, Koop told the following story: there is this mysterious disease called AIDS (agent) that is transmitted through blood and semen and the use of dirty needles (agency) that is spreading (act) throughout the United States (scene) that will kill you (purpose). The dominant components were the agent, AIDS, followed by agency, its transmission through blood and semen and the use of dirty needles. Koop’s objective was to update the American people on AIDS and provide information to them about educating young people about it.

Burke suggests that cultural, social and historical periods when personified by a speaker, are generally indicative of idealism (Grammar 171). Objects exist by virtue of our perception of them, as ideas residing in our awareness (Kant). Our experience of things is about how they appear to us. For Koop the very existence of AIDS was the most important factor in the spread of its virus. He perceived AIDS as very powerful and God-like in its ability to determine who lived or died. In positioning AIDS as the central character in his story, Koop gave audiences a clear threat upon which to place blame instead of one another.

Idealist see the world through the lens of science and employ familiar analogies to account for new events (Baert 90-1). This is exactly what Jensen and King witnessed in their analysis of the 1986 Surgeon General’s Report on AIDS with Koop alluding to but not explicitly naming various plagues while creating new authoritative metaphors (i.e., the surgeon’s plague and the general’s war) in an effort to help audiences see AIDS as a uniquely different phenomenon. Koop employed a similar strategy in The Current Crisis in AIDS in alluding to plagues but did not use any authoritative metaphors. He introduced AIDS, the agent in his story generally as “a rare lethal disease,” a “very dangerous form of infectious pneumonia,” “some kind of bug” and ended with a chronology of specific names indicative of the increasing status of this invisible phenomenon. “The National Cancer Institute called it ‘the Human-Cell Lymphotropic Virus Type III’ while the Pasteur Institute called it ‘Lymphadenopathy-Associated Virus’ until 1984 when all scientists agreed to call it by a single common name of ‘human immunodeficiency virus or H.I.V.’ and in its deadliest form ‘Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome’ or ‘AIDS’ for short.”1 In ending with these scientific names inclusive of the word virus, audiences could easily envision the Godlike qualities associated with it, because they knew that a virus is an extremely complex microscopic infectious non-living parasite that is only able to multiply within the living cells of a host. This strategy also gave audiences hope. Because cures and treatments had been devised for other viruses (e.g., hepatitis B) of which they would be aware and of which Koop reminded them, they could envision its eventual defeat. In addition, he talked about experimental treatments and specifically mentioned the drug A.Z.T.

Idealism was the predominant philosophy evident in Koop’s storytelling, although pragmatism through the featuring of agency was also significant. Agency, or the means through which AIDS thrived was “two body fluids --blood and semen-- that carry the live AIDS virus in quantities sufficient to be transmissible” and from “a dirty needle borrowed from an addict who already has AIDS.”  Koop wanted people to understand that the only way the virus is passed from one person to another is through the transfer of blood or semen from one person to another through sexual activity and/or the sharing of drug paraphernalia that enabled the transfer. He did not detail or describe specific sexual practices but stated certain sex acts that occurred between men resulted in problematic bleeding This approach implies a limited threat in which one is less likely to become a victim of the disease through heterosexual activity.

Like many Reagan supporters who were part of the Religious Right, Koop was an evangelical Christian who believed homosexuality was a sin (Lord 143). However, he toned down his views to teach everyone regardless of their sexual orientation the importance of safer sex practices. As Koop articulated, he had one major responsibility as both a Christian and physician and that was to save lives by doing as Christ taught and “separate the sin from the sinner” (Memoirs 209). Therefore, Koop used impartial, scientific language that permitted listeners to set aside any emotional baggage they connected with AIDS or sexual behavior. This also served to promote the DHHS as a scientific, equitable organization. 

Koop reminded the audience over and over again that AIDS had only one purpose and that was to kill. The implicit scene in which the virus thrived and eventually killed was society-at -large or more specifically, the United States. Koop stressed the high risk of contraction and death for all Americans by enumerating the number of new cases and deaths from year to year, and by predicting future cases. He said, “As of January 1986, we had a cumulative total of 6,000 reported cases. Today [February 1987] that total is 30,000. Over half of them have already died of the disease and the rest will.” He suggested by the end of 1990 the cumulative total would be over a quarter of a million, and that on the basis of testing and epidemiological studies, between a million and a million-and-a-half Americans would have the AIDS virus in their systems. However, Koop indirectly signaled that this issue was a crisis for only a few select groups but had the potential to quickly escalate and effect the whole of America, particularly white heterosexuals. He said that there was a rise in cases among heterosexuals where “their heterosexual activity seems to be their only risk factor,” and reiterated that homosexual and bisexual men were at the highest risk. Then, in two sentences he indicated which racial groups were most at risk with, “Blacks account for 12 percent of the population, but they account for 25 percent of all AIDS cases. Similarly, Hispanics account for 6 percent of the U.S. population, but they account for 14 percent of all AIDS cases.” He did not mention specific rates among whites, Asians, Native Americans are other ethnic or racial groups in the United States. The underlying message was clear –if you are a member of one of the affected groups, then you should be concerned, and if not, then you will probably be fine.

In stressing agent (AIDS) and agency (transmission) within a scene of the United States at-large, Koop alleviated any guilt he felt for the failure of the DHHS to provide a cure for AIDS and laid the foundation for his and the DHHS’s redemption by introducing the education of young people as the primary solution to the problem of AIDS. As the rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy rose significantly in the 1980s, the Public Health Service took the lead in addressing these concerns through sex education, even though banning sex education in schools was a top priority of the Religious Right. Nevertheless, in promoting sex education, Koop was reflecting the private-public mosaic that characterized American health care in general since many Americans viewed private organizations like Planned Parenthood, and research organizations such as the Alan Guttmacher Institute (many of whom received grants or funding through the federal government) as providing the most honest, balanced and complete form of sex education available (Lord 141).

Koop articulated a sex education agenda that promoted (1) abstinence, (2) monogamy with the use of condoms, and (3) responsibility –both parental and moral. He offered reassurances that the focus would be on the facts about the threat and ways to prevent contraction. To increase his credibility, he listed key individuals (e.g., Ronald Reagan), a variety of religious (e.g., National Council of Churches) and educational organizations (e.g., National Education Association) he had consulted. To appease the religiously conservative, he privileged abstinence as the safest behavior and only endorsed monogamy “as the best defense” when one had a faithful sex partner He encouraged the use of a condom at all times unless one knew absolutely that he or she, and one’s partner, were both free of the virus. Koop pointed out that sex educators teach important biological and physiological information that parents may not be equipped to provide. He stressed, “The social and spiritual development of your children is your business. Don’t pass it up. Don’t pass it by...but pass it on.” In addition, he indicated that everyone, especially parents and educators had a moral responsibility to teach children how to protect themselves. The clear message of Koop’s boilerplate speech was that AIDS, a threat to all Americans, was a deadly disease with no current cure; and that all Americans should trust medical science to eventually find one, but in the interim, exercise moral responsibility in educating themselves and others to avoid it.

Address to the NAACP: Blame the Scene

On July 8, 1987, five months after the creation of his boilerplate speech, Koop delivered his first speech on AIDS titled Address before a predominantly Black audience at the annual convention of the NAACP in New York City. The theme for the convention was The Struggle: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. His panel included John E. Jacob, President and CEO of the National Urban League, Jesse Jackson, Chairman of the Board of Operation Push, and Reverend Leo Hamilton, President of the New York Baptist Ministers Conference (NAACP). Koop was invited to speak and introduced to the audience by Benjamin L. Hooks, a practicing attorney and civil rights leader, who served as the Executive Director of the NAACP from 1977–1992. At the time the NAACP faced major challenges with a 50% decline in membership and a severely depleted budget (Pinderhughes 118). Nonetheless, Koop believed this was his best opportunity to speak to a major organization that could address the disproportionate number of AIDS cases in the black community (Reminiscence Address NAACP). 

Varying narratives emerge when circumstances and viewpoints change (Carmack, Bates, and Harter 93). So was the case with the story Koop weaved before the NAACP that in an environment of 1980s immorality (scene) the AIDS virus was spread (act) by Blacks and Hispanics (agents) who engaged in risky behaviors (agency) intentionally or unintentionally resulting in death (purpose). Blame placed on the agent, AIDS, in Koop’s boilerplate speech shifted to the scene in the NAACP speech, an immoral environment that enabled the transmission of the virus through intravenous drug abuse, homosexuality, bisexuality, heterosexual multiple-partner activity, and infected mothers giving birth. Being Black or Hispanic became the precursor or necessary condition for the spread of AIDS through such behaviors.

Burke teaches us that actions are produced by agents and therefore provide us with information about what those agents value and represent (Grammar 15-20). The dominating scene-agency ratio in Koop’s rhetoric is indicative of a materialistic pragmatism. In advancing a materialistic philosophy, scientists explain events in terms of physical laws and downplay spiritual ones, while pragmatism focuses on the means and consequences of behavior (Grammar 131, 275). Koop accomplished this by arguing that there was persuasive scientific evidence of the disproportionate rates of AIDS within black and brown communities that could result in “greater losses,” “death due to the fatal nature of AIDS,” and the “opportunity for further discrimination.” His evidence was meant to bolster his central idea that “In containing the AIDS virus, science and morality advance hand-in-hand toward the same goal.”

Koop set the scene (a period of immorality in 1980s America) by first delineating an increase in sexually transmitted diseases specifically in the number of cases of herpes, syphilis, and gonorrhea –facts not mentioned in the boilerplate speech. For example, he stated, “As of June 20th for the current year, while there were 8,300 new cases of AIDS reported, 362,575 new cases of gonorrhea and 15,355 new cases of syphilis were recorded.” Koop suggested that the spread of all sexually transmitted diseases was due to the behavior of individuals who were sexually active, unfaithful, and had multiple sex partners. Inclusion of this information on other sexually transmitted diseases can be viewed as a good tactic.  STDs disproportionately affected the black community and the presence of STDs serves as markers of risk-facilitating HIV transmission (Sutton et al. S351).

To further set the scene in which the act (the spread of the AIDS virus) occurred, Koop stressed the primary agents were Black and Hispanic communities “where AIDS has disproportionately taken its toll,” “have significantly large numbers of AIDS cases,” and “are disproportionately represented in infant AIDS cases.”  He provided proof through the enumeration of facts that included:

(1) One of every 8 Americans is Black, but among Americans with AIDS, 1 in 4 is Black –24% of the total cases reported, (2) Among those AIDS patients below 30 years of age, a staggering 47% are Blacks and Hispanics, (3) Among Blacks with AIDS, 35% are I.V. drug abusers, (4) The people at highest risk [are] homosexual and bisexual men. About 40% of Blacks fit into that category, and (5) More than half of the number of infants with AIDS are Black and another 24% are Hispanic.

Koop did not mention the rates of AIDS among any other U. S. racial groups, the American population in general, or other countries throughout the world. This audience-centered approach simultaneously positioned AIDS as foremost a black and brown problem while directing audience attention to the issues with which they must contend.

Guilt through Identification and Dissociation

Humans are defined by the negative, and as suggested by Burke in the Rhetoric of Motives, there is no they without we. In positioning AIDS as a black and brown problem instead of an American one, using the word “disproportionately” excessively, and never mentioning the dominant American racial group of Whites, Koop articulated a racial division in which Blacks were they –a group to which he did not belong and a silent we –Whites to which he did. Thomas Nakayama and Robert Krizek (300) indicate that an invocation of science privileges a traditional Western approach to ontology and epistemology above critical-cultural ones. I see Koop’s scientific approach as the foregrounding of whiteness as the norm within an invisible rhetorical construction to exert influence over the audience.

Society works because there are rules and laws which dictate what is right or wrong, good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable in human conduct (Engels 307). With the statement, “I am not apologizing if that sounds like a lesson in morality,” Koop continued to set the scene by tying specific behaviors he deemed immoral directly to the agents of his narrative. Although transmission through blood, semen and the use of dirty needles was at the heart of agency in the boilerplate speech, multiple-partner activity and mother-to-child transmission were not mentioned. Sexual practices associated with homosexuality and bisexuality were downplayed. Now Koop expanded agency in the NAACP narrative. Specific high-risk behaviors of black and brown people were directly linked to transmission, including intravenous drug abuse, homosexuality, bisexuality, heterosexual multiple-partner activity, and infected birthing. This blending of agent, act, and agency is apparent in such statements as:

(1) Among Blacks with AIDS, 35% are I.V. drug abusers. These are men and women who abuse drugs intravenously using dirty paraphernalia they’ve borrowed from another drug user who already carries the virus; and (2) Almost all babies with AIDS have been born to women who were intravenous drug users or the sexual partners of intravenous drug users who were infected with the AIDS virus. More than half of the number of infants with AIDS are Black and another 24% are Hispanic. Nearly all of these children received the virus from their infected mothers either in utero or during delivery.

In tying the behaviors of black and brown individuals to this scene of immorality, Koop advanced a correlation between the quality of that environment and its inhabitants.

His focus on morality enabled religious and social-status identification with this NAACP audience and disassociation from those Blacks who engaged in immoral behaviors. Koop was a highly educated, upper-class, middle-aged, evangelical Christian. The NAACP was dominated by college-educated, upper-class, middle-aged individuals (Pinderhughes 116). His fellow panel members Jackson, Hooks, and Hamilton were all Baptist ministers and Jacob was the son of a Baptist minister. Black people (87%) are the most religiously committed ethnic group in the United States. A majority are Protestant (i.e., Baptist, Methodist), politically conservative, and more likely than the U.S. population as a whole to oppose abortion and homosexuality. Those with college degrees most closely resemble white evangelical Protestants (Sahgal and Smith). This was the perfect setting for Koop to tap into these shared values. In contrast, socioeconomically, blacks at highest risk for HIV tend to have lower income and education levels, higher rates of unemployment, limited access to quality health care and are younger (CDC). We can shape community and participate in victimage together when we define ourselves in opposition to another group (Mackey-Kallis and Hahn 3). Koop defined himself and the religious within his audience in opposition to the scapegoated immoral scene effectively othering black and brown gays and drug users, thereby creating a community of the moral at righteous odds with the immoral.

In expressing a sense of urgency about the spread of the AIDS virus within black and brown communities, as Koop claimed was his intent in a 2003 reminiscence, he encouraged moral panic. Moral panics are situations in which groups come under attack by those in power because they are believed to pose a grave and immediate danger to society –a threat constructed as the threat-bearing qualities of the group under fire (Nussbaum 250). In stressing the uncleanliness of IV drug users, alluding to promiscuity through multiple-partner activity, and enumerating the rates of mother-to-child transmission (unlike the boilerplate speech), Koop portrayed homosexuals, bisexuals, and the non-monogamous regardless of sexual orientation as enemies of the family. Black and brown families were already threatened. Children born during the 1980s had a 50% chance of living in single-parent families and births to single women constituted 37% of brown and 67% of black births (Murry et al. 134-135). Koop’s inventory of threat-bearing qualities was linked to the idea of a crisis of morals whereby all that we value as humans is endangered deflecting concern or interest for the targeted group as people we should care about, to simply a symbol of what is wrong in society.  In describing a scene of immorality in which too many individuals within black and brown communities engaged in behaviors deemed deplorable by the moral or religious, Koop blemished the overall image of both.

It is impossible to talk about the actions of actors and the means through which actions are enabled without considering the intent of the actors (Grammars 289). In the boilerplate speech, the purpose of the agent, AIDS, was simple –infect and kill. However, in the NAACP narrative, the purpose was ambiguous and more complicated since the agents were apart of black and brown communities. Koop implied that if black and brown people persisted in such high-risk behaviors as intravenous drug abuse, homosexuality, bisexuality, and having sex with multiple partners or someone already infected, then they were intent on killing others. But, if they just said “no to drugs,” “abstained from sex,” “maintained a faithful monogamous relationship” and “used a condom from start to finish,” then the intent to harm others evaporated. As Burke reminded us, the choices humans make freely as indicated in the actions they undertake, denote character and though about what should or should not be done (Language 11).

Because blacks tend to have sex partners of the same race, their chances of HIV contraction are higher since the rates of HIV tend to be higher among this group (CDC). Therefore, Koop’s strategy of casting blacks as both predators and the preyed upon was linked intentionally or not to the idea of black-on-black crime. Rates in violent crimes presented a significant morbidity and mortality issue for the black community during the 1970s and early 1980s. For example, 94% of black victims were slain by black assailants in 1983 (Palley and Robinson 59-60). Black-on black crime was such a concern of the NAACP that it included the following in its 1980 policy resolutions: “The NAACP calls upon black communities, law enforcement agencies, and courts of law to recognize that crimes committed by blacks against blacks, are as unlawful, are as humanely devastating and are as undesirable in our black communities as crimes committed by blacks upon whites, or any group” (Policy Handbook 51). This indirect tie of the spread of the AIDS virus to black-on-black crime further encouraged moral panic among audience members.

Additionally, with a scene-agency ratio dominating his approach, Koop considered the social impact of AIDS and in a twisted way the political scene on the reception of his message. He stated:

The Black and Hispanic communities have significantly large numbers of AIDS cases. I’m concerned about the subsequent social impact. I fear it will provide greater opportunity for discrimination against Blacks and Hispanics in our society. To echo comments of a prominent national leader on this issue: ‘America faces a disease that is fatal and spreading. This calls for urgency, not panic. It calls for compassion, not blame. And it calls for understanding, not ignorance. It’s also important that America not reject those who have the disease, but care for them with dignity and kindness.’ That national leader is Ronald Reagan.

The president had no credibility with this audience. He was booed when he addressed the NAACP at its annual convention in Denver in 1981. Blacks overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party with Reagan receiving less than 7% of their votes (Sahgal and Smith).

No one on the panel with Kopp supported Reagan either. John Jacob, as President of the National Urban League, opposed the policies of Reagan which called for a reduction in spending on urban problems by advocating an Urban Marshall Plan (Rice). Jesse Jackson, as head of Operation PUSH and unsuccessful in this 1984 bid for the Democratic nomination, blamed Reagan’s policies for a reduction in government domestic spending, an increase in unemployment, and encouragement of economic investment outside of inner cities (Ralph). Even the Executive Director of the NAACP, Benjamin Hooks (1045), a Republican, believed Reagan was indifferent to civil rights and attempted to roll back affirmative action while touting reverse discrimination. Koop indicated some knowledge of the negative views his fellow panel participants held of Reagan, as indicated in his 2003 Reminiscence that, “Jesse Jackson told me what he had told me several times before that I was the only good thing about the Reagan Administration.”

Evoking the name of Ronald Reagan reminded audience members that they had not received support from the Reagan administration on any of the issues they deemed important and probably could not expect assistance with this issue either. Koop had successfully initiated victimage through distancing the moral from the immoral, encouraging moral panic, implying black-on-black crime, and evoking the name of Ronald Reagan. Now to complete this cycle of guilt and redemption, all that remained was for Koop to purge his own guilt and assist his moral community in purging theirs.

Redemption through Education and Self-Determination

Koop credited science for discovering AIDS and tracking the transmission of its virus through specific communities, but denied his audience hope by failing to mention the possibility of a cure or research to find one. He did not mention any available resources, arrangements underway by the DHHS to provide resources, or even the possibility of any in the immediate future. He simply stated: “I am willing to support those efforts which show greatest promise of efficiency using limited resources. We must identify resource needs and methods of securing private and public support to meet these needs.” As in the boilerplate speech, he offered AIDS education that promoted abstinence, monogamy with the use of condoms, and personal and moral responsibility as the solution. But then went further in laying the responsibility for that education at the feet of the NAACP with, “I invite the Black organizations, such as the NAACP to establish a planning committee to set strategies to meet the goal of a culturally relevant AIDS prevention for Blacks.” Koop made it clear that the AIDS epidemic in the Black community could only be solved by the Black community with:

Strategies should be developed that utilize Black community organizations, utilize Black health professionals, and most important, strategies must involve Blacks in efforts of majority organizations, connect AIDS with other STD and teen programs, and develop training programs especially for teachers and counselors. Judging from a history of success, often under very adverse conditions, I am confident that Black organizations with the support of the community, will swiftly and successfully shift into a battle mode to deal with the AIDS challenge.

With this closing, Koop was thereby redeemed and purged of any guilt he felt for his failure and that of the Public Health Service to lend support.

Koop’s directive that the NAACP create its own culturally relevant AIDS prevention advanced an ideology of self-determination that more than likely resonated with this audience both positively and negatively. In the complex sociopolitical environment in which Koop spoke, his audience was predominantly protestant and valued self-help, but belonged to congregations that were less likely to provide social services than previous decades. However, this solution allowed his moral audience to purge any guilt they felt for distancing themselves from the deplorable immoral individuals of the community while simultaneously providing those individuals with assistance. Self-determination creates suppositions about the abilities of human beings and their bond to a larger community too which they belong (McKeen 410). As a civil rights organization, the NAACP exercised self-determination in its fight to secure equal rights for people of color by using the legal system (Pinderhughes 115-117). John Jacob’s National Urban League promoted self-help including grass roots efforts to address crime, single parenthood, male responsibility for fatherhood, and efforts to improve educational and employment opportunities for Blacks (Rice). Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH advocated black self-determination by championing education through its PUSH-Excel program which emphasized keeping inner-city youth in school and assisting them with job placement. PUSH was also successful in committing companies with a large presence in Black communities to adopt affirmative action programs to hire more blacks at higher-levels and to purchase supplies from black wholesalers and distributors (Ralph).

In the United States, The Black Church adopted a self-determination tradition with slaves helping each other survive the horrors of the plantation system through self-esteem, encouragement and skills.2 The Black Church changed based on the sociopolitical context of the time but always provided social services to the black community (Lincoln and Mamiya 11). During Reconstruction and the Twentieth century, the autonomous institutions of the Black Church made loans to small businesses, founded and supported institutions of higher education, financed banks, insurance companies and other organizations (Lincoln and Mamiya 242). These acts of self-help were an acknowledgement that Whites had not and probably would not live up to their own obligations to the black community (McKeen 413).

The Black Church was viewed as accommodationist during 1877-1950s Jim Crow with an emphasis on racial uplift and assimilation to White society. However, its actions were part of a self-determination tradition that emerged as an attempt to resist stereotypes used to justify marginalization of Blacks in American society since Post-Reconstruction Republicans had abandoned the cause of racial justice for freed blacks. In resisting racial and economic oppression during the 1950s-1960s Civil Rights Movement, the Black Church provided leadership, the membership base for various organizations, meeting places, communication networks and financial support in efforts at self-determination. After numerous legislative victories such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, some churches in the 1970s espoused a liberation theology of self-determination to achieve equality with Whites through resistance rather than accommodation. During this time non-profit Community Development Corporations, affiliated with but separate from the church, were created to provide outreach in the form of economic and social resources to individuals to address structural injustices (Barber 252-54).

The Black Church fulfilled the role of a mediating structure providing a linkage between large bureaucratic organizations and individual citizens as church-state boundaries blurred and churches were able to compete for government funding for charitable services. Black churches and non-profit organizations were five times more likely than other churches or organizations to seek such funds until the early 1980s when the political scene changed. President Ronald Reagan and fellow conservatives argued that federal spending on social services was too high and advocated for less government intervention. They demanded that nonprofits and religious institutions assume a greater responsibility for social services. 

This was the sociopolitical environment in which Koop spoke. He had a predominantly religious audience who valued self-determination, but affiliated with organizations that were less likely to provide social services than previous decades, coupled with a presidency that promoted less government spending. In addition, the NAACP lacked the means to provide resources due to a depleted budget.


This essay is the first to compare and contrast addresses from the same speaker to different audiences on the topic of AIDS while simultaneously incorporating the speaker’s own reflections on the moment. It demonstrates that although a speaker can address the same topic before different audiences, the key narrative weaved can be very different. I argued that Koop presented two distinctly different AIDS narratives, one for general audiences and another for Black audiences. It was an AIDS scapegoating rhetoric of guilt and redemption. Although he shifted from an idealistic pragmatism to a materialistic pragmatism, Koop consistently exhibited an attitude that valued scientific knowledge and the need for individuals to exercise personal responsibility. Koop’s pragmatism suggests that as individuals, we have the capacity to think rationally about the facts medical science provides on the transmission of AIDS, to determine whether or not our own sexual behavior is suspect, and if found to be so, the ability to cease or modify those behaviors to the benefit of the larger community. However, scientific evidence alone cannot resolve questions of personal responsibility in healthcare, and rhetorical strategies must respond to varying constraints and require different attributions of responsibility for various audiences (Kirkwood and Brown 60).

Koop persuaded both audiences that the immediate solution to the problem of the spread of HIV/AIDS was education. The sociopolitical environment played an important role in the design and reception of his messages before both audiences. In order for general audiences of U.S. Americans, primarily Whites, to understand that AIDS education was the answer, they had to understand just how deadly this new disease was. Therefore, scapegoating HIV/AIDS served to direct attention away from the disproportionately affected in society to the threat to all by circumventing the conservative rhetoric and stances of the 1980s Reagan administration and Religious Right. Similarly, in scapegoating an immoral scene in which black and brown people were the agents, Koop’s comments served to underscore specific conditions within these communities which would focus attention on them directly. Religiously conservative and homophobic, politically anti-Reagan, and socially engulfed by high rates of black-on-black crime and single-parent households, the audience was primed for victimage. Through social-status and religious identification that created a community of the moral, Koop’s audience was able to purge their guilt, disassociate from the immoral among them, and be redeemed in adopting his education solution.

We know that Koop was instrumental in the AIDS education of the general public through the positive reception of this mass mailer, opinion pieces, and media appearances. There is also evidence that Koop’s NAACP audience may have been inspired by his message. At its 1987 meeting the NAACP adopted two resolutions. The first was a policy on teenage pregnancy that encouraged parent-child communication about sex education and the responsibilities of parenthood (Policy handbook 157). This policy went hand-in-hand with Koop’s assertion that families should take the lead in educating youth about sex.

The NAACP also called for the elimination of racial disparities in the country’s approach to dealing with the AIDS epidemic and its disproportionate rates among black and brown communities.  It called for government and private assistance in funding minority HIV/AIDS programs, and for Congress and the Administration to enact and sign laws to fund AIDS research and provide public financial assistance to AIDS patients (Policy Handbook 155-156). This provision was an acknowledgement of the facts presented by Koop about the disproportionate number of HIV/AIDS cases in minority communities. It also supported the current socio-political position of the black community that the government had a responsibility to share in providing social services to its citizens. The NAACP’s call would be answered in 1989. As Sutton et al. (S352) noted, the CDC for the first time, funded HIV-prevention organizations to provide capacity-building assistance to local and regional community-based organizations that served people of color.

The second resolution passed at the 1987 convening of the NAACP acknowledged the responsibility the black community had for its own people. It issued a national call to action to the entire black community and announced it would embark on an educational campaign to ensure the black community received accurate information about HIV and its transmission (Policy Handbook 155-156). This statement of intent was in line with the black community’s history of self-determination and the education efforts of black gay and lesbian organizations already underway. It also supported the socio-political position of the black community that although the government had the primary responsibility for providing social services to its citizenry, the affected black community should also do everything it could to prevent the spread of the AIDS virus too.

However, due to its complex bureaucratic structure, extensive mission to address political, educational, economic, social and educational rights of all citizens, and persistent homophobia, the NAACP was slow to devise an AIDS education program. In 2013 with Gilead Sciences, Inc., the NAACP committed to enlisting the Black Church as change agents in addressing the impact of HIV in the black community. It established The Black Church & HIV Initiative to bring together religious institutions, faith leaders, and community members to commit to ending the epidemic in black America. So far, the Initiative has convened stakeholders in 30 cities with the greatest HIV burden, trained more than 1,800 faith leaders across 45 faith leader workshops, committed more than 140 faith leaders to preach from the pulpit on AIDS as a social justice issue, and encouraged six denominations to issue public endorsements in support of the Initiative. In addition, the Health Programs Department and Advisory Committee of the NAACP created additional resources to assist congregations including infographics, videos, national and local fact sheets, and an activity manual entitled, The Black Church & HIV: The Social Justice Imperative. The manual advocates a four-stage social justice approach integrated with HIV activism in the Black Church. The stages include awareness, engagement, mobilization, and sustainable change (Bryant-Davis et al.). Like Koop, the manual emphasizes the importance of education, but notes political involvement is essential in influencing decisions for resources to address the educational inequality that impacts access to HIV care and treatment. The NAACP’s Initiative in utilizing the Black Church in addressing the spread of HIV is a clear indication that it views this health issue like Koop, as first and foremost an issue of morality.


1. Throughout this essay you will notice that Koop consistently in his speeches uses the phrases infectious pneumonia, the AIDS virus and the spread of AIDS and never uses the designation HIV. He conflates HIV and AIDS. However, HIV is the virus that spreads through the body destroying T cells which help the immune system fight off infections. The pneumonia he refers to is now known as Pneumocystis pneumonia and is one of a number of severe opportunistic illnesses that results from damage to the immune system. It is a flu-like illness that individuals may experience during the first stage of HIV infection. AIDS is the third and most severe stage of HIV infection in which one’s T Cells have fallen below 200 and an increasing number of opportunistic illnesses result. Symptoms mimic severe pneumonia and include a high fever, chills, weakness, weight loss, and swollen lymph glands. For more information on the differences between HIV and AIDS refer to the CDC’s website and its numerous references.

2. I use “the Black Church” to refer to churches belonging to black protestant denominations, just as the scholars Franklin Frazier, C. Eric Lincoln and W.E.B. DuBois did –not as a monolith but to highlight a common historic and sociopolitical identity of churches with predominantly black membership.

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“There’s Your Whole World”: A Critical Introduction to KB: A Conversation with Kenneth Burke

Ethan Sproat, Utah Valley University
Erin Doss, Indiana University Kokomo


As a critical introduction to Harry Chapin’s documentary about Kenneth Burke, this essay is part of the ongoing Kenneth Burke Digital Archive. This essay provides both historical and critical contexts for various subjects in the documentary, which was first released in VHS format 25 years ago.

Kenneth Burke in the Mid-1970s

In the mid-1970s, Kenneth Burke was in his late 70s and living a quiet life on his farm in Andover, New Jersey, which was his home and workspace when he was not traveling to various universities to lecture or teach. During this august phase of life, Burke's grandson Harry Chapin interviewed Burke on film with the goal of making a documentary about him. Due to Chapin's untimely death in 1981, the project remained unfinished for several years. In the early 1990s, some of Chapin’s family and friends edited together the extant interviews into a short documentary titled KB: A Conversation with Kenneth Burke.

Today, 25 years after being initially edited together, this documentary continues to provide a rare window into Kenneth Burke's world in the mid-1970s and a valuable set of summarizing statements by Burke on his theories of language. Throughout this short film, Burke touches on a wide array of topics that stem from his career as a language theorist, author, and poet. Some of these include his Definition of Human, what it means to be a symbol-using animal, the affective power of language and symbols, the relationship between literature/poetry and human motives, the role of death as a motivational force, and how the interactions of non-symbolic motion and symbolic action serve to form the entirety of human consciousness (or, as Burke exclaims to Chapin at one point in the film, “There’s your whole world!”).

At the time of filming, all of Burke’s children were already on their own, and he was still a relatively recent widower. Burke's spouse Elizabeth “Libbie” Batterham had passed away only a handful of years earlier in May 1969. The film shows Burke still keenly feeling the sorrow of her absence. Despite his personal loss and advancing years, Burke remained professionally active as he kept himself busy delivering lectures and writing essays, reviews, and poetry. Indeed, throughout the 1970s, when he was at an age when most people are winding down their lives’ professional activities, Burke continued to publish an impressive amount of material including over two dozen academic essays, seven literary reviews, a handful of new poems, and the third edition of The Philosophy of Literary Form. Though his Andover farm was still home, Burke held several temporary university positions throughout the 1970s. These positions included serving as a visiting professor at Washington University, St. Louis; a lecturer at Wesleyan University; the Andrew W. Mellon Visiting Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh; and the Walker-Ames Visiting Professor of English at the University of Washington. During this same decade, Burke was awarded honorary degrees from Dartmouth College, Fairfield University, Northwestern University, the University of Rochester, Indiana State University, and Kenyon College (Cratis Williams 11). He was also awarded the 1977 Award for Humanistic Studies by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Chapin’s film also captures Burke when we was still building and revising his “Definition of Man” that appeared in a slightly different form years earlier in Language as Symbolic Action. In the film, Burke suggests adding to the definition a section discussing the threat of death as a motive, "a situation that contains or rationalizes human action, particularly symbolic human action" (Whitaker and Blakesley xvii).

When asked on film if the threat of death frightened him, Burke responds into the camera that he was more frightened of death as a child than he is as an old man. Instead of fearing death, Burke asserts, he became used to the idea as he grew older, which led him to add the "acquiring the foreknowledge of death" clause to what would be his renamed “Definition of Human.” The “foreknowledge of death” addition to Burke’s “Definition of Human” has been cited in numerous books and articles and was added to a later formal version of the definition in poem form.

Harry Chapin in the Mid-1970s

Harry Chapin is the most famous of the Chapin family, and he is best known for his music, especially the songs “Taxi," "W*O*L*D," and the number-one hit "Cat's in the Cradle." In the mid-1970s, Chapin had just begun to focus solely on music and had released only two albums, Short Stories (1974, which rose to #61), and Verities & Balderdash (1974, #4), which was a success, bolstered by the chart-topping single "Cat's in the Cradle." Prior to his success as a musician, Chapin was a documentary film maker and had directed the documentary Legendary Champions in 1968, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1969 (“Academy”). In addition to music and documentary filmmaking, Chapin wanted to make Long Island, New York, a place for art and learning. Toward this end, he founded the Long Island Philharmonic, the Eglevsky Ballet, and the Performing Arts Foundation. He also served as a trustee for Hofstra University. Chapin also raised funds to help end the causes of hunger in the United States and around the world. Part of this effort involved donating the proceeds from nearly one-third of his concerts and resulted in the creation of the Harry Chapin Foundation. This foundation, directed by Chapin's widow Sandra Chapin, was responsible for originally producing KB: A Conversation with Kenneth Burke.

Family Relationships

Much of Harry Chapin's early life was spent in New York except for the summers, which he spent visiting his grandparents in Andover. Life at the Andover farm revolved around Burke, who set the timetable and rules for everything that happened at the farm. Burke wrote in the mornings and imposed a three-hour siesta every afternoon, requiring all family members—including children—to remain quiet while he napped. According to Chapin's biographer Peter Coan, when Chapin was a child he was not particularly close to his grandfather (Coan 13-15). Chapin’s mother Elspeth Hart was Burke’s daughter. She explains that Burke “loved having family around but he was not a great 'sit up on my knee' kind of a grandfather” (Grayeb and McCarty). Part of this distance came from Burke's deep involvement in his work, as the grandchildren were often told they must be quiet while he worked and napped. Although they were not close emotionally, Chapin credited his grandfathers (both Burke and James Ormsbee Chapin, a musician and scenic painter) with inspiring many family members to work hard and believe that if you wanted to do something you could find a way to make it work. Hart describes this inspiration by saying her son grew up assuming that men could be creative and that making money is not the emphasis of creative work. "You supported your family,” she said, “but it wasn't what seems to be now the emphasis on expensive cars and all that. It was a whole different emphasis" (Grayeb and McCarty).

Throughout his life, Chapin respected Burke and desired his approval and acceptance. Because of Burke's success in the literary field, Chapin looked up to him as a model for his own artistic aspirations. Although some family members, including Burke, did not support Chapin's career choices at first, the environment of Andover allowed the budding poet and musician to converse with serious poets such as e e cummings and William Carlos Williams. Admittedly, music ran in Chapin's family. His father, famous jazz drummer Jim Chapin, provided the Chapin children with an example of success in the music industry. But it was Michael Burke, KB's son and Harry's uncle, who really got Chapin interested in folk music and the guitar (Coan 17, 41-42, 308). Following Chapin's death in 1981, Burke spoke at a 1987 Carnegie Hall Tribute event in Harry's honor.

Film Location: Andover, New Jersey

Chapin's documentary was filmed in and around Burke's home in Andover, New Jersey. As described by Chapin’s biographer, Burke owned 165 acres and had been living in some building on the property since the early 1920s. The property was a magical place for Chapin to visit as a child, complete with a big hill and valley, plenty of fields to run through, a swimming pond, and a natural clay tennis court. Elspeth Hart recalls the rustic Andover farm with almost Thoreau-like nostalgia:

“We went out every summer, and originally, it was a house without plumbing. In fact, we didn't put in plumbing until Harry made money and added a wing, and we put in a furnace and running water and all that kind of stuff. . . . It was quite simple living, but for the kids it was great because we didn't have TV or anything and they played outside. We had a lake and they went barefoot in the summer months. The only things you had to look out for were snakes and crossing the dirt road. There were all kinds of games they could play. We had a tennis court, and Harry, Tom and Steve played tennis.” (Grayeb and McCarty)

Burke lived at the farm year-round, but every summer he welcomed family members to fill the numerous houses and converted barn on the property. He hosted several famous guests at Andover, including Ralph Ellison, Alexander Calder, Malcolm Cowley, Shirley Jackson, William Carlos Williams, Theodore Roethke, and many others. While Burke's Andover home as a friendly and welcoming place, Burke’s kitchen workplace was so full of stacks of books and papers that entering it was a challenge (Whitaker and Blakesley xvii). But it was in this nexus of people and books and notes that Burke did his most productive work. As Julie Whitaker describes it, Burke worked amid the comings and goings of family members and professional acquaintances, pulling words, sentences and articles together from notes scratched on scrap pieces of paper and scattered throughout the kitchen. As the site where Burke developed many of his theories of language, his home is a fitting location for Chapin's film.

Artifacts Referenced in the Film

Throughout the film, Burke reads some of his poetry and refers to pieces of art in his home and on his property. The film begins with Burke reading "Heavy, Heavy—What Hangs Over?," a poem first published in the 1966 preface to the second edition of Burke's book Towards a Better Life. Evidently, this was a favorite poem of Burke’s to read at poetry readings in his advancing years (see his discussion of this poem in a 1970 poetry reading delivered at Washington University at St. Louis). Burke's final words in the film include the postlude from "Poems of Abandonment (to Libbie, who cleared out)," a poem he wrote for his wife Libbie after her death. In addition to these poems, Burke also reads “A Special Kind of Glass,” a humorous poem from Burke’s Collected Poems: 1915-1967 about an alcoholic’s childhood dream concerning a woman "with breasts like bunches of [glass] grapes." While reading his different poems, Burke freely laughs and weeps revealing how words exercise control over him (through rhetorical affect) even while he controls those very same words (through poetry). Burke’s personal affective relationship with the power of words seems to inform a more general claim about humans as symbol-using animals that he makes elsewhere in the documentary: “our kind of animal . . . has not only done all these marvelous things with learning symbol systems, but we get pushed around by it too in the same way. We are both in it and victimized by it at the same time.”

In addition to poetry, the film features two notable art pieces. The most significant is a framed visual representation of Burke's “Definition of Human” created by a former student. The film displays each drawn section of the definition while Burke goes through the piece, explaining each element and what he intended by including it. Burke's definition of human was a continually developing work throughout the last decades of his life. He published his definition's first iteration in The Rhetoric of Religion in 1961. He developed it further in a 1963 essay in the Hudson Review, which was reprinted in Language as Symbolic Action (mentioned above). During the discussion in the film, Burke brings up the idea of adding "acquiring foreknowledge of death" as part of the definition. The final version of his definition, as delivered in a 1989 speech at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, includes this addition among other changes (Coe 353-54).

Another art piece included in the film is a toilet paper holder created by renowned sculptor Alexander Calder, who was a frequent visitor to Burke's Andover farm. In the film Chapin jokes about the toilet paper holder because it is shaped like a hand with the middle finger sticking out to slip the toilet paper over. This toilet paper holder must have made an impression on Chapin as a child, because it is discussed by Chapin's biographer as one of his summer vacation memories (Coan 16).

Finally, the song “One Light in a Dark Valley” can be heard playing instrumentally at the beginning of the film and with full lyrics during the closing credits. Burke wrote the song before 1955, and Chapin recorded a version of it on his 1977 album Dance Band on the Titanic. Interestingly, this is the only song Chapin recorded on an album that he did not have some part in writing (Coan 368). Years later, the song would continue to connect Kenneth Burke to the hearts of the Chapin family. In 1987 for instance, Kenneth Burke spoke at the Harry Chapin Tribute concert just before The Hooters played a cover of “One Light.” Also, the evening Burke died, Steve Chapin (Harry’s younger brother) arrived at Burke’s house at about the time Burke died; after viewing his deceased grandfather in the kitchen, Steve played “One Light” on Burke’s piano in the next room (Brand and Burks 24). In the film, Tom Chapin (another of Harry’s brothers) plays both an instrumental and a sung version of the song. While this song plays during the closing credits, the film displays several uncirculated photos of Burke by himself and with family and friends. The photos date from Burke's life in the early 20th century throughout his career.

Digitizing the Documentary

Although KB: A Conversation with Kenneth Burke was filmed in the mid-1970s, it was not produced by the Harry Chapin Foundation and Sandra Chapin until 1992. At that point, the film had limited distribution on VHS tape. In the fall of 2007, PhD students Katharine Tanski and Maria Granic-White of Purdue University transferred the film to digital format and created an initial transcript of the film. Their digitization project was finished in the spring of 2010 by a team of Purdue PhD students who were enrolled in a digital archives seminar taught by Patricia Sullivan and Jennifer Bay. This student team, led by [name redacted], included [name redacted], Ping Qui, and Adam Pope. Their project included producing both DVD and online-compatible versions of the film, subtitling the film, and researching various people and subjects portrayed or mentioned in the film. Most significantly, this digitization project provided the disciplinary and archival groundwork for what would become the Kenneth Burke Digital Archive (KBDA).

The KBDA invites any comments or feedback on this critical introduction to Chapin’s documentary. We are especially interested in missing information about specific scenes, people, topics, and images portrayed in the film (of particular interest is any information about the series of photographs during the closing credits—when they were taken, who besides Burke do they depict, and so forth). Please email any comments or feedback to David Blakesley (david.blakesley@gmail.com).

Works Cited

“The Academy Awards Database.” The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. 4 March 2018.

Birenbaum, Rob. “Legendary Drum Teacher Jim Chapin Dead at 89.” DRUM! (6 July 2009).

Brand, Ginny and Don M. Burks. “KB’s Last Day.” The Kenneth Burke Society Newsletter 9.1 (December 1993): 11, 24.

Burke, Kenneth. Collected Poems: 1915-1967. U of California P, 1968.

—. “Kenneth Burke WUSTL Reading, 4 Dec. 1970, Washington University at St. Louis.” Eds. Adam Humes and Ethan Sproat. KB Journal: The Journal of the Kenneth Burke Society 12.2 (Spring 2017).

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

—. Towards a Better Life. U of California P, 1982.

Burks, Don M. “KB and Burke: A Remembrance.” The Kenneth Burke Society Newsletter 9.1 (December 1993): 1-9.

Coan, Peter M. Taxi: The Harry Chapin Story. Citadel Press, 2001.

Coe, Richard M. “Defining Rhetoric—and Us: A Meditation on Burke's Definitions.” In The Kinneavy Papers: Theory and the Study of Discourse. Eds. Lynn Worsham, Sidney Dobrin, and Gary Olson. State U of New York P, 2000. 353-67.

Cratis Williams, David. “A Burke Chronology.” The Kenneth Burke Society Newsletter 9.1 (December 1993): 10-11.

Grayeb, Mike, and Linda McCarty. “Reflections from Harry's Mom: An Interview with Elspeth Hart.” Circle! (Winter 2005). Web.

Whitaker, Julie, and David Blakesley. Kenneth Burke: Late Poems, 1968-1993. U of South Carolina P, 2005.

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Biological Adumbrations of Drama: Deacon, Burke, Action/Motion, and the Bridge to the “Symbolic Species”

Edward C. Appel, Lock Haven University


Terrence W. Deacon, University of California, Berkeley, has become an international star in biological anthropology and evolutionary neuroscience. His empirical research appears to provide intriguing precursors to, and confirmations of, Kenneth Burke’s dramatism/logology. However, Deacon’s data and theory call into question Burke’s usually unnuanced distinction between symbolic “action” and nonsymbolic “motion.” This essay explores the four intersections between Deacon’s evolutionary theory and Burke’s dramatism that inform the apparent “Deacon”-struction of Burke’s action/motion claim.

. . . Sentience---without it there are no moral claims and no moral obligations. But once sentience exists, a claim is made, and morality gets ‘a foothold in the universe.’

—William James, 1897 (qtd. in Deacon, Incomplete Nature 485)

Terrence W. Deacon is Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a biological anthropologist and evolutionary neuroscientist (Tallerman and Gibson xvii). Deacon’s star as internationally famous and influential academician has been on the rise since the publication of his book, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain (1997). With the appearance of his most recent volume, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2012), Deacon has reached a level of importance in the study of evolution and language such that it invites interest from scholars in communication.1

Deacon posits a distinct and structured bridge connecting animal life in general to human symbolizers. The central piling in Deacon’s bridgework is a sense of negation he asserts pervades all animal life, not just the “symbolic species.” Consequently, and in particular, as I have previously pointed out, Deacon’s work appears to intersect with, or evince marked similarities to, the dramatism/logology of philosopher of language Kenneth Burke (Appel, “’Symbolic Species’”). The power of negative motivation undergirds the work of both these theorists.

As empirical science, not philosophy, Deacon’s research and findings add a dimension of insight into Burke’s rhetorical system that may problematize, as well as support, some of Burke’s ideas. It is the contention here that, as I explained (“’Symbolic Species’”), multiple facets of the biology and semiotics of Terrence Deacon uphold Burke’s conceptions of “symbol-using animal[s]” and their unique standing in the hierarchy of sentient organisms (Burke, Language 3-9). One determination, though, of Deacon’s research significantly challenges Burke’s philosophy. Burke’s famous and categorical polarity of “action” vs. “motion,” post Deacon, might require attention and review---here on the (nonsymbolic animal) “motion” side of that dialectical polarity---by scholars and critics in the Burkean tradition (Crusius, Kenneth Burke 136, 164-66).2

Deacon’s Incomplete Nature affords a noteworthy point of departure for that challenge to Burke’s default conceptualization of nonsymbolic animal “motion.” Deacon says:

Organisms are spontaneously emergent systems that can be said to “act on their own behalf” (though “acting” and “selfhood” must be understood in a generic and minimal sense . . . ) . . . In organisms, we see the most basic precursors of what in our mental experience we describe as self, intention, significance, purpose, and even evaluation. These attributes, even in attenuated form, are significantly unlike anything found spontaneously in the nonliving world, and yet they inevitably emerged in their most basic form first in systems far simpler than the simplest known organisms. (Incomplete 273-74)

The notion of single-celled living creatures “act[ing]” with “intention” for a “purpose” by way of a capacity for “evaluation” of an environment they somehow sense as “favorable or unfavorable” for survival marks off a strange landscape for a Burkean, as well as many other observers of the biosphere in general (Incomplete 273). This is the language of drama. The “Morality” [read: drama] William James said gets a “foothold” via animal sentience is here, at least, “foreshadow[ed] vaguely,” surely exceedingly vaguely, but still, if accurately described by Deacon, foreshadowed (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, “adumbrate,” def. 1 18). “Morality”-cum-drama is at minimum significantly prepared for in some “enigmatic” way (Incomplete 1). Tiny “sentien[t]” creatures, as Deacon labels them, are presumed to intuit and then “encompass” a problematic situation (Incomplete 485-86; Burke, Philosophy 1, 64). A Burkean scene-act correspondence surely comes to mind. Deacon’s dramatic phrasing, though admittedly “attenuated,” seems meant to be taken on its face, not just as gross metaphor or the typical superimposition of drama on mechanistic nature symbolizers are wont to do without reflection (Incomplete 273; Burke, Grammar 3-7; Language 54-55, 378-79; Appel, Burkean Primer 4-12).

Accordingly, this probe of Deacon’s research will focus on the four points of intersection between Burke’s dramatism/logology and Deacon’s putatively scientific theorizations that suggest a revision of Burke’s action/motion theme on the nonsymbolic motion side. Those points of connection that challenge Burke are what Deacon calls the four nonsymbolic “precursors” of human experience (Incomplete 473). These early attributes of “sentience” as the “foothold” William James theorized differ from the six pillars of support for Burke’s dramatism I found in Deacon’s depiction of the “symbolic species” in evolutionary near-formation and then fully formed (Incomplete 485; Appel, “’Symbolic Species’”). Deacon’s four antecedents to symbolism, harbingers, as it were, of the human drama yet to emerge, problematically undercut Burke’s facile and categorical action/motion polarity.

Deacon’s fourfold nonsymbolic precursors of Burkean drama here examined will include a protonegative; a protopentad of a kind (the scene-agent-act-purpose-means trajectory inherent in the grammar of language, i.e., Burke’s pentad); concepts that seemingly adumbrate Burkean terms for order (order/disorder-sin-guilt-sacrifice-redemption, Burke’s cycle of terms implicit in the idea of order), as more loosely construed, of course; and the activity or experience of that animal life as not reducible to spontaneous motion (Incomplete 1-3, 53). Deacon’s sixfold theory of the semiotic communication of emerging and ultimately fully-emergent humankind---comprised of a “bi-layered” symbolic species in thought and action, a theory of entitlement that places symbols in a separate bin from the objects they presumably name, an evolutionary explanation of linguistic origins remarkably like Burke’s, treatment of Burke’s sixth grammatical term, “attitude,” as integral to symbolic action, indeed, defining supposedly sapient men and women as the essentially symbolic and theological animals Burke construes them as---these dramatistically supportive features of Deacon’s research I have already examined (“’Symbolic Species’”; Burke, “Dramatism” 8-9). Deacon giveth, as well as taketh away, in respect to Burke’s conceptions.

To rephrase as preview the trajectory to be elaborated in this probe: If a sense of the “absential” or negative of whatever variety is assumed as inherent in any living creature, Deacon’s postulate, then a purpose of a kind must implicitly follow as motive for any living creature. An intuition to reject, say, alternatives A, B, and C as serviceable options means a likely preference for D as purpose. If not A, not B, and not C, but rather D as purpose, then restriction, an inhibition or sacrifice of a kind, a pushing back against the blind purposeless forces of ordinary physics and chemistry, in respect to A, B, and C as possibilities. And if that negative sensibility, generating a purpose and a prohibition against what does not serve that purpose, if such purpose and prohibition orients toward something beyond a materialistic, billiard-ball form of causation, then a potential incommensurability between the sought-for outcome and the mechanics of the material substrates that are being supervened. The negative calls forth Burke’s pentad, a rippling out toward all the notions that go with the term “purpose,” and the purposive pentadic terms call forth the concepts implicit in the idea of order, as described by Burke, as some sort of transcendence of the motions of inanimate nature.3

 The upshot: Four essential features of presymbolic living nature Deacon argues for and highlights, presage, intimate, sufficiently foreshow, four essential features of Burke’s symbolizing animal, to call into question Burke’s customary construction of his action/motion polarity.

First, though, by way of situating Deacon’s challenge to Burke’s action/motion pair, a review of representative studies that have troubled or refined Burke’s thought on human action may afford helpful context. A look at Burke’s inconsistencies on the action/motion binary requires attention, as well. Careful delineation of what is, and what is not, in focus in a Deacon/Burke comparison on action/motion should be made apparent, before launching into Deacon’s claims on the matter.

Symbolic “Action” the Usual Problematic in Burke Studies, Not Nonsymbolic “Motion” Elsewhere in the Biosphere

Most studies that have problematized, or refined, Burke on action/motion have taken aim at the human “action” side of the divide, how human “action” needs to be construed or modified conceptually, not the pole in which Burke usually places nonsymbolic animals. The questions include, how free is the symbol-user, or, where do nonsymbolic impulses end and human free will, expressed in symbolic action, begin? Or even, how free is symbolic action, when symbols goad or use the symbol-user as well? In his treatment of putatively free symbolic action per se, an ambiguity in Burke’s thorizations is often overlooked, Abraham Kaplan claimed. Kaplan put it this way:

Burke explicitly declares his concern to be with the analysis of language [as “symbolic action”], not “reality” [the “reality” of the tangible actions, i.e., morally purposeful motions, human symbolizations supposedly goad into being]. But it remains doubtful whether he has in fact clearly distinguished the two and successfully limited himself to the linguistic level. (“Review” 233-34)

Sociologist Michael Overington said the same (“Kenneth Burke” 133).

Additional secondary literature on Burke and action/motion has addressed this ambiguity in Burke, or such theoretical complexity in general. For example, in their probe of their concept of “pentadic cartography,” Anderson and Prelli examined the (unsatisfactory, they claimed) linguistic reduction of action to motion in the rhetoric of contemporary technological culture (“Pentadic Cartography”). They then applied their take on Burke’s critique of language to Herbert Marcuse’s putative failure to successfully “map” that terministic terrain. Anderson and Prelli’s analysis dissected the symbolic attribution of motives. It did not attribute motives itself, or undermine Burke’s stated focus on language as basis for some, if even a minimal, degree of free moral action.

Crable critiqued Burke’s language of attribution. He offered a “friendly amendment” to Burke’s axiom, “There can be motion without action.” The proposition should read, Crable said, “There can be no motion without action” (“Symbolizing Motion” 128). The dialectical polarity itself, by Burke’s own reckoning, extrudes from a distinction made possible only by symbols (Crable, 126-27; Burke, On Human Nature 139-71). Demonstrating the “fragmentation” of such a full dialectic in a truncated rhetoric, Crable showed how the attempted reduction of “action” to “motion” in Western “racist” categories “corrupt[s]” nonsymbolic motion with one-up, one-down, hierarchal symbolizations not present in human nature itself (“Symbolizing Motion” 132-35). So-called biologically heritable disparities exist only in our languaging of “race,” Crable asserted, not in the material world itself. Any such hierarchal/dialectical discrimination is to be at least suspect as a symbolic superimposition.

Other Burke scholars have probed the action/motion ambiguity with the focus thoroughly on the human “action” side, in respect to “reality,” not just talk about reality. Desilet and I briefly questioned the notion of “free” moral action in support of a “comic” attitude toward perpetrators of even the most heinous of war crimes (“Choosing a Rhetoric of the Enemy” 340-62). A “comic” extenuation of atrocity is facilitated by a scenic diminution of personal responsibility, Desilet and I suggested. Conrad and Macom deconstructed Burke-style symbolic “agency,” particularly with respect to habit as symbolic “action” turned “motion.” They claimed Burke’s “tension”-filled, “dualistic” treatment of action/motion “oscillates” between emphasis on one pole, then the other, with the symbol/action side ultimately the more privileged. Conrad and Macom argued for a more coherent “interpenetration” of the two motives, “free” action and constrained motion, as illustrated in that habitualization of “action” toward “motion,” often to be followed by the dehabitualization of “motion” in an emergency (“Re-Visiting Kenneth Burke” 12-16, 22, 25). Most intriguing in this subtle treatment is their claim that symbolic motives themselves can often be construed as “motion.” Burke’s “entelechy,” or symbolic thrust toward hierarchal perfectionism, can serve as suasive force without conscious, deliberative awareness of how terms are so “using” the symbol-user (13-15).

Engnell targeted five dialectical interpenetrations of symbolic and physical motivations that complicate a simplistic action/motion distinction. Awareness of the ways body and symbol “avenge” each other’s promptings will facilitate a fuller, more balanced, rhetoric, Engnell offered (“Materiality, Symbolicity” 1-25).

From a Burkean purview, Hawhee further explored whatever it is that distinguishes the seemingly purposeful motion of persons from the promptings of spontaneous nature. In a wide-ranging survey that highlighted Burke’s interests in music criticism, dance, mysticism, social hygiene, endocrinology, drug addiction, bodily diseases, including Burke’s own illnesses, and, finally, Burke’s excremental obsessions, Hawhee emphasized dramatism’s co-constituting relationship between body and symbol, its integral movement from body to language, concluding that those polar terms are “an irreducible pair, contiguous but distinct” (Moving Bodies 158; see, also, O’Keefe, “Burke’s Dramatism”; Jameson, “Symbolic Inference”; Schlauch, “Review.” Relevant, too, on the action/motion question are Jack, “Neurorhetorics”; Ivakhiv, “Environmental Communication”).

In summary, many if not most of Burke’s critics on action/motion take him to task, or provide nuance, with a heavy interpretive thumb on Burke’s purposive, symbolic, aesthetic, distinctively human side of the scales. They do not put in play Burke’s customarily sweeping definition of nonsymbolic motion to include animals in the wild. Burke’s inconsistent treatment of this other pole in his dialectical pair, that of nonsymbolic motion in the “lower” animal realm, requires a closer look, as well. This is the one feature of Burkology Deacon’s research, taken on its face, deconstructs.

Burke’s Inconsistencies on Animal “Motion”

It must be acknowledged at the outset that Burke did occasionally drop hints that he was aware that nonsymbolic living beings, those that are in common parlance called “lower” animals, do not function only according to the laws of physics and chemistry. Early in Permanence and Change, Burke spoke of fish as demonstrating “criticism of experience.” After a bad day in the river, fish might “revise [their] critical appraisals” to avoid “’jaw-ripping food.’” In fact, Burke conceded, “all living organisms interpret many of the signs about them.” This expression of the basic irritability that is said to distinguish living beings serves as contrast to the human facility for “criticism of criticism,” a meta-capacity to “interpret our interpretations,” transcend via a symbol-induced insight that generic irritability. Burke went on in that opening chapter of P&C to cite Pavlov’s dogs and domesticated chickens as exhibiting the same learning and interpretive instincts, only to have them backfire when the summons is to their “punishment,” not their feeding time (Permanence and Change 5-6, 18, 22).

In the same vein, Burke vouchsafed in A Grammar of Motives that nonsymbolic animals could be labeled “agents-minus,” and what they physically do “action-minus.” Burke explained:

In reducing all phenomena to terms of motion, biology is as unambiguously scenic as physics. But as soon as it encounters the subject of self-movement, it makes claims upon the areas covered by our term agent. We have improvised a solution, for our purposes, by deciding that the biologist’s word, “organism,” is Grammatically the equivalent of “agent-minus.” (Grammar 157, 237)

Whether he is altogether committed in his Grammar to such re-labeling, Burke does nicely “improvise” in the direction of nuance.

These two passages in Burke’s corpus reflect well enough the overall point Deacon seems to be making in bold strokes. Yet Burke more normally confounds the issue with statements like the following, in a long and definitive essay he entitled, and in which he specifically contrasted,, “(Nonsymbolic) Motion / (Symbolic) Action”: “If all typically symbol-using animals (that is, humans) were suddenly obliterated, . . . ,” Burke said, “the Earth would be but a realm of planetary, geologic, meteorological motion, including the motions of whatever nonhuman biologic organisms happened to survive.” Burke curiously added, “Ironically . . . [via ‘operant conditioning,’ B. F.] Skinner is able to set up so ‘rational’ a problem (‘push that lever, peck that key, or starve’) that his animals can in effect behave much more ‘rationally’ than is the case in most human situations . . . [in respect to] discriminations” (Human Nature 141, 168-71). The glaring “irony” is: Burke did not seem to sense that his illustration undermines, not his distinction between the “action” of symbolizers and whatever it is that preverbal animals do, but rather his blanket conflation of that “discriminat[ing]” animal behavior with, for example, undiscriminating “planetary” motion.

In his summary encyclopedia article, “Dramatism,” the “sheer motion[s]” of the brain Burke spoke of, on which the “action” of human thought is based, are, in part, per Deacon, expressive of “sentient” neurons operating on an admittedly “lower-level” of emergent activity, yet still living beings with a degree of intention all their own (Incomplete 509-11). In Deacon-world, Lewis Thomas’s book The Lives of a Cell comes readily and appropriately to mind.

Burke’s inconsistency on the “motion” side of action/motion is brought sharply into focus by Deacon’s theory of evolutionary self-organization. What Deacon’s theory entails, and how it critically articulates with Burke’s dramatism in complication of so-called nonsymbolic animal “motion,” is herewith examined.

Precursors to Drama in Deacon’s Evolutionism: The Protonegative, Protopentad, Order, “Irreducible” Activity of a Kind

We now address, in some detail, four of the most salient features of Burke’s philosophy, previewed, Deacon maintained, in natural, biological history. Burke devoted a famous four-part series of articles in the Quarterly Journal of Speech to the negative basis of symbolic action (“Origins of Language”; Burke, Language 419-79). His seminal work, A Grammar of Motives, explains throughout the ubiquity of his pentad of terms: act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose (introduced on pp. xv-xxiii). Burke’s climactic “logological” study, The Rhetoric of Religion, is built around the grammatically implicit terms for “Order” or guilt-redemption cycle (4-5, 184). “’Symbolic action’” as irreducible to terms for motion highlighted Burke’s summary piece in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (see Burke, “Dramatism” 11). Deacon’s evolutionary theory resonates with these ideas as operative in reduced scale in primitive life forms. Whether appropriately labeled activity or “behavior,” apparently Burke’s term for the notion of lower “organisms” functioning in some nonmechanistic way, Deacon puts such animatedly intermediate operations in boldest relief (Burke, Permanence and Change 5).

Deacon’s “Absential Feature” or “Abstential Phenomenon”

The power of negative motivation serves as core not only for Deacon’s semiotics, but also for his conception of animate being in general. In Deacon’s tale, two great dislocations, two great transformations, not just the one Burke highlighted, occurred in the evolution of our planetary home: when living animals and plants appeared, and, again, when the symbolic species arose into full self-conscious life. Both transformations give evidence of some sort of negative provocation (e.g., Incomplete 155-59, 182). Conventional evolutionists ignore the “absential” that is inherent, Deacon averred, in whatever it is that nonsymbolic life forms are doing (Incomplete 3, emphasis in original). Behaviorists like B. F. Skinner, and premier biologists like Richard Dawkins and Francis Crick, will often smuggle into their accounts “homuncul[i]” and “golem[s],” “unacknowledged gap-fillers,” that do the “teleonomic”---Deacon’s word for an apparent purposefulness short of the human---the teleonomic or teleological work of explanation that is required. But the implicit presence and purposiveness of these manipulative stowaways go unacknowledged (Incomplete 46-106, 550, 553).

Deacon’s mentor, however, did not so ignore. Deacon carries forward Gregory Bateson’s notion of a “difference which makes a difference” in the activity of all living beings (Bateson, Ecology 381, emphasis in original). Bateson, along with Deacon after him, borrowed terminology from the ancient Gnostics. In the “Pleroma,” the realm of chemical and physical mechanism, entropy rules. The Second Law of Thermodynamics drives all processes relentlessly toward a state of equilibrium, dis-order. In the “Creatura,” the arena of living beings, “work,” broadly defined, “stave[s] off” “thermodynamic decay” by feeding off of “free energy” in the environment, generating or perpetuating “order” way beyond the capacity, it would seem, of the mere physical and chemical properties of those “working” creatures (Bateson, Ecology 455-56, 481-82; Incomplete 281). What is “absent” somehow motivates that “work.” The some-way-sought-for, somehow-motivating, “ends” of that “work” are “repair” and “formation,” which is to say, “survival” and “reproduction” (Bateson, Ecology 481-83; Incomplete 281-83; Deacon, e-mail, “Re: Fw: Re: Deacon’s Neo-Aristotelian Complication”: “Bateson was a powerful personal influence on me”). Often energized by the “responding part rather than by impact from the triggering part,” “self-organization,” “self-correctivness,” “trial and error” can characterize nonverbal, as well as verbal, life forms (Bateson, Ecology 482; Incomplete 169; Kauffman, Origins of Order: Self-Organization). That absential-related “difference” cannot “make a difference” unless there is a recognition of some kind that the “difference” taken cognizance of is not correct or not incorrect in terms of some “target state” (Bateson, Ecology 381, 482; Incomplete 281-83, 326-30, 487, 553).

Colin McGinn, a philosopher at Miami University, wrote a dissenting review of Incomplete Nature. McGinn asked in the title of his piece, “Can Anything Emerge from Nothing?” His answer: No (“Emerge”). The “absential” does remain vague in Deacon. Deacon does not particularly give shape or contour to this cryptic notion. The “absential,” or protonegative, would strike one, on its face, at this preliminary point in evolutionary history, as a nonmoralizing negative. Deacon concedes the concept is a “nontechnical . . . heuristic,” a kind of exploratory assumption (“In Response”). Yet, both Deacon and Bateson appear very much to be on to something. The nonsymbolic negative can perhaps be compared to dark energy in cosmology. Astronomers do not know exactly what dark energy is, but its effects are clearly observable and measurable. Likewise, such “absential” phenomena as Deacon and Bateson postulate appear to exist. What nonsymbolic living beings do cannot readily be explained without that postulate. Adaptive change in general, to say nothing of successful training of those “lower” animals, via stimulus-response, suggests sensitivity to a difference that can make a difference. How else account for the warning signals of meerkats when danger looms on the horizon, or any animal’s defense of nest, den, or territory when invaded by outsiders. What an unacceptable difference these creatures seek to “correct” for!

 Some might call this line of reasoning argument by bafflement. We cannot yet conjure a satisfactory mechanistic explanation for such seemingly calculated, communicative, unspontaneous adaptation to a perceived threat (though some biologists are trying; see, below, “What Deacon Uniquely Adds”). The notion of argument by correlation can serve as counterstatement. We do not hear or see a symbolic auditory or gestural “no,” “not,” or “beware” when a Vervet monkey calls out or signals to its troop members, with discrimination, that a snake, leopard, or eagle is nearby. When related animals take appropriate evasive action in response to such a warning, like looking down (snake), climbing a tree (leopard), or hiding in a bush (eagle), correlative cognition would seem to have occurred. A “difference which makes a difference” in terms of survival, is, on some level, discerned. A correspondence with the linguistic “no,” even if rarefied, appears operative and plausible (Deacon, Symbolic Species 54-56).

 “Correlation” is the precise term many biologists use to link animal calls to the states and events in the environment the calls are “about.” If the resulting and correlative behavior suggests a warning has been received, is not negation implicit? The warning call is correlative to a subsequent not-doing whatever it is these animals had been doing (Deacon, Symbolic Species 54-56; Seyfarth and Cheney, “Primate Social Cognition” 61; Stegmann, “Information and Influence” 8; Adams and Beighley, “Information, Meaning” 405-406, 411-12, 416).

“Entelechy,” the Four Causes, Grammatical Terminology

The notion of a nonsymbolic “absential” negative, whatever its lineaments and motivational power, calls forth the language of seemingly purposeful action. (The “absential” implies not A, not B, and not C, in order to achieve D, the purpose.) Such, at any rate, are the grammatical requirements of the language human observers use to talk about it (Appel, Burkean Primer 10-12; Burke, Language 378-79). Deacon can and will label that presymbolic response to negative inducement “teleological,” not merely “teleonomic.” Deacon defines teleonomy (a term he etymologically traces to the late 1950s) as a “middle ground between mere mechanism and purpose, behavior predictably oriented toward a particular target state even in systems where there is no explicit representation of that state or intention to achieve it” (Incomplete, 116, 553; Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, “teleonomy” 1284). “Thermostats and computer programs are teleonomic,” Deacon said (“Re: Revision”; Incomplete 116-123). Of and by themselves, without reference to the design in their human origin, no “intention” to “achieve” some “target state” inheres in such mechanistic artifacts.

Deacon defines “teleological,” usually associated with full-bore orientation toward design in nature, ultimate purposiveness, alignment toward some consummate goal, as “purposive or end-directed (the study of such relationships); philosophically related to Aristotle’s concept of a “’final cause’” (Incomplete 553; Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, “teleology” 1284). But here is the rub: Deacon’s notion of the “teleology” that infused and infuses evolution and all living systems is an immanentized teleology, not a transcendentalized one. Deacon’s project is the “Naturalizing of Teleology” (Visual, Ginn Lecture, “Naturalizing Teleology”). In personal correspondence, Deacon put it this way:

Teleodynamics [a term for Deacon’s system as related to “teleology”] attempts to carve a path between a vitalist elan vital and the cybernetic-related conception of teleonomy. I consider Aristotle’s notion of entelechy (given its prescientific context) to be closer to my view than to teleonomy. His subsequent interpreters exaggerated the homuncular way of interpreting it, however, and this is what I would object to. (“Re: One More Time.”) 4

Once again on the homunculus: This is the “little man” in the “germ cell” in prescientific notions of procreation that was thought to grow to maturity during human gestation. Deacon extends the reference to the connotations of teleology that mechanistic theorists often surreptitiously sneak into their explanations of phenomena to illegitimately fill explanatory gaps (Incomplete 46-79; Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, “homunculus” 596).

One way or another, all this utilitarian sub-verbal behavior in animate life in general, in the direction of an entelechial target state or “purpose” of a kind, conjures up, in Deacon’s explanation, notions of Aristotle’s protopentadic “four causes.” One of those causes is purpose or “final cause,” in other words, entelechial end-directedness. And if there is a final cause or purpose, then an efficient cause or agent, a formal cause or act, and a material cause or scene inevitably follow (Burke, Grammar xv). Deacon makes those connections (Incomplete 34-35, 161, 185-86, 210-214). All grammars appear to answer, even require, the who, what, why, how (comprised of preliminary whys), and when and where. The notion of a purpose, necessarily devolved from negative motivation, will so require.

Burke explains Aristotle’s entelechy in contrast to his own conception. Aristotle’s usage is close to Deacons. It pertains to the behavior of nonsymbolic beings, as well as humans. Burke’s notion of entelechy is limited to the symbolic. The “purpose” or “end-directedness” Burke embraces refers just to symbol-users and their unique actions. Burke posits, however, two important features, as he sees them, of “entelechy” as even Aristotle conceived it. The term “entelechy,” as per Aristotle and Deacon, is, by implication, still “dramatistic” (Dramatism and Development 57). Aristotle’s four causes and the five elements of linguistic grammar Burke analogously derives from the content parts of speech (noun actor, verbal act, adverbial purpose, means, manner [Burke’s hexadic “attitude”], and scenic time and place) are irrepressibly conjured by the notion of end-directedness in either case. And that Aristotelian “entelechy,” reaching down to the most primitive forms of animal and vegetable life, is “metaphysical,” Burke clearly stresses, which is to say, at the very least: If the “purpose” of a kind the Aristotelian entelechy suggests cannot be satisfactorily accounted for within the materiality of the most basic life forms to which the term is applied, observers will be prompted, or tempted, to look for that “purpose” in some “beyond” (Burke, Dramatism and Development 57-58; Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, “metaphysical” 780, def. 2a).

No such “purpose” inheres at all within the materiality of nonsymbolic life forms in the “absential”-centered evolutionary theory of Terrence Deacon. Inadvertently and proleptically, Burke’s conception of the metaphysical quality of even Aristotelian entelechy calls into some question how successfully Deacon has actually “naturalized teleology” and its theological implications. Deacon’s “absential” most assuredly does not reside in the undiscerning physical or chemical compulsions of even living matter.

Deacon summons, as per Burke, many variants of purposive pentadic drama from the negative “absential,” however situated in the realm of animal life: “meanings,” “evaluations,” a feeling for “potentials” and “possibilities not realized,” leading to “longings,” “intentions,” “aspirations,” indeed inclinations toward “end-directed,” “consequence-oriented” actions, processes, and forms of causality that most characterize the symbolic species (Incomplete, e.g., 3, 5, 7, 11-12, 14, 16, 33). By unaccounted, “enigmatic,” but observable enough legerdemain, this goal-seeking, in some fashion, seeps downward into the nether-reaches of living organisms. By the implacable “lurking” Burke has been lampooned for, such “purpose” brings to mind all the pentadic components---even, it would seem, for those elemental, “minimal[ly]” sentient, microbial life forms (Incomplete,1, 273; Lansner, “Burke, Burke, the Lurk” 261).

Emergent “Order” by Way of “Work” and “Restriction”

Just as he adumbrates Burke’s pentad in his description of dynamical processes on varied levels of even elemental biological organization, so, too, does Deacon echo Burke’s “terms implicit in the idea of order,” or guilt-redemption cycle, in his mind-from-matter trajectory of evolutionary development. Once again, Deacon uses these “order” terms more loosely than Burke. Concepts analogous to Burke’s “Iron Law of History” are projected downward into realms of the nonsymbolic (Burke, Religion 4-5, 184). There they function as descriptives of activity or behavior that far transcend the mechanism of mere physics and chemistry.

Recall Burke’s “Iron Law” poem in The Rhetoric of Religion. The stages of drama anatomized there go from “order,” maintained by “commandments” (the thou-shalt-nots) that inevitably lead to violations and “guilt,” the resulting disorder rectified and “redeemed” through “sacrifice” by way of “victimage” directed at self or other. Later in the book, Burke elaborated this moral drama in his famous diagram that proceeds from the “Bless[ings]” and “Curses[es]” the commandments that maintain order inspire, to ”redemption by vicarious atonement” that restores order disrupted by things gone amiss (Religion 4-5, 184).

Deacon’s roughly equivalent terms construct “order” in the biosphere generally via “constraint” and “restriction,” which is to say, by rules or commandments, so to speak, that resonate across living nature. The intuited “absential,” that sense of a “missing” element in both minimally and fully sentient life, constrains the “restriction,” much like the hortatory negative in the human drama. The feel for that complicating “difference which makes a difference” brings resolution, order recovered or retained in the face of threat, by way of “work,” a concept within hailing distance of Burke’s “self-sacrifice” (Incomplete 24, 191-98, 326-70; Bateson, Ecology 381; Burke, Permanence and Change 286-91; Burke, Rhetoric 260-74).

Unpacking his version of the terms for order, Deacon said, “Order and constraint are intrinsically related concepts.” He calls his approach a “negative way of assessing order.” Deacon explains:

The nature of constraint (and therefore the absent options [read: potential “purposes” of a kind]) indirectly determines which differences can and cannot make a difference in any interaction. . . [In fact,] by recasting our understanding of habit [from Charles Sanders  Peirce] and order in negative terms, we can begin to disentangle ourselves from the “something more” fallacy of traditional emergence theories. . . . Emergent properties are not something added, but rather a reflection of something restricted and hidden. . . . (Incomplete 198, 203)

What is shunted to the side by living “work” is the multifarious and random events of spontaneous nature (Incomplete 195, 197-98, 190-205).

Deacon defines that “work” thus: “In general terms, then, we can describe all forms of work as activity that is necessary to overcome resistance to [goal-directed] change. Resistance can be either passive or active, and so work can be directed toward enacting change that wouldn’t otherwise occur or preventing change that would happen in its absence.” Which is to say, “work” is activity that thwarts the “spontaneous” drift toward the “entropy” the Second Law of Thermodynamics says “mechanism” is “naturally,” if fitfully, careening toward across billions of years of the mostly un-“teleonomic,” very definitely un-“teleological,” processes physicists and chemists study and account for by way of their experiments and observations (Incomplete 330). “Work” is also activity that thwarts, or attempts to thwart, the “working” aggressions of other sentient life forms.

“Terms for order” of a distinctive kind devolve essentially from the “incompleteness” Deacon finds in the operations of all beings in living nature.

An“Irreducibility” at the Heart of the Matter

Following Talcot Parsons, Burke said, “Action is not reducible to terms of motion” (Dramatism” 10). Something “novel,” creative, inheres in a symbolic act, inexplicable in reference to material scene, actor, purpose, or means (Burke, Grammar 65-66, 68). True, “There can be no action without motion,” according to Burke. Electrochemical brain waves are happening when human thoughts and words lead to interference with the kinds of causes that would otherwise be taking place, minus those negatively-charged symbolic inducements (those electro-chemical discharges authored by living brain cells, “motion” for Burke, not altogether so for Deacon). At the very foundation of the hierarchy of sentient activity in the human brain, “motion” is apparently taking place, as Burke sees it. The resultant symbolic meanings cannot, however, be read from, or reduced to, those neurological discharges (Burke, “Dramatism” 10-11). Nor can one speak to such physical and chemical interactions in and of themselves and expect to persuade them to do one’s bidding. The relationship between biochemistry and symbolic action is mysterious enough that the notion of language as “magic spell” is not foreign to Burke’s dramatism (Philosophy 1-8).

Deacon uses the term “magical,” too (Incomplete 10). His project, though, is to dispel that mystery as much as possible. The subtitle of his recent book is, after all, “How Mind Emerged from Matter.” Still, Deacon admits to an irreducibility in his scheme as well, and the primary locus of that enigma is not surprising: “Absence has no components, and so it can’t be reduced or eliminated. Or, to be a bit less cryptic: Constraint is the fact of possible states not being realized, and what is not realized is not subject to componential analysis. Reductive analysis can thus irretrievably throw away information about the basis of higher-order causal power” (Incomplete 204, emphasis added).

Equally irreducible for Deacon is each level of living “sentience” to a lower-level of sentience that serves as support. Deacon asserted:

Although there is a hierarchic dependency of higher-order forms of sentience on lower-order forms of sentience, there is no possibility of reducing these higher-order forms (e.g., human consciousness) to lower-order forms (e.g., neuronal sentience, or the vegetative sentience of brainless organisms and free-living cells). This irreducibility arises for the same reason that teleodynamic processes in any form are irreducible to the thermodynamic processes [as per the Second Law of Thermodynamics] that they depend on. (Incomplete 508)

Put more generally, Deacon said: In Incomplete Nature, “I repeatedly show why we cannot reduce either life or mind to material substrates” (207, 508; Deacon, “Response”). Science cannot satisfactorily probe the absential via physics or chemistry.

On the other side of the coin, “action” is not possible without “motion,” Burke maintained (“Dramatism” 10). Deacon said the same thing, differently phrased: e.g., animal activities are “not . . . independent of thermodynamic change”; they “still have these [mechanistic] processes as their ground” (Incomplete 347, 361, 370).

Summary Review

Based on his biological and neuroscientific investigations, Deacon has posited four features of even single-celled living beings that function, in effect, as precursors of the dramatic action Burke warranted as the distinguishing traits of the “symbol-using animal” (Burke, Religion 40; Burke, Language 16). More to the point, Deacon has homed in on one characteristic of these primitively sentient life forms from which the other three attributes devolve. That protean sensibility is a feel for the “absential,” as he calls it, an “enigmatic” orientation toward what is “incomplete” about itself, what is “not there,” that generates “order” through “constraint,” “purpose” of a kind, and an incommensurability with anything material, tangible, or “componential.”

The trajectory of implications can go something like this: If self-organizing and self-perpetuating living “order,” then a capacity for “constraint” or “restriction” of a kind built into the organisms in question, that factors out all sorts of otherwise possible results, were “spontaneous” nature in control. If “constraint” or “restriction” in the way such living organisms operate, then of necessity a negative sensibility, a taking note of a “difference which makes a difference” in terms of generating conditions “favorable” or “unfavorable” to continued existence, a tropism toward “correction” of circumstances not right. If such an active sense of the negative, then “purpose” (Burke, Grammar 294-97; Deacon, Incomplete 23, 273). There can be no “constraint,” leading to “order,” indicative of “purpose,” without an overarching intuition of the what-is-not. Negative sensibility of some variety, awareness of the vitally “missing” or the “absent,” is thus the lynchpin of orderly living being. Burke appears, normally, to place that informing negative intuition only in the symbolizing animal. Deacon puts some form of the negative, enigmatically attenuated in the nonsymbolic to be sure, in all sentient life forms, and defines all living organisms as sentient (Incomplete 485-507).

The upshot: Nonsymbolic animals, with or without brains, certainly do not “act” like symbol-users. Just as certainly, and brought boldly into academic awareness by Terrence W. Deacon, nonsymbolic animals do not “move” like stars, clouds, tides, or geologic plates. Burke’s action/motion distinction, inconsistently articulated to be sure, may stand in special need of revision in light of Deacon’s “absential[ism].”

What Deacon Uniquely Adds to Current Research on Animal “Activity”

Much contemporary biology touches on what “lower” animals do that looks different from spontaneous physical mechanism. Does any of it approach Deacon as nascent dramatic precursor? Only in part: First, concepts of negation are mostly missing from this research. That is one notion Deacon introduces. Second, complex avians and mammals are the focal concerns in the biology of “agency-minus,” not single-celled organisms. Deacon appears to move the discussion about nonsymbolic animal activity and communication in the direction of negation-based discriminations across all living nature. That broadening of reference is another of Deacon’s contributions.

The concept of “information” illustrates the way Deacon’s formulations both articulate with and differ from those of standard study of nonsymbolic animals and their behavior (Incomplete 371-91). “Information” is a generative principle, or focus of debate, in this field of research in general. “Information” is, for Deacon, a “relationship” term. The “sign medium” itself is not of central import (Incomplete 379, 374). An animal’s warning signal or mating call has “meaning” only in respect to an “irregularity,” or potential irregularity, that has teleodynamic significance. It is not just a “difference” in expectation. It is a “difference which makes a difference” in terms of perceived purposes of survival and/or reproduction. The “significan[t]” difference is not “something missing” that merely “stand[s] out with respect to a tendency.” That missing tendency “must also stand out with respect to another tendency that interprets it . . . which is the ground of this expectation; a[n] [end-directed, consequence-oriented] projection into the future” (Incomplete 377, 392-420, emphasis in original).

In studies of animal communication in the large, a debate over the concept of information is at the fore. Some biologists give the notion credence. Some do not. The focal dialectics are “information” vs. “manipulation,” “information” vs. “signaling,” “linguistic metaphor” vs. “nonlinguistic metaphor,” “cortical” vs. “non-cortical” or “subcortical,” “cognitive” vs. “non-cognitive,” “mutualistic” vs. self-serving. Those who claim information’s conceptual utility often use terms that echo part of Deacon’s theory. Terms like “referential signals,” “mental representations,” “prediction,” “correlation,” and, in particular, “cognitive” activity, correspond with Deacon’s account (Stegmann, “Information and Influence” 4-25; Font and Carazo, “Animals in Translation” 1; see, in Stegmann, Animal Communication Theory, the five chapters under “Varieties of Information” 41-148; e.g., Scarintino, “Animal Communication” 53-88; Wiley, “Communication” 113-32).

The advocates of “manipulation” and mere “influence” in animal relationships emphasize “automatic reflexive reactions” and “affect induction,” not cognition. This is “an explicitly noninformational approach.” “Signals evolved in order to prompt receivers to behave in ways beneficial to the sender,” as per the “selfish gene” hypothesis of Richard Dawkins. Even in respect to primate vocalizations, the “unsophisticated nature of signal processing” is asserted. Information theory overall superimposes human language and thought processes on nonsymbolic living nature, illegitimately, the “non-cognitive” side in the debate contends (Stegmann, “Information and Influence” 15-25; Dawkins and Krebs, “Animal Signals”; Dawkins, Selfish Gene; Owings and Morton, Animal Vocal Communication, “emphasiz[ing] the role of motivation and emotion more than . . . the role of information-processing systems” 40; Johnstone, “Evaluation of Animal Signals” 155-78; Font and Carazo, “Animals in Translation” 1-6; Randall, Owren, and Ryan, “What Do Animal Signals Mean?” 233-40).

In nonsymbolic animal research in general, questions are occasionally asked about hominid “protolanguage” precursors to homo sapiens, concerning “communication about absent objects/events” (Gibson, “Language or Protolanguage” 57). Very little terminology related to “absentialism” surfaces directly, though, in research on avians or subhuman mammals, much less single-celled creatures. Uniquely, it would seem, the negative, with its many echoes of drama, infuses all living operations in the evolutionism of Terrence Deacon.


Despite the many corroborations it affords Burke’s thought in respect to what Deacon calls the “symbolic species,” a ponderable point of contention exists between Terrence Deacon’s evolutionary theory and Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic philosophy of language. At its core is Deacon’s potent demonstration, or postulation, of a negative ubiquity, as it apparently suffused and suffuses the behavior of all nonsymbolic life forms (Incomplete 480). To borrow Aristotle’s term, even if Deacon would explain the machinations of that term differently, an “entelechial” purposivness of a kind extrudes in animate beings in general, not just in the symbol-using animal, Deacon’s fundamental claim. As a result, four “precursors,” as Deacon calls them, of symbolic action in such animal life anticipated in some “enigmatic” way the full-blown drama of human striving: that negative “absential” and the agent-act-to-purpose trajectory negative inducement originated, terms of a kind for “order” that seem to make sense when applied even to the minimally sentient, and an incommensurable, nonreductive aspect to it all, as to purely physical causation. Burke’s usually, not always but usually, unqualified contrast between symbolic action and nonsymbolic motion may therefore necessitate some revision on the motion side of this dialectical pairing. Too often, Burke’s dichotomy places nonsymbolic animals, plants, and the processes of inanimate physical nature all in the same “motion” bin. Deacon’s postulate of two dislocations, two discontinuities, in evolutionary history puts Burke’s customary formula in some doubt.

 Hence, Deacon’s claims about the “absential,” the “teleological,” the veritable “end-directedness” of preverbal living nature that, it appears, profoundly changed the natural history of planet Earth, might require Burke scholars to revisit the action/motion theme, perhaps thusly: In his treatment of Darwin’s evolutionism, Burke’s makeshift notions of “action-minus” and “agent-minus” may serve as a good start to such a revision: Not “action/motion,” but rather “action/action-minus/motion” would, in light of Deacon, afford a more accurate and serviceable encompassment of “recalcitrant” living reality (Burke, Grammar 157, 237; Burke, Permanence and Change 255-61).

“Action” minus what? Infinite goading, eternal longing, guilt-cum-morality, all implicit in the human intuition of an infinite negative, a negative that extends in space and time without limit---still but distant intuitions at the end of a yet-evolving trajectory in the natural history of animate beings? Of the symbolizer’s negative, Burke has said, “You can go on forever saying what a thing is not” (Religion 19, emphasis in original; Appel, “Implications” 51-52; Appel, Burkean Primer 44-51). Surely, the nonsymbolic negative will remain difficult for symbolizers, drawn into metaphysical speculations by a negative that knows no bounds, to get entire hold of.

Where the preliminary purposefulness, or teleological tendencies, of Deacon’s theory may have come from, in the case of nonsymbolic living beings, also poses a dilemma. Deacon argues for an intermediate “morphodynamic,” or “form-generating,” step. Morphodynamic regularities mark a stage of development between the basic homeodynamic, or billiard-ball, causation of unfeeling, uncaring, entropic physics and chemistry, and the teleodynamics of sentient, nonsymbolic animal life. This level is intermediate to the appearance of those living beings. Inanimate snow crystals and the hexagonal convection cells in a heated liquid, for two examples, become “spontaneously more organized and orderly over time,” via “perturbation” between two morphodynamic, or nonliving, systems (Incomplete 235-63, 305, 462, 550; Deacon, “Emergent Process of Thinking” 3). The crystals and convection cells display pre-teleonomic, teleonomic, or pre-teleological dispositions, it would appear, as precursors to life. Such operations fall under the heading of “self-organization” as theoretical addendum to, and modification of, the standard, one-sided, Neo-Darwinian emphasis on natural selection as driving evolutionary force. How convincingly Deacon closes this divide between inanimate and animate is for scientific peers to assess.5

However it emerged from brute matter, primordial life as Deacon describes it came trailing clouds of “agent[ial]” mystery, if not the glory of Wordsworth’s poem (Incomplete 479-80, 509; Wordsworth, “Intimations of Immortality” 232-34). That primitive life seems protoactive, protoaware, at least protosensitive to something not there that functions as telos. Deacon most emphatically underscores this supramaterialism at the core of the case he makes in a climactic and profound reversal: In the last sentence of the last chapter of Incomplete Nature, Deacon confessed that his book should actually have been subtitled, “How mind . . . emerge[d] from [those absentially-charged, or negatively-charged] . . . constraints on matter” (538, emphasis added).

“Incidently,” Burke said (actually not so “incidently”), “Logology would treat Metaphysics as a coy species of theology” (Religion 24n). As I offered before, speculation along those metaphysical lines leads to the possibility that “coy” theologian may apply to Terrence Deacon, as well as to Burke (“’Symbolic Species,’” “Coy Theologian”; Booth, “Kenneth Burke, Theologian and Prophet”; Booth, “Kenneth Burke’s Religious Rhetoric” 25; Booth’s Plenary Lecture at the Third Triennial Conference of the Kenneth Burke Society, May, 1996, which served as basis for these two publications). Arthur N. Prior cited establishment philosophers who have called even the linguistic negative “metaphysically embarrassing,” let alone one as ostensibly unexplainable and ontologically confounding as Deacon’s (“Negation” 459). A pre- to proto-“drama” of a sort, devolving from a pre-symbolic tropism toward negation and end-directedness of an admittedly “enigmatic” kind, suggests realms of transcendence Neo-Darwinians understandably ignore (Incomplete 31-34). In The Symbolic Species, Deacon speculated that, when all is said and done, the “universe . . . is . . . nascent heart and mind” (484). Here, the birth metaphor speaks of something normal, inherent in the nature of things. If heart and mind are thus “potential” enough in “totality[‘s]” “’nonverbal’ ground,” can the “verbal” itself be far removed (Burke, Rhetoric 290)?


The author wishes to thank Professor Terrence W. Deacon for his gracious help in facilitating research for this essay, as well as the KBJournal editors and reviewers for their careful reading and useful comments.


1. It is acknowledged that this inquiry serves more as conduit and application of Deacon’s scientific anthropology, than criticism of it. I, the author, claim no expertise in the disciplines by which Deacon reached his conclusions. The distinguished chair Deacon holds in academe, and the considerable evidence of his international standing as stellar scientist and theorist, are the ethical foundations for the assertions here made about his comparative relevance to Burke’s thought.

As for Deacon’s academic bona fides, Incomplete Nature in particular has been called a “tour de force,” “stunningly original,” “a huge breakthrough,” “the missing link between mind and brain,” a “cutting edge . . . complete theory of the world,” its analysis “Kuhn[ian] . . . revolutionary science,” promising, in fact, “a revolution of Copernican proportions” and “a profound shift in thinking . . . [to] be compared with . . . [those of] Darwin and Einstein” (Incomplete, i-iii).

Since the appearance of Incomplete Nature, Deacon has been accorded distinguished lectureships at various universities and professional schools in both Europe and the U.S., including venues in Holland, Norway, Denmark, and Atlanta, Georgia (e.g., Deacon, “On Human (Symbolic) Nature”; Deacon, “Naturalizing Teleology”). Deacon delivered four lectures in Norway and two in Holland in December, 2014 (Correspondence with the author, February 15, 2015, “Re: Update on Incomplete Nature”). The Symbolic Species Evolved, edited by Schilhab, Stjernfelt, and Deacon, considered The Symbolic Species a seminal work on the origins of language and human nature (see 9-38).

2. Crusius called the categorical distinction between “nonsymbolic motion” and “symbolic action” the “basic polarity” in Burke’s philosophy. It subsumes or supersedes “mind-body, spirit-matter, superstructure-substructure . . . thought and extension” (164).

3. In his typically elliptical style, Burke makes the same connection between the pentad and the terms for order, as he calls the guilt-redemption cycle: “There is a gloomy route, of this sort: If action is to be our key term [implying the other pentadic terms that go with “act”], then drama, . . . But if drama, then conflict, And if conflict, then victimage [i.e., “sacrifice,” and all the other terms of that guilt-redemption cycle implied by it, including “conflict”]. Dramatism is always on the edge of this vexing problem, that comes to a culmination in tragedy, the song of the scapegoat” (Language 54-55, emphasis in original).

4. Deacon’s post, personal correspondence, of 29 Sept. 2018, continues as follows:

“I try to exemplify the distinction between teleodynamics and teleonomy with the Old Faithful geyser example. A geyser exemplifies accidental teleonomy to the extent that it regulates water temperature and pressure within certain precise parameters. But this regulation has no constitutive bearing on its form or material details.

“In the same sense, a missile guidance system might enable the missile to track a target and even compensate for the evasive maneuver of a target plane, but this behavior does not contribute to the organization, construction, or maintenance of its mechanism. Its behavior only appears to exemplify final causality, because this is something entirely imposed extrinsically by design and observer interpretation.

“The term ‘teleonomy’ can be glossed as ‘behaving in a way that appears end-directed,’ but is not intrinsically teleological. It is purely descriptive of the dynamical tendency that can be produced by an algorithm or thermostat.

“In contrast, even a virus is organized so that its effect on a host will be to generate the work of making and perpetuating this viral form. . . . Its end-directedness and normativity are intrinsic, not an observer-imposed gloss.

“Thus a virus is teleodynamic, even though there is some debate about whether to call it alive. Teleology (and to some extent entelechy) envisions an explicit representation of an end state and implies a tendency to achieve it.

“Again, considering the virus, there is no explicit representation of itself or its form, but its every feature has evolved to help produce it. Aristotle somewhat ambiguously imagines that entelechy is something like an oak-tree-target-tendency that is represented in an acorn. I would be happy to consider my concept of teleodynamics to be a modern refinement of entelechy, without the connotations of a plan or representation. And teleodynamics is not an essence. It is just a kind of ontologically circular causal organization. I suspect that people tend to collapse my notion of teleodynamics and teleonomy because both are consistent with materialist chemistry and physics, and it is assumed that if I am not making a vitalist claim, I must be making a reductionistic claim. Indeed, I am denying both” (“Re: One More Time”).

5. Inorganic self-organization as precursor to life and modification of the Neo-Darwinian reliance on random genetic variation dates, at least, to physicist, engineer, and astronomer Erich Jantsch, The Self-Organizing Universe; the Santa Fe Institute (founded in 1984); and University of Pennsylvania biochemist Stuart Kauffman’s book, The Origins of Order.

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The Hand of Racism: Using Dramatism to Discuss Racism Holistically

Michael Rangoonwala, California State University, Sacramento


Divisive rhetoric abounds in the United States on the topic of racism. Finding productive and holistic ways of analyzing and discussing racism are vital. This essay proposes the use of the pentad method (act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose) and dramatic framing from Kenneth Burke’s theory of dramatism as useful toward that end. A case study of analyzing a racial narrative is performed on Nelson Mandela’s famous 1964 Rivonia Trial speech. In this paramount speech, Mandela advocates for a pragmatic transformation through agency and uses a comic frame to address the problem of racism in Apartheid. This essay concludes with a discussion of how the pentad and dramatic framing can be used to address racism by encouraging constructive dialogue and creative rhetorical approaches.


The issue of racism and its effects, past and present, has nationwide attention in the United States. In the wake of racial violence in the news, the Black Lives Matter movement, and debates on critical race theory (CRT), the topic of racism has become highly controversial in politics, schools, homes, businesses, and religious institutions (Hamilton 66–70). Fueling this fire is the factual existence of racial disparities in the United States. A longitudinal study from 1950 to 2016 has found a persistent wealth disparity of median black households having less than 15% of median white households (Kuhn et al. 4). Numerous studies point to many other inequalities black Americans currently experience in health, access to healthcare, food insecurity, educational attainment, student loans, prison sentences, voting access, home ownership, and life expectancy (Hartman et al.). While the statistics of racial disparities is soberingly clear, the presumed causes and solutions are rigorously debated. Indeed, a 2020 Pew Research Center Survey found Republicans were twice as likely as Democrats to attribute economic inequalities to just life choices. Additionally, 50 percent of Democrats attributed racial discrimination as a cause of inequity, while only 11 percent of Republicans did (Horowitz et al. 31). With such differences, public rhetoric about racism tends to be polemic and dichotomous between party lines and ideologies (Hamilton 61). Clearly, there is an acute need for exploring productive – and not divisive - ways to analyze and discuss racism.

This essay contends that the methods afforded in Kenneth Burke’s theory of dramatism are effective at analyzing racial narratives from a holistic perspective, allowing for constructive dialogue and creative rhetorical approaches. The analysis explores Nelson Mandela’s famous 1964 Rivonia Trial speech, which he gave before being sentenced to life in prison for his efforts against Apartheid in South Africa. The results show how Mandela advocates for a pragmatic transformation through agency and uses a comic frame to address the problem of racism. Since racism is a universal issue, insights from analyzing Mandela’s discourse provides a comparison point to addressing racism in the United States. A discussion follows of how the pentad (act, scene, agent, agency, purpose) and dramatic framing can be used to encourage dialogue and creativity in addressing racism.

Race, Racism, and Rhetoric

Before explicating different views on racism, qualifying notes must be made on the definition of race and the scope of this essay. Conceptualizing “race” is a slippery and complex endeavor. In the United States, the term race has varied over time. Race used to refer to ethnic groups, such as the Irish or British races, but it later shifted to refer to biological differences based on color (Ratcliffe 14). This association was accompanied by oppressive economic and social hierarchies, with whiteness presumed at the top (Ratcliffe 14). Presently, the very nature of whether race is a legitimate category is still debated. A recent national survey of anthropologists’ view on race and genetics conclude, “Results demonstrate consensus that there are no human biological races and recognition that race exists as lived social experiences that can have important effects on health” (Wagner et al. 318). On the other hand, in a 2018 op-ed piece in the New York Times, David Reich, a Harvard geneticist, is wary of the orthodoxy of race as only a social construct. Reich argues that scientists and anthropologists should be open to the possibility of biological differences across racial populations, citing studies using modern genetic research. While important, this debate is outside the scope of this rhetorical study.

Rather, this essay is concerned with addressing racism or discrimination resulting from racial prejudice. Regardless of one’s view on the legitimacy and definition of race, the negative social consequences of racial discrimination are undeniable. As such, one can examine race as a trope, as “It signifies socially constructed ‘common-sense’ attitudes and actions associated with different races” (Ratcliffe 12). Ratcliffe outlines four major cultural logics which views the trope of race in different ways, namely the logic of white supremacy, color-blindness, multiculturalism, and CRT (14). A white supremacy logic views race as a hierarchy based on biological differences. A color-blindness logic eliminates the concept of race both culturally and biologically. A multicultural logic values the use of ethnicity, or cultural heritage, over race. Finally, a CRT perspective posits race as a social construct and mandates the study of race to bring about social justice (Ratcliffe 14-15).  

CRT merits further explanation due to its prevalence in the literature and public forum. CRT finds it roots in critical legal studies in the 1970’s which questioned the fairness and neutrality of the law (Brayboy 428). Since racial disparities continue to exist decades after civil rights legislation, CRT seeks to understand how racism continues to operate. First, CRT claims the concept of race is a social construction to benefit the dominant race. Thus, in the United States, being white is seen as normalized, privileged, and deeply institutionalized. Racism is seen as endemic in all parts of society, particularly against people of color. To address this, political reform, educational efforts, and social justice are pursued (Bernal 110-111; Hamilton 87-88). CRT rejects the ideas of meritocracy, color-blindness, equal opportunity, and liberalism (Brayboy 428; “Critical Race Theory” 6). Another main principle is the validation of experiential knowledge from people of color (Brayboy 428; Solórzano and Yosso 26). Known as counter-stories, the perspectives of oppressed groups can offer a different view compared to the master narrative of the dominant culture (Solórzano and Yosso 27-33). Finally, the scope of CRT is expansive because racism is believed to overlap with other subordinated identities - a concept called intersectionality (“Critical Race Theory” 10).

CRT has not gone unchallenged. Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow from the conservative thinktank the Manhattan Institute, has led the charge in strongly opposing the fundamental tenets of CRT (Hamilton 72). Rufo states, “In simple terms, critical race theory reformulates the old Marxist dichotomy of oppressor and oppressed, replacing the class categories of bourgeoisie and proletariat with the identity categories of White and Black.” While Rufo agrees with the premise that residual effects of racism is a problem in America, he strongly rejects the solution CRT proposes of “moral, economic, and political revolution.” CRT is accused of encouraging race essentialism, active discrimination and reverse racism, restricting free speech, manipulation, neo-segregation, and anti-capitalism (Rufo). The conservative position supports the ideal of equality and critiques CRT’s notion of equity, claiming it divides people into racial groups resulting in racial discrimination (Rufo). On his website, Rufo provides phrases for “winning the language war” and tips for “using stories to build the argument.” Clearly, views on racism are divided and a focus on rhetoric is front and center.

Between this spectrum of opinions, there are those who share the social justice values of CRT but disagree on its assumptions, strategies, and conclusions. For example, Reilly compares and contrasts the catholic social teaching of the preferential option for the poor with CRT. Some common ground is found in recognizing underprivileged groups, redistributing resources, and abolishing oppressive structures (Reilly 655-656). However, CRT’s end goal of group-based liberation is deemed problematic because it results in fracturing society. Instead, “The end that we should be striving for, however, is solidarity: organic, permanent, and loving” (Reilly, 659). In a similar manner, the protestant Christian scholar John Piper supports the generic goals of CRT such as working against systemic racism and individual prejudice, but warns that “minimizing other relational dynamics (like love and humility and graciousness), can skew our understanding and yield unhelpful strategies.” Additionally, CRTs assumptions of self-identity construction and subjective truth are untenable with these faith worldviews (Piper; Reilly 657).

In summary, when it comes to race, racism, and rhetoric in the United States, discourse is contentious. The debate goes beyond the causes and solutions of racism to the labels used to define other viewpoints. For instance, what critical race theorists call “social justice,” Rufo terms as “Marxism.” What critical studies harks as “social constructs,” a classical liberal perspective champions as “social contracts” (Halsey). Arguments can spiral into circular accusations of racism and reverse-racism. Another conversational hurdle is with clarity. CRT has been critiqued of using vague jargon and dismissing opposition as proof of racism and white denial (Rufo; Halsey). With such a spectrum of viewpoints, one-sided claims to truth, and challenges with clarity, how can productive dialogue occur? How might different perspectives unify to counter the problem of racism together? To these ends, this essay proposes using the methods of the pentad and dramatic framing from dramatism. Rather than taking a position on the debate, dramatism is neutrally presented as a method capable of integrating diverse viewpoints.

Dramatism as a Method of Rhetorical Analysis

During World War II, Kenneth Burke, an American literary critic, noticed the dangers of both absolutist, fascist rhetoric and uncritical unity in countering it (Weiser, 291). He responded by developing an alternative approach through the theory of dramatism, which “encourages a poetic dialectic - the celebration of differing perspectives - and transcendence - the search for points of merger - in an effective parliamentary debate” (Weiser 287). Burke encourages productive debate by first focusing on human motivation and symbolic action found in language (Foss et al. 195). To Burke, language is not just a reflection of the world but is itself a form of action. Burke distinguishes the word “action” from “motion,” which is merely a blind, unmodified force (Foss et al. 195). Burke describes the human as “the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal” (Language as Symbolic Action 16).As Burke’s theory has a large scope, this essay focuses on using the pentadic and dramatic framing methods, as they are pertinent to Mandela’s speech, and by extension, discussions on racism in the United States.

The Pentad

The pentad is Burke’s systematic method to examine a symbolic drama from multiple perspectives (Crusius 27). It consists of five grammatical terms, rather than questions or answers, to invite dialectic criticism (Weiser 294). These terms are act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. All the terms are connected to each other and are not mutually exclusive (Burke, A Grammar of Motives 127). Burke gives the metaphor of the five fingers on a hand to describe the unity of the five terms (Anderson par. 1). Crusius explains, “For drama implies action and action implies, among other terms, an act itself, someone to do the act (agent), a place and a time for the act (scene), an end of or intent for the act (purpose), and a means for doing the act (agency)” (27). Additionally, if one term is emphasized above the others, it becomes the lens through which all the other terms are viewed. Hence, Burke describes a school of philosophy for each term (A Grammar of Motives 127). In summary, the pentad is useful in understanding both how a rhetor names the situation and his/her accompanying worldview. The following paragraphs will define the pentadic terms, identify their idiosyncratic philosophies, and explain how to apply the pentad.

Act is defined as any purposive action (Foss et al. 199). In other words, it answers what happened. Burke claims that act is the central, beginning term that develops the pentad since it creates a situation to examine in the first place (Brock 100). Its corresponding philosophic terminology is realism (Burke, A Grammar of Motives 128). Realism, in contrast to nominalism, can be defined as “the doctrine that universal principles are more real than objects as they are physically sensed” (Foss 389). With realism then, language is utilized to understand objective reality and universal truths. However, while Burke identifies realism as the philosophical school for act, he further describes action in ways connotating freedom, choice, and essence. For instance, he states that the “act itself alters the conditions of action” (A Grammar of Motives 67), implying an existentialist philosophy in which actions form essence.

Scene answers the question of when and where the action occurred. In addition to physical environments, scene can represent ideas such as cultural movements or communism. The scope of the context assigned to the scene, such as the difference between a city and a continent, is termed the circumference of the analysis (Foss et al. 199; Rutten et al. 637). Lastly scene has the philosophic terminology of materialism (Burke, A Grammar of Motives 128). Materialism as a system “regards all facts and reality as explainable in terms of matter and motion or physical laws” (Foss 389). Fay and Kuypers describe it another way as determinism (202).

Agent, or who is performing the act, has the philosophic terminology of idealism (Burke, A Grammar of Motives 128). Idealism is “the system that views the mind or spirit as each person experiences it as fundamentally real, with the universe seen as mind or spirit in its essence” (Foss 389). With this philosophy, a human’s mental capacities form reality. Fay and Kuypers also associate idealism with self-determination (202). In idealistic discourse, agents appear rational and empowered (Tonn et al. 254), using “an individual’s inner resources to overcome adverse circumstances” (Fay and Kuypers 202).

The term agency refers to how an act occurs, and its matching philosophic terminology is pragmatism (Burke, A Grammar of Motives 128). In pragmatism, “the meaning of a proposition or course of action lies in its observable consequences, and the sum of these consequences constitutes its meaning” (Foss 389). In other words, the means to an end is featured and goodness or truth is indicated by the outcomes. Burke describes the school of pragmatism in an example with science, “Once Agency has been brought to the fore, the other terms readily accommodate themselves to its rule. Scenic materials become means which the organism employs in the process of growth and adaptation” (Burke, A Grammar of Motives 287). This example illustrates how a focus on agency causes a focus on processes.

The fifth term, purpose, describes the agent’s reason for doing the action (Foss et al. 199). Foss et al. clarify that purpose should not be confused with motive, which is only discovered using all five terms (200). Purpose has the philosophic terminology of mysticism in which “the element of unity is emphasized to the point that individuality disappears. Identification often becomes so strong that the individual is unified with some cosmic or universal purpose” (Foss 389). The accentuation of purpose emphasizes the ends, rather than the means, as the focus of discourse (Fay and Kuypers 202). Finally, Burke added a sixth term later in his work titled attitude, but it will not be elaborated in this essay.

To apply the pentad to a rhetorical artifact, the first step is to name or define each of the terms. The next step examines the ratios, or relationships, between the terms. Twenty possible ratios can be created with the terms. The ratio is thought of as potential to actual; the first term creates possibilities for the second term to actualize (Tilli 45). For instance, a teacher teaching would be a predictable agent-act relationship (C. Rountree and J. Rountree 354). Pentadic pairs do not need to stay consistent with their pentadic expectations however. A term can act unpredictably to upset the ratio and transform or reverse the relationship (Tilli 45).

After systematically pairing and evaluating the second term in light of the first, a pattern of dominant terms should emerge (Rutten et al. 636). The central, dominating term will define the other pentadic terms and represent a worldview or orientation (Foss et al. 201). Burke explains that analyses of the ratios are “not terms that avoid ambiguity, but terms that clearly reveal the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise” (A Grammar of Motives xviii). Developing the critical skill of noting ambiguities is central to interpreting the pentad and thus the motive. Additionally, a pentadic analysis is not limited to just within an artifact, but it can also examine the artifact itself as the act in a larger context (Foss et al. 201).

Using the pentad method is useful for analyzing a rhetor’s motives, understanding their orientation and interpretations, and identifying alternative perspectives (Foss et al. 201). Burke created dramatism to inspire a dialectic view of rhetoric (Weiser 294). The pentad is a method in which to discover the motive and philosophy of a symbolic act.

Dramatic Framing

Dramatic framing is another significant form of analysis from Burke. Burke identifies the impact of literary art forms and how it frames the attitudes of an event. They act as what he terms “equipment for living,” which enable people to deal with the complexity of an event and establish an orientation (Ott and Aoki 281; Rutten et al. 634). According to Burke, symbolic forms can be organized into frames of rejection or acceptance (Ott and Oaki 281). The frame of rejection takes the “literary forms of elegy, satire, burlesque, and grotesque,” but “By ‘coming’ to terms’ with an event primarily by saying ‘no,’ frames of rejection are unable to equip individuals and groups to take programmatic action” (Ott and Oaki 281). Alternatively, frames of acceptance focus on obtaining resolution and are often enacted in the literary forms of epic, tragedy, and comedy. For instance, using a scapegoat mechanism to reveal guilt and call for redemption is termed a tragic acceptance of the situation. The problem with this frame, though, is that it does not encourage ethical learning (Ott and Oaki 281) and can be described as fatalistic (Smith and Hollihan 589). Burke further clarified two forms of tragic framing in a footnote in Attitudes Toward History (188-189). A factional tragedy, typically seen in war rhetoric, externalizes all guilt by attributing evil to another party. In contrast, in a universal tragedy, guilt is internalized and shared by everyone, as the audience is invited to identify with the protagonist. A universal tragedy is similar to comic framing in creating a sense of “humble irony” and “the role of double vision” (Desilet and Appel 349). The difference is that a tragedy names one a villain, while a comedy labels one a fool: “Like tragedy, comedy warns against the dangers of pride, but its emphasis shifts from crime to stupidity” (Burke, Attitudes Toward History 41).

Burke encourages people to use a comic frame to achieve lasting peace. A comic frame, not to be confused with comedy as hilarity, encourages self-reflection and the advancement of social knowledge to avoid future mistakes (Ott and Oaki 280-281). It stands in opposition to victimage by encouraging redemption for the perpetrator and focusing on the causal conditions of the grievance (Smith and Hollihan 589). For example, Gandhi’s movement of civil disobedience in India illustrates the comic frame, as his focus was on “evil deeds” and not the “evil doer” (Carlson 450).

Another important, related concept to dramatic framing is terministic screens. Burke defines terministic screens saying, “Even if a given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality” (Language as Symbolic Action 45). In other words, the terms and vocabulary one uses is the lens or ideological system through which they view reality. For example, if medical terminology is used to describe a disabled person, the lens the individual is viewed is through a pathological understanding (Rutten et al. 635). Foss et al. note that a person’s terminology is often related to their occupation or career (206). In sum, noting terministic screens reveals the rhetor’s dramatic framing of reality and biases.

Defining Racial Narratives

Since this essay examines a racial narrative, it is necessary to provide a brief definition and overview. The use of the term racial narrative simply means a narrative, story, or testimony that features discourse centered on race. The speech Nelson Mandela gives at the Rivonia Trial can be considered a racial narrative and may have transferable insights into racism in general. In this trial, Mandela gives a testimony of his own life, of the actions of the African National Congress (ANC), and the experiences of Africans. Thus, it is both an autobiography and biography. Mandela’s speech arguably fits the category of a counter-story showing the perspective of black Africans in South Africa.

The pentad is both suitable and effective for studying narratives. In the last 45 years, the study of narratives has flourished in multiple disciplines such as history, ethnography, psychology, communication, and more. Additionally, “Whereas the focus used to be primarily and exclusively on the form and content of stories, there is now an increasing attention for the political, ideological, cognitive, and social function of narratives” (Rutten and Soetaert 328). Scholars have applied the pentad to a variety of narratives ranging from personal experiences to fictional stories (Rutten and Soetaert 337). Bruner, an educational psychologist, claims that “narrative imitates life, life imitates narrative” (692), and applies the pentad to narratives to discover where the tensions are in the story (Bruner 697; Rutten and Soetaert 330-331). In a similar spirit, this study applies the pentad specifically to a racial narrative.

Nelson Mandela’s 1964 Rivonia Trial Speech

Nelson Mandela has placed his stamp upon history and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for his efforts in eradicating the Apartheid system in South Africa (“Nelson Mandela”). Apartheid was a violent period in history from around 1950 to 1994 in which the white minority in South Africa created legislation to racially segregate South Africans in all aspects of society (“Apartheid”). For instance, through the Land Acts, 80 percent of the land became owned by the white minority and was used exclusively for their residential or business practices. Additionally, pass laws required non-white people to carry documentation to travel. Eventually, international pressure and internal reform brought about national elections in 1994 in which Nelson Mandela became the first black president (“Apartheid”).

The artifact under consideration in this analysis is the last 10 minutes of Nelson Mandela’s pivotal Rivonia Trial Speech in June 1964. Before the trial, Mandela was a nonviolent activist with the ANC, a black liberation group. However, since the government increased its violence, and non-violent protests gained little, Mandela and other activists responded with sabotage (“Nelson Mandela”). Alongside nine other accused ANC leaders, the presence of international jurists, and a biased court system, Mandela defended himself against charges of treason and supporting communism (Nicholson 123-125). In the end, he barely avoided a death sentence and was sentenced to life in prison until he was released in 1990 (Nicholson 126). As for his four-hour speech, it was later published and achieved global fame in its eloquent resistance against Apartheid (“Listen: Two Mandela Speeches”; “Nelson Mandela”; Nicholson 125).

An important consideration is that this dramatistic analysis will focus on the last 10 minutes of the speech, which contain Mandela’s most emotional and epic conclusions (see “Listen: Two Mandela Speeches” for audio, transcription, and all quotations from Mandela’s speech). Additionally, it is a manageable selection from his four-hour speech to analyze. Another important consideration is that the pentadic analysis will be done in isolation, or within the speech. The alternative way of utilizing the pentad is to examine the artifact itself as the act in a larger context (Foss et al. 201), but this is not the case for this analysis.

Transforming the Hand of Racism

The first way to uncover the implicit messages inside a racial narrative through the pentad is to identify the pentadic terms. Indeed, identifying the pentadic terms reveal Mandela’s rhetorically nuanced casting of the situation. Following this, the pentadic ratios are analyzed to illuminate his philosophic worldview.

Nelson Mandela’s Counter-Story

First, naming the terms shows that Mandela creates a juxtaposition of an oppressive present and a hopeful future. For his present situation in South Africa, Mandela describes a scene of political racialism through white supremacy. He says, “The lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy of white supremacy.” He later states that the “ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism.” Mandela is critiquing the one-sided political monopoly of the white minority. The white minority are implied as the agents in this drama. Mandela implies their purpose as preserving white supremacy when he calls for equal voting: “I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy.” The fear of losing control motivates the ruling white minority to preserve their situation. In order to do this, they enact an agency of racist legislation. Mandela goes into detail describing “legislation designed to preserve white supremacy.” For example, Mandela critiques menial work assigned to Africans, pass laws, and the absence of equal political rights. Finally, Mandela depicts the consequence of racist legislation, or act, as the lack of human dignity for Africans. Mandela attributes poverty, the breakdown of family life, “a breakdown in moral standards, to an alarming rise in illegitimacy, and to growing violence which erupts not only politically, but everywhere” as ultimately stemming from racist legislation such as pass laws. In summary, there is pentadic coherence to explain the situation Mandela describes of an oppressive present as follows: for the purpose of preserving white supremacy,white minority agents create an act of abusing the human dignity of Africans through the agency of racist legislation in a scene of political racialism.

Mandela then strategically juxtaposes the oppressive present with a hopeful future, creating two sets of pentads. The second pentad contains terms that are exactly opposite of the oppressive present pentad. This nuanced casting of two situations illustrates Mandela advocating for a complete transformation of terms. Mandela states, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.” This quote succinctly demonstrates Mandela describing a scene of democracy and equality, for the purpose of racial harmony and freedom for all. To accomplish this, Mandela proposes a new agency: “Above all, My Lord [the judge], we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent.” Mandela says voting is “the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all.” Having equal political rights through voting is accomplished by the agents of all people regardless of color or race. Consequently, the new agency of voting will produce an act of the restoration of human dignity. As Mandela states, “The only cure is to alter the conditions under which Africans are forced to live and to meet their legitimate grievances.” He then elaborates on all the “wants” that Africans are denied of. These wants, such as good pay or the ability to work or travel anywhere, are in direct contrast to the oppressive conditions Mandela describes under racist legislation. In overview, Mandela paints a hopeful scene of democracy and racial equality for the purpose of racial harmony and freedom for all, in which all people as agents can perform the agency of voting to create an act of restoring human dignity.

In summary, the juxtaposition of an oppressive present and a hopeful future is illustrated through the first step of naming the pentad. The implicit, rhetorical message revealed is Mandela’s exhortation for complete transformation. See Figure 1 below for a visual of the pentadic analysis.

Figure 1

Figure 1.

Second, the arrangement of pentadic terms illuminate Mandela strategically crafting a counter-story. A counter-story presents the perspectives of the oppressed to “shatter complacency, challenge the dominant discourse on race, and further the struggle for racial reform” (Solórzano and Yosso 32). It is significant how Mandela arranges the pentadic terms because it shows his perspective. For instance, an alternative view—and perhaps the white minority’s view—could feature the violent situation, poverty, and breakdown of moral standards in South Africa as the scene. With this point of view, a variety of interpretations of the causes of the scene could be made, such as placing the locus of blame on the black South Africans. Instead, Mandela posits the turmoil in the country as an act. Naming the problems as an act removes the conversation from abstraction and makes it personal, indicating an intentional agent, agency, scene, and purpose at work. Mandela provides a line of logic that unjust pass laws ultimately cause poverty and violence. Overall, Mandela is explaining a counter-story on behalf of the oppressed African people that racist legislation is the root cause of the societal problems. Through examining the arrangement of pentadic terms, a window is created to peer inside the racial narrative.

Rights Realize Reality – A Pragmatic Worldview

The second step of the pentad method is to analyze the pentadic ratios or relationships. Analysis of the ratios shows a rhetor’s implicit, key motives. First, it is demonstrated that Mandela features agency as the dominant term through a process of elimination. Next, it is explored how agency as the dominant term reveals Mandela’s philosophic worldview.

At first it appears scene would be the dominant term in Mandela’s speech. Indeed, scene fits logically in controlling the other terms. The scene of political racialism could be seen to control or cause the act (lack of human dignity for Africans), agency (racist legislation), or purpose (to preserve white supremacy). However, Mandela presents the scene in subordination of agency when he states, “The lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy [emphasis added] of white supremacy.” The policy is the root cause while white supremacy is a descriptor. Granted, it may be unclear which preposition, “of the policy” or “of white supremacy,” is more significant in this sentence. The rest of the speech confirms a focus on agency, though, as Mandela centralizes issues in legislation, pass laws, and voting.

One could also argue that purpose is the dominant term in this speech. The purpose of preserving white supremacy could logically enact an agency of racist legislation, a scene of political racialism, or an act of abusing the human dignity of black Africans. Yet similar to scene, Mandela subordinates the purpose term when he says, “Legislation [emphasis added] designed to preserve white supremacy entrenches this notion.” Once again, Mandela highlights legislation. Furthermore, the rhetoric employed by Mandela in this speech is not characteristic of dramatistic purposive rhetoric. For example, in Fay and Kuyper’s analysis of John F. Kennedy’s (JFK) Berlin speeches, they claim JFK emphasizes purpose by using a prophetic and moralistic tone and employing the unconditioned future tense (207). Mandela does not employ similar wording as he passively uses the present perfect tense in the last paragraph of his speech saying, “I have dedicated my life to this struggle,” “I have fought,” or “I have cherished the ideal.” Mandela’s tone is more so somber than prophetic, offering a description of the oppressive present and hoping for change. This is not surprising considering his context—a prisoner on trial defending against the death penalty.

The term act, or the lack of human dignity for black Africans, does not logically realize the potential in the other terms in this case. Instead, it is often explained as a result of the agency of racist legislation. Similarly, the term agent, or the white minority, could not control the other terms except for maybe the purpose of preserving white supremacy. Also, Mandela only mentions “the white man” twice and focuses his discourse more so on agency, act, and scene.

After examining the relationships in all the ratios and “the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise” (Burke, A Grammar of Motives xviii), it becomes convincing that agency is the dominant term in this artifact. Previous examples have illustrated how Mandela desires transformation through agency by emphasizing key terms such “legislation,” “policy,” “pass laws,” and “equal political rights.” Additionally, Mandela’s counter-story positions unjust legislation as the ultimate cause of poverty and violence in the country. Since Mandela’s discourse mainly addresses aspects of agency, act, and scene, the main ratio pairs are Agency:Act and Agency:Scene. It can be concluded that Mandela’s main exhortation is to transform an oppressive present to a hopeful future by changing the nature of legislation or agency (refer to Figure 1). “Above all,” Mandela states, “we want equal political rights.” To transform a situation, a pentadic term can act unpredictably to upset the ratio and transform or reverse the relationship (Tilli 45). In this case, the pentadic term of agency is not being used to reverse a single pentadic ratio; rather, it is acting as a pivot to transform into a whole new pentad. Through changing agency, all the other terms will be changed as well. This is evidenced in that agency remains the dominant term in both pentads. It is the definitions of the terms that are changing. Using the pentad is monumental in understanding the course of action Mandela recommends and thus his key message.

Lastly, the dominant term reflects the rhetor’s motive or worldview through a corresponding philosophic terminology (Foss 389). Since agency is featured in this speech, Mandela is implying a pragmatic worldview to change the circumstances of Apartheid. Mandela’s discourse focuses on processes or means, which is caricature of a pragmatic philosophy. For example, Mandela calls for a democratic voting process, the elimination of pass laws, and less governmental regulation of daily life for Africans. Mandela’s argument is that by examining the consequences of legislation, one can determine the political direction South Africa should take. In making the case for the direction of democracy, Mandela first presents the dire consequences of the present racist legislation: poverty, violence, and inhumane treatment of black Africans. Afterwards, Mandela describes the positive consequences of having just and  democratic legislation: human dignity and equality. Clearly, Mandela is exhibiting a pragmatic worldview in which truth or goodness is to be assessed by the consequences of processes.

Furthermore, one can elaborate on the main ratios, Agency:Act and Agency:Scene, in relation to their philosophic worldviews. The Agency:Act ratio translates into pragmatism defining realism or existentialism. In terms of Mandela’s speech, the message is that enabling just processes of legislation will create a reality or essence that is just. More specifically, equal democratic elections will inspire acts that restore and maintain human dignity for all. Equally so, unjust processes lead to oppressive acts. The Agency:Scene ratio translates into pragmatism shaping materialism. In the case of Mandela’s speech where scene represents an idea (political racialism or democracy), the implicit message is that legislation will ultimately shape the political landscape of the country. Just legislation will realize true democracy, not the other way around. Likewise, unjust legislation will realize a racist climate. Overall, Mandela is exhorting to change the unjust scene and dire acts of the oppressive present through first changing the dominant term of agency, and hence implies the philosophical worldview of pragmatism. Through dramatism, these implicit messages have been explored inside the racial narrative.

The Comic Foolishness of Racism

By examining Mandela’s discourse through a dramatic framing lens, it can also be argued Mandela uses a comic frame. Throughout the speech, his tone and words are educational and not derisive. As Carlson notes in his essay on Gandhi’s movement, “The comic frame identifies social ills as arising from human error, not evil, and thus reasons to correct them” (Carlson 448). In a similar manner, Mandela’s discourse focuses on reasoning instead of accusation. While very similar to the tragic universal frame, the comic frame may be more suitable to describe Mandela’s approach because of his focus on foolish human error versus shared guilt. Mandela’s comic spirit is shown through how he addresses a terministic screen to build universal identification, emphasizes impartiality, and focuses on agency to solve societal problems.

First, Mandela establishes universal commonalities by exposing and critiquing the terministic screen of white supremacy. In the first paragraph of the speech, he states, “White supremacy implies black inferiority.” Mandela then describes the consequences of viewing blacks as inferior such as expecting them to do only menial tasks. “Because of this sort of attitude, whites tend to regard Africans as a separate breed. They do not look upon them as people with families of their own; they do not realise that we have emotions—that we fall in love like white people do.” Mandela cites more examples and ends with “And what ‘house-boy’ or ‘garden-boy’ or labourer can ever hope to do this?” In this last sentence, Mandela is pointing out how labeling Africans with economic-like terminology selects a reality that Africans are inferior and deflects their hope to live with dignity. In other words, Mandela is exposing a terministic screen. By appealing to the universal human traits of love and family, Mandela builds identification with his wider audience.

The comic approach is also apparent when Mandela appeals to impartiality in the last two paragraphs of his speech. Mandela states, “Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another.” He elaborates that the goal of the ANC is “fighting against racialism. When it triumphs as it certainly must, it will not change that policy…I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.” These excerpts show Mandela is more concerned with eliminating racism than with casting blame or guilt to a perpetrator. Mandela said he desires a “free society in which all persons [emphasis added] will live together in harmony.” It is clear Mandela is not using a rejection frame, for he suggests programmatic action for a democracy. Mandela is emphasizing a comic frame to advance social knowledge and avoid future mistakes.

Furthermore, Mandela’s focus on agency complements a comic approach. Instead of labeling the white South Africans as inherently evil, vicious, or criminal, he focuses on the foolishness of the policy of white supremacy and its negative societal effects. Through crafting a counter-story, Mandela provides a line of logic that unjust, racist pass laws ultimately cause poverty and violence, which affect both blacks and whites as “violence is carried out of the townships into the white living areas.” Arguably, keeping the focus on legislation and the problem of racism averts the speech from slipping into a factional tragic frame of blaming. Indeed, Mandela rarely mentions the agent of white men in the speech artifact, which may indicate he is trying to focus on the causal problems and long-term solutions.

In summary, Mandela’s attempts to reason through building identification, emphasizing impartiality, and focusing on agency exemplify the comic frame to bring about an ideal society. These rhetorical moves may serve to create what Burke termed “maximum consciousness” or self-reflection (Attitudes Toward History 171). Ironically, Mandela is seriously comic, and concludes his speech with his famous words, “it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Discussing the Hand of Racism

Amid the spectrum of contentious rhetoric on racism in the United States, there is an acute need for finding productive ways to discuss racism. The case study of Mandela’s speech demonstrates how the methods in dramatism may be helpful toward this goal. Specifically, pentadic and dramatic framing analyses allow for constructive dialogue and creative rhetorical approaches for addressing racism.

Promoting Constructive Dialogue through Clarity

For constructive dialogue to occur, a necessary precursor is clarity. Clarity is especially important in discussions of racism, where definitions and assumptions can be vague and abstract. In the present analysis, the methods in dramatism create clarity by illuminating the rhetor’s perspective, underlying philosophy, and holistic message.

First, dramatism helps one accurately understand a rhetor’s perspective. The analysis details how Mandela crafts a counter-story to explain the abuse of black Africans as an act, indicating an intentional agent, agency, scene, and purpose at work. Furthermore, the juxtaposing pentads of an oppressive present and a hopeful future reveal what Mandela believes are the causes and solutions of racial discrimination. He also critiques the terministic screen of labeling Africans with economic-like terminology, which fails to capture the universal human traits of love and family. Finally, understanding that Mandela uses a comic frame for his arguments helps to comprehend his goals for universal peace and long-term solutions. Overall, the terminology from dramatism provides clarity on Mandela’s perspective.

Second, dramatism provides the tools to identify a rhetor’s underlying philosophy. Changing agency through the right to vote is highlighted as Mandela’s central appeal, indicating the philosophy of pragmatism. Through analyzing the pentadic ratios, Agency:Act and Agency:Scene are found to be the key pairs. In other words, Mandela assumes that changing the processes of legislation will create a just reality and democratic climate. Identifying one’s assumptions is a vital step to bringing clarity to a discussion, regardless if the other agrees.

Third, clarity is a natural consequence of the pentad because identifying all five grammatical terms results in a holistic message. As Crusius notes, “The Pentad's main purpose is to overcome the limitations of any single critical vocabulary” (27). Whether one is analyzing a racist event or racial narrative, the perceived act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose must all be labeled. Additionally, the effort of organizing the relationships between the terms may reveal incompatibilities. If found, fixing logical errors creates more cohere arguments.

Arguably, one of the main issues with current discourses about racism is when only a single pentadic term is highlighted. For example, CRT seems to posit racism in mainly scenic language when they describe racism as “endemic, permanent” (Solórzano and Yosso 25), at the institutional, cultural, and individual level (Museus and Park 552), as the “center of analysis” (Love 228), where it “permeates society” (Hamilton 88), and is central to other forms of subordination (Bernal 110). Emphasizing scene follows the philosophy of determinism, where free will is inconsequential (Fay and Kuypers 202). At the other extreme, a classical liberal perspective emphasizes the agent and the philosophy of self-determination, believing in meritocracy, equality, and the ability of “an individual’s inner resources to overcome adverse circumstances” (Fay and Kuypers 202). Clearly, scene and agent have contrasting philosophies (Crusius 27). This is also apparent across political lines. Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to attribute economic inequalities to life choices, whereas Democrats are more likely to point to structural barriers like racial discrimination (Horowitz et al. 30). To combat vagueness and one-sided claims to truth, perhaps what is needed is for all parties to present holistic messages, where all five grammatical terms and their relationships are expressed. After all, the pentad represents a hand and not just a finger. But what if both sides provide holistic messages and they are still at odds with each other? At the least, laying out viewpoints through the pentad provides clarity to aid discussions. Better yet, maybe a humble admission can be made that one school of philosophy cannot accurately portray reality. Like a diamond with many facets, being open to other perspectives can provide a more encompassing view of the world.

Promoting Creative Rhetorical Approaches

In addition to clarity, the methods in dramatism allow for creativity in addressing racism. The pentad can ironically provide a serious conversation by being playful with the terms. For instance, which pentadic term(s) should be the focus of a rhetor to effectively combat racism? One can extrapolate the answer using singular, scaffolded, or simultaneous pentadic approaches. Additionally, dramatic frames can be combined to create new rhetorical strategies.

A singular pentadic approach analyzes how transformation occurs from one pentadic term changing. Most pentadic analyses feature one pentad and explicate the ratios within the singular pentad (e.g., Fay and Kuypers; Rutten et al.; Tonn et al.). Sometimes a term can act unpredictably to upset the main ratio and reverse the relationship (Tilli 45). Yet in Mandela’s speech, the central term of agency acts like a pivot between two pentads. If agency is redefined, then one pentad swings into becoming another pentad. From Mandela’s perspective, changing the agency of racist legislation is the key to end domination.

But was Mandela’s approach successful in South Africa? Mandela’s hopeful belief could be explained by the context of his speech. At the time, he was still in a pre-civil-rights context in South Africa. Democratic elections were only held thirty years later in 1994 (Nicholson 126). Amid oppression, Mandela was searching for practical steps to achieve the ideal of harmony. Although South Africa is now a democracy, South Africa still struggles with the “entrenched social and economic effects” of racism (“Apartheid”). Proof of this struggle is very evident in a South African town hall debate show in 2014 (“Big Debate on Racism”). In the show, opinion leaders across a variety of industries and races debated why the dream of the “rainbow nation project” has seemed to fail. The debate illustrates the continued need for finding productive ways to discuss racism.

In contrast, CRT may critique Mandela’s focus on agency as inadequate and suggest attacking the ideological scene of racism itself. CRT maintains that racial gaps have not improved in the United States even with legislation from the civil rights movement (Delgado and Stefancic 41). Therefore, CRT advocates for political and educational structural reform (Bernal 110-111; Hamilton 87-88). However, CRT’s focus on group-based power structures are critiqued as encouraging revolution (Rufo) and fracturing society (Reilly 659). It is possible a focus on just the scene of racism does not yield long-term solutions of unity and peace.

Perhaps what is needed is a scaffolded pentadic approach, in which pentadic terms are changed in a step-wise process. Instead of assuming there is only one root problem, one can address the issue from multiple angles. For instance, a focus on transforming agency may have been an appropriate first step to allow all voices to be heard, and subsequent efforts should now attend to the scene of racism through education, hold individuals as agents to higher moral standards, and have public leaders implore the purpose of unity. Another strategy could be termed the simultaneous pentadic approach, in which all terms of the pentad are attempted to be transformed on the same occasion. Further research is encouraged to assess the various potential combinations and results of these different approaches.

Finally, combining dramatic frames may offer a creative framework to address racism effectively. In his speech, Mandela uses a comic frame by building universal identification, emphasizing impartiality, and focusing on the foolishness of racist policy. One critique of the comic frame, though, is its inability to address “situations justifying warrantable outrage,” such as Hitler’s actions or the bombing of Pearl Harbor (Desilet and Appel 356). Similarly in South Africa, the tension of wanting rectification—while desiring a unified country—is quite evident (“Big Debate on Racism”). Likewise in the United States, while the causes and solutions of racism are debated, the existence of racial inequalities is well documented and requires a response (Hartman et al.). The other option is a tragic frame. The general tone of CRT in addressing the dire consequences of racism is arguably a factional tragic frame, where all guilt and evil is externalized to another party. Yet as discussed so far, this approach does not provide long-term solutions. Instead of just selecting either a comic or tragic frame, there must be another possibility.

In such situations of warrantable outrage, Desilet and Appel discuss the potential of combining frames by initially using a tragic framing of conflict within a broader strategy of comic framing (356). They provide a notable example from President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 and 1943 speeches in the wake of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. In 1941, Roosevelt expressed appropriate, tragic rhetoric in condemning the attacks, yet he did not use words to dehumanize the Japanese people. In 1943, while Roosevelt projected victory for the battlefield in a radio address, he still verbalized hope for Germany to rejoin the international community after defeat. Roosevelt’s example illustrates how tragic framing can be embedded in a larger comic frame seeking unity (Desilet and Appel 356-358). In a similar way, it should be explored how combining modes of framing may be used to acknowledge the outrage of racism while also proposing peaceful solutions.


The topic of racism in the United States has fueled controversy and divisive rhetoric as different perspectives, political parties, and theories collide. Burke’s theory of dramatism can play a unique role in this discussion by offering methods suitable for integrating diverse viewpoints and encouraging unity. To Burke, rhetoric is not simply persuasion, but a means toward identification which “seeks to build a community, a sense of oneness amid diversity of conflicting interests and values” (Crusius 28). Through the case study of Nelson Mandela’s 1964 Rivonia Trial speech, this essay demonstrates how pentadic and dramatic framing methods can promote constructive dialogue and creative rhetorical approaches. Clarity and holistic messages are the first step, and it is seen that Mandela crafts a counter-story, creates a juxtaposition of an oppressive present and hopeful future, advocates for a pragmatic transformation through agency, and uses a comic frame to address the universal problem of racism. The pentad is heuristic, allowing for creative ways to address racism from a singular, scaffolded, or simultaneous pentadic approach. Furthermore, combining tragic and comic frames may offer an innovative strategy to rectify racial inequalities while still seeking unified solutions. Future research using dramatism is encouraged to continue the dialogue on how to address the pentadic hand of racism in today’s society.

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