Volume 16, Number 1 Winter 2023

Contents of KB Journal Volume 16, Issue 1 Winter 2023

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Kenneth Burke’s Theory of Attention: Homo Symbolicus’ Experiential Poetics

David Landes, Duke University

11 November 2023


In light of cross-disciplinary interest in rethinking the conceptions of attention and attention economy, this paper conducts an archeology of Kenneth Burke’s concepts in order to construct a theory of attention implicit in his work.  First, I overview key parts of rhetorical studies calling for rethinking the idea of attention.  Then, I read Burke’s concepts for their implicit attentional aspects and implications. These findings are collected, listed into a glossary, and extrapolated into an account of Burkean attention, which I call “symbol-formed attention” to complement the reigning empirical theories of attention problematically borrowed from the sciences.  I conclude by suggesting how Burke provides a rhetorical idea of “attention” as a terministic screen adaptively reconfigurable to situation and strategy.

What would it mean to conceive “attention” rhetorically?  Terms considered “psychological” have been reinterpreted to recover their elided rhetorical processes: Oakley’s rhetorical conception of cognition (Oakley) , Goffman’s rhetorically performed self (Goffman) , Gross’s rhetorical publicness of emotion (Gross) , Billig’s rhetorical argumentation that constitutes psychology (Billig) , and rhetorical studies’ formulation of public memory (Phillips et al.; Dickinson et al.) .  Such projects “rhetoricize” the psychological by explicating implicit rhetoricalities and by reframing concepts of mechanistic motion into socialized action.  In their rhetorical interpretation, these terms—cognition, self, emotion, social psychology, and memory—are terministic screens attuned to discursive purposes.  Rhetoricizing scientized terms is one of dramatism’s imperatives.  Dramatism provisions our vigilance to round out reductive terms, animate action in motion, and de-mechanize accounts of human motive in the face of homo symbolicus’ catastrophic inclinations.

The salience of “attention” as a crisis term and as an inherency to communication necessitates its recuperation from over-scientization.  Increasingly, there are political and scholarly calls to rethink our ideas of attention across its diverse functions.  James Williams captures attention’s breadth of stakes, arguing that “The liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time.  Its success is prerequisite for the success of virtually all other struggles.  We therefore have an obligation to rewire this system of intelligent, adversarial persuasion before it rewires us.  Doing so requires hacking together new ways of talking and thinking about the problem…” (Williams xii) .  Humanities scholars often unknowingly import their idea of attention from the sciences by assuming its self-evident meaning and inadvertently blunting its hermeneutic and actional richness down to a stub of sensory transmission and behavioral measurement.  The need to remedy attention’s reductions grows as social discord, technological imposition, and societal change rapidly outpace our language to understand attentional practices.  Attention has only begun to be reapproached through a rhetorical conception as remedy to widespread uncritical uptake of the scientized notion of attention (Lanham, The Electronic Word; Lanham, The Economics of Attention; Oakley; Pfister) .

To help build a robust rhetorical conception of attention, Burke provides promising starting points.  Dramatism reveals assumptions, issues, resources, and possibilities about attention that are latent in rhetorical studies and in accounts of any “attention.”  His work also contains generative, heuristic approaches readily useable in rhetorical scholarship and production.  A Rhetoric of Motives notes how much of his work, including the topic of attention, understands itself to “have been trying to indicate what kinds of subject matter not traditionally labeled ‘rhetoric’ should… fall under this head” (Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives 46) .

This article constructs Burke’s idea of attention implicit throughout his works and argues how this idea of attention is quintessentially rhetorical.  First, I overview attention as a multifaceted concern in rhetorical theory and discuss three recent calls for renewed understandings of attention needed for different uses in the field.  Then, to begin fulfilling these three calls, I secondly conduct an archeology of Burke’s most attention-related concepts, reading them to exhume their entailments, implications, and contributions to formulating what attention is within dramatism.  From this, I thirdly reframe nine Burkean concepts into a glossary of attentional terms and synthesize them into an integrated conception, which I call symbol-formed attention to contrast and complement attention’s predominating scientistic conceptions.  The reigning tendency of treating attention as a scientific matter of bodily measurement promotes a concept of attention through a methodology that is positivistic, assessed behaviorally, mechanistic, individual, transferative, unified, unevolving, deterministic/probabilistic, and apprehending of what is present.  My argument here is that symbol-formed attention provides a vocabulary for the rhetorical aspects of attention through a contrastive methodology that is interpretivist, assessed symbolically, dramatistic, situational, poetic, pluralistic, dialectical, non-deterministic/tendential, and invoking of what is absent.  Concluding remarks suggest how the rhetoricality of symbol-formed attention is useful to rhetorical studies, across the humanities, and as equipment for living through change.

The liberatory potential of rhetorical attention lies in agentifying the dialectic between our words and our ways.  The sciences and humanities recognize that attention “is different in different situations,” “one person's interpretation of the term ‘attention’ can be entirely at odds with the next person’s,” “no one knows what attention is,” “there may even not be an ‘it’ there to be known about…,” and attention’s “problems and their proposed solutions are consequences of the logic of the metaphors that are at work” (Styles; Stigchel; Hommel et al.; Pashler; Fernandez-Duque and Johnson) .  Without a stable center, the range and diversity of meanings imputed to “attention” makes it a site of socio-symbolic activity territorialized by reified metaphor (e.g., attention as selection, suppression, watchfulness, engagement, interpretation, care, etc.).

Thus, the question of attention—what it is, what the word means, what one can do with it—is not a binary matter of correct/incorrect or better/worse definition.  Nor is it a polemic against particular methods.  Rather, the question of attention concerns varied pregnant uses of the word “attention” and their corresponding experiential counterparts.  This question of rhetorical genealogy interrogates types of attentions, the means to their constitution, and why they formed one way rather than another.  Each instance of attention consists of variable components, commitments, entailments, diffusions, ambiguities, unravelings, remakings, and possibilities. 

Burke is well suited to illuminate these symbolic dynamics and proliferate sites of attentional agency in contrast to scientistic ideas of attention, which tend toward conclusions of human deficiency.  Dramatism reveals a logology of what each “attention” is, does, and can be.  Attention is inherent to symbolicity, emerging from configurational aspects of symbols that Burke conceptualizes.  Attention is also methodological to dramatism, giving Burke’s idea of attention a special role among terms.  I argue that in Burke and most everywhere, the idea of attention is a terministic screen: a symbolic placeholder facilitating experiential phenomena to be assembled and rendered rhetorically.  Attention is not one thing or approach, but a malleability performing diverse functions. 

Burkeanism traces out these configurations to provide inroads to an idea of rhetorical attention, which rehabilitates homo symbolicus’ worldmaking capacity in the face of evolving attentional technologies, techniques, and control.  Symbol-formed attention renders the makings and potential remakings of each given attention.  Conceiving attention as symbolic action agentifies our participation in attention’s experiential poetics and homo symbolicus’ self-reconstitution.  This kind of Burkean meta-attention equips us for important work today and forward: to continually remake our words of attention in dialectic with our ways of attention.

Rhetoric’s Attentionality & Attention’s Rhetoricality

Attention has long been addressed as important to rhetoric and rhetorical theory, and has been conceived variously for different roles.  Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric names attention as its characteristic feature, however somewhat implicitly.  Rhetoric is a capacity to observe (dynamis, facility; theoresai, to see) (Aristotle).  Rhetoric involves attending to the potentially persuasive in each particular situation.  Henry Johnstone differently puts attention into the very center of rhetoric’s definition, writing that “Rhetoric, as I conceive it, is the art of calling attention to a situation for which objectivity is claimed” (Johnstone 333).  In this account, “rhetoric is the evocation and maintenance of consciousness” achieved through the particular ways in which rhetors construct “an interface between the object and the person” (Johnstone 337).  The rhetor, in this sense, “drives a wedge into the consciousness of his [sic] audience” by instigating a speech act and through language that configures the rhetorical situation through asserting stasis, topoi, and dynamics for responding (Johnstone 336).  Herbert Spencer’s Philosophy of Style, his “first chapter of the philosophy of rhetoric,” posits attention as the predominant axiom for understanding style, arrangement, and audience experience.  Here, “the causes of force in language” depend on the audience’s “economy of mental energies and mental sensibilities,” such that the effort exerted during comprehension diminishes the immediacy of rhetorical effects (Spencer 41).  The discourse of attention here provides the “secret” “general principle” for a “general theory of expression” illuminating the links between words and their mental effects (Spencer 12).  Kenneth Burke invites rhetorical theory to study attention within the modern proliferation of rhetorical forums that require rhetors to secure attention diversely through myriad new situations: “Aristotle and Cicero consider audiences purely as something given.  The extreme heterogeneity of modern life… brings up… the systematic attempt to carve out an audience, ...[which] in any case here too would be a consideration of audience; hence even by the test of the classic tradition it would fall under the head of rhetoric, though it necessarily extended the range of the term to cover a situation essentially new” (Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives 64).  His discussion of postal agencies, marketers, income-differentiated content, and “the commercial rhetorician” concludes an adaptive relationship to rhetorical history: “the ‘carving out’ of audiences is new to the extent that there are new mediums of communication, but there is nothing here essentially outside the traditional concerns of rhetoric” (Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives 64). 

These illustrative inroads through Aristotle, Johnstone, Spencer, and Burke exemplify the breadth of ways in which attention has been figured into crucial aspects of rhetorical practice with varying degrees of implicitness.  For Aristotle, attention is definitional to rhetoric, largely concerning a speaker’s operability, while the treatise reads as a training schematic of attention to assist rhetors and analysts.  For Johnstone, attention names collective phenomena maintained for communal understanding, which is the object and aim for rhetors to intercede.  For Spencer, attention is an individual’s cognitive mechanism, which imposes fixed parameters upon comprehension and doubles as a criterion for rhetorical judgment.  For Burke, attention is a space of inquiry that must accompany emerging situations and accompany the adaptation of the rhetorical tradition.  Each of these theorists represents other works which locate attention likewise: as a speaker’s tool, as an audience dynamic, as a scientific parameter, and as a space of continual inquiry, respectively.  Rhetorical theory continues to foreground attention as needing re-theorization to cope with contemporary changes in communicative conditions.

Three recent works have started this work of articulating an updated, distinctly rhetorical approach to attention.  Richard Lanham redefines the entire Western rhetorical tradition from the Sophists onward as the study of “how human attention is created and allocated” (Lanham, The Electronic Word 227).  Especially in the digital age’s information abundance, rhetoric can be productively equated to “the economics of attention” (Lanham, The Economics of Attention xii).  Anyone is an “economist of attention” when they act to allocate the scarce resource of attention in ways that produce a particular understanding, approach, or experience.  “Attention strategies” emerge and mix into the logic of rhetorical strategies, as evidenced by Lanham’s analyses of performance art, digital typography, the loss-leader business ruse, management procedures, etc.).  Attention here is conceived as a bodily mechanism of “the human biogrammar,” which has a hermeneutic dimension that rhetoric exploits: “the kitchen that cooks the raw data into useful ‘information’ is human attention” (Lanham, The Economics of Attention 7).  Rhetoric is thus positioned as the quintessential art of attention because “Rhetoric has been the central repository of wisdom on how we make sense of and use information… [it] does not tell us all we need to know about the economics of attention but it does at least provide a place to start” (Lanham, The Economics of Attention xiii).  Lanham’s groundwork to reframe rhetoric as fundamentally attentional calls scholars to heed the potential of this approach, asking “What, finally, considered in this new light, does the traditional theory of formal rhetoric look like?” (Lanham, The Economics of Attention 21), and how far can this approach be fruitfully taken since “The arts and letters are wholly occupied with creating attention structures”? (Lanham, The Economics of Attention 21).  Despite these calls for continued work on attentional rhetoric and rhetorical attention, Lanham doesn’t detail much about what exactly attention is, its constituent processes, and its troublesome elusiveness.  Developing a rhetorical account of attention’s processes, particularly via Burke, enhances our ability to receive Lanham’s work and develops our capacity to observe the means of attention in any situation. 

Todd Oakley builds on Lanham’s thesis, continuing it with a cognitivist approach.  Here, attention is a set of mental faculties (distributed across the signal, selection, and interpersonal systems) that work together and constitute attention as a behavior that is “a mode of signifying by mental writing into perceptual space; the result, cognition, is conceptualized as some sort of ‘writing with the eyes’ by looking upon something. The attentive gaze is a pen” (Oakley 11).  Attention composes experience by switching between the worlds of actuality and potentiality, which create attention’s “forms and its ‘grammar’” underlying all structures of meaning in rhetorical thought and action (Oakley 11).  Oakley’s empirical theory bridges the psychology and hermeneutics of communication, focusing on how attention constitutes a semiotic phenomenology of meaning where meaning is understood as a shared, communal mode of attention.  This approach frames communication as a process of attentional intersubjectivity, a stream of attentional exchanges in mutual adjustment.  It posits that understanding attention’s dynamics and structures provide access “to the aspect of human consciousness that constitutes our semiotic being” (Oakley 15) and the overlooked basis of many additional rhetorical phenomena.

Damien Pfister’s work on rhetoric in public deliberation and networked technologies builds upon Lanham and Oakley to articulate the most advanced posing of the problem of attention in rhetorical theory.  He writes, “If Lanham is right that the attention demands of the networked public sphere set the stage for a revaluation of rhetoric, then we need a richer account of how, exactly, new digitally networked intermediaries shape attention patterns through public argument.  Classical theories of rhetoric, alone, do not suffice to make sense of contemporary public deliberation.  Rhetoric operates in conjunction with two other cultural technologies of publicity, the public sphere and digital communication networks, to establish the enabling conditions of the networked public sphere” (Pfister 32).  If we are to understand networked public sphere rhetoric, says Pfister, we need a dynamic vocabulary for attention that addresses the cross-relations between argumentation, digital technologies, and their conditions as public sphere. 

Toward this end, Pfister differentiates two ways of conceiving attention: thinly and thickly.  Thinly-conceived attention concerns “capturing people’s senses so as to subject them to a message” (30), which is a model of attention that comports with a narrow “traditional (informationist) vision of rhetoric as ornamented speech” (Pfister 30).  However, thickly-conceived attention recognizes attention as a constituter of communication phenomena.  For example, some communication phenomena would be clarified when illuminating attention’s role in forming the what and how of communication, attention’s role in the inducement into “one way of perception, thinking, and feeling” at the exclusion of another, and attention’s role in shaping how we engage with “phenomena through the valences, emphases, and weighting involved in signification” (Pfister 31).  Thus, “To say that attention is constitutive, then, is to recognize that how we perceive the world, how we understand our identities and relationships, how we engage in meaning making, and how we transform conventions all derive from attention processes” (Pfister 31).  With the abundance of thinly-conceived attentions unable to illuminate our rhetorical ecologies and their dynamic conditions, Pfister articulates rhetorical theory’s need for a thick conception of attention, which can be sought by more thoroughly examining thick attention’s enabling processes and constituting outputs.

Lanham’s, Oakley’s, and Pfister’s works pose three ways of approaching the attention processes inhering in contemporary rhetoric.  They have different accounts what of attention is, does, and can mean within rhetorical theory.  Each theorist presents us with their dominant schema for attention in rhetoric, which leads to different implications and insights about how attention operates rhetorically.  For Lanham, style manages information abundance, inflecting audience experience and construal of meaning.  Rhetoric engages attention oscillating between looking at/through the expressive medium.  For Oakley, discourse orients toward fulfilling cognitive functions of rhetors and audiences.  Rhetoric blends actual and potential mental spaces to serve “the attention system’s” 8 parts: alerting and orienting (the signal system); detecting, sustaining, and controlling (the selection system); sharing, harmonizing, and directing (the interpersonal system).  For Pfister, attention is an active constitutor of meaning, relations, and action.  Rhetoric enacts thin and thick conceptions of attention, when rendered reflexive, altering the processes they describe.  Taken together, these forays into attention and rhetoric comprise a distinctly rhetorical approach to attention in its various conceptions and roles.

Today, the sites of inquiry have proliferated in rhetoric, in media, and across the disciplines.  Lanham, Oakley, and Pfister articulate needs for rethinking attention rhetorically to gain insights into changing practices, varied conceptions of attention, and more productively refined language.  How we pose the issue of attention, as Burke notes, will create a nomenclature containing observations implicit in its terms.  We must caution against overdetermining our subject matter.  Attention is infamously ill-defined and scientists are proclaiming “there is no such thing as attention” beyond reification of presumptions that do not amount to a defensible theory (Anderson 1; Pashler 1; Styles 1).  The subject of attention requires terminological care and vigilance against the very follies that Burke identifies as “the upbuilding of a fallacious equipment” (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form 164).  Prematurely pronouncing the finality about attention diminishes the heuristic value of rhetorical theory to seize upon what is opportune, appropriate, and possible about attention.  A rhetorical account of attention gives the idea of attention a rhetorical sensibility and studies the means by which attention occurs.  As the means of attention rapidly change, a rhetorical account of attention observes the means of attention in any given situation through continual revision.  It is in this approach that this excursus of attention in Burke proceeds.

This rhetorical approach to attention in Burke, as a theory within dramatism, functions as a broad and instrumental philosophy of attention valuable for many other scholarly projects.  While Lanham, Oakley, and Pfister each call for more work in attentional rhetoric, related fields also seek renewed understandings of attention.  For example, Bernard Stiegler writes of cognitive capitalism’s “systemic control of attention” that canalizes attention to the point of saturation and destroys attention as a capacity of agency.  This instrumental aspect of increasing industrialization “proletarianizes the senses” by a loss of productive skill (savoir-faire) and a loss of refined sociality (savoir-vivre).  Stiegler stakes the viability of human society upon the “re-capacitation” of attentional abilities that underlie “all types of capabilities, that is, of all forms of knowledge (savoir-faire, savoir-vivre, theoretical knowledge)” (Stiegler 23–26).  Yves Citton critiques the ubiquitous economic approach to the matter of attention, arguing that it is a dangerous metaphor based on “deceptive individualist methodology,” “instrumental reason,” and a naivety that individuals “preexist the relations that constitute them” (Citton 21–22).  Attention, for Citton, is “Far from belonging to a purely technical expertise (as the prevailing economic discourse would have us believe)” (Citton 22).  Rather, “the activity of paying attention belongs to a genuine environmental wisdom – an ecosophy – in which the orientation of ends is inseparable from the calculations of efficiency” (Citton 22).  David Landes has pursued a media ecological account of attention relevant to rhetorical theory.  Attention is understood as an ecologically-formed capacity, where attention’s form and dynamics share technical characteristics with attention’s medium (Landes).  Attention being environmentally constituted erodes the notion of attention being a historically fixed, unchanging characteristic of the individual.  The attention we speak of in rhetoric, then, would not be the same attention across history, but rather a more complex localization of the attentions operating in a given case.

Far from comprehensive, this review of literature overviews attention’s conceptions, roles, and stakes.  Changes in technology, society, and social experience have spurred interest in attention, which has surged across topics and fields, and confronted the limitations of reigning ideas about attention.  Lanham, Oakley, and Pfister represent three calls for rhetorical studies to rethink attention itself and formulate updated notions about what it is, how it operates, and why previous accounts no longer service contemporary contexts.  Turning to Burke provides a bridge from past ideas latent in the field, and extrapolating his implicit idea of attention extends that bridge futureward so that we may build further.  His distinctly rhetorical approach to attention—one that is not fixed, but situationally adaptive—offers a promising resource for continually refreshing our notions of attention at pace with societal changes.

Burke’s Implicitly Attentional Concepts

Most of Burke’s key concepts involve attention implicitly and describe a process constituent of attention’s formation through symbols.  This section discusses Burke’s key terms of terministic screens, dramatism, recalcitrance, orientation, symbol, perspective, language, form, and motives.  Because these terms are familiar to Burkeans and rhetoricians, each will be briefly explained for their relevant attentional aspects.  Together, they comprise an archeology of fragments that can coalesce into a mosaic depicting Burke’s dramatistic idea of attention.

Burke’s most overtly attentional concept is the terministic screen, a broad all-encompassing analytic for assorted processes by which symbols affect attention.  It names the effect of a terminology to cohere and configure a perspectival “way of seeing” and simultaneously “a way of not seeing.”  How this effect occurs is variable and distributed across Burke’s other conceptual terms, making terministic screens less of a formulaic constancy and more of an index to symbols’ attentionally-configuring aspects.  Metaphorizing symbols as “screens” operates in the dual sense of screening-as-showing (film screen) and screening-as-excluding (screening out).  Burke’s essay Terministic Screens discusses how symbols’ double function to display-and-exclude operates like a camera lens, which captures what gets screened and screened out of immediate view.  Terministic screens, in their obvious sense, name how “the nature of our terms affect the nature of our observations” because “any nomenclature necessarily directs the attention into some channels rather than others.”  This is an inevitable property of symbols; “We must use terministic screens, since we can’t say anything without the use of terms; whatever terms we use, they necessarily constitute the corresponding kind of screen.”

Beyond selecting what is included and excluded, each symbol’s “lens” also characterizes its subject matter with qualitative differences, akin to how three color filters of the same “factual” photograph “revealed notable distinctions in texture, and even in form, depending upon which color filter was used for the documentary description of the event being recorded” (Burke, Language As Symbolic Action 45).  Language renders its subject quite variably, for example, when interpreting the same dream through three dream-analysis schemata (e.g., Freudian, Jungian, Adlerian).  For all matters factual or otherwise, “All terminologies must implicitly or explicitly embody choices” as verbal lenses and symbolic construal.  As a result, “‘observations’ are but implications of the particular terminology in terms of which the observations are made.  In brief, 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 As Symbolic Action 46).  For Burke, observation is symbol-laden; symbolization is observation-shaping.

Thus the terministic screen does not name one particular function of symbols nor one particular configuration of attention.  Rather, it names the attentional dynamics, which emerge from particular complexes of symbolic processes.  Terministic screens operate subtly by principles Burke urges us to trace out, two of which being inclusion/exclusion and continuity/discontinuity.  Terministic screens are further understood through Burke’s other concepts such as scope, circumference, representative anecdote, motivic placement in the pentad, frames of acceptance/rejection, identification, and so on.  Thus the terministic screen is Burke’s inaugural investigative heuristic for monitoring an attentional dynamic awaiting analysis.  The terministic screen concept is advisory and cautionary, encouraging vigilance to terministic screens, vigilance to “which specialized terministic screen [is] being stretched to cover not just its own special field but a more comprehensive area,” and vigilance to “try to correct the excesses of one terminology” (Burke, Language As Symbolic Action 52).  Burke even spiritualizes our duty for vigilance with his Dialectician’s Hymn that ritualizes readjusting terministic screens with the changing environment and logos:

. . . Cooperating in this competition
Until our naming
Gives voice correctly,
And how things are
And how we say things are
Are one.

The essence of terministic screens, expressed here programmatically as a daily devotional, is analysis for terministic adjustment.  The goal is correct naming and thus correct attending, which is sought in continual mutualization between our words and our ways, ever seeking oneness between them.

The idea of the terministic screen makes no pretense to empirical audience experience or to visual phenomenology.  Rather, it guides analysis toward an account of symbols’ anatomy and their manner of construal.  In dramatism, a symbol’s anatomy is forged in relation with other symbolic material that is not immanently legible in the symbol.  Recasting a symbol as a “terministic screen” places it on an examining board like a specimen for laboratory investigation, asking, how is this symbol cut, contoured, and connected in contiguity to its related terminology?  What are a symbol’s accompanying rendering structures whose designs give it its character, entailments, appeals, callings, sanctions, and dramatic baggage—all traceable within the symbol?  Terministic screens, like lenses, illuminate attention’s structuring through the symbol.

Burke’s example of the word “animal” illustrates how terministic screens locate attention structures within a symbol’s configuration in its enhousing terminology (Burke, Language As Symbolic Action 50).  If an animal is “A living organism which feeds on organic matter, typically having specialized sense organs and a nervous system and able to respond rapidly to stimuli” (OED), then some attention structures may be identified through determination of what is included/excluded and what is continuous/discontinuous.  How a terminology relates “god” and “human” to “animal” will establish attention structures emanating around a definition of whether “human” is an animal, is not an animal, is a special kind of animal, is an exception to the animal, is both animal and god, is neither animal nor god but instead an image of both, and so on ad infinitum.  Definitions and terministic relations map some of the structures that “animal” directs attention through, each of which gives “animal” its place, function, character, and implications within a terminology.  Attention is configured differently in the “animal” of Darwin, St. Paul, George Orwell, and Burke himself.  Thus terministic screens analyze the anatomy of a symbol with reference to its physiology within its terminology. 

Beyond mapping attentional forms inscribed by the structural relations of a terminology, the terministic screen also posits the symbol as a container for assorted other attentional effects.  The terministic screen highlights the symbol’s ability to host numerous attentional patterns that would not be stabilized and repeated in absence of the symbol.  For example, the phrase “the ideal citizen” is implicated in many attentional predilections: a perceived “citizen” and its associated imagery, a conspiracy of idealizations, the singular archetypal citizen who models being “the ideal citizen” rather than “an ideal citizen,” suasory invocations to act as such, a civic context and its own forms of action, a mood and affect, a motive toward hierarchical ascension, and other symbolic linkages with that of the Burkean vocabulary.  Taken together, these aspects “direct the attention into some channels rather than others” but they also constitute kinds of attention—such as idealization, generalization, determinate singularization, and nationalization—made possible through symbolic resources. 

Beyond a symbol’s structure, the context of usage also adds attentional structures that the Burkean vocabulary identifies.  Attention is configured between orders of symbolic layers in terms, terminology, context, use, audience, etc.  For example, “the ideal citizen” brings assorted symbolic provocations into a dynamic with its use, which inclines attention differently in contexts of conformity vs. reform vs. revolution, contexts of a particular moral lesson, contexts of an impossibility, or of global/national/local scope, and so forth.  Many elements of attention are induced, each provoked in different programs of meaning.  This occurs neither formally in the symbol nor purely in the subjectivity of each person’s phenomenology.  Rather, it occurs across the shared experience of a symbol that is rhetorically positioned between public meaning and private attention. 

Terministic screens provide windows into how symbols channelize attention and also into attention’s poetics expressed through symbols.  Symbols intimately co-operate with attention, action, and poetics, enabling them to be heuristically probed for their structural features.  Terministic screens conceptualize symbols as evidence of attentional forms, with Burke arguing that symbols are the best window into the human relations of attention (Burke, Kenneth).  In this light, symbols are fossilized attentions, recorded, and preserved in the symbol.  At the same time, symbols constitute their object and ways of seeing them, thereby making symbols a necessary means to attention’s enactments as tacit accessories to broader actions (e.g., idealizing, hierarchicalizing, etc.).  Thus, terministic screens designate a means to attention’s public renderings, which also facilitate ways of seeing.  Symbols and attention dialectically co-develop, acquiring shared properties materialized between the two.  In many ways and for assorted effects, terministic screens organize the cacophony of attentions by contriving stable coherence through symbols.

In these ways both constitutive and indexical to attention, terministic screens designate Burke’s master term for naming the totality of attentional effects reflected, created, and maintained by a particular symbol and its instance of positioned use.  Beyond tracing attention through terminological channels, terministic screens epitomize how symbolicity is constitutive of attention itself.  Arguably all modes of attention are permeable with symbolically-endowed processes and are susceptible to symbolic remakings.  What instance of attention is not influenced by symbols?  All things (e.g., objects, ideas, events, experiences, etc.) and all relations are constituted through symbols, as are symbolic actions (e.g., negation, identification, persuasion).  Can there ever be attention fortified from symbols mediating it?  Can we see or hear “purely,” voided of symbols’ influence?  Burke argues no and suggests parity between symbolicity and attention, as each mutually constitutes and conditions the other dialectically.  Symbolicity directly forms aspects of attention not otherwise devisable without symbols.  Terministic screens name the inextricable aspects of attention that are necessarily constituted via symbols, which transform attention via symbolicity.  Stob elegantly expresses this parity, writing that “Burke insists that the quality and character of our experience are an extension of the quality and character of our symbol systems” (Stob 137).  Such a perspective is useful, as the concept of terministic screens has been uptaken widely and extended into additional realms, for example, into film (Blakesley) and data visualization (Bowie and Reyburn; Butler).  The terministic screen master term inaugurates a Burkean-style attention analysis through the symbol and facilitates tracing points for how symbols orchestrate attention via Burke’s other analytical concepts.  The next largest concept for attention analysis is dramatism, which introduces principles of symbolic action alongside terministic screens’ structuring of inclusion/exclusion and continuity/discontinuity.

Dramatism is Burke’s dominant terministic screen for his theories, making it the principal characterizing “lens” to his theory of attention.  Burke writes, “Dramatism is a method of analysis and a corresponding critique of terminology designed to show that the most direct route to the study of human relations and human motives is via a methodical inquiry into cycles or clusters of terms and their functions” (Burke, Kenneth).  The method approaches “language as a species of action… rather than of definition” (Burke, Kenneth), asking “What is involved, when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it?” (Burke, A Grammar of Motives xv).  This actional approach interprets language as a form of doing, whose analysis articulates the actions a symbol’s use enacts and the implications accompanying an account of saying someone acted.  This is illustrated by, though not limited to, “the modes of behavior made possible by the acquiring of the conventional, arbitrary symbol system” (Burke, “(Nonsymbolic) Motion/(Symbolic) Action” 809).  Burke explains this foundation of dramatism with self-reference to his own terministic screen: The term “act” embodies the dramatistic approach and “is thus a terministic center from which many related considerations can be shown to ‘radiate,’ as though it were a ‘god-term’ from which a whole universe of terms is derived” (Burke, Kenneth).  To position “act” as dramatism’s god-term is to preconceive language as action and thus to ask: what is involved when we say what people are doing regarding attention and why they are doing it?  What is involved when we say how people heed something through a terminology and why they heed that way?

Dramatism identifies attention as a ubiquitous, systemic feature of symbolic action in two ways.  Firstly, terministic screens enact “directing the attention,” and dramatism illuminates attentional action endemic to symbol usage.  Secondly, dramatism renders our accounts of “attention” as symbolic acts used for moving through situations.  Such accounts entail constructing forms of symbolic doing involved when saying a person is attending and how/why they are doing it.  Burke’s example that “a man informs us that he ‘glanced back in suspicion’” posits that “suspicion was his motivation” and “suspicion is a word for designating a complex set of signs, meanings or stimuli not wholly in consonance with one another” (Burke, Permanence and Change 46).  Here, dramatism provides an analytic vocabulary for tracing out what an account of action, and its attentional counterparts, are doing within their symbolic order (in the account) and within their sociology of symbols (context to the account).  This “glance back” constructs an account of attentional experience comprising “danger-signs… reassurance signs… social-signs… the situation itself… motivated by suspicion… a situation with reference to our general scheme of meanings… [and] motives… assigned with reference to our orientation in general” (Burke, Permanence and Change 46).  As this instance’s kind of attention involves much more than empirically looking backward, dramatism helps enumerate the impelling symbolic dramas in the motivational structure, program of action, and situationally-particular character.  The resources of dramatism (discussed below) explicate attention’s meaning, quality, social character, and directed course through a situation.  Dramatism shows how our terms for “attention” represent navigations through the dramas from envelopment within symbolic presences, absences, and schemes of expectation, which together constitute distinctive moments pre-conditioning perception, decision, and action.  Full accounts of action incorporate the dramas of managing the symbolic environment, reading situational demands, and their combining effects, such as intertextual disharmony, emotional salience, regimes of behavior and evaluation, and emergent idiosyncrasies.

Dramatism helps us see aspects of attention related to such symbolic phenomena that cause, accompany, and retrospect our perspectival experience.  In this regard, dramatism is hermeneutic to the symbolic-situatedness of attention.  It provides interpretive grammar to symbolic action.  This grammar becomes a rhetoric of symbolic action when how we variably talk about attention affects how we do the attending.  What we think attention is shapes our performance of it and our ability to symbolically self-recognize aspects of experience and reshape them.  As the symbol-using animal subject to self-reformation, dramatism highlights how our representations of attention share dialectical enjoinments with associated forms of doing.  This basic principle is evident through familiar examples whose names denote varieties of attention: focus, watched for, scanned, imagined, daydreamed, mused, discerned, ignored, fixated, etc. Symbolizing various experiences as particular attentions is a way of speaking of and speaking to their enactment, just as a teacher may direct students to scour, skim, or scan a textual passage.  Each contains components concocted from the Burkean vocabulary.  Dramatism traces symbolic acts of translating a mode of engagement into symbolic preservation and recreation.  A symbol preserves a given act of attention as recipe of concocted features.

Dramatism reads symbolic actions occurring in singular terms for attention and also occurring via terminologies that frame singular terms.  Any term for attention can operate in a terminology variously, for example, as a terministic screen, as an uncritical term, as a crude importation from science, as a reification of an ideological percept, as a normative for perceptual values, as a vague placeholder for something evaded, a negation, a scapegoat, or any symbolic function.  Cognitive scientists acknowledge “there is no such thing as attention” (Anderson) while still using the term as an operative heuristic for measurable behaviors (Pashler 1; Styles 1).  Communication scholars often use “attention” vaguely in reference to general forms of reception (a quantitation of attention), receptivity (a qualitization of attention), or hermeneutics (Landes 454).  Popular usage invokes dominant values into a “proper” or “fuller” attention of mindfulness.  In each case, the range of what the term “attention” does as symbolic action is variable enough that dramatism is needed to illuminate their different species of symbol, action, and implication.  “Attention” is a terministic screen; dramatism illuminates the actions it performs.

Burke’s concept of recalcitrance names various processes exerting pressure upon symbols to have “revisions made necessary by the nature of the world itself” (Burke, Permanence and Change 257).  The “world itself” involves the natural and socialized environment, the permanencies of human biology and neurology, enduring “social relationships, political exigencies, economic procedures,” and extant bodies of related symbols (facts, competing perspectives, terministic screens, etc.) (Burke, Permanence and Change 258).  The infinite play of symbols reckons with its public intelligibility and integration, thus “transferring it from the private architecture of a poem into the public architecture of a social order” (Burke, Permanence and Change 258). 

Forms of recalcitrance come from many realms: the political, economic, social, cultural, epochal, technological, corporeal, cosmological, and so on.  For example, the accusation, “he is not American,” illustrates many converging orders of symbolic recalcitrance drawn from legal, political, genealogical, and cultural architectures, each urging different kinds of revisions, formations, and pressures.  In this sense, “the universe ‘yields’ to our point of view by disclosing the different orders of recalcitrance which arise when the universe is considered from this point of view” (Burke, Permanence and Change 257).  Rhetorical use of symbols requires adjusting “the private architecture” of symbolic action in strategy with “the public architecture of a social order” (Burke, Permanence and Change 332).  Recalcitrance names various calcifying tendencies pervading symbol use and which constitute a materiality to symbols that symbolic action is made from.

While individuals have the agency to attend to anything in terms of anything else, recalcitrance names the dynamics that limit and direct symbolicity through public architectures.  Much of attention is formed by such communalized ways of seeing via symbols.  By identifying such symbolic calcifications, we can identify calcified symbolic structures that limit, pressure, and direct attentional acts.  Attention’s dynamism emerges between recalcitrance and de-calcitrance—the poetic interplay with the public architecture of the symbolic environment (e.g., seeing potential poeticizings such as “Americant” or “Americancer”).

The chief recalcitrance that affects attention is orientation.  Burke defines orientation as “a sense of relationships, developed by the contingencies of experience,” which “largely involves matters of expectancy and [also] affects our choice of means with reference to the future” (Burke, Permanence and Change 18).  One brings their orientation into contact with a situation, attending by their cache of symbols.  Burke’s case of a trout biting a hook exemplifies its orientation being revised when it escapes from a fishhook with a torn jaw and develops a reappraised sense of relationships: between food and non-food enters painful jaw-hurting food.  Burke’s simple naturalistic example represents complex symbolic environments that exhibit the same principle of a developed sense of contingent relations of “what to watch for and what to watch out for” (Burke, Permanence and Change) and of generally “reading the signs” (Burke, Permanence and Change 12).  As exposure to environmental and symbolic patterns yield perceptual differentiation, orientation names its accrual within an agent and its traceable influence on sensing, judging, feeling, behaving, and other such attention-constituting elements.

Orientation pre-structures our ways of attending by its dual role as a storehouse of intelligible forms and as a live mediator between text, context, and response.  Burke writes that “we can only say that a given objective event derives its character for us from past experiences having to do with like or related events… It takes on character, meaning, significance in accordance with the contexts in which we experience it” (Burke, Permanence and Change 7).  Burke accounts how attention results from communal language’s ways of seeing:

Situations are discerned by means of the mediating vocabulary that selects certain relationships as meaningful.  These relationships are not realities, they are interpretations of reality, and hence different frameworks of interpretation will lead to different conclusions as to what reality is.  All schemes of interpretation differ in their ways of dividing up three categories: some things happen in spite of others, some because of others, and some regardless of others.  Shifts of interpretation result from the different ways in which orientation sets the because of, in spite of, and regardless of relationships.  Such shifts of interpretation make for totally different pictures of reality, since they focus the attention upon different orders of relationship. We learn to single out certain relationships in accordance with the particular linguistic texture into which we are born, though we may privately manipulate this linguistic texture to formulate still other relationships. When we do so, we invent new terms, or apply our old vocabulary in new ways, attempting to socialize our position by so manipulating the linguistic equipment of our group that our particular additions or alterations can be shown to fit into the old texture. We try to point out new relationships as meaningful—we interpret situations differently—in the subjective sphere, we invent new accounts of motive. (52–53)

Orientation is the result of internalizing the symbolic environment, which constructs ways of seeing, delineates relationships, comports attention through frameworks of interpretation, and naturalizes a vision of what reality is.  Different environments bestow their corresponding orientational capacities that pre-condition individual acts of attention.  By these interpretive frameworks, orientation structures processes of sensing and thinking.  But orientation, structured through linguistic textures of reality, can be altered, reconfigured, and repurposed.  We see out of circumstances what we bring into them and bring out of circumstances what we see into them.  Thoughts are “socialized,” and new thoughts are made to fit into a group’s “linguistic equipment.” 

Thus, orientation regards the historical, durational, ecological, and embodied aspects of attention.  It highlights attention as an ecologically-configured emergence within agents who comport to their linguistic mediations of the environment, and who revise these mediations piecemeal.  Attention, conditioned by orientation, is undivorceable from history, ecology, and individuals’ development.  Attention, via symbols, is oriented between the material and the symbolic, which is socially rooted and instrumental to servicing the environment.  A natural dialectic undergirds attention as “all living things are critics” adjusting to changing environments, finding their way between situations, interpretations, and their mediating vocabulary.  Attention occurs by means of continual orientational and re-orientational processes, which constitute a quiet background of interactions to our ways of seeing.  Symbols orient/de-orient/re-orient us amidst change and recalcitrance, reconstituting homo symbolicus dialectically between our words and our ways.

The symbol is Burke’s main analytical unit of oriented representation and for representation writ large.  The symbol is “the verbal parallel to a pattern of experience,” and “the artist, through experiencing intensively or extensively a certain pattern, becomes as it were an expert, a specialist, in this pattern (Burke, Counter-Statement 152).  Each symbol stands to show how “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” (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form 4).  Decreeing something as another anneals a symbol to an oriented experience pattern.  The symbol can “parallel processes which characterize his [sic] experiences outside of art” while the symbol itself also “re-embodies the formal principles in a different subject-matter” (Burke, Counter-Statement 143).  Externalizing orientation, the symbol itself “is a way of experiencing” (Burke, Counter-Statement 143) embodied in each symbol and imposable upon any object.  Each symbol’s ways of seeing is crafted as “a strategy for encompassing a situation” (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form 109) and as “preparations” and “petitions” for action (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form 167).

Burke’s idea of perspectivizing names this power of symbols to be a means of seeing.  Symbols and language perspectivize:“to consider A from the point of view of B is, of course, to use B as a perspective upon A” (Burke, A Grammar of Motives 504) and “every perspective requires a metaphor, implicit or explicit, for its organizational base… and [any perspective] cannot skirt this necessity” (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form 152).  Since there are no “pure” symbols in nature, then “the seeing of something in terms of something else involves the ‘carrying-over’ of a term from one realm into another, a process that necessarily involves varying degrees of incongruity in that the two realms are never identical” (Burke, A Grammar of Motives 504).  The tie-ups between symbols, experiencing, and seeing (considering terministic screens and orientation) show how symbols create perspectival attentions.  Each perspective is a kind of attention taken onto something, never nakedly seeing it, but always seeing it in terms of and thus seeing it as.  Symbolizing what you are reading right now as “text,” “hieroglyphics,” “thoughts,” “ink,” or “ashes” perspectivizes attention to what it is, why, and what to do with it.

Language, for Burke, involves systematic uses of symbols via linguistic action.  Language comprises doings (acts) occurring in things (symbols) rather than things for doing.  Language, seen dramatistically, is actional, hortatory, attitudinal, based on the negative, ethical, and moralizing (Burke, “Poetics in Particular, Language in General”; Burke, “A Dramatistic View of the Origins of Language”; Burke, “The Philosophy of Literary Form”; Burke, “Semantic and Poetic Meaning”; Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living”).  Each quality identifies a form of linguistic action and corresponding mode of attention.  The six dramatistic actions and their attentions can be exemplified in the example sentence, “I don’t care anymore.”  As action, it declares termination to care-related acts.  As exhortation, it punctuates time, urges a change, and incites a response.  As attitude, it eulogizes in a mood and triangulates speaker, audience, and subject.  As negation, it opposes something while also avoiding espousing something else.  As ethicizing, it feeds an ethos of the speaker against the context of the statement.  As moralizing, it hints at what should be done by others.  Each of these six dramatistic enactments in this four-word verbal gesture induces matching forms of attention to the logic, performance, and response of action, exhortation, attitude, negation, ethicizing, and moralizing.  We possess the oriented symbolic equipment to heed the meaning of the four-word gesture but also heed these six dramatistic valences that it enacts.  Attention is comprised of symbols for seeing things, but also for seeing actions.  Such dramatistic actions are symbolically constituted, social, coded, layered, and exchanged by para-linguistic logics not contained in semantic meanings.  Without the means of attending dramatistically, we wouldn’t understand the gestures in the four words.  With the means, one may participate in and respond to the gesture’s layers of poetic action.  Burke provides an enframing scaffold to these para-linguistic logics in his concept of form, the guiding framework for participating in exchanges of symbolic actions.

Burke’s definition of form is the arousal and fulfillment of expectations (Burke, Counter-Statement 130, 204, 217).  Contrastive to Plato, Aristotle, and many theorists, form concerns the sequenced experience of the audience, especially as it results from their symbolically-induced states.  Burke writes that “A work has form in so far as one part of it leads a reader to anticipate another part, to be gratified by the sequence” (Burke, Counter-Statement 124).  This anticipation is variably structured for different attentions, affects, and effects, as exemplified by Burke’s delineating five types of form in literature and referencing other types of form in theater and music (Burke, Counter-Statement 123).  For example, “If, in a work of art, the poet says something, let us say, about a meeting, writes in such a way that we desire to observe that meeting, and then, if he places that meeting before us--that is form” (Burke, Counter-Statement 29).  Here, “…the value lies in the fact that his [sic] words are shaping the future of the audience's desires… This is the psychology of form as distinguished from the psychology of information” (Burke, Counter-Statement 33).  

Forms associated with words, for example in the verbal gesture, “I don’t care anymore,” are created between their contextual constellation of anticipations within their respective logic: expectation can follow structures of repetition, progression, syllogism, custom, “metaphor, paradox, disclosure, reversal, contraction, expansion, bathos, apostrophe, series, chiasmus--which can be discussed as formal events in themselves.  Their effect partially depends upon their function in the whole…” (Burke, Counter-Statement 127).  Such forms structure attention along pathways to their completion.  Along the way, the rise and fall, tension and release, waxing and waning of expectation also occur via assorted means, namely, via the six dramatistic valences, narrative, grammars of symbolic logics and actions, and by poetic play, any of which create attentional paths and urgings constitutive of dramatistic reasoning. 

Thus, form conceptualizes the lines along which attention follows a syntax of symbolic events through time, which proceed along lines of expectancy, tension, and resolution.  Form helps us recognize ways in which attention has duration (e.g., suspension in unfulfilled expectation), syntax (an ordering tendency to how and where attention goes), punctuated units (of expectancy/fulfillment episodes), layered temporaries (as attention operates between orders of expectations variously aroused/fulfilled at different speeds), emotionality (to the quality and effects of expectations’ fulfillments), and partiality (to the degree of expectations’ fulfillments).  Attention’s duration, syntax, punctuated units, layered temporalities, emotionality, and partiality show how a discrete moment of attention contains diachronic dynamics.  What attention is doing at any moment involves where it came from and where it is going.

Burke’s definition of motives is the imputation of a “why” to any stated act, made possible by symbols.  The “what” of an act is tied to the “why” of the act, so inextricably that “motives are shorthand for situations” and can be linguistically “placed” within any of five sources: act, agent, scene, agency, purpose. Burke’s pentadic ways of attributing distributed motives suffice to illustrate another attentionally-configurational dimension to symbols.  Attention is motivated action.  To say someone attended also involves, implicitly or explicitly, in what manner, for what purpose, to what effect—all of which is rooted in the imputed “why” of attention.  Motivic analysis applies to our talk about attention, enabling rhetorical placings of acts of attention to be characterized by the logics of different motivational structures.  To root attention in the motivation of agency, for example the agency of a gun, yields a host of attentions: one may attend by the gun, because of the gun, through the gun, like a gun, counter to the gun, and so on in ways that derive their character, form, and “why” from the sole source of a tool.  Agent-motivated attention would involve emphasis on inner-originating actions characteristic of the doer, and so too for act, purpose, and scene.  Motivic ratios and the whole of the Grammar of Motives elaborate on the many ways that attention is a motivated activity tied up with our talk about attention and its ways of configuring the motivations to attention. 

Explicating the why to attention, aided through Burke’s pentad, reveals attention’s drama-responsive character, which is erased by the discourses of attention as a generalized universal cognitive mechanism.  Attention differs by its motivation.  Dramatism and motivic analysis elaborate structures that direct attention through symbols’ whats (e.g., terministic screens, recalcitrance) and their whys.  Burke’s example of “looking over one’s shoulder suspiciously” exemplifies a narratival solicitation to interpret attention’s motives.  Instances of attention are motivated and decodable through a hermeneutics of attention’s locally-motivated, situated, particularized socializations.  Each instance of attending is dramatic (drama-participating) and dramatistic (drama-interpreting).  Attention’s dually dramatic/dramatistic acts themselves signify communicatively and require interpretation: what does it mean to say why someone attended in that manner at that time?  And how do responses communicate back to that why?

An Attentional Glossary of Burkean Concepts

The above-discussed nine terms in Burke’s works, far from comprehensive, illustrate the many tie-ups between symbols and attention.  These terms—terministic screens, dramatism, recalcitrance, orientation, symbol, perspectivizing, language, form, and motives—conceptualize junctures of phenomena within symbols.  Based on this archeology, we can surmise Burke’s theory of attention that is present but uncollected throughout his work. 

Attention is a diachronic and dialectical feature of symbols’ architecture.  The present moment’s forms of attention are bequeathed via symbols oriented to past situations and uses.  This past is nearsighted, with a close horizon limiting our vision to see where our terms came from.  The bequeathed symbols’ ways of seeing and relations to environments constellate around each communicative encounter.  They constitute and configure our ways of attending, propagated as ambience built from symbolic acts recalcified into people and their environment.  The present moment teeters at the forefront of these symbolic dialectics, where we hinge between reproducing or poeticizing our inheritance.  Located between permanence and change in our situations and symbols, “attention” expresses the logological act of seeing via symbols which themselves can be changed.  Burke furnishes a vocabulary for re-configuring our pre-configured attentions.  These Burkean terms, here with their attentional facets fronted, coalesce a mosaic depicting a dramatistic conception of attention.  Listed in condensed glossary form:

Terministic screens: a conceptualization of things as attention-forming machines differentiated by their attentional effects.  Epitomize symbolicity constituting attention itself.  A master term for the totality of attentional dynamics of a particular symbol, its associated terminology, and its instance of context-positioned use.  Like prisms that were re-shaped by the light that passes through them, terministic screens organize the cacophony of attentions into a coordinated harmony.  They preserve castings of their past uses, fossilized records of attentional ways.  Terms facilitate configured ways of seeing and not seeing, reifying private acts of attending into symbolic renders for shared intelligibility and participation.

Dramatism: a method of analyzing attention as symbolic action.  Reveals attention’s tie-ups with human relations and motives via a methodical inquiry into clusters of terms and their functions.  Language is action.  Attention is native to symbolicity in two ways.  1) Symbols in general constitute attention through their terministic properties and directed experiences.  2) Particular attentionally-named symbols concoct attentions only possible from symbolic resources and composite them into loose, fluid placeholders (e.g., “read” “think” “attend to” “see”).  Analysis (beyond semantics, usage, or intent) shows this coalesced symbolic material in a symbol’s socialized, dramatized, situated choreography, together creates what “attention” really is.  Dramatism is admonitionary: we must monitor and refresh what we mean when we say that “someone attends,” as dramatism generally “helps us discover what the implications of the terms ‘act’ and ‘person’ really are” (Burke, Kenneth). 

Recalcitrance: conservative forces counter-pressuring infinite attentional play.  Calcifies symbol-formed attentions.  Monitoring recalcitrance exposes attention’s dynamism between its related fixities and possibilities propagated between recalcitrance and de-calcitrance—the poetic interplay with the public architecture of the symbolic environment.

Orientation: the development of an accrued, exposure-trained repertoire of attentions.  Structures ways of seeing by dual roles: a storehouse of intelligible forms and a live mediator between text, context, and response.  Orientation helps answer, “where do our forms of attention come from?”  Renders visible the historical, durational, environmental, and embodied aspects of attention.  Highlights attention as an ecologically-configured emergence within co-developing agents.  Attentional acts are oriented.  Re-orienting occurs between material/symbolic dialectics that are socially-rooted and serviceable to the environment.  Attention is coterminous with our orientation, de-orientation, re-orientation.

Symbol: attention’s most elemental unit of immaterial configuration.  Representational, decrees a thing as another, annealing a sign to an experience pattern, especially from experts in a pattern of experience.  Symbols externalize orientation into manifest forms (e.g., words, images, sounds, gestures) that capture, stabilize, transpose, and preserve experience in communicable, mobile form.  Embodies a way of seeing.  An imposable lens upon any object, act, or event.  Malleable for infinite modification and poetic reuse.  Definitional to what homo symbolicus is and does.

Perspectivizing: the necessarily metaphoric nature of symbol-influenced attention, which “involves the ‘carrying-over’ of a term from one realm into another, a process that necessarily involves varying degrees of incongruity in that the two realms are never identical” (Burke, A Grammar of Motives 504).  Symbols and language perspectivize attention, creating perspectival attentions.  Inversely, each perspective entails a kind of attention that heeds in terms of and thus heeds as.

Language: the enactment of symbols.  Versatile attention modifiers.  The most direct window into attention’s socialization.  Constitutes attention’s symbolic actions, chiefly: negation, exhortation, attitude, ethicizing, and moralizing.  Provides modes of deploying the symbol, where each form of linguistic action creates a corresponding mode of attention, recognition, enactment, and reasoning: 1) symbols thing-ify processes, endowing attentional modes via things (e.g., “critique” endows “critical attention”), 2) language performs symbols, engendering performative attentional modes (e.g., negation endows negative attention).  Linguistic modes of symbol usage suffuse attentional acts with para-linguistic logics and dramatistic valences.

Form: attention’s syntax.  Discrete synchronic moments of attention contain diachronic dynamics: what attention does now is bound within encompassing programs of where attention has been and is going.  Attention follows patterned sequences along lines of expectancy, tension, and resolution, together organized by symbolic events (e.g., inspecting, judging, comparing, etc.). Form is longitudinal, involving attention’s duration, sequential ordering, punctuated episodes, layered temporaries, emotionality, and partiality.

Motives: the imputed “whys” to acts of attention.  Attention is a motivated activity.  Purpose conditions attentions, shaping their manner and effect.  Attention contours to drama and to how we talk about it.  Differing motives make differing attentions, which are readable through pentadic hermeneutics to attention’s motivic placement.  Each instance of attending is dramatic (drama-participating) and dramatistic (drama-interpreting).  Attentional acts signify: what does it mean to say why someone attended in that manner at that time?  And how do responses address that particular why?

This attentional glossary catalogs key dramatistic topoi of attention.  Among symbolists who delineate similar representation-centered theories, the distinctly Burkean contribution extrapolates symbolic dialectics with environmental processes and with the symbolically constituted animal.  Attention names our directed experience formed at noisy, fluid junctures where the dialectics of symbol/environment (e.g., recalcitrance) traffic with the dialectics of symbol/self (e.g., orientation).  Attention names distributed emergences across symbol, environment, and self.  These three loci—the force of symbols, the material-symbolic environment, and individuals’ agencies for intervention—each originate attentional processes that merge with that of the others.  The relations between symbol, environment, and self together define what is involved when we say one attends, how, and why.  In this framing, attention expresses para-symbolic processes that are immanent to symbolicity.  Many of these emergent relations are not self-disclosing into awareness.  We may study the symbol for its links, traces, evidence, and possibilities of what happens when amalgamated with situations and selves.  Between these loci, our terms for attention are dialectical with our changing selves and our ways through changing situations, forming an experiential poetics inherent to terminologies.

Symbol-Formed Attention’s Methodology and Rhetoricality

To fulfill calls in rhetorical studies seeking to develop more robust theories of attention that service contemporary issues, this archeology produces a glossary of attentional phenomena overlooked in current discourses and which is readily useful with roots in the discipline.  Dramatism’s method of analyzing attention assists us in creating rich, dynamic accounts of its constituting phenomena.  I designate dramatism’s implicit theory of attention as “symbol-formed attention” in order to locate dramatism’s idea of attention among other attentional theories and to christen it for easy uptake multidisciplinarily. 

Attentional theories differ by their starting assumptions, methodology, and purpose.  Symbol-formed attention starts with symbols, is analyzable via dramatistic methodology, and seeks the purpose of steering word/act/self dialectics.  Some contrasting approaches, for instance, start with material technologies, are drawn through media ecology’s methodology, and seek the purpose of recovering sense capacities (Landes).  Another approach starts with experience, elaborates through phenomenology’s methodology, and seeks purposes of grounding epistemology in a stable foundation (Schrag 17; Merleau-Ponty xii; xviii).  Histories of the idea of attention provide additional varieties (Crary; Rogers; Mc Mahon).  Calling dramatism’s attention “symbol-formed attention” aims for a welcoming, accessible, user-friendly inroad to multidisciplinary investigation.  With no discipline comprehensive to the unwieldy idea of attention, all conceptions must come to terms with what “attention” means, how to study it, and why one operational definition is preferred over others. 

Symbol-formed attention conceives “attention” as a terministic screen for the directed experience entwined within dialectics of symbolic environments and homo symbolicus.  Symbols poeticize devised regimes of directing experience and are our best windows into the socialization of attention.  Epiphenomenal to symbols’ tie-ups with situated bodies, symbol-formed attention traces the configurational processes occurring through us and comporting contrivances naturalistically.  Symbol-formed attention is a para-symbolicity to “our prowess in the ways of symbolicity” (Burke, Language As Symbolic Action viii) .  Many things, especially social intangibles, are unattendable without symbols, and without their encompassing symbolic environment inflecting meaning and attention with dramatistic valences.  Some key tenets of symbol-formed attention:

  • Attention is perspectival.  There is no neutral seeing without seeing in terms of (via an associated terminology) and thus without seeing as (from terminology’s metaphorizing of sense).
  • Terminology multiformly influences acts of attention and accounts of attention. 
  • Attention is situational and orientational, evolving with systemic changes outside the symbol.
  • Altering a symbol, its terminology, or context changes the means of attention.
  • Symbols and attention form symbiotically and can operate independently (e.g., seeing with camera-attention without a camera, reading a non-polemic with polemic-attention).
  • Attending is a dramatistic symbolic act, formed, motivated, sequenced, and addressed within social drama
  • The elusiveness, misrecognition, and invisibility of symbol-formed attention occurs endemically to symbols.  Attentions operate with little self-disclosure, each one occurring with a degree of self-awareness and kind of self-awareness.
  • There is no generalized, universal, transhistorical mode of symbol-formed attention.  Each occurs within particular situated instances and emerges across symbol, environment, and oriented agents.
  • Dramatism reveals and re-engineers symbol-formed attention.  Other vocabularies do too.  For example, materialist, phenomenological, psychoanalytic, and somatic theories of symbols delineate relations of symbol-formed attentions.

Methodologically, symbol-formed attention facilitates interpretivist analyses complementary to positivist analyses.  Its hermeneutic, poetic, malleable features contrast to that of the empirical sciences.  Symbol-formed attention’s interpretivist methodology is a reflexive anthropology “from within,” regarding meanings, readings, and doings of real-stakes social action.  This attentional interpretivism concerns the readerly and authorly agencies within each individual, which are constituted dialectically between the social/personal, material/immaterial, and agent/agency.  Nine descriptive pairs define these methodological differences antithetically from the reigning concept of attention in popular discourses borrowed from the empirical sciences.

Empirical Concept of Attention

Assessed Behaviorally
Apprehends what is present

Burkean Symbol-Formed Attention

Assessed Symbolically
Invokes what is absent

Symbol-formed attention’s interpretivism also highlights attention’s rhetorical aspects, which are invisibilized in predominating scientistic discourses.  Burke writes that “rhetoric seeks to impact action and attitude, which would permit the application of rhetorical terms to purely poetic structures; the study of lyrical device might be classed under the head of rhetoric, when these devices are considered for their power to induce or communicate states of mind to readers…” (Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives 50).  In this way, rhetoric maps and monitors the symbolic orientation of attentional motion and action.  Rhetoric creates languages that refresh attention’s re-orientation to stave off “the upbuilding of fallacious equipment” (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form 164) .  The Burkean ideal would have our terms of attention be well oriented rather than misoriented or disoriented, be dramatistically full rather than shallow, and prepare us to attend orientedly.

Some rhetoricalities come from symbol-formed attention being:

  • A reality-altering agency mediating thought and action
  • Variable and strategic toward goals
  • Communicatively induced from a rhetor to an audience
  • Constituted through traditional rhetorical elements (e.g., ethos, pathos, logos, kairos)
  • Logological and doxastic, constituted through language and opinion
  • Contingent to social drama, technologies, exigence, appeals, and addressivity
  • Cultivational to the ability to observe the available means of persuasion
  • A condition for persuasion
  • Thematic of classical concerns between lex/logos and res/verba distinctions, suggesting we maintain care to how ideas of attention influence their effects, logics, and relationships.

Rhetorical studies can use symbol-formed attention adaptively within the native discourses of calls for needed attention-related scholarship.  Lanham’s, Oakley’s, and Pfister’s three calls for attention scholarship have different accounts of what attention is, does, and can mean within rhetorical theory.  A broad paradigm of symbol-formed attention is instrumental to meeting these calls.  Specifically, for Lanham’s concern with communication in digital space’s attention-scare ecology, rhetoric is an adjustment wisdom to style/substance strategies through changing media.  This requires carefully developing what we mean by “attention” as a mass-interpretation behavior within rapidly shifting technologies and unstable information ecologies.  For Oakley’s concern with discourse fulfilling cognitive functions, rhetoric is the integration of actual and potential mental spaces.  This requires carefully developing “attention” as individuals’ ways of binding together linguistic, cognitive, and mental spaces.  For Pfister’s concern with digital social action, rhetoric creates constitutive effects for forming publics, adherence, and sustained collective attention.  This requires carefully developing “thick” rather than “thin” accounts of how attentional processes constitute meaning and relations in the networked ecologies.  Symbol-formed attention’s paradigm helps enable scholars to ask questions and investigate disparate attention-associated phenomena that would otherwise be obscured.

Conclusion: Symbol-Formed Attention as Equipment for Living

Attention needs to be re-languaged in order to address its succession of imposed forms and its possible reformations.  Contemporary crises of attention pose the idea of attention in simplistic, fixed terms, which have prompted disciplinary challenges and calls to remedy undertheorized notions of attention.  Responding to calls to theorize attention within shifting communication conditions, this reading of Burke’s implicit concept of attention yields an account of “symbol-formed attention” for use in rhetorical studies and related disciplines.  Distinct among other conceptions of attention (whether implicit or explicit), symbol-formed attention renders visible its social hermeneutics, giving access to its analysis, re-engineering, and controlled use.  This analytic vantage point traces out how the “attention” addressed via brain scans or via surveys names conglomerations of acts different from the “attention” addressed by humanists or experienced directly.  Each attention is an act of symbol-choreographed experience, whose name veneers its dramatistic architecture.  Whereas other conceptions of attention service behavioral measurement or disciplined training, symbol-formed attention services communication, rhetorical strategizing, and creativity.

Dramatism warns against reductive neutralizing vocabularies, the scientizing of (attentional) motive, and the diminishment of human agencies from symbols.  Burke issues us a grave task as rhetorical and literary critics to monitor our language and revise key terms.  We need vocabularies that clarify and orient attentional acts within their symbolic milieus.  Attention’s dramatistic features cloak between names and functions.  As the word “attention” itself illustrates, the language that references it differs from the language that constitutes it.  This difference, ever-changing, propagates attentional dis-orientation and re-orientation.

Explicating the idea of symbol-formed attention from dramatism provides remedy for un-reducing reductions and de-neutralizing neutralities in our vocabularies for investigating what is involved when we say someone attended and what those words really mean.  In this methodology, “attention” is a terministic screen of dialectical emergences between homo symbolicus’ words, ways, and whereabouts.  Attention is not one thing but is a placeholder orchestrating para-symbolicities that accompany symbolicity: orientation, recalcitrance, scope, circumference, representative anecdote, attitude, motive, form, and act.  Dramatism’s vocabulary for what symbols are doing denudes the myth of attention as an a-historical fixity and redresses attention’s psycho-social kairotics.  Dramatistic analysis reveals each attention’s constituents, programs of action, situatedness, and possibilities.  The dramatistic theory of attention elaborates the perspectivity resulting from how we always attend in terms of and attend something as another.  Symbol-formed attention mediates homo symbolicus by a process of experiential poetics.  Omnipresent terminology is ambiently rhetorical in shaping attentional acts, which can be altered in articulation.

Well-oriented attention, like literature, is equipment for living and is sought through poetic, rather than semantic, vocabularies.  Burke writes, “the poetic vocabulary, when complete, will take us into-and-out-of (the complete play with its exhilaration at the close).  When incomplete, it will take us into, and seek to leave us there…  While the semantic vocabulary would, I think, unintentionally cheat us, by keeping us without, providing a kind of quietus in advance, never even giving the dramatic opposition a chance…” (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form 166–67).  Semantic—scientized, neutralized, instrumental—language reduces attention to an impossible singularity.  Semantic vocabulary may be useful in specialized matters, but risks generalizing misleadingly.  It is “when [a semantic vocabulary] is considered as an ideal in itself, rather than as a preparation for new and more accurate weighting, that one need turn against it” (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form 167).  The Burkean ideals of multi-perspectivity and well-oriented dramatistic fullness are sought through continual terminological upgrade “from an old poetic vocabulary whose weightings are all askew to a new poetic vocabulary whose weightings will be better fitted to the situations it would encompass” (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form 167).  To this end, Burke’s inventory contains many more resources to re-poeticize mis-oriented attentions: poetic correctives, comedic correctives, irony tropes, an ethics of multi-perspectivity, ethical dimensions of symbols, poetic play epitomized in the paradox of substance, perspective by incongruity’s method of “gauging situations by verbal ‘atom cracking’” (Burke, Attitudes Toward History 308) , resymbolization and reorientation through pentadic re-placement, and other such conceptual tools for attention’s terminological reconfiguration.

The ideal word for attention, then, is sought locally, kairotically, toward the aims of each instance, distinguishing this attention from other attentions—a critical importance to rhetorical studies.  Thus, “true knowledge [of ‘attention’] can only be attained through the battle, stressing the role of the participant, who in the course of his [sic] participation, it is hoped, will define situations with sufficient realistic accuracy to prepare an image for action” (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form 150).  Our searches for symbols place our words for attention in dialectic with our ways of attention, cunningly devising an experiential poetics through what impends.  Our predicament for attention in rhetoric and the humanities, then, is an ongoing set of tensions among change.  Homo symbolicus attends by what s/he is, and becomes, in part, what s/he attends.  Symbols do much of the seeing.  But our seeing exceeds our terms, which obsolesce and need updating.  Analyses of attention exhume fossilized experience.  We can change our symbols individually, but only piecemeal, methodically, and socially through their public architecture.  Between these tensions, we proceed, building cultures by huddling together, nervously attentive, at the edge of an abyss.

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A Flash of Light to Blurred Vision: Theorizing Generating Principles for Nuclear Policy from The Day After Trinity to the Year 2021

Cody Hunter, University of Nevada, Reno


This essay examines contemporary arguments for nuclear weapons rearmament and disarmament by theorizing generating and generative principles in terms of principles of use and principles of existence through Kenneth Burke’s temporizing of essence. The essay concludes with an audio/visual experiment that invites audiences to reconsider the generating principles implicit in their nuclear terms.

I worry about our corrupt newspapers, about nucleonics (for where there is power there is intrigue, so this new fantastic power may be expected to call forth intrigue equally fantastic).—Kenneth Burke in a letter to William Carlos Williams, Oct. 12, 1945, Pennsylvania State University Special Collections

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists made history in 2020 by announcing that the Doomsday Clock had been set to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it’s been since its inception. The Bulletin was organized by several Manhattan Project scientists in response to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Doomsday Clock was added to the cover in 1947 (Lerner) as “a design that warns the public about how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making” (“Doomsday Clock”). At the time of writing this, in the year 2021, the Doomsday Clock remains at 100 seconds to midnight in no small part due to the continued threat of nuclear annihilation that inspired its creation in the first place (ibid).

To better understand the present threat of nuclear catastrophe, this essay tracks several lines of argument both for and against nuclear disarmament to theorize the implicit generating principles that are terminologically foundational for each position. Drawing primarily from Kenneth Burke’s articulations of generative and generating principles, I outline two principles that generate terms for this debate: The principle of use and the principle of existence. These two principles are not mutually exclusive, though the principle of use offers a reductive vocabulary that, at best, can maintain a public attitude of ambivalence toward nuclear weapons that simultaneously discourages their use and disarmament. The principle of use is a derivative of the principle of existence which offers a more generative vocabulary for discussing nuclear weapons and invites both public participation and credible arguments for global nuclear disarmament. The problem emerges when the principle of use is treated in isolation, as a universally valid principle, at the expense of insights generated in terms of the principle of existence.

These days, the principle of use in the nuclear weapons debate can no longer prevent a nuclear catastrophe because it has already begun, and this catastrophic reality is accounted for in terms of the principle of existence. Facing the exigencies of the present moment (e.g., the proposed U.S. nuclear weapons “modernization” project, the ratification of and broad support for the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the impact of the radical unpredictability of climate change on nuclear sites, and increasing attention to how BIPOC communities are currently devastated by the environmental and health consequences of the development of nuclear weapons) demands attention to and terms drawn from the principle of existence. The use of nuclear weapons in war, while unquestionably an existential threat, can no longer be considered the only threat that nuclear weapons pose. The sheer existence of nuclear weapons poses an unmitigable threat to human survival. In “Perfection and the Bomb,” Barry Brummett argues that “[n]o subject is as critical politically as the rhetoric of nuclear war,” and that “the involved critic can further both scholarship and social responsibility, can speak politically yet not polemically by . . . grounding insights in theory shared by a community of scholars rather than only in an individual’s partisan views” (85). While I personally hope to see the day that our terms lead us to global nuclear disarmament, the goal of this essay is to demonstrate a process for theorizing generating principles and how this work may help us to better understand where our terms are leading and can lead us in debates about nuclear weapons.

Drawing from public arguments by government officials, journalists, and activists and the documentary The Day After Trinity, this essay unfolds in three sections and an audio/visual experiment. I have selected public arguments that explicitly address nuclear weapons from as close to the year 2021 as possible from a variety of media, including televised speeches and discussions, publications, webpages, and public meetings posted on YouTube. My goal for analyzing this variety of sources is not a comprehensive rendering of nuclear policy discourse in the U.S., but instead to provide examples of how terminologies derived from the principle of use and the principle of existence manifest in contemporary arguments about nuclear weapons. I have incorporated The Day After Trinity because the film includes interviews with Manhattan Project scientists and, while the interviews were conducted years after the Project was completed, the accounts and archival footage offer a historical resource for exploring the relationships between narratives, temporality, and generative principles that I discuss in the following section.

The final two sections of this essay and the audio/visual experiment focus on public arguments derived from the principle of use and the principle of existence. The second section analyzes arguments derived from the principle of use, starting with the current proposal to “modernize” the US nuclear arsenal and focusing specifically on the rhetorical bureaucratization of the intercontinental ballistic missile project. While rhetorical bureaucratization deters public engagement in debates on specific nuclear policies, the proposed modernization project requires maintaining an ambivalent public attitude toward nuclear weapons which I analyze in terms of a xenophobic-economic dialectic in the context of the US foreign policy shift from the Global War on Terror to the Great Power Competition for the 21st C. In the third section, I examine two lines of argument that derive their terms from the principle of existence. The first raises the issue of increasingly unpredictable climate events which increases the likelihood of nuclear accidents at weapons manufacturing and storage sites, and the second directs attention to the environmental devastation currently caused by nuclear weapons, predominately in black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities. By leveraging the salience of Not in My Backyard (NIMBY), arguments derived from the principle of existence highlight the current catastrophic impact of nuclear weapons and offer more opportunities for public engagement with nuclear policy than arguments derived from the principle of use.

The concluding audio/visual experiment emphasizes the reality of where terms derived exclusively from the principle of use are likely to lead if the principle is considered as universally valid in the debate on nuclear weapons. Responding to this potential and attempting to balance terms in the nuclear weapons debate (Brummett 93), this experiment also centers terms from the principle of existence. Finally, by using a variety of voice actors to simulate public debate, this experiment invites rhetoric scholars to practice theorizing generating principles as the din and sense of urgency make the terms difficult to discern.

Generative and Generating Principles: Temporizing the Essence of Nuclear Weapons

Kenneth Burke uses the concept “generative” or “generating principle” frequently throughout A Grammar of Motives, occasionally in A Rhetoric of Motives, and sporadically in other texts. However, my initial interest in the concept arose, not from Burke, but from David Blakesley’s description of rhetorical theory’s role in civic engagement:

[W]e . . . have the responsibility to understand how we got here, what we should have seen coming but didn’t. Rhetorical theory, which theorizes generative principles and elaborates ambiguity, can help us unravel these mysteries and perhaps help us guard against our tendencies to be mistaken or led astray by our terms or by those who would use them against us, or be caught up in the moment and lose perspective on where we’ve been, where we’re going. (Mountford et al. 58; emphasis added)

Knee-deep in research on contemporary nuclear weapons rhetoric and concerned about the announced foreign policy shift to “Great Power Competition” in the same breath as the declaration of the end of the “Global War on Terror,” Blakesley’s words struck me as a call to action. Unsure of what he meant by “generative principles,” I read further into the chapter and saw the concept repeated with similar urgency and more contextual clues: “We must work backward through our terms, tracing them to their sources, discovering them in the process of being and becoming, hoping that these revelations can teach us how we got here and prophesy where we’ll end up if we’re not careful” (Mountford et al. 60). What followed was a reference to Burke’s use of “generating principle” in Grammar, so that’s where I turned next.

Without an explicit definition of generative or generating principles from my search across Burke’s texts, I chose to develop a working definition by tracking conceptual articulations. Tracking conceptual articulations “involves identifying the commonalities and differences that exist between divergent applications of a common concept,” and accounting for the perspectival specificities that lead to these commonalities and differences (Jensen 2). Taking this approach to appearances of “generative principles” across texts reveals catalogues of concepts defined as generative principles (see Blakesley, The Elements of Dramatism), including common rhetorical heuristics for invention, “which reveal or create knowledge about the world that has already been there even if inaccessible or unnoticed” (Blakesley, “Composing the Un/Real Future” 10). In this sense, principles are “permanent” (Mountford et al. 61) terminological origins (Burke, A Grammar of Motives 52) that generate and can be discerned from terminologies, like the five key terms of the pentad qua principles through which a “work could be considered as theoretically ‘derived’ (‘generated’) from the formal principles . . . the text could be said to have been ‘prophesied after the event’” (Burke, “Questions and Answers about the Pentad” 332). The characteristic of permanence is significant as it appears to mark a delineation between generating and generative principles.

Burke’s articulations draw an ambiguous distinction between generating and generative principles that elaborates the treatments of principles in permanent and universal terms. Burke’s descriptions of the pentad in Grammar and his 1978 article, “Questions and Answers about the Pentad,” in College Composition and Communication mark a moment of ambiguity in his use of generative and generating principles. In Grammar, Burke compares the “use of the pentad as a generating principle” to Kantian transcendentalism through a mutual concern with essential forms of human experience (402; emphasis added), whereas he explicitly classifies the pentad as a “generative principle” in the 1978 article in contrast to William F. Irmscher’s uses of the key terms “as suggestions for generating a topic” (“Questions and Answers about the Pentad” 332; emphasis added). The “context-specific histories” (Jensen 2) of these conceptual articulations elaborate Burke’s work to identify the pentad with established principles in Grammar, as he is developing dramatism, and his division from Irmscher’s interpretation from the perspective of 1978. In other words, tracking the commonalities and differences between these two conceptual articulations enables working definitions of generative principles as permanent or accepted as universally applicable for generating insights in general, and generating principles as principles in the process of becoming or “key terms or propositions” that may be universally applied “in principle.”

The inherent ambiguity of the term “principle” leads to its exploitation and invites rhetorical theorists to elaborate the ambiguity of generating principles in their process of becoming accepted as “universally valid.” Burke describes rhetorical exploitations of principle in terms of substance, or a term that can “express a state of considerable vagueness in the imposing accents of a juridic solidity” (A Grammar of Motives 52). By claiming that a proposition is true “in principle,” one “can characterize as ‘universally valid’ a proposition that may in fact be denied by whole classes of people” (ibid). Rhetorical theorizing can elaborate the ambiguity of principles (for an example in terms of generating principles, see Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives 5), and intervene in the process of generating principles becoming accepted as “universally valid” at the expense of more generative and applicable principles. However, in the absence of “telltale expressions . . . such as ‘substantially,’ ‘essentially,’ ‘in principle,’ or ‘in the long run’” (A Grammar of Motives 52–53), tracking terminologies to their generating principles becomes more challenging.

To better understand how implicit uses of “in principle” manifest in explicit claims, I focus on two concepts that appear in close proximity to Burke’s discussion of “in principle”: Essence, where “in principle” and “essentially” offer a similar ambiguity of substance; and temporality, as the term principle “is literally a ‘first,’ as we realize when we recall its etymological descent from a word meaning: beginning, commencement, origin” (ibid 52). These two concepts also appear in proximity to an articulation of generating principle in Grammar: “[W]hen you consider a thing just as it is, with the being of one part involved in the being of its other parts, and with all the parts derived from the being of the whole considered as a generating principle there is nothing but a ‘present tense’ involved here, or better a ‘tenselessness,’ even though the thing thus dealt with arises in time and passes with time” (ibid 466). In this example, “the eternity of art” (ibid 465) is the generating principle, or a key term or proposition (ibid 403), that is essentially manifest in a temporally and physically-specific “thing” that is described as art, in principle.

Attention to rhetorical exploitations of essence and temporality provide opportunities to discount terminologies “in a social historical texture” (Burke, Attitudes Toward History 245) and “work backward” to their generating principles. To be clear, this is not the only, or likely even the best, approach for tracking implicit generating principles and my goal with this conceptual articulation is “not [to] insist that one perspective reign over another” (Jensen 2). Instead this is an effort to “multiply scholarly perspectives” (ibid) on the concepts of generative and generating principles and elaborate the ambiguity of the debate on nuclear weapons. Tracking down generating principles in the nuclear weapons debate by attending to exploitations of essence and temporality invites attention to origins and endings narratives and the concept of “temporizing of essence.”

Generating principles in the nuclear weapons debate can be discerned in terms of attributions of essential motives in the origins and endings narratives for nuclear policy. Burke outlines these essentializing/narrativizing processes as ones that abstract a temporal narrative of origin or ending as the philosophical “essence of a thing” (A Rhetoric of Motives 13). These philosophical terms become “fixities . . . if they are stated abstractly enough” and can then be reversed into a temporal narrative to characterize a present moment (ibid 14) through a strategy Burke defines as the “temporizing of essence” (ibid 13). In other words, the origin and/or ending narrative of nuclear policy is abstracted as the essence of nuclear policy, or nuclear policy in principle, and this principle generates the temporized terms in contemporary debates on nuclear weapons.

The detonation of the first atomic weapons, either during the Trinity Test in Alamogordo, NM or the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, can be narrativized as both the origin and the ending (or culmination) of nuclear policy, whereby the use of these weapons in war becomes the essence of nuclear policy. In this case, the generating principle is the principle of use, which is treated as the essential and logical priority of nuclear policy and generates the temporal terms for nuclear policy’s past, present, and future. As International Relations scholar, Laura Considine, argues in her analysis of nuclear origin narratives, “the relationship between logical and temporal priority exist simultaneously, and . . . past, present, and future all imply each other” (5) and, while Considine’s argument is grounded in Burke’s uses of entelechy, the terms generated from this logical-temporal relationship can be interpreted as derivations from a generating principle, in this case, the principle of use. Further, as generating principles can easily be characterized as universally valid: “Changing nuclear politics,” to borrow another useful insight from Considine, “cannot mean starting from the same point and contesting nuclear meaning from within the logic established by the story of nuclear creation . . . Attempts at change that accept the nuclear beginning and its attendant nuclear meaning are circumscribed by its implications so that . . . the space for policy—and I would add activism—shrinks” (15). Because the principle of existence broadens perspectives on nuclear policy’s origins, ends, and essence, arguments in terms generated from this principle have the potential to shift the logical priority of nuclear policy.

The principle of existence articulates the essence of nuclear policy in terms of the development and existence of nuclear weapons, thereby decentralizing the origin and ending narratives circumscribed by, and which conversely reinscribe, the terms of the principle of use. Narrating the origin of nuclear policy as the development of the first nuclear weapon during the Manhattan Project, which is temporally and logically prior to detonation, elaborates a “time-essence ambiguity” (Burke, A Grammar of Motives 439 in the origins and endings narratives and the philosophical essence of nuclear policy. There is evidence to support an origin narrative in terms of the principle of existence, as Manhattan Project physicist Frank Oppenheimer recalls in the documentary The Day After Trinity: While the Project was initially motivated by “anti-fascist fervor against Germany,” after the announcement of German surrender on VE Day, “nobody slowed up one little bit . . . we all kept working and it wasn’t because we understood the significance against Japan, it was because the machinery had caught us in a trap and we were anxious to get this thing to go” (Else). This marks a crucial moment in nuclear policy during which the motivation of using the weapon in war was thoroughly displaced by the motivation to continue development for the sake of the weapon’s existence.

If the development and existence of nuclear weapons are abstracted and essentialized, to the point that the existence (or inexistence) of nuclear weapons becomes the philosophical essence of nuclear policy, then the terms from this generating principle also elaborate ambiguity in the ending narrative of nuclear policy in a manner that is unavailable through the terms of the principle of use. In other words, as ending narratives are driven by the entelechial principle toward perfection, perfection of the terms derived from the principle of use is through use whereby the threat to human survival would be negated through global nuclear annihilation (see Brummett). On the other hand, perfecting the terms derived from the principle of existence offers the potential for negation as well, though this time through the negation of nuclear weapons through global nuclear disarmament which also eliminates the threat that these weapons pose to human survival (though without necessarily negating human survival). Thus, the principle of existence decenters use in war as the origin, ending, and essence of nuclear policy and increases the available terms for debates on nuclear weapons.

Elaborating the ambiguity of essential claims in debates on nuclear weapons can broaden perspectives on the origin and ending narratives of nuclear policy. Tracking down these essential claims offers an avenue for theorizing generating principles, which is a valuable approach for better understanding “how we got here,” and “prophesy[ing] where we’ll end up if we’re not careful” (Mountford et al. 60). The following sections focus on specific arguments in the nuclear weapons debate and demonstrate how the principle of use and the principle of existence are implicitly manifest in their terms.

“Modernization” for “Great Power Competition” through a Xenophobic-Economic Dialectic

The US is poised to complete a Nuclear Posture Review by the end of 2021. These “legislatively-mandated” reviews occur every five to ten years and establish US “nuclear policy, strategy, capabilities and force posture” (“Nuclear Posture Review”). One of the anticipated outcomes of the review is approval of the US nuclear weapons “modernization” project (Lopez), which includes the Department of Energy’s (DOE) plan to “life extend and produce warheads and bombs” (Nuclear Triad). The term modernization sanitizes the proposed project, by acting as a terministic screen that deflects terms like nuclear rearmament and weapons development while emphasizing ideas aligned with renovation, which is a strategy of rhetorical bureaucratization. According to Edward Schiappa, rhetorical bureaucratization works “either to sanitize the [nuclear policy] concept so that it appears neutral and inoffensive, or to technologize the concept by applying technical terms or acronyms that only insiders or ‘experts’ can ‘really’ understand” (256–57), while granting “the nuclear policy making bureaucracy . . . a privileged status because the lower ‘class’ (i.e., the general public) is disenfranchised from the decision-making language” (257). While these rhetorical strategies deter public engagement, nuclear policy is not impervious to public pressure and proponents of the “modernization” project must draw on additional rhetorical resources to maintain public ambivalence.

This section outlines the shift from technologizing to sanitizing terminology using the proposed “modernization” of the intercontinental ballistic missile stockpile as an example and situates this terminological shift and the concurrent uses of terms drawn from a xenophobic-economic dialectic as derivations from the principle of use with the effect of distancing the public from nuclear policy decision making and maintaining an ambivalent public attitude toward nuclear weapons.

A key element of the proposed “modernization” is to replace the current intercontinental ballistic missiles, trading out the LGM-30G Minuteman III for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. The LGM-30G clearly technologizes the specific characteristics of these weapons through “insider” coding (see “LGM-30G Minuteman III”), though the term “minuteman” maintains the association of this nuclear weapon with use in a military conflict (i.e., ready to strike at any minute). By contrast, the transition to the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent thoroughly sanitizes this association by making these weapons appear literally “inoffensive.” Senator John Cornyn makes this clear while advocating for the “modernization” project in a conversation with the Hudson Institute’s Tim Morrison: “Deterrence is our key reason for our nuclear stockpile . . . It is to keep the peace, it is not to make war” (“Senator John Cornyn”). In other words, the proposed nuclear rearmament, when framed through “modernization” as deterrence, is neither defensive nor aggressive. It is simply the “neutral” and routine business of nuclear policymakers under the banner of public safety. And while all the terms in this proposal derive from the principle of use, this shift allays public fears of the immediacy of a nuclear weapons strike while rendering these nuclear weapons as benign but essential for maintaining global “peace,” thereby simultaneously garnering public support and minimizing public input on nuclear policy.

Bureaucratizing the terms in the proposed nuclear rearmament project (i.e., “modernization,” “LGM-30G Minuteman III,” and “Ground Based Strategic Deterrent”) serves a dual public function in terms of the principle of use. “Deterrence” polls high among members of the public, with a 2019 University of Maryland study finding “[e]ight in ten or more” bipartisan respondents supporting “the US having a retaliatory nuclear capability” to deter a nuclear attack (Kull et al. 3), and a 2021 report by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies finding 91% support among voters for nuclear deterrence (Mitchell Institute Staff). By contrast, questions framed in terms of intercontinental ballistic missiles, even in terms of “modernization,” are far less popular, as a 2020 Federation of American Scientists’ survey found that the majority of Americans favor eliminating the intercontinental ballistic missile stockpile (Korda and White 6). In turn, using “deterrence” to thoroughly sanitize the terminological associations of nuclear conflict works to “mystify—to render [this] nuclear policy irrelevant or inaccessible to public investigation and deliberation” (Schiappa 257), as the new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent can be seen as the unambiguous key to preventing nuclear war in a “neutral” and “inoffensive” way. The work of rhetorical bureaucratization highlights the significance of public pressure on nuclear policymakers through its work of deflection. While (dis-)use in war is the generating principle, or essential motive, from which these bureaucratizing terms are generated, this deflection work is contingent on a nuclear threat to deter lest public suspicions of the ambiguity of this essential motive gain traction.

In a public address after troops were pulled from Afghanistan at the end of August 2021, President Biden outlines the U.S. foreign policy shift from the Global War on Terror to Great Power Competition. In the final ten minutes of the speech, Biden declares: “Here’s a critical thing to understand. The world is changing. We’re engaged in a serious competition with China, we’re dealing with challenges on multiple fronts with Russia. We’re confronted with cyberattacks and nuclear proliferation. We have to ensure America is competitive to meet these new challenges in the competition for the 21st century” (CPR News Staff and The Associated Press). The proposed nuclear rearmament (i.e., modernization) is one part of the plan to stay “competitive” with China and Russia; however, mounting concerns over an expensive nuclear arms race (for examples, see Grego; Kluth; Borger; Roblin; W. Hartung; “Delegates Voice Concern”) requires a strategic balancing of terms generated from the principle of use to foster general public support for the proposed project while dampening public pressure for either nuclear conflict or disarmament. The resulting terms lead to a xenophobic-economic dialectic.

The shift toward Great Power Competition is currently inseparable from a resurgence of xenophobic rhetorics of division. In a speech at the Royal Army Mildenhall in England, prior to the 2021 G7 and NATO summits, Biden reaffirmed clear divisions between Western democracies and Eastern autocracies and dictatorships: “We have to discredit those who believe that the age of democracy is over as some of our fellow nations believe. We have to expose as false, the narrative that decrees of dictators can match the speed and scale of the 21st [century] challenges” (CNBC Television). The proclaimed threat to Western civilization (i.e., democracies) recalls the principle of use’s origin narrative for nuclear policy: “[A]nti-fascist fervor against Germany,” and the threat that Hitler posed to “Western civilization” (Else), while temporizing its essence in the contemporary context of Great Power Competition. As House Armed Services Committee Chair, Adam Smith, explains: “The American people are painfully easy to scare . . . And one thing they’re scared of is Russia and China, you know, outdoing us in nuclear weapons . . . and obliterating us” (Armed Services Committee). And while fears of Russian threats to US democracy are fresh in the public imagination, the nuclear history and treaties between the two nations have shifted attention toward aggressively stoking xenophobic divisions with China, which may lead to deadly consequences for Chinese and Asian Americans.

Public support for “modernization” requires a credible threat to deter and, currently, that threat is located in China. In spite of the fact that reports of the Chinese government’s plan “[to] double the number of nuclear warheads it possesses” (“Senator John Cornyn”), leaves them with over a thousand fewer nuclear weapons than either the US or Russia (“Status of World Nuclear Forces”), journalists and policymakers are heightening this threat through xenophobic rhetorics of division in terms of literacy and communication. As Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius writes in an opinion piece, “[d]uring the Cold War, the United States and Russia developed a language for thinking about nuclear weapons and deterrence. Leaders of both countries understood the horrors of nuclear war and sought predictability and stability in nuclear policy. China lacks such a vocabulary for thinking about the unthinkable.” Along similar lines, US national security advisor Jake Sullivan highlights “the formal strategic stability dialogue” with Russia, “[t]hat is far more mature, has a deeper history to it. There’s less maturity to that in the U.S.-China relationship” (Brunnstrom et al.). These xenophobic divisions in terms of communication, whether in terms of nuclear illiteracy or a lack of mature dialogue, ring a bit oddly in terms of nuclear “stability,” particularly in the context of the Chinese government’s 1964 declaration of an “unconditional no-first use policy” (Pan) and the U.S. strategy of calculated ambiguity through which the U.S. “has pledged to refrain from using nuclear weapons against most non-nuclear weapon states, but has neither ruled out their first use in all cases nor specified the circumstances under which it would use them” (Woolf). Spreading fears of a nuclear threat posed by China through xenophobic divisions, if unabated, has the potential to further escalate the already rising occurrences of violence against Chinese and Asian Americans (“Hate Crime 2020”) and to generate public pressure for a preemptive nuclear strike against China. To counter this rise of xenophobic rhetoric, Smith proposes a shift toward economic arguments which have the potential to, to borrow Burke’s language, if not “avoid the holocaust” at least forestall it through nuclear policymakers “getting sufficiently in one another’s road, so that there’s not enough ‘symmetrical perfection’ among the contestants to set up the ‘right’ alignment and touch it off” (Language as Symbolic Action 20).

Smith’s economic argument is simple: Money spent on nuclear weapons is money that can’t be spent on something else. Smith identifies this as the common ground that unites all nuclear policymakers: “[P]eople don’t want to spend more money than we have to” (Armed Services Committee). And while he makes it clear that the proposed nuclear rearmament is a result of bipartisan consensus, he sees promise in assuaging fears of an expensive nuclear arms race (spurred by xenophobic divisions) by making “the case that we can meet our needs in nuclear weapons in an affordable way that frees up more money for other things” (ibid). The Nobel Prize winning organization, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), takes up this line of argument in a 2021 report: “During the worst pandemic in a century, nine countries chose to increase their spending on nuclear weapons by about $1,400,000,000. During a year when health care workers got applause instead of raises. A year in which it was essential to have minimum wage workers risk their lives to keep economies afloat, but not essential to pay them a living wage” (International Campaign). And while ICAN and other nuclear disarmament groups and activists have taken this a step further, driving attention to the cycle of money and influence between nuclear policy think tanks, lobbyists, weapons manufacturers, and nuclear policymakers (International Campaign; Winograd and Benjamin; Hartung), these arguments are not likely to persuade nuclear policymakers to support nuclear disarmament as Smith makes clear: “Obviously, if there was no such thing as nuclear weapons, that would be great, they’d be gone from the world, and we wouldn’t have to worry about it. But you can’t un-ring the bell” (Armed Services Committee). It is because of the pervasiveness of the principle of use as the terminological foundation for the essence of nuclear policymaking in the past, present, and future that nuclear policymakers can casually dismiss arguments for nuclear disarmament in these terms.

The principle of use provides terms for the current xenophobic-economic dialectic in the public-facing arguments on the proposed nuclear weapons rearmament (“modernization”). Arguments drawn from these terms can, at best, prevent global nuclear annihilation through “bits of political patchwork here and there, with alliances falling sufficiently on the bias across one another” (Burke, Language as Symbolic Action 20), while potentially making the U.S. nuclear stockpile more affordable to “modernize” and maintain. However, promising arguments for nuclear disarmament are currently emerging through terms drawn from the principle of existence. Rather than the detonation of the first nuclear weapons in war, either during the Trinity Test or the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these arguments take the development of nuclear weapons as the origin narrative of nuclear policy and thereby situate these weapons’ existence as its essence. In turn, like the arguments in the contemporary xenophobic-economic dialectic, the success of arguments from the principle of existence is contingent on temporizing this essence through persuasive characterizations of present (and future) conditions, for which nuclear disarmament activists are turning to the environment.

Nuclear Accidents and “Nuclear Frontline Communities”: Temporizing Arguments for Nuclear Disarmament

Nuclear disarmament activists are temporizing their arguments in terms of the principle of use through attention to the unpredictability of climate change in the 21st C and to the communities most impacted by nuclear weapons development. While discussions of the connections between nuclear weapons and climate change have a long history (Batten; Lewis; U.S. Arms Control), popularized through phrases like “nuclear winter” (Turco et al.), these are predominately focused on the climate impact of the use of nuclear weapons in war and/or the increasing likelihood of nuclear war as a result of climate change (Korda; Sanders-Zakre; Liska et al.). By contrast, nuclear disarmament arguments in terms of the principle of existence destabilize the notion that the only threats posed by these weapons is their use in war and are the focus of this section. I argue that by highlighting the increasing unpredictability of climate change, activists may gain traction with arguments on the increasing likelihood of devastating nuclear accidents. Further, by situating the origin of nuclear policy in weapons development, activists can centralize impacted communities in the debate; however, borrowing terms from the principle of use may hamper these efforts. Through these approaches, nuclear disarmament activists can temporize the essence of nuclear policy in terms of the existence of nuclear weapons while leveraging the salience of NIM(Global)BY, which invites more public participation than arguments derived from the principle of use and multiplies the possibilities for ending narratives for nuclear policy.

The potential for unpredictable environmental events resulting in nuclear accidents can be traced to an origin narrative prior to any nuclear detonation. “The prediction was that there’d be 60-mile visibility and a certain wind pattern,” explains Manhattan Project physicist I. I. Rabi, describing the lead-up to the Trinity Test: “Well, at midnight, it was raining cats and dogs, and lightning and thunder, really scared about [sic] this object there in the tower might be set off accidentally” (Else). And while the instability of the atomic bomb at the Trinity Test site is an exceptional case and nuclear facilities have been designed to protect the weapons, raw materials, and waste from weather events, “[a]ll of these [nuclear] structures were built on the presumption of a stable planet” (Hill qtd. in D’Agostino). Susan D’Agostino, editor at the Bulletin, highlights the contemporary climate instability with the example of the rapid succession of “once-in-2,000-year” floods, occurring in 2010 and 2017, that “inundated a plutonium storage area at the Pantex Plant” in Amarillo, TX, “where US nuclear weapons are assembled and taken apart.” If the floods “corrode” the plutonium canisters, this could result in a nuclear accident. This parallels an argument made in a 2016 report by the World Future Council (WFC): “[E]xtreme weather events, environmental degradation and major seismic events can directly impact the safety and security of nuclear installations” (“Examining the Interplay”). Whether categorically for or against nuclear disarmament, this line of argument operates from the principle of existence and is temporized to account for current conditions. In Burkeian terms, temporizing arguments enables activists to “recruit on a day-to-day basis allies who would be against him if he upheld his position in the absolute . . . by translating his categorical beliefs into the terms of ever-changing conditions” (A Grammar of Motives 440). The “ever-changing conditions” presented by climate change provide fertile ground for nuclear disarmament activists to temporize their arguments and recruit functional allies by shifting focus from the dangers of using nuclear weapons in war to the dangers that their existence present in the current context of radical climate change. And while climate change is becoming difficult to contest in the wake increasingly devastating weather events, another environmental argument for nuclear disarmament is emerging that does not depend on categorical support for climate change-based arguments.

Arguments from the principle of existence through attention to the environmental impacts of nuclear weapons on predominately BIPOC communities invites shifting perspectives on the origin narrative and essence of nuclear policy. Discussing the “myth of the Trinity Test” as the nascent event of nuclear policy, Considine argues that “[t]his focus leads to a reduction of the multiple meanings of nuclear programmes into the fetishized outcome of the weapon and the test” (16), and that, by contrast, “[t]his history could be told as beginning in multiple places and times: in the story of the colonization of the (now) Democratic Republic of the Congo, where uranium for the first bombs would be mined by forced workers for example, or in the displacement of Pueblo Indians from the land of Los Alamos” (ibid). Matt Korda, research associate for the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, echoes this line of argument in explicitly environmental terms: “[E]ven during peacetime, decades of uranium mining, nuclear testing, and nuclear waste dumping have contaminated some of our planet’s ecosystems beyond repair, displacing entire communities—often communities of color—in the process.” Rooting the origin and essence of nuclear policymaking in the development and existence of nuclear weapons centralizes impacted communities in the debate and provides an avenue for ally recruitment through successful temporizing. However, borrowing terms from the principle of use for these specific arguments may be counterproductive.

Many contemporary arguments on the environmental and resulting health impacts of nuclear weapons development terminologically straddle the two generating principles discussed in this essay while explicitly demonstrating attempts to shift toward the principle of existence. Communities impacted by nuclear weapons development, including raw material and waste storage, transportation, etc., are referred to by many activist organizations as “nuclear frontline communities” (Wolfe; “Support Justice”; Adams; Montgomery; “RTT”; “Nuclear Voices”). The political action and community outreach organization, Nuclear Voices, defines nuclear frontline communities as, “[t]hose who are most directly impacted and harmed by nuclear weapons, especially through weapons production, testing, and waste clean-up/storage. They generally have faced, and often continue to face, the highest levels of exposure to radiation and other toxins, and will suffer disproportionate health, environmental, and cultural harms” (“Nuclear Voices”). A potential issue with the use of the term “frontline” is its adherence to the terms of the principle of use.

While these arguments clearly derive their terms from the principle of existence, maintaining militaristic terms generated from the principle of use risks rendering the impacted and predominately BIPOC communities as necessary sacrifices for national security. Yasmeen Silva, activist with the grassroots organization Beyond the Bomb, temporizes this line of argument in the context of the proposed “modernization,” explaining that the nuclear waste that will be produced will likely be stored in BIPOC communities that are already facing the devastating impacts of previous nuclear development projects. Silva refers to these communities as both “nuclear frontline” and “impacted” (CODEPINK). While the term “frontline” is evocative, it offers a convenient terminological bridge to terms generated from the principle of use and may hinder efforts to shift the essence and origin and ending narratives of nuclear policy toward the more expansive terms offered by the principle of existence. The term “impacted,” by contrast, presents less of a risk of rhetorically drafting members of these communities to the cause of nuclear deterrence and, in turn, provides a stronger foundation for public participation and NIM(Global)BY arguments in the nuclear weapons debate.

Environmental arguments from the principle of existence, in terms accidents caused by the unpredictability of climate change and the devastating environmental and health consequences of nuclear weapons development, have the potential to radically impact nuclear policy debates and public opinion on the proposed nuclear “modernization” project. From the flooding of the Pantex site to the escalating wildfires in the Western US, which have spread radioactive materials from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (Kaltofen et al.) and the Los Alamos National Laboratory (D’Agostino; Wyland), it is clear that the current climate is inhospitable to the existence of nuclear weapons. Further, the impacts of nuclear weapons development at its various stages (Janavayev et al.; Kyne and Bolin; Maurer and Hogue; Peyton) highlight the immediate threat posed by projects like the proposed “modernization” that are required to maintain their existence. As William D. Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy, puts it: “[Nuclear weapons are] killing people without even being used” (CODEPINK). Further, when these two arguments are taken together, they have the potential to impact public opinion by leveraging the salience of NIMBY.

Climate caused nuclear accidents expand the perimeters of impacted communities. For example, radioactive particles have been detected in California wines following the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident (Pravikoff and Hubert), and the increasing severity and consistency of major climate events increases the likelihood of major nuclear accidents impacting larger populations. Highlighting the unpredictability of these events and the consequences that impacted communities already face has the potential to drive public pressure through the salience of NIM(Global)BY and thereby provide nuclear disarmament activists with a point of entry into the proposed (and bureaucratized) “modernization” debate.

However, while the terms generated from the principle of use are derivatives of the principle of existence, borrowing use-based terms for arguments that seek to broaden perspectives on the dangers of nuclear weapons risk subsumption. Thus, careful attention must be paid to essentializing claims in the nuclear weapons debate, and these implicit or explicit claims offer cues for rhetoricians to theorize the generating principles in their process of becoming accepted as universally valid.


If the principle of use is accepted as a universally valid principle in the debate on nuclear weapons in 2021, the proposed nuclear weapons “modernization” project and continued U.S. rejection of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) are likely inevitable. However, if arguments from the principle of existence can gain traction in debates on nuclear rearmament and the TPNW, there is potential for a future without nuclear weapons. While the principle of use is currently being temporized through a xenophobic-economic dialectic, establishing a threat to deter while attempting to lower the price tag and defer an expensive (and unpopular) nuclear arms race, contemporary environmental arguments from the principle of existence center the previously unfathomable risked of nuclear accidents posed by climate change and the deadly consequences of nuclear development in predominately BIPOC communities. Shifting away from ending narratives in terms of the principle of use, or global nuclear annihilation, requires expanding the available terms through which members of the public and nuclear policymakers imagine and talk about the threat of nuclear weapons. As Brummett argues, “what people are motivated to do with nuclear weapons is directly related to what they say about them, and that is the perfect entrée for the communication scholar to serve as social critic. For people may be taught to speak differently” (93). The principle of existence offers an example of a generating principle that facilitates this broadening of terms and perspectives.

A role that rhetoric scholars can play in this debate, as participants in civic life, is working to theorize the generating principles from which the terms of nuclear arguments are derived. This essay has focused on two potential cues for tracking these principles from their terms: Rhetorical exploitations of essence and temporality. Tracking implicit and explicit claims of essence through observing patterns in contemporary arguments can reveal how these essential claims are temporized to characterize the past, present, and future of nuclear policy simultaneously, and thereby provide insights into the generating principles. By engaging at the level of generating principles, it becomes easier to unpack the implicit assumptions in specific arguments, to test the validity of these assumptions, and to shift the terms in the debate on nuclear weapons to account for the variety of conflicting perspectives.

What follows is an audio/visual experiment that accounts for terms generated by both the principle of use and the principle of existence while highlighting the very real horrors that have been experienced and that lie ahead if the ending of nuclear policy is narrated exclusively in terms of the principle of use. This experiment is motivated by Brummett’s call for balancing nuclear vocabularies as an act of “professional responsibility to use knowledge in public service” (93) and by Burke’s meditation on the capacity for human mistakes, through the “creativity of our [technological] contrivances,” to end life on this planet: “As regards at least the obligations of rhetorical creativity, it is not enough that comments on a deplorable situation be relevant. Troubles need but go on being what they are; yet talk about them must continually be born anew, lest the sheer mention of the problem but reinforce our boredom with its persistence” (On Human Nature: A Gathering While Everything Flows, 1967–1984 42).

Description: An audio/visual experiment that blends documentary footage from The Day After Trinity with a comfortable, underlying rhythm and discordant sounds and voices to enmesh the audience in terms generated by both the principle of use and the principle of existence. Visuals juxtapose bureaucratic images of nuclear weapons against the consequences of their use to highlight the very real horrors that have already been experienced and that lie ahead if the ending of nuclear policy is narrated exclusively in terms of the principle of use.

Credits/Permission: The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and The Atomic Bomb. DVD, Pyramid Films, 1981.  Permission for use granted by Jon Else (director).

Special Thanks: I owe a debt of gratitude to Jon Else for his permission to use these audio/visual clips for this project, sincerely, thank you.  Additionally, a very special thank you to Shauna Chung for graciously composing the violin track and lending her voice to the cacophony.  To the rest of the cacophony choir (Diane Quaglia-Beltran, Eric Hamilton, Jack [Syrup-in-a-Can] Griggs, Amanda Musick, Brooke Day, Jack Hunter, Lana Woodruff, Deb Geller, Bob Hunter, and Matthew Downing), thank you for responding to my odd request and making this project possible.

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Kenneth Burke’s Late Theory of History: The Personalistic and Instrumentalist Principles

Michael Feehan

In his last published article, “In Haste,” Kenneth Burke outlined a new theory of history, a dialectical approach based on the two principles he had developed in the “Afterwords” to the third editions of Permanence and Change [PC] and Attitudes Toward History [ATH]: the personalistic principle and the instrumentalist principle. These two new principles were developed through the four loci of motives that Burke had created in the two “Afterwords” and which he sloganized as “Bodies That Learn Language.” The two principles differ from other similar principles dealing with intersecting developments between persons and technologies in that Burke’s principles arise through his theory of symbolic action, depending on his unique distinction between (non-symbolic)motion and (symbolic)action. Burke’s two principles are assisted by three laws: the law of accountancy, the law of the acceleration of history, and Burke’s specialized law of unintended by-products, a two-phase law, one personal, one instrumental.

“In Haste” describes the source and design of the two principles and provides a series of examples for the operational program for the new theory of history, a theory Burke, sloganized as “The Two Roads to Rome,” announcing his admitted bias toward Western civilization. “I am asking them all [co-hagglers] to be asking themselves and one another just what does it all mean to be the kind of animal whose Western culture became polarized about the shifting relationship between the two roads to and from Rome, the Empire and the Holy See (ideally differentiated in these pages as instrumental power and personal vision, but confused like all else in this actually imperfect world of possibly accurate verbal distinctions)” (“In Haste,” 369).

Burke’s theory of history developed through the writing of three essays: an “Afterword” for the third edition of his book, Permanence and Change (PC), an “Afterword” for the third edition of his book, Attitudes Toward History (ATH), and a follow-up essay, “In Haste.” The two “Afterwords” provided Burke with the opportunity to look back from the perspective of the 1980s toward his work of the 1930s, a retrospective that produced an overview through which Burke arrived at the personalistic and the instrumentalist principles and which lead to Burke’s asking about Permanence and Change and Attitudes Toward History, “But what of HISTORY?” (ATH, 416).

Burke acknowledged that he had not looked carefully at the question of history until he wrote the “Introduction” to the second edition of ATH in 1953, nearly twenty years after he had originally written the book. This odd oversight arose from Burke’s 1930s focus on the concepts that make possible the study of history rather than on historical change in itself. The titular terms for PC, “permanence” and “change,” name the essential, nonchanging dialectical pair for the study of history; the key concept developed in PC, “Orientation,” concerns the ways in which people are situated with respect to their surroundings, again — a nonchanging concept. In ATH, Burke’s emphasis is on “attitudes,” the cultural equipment, the habitual patterns of conduct, that cultures infuse into their citizens — a nonchanging concept. He argues for a continuum of attitudes, from acceptance to rejection, through infinite maybes, a continuum that itself exists outside history. Although ATH recites an outline of Western history as a five-act play, it is difficult to take that recitation with much seriousness. Moreover, the outline does not provide us with a definition of history or a method for analyzing historical change.

In the 1953 “Introduction” to the second edition of ATH, Burke defined history as “life in political situations” (ATH, n.p.). He revised this definition in the 1984 “Afterword” to ATH as “life in socio-political situations” (416). Burke’s new approach arose directly from the revised orientation of the dramatistic brand of logology that Burke outlined under the slogan “Bodies That Learn Language.” That slogan opened a discussion of issues that look, at first glance, to be merely restatements of concepts Burke had proposed throughout his writing career, but which actually provides a way of viewing significant changes in Burke’s thinking between the 1930s and the 1980s. The new dispensation presents four loci of motives, four factors of equal power in impelling human conduct: “First, there is the locus of motives associated with our nature as physiological organisms. Second, there is the realm of motives peculiar to symbolism in its own right. Third, there are ‘magical’ or ‘mythic’ aspects of language, owing to the fact that it has to be learned in a period of infancy . . . A fourth locus of motives is implicit in the formula, since language stimulates the kind of attention and communication that makes possible the gradual accumulation and distribution of instrumental devices” (PC 295–96). Body, symbol, and the intersections of body and symbol had been the staples of the action-motion distinction. Now, Burke’s decades-long concerns about Ecology are promoted to the rank of fourth impelling force in human conduct. In this new formulation we have three revisions that signal significant shifts in emphasis” (1) We are organisms, rather than “animals”; (2) Learning a first language involves us all in “magical” and “mythic” thinking; (3) Counter-Nature has become part of us, as much constitutional of persons as body, symbol, and the socio-political realm linking the two. Referring to us as organisms highlights our lives in the environment, linking the fragility of climate with the inherent fragility of our selves. Focusing on symbols as coming to us before we have the ability the distinguish “real” from “fictional” attunes us to the traces of so-called “primitive” mentalities in our supposedly “civilized” ways of thinking. Placing Counter-Nature as a fourth motive of humans raises Ecology to the rank of direct contributor to human nature, equal in status, and therefore equal in power, with body, symbol, and bodies-suffused-with symbols.

This revised definition focuses studies of historical change not merely on struggles for power, but on the full range of changing values and social interactions in a given community. Burke’s vision of the power and importance of the theory of history, his new approach to the motive power of Counter-Nature in human nature, takes on a new urgency in the closing passage of the “Afterword” to PC:

The two principles operationalize two eschatologies, one arising from each principle, the personalistic driving from myth to the supernatural, the instrumentalist driving from technological innovation to technological domination, what Burke calls “Counter-Nature.”

The Story that now takes shape more and more urgently among us involves the gargoyles, the grotesquenesses, of the perspectives forced upon us by the incongruities of the relationships between the two “eschatologies” (supernatural and counter-natural) that arise from the juxtaposition of the personalistic and instrumentalist “fulfillments” resulting from humankind’s peculiar prowess with the resources of “symbolicity” (PC, 332).

Burke sees the essential project arising from the two principles as a continuous analysis of the dialectical interactions between the principles.

The unending assignment will be to consider in detail the range of transformations (with corresponding transvaluations) involved in the turn from an “early” mythic orientation (that personifies the future envisioned supernaturally) to our “perfect” secular fulfillment in the empirical realm of symbol-guided Technology’s Counter-Nature, as the human race “progressively” (impulsively and/or compulsively) strives toward imposing its self- portraiture (with corresponding vexations) upon the realm of non-human Nature. (PC, 336).

The “Afterwords” to PC and ATH generate a new perspective on history and a new challenge for further study.

In the follow-up article, “In Haste,” Burke takes this challenge beyond the retrospective reassessments of the “Afterwords” to outline the historical developments generated by the interactions between the personalistic and instrumentalist principles, though Burke’s writing in haste precluded a formalization of the new program. In working through those interactions, Burke adds three “laws” to the program of analysis: the law of accountancy, Henry Adams’ law of the acceleration of history, and Burke’s unique version of the law of unintended consequences.

Burke’s personalistic principle develops as the combining of body and symbol into selfhood and society, linking three of the four loci of motives that Burke established in his “Bodies That Learn Language” program: the human body in itself, language in itself, and the (generative and vexed) intertwinings of body and language. Burke’s instrumentalist principle develops through the fourth of his loci: technology.

One [the personalistic principle] encompasses the vast complex of social relationships, properties, authorities that centers in the principle of personality. The other [the instrumentalist principle] starts from the kinds of transformations in conditions of living (  from a primitive state of nature) due to the technological development of   instruments” (“In Haste,” 378).

Persons and technologies form the two poles from which change begins, and toward which change is driven.

On one side there could be the elaboration of personal, social relationships (as in kinship systems, for instance) that rounded out forms of governance by priestly extensions of Nature into a mythic realm of the Supernatural. And on the other side there could be the possibility of technical unfoldings, that, by accumulating innovations atop innovations, constituted a sufficient departure from the conditions of Nature as experienced by the bodies of our prehistoric ancestors to so modify the conditions of livelihood as to confront their descendants’ bodies, by comparison, with a state of Counter-Nature (PC, 309).

History “rounds out,” “unfolds,” and “accumulates innovations atop innovations.” Persons have imposed their instruments on the nonverbal world until we persons now live in a world of instruments that threaten to eliminate persons.

Burke’s theory of Counter-Nature includes a distinctive admonition: Technology cannot be wished away. “Technology can be neither criticized nor controlled nor corrected without recourse to still more Technology” (ATH, 396). Love technology, hate it, or both, a dream of technology evaporating through the ignoring of technology will do us no good. To begin the urgent project of protecting the planet from instruments and their makers, we makers of instruments must examine the ways in which technology transforms human nature as it transforms the world.

Burke speaks of “personalizing,” a process through which the boundaries between agent and agency become blurred and realigned. “I beg, at least, that you take to heart my doctrinal lines anent the thesis that our technological (instrumental) innovations become personalized — for I need that notion urgently” (“In Haste,” 358). A new ideology or technology can become an integral part of the people who use it, a process Burke believes to be familiar to everyone: “[W]e can readily recall, for instance, how the pianist, or the man with the horn make their instruments part of them” (341). Musicians, golfers, writers can feel torn apart when their preferred instrument disappears. Ideologies and technologies reach into selfhood. We become different people to the extent that a new idea or tool changes the way we engage with the world.

The view of history that emerges through Burke’s theory presents a punctuated and unpredictable process of change. We cannot know when a technological innovation will pose a challenge to the existing, dominant technology, when automobiles might replace horses, airplanes replace trains. We cannot predict when a technological innovation will have such power that it will take hold on persons, social relations, economic interactions with such force that a community’s way of life will become substantively altered. The introduction of a new ideology or technology may lead to a revolution in values. The scope of the value change will depend on the scope and depth of the values inherent in the processes necessary for the incorporation of the new technology into the received culture. We cannot know when a new ideology or technology will emerge or when or under what circumstances an innovation will survive and grow. Either the new technology will have its day then disappear or the innovation will take dominion, providing an important service and replacing the established order. Perhaps, some rhetor may devise arguments that successfully meld the innovation into the beliefs and habits of the people, creating an image of a better life through newer machines.

Burke supplements his two dialectical principles with three laws: accountancy, acceleration, and unintended by-products.


New technologies require funding, a process that involves both changing the beliefs of persons and redirecting money and credit. In outlining the personalistic and instrumentalist principles, Burke adds: “Included also is the principle of accountancy, money, which directly involves both [principles] (the one by profits and taxation, the other by its role in technology). And its great intermediary role makes it readily liable to enhancement as an end” (“In Haste,” 339). Money oscillates “midway” between the instrumentalist and personalistic principles with a tendency to become “too big to fail.”

A program of technological change must work on trust: I build a new machine, search for investors to market the thing. Before you will invest in my new machine, you must trust that my machine will not only work but will take a continuing place in society. Before potential workers will move from one employer to another, they must trust that their lives will improve if they move or that their old jobs will disappear under the weight of the new machine. Money is just that remarkable tool which — though nothing in itself — signals to all of us that some equivalency of value exists between the items being exchanged in any given transaction. We must all believe in the capabilities of the new technology, in the willingness of people to personalize the new technology, and in the infinite exchangeability of money. Money circulates through persons and instruments as the universal symbol of the creed that links us.

From the perspective of technology, money appears as “funding.” Burke says, “The incredibly vast sums paid by taxation and mounting debt to the ‘military industrial complex’ could be called a kind of ‘funding,’ which the economy under technology allocates in one way or another to many sections of itself. "(‘Much Television is in effect “funded” by the advertisers who buy time for their ‘commercials’)” (“In Haste,” 342). Money allows us to construct a new technology, to set that new technology in place, to market the new technology.

At the boundary between instrument and person, money appears as wages, profits, taxes. “These purely instrumental functions tie in with the personal not only as regards wages, ‘honorariuma,’ awards, dividends, royalties, interest on bank deposits, profits on investments, etc., but also as regards costs, taxes, fines, penalties, etc. Even the Church, which rationalizes human conduct on the basis of Supernatural authority, must as a worldly institution get involved in financial matters” (“In Haste,” 342). (The Church links sin and tithe.) Money moves between technologies and persons, connecting them, driving them. Money is useful to history precisely because money is not representative of human motives, the purest cypher. The dollar bill in your pocket might have been previously used to help fund the construction of some new technology, perhaps a new technology you abhor, or that same bill might have been used to pay someone to work with the older technology, or both. Money tells us nothing about its previous uses, carries no identifications. Money signals value in and of itself, without reference to interests, pieties or tribal associations.

Accountancy will change its focus across the lifetime of a given technological ascendency: First, arguing for the shifting of funds from the obsolete regime toward the new, then, arguing for continued funding to expand, support, and sustain the newly established regime, then arguing that funding should not be shifted to an even newer, untried, dangerous, revolutionary technology.


Burke heartily adopts Henry Adams’ “law of the acceleration of history.” Not only does Burke reiterate his long-standing agreement with Adams’ idea that the rate of change itself has continuously increased in Western culture since the Renaissance (“In Haste,” 345), he argues that the rate of change has increased even faster over the decades since the early years of the Twentieth century. Referring to his own early story, “The White Oxen” Burke says : “But the realm of innovations and corresponding discriminations that we call technology has expanded so greatly since the night sky of Millvale and Etna that Matthew saw, surely even Henry Adams with his ‘law of the acceleration of history’ (and he died about the same year as when Matthew had his ‘vision’) would be astounded to see the increasing rate of acceleration that the ‘instrumentalist’ principle has evinced since then” (“In Haste,” 355). Burke grew up in a world full of the smells and noise and muscularity of horses, a world newly invaded by automobiles, with electricity just beginning to blot out the night sky, with airplanes no more than glorified kites, with rocket ships and moon walks the silly dreams of children, a world without refrigerators. (Burke produced “In Haste” on a machine called a “typewriter” — dominant in commerce and government for a hundred years, gone in twenty.)

Unintended By-Products

Once an innovation has been adequately funded, its value credited and general operations commenced, unintended by-products emerge. For Burke, two particular sorts of unintended by-products are inherent functions of historical change: (1) Under the personalistic principle, Burke sees “priesthoods,” people devoted to propagating the new technology; (2) Under the instrumentalist principle, Burke sees the intrinsic nature of the innovation making specific demands for maintaining and sustaining itself, including the creation of unexpected ancillary technologies. Priesthoods will change focus over time: emerging as prophetic jeremiad, decrying present decay and declaring the wonders of a new dispensation, later celebrating the success of the true calling, continuously re-calling the propriety of this ascendency; finally, outraged at the apostacy of so many of the faithful in the face of heresy caused by a new, untried, unpatriotic technology.

(1) Burke argues that each technological innovation gives rise to a bureaucracy that exists only so long as the innovation survives, a relation Burke calls “the bureaucratization of the imaginative.” “The term is applied to many kinds of confused developments, some quite locally personal in the range of their attitudinizing. But constantly recurring are the Stories whereby the instrumentalist genius of Technology (interwoven with capitalist aspects of the case) is equated with the kind of unfolding and corresponding human relationships that I subsumed in the attitudinal perspective of my wanly comic term ‘bureaucratization’” (ATH, 381). When an innovation carves out a place for its functionings and begins to make its demands for sustenance and maintenance (with an implicit dream of hegemony), people begin working to ensure the survival of the innovation. The people are urged to recognize that their new jobs have arisen through and exist only because of the innovation. People begin to believe that continuing employment depends largely or even wholly upon sustaining and maintaining the technology that now employs them. Yet, however radical the innovation may originally have been, the people employed through that innovation will inevitably become counterrevolutionaries if they come to believe that they will prosper under the next innovation.

(2) Innovation implies environmental alteration. “‘Unintended By-Products’ arise owing to the fact that every machine or method has a nature of its own, not just the nature that it has as an instrument for the performing of any particular person’s purpose” (“In Haste,” 341). This necessary instrumentalist factor in all innovations does not depend upon any particular environmental or cultural situation. Technologies need locations, supplies (raw materials and materials already machined by allied technologies, old and new), caretakers, distributors, sales personnel (rhetors) and governmental protection. Burke wants us to recognize that the drive for technological self-protection inevitably arises with every innovation, that sustaining and maintaining the innovation plays a necessary role in history, sending shock waves through the existing environment and culture. (In the USA, you can’t implant a new technological system without plenty of parking spaces.)

Two Principles

The Personalistic Principle “encompasses the vast complex of social relationships, properties, authorities that centers in the principle of personality.”

“The elaboration of personal, social relationships (as in kinship systems, for instance) that rounded out forms of governance by priestly extensions of Nature into a mythic realm of the Supernatural.”

The Instrumentalist Principle “starts from the kinds of transformations in conditions of living (from a primitive state of nature) due to the technological development of "instruments.” ("In Haste," 378).

“The possibility of technical unfoldings, that, by accumulating innovations atop innovations, constituted a sufficient departure from the conditions of Nature as experienced by the bodies of  our prehistoric ancestors to so modify the conditions of livelihood as to confront their descendants’ bodies, by comparison, with a state of Counter-Nature.”

Three Laws

ACCOUNTANCY “The law of accountancy, money, which directly involves both [principles] (the one by profits and taxation, the other by its role in technology). And its great intermediary role makes it readily liable to enhancement as an end.”

ACCELERATION Henry Adams’ “law of the acceleration of history”: the rate of change itself has continuously increased in Western culture since the Renaissance and the rate of change has increased even faster over the decades since the early years of the Twentieth century.


(1) Under the personalistic principle, “priesthoods,” people devoted to propagating the new technology.

 (2) Under the instrumentalist principle, the intrinsic nature of an innovation making specific demands for maintaining and sustaining itself, including the creation of unexpected ancillary technologies.

The Two Roads to Rome

Burke illustrates his theory of history with a summary review of Western culture from the fall of Carthage to the Middle Ages, his two roads to Rome, the sacred/personalistic paired with the secular/ instrumental (with Burke drawing from his beloved and notorious Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica).

On the personalistic side, the side of ideology, the people of Rome had to be convinced of the value of a republican government, and, at a later time, of the value of replacing a republic with a monarchy. The people had to be convinced to pay for and to join in wars for the glory of the republic and then to change allegiance to pay for and join in wars for the glory of the Empire. Then, Constantine threw the ideology of monotheism into the mix: The people had to believe that the gods who had guided the ascent of Rome were fantasies, that the one God of the Christians should replace, displace and ultimately destroy all the previously existing gods.

On the instrumental side, Rome struggled with Carthage to control commerce. “The instrumentalist fact is that Rome and Carthage, as rivals in the technology of trade, encountered each other in the technology of war until Rome destroyed Carthage totally — AFTER WHICH CAME THE PAX ROMANA” (“In Haste,” 343). Rome rose from village to Empire through the technologies of commerce and war. Throughout that process, the reigning institutions drove social systems to contest against Carthage to gain market-share for the expansion of society, contests perfected in the destruction of Carthage, transforming market-share into monopolistic hegemony.

Then, the gatherings of Christians became “The Church” and the Church grew powerful and propertied. Once the Church had succeeded in convincing the great mass of the people to become Christians — just as the Empire was dying — the Church discovered the necessity to convince the great mass of the people that the Church had the same need for wealth, property and taxes as did the secular government.

During all this period the Christian church had been going through developments with relation to the personalistic principle, the instrumental principle, and matters of funding. The issue is complicated by the fact that a Ruler is so readily identified with his State that the results due to the activities of the personnel operating the State’s instrumentalities, including its profits, can be ascribed to the Ruler. And in the case of the funding that the Church received, it involved financial transactions that conflicted with Canon Law (“In “Haste,” 344).

The Church grew in wealth and power just as the Empire began to atrophy. The Church became inextricably caught up in the fate of the secular world. Instrument, person and funding interacted to set the Church in secular ascendancy even over the Emperor. Burke goes on to point out one of the epochal unintended by-products of this interaction among person, instrument and money, with money as the driving force for ideological revolution: Martin Luther’s eruptions over the selling of indulgences — the pricing, and discount pricing, of salvation – initiating a hundred years of war and the creation of hundreds of new (renewed) versions of THE CHURCH (see “In Haste,” 345).

Burke discusses the merger of instrument and person in the rise of the guilds as another arena of interaction of persons, tools and money, the guilds forming to protect the members’ incomes and developing into quasi-religious programs for identifying friends and guarding against enemies. As he typed in-haste, Burke noticed on TV the ironic funding campaigns for renovating the Statute of Liberty, “both its repair and her emblematic character as she towered there when the job was finished” (“In Haste,” 358).

Burke’s most extensive discussion of personalizing appears in his survey of the development of vassalage during the Middle Ages. In vassalage, the categories of person and instrument merge and diverge across several hundred years of imperial and national rises and falls. The contraction of the Roman Empire led to ever increasing rates of taxation for the lands still controlled by the peers of the Empire. As the tenants increasingly fell short on tax payments, they began to sell their services to the landlords, a process which eventually evolved into vassalage. “The principle of instrumentation was implicit in the institution of vassalage since even many of the services that the tenant performed for the landowner (such as corvee, work on the upkeep of roads) amounted to profits for the economy as a whole though no money was involved. Thus to a large extent, the ways of instrumentation are to be located in terms of the personal suzerain-vassal relationship” (“In Haste,” 346). With vassalage, persons became instruments through a subtler rhetoric than that needed for creating slavery.

With vassalage, the people choose to become instruments of the landlord. With slavery, the victims become instruments by force. With vassalage, the people agree to become vassals when they come to believe that some good will arise from the process: I may give up some of my free time to work on the landlord’s roads and buildings, but I will keep my own land and my home, and my family will remain intact. With slavery, the slave has no choice, becomes utterly instrumental, retains no more than nominal personhood.

With vassalage, a rhetoric must be devised to convince the people that the goods arising from vassalage outweigh the narrowing of citizenship, the limitations on civil rights (money trumps decency). A comparable rhetoric must convince the landlords that vassalage promises better profits at lower costs than would arise through the outright seizure of delinquent properties. When slavery first enters a culture, a rhetoric must be designed to convince the “citizens,” that slavery will not injure the existing economy, will not reduce the availability of jobs, will not depress wages, will not make the slave-owners vicious.

Burke provides an autobiographical example of personalizing as recorded in his poem “Tossing on Floodtides of Sinkership: A Diaristic Fragment” (Collected Poems 277–93, at 282). Burke recounts driving across the country, from New Jersey to the Pacific and back. He asks, “How walk faster, except by working harder,” and answers with the automobile and its wild disproportion between effort and effect: “Ever so lightly press the pedal down a fraction farther/And your massive technologic demon/spurts forward like a fiend.” A tiny effort of the body causes a massive physical transformation: The force of gravity is increased; my body sinks into the seat and in the same instant, car and body roar to a speed rarely experienced before the Twentieth century — perhaps only by people falling off cliffs or into volcanoes. Then, how easily this experience becomes part of myself. Racers using automobiles say, “I won,” as though the force of the racing had come through the racer’s body, as though the setting of one’s foot on an accelerator exhibited the same heroic qualities we ascribe to a runner who actually puts one foot in front of the other. Burke declaims, “‘Might we not here, my friends, / confront the makings of a madness, / an unacknowledged leap/ from This is mine/ to By God, this is ME! . . . ?’“ (quoted in “In Haste, 356–57).

In effect, Burke has provided us with a checklist for designing a comprehensive analysis of the ways in which persons and technologies interact to alter the nonverbal and verbal worlds. A complete analysis would look at both existing technologies and emergent technologies, examining each through the two key principles and the three associated laws.

Personalizing: Existing Technologies

Looking at the personalistic principle for existing technological regimes, the analyst would look at operators, funders and priests. And, of course, the analyst would look to see whether any of those persons performed more than one of the essential roles. The rhetorical issue would consider both the arguments accepted by and employed by the participants in sustaining and maintaining the existing technology and the arguments rejected by the participants for limiting or replacing the existing technology. The ethical issue would consider the values that the participants espoused before the existing regime took power and any changes in the old values that have arisen through the process of establishing the existing regime. In particular, the analyst would look for the signs or vestments of authority, the patterns of conduct and the associated raiment, adornments, and pennants adopted by the participants.

Personalizing: Emerging Technologies

For emergent technologies, the analyst would look for persons who argue for the imposition of a new regime and for persons who propose to fund the new regime, with an expectation of dual roles. (A priesthood would emerge later if the proposed instruments were to take hold.) The rhetorical issue would concern the importance of supplementing or replacing the existing technology, while the ethical issue would concern the values implicit in the retention and maintenance of the existing technology, its inherent demands for self-defense regardless of its impacts on the people who serve the technology, and the role of the technology with regard to Counter-Nature.


For technological analysis of existing technologies, the analyst would begin by looking at the ecological and commercial impact of those technologies, both positive and negative, with a view toward the ecological need for redesign or replacement. For emerging technologies, the analyst would look to the environment and commercial changes, both positive and negative, that would necessarily accompany the new regime, both as to the new technology’s own impact and the impact of remediating or replacing the existing regime.

The rhetorical issue would concern the potential improvements in relevant environments that the emerging technology could provide through remediation or replacement of the existing regime. The ethical issue would concern changes in the quality of life that could arise through the introduction and promotion of the emerging technology.


Accountancy would look at the kinds of and scale of funding needed for the emerging technology and at the weakening of funding for existing technologies. The rhetorical issue would focus on arguments for shifting of funds from the old to the new, the effect on persons and instruments of instituting new types and lines of funding (both for the technologies themselves and for the persons who would work for and in association with the new instruments). The ethical issue would consider the ways in which funding (money and credit) for the existing technology would change people’s views both with regard to prevailing distributions of money and with regard to the established technology and the systems of money and credit the community had become accustomed to.


The law of the acceleration of history would direct analysts to look first at the ways in which the existing technology and its associated technologies have moved across the community in ways and at speeds that had not been anticipated when the newly prevailing technology had been adopted. Then, the analyst would attempt to extrapolate the likely accelerations that would inevitably accompany adoption of the new technology, with a view to planning for eventual remediation or replacement of what now emerges. Or the analyst might look to see whether ongoing accelerations of change might begin to slow under a new technological regime.

Unintended By-Products

The analyst would look to the inevitable emergence of a priesthood of the new technology and the emergence of unexpected positive and negative impacts of the new technology as it drives toward cultural dominance.

Priesthood. The priesthood would, by definition, work both to denigrate the outgoing technology and to prevent the presently emerging technology from being replaced by a later-developed technology, propounding a rhetoric extolling the values of both the technology itself and the kinds of personal traits made possible by (required for) the technology.

Ancillary instrumentation. The technology would, of necessity, require ancillary technologies to support and protect the technology and those ancillary technologies would necessarily spawn their own ancillary supporters and protectors, both personal and technological.

* * *

Much of what Burke asks us to look for already exists in various texts. For instance, Burke’s concerns for shifts between the personalistic and technological principles have appeared in other places, as in Raymond Williams’ studies of word change, as in Culture and Society, 1780–1950.

Industry, before this period [1780], was a name for a particular human attribute, which could be paraphrased as “skill, assiduity, perseverance, diligence.” This use of industry of course survives. But, in the last decades of the eighteenth century, industry came also to mean something else; it became a collective word for our manufacturing and productive institutions, and for their general activities (xi).

Williams expressly sees a shift in the use of a common, everyday word from a focus on persons to a focus on technologies. The changes in words mirror the change from artisanal excellence to industrial mass production that characterized the Industrial Revolution. The “Men of Industry” such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller did not work with steel or oil, though they were “industrious”; they moved money.

Burke asks us to take this line of thinking farther, to show that the transformation from a post-feudal, rural culture to an industrialized economy involved a new definition of work, lionized as “the division of labor,” that the design created a need for a new conception of self, the invention of single, separate, unitary, permanent self. Where the enemies of the new regime called for the workers of the world to unite, the priests of the new regime called for “the Individual”: You should not identify yourself with your activities; your true nature resides wholly within you and is definable wholly within you; you can be anyone you choose to be (though we will be actively preventing you from becoming anything other than a worker).

Bourgeois naturalism . . . [believed] an individual’s “identity” is something private, peculiar to himself. And when bourgeois psychologists began to discover the falsity of notion, they still believed in it so thoroughly that they considered all collective aspects of identity under the head of pathology and illusion. That is: they discovered accurately enough that identity is not individual, that a man “identifies himself” with all sorts of manifestations beyond himself, and they set about trying to “cure” him of this tendency (ATH 263).

Self transcends family, tribe, community, nation; duty and responsibility are reflexive values, the measures of how well you treat yourself. Now, we deflect interconnections among selves in favor of efficiency and profit. We prevent young people from inappropriate identifications through education into the values of the new regime. [This perspective achieves its apotheosis in Hegel’s The Philosophy of Right. (see Miller 161–169)]. We worry that social media will damage our children’s abilities to use and comprehend extended discourse, is transforming the concept of “privacy.”

As he worked through the implications of his new slogan, “Bodies That Learn Language,” Burke began to see that his promotion of Counter-Nature from a scenic background or frame to an inherent and equal partner [with body, symbol, and society] in human motivation, requires us to re-view history through the lens of the relationships between selfhood and tools. Our instruments and their insignia of rank have always created in each of us the progression of (the unacknowledged leap from) possession to personality, from mine to Me.

Later, in correspondence, Burke outlined the path by which his new theory of history can operate as a new hermeneutics: Burke argued that we should look back through the examination of the U.S. Constitution that he had presented nearly a half century earlier in A Grammar of Motives. We should look to see how the personalistic and instrumentalist principles acting together create a method for seeing the Constitution as two Constitutions. “I take it that the twists of identification there [ “In Haste,” p.359] were quite close to my realizing that our one document sets up the conditions for 2 Constitutions, the political and the technological. /Try tentatively seeing how things work out if you look for a ‘dualistic theory of our Constitution’s language’” (Letter). In establishing a new nation, we not only created the conditions for recognizing persons as “We, the people,” but also the conditions for devising the institutions necessary for sustaining those new kinds of persons (see Wess, 251–253). Burke wants us to see that Counter-Nature has always been part of being human and of interacting with and as humans. Now that Counter-Nature threatens global self-destruction, we must look back through all our stories about human “progress” to see the waves of historical mythologies that facilitated millennia of species-wide self-deceptions about the power of Counter-Nature to constrain and control our assaults on the world beyond symbols.

Works Cited

Kenneth Burke. Permanence and Change, 3rd ed. U California P, 1984.

—. Attitudes Toward History, 3rd ed. U California P, 1984.

—. Collected Poems, 1915–1967. U California P, 1968.

—. “In Haste.” Pre/Text: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory, vol. 6, no. 3–4, 1985, pp. 329–77.

—. Letter. April 13, 1989.

Miller, Steven B. Modernity and Its Discontents: Making and Unmaking the Bourgeois from Machiavelli to Bellow. Yale UP, 2016.

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

Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society, 1780–1950. Harper and Row, 1958.

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Kenneth Burke and the Gargoyles of Language: Perspective by Incongruity and the Transvaluation of Values in Counter-Statement and Permanence and Change

Jeremy Cox
The University of Texas Permian Basin


Ideas of transgression and transvaluation were central to Kenneth Burke’s early writing and the development of his critical method of “perspective by incongruity.” During the 1930s, Burke was concerned with the impact that art and criticism could have on the tumultuous Depression-era politics in which he was living. For him, language in general—and literature more specifically—can provide a vital corrective for a society trapped within its own misapplied terminologies. While Permanence and Change is typically considered to mark a shift in Kenneth Burke’s interest from the socio-aesthetics of Counter-Statement to the critical inquiry of language itself, this paper argues that Burke’s method of perspective by incongruity links the two works together as parts of a common project. Reading these works alongside archival material from the intervening period between their publications shows that Burke’s initial concern with the radical potential of poetic invention evolved into a more general means of affecting social change.

The publication of Permanence and Change marked a shift in Kenneth Burke’s interest from the socio-aesthetics of Counter-Statement to the critical inquiry of language itself (see Selzer; Hansen; Prelli, et.al.; Scruggs; Hawhee; Jay; Weiser; Quandahl). Running through both of these works, however, is a persistent concern with the political and social ramifications of “trained incapacities,” which he describes as “that state of affairs whereby one s very abilities can function as blindnesses” (PC 7).1 This concern led to his development of a method for disrupting ossified symbol-systems, which he called “perspective by incongruity.” Scholars have used this method to great effect in analyzing pieces of discourse or developing rhetorical theory.2 However, despite the fact that “perspective by incongruity is the method of his early work,” (Blankenship et. al. 4) to date none have deliberately charted its development in his early writings, particularly its evolution from a general concern with the aesthetic “transvaluation of values” into a symbolic means of affecting social and political change.3 The following is an attempt to re-suture Burke’s two early works together under the rubric of a common concern with the agency of symbolic transformation. Below, I argue that the genesis of Burke's method of perspective by incongruity can be found in Counter-Statement, and represents a central preoccupation of the author during his early career as a rhetorical theorist. Archival material suggests that the development of his method was a continuing project for Burke in the time between the publication of Counter-Statement and Permanence and Change, linking the works together as two parts of a common enterprise. I first discuss Burke’s writing on the transvaluation of values in Counter-Statement and chart its continued development in his personal writings during the intervening years between the publications of his first and second books. I then connect these concerns to Burke’s preoccupation with the concept of “piety” as it first appears in Permanence and Change. Finally, I conclude by discussing Burke’s perspective by incongruity as a method for engaging in the type of transgressive rhetoric that he first discussed in his early criticism.

Burke and the Transvaluation of Values

In both Counter-Statement and Permanence and Change, Burke articulates an interest in the “transvaluation of values,” a reference to the Nietzschean inversion of good and evil outlined in Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals. Hawhee has written on the affinity Burke displayed for Nietzsche in the 1920’s and 30’s, particularly as it surfaced in Permanence and Change (Hawhee; see also Crusius). Burke's affinity, however, stretches back earlier than Hawhee discusses in her essay, surfacing in his earliest book, Counter-Statement. Burke first mentions the transvaluation of values in an essay on the French modernist author Remy de Gourmont titled “The Status of Art.” In Burke’s telling, the nineteenth-century obsession with “utility” had resulted in a socio-political context in which art had been relegated to the status of  a solipsistic game of aesthetic appearances. As a result, art was considered essentially “unmoral,” in that it was believed to have no material effect on the socio-political context in which it operated (CS 65). As Burke states, this characterization of art’s “unmorality” was “a threat to the prestige of art…since it implied…the ineffectiveness of art” (CS 64). De Gourmont, by contrast, defended art on the grounds of it being “immoral," or “not merely useless, but positively subversive to social ends” (CS 65). To Burke, de Gourmont’s insights represented a complete “reversal of standards” in which “the outlaws [i.e. artists] were in reality the true preservers of the good” (CS 65). Central to Burke’s reading of de Gourmont was the latter’s insistence that art retained an ability to shock, challenge, and be “forceful” (CS 65) in society by “making people seek what they customarily fled and flee what they customarily sought” (CS 67). As Selzer explains, “Counter-Statement ultimately upholds art not as self-expression but as communication, not as self-contained and autonomous object but as moral and civic force” (31). For Burke, art’s marginalization under conditions of modernity had granted it a unique agency, allowing the artist to surreptitiously influence social structures by working toward the kind of transvaluation of values in which he envisioned de Gourmont (and others) engaging. For him, the “minor” status of both the artist and their work does not discount the pivotal role that such transvaluations may effect. He argues, “a single book, were it to greatly influence one man in a position of authority, could thus indirectly alter the course of a nation; and similarly the group that turns to ‘minority’ art may be a ‘pivotal’ group” (CS 71). Key to the success of such political transvaluation is the alignment of motives between an artist and their audience, which occurs through a confluence of text, situation, and opportune timing. As Burke states, “the ‘times were ripe’ for a Byron; but Byronism radiated from an individual” (CS 72). Given this necessary confluence of factors as a predicate of artistic influence, the question becomes: When, and why, engage in the transvaluation of values? For Burke, the answer is simple: “when the emphasis of society has changed, new symbols are demanded to formulate new complexities” (CS 59). Periods of social, scientific, and political upheaval—times which call for new symbols to help individuals cope with alterations to their life conditions—represent kairotic moments, in which the artist can (and should) engage in a transvaluation of values. Having staked this position on the telos of art, Burke shifts his concern to the expediency of such a radical poetical-rhetorical program.

The radical injection of a transvaluative rhetoric into a moment of social and/or political strife would seem akin to a strategy of pouring gasoline on a fire to control the burn. Burke indeed acknowledges the radicalness of transvaluation in “Program,” an essay in which he “turned [his attention] to the attitudes and material conditions which he felt ought to be addressed by artists in the midst of the crisis of the Great Depression” (Selzer 36). In it, he states, “the Fascists, the hopeful, the propounders of business culture, believe that the future lies in perfecting the means of control”(CS 115). The social and political tumult of the early twentieth century—particularly the rise of the corporate class and the growing rhetorical power of the positivistic sciences—was a moment in which Burke believed the “rationale of art” (PC 66) could serve as a corrective. This rationale rejects the monovocality of the ruling classes in favor of a discordant, chaotic, multitudinous, democracy. For Burke, “the democrat, the negativist, the man who thinks of power as something to be ‘fought,’ has no hope in perfection—as the ‘opposition,’ his nearest approach to a doctrine is the doctrine of interference” (PC 115). The oppositional voice of the artist should thus serve as “the corrective of the scientific rationalization” by inculcating “an art of living” (PC 66). For Burke, the corrective to what he saw as an overly rationalized ‘perfectionism’ of the corporate and scientific establishments could be found in the artist who would seek to undermine their systems of control “by wit, by fancy, by anathema, by versatility” (CS 115). To effect this type of change, Burke argues that it is necessary for the artist to engage in a practice of linguistic transgression—“When in Rome, do as the Greeks—when in Europe, do as the Chinese” (CS 119)—that stresses the value of the multitudinous over that of uniformity and control. Burke’s ‘program’ was, fundamentally, about creating division to counter the monolith of capitalist production.

Burke’s proposal for an aesthetics aimed at undermining the foundations of capitalism was undoubtedly idealistic. His deeper concern, however, was with preventing “society from becoming too assertively, too hopelessly, itself,” (CS 105) an idea that would come to inform much of his later work (see “Definition”). What Burke envisioned in his critiques of early twentieth-century capitalism was a society at risk of falling into traps of its own making. Because his concerns were still largely aesthetic, his diagnosis both for how such situations come to be, and how to correct them, revolved around the symbolic. As Burke argues in “Lexicon Rhetoricae,” symbols both “interpret”(CS 154) a situation, and serve as “the corrective of a situation” (CS 155). Any program aimed at altering an established social order had to take place on a symbolic level, where the “increase of perception and sensitivity” can be affected through the deliberate introduction of new terminologies with which to understand our situation (CS 182).

Burke’s concern with the rhetorical process of altering perspectives by adjusting terminologies was present during the earliest moments in his shift from aesthetic to rhetorical considerations. By the early 1930s he had come to supplement his program for creating productive divisions with an equal concern for establishing unity. In an unpublished essay from 1933 titled “Five Genealogists of Morals,” Burke builds upon this idea, discussing the “neo-catholistic” process of conversion whereby enemies are transformed into allies through a shift in symbols. He states:

the basis of a neo-catholistic movement, it seems to me, would be a technique of conversion, whereby mere differences of terminology would not be mistaken as differences of aim or reference. It is not truly catholistic to say: “Join my party and we shall be cronies.” The genuinely catholistic must be based upon a device for dissolving factions. This requires considerable sophistication as to the nature of linguistic symbolism…Human society is imbedded in the texture of speech: hence, our attitudes toward human problems should ever be based upon a concern for this rudimentary factor.4

The fundamental practice for altering human relations had to be, for him, rooted in the realm of the symbolic since language was the foundation upon which society was built. Social change could not be affected through division alone since that could result in an increase in factionalism and, subsequently, conflict. Rather, new vocabularies aimed at dissolving tensions between agonistic parties would have to be created within the context of democracy’s “babble of discordant voices” (CS 114). While Burke first began developing this program of artistic and political praxis in Counter-Statement, it was not until the publication of Permanence and Change in 1935 that he fully developed the theory and methodology that would encompass such a course of action.

Trained Incapacities and (Im)Piety

In Permanence and Change,Burke continued to developed his ideas about the symbolic means of affecting a transvaluation of values he first articulated in Counter-Statement. While his primary concern in Counter-Statement was the role of the artist in relation to society, in Permanence and Change he shifted his focus to the symbolic, or communication in general. Burke was particularly concerned with the ways by which individuals become trapped in symbol-systems of their own making, which, for him, is the result of an orientation gone awry. As he states, “orientation is … a bundle of judgments as to how things were, how they are, and how they may be,” (PC 14) and like most things in life, “orientation can go wrong” (PC 6). This is not, however, simply a matter of people making poor judgements. Rather, the kind of mis-orientations with which Burke was concerned arise from symbolic orders that were, at some point, an effective means of dealing with a particular set of circumstances. In other words, something that used to work has since become counterproductive. The reasons for this can be located in how all symbolic systems tend to ossify across time, and/or are misapplied to areas in which they have no business being used. For evidence of this phenomenon, Burke urges us to consider “what conquest over the environment we have attained through our powers of abstraction, of generalization; and then consider the stupid national or racial wars which have been fought precisely because these abstractions were mistaken for realities” (PC 6). Borrowing from Veblen, Burke termed these phenomena “trained incapacities,” or “the state of affairs whereby one’s very abilities can function as blindnesses” (PC 7). Symbolic frameworks that proved initially successful in dealing with some specific situation are then built into grand systems of thought demanding adherence to prescribed rules, norms, procedures, and values. Burke termed adherence to these totalizing systems of thought “piety.”

Piety, according to Burke, is “a desire to round things out, to fit experiences together into a unified whole. Piety is the sense of what properly goes with what” (PC 74).   Psychologically, it is experienced as “the yearning to conform with the ‘sources of one’s being’” (PC 69). Individuals acting in a particular social context will willingly conform to expected modes of behavior, not merely as a nod to social convention, but also as something deeply felt. Furthermore, the manner in which our behaviors are made to conform to normative social frameworks often remain “concealed from us because we think…that the ‘pious process’ is confined to the sphere of churchliness” (PC 75). Burke extends the notion of piety to encompass areas beyond religion, noting that an adherence to standards of vulgarity in vulgar situations is itself a kind of “piety.” In an fragment from an unpublished paper titled “Naming in Nietzsche,” (written sometime between 1925-1935) Burke expresses the extent to which piety affects even the avowedly impious, stating, “not even an atheist would care to shout in Church – and there are many concepts which make us unwittingly lower our voices or doff our hats or stand at attention, etc” (“Naming”). Burke returned to this line of reasoning in Permanence and Change, explaining, “Where you discern the symptoms of great devotion to any kind of endeavor, you are in the realm of piety” (PC 83).

Pieties work over time to create and reinforce trained incapacities since the seemingly appropriate response to a situation may actually be a hindrance to the necessary course of action for addressing some pressing exigence. In other words, our sense of what is and is not “appropriate” is itself a result of our various pieties. As Burke explains, “Piety is a schema of orientation, [which] involves the putting together of experiences. The orientation may be right or wrong; it can guide or misguide” (PC 83). At a snake-handling revival, for example, the most appropriate course of action would be to shout, “Stop, for goodness sake, and think about what you are doing!,” regardless of the perceived “impiousness” of such a pronouncement.5 Because of the pull of piety, however, it is doubtful that such a reaction would even occur to those caught in the grip of their serpentine-driven fervor. When these insights are extended into the realms of politics, economics, or ethics, it becomes apparent how misguided orientations can become closed off “self-perpetuating structure[s]”  (PC 262) across time. In such situations, “piety” is an active impediment to the actual improvement of one's situation.

In the concluding chapter of Permanence and Change, Burke summarized the book as being an attempt to “consider the many ramifications implicit in the statement that ‘our thoughts and acts are affected by our interests’” (262). As he makes clear throughout the work, our perceived “interests” are themselves shaped and constrained by our pious adherence to systems that may be hindrances to our actual interests (e.g., our ongoing reliance on the conveniences provided by fossil fuels in the face of unmitigated climate change). Burke was not satisfied with merely considering the various ways in which “our interests” can entrap us in systems of our own making; he also sought a corrective. Building on the work begun in Counter-Statement, Burke saw that this corrective would have to take shape within the realm of the symbolic.As he notes in “Five Genealogists of Morals,” (a work that shares strong similarities to Permanence and Change), “Our thinking may be dictated by our ‘interests’ – but our ‘interests’ themselves are not absolute, they change color in accordance with the terms by which we define them.” The corrective to our pious self-entrapment in a particular symbolic order can be found in our capacity for inverting its values by changing the terms in which they are defined. At this point, we have arrived back where Burke left off in Counter-Statement: The transvaluation of values through the inversion of terminological systems. If pieties can work through symbolic means to reinforce trained incapacities, then challenges to such totalizing systems of thought have to begin on the symbolic level. In Permanence and Change Burke detailed the manner in which this transgressive program can be enacted.

Perspective by Incongruity, or the Method of Making Gargoyles

To summarize the argument so far, trained incapacities are rooted in our natural tendency to carry terminologies beyond the realms in which they are meant to operate. This natural tendency leads individuals to discount alternative perspectives that do not align with their habitual symbolic frameworks, preferring the warm embrace of piety over that which would challenge their established worldview. This is because the “correctness” or “incorrectness” of a particular orientation is not derived from its innate characteristics, but rather from its alignment with a particular symbolic order. In other words, “we are logical (logos: word) when we specifically state the nature of a problem and then go see within the terms of this specific statement” (PC 84). This is to say that the terms by which we define a situation shape subsequent understandings of it and delineate what does and does not count as a “logical” or “correct" assessment. As Burke explains, “the universe would appear to be something like a cheese; it can be sliced in an infinite number of ways—and when one has chosen his own pattern of slicing, he finds that other men’s cuts fall at the wrong places” (PC 103). Furthermore, the misapplication of those same terms to another, divergent situation will appear, to the individual symbol-user, as a perfectly natural extension of their original terminologies. To build on Burke’s metaphor, it doesn’t matter that brie and ricotta are different cheeses, the same manner of “slicing” will appear perfectly reasonable to the committed cheese-slicer (regardless of its actual efficacy). In such situations, what had initially proved successful will become a “trained incapacity,” or the misapplication of a symbolic order to a situation for which it was never intended, and which may produce counterproductive, or even harmful, effects. For Burke, since such maladies occur on the level of the symbolic, only a symbolic cure will fit the bill.

To counter such maladaptive pieties, Burke proposed a method of “perspective by incongruity,” which he describes variously as “verbal ‘atom cracking’” (ATH 308), a “way of transcending a given order of weightedness” (PC liv), and “methodic merger of particles that had been considered mutually exclusive” (PC lv). Archival documents shed additional light on how Burke arrived at his method. In a typed note titled “Perspective by Incongruity,” Burke appears to have numerically listed twenty-two separate descriptions of his method, each one approaching it from a slightly different angle. In it, he states that perspective by incongruity “serves the purpose of revealing hidden classifications” by way of a “principle of amplification,” which may have “‘heuristic value’ even in the deliberately erroneous” (“Perspective”). Burke returned to this line of thinking in Permanence and Change, arguing that perspective by incongruity is “heuristic insofar as we see close at hand the things we had formerly seen from afar, and vice versa” (124). In all, Burke’s method is meant to reorient individuals to their surroundings by linking together terms typically perceived as being incongruous. As he was developing these ideas, Burke created his own incongruous analogy for his method, ascribing to it the “combinative power of a gargoyle” (“Perspective”).

To develop his method of perspective by incongruity, Burke once again turned to the world of literature, where he saw “the humorists, the satirists, the writers of the grotesque, all contributed to this work with varying degrees of systematization, giving us new insights by such deliberate misfits [of language]” (PC 91). The discomfitures resulting from such seemingly “absurd” parings of incongruous terms effect a reorientation—a moment of pause—in a reader. Taken-for-granted categories of thinking innate to a given “piety” are upset by the application of a term to an area in which it is traditionally thought to be ill-fitted. As Burke states, “the merging of categories once felt to be mutually exclusive” is “the realm of ‘gargoyles’” (PC 69). In a hand-scrawled note written between the publication of Counter-Statement and Permanence and Change, Burke extends this analogy by reasoning that “gargoyles were probably ‘unified by philosophy’ – that is: parts of animals clearly dissociated in nature were put together in accordance with some common quality which they shared in the [domain?] of symbolism” (“Gargoyle”). He picks up this line of reasoning again in Permanence and Change, explaining:

The gargoyles of the Middle Ages were typical instances of planned incongruity. The maker of gargoyles who put man’s-head on bird-body was offering combinations which were completely rational as judged by his logic of essences. In violating one order of classification, he was stressing another. (112)

This is a crucial point for Burke, in that the terms fused together through the application of his method are already symbolically linked on some level through a shared characteristic or association. Perspective by incongruity is unsettling, but not arbitrary.

Interwoven with Burke’s use of the gargoyle analogy is a discussion of the “grotesque.” For him, the grotesque is a “further step in [the] incongruous” (“Perspective”) in that it “tends to be revolutionary” in orientation (PC 112). The deployment of the grotesque as a rhetorical strategy is therefore inherently radical since the very appearance of “grotesqueness” is rooted in it how it challenges some prevailing piety. For Burke, a turn toward the grotesque as a form of critique tends to surface in situations in which the prevailing symbolic order has already come under assault. As he explains, “Grotesque inventions flourish when it is easiest to imagine the grotesque, or when it is hardest to imagine the classical...One sees perspectives beyond the structure of a given vocabulary when that structure is no longer firm” (PC 117). In instances in which a culture’s pieties come into question, grotesque inversions—the transvaluation of values—suddenly become not only thinkable, but more “rational” than their counterparts. This suggests that, for Burke, radical acts of perspective by incongruity may not always be readily available to a rhetor. Rather, “grotesque” inversions of a piety cluster around kairotic moments in which the assumptions of the prevailing order have lost their appearance of stability. At such moments, dominant symbol-structures may be inverted through the “gargoyling” of language, “merging things which common sense had divided by dividing things which common sense had merged” (PC 113). As a means of demonstrating this principle, Burke ingeniously deployed his own perspective by incongruity, the gargoyle metaphor itself.

While Burke’s method of perspective by incongruity provides valuable insight into the ways in which language functions to reorient perspectives, it is not without philosophical antecedents. As mentioned above, in developing his method Burke was heavily influenced by Nietzsche. In a note written sometime before the publication of Permanence and Change, he discusses Nietzsche’s proclivity for perspective shifting, stating, “Nietzsche used this continual shifting of epithet to attain “unmoral” perspectives by the juxtaposition of the morally incongruous” (“Naming”). This represents perhaps the first instance in which Burke begins merging the terms “perspective” and “incongruity” into a formula for altering symbolic relations. In Permanence and Change, he notes:

Nietzsche, we learn in his Will to Power, was interested in the establishment of perspectives...in trying to analyze just what he meant by them, I came upon reasons for relating his cult of perspectives to his dartlike style. It was in the explanation of this that I came upon the term, “Perspective by Incongruity.” (88, emphasis added)

It would appear that the “explanation” to which Burke is referring is “Naming in Nietzsche.” In the note, Burke charts the method by which Nietzsche formulated his famous “transvaluation of values,” giving special attention to the manner in which the philosopher used terminology to upend ossified orientations. He notes how Nietzsche “would borrow an epithet belonging to a certain ‘moral set-up’ and would use it to modify a concept generally considered as belonging to another ‘moral set-up’” (“Naming”). The result of such gargoyling of language was the amplification of previously hidden values, interests, and assumptions through a process of “purification by excess; dip him in the river who loves water; give him enough of it that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken and so die; cure a bad habit by forcing indulgence” (“Naming”). As a result, “weighted words” would be destroyed through “an over-exaggerated use of their ‘weightings’” (“Naming”). Like Nietzsche, Burke conceived of his method as a means of “cracking the atoms” of pieties so that they might be replaced by symbol-systems more in-tune to the times in which we are living.

Burke’s continual development of his method in the time between when he wrote Counter-Statement and Permanence and Change can be clearly seen in his notes from these intervening years. In the note titled “Perspective by Incongruity,” he analogizes his method to a “Judas-kiss, [a] simple reversal of character” (“Perspective”). In “Naming in Neitzsche,” Burke notes the “opening of perspective by the deliberate violation of congruity” found in writers like Freud and Bentham (“Naming”). In his estimation, however, we must be on guard against a singular concern with “downward' shifts in perspective” that only see value in profaning the sacred (“Naming”). Perspectives by incongruity should instead “be up and down, and across, ever on the alert to violate the unsuspected cannons of speech (of ‘good taste’) which even the supposedly most ‘uncultured’ scrupulously obey” (“Naming”). As he later notes in Permanence and Change, even street-corner hoodlums adhere to their own brand of piety, and a perspective by incongruity overly concerned with the continuous debasing of “upward” systems will soon develop into a piety of its own (77). For Burke, transgression is a two (or three, or even four) way street.

Perspective by incongruity is “aimed at some aspect of our pious orientations, ferreting out the last ultimate assumption which we may have let go unquestioned” (PC 87). This is done by utilizing metaphors that are designed to reveal “relationships between objects which our customary rational vocabulary has ignored” (PC 90). The use of such metaphoric pairings is readily apparent in Burke’s own corpus—e.g. “the bureaucratization of the imaginative”; “terministic screens”; “the delights of faction”; “the human barnyard," etc.— each designed to reveal some hitherto overlooked aspect of a particular phenomenon. In Counter-Statement, Burke considered such perspective-shifting to be the exclusive realm of the artist. By the time he published Permanence and Change, however, Burke extended his theory to encompass a much broader range of human activity. As he notes in “Perspective by Incongruity,” “scientists, like poets, make new metaphors. Whole centuries of thinkers may be devoted to writing a given metaphor over and over, in all its possible restatements. Thus with: man is like a God – or man is like a plant – or man is like a machine” (“Perspective”). This idea eventually found its way into Permanence and Change, wherein Burke argues:

Indeed, as the documents of science pile up, are we not coming to see that whole works of scientific research, even entire schools, are hardly more than the patient repetition, in all its ramifications, of a fertile metaphor? Thus we have, at different eras in history, considered man as the son of God, as an animal, as a political or economic brick, as a machine, each metaphor, and a hundred others, serving as the cue for an unending line of data and generalizations. (95)

Burke, of course, would eventually throw his own hat into this ring with his definition of man as the “symbol using animal” (“Definition”). The utility of such metaphors is found in their ability to “[bring] out the emphases needed for handling present necessities.” For him, it was a playful method with serious implications—a “methodology of the pun” (ATH 262) which “links by tonal association words hitherto unlinked” (309). In sum, perspective by incongruity fulfills the transvaluative program he first outlined in Counter-Statement. By “impiously” challenging customary symbolic-linguistic patterns, Burke’s method reopens taken for granted perspectives for critical inquiry and dialogue.


The above discussion adds to our understanding of Burke’s corpus by displaying the way in which the ideas of transgression and the “transvaluation of values” were central to his early writings, and the development of his critical method of perspective by incongruity. During the 1930s, Burke was concerned with the impact that art and criticism could have on the tumultuous Depression-era politics in which he was living. For him, language in general—and literature more specifically—can provide a vital corrective for a society trapped within its own misapplied terminologies. The use of perspective by incongruity “cracks the atoms” of inherited symbolic orders by inviting us to rethink old assumptions in new ways. By inverting established symbolic orders, what at first appears normal and stale can suddenly become strange and new. 


1. For a detailed discussion of Burke’s use of Veblen’s concept of trained incapacities, see Erin Wais, “Trained Incapacity: Thorstein Veblen and Kenneth Burke,” KB Journal 2, no.1 (2005).

2. For examples of the varied uses of perspective by incongruity in rhetorical scholarship, see: Allen and Faigley, “Discursive Strategies for Social Change: An Alternative Rhetoric of Argument”; Wedbee,“Perspective by Incongruity in Norman Thomas’s ‘Some Wrong Roads to Peace’”; Miller,“Plymouth Rock Landed on Us: Malcolm X’s Whiteness Theory as a Basis for Alternative Literacy”; Lowrey et. al.,“‘When God Gives You AIDS ... Make Lemon-AIDS’: Ironic Persona and Perspective by Incongruity in Sarah Silverman’s Jesus is Magic”; Duerringer, “Using Perspective by Incongruity to Crack Invisible Whiteness”; Tully, “‘Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Don’t Rape’: Subverting Postfeminist Logics on Inside Amy Schumer”; Morrissey, “The Incongruities of Queer Decorum: Exploring Gabriel García Román’s Queer Icons”; Anderson, “Deflowering the voting virgin: Piety, political advertising, and the pleasure prerogative”; Pfister, “Against the Droid's “Instrument of Efficiency,” For Animalizing Technologies in a Posthumanist Spirit”; Coles, “The Exorcism of Language: Reclaimed Derogatory Terms and Their Limits”; McCarthy, “A Burkean Reading of the Antigone: Comical and Choral Transcendence”;Gore, “Attitudes Toward Money in Kenneth Burke’s Dialog in Heaven Between The Lord and Satan.”

3. Closely related to this, however, have been analyses of Burke’s theory of perspective by incongruity as compared to similar theories by other writers. For examples of this approach, see: Anders, "Pragmatisms by Incongruity: ‘Equipment for Living’ from Kenneth Burke to Gilles Deleuze”; Henderson, “Dialogism Versus Monologism: Burke, Bakhtin, and the Languages of Social Change.”

4. The underlined portions of materials from the Burke archives are all found in the original documents.

5. Author’s note: Having grown up in rural West Texas, I can assure you that these things do happen.

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Anderson, Karrin Vasby. “Deflowering the Voting Virgin: Piety, Political Advertising, and the Pleasure Prerogative.” Quarterly Journal of Speech,vol. 103, no. 2, 2017, pp. 160–181.

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Burke, Kenneth. Counter-Statement.University of California Press, 1968.

—. “Definition of Man.” Language as Symbolic Action. University of California Press, 1966.

—. “Five Genealogists of Morals.” Kenneth Burke papers, 06369, Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Pennsylvania State University.

—. “Gargoyle and Linkage” Kenneth Burke papers, 06369, Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Pennsylvania State University.

—. “Naming in Nietzsche.” Kenneth Burke papers, 06369, Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Pennsylvania State University.

—. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. University of California Press, 1965.

—. “Perspective by Incongruity,” Kenneth Burke papers, 06369, Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Pennsylvania State University.

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Lowrey, Lacy, Valerie R. Renegar, and Charles E. Goehring. “‘When God Gives You AIDS ... Make Lemon-AIDS’: Ironic Persona and Perspective by Incongruity in Sarah Silverman’s Jesus is Magic.” Western Journal of Communication, vol. 78, no. 1, 2014, pp. 58–77.

Morrissey, Megan Elizabeth. “The Incongruities of Queer Decorum: Exploring Gabriel García Román’s Queer Icons.” Women’s Studies in Communication,vol. 40, no. 3, 2017, pp. 289–303.

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A Survey of the Diverse Historical Uses of the Circumstantial Terms from Homer to Kenneth Burke and Beyond

Lawrence J. Prelli, University of New Hampshire
Floyd D. Anderson, State University of New York at Brockport


In this essay, we survey the diverse historical uses and functions of the circumstantial terms during more than three millennia of western thought and culture. In so doing, we reveal the originality and innovativeness of Kenneth Burke’s use of the terms. Our survey also provides support for Burke’s contention that the terms are “transcendental” because they represent “the basic forms of thought.”

Introduction and Preview

“All arguments fall into two classes, those concerned with things and those concerned with persons. . . . [Of things], actions are the most nearly connected with persons. . . . In regard to every action the question arises Why or Where or When or How or By what means the action is performed.” Readers might attribute these remarks to Kenneth Burke elaborating his dramatistic pentad/hexad: act, scene, agent, agency, purpose, and attitude. That attribution, however, would be wrong. First-century Roman rhetorician Quintilian wrote those words when discussing what he called the “accidents” (or “circumstances”) of persons and of things (Institutio oratoria 5.10.23, 32). Commonly referred to as “circumstantial terms” or the peristaseis, the terms have a long and varied history extending from preliterate Greece to the twenty-first century.

Kenneth Burke has observed that “the resources of symbolism have always been the same” (“Counter-Gridlock” 370). The circumstantial terms, as we will show, are among the ubiquitous symbolic resources that have served diverse functions throughout historical times, places, cultures, occasions, agents, and usages. This essay surveys the myriad historical usages and functions of the circumstantial terms in western thought and culture. They have been used to invent, interpret, analyze, recollect, evaluate, explain, and attribute human motivations from the days of oral antiquity down to the present. This essay is the first detailed report and assessment of the terms’ influential role in shaping aspects of western thought and culture.

This survey of the terms’ manifold historical uses and functions reveals by contrast the originality of Burke’s pentad/hexad. Burke’s use of the terms is a striking departure from all previous uses. The predominant use of the terms for over three millennia was inventing ideas and arguments. Burke, by contrast, did not employ the terms for inventional purposes, nor did he apply them to actual, lived human experience. Instead, he employed them to analyze “talk about experience” (Grammar 317) and to interpret texts that are “already written” (“Questions and Answers” 332). Our analysis will show that Burke’s original and significant innovations in the conception and usage of the terms are, first, his correlation of them with philosophical schools of thought, and, second, his notion of pentadic ratios which reveal motivations locked within texts. Our survey of the terms’ myriad functions and employments also demonstrates their ubiquity as symbolic resources and thus provides strong support for Burke’s contention that they “are ‘transcendental ... categories which human thought necessarily exemplifies” (Grammar 317). Our survey begins with the terms’ earliest manifestations in oral antiquity.

The Origins of the Terms in Pre-literate Greek Poetics

In Preface to Plato, Eric A. Havelock offers an account of the psychology of poetic performance and memorization in pre-literate Greece. According to Havelock, the poet engages his audience at the bodily level through performances that concert the rhythmic patterns of metrical speech, melody, and bodily movement (147–51). Through metrical speech, audiences acquire the “bodily reflexes” needed to remember the “verbal formulas” expressed (148–49). The repetitious rhythms of the lyre “make the undulations and ripples of the meter automatically recollectable,” Havelock tells us, “in order to free psychic energy for the recall of the words themselves” (150). Concerted movement of legs and feet as in a dance generate yet another “pattern of organized actions, the function of which is mnemonic” (150). “Here was a sort of drama of rhythmic doings in which all shared,” Havelock summarizes. “The bodily reflexes which were required, whether of larynx or of limbs, were themselves a form of action, of praxis” (167).

The contents of memorable poetic performances consist of actions, and actions involve “actors or agents” (171). “[T]he agents must be conspicuous and political people,” Havelock writes, because the performances put “great emphasis on public and private law” (171). There also are non-human actors. “[N]on-human phenomena” are framed metaphorically “as acts and decisions of especially conspicuous agents, namely gods” (171). Heroes and gods thus furnish the dramatis personae whose actions are told “in the context of … an episode, a little story or situation” (174). Multiple episodes are put into “a coherent succession” that comprises the “great story” of an oral culture, “grouped round several prominent agents who shall act and speak with some over-all consistency” (175). The many specific episodes exhibit memorable and coherent “patterns of public and private behavior” that, however “multiform and various,” can be “recollected and repeated” as needed within the encompassing story’s plot (175–76). Oral poets in pre-literate Greece clearly spoke in a “vocabulary of action” (177).

The speeches of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey illustrate use of that vocabulary. In Homeric Speech and the Origins of Rhetoric, Rachel Ahearn Knudsen argues that the speeches found in the Iliad are understandable as products of a technê written down centuries later in Aristotle’s Rhetoric (3–8).  Those speeches are also readable as the products of invention using the circumstantial terms. Consider the speeches exchanged in the Iliad’s “embassy to Achilles” episode (chapter 9).

In Agamemnon’s speech, Agamemnon (agent) is “willing to make amends” with Achilles (act) for his previous “act of blind folly” in dishonoring the hero whom Zeus loves and honors “to the point of crushing the Greeks” (purpose) (115–20). “Deluded I was” (manner), Agamemnon admits, “I for one cannot deny it” (115–16). He offers Achilles “limitless compensation” (means) (120) at “the moment he [Achilles] abandons his anger” (time) and “submits” to Agamemnon, the older man of higher rank (156–60). The speech thus elaborates the circumstances of agent, action, purpose, manner, means, and time.

Odysseus, Phoenix, and Ajax exhort Achilles to take up Agamemnon’s offer, but Achilles rejects each in turn. Odysseus’s opening entreaty illustrates. “We are staring disaster in the face,” he tells Achilles. “Unless you put on a show of force,” he states, “it is in the balance whether our ships will be saved or destroyed” (227–31). Odysseus thus depicts the desperate “scene” in terms of a temporary “balance” that only the agent Achilles could through his forceful action alter favorably. Odysseus describes the time and place of the momentous scene, stressing that Achilles will regret the “catastrophe” soon to befall the Greeks should he fail to act (232–52). But first, Odysseus tells Achilles, he must heed his father’s forgotten advice to “keep a firm grip on that proud spirit of yours,” “avoid destructive quarrels” and, “late as it is, now, yield” and “give up this heart-rending anger,” thereby calling for a change in Achilles’s disposition or manner (252–60). Odysseus then states Agamemnon’s offer, the purpose of the proposed action (262–300). “But if your loathing of Agamemnon, gifts and all, outweighs every other consideration,” Odysseus continues, “at least take pity on the Greeks in their camp” who “will honour you like a god” (300–05). Odysseus thus offers honor as an alternative purpose to receiving lavish gifts in return for action. Odysseus’s speech depicts the proposed action, the time and the place, the qualities and manner of the agent, and alternative reasons for acting.

Achilles replies with an account of Agamemnon's action that shows why Agamemnon’s entreaty will not “win me over” (316). Agamemnon (agent) “snatched my prize from my arms” (action) (343–45), and “cheated me and played me false” (how or manner) (373). He humiliated Achilles with malicious purpose, singling him out alone among all the leaders for such treatment. “I am the only one he has robbed,” Achilles complains, “the only one” (336–37). “I know him too well” (the agent), Achilles asserts, and will not “let him try his tricks on me again” (means) (345–46). Achilles thus accounts for his rift with Agamemnon by characterizing Agamemnon as agent, his action, his manner, his means, and his purpose.

Inventional and Philosophical Uses of the Terms in Ancient Athens

The circumstantial terms in the Homeric speeches are precursors to the “commonplaces” that were adopted as literacy increased. George Kennedy noted that in oral culture rhetorical techniques “were learned by listening and imitation” (5). Orators employed the “ancestors of the commonplaces of later oratory—the topics, the traditional examples, the maxims which he had heard and used before ….” (5) The commonplaces would later be used as though they were “arguments” that “support some position” (52–53). That usage exhibited their oral lineage. “The orators usually memorized their commonplaces,” Kennedy explains, “but, except for that feature, the construction of the speech resembled the composition of oral poetry out of themes and formulae” (53).

The circumstances are exhibited in the early fifth century sophists’ model speeches, offering a technê for exploring a range of possible oratorical options suitable to a type of situation. Gorgias’s “Defense of Palamedes” illustrates (84–93). Palamedes defends himself against Odysseus’s accusation that he plotted treason against the Greeks. His defense consists of several interrelated reasons: (1) he knew he did not do the deed; (2) he lacked the “capacity” to accomplish the deed; (3) he lacked “reason” to do the deed; (4) he is not the kind of person who would commit treason (see numbered divisions 5–21). Those reasons defend Palamedes from the charge of treason in terms of action, capacity, purpose, and person.

The “Defense of Palamedes” also provides evidence of knowing usage of the circumstantial terms as inventional resources. Palamedes insists that Odysseus do as he did and account for how he learned of Palamedes’s alleged treachery:

It is worthwhile learning what sort of a man it is who makes these allegations,
such as you are unworthy to make and I am unworthy to receive. Are you
attacking me on the basis of sure knowledge or of conjecture? If on the basis
of knowledge, you presumably know what you know either from seeing the
deed yourself, or from participating, or through learning the facts from
someone who participated. If, then, you saw yourself, tell the judges here the
manner, the place, the time—when, where, how you saw. If you participated, you
are liable to the same questions (22).

Palamedes appears to be checking off inventional prompts for questioning Odysseus’s accusation. And, of course, those who had read the speech are prepared to do the same when assessing their own speech occasions. Would the reader need to show in his own speech that the adversary is the “sort of man” who is unworthy of making the accusation and he himself is the type of man who is an unworthy recipient of the charge? Would the adversary need to explain when and where the act took place? Would the adversary need to account for the action that secured the knowledge upon which the accusation is based, including how he came by that knowledge and the manner in which he did so?

The terms and their corresponding questions are among the rhetorical commonplaces that would endure as inventional heuristics over centuries of rhetorical theorizing and practice: person (who?), act (what?), purpose (why?), place (where?), time (when?), capacity or instrument (by what means?), and manner (how?). Presumably, the terms are among the features of “the poetised mind” that classicist Kevin Robb maintains had “survived as the mind of Greece itself down to the activity of the Platonic Socrates, which is to say, the fourth century” (9). Important philosophical uses of the circumstances were initiated at about that time.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics contains the first written exposition of the terms for the purpose of moral analysis and judgment. He uses them to distinguish voluntary and involuntary actions and emotions—a distinction he thought “indispensable” to moral judgment. “When these [emotions and actions] are voluntary we receive praise or blame,” Aristotle explains, “when involuntary, we are pardoned and sometimes even pitied” (1109b31–34). An agent’s acts are “involuntary” when done in “ignorance of the particulars which constitute the circumstances and the issues involved in the action” (1110b34–35). “It is on these that pity and pardon depend,” Aristotle writes, “for a person who acts in ignorance of a particular circumstance acts involuntarily” (1111a1–2). Aristotle explicitly identifies seven circumstances that persons must know to perform an act voluntarily (1111a3–8). Sloan’s translation offers a precise rendering: “[I]t is not a pointless endeavor to divide these circumstances by kind and number: (1) the who, (2) the what, (3) around what place or (4) in which time something happens, and sometimes (5) with what, such as an instrument, (6) for the sake of what, such as saving a life, and (7) the how, such as gently or violently” (239). Aristotle’s analytical method for distinguishing voluntary and involuntary actions thus consisted of the circumstances who, what, when, where, with what means, why, and how.

Aristotle also used the terms for purposes other than the moral analysis of actions. They are evident in his analysis of the six elements of tragic drama in his Poetics: “Fable or Plot, Characters, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, and Melody” (1450a9–10). Kenneth Burke took Aristotle’s summary of how those elements function to align plot with action, character with agent, thought with purpose, melody and diction—what Aristotle calls “the means of imitation”—with agency, and spectacle with “manner,” or “a kind of modality that we should want to class under scene, though Aristotle’s view of it as accessory would seem to make it rather a kind of scenic agency” (Grammar 231; cf. Poetics 1449b33–1450a14). Aristotle’s theory of four causes from his Metaphysics also poses questions that invite answers in circumstantial terms: “What is it?” (formal cause), “Out of what is it made?” (material cause), “By what agent?” (efficient cause), and “For what end?” (final cause) (Randall, 124). Using Aquinas’s account of Aristotle’s theory, Burke maintains that formal cause aligns with “act,” material cause with “scene,” efficient cause with “agent,” and final cause with “purpose” (Grammar 227–28; cf. Aquinas, “Circumstances of Human Acts”). He even argues that although Aristotle “omits agency as a fifth kind of cause” he still “clearly enough takes it into account” (228). For example, Aristotle includes “walking” among the means of pursuing the final cause, “desire for health” (228). The terms clearly are evident in Aristotle’s philosophical inquiries into moral reasoning, poetics, and metaphysics.

Inventional Uses of the Terms in Hellenistic and Roman Rhetoric

The second century BCE Greek rhetorician Hermagoras wrote about the terms as precepts of rhetorical invention. His work is known indirectly from Cicero’s De inventione, Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria, and Augustine’s De rhetorica (a work once thought pseudonymous but now attributed to Augustine) (Giomini, 7–31; Sloan 236n1). According to M. L. Clarke, Hermagoras was the only Hellenistic rhetorician who showed “originality or intellectual power” (7). He gave the theory of invention the “elaborate and systematic form that we find in the earliest Latin rhetorical treatises,” transforming rhetoric into “a serious intellectual discipline” (7).

Hermagoras’s inventional theory distinguishes two kinds of question:  general questions or “theses” and specific questions or “hypotheses.” Kennedy explains that theses are indefinite questions and hypotheses are definite questions “involving named persons and definite occasions” (305). According to Augustine, Hermagoras articulated a stasis doctrine for the analysis of issues (On Rhetoric 13–14). The “definite information” (13) called for when responding to conjectural issues are the peristases, or seven “circumstances of the act”: “who? what? when? where? why? how? by what means?” (12). As D. W. Robertson, Jr. put it, “no hypothetical question, or question involving particular persons and actions, can arise without reference to these circumstances, and no demonstration of such a question can be made without using them” (9).

In De inventione, Cicero reiterates the Hermagorean doctrine of invention, though quarreling with his treatment of both theses and hypotheses as rhetorical (1.8), as well as for purported errors in his handling of the qualitative stasis issue (1.12–14). The circumstantial terms are put to a wide range of inventional uses, including the generation of arguments useful for filling out the speech’s “confirmation” or “proof,” as well as its “refutation” (1.78; 2.11). Cicero inventories the “attributes of actions” and the “attributes of persons” as instruments for furnishing “a kind of raw material for general use from which all arguments are drawn” (1.34).

The “attributes of persons” include “name, nature, manner of life, fortune, habit, feeling, interests, purposes, achievements, accidents, speeches made” (1.34; also 1.35–36). The circumstances are arrayed under two of four headings for the “attributes of actions.” Under the heading of attributes “partly coherent with the action itself,” we find the “brief summary of the whole action comprising the sum of the matter” (such as “murder of parent”) and terms for “inquiry … as to the reason for this whole matter, i.e., by what means, and why, and for what purpose the act was done” (1.37). Under the heading of attributes “partly considered in connexion with the performance of it” (i.e., the action) are terms for “inquiry … about place, time, occasion, manner, and facilities” (1.38; also 39–41). “Occasion” appears on the list of circumstances because it adds the concept of opportunity to place by considering whether its features enabled the act’s performance (1.38) and to time related to the act’s performance in a “fixed and limited … period of time” (1.40). “Facilities” are “the conditions which make something easier to do, or without which it cannot be accomplished” (1.41) and, thus, are related to what others called “by what means.”

Cicero details use of the attributes for generating proofs in response to stasis issues, primarily for judicial rhetoric, though also applicable as needed for deliberative and demonstrative oratory (2.11–13). Controversies that turn on conjectural issues based on inference are engaged with arguments generated “from the cause of the action, from the character of the person involved, and from the nature of the act” (2.16). Inferences are generated from motive or cause (2.17–28), “from the person accused if the attributes of persons are carefully taken into account” (2.28–37), from attributes of the action itself (2.38), from attributes associated with the action’s performance (2.39–40), and from attributes of persons and of actions considered jointly (2.42–44). Careful scrutiny of the prosecutor’s and the defense’s narratives in view of the attributes can yield additional arguments for forensic proof, as shown in Cicero’s trenchant description of the inventional procedure involved:

The mind will more easily come upon “inventions” if one examines frequently and carefully one’s own narrative of the events and that of the opponent, and eliciting any clues that each part may afford, ponders why, with what intent and with what hope of success each thing was done; why it was done in this way rather than in that; why by this man rather than by that; why with no helper or why with this one; why no one knew about it, or why some one did, and why it was this one who did. (2.45)

“When the mind studies so attentively every part of the whole affair, then the topics … which are stored up will come forth of their own accord,” Cicero continues, “and then sometimes from one, sometimes from a combination of topics definite arguments will be produced, part of which will be classed as probable and part as irrefutable” (2.46).

Cicero insists that inartistic means of proving can also be examined with the attributes (2.47). “For the cause or motive of one who makes a statement under torture and the truth of what he says will be ascertained from the same attributes as other arguments,” Cicero maintains, “and the same is true of one who gives testimony, and even of rumour itself” (2.47). “[S]uspicion,” Cicero adds, “will have to be derived from investigation and testimony and some rumour in like manner as from the case and from the person and from the act” (2.46).

The circumstances are useful for generating materials for parts of speech other than confirmation and refutation. One such task is developing narratives with verisimilitude:

The narrative will be plausible if it seems to embody characteristics which are accustomed to appear in real life; if the proper qualities of the character are maintained, if reasons for their actions are plain, if there seems to have been ability to do the deed, if it can be shown that the time was opportune, the space sufficient and the place suitable for the events about to be narrated; if the story fits in with the nature of the actors in it, the habits of ordinary people and the beliefs of the audience. Verisimilitude can be secured by following these principles (1.29).

In addition to employing the circumstances for inventing narratives of events that “embody characteristics that are accustomed to appear in real life,” Cicero asserts that “all the attributes of persons and things can give occasion for any use of amplification that may be desired, or any method of arousing enmity…” (1.100). When surveying topics specific to invention of indignatio in a speech’s peroration, Cicero explains one in particular that draws “together all the circumstances, what was done during the performance of the deed and what followed it, accompanying the narration with reproaches and violent denunciations of each act, and by our language bring the action as vividly as possible before the eyes of the judge … so that a shameful act may seem as shameful as if he had himself been present and seen it in person” (1.104).

 The unknown author of the contemporaneous work, Rhetorica ad Herennium, employs several of the circumstances for similar inventional uses as did Cicero. Time, person, motive, and place are used to create plausible statements of fact or narratives. Plausibility is maximized “if account is strictly kept of the length of time, the standing of the persons involved, the motives in the planning, and the advantages offered by the scene of action, so as to obviate the argument in refutation that the time was too short, or that there was no motive, or that the place was unsuitable, or that the persons themselves could not have acted or been treated so” (1.16). In response to conjectural issues, the prosecutor establishes and the defense disestablishes “motive” while both clash over the accused’s “manner of life” to enhance the “probability” that the accused did or did not do the deed (2.3–5). “Signs” indicative of action are employed to confirm opportunity: “the Place, the Point of Time, the Duration of Time, the Occasion, the Hope of Success, the Hope of Escaping Detection” (2.6; 2.7). The same considerations apply when assessing the plausibility of witness testimony and of testimony under torture (2.10). As with Cicero, the author includes the circumstances among the “commonplaces” of amplification that are useful to “stir the hearers,” particularly in a speech’s conclusion (2.47). One commonplace would have the orator “examine sharply, incriminatingly, and precisely, everything that took place in the actual execution of the deed and all the circumstances that usually attend such an act, so that by the enumeration of the attendant circumstances the crime may seem to be taking place and the action to unfold before our eyes” (2.49).

In Institutio oratoria, the first century Roman rhetorician Quintilian also distinguished between theses and hypotheses or “causes” (3.5.5–8). He disagreed with Cicero’s view that rhetoric’s range is restricted to “definite” questions because “in every special question the general question is implicit, since the genus is logically prior to the species” (3.5.9–10.). “An indefinite question is always the more comprehensive,” Quintilian explains, “since it is from the indefinite question that the definite is derived” (3.5.8). For example, the definite question—“Should Cato marry?”—has the indefinite question—“Should a man marry?”—implicit within it (3.5.8). Quintilian also provides the most comprehensive discussion of stasis doctrine for the analysis of both general and special questions in ancient rhetorical theory (3.5.4–18 – 3.6.104). Still, he reiterated the received opinion that the “Greek peristasis or collection of circumstances” furnish the “matter” useful for addressing hypotheses, “causes,” or definite questions (3.5.18), such as “facts, persons, time, and the like” (3.5.7).

Quintilian discusses the circumstantial terms as “places” (loci) that are useful for inventing arguments (5.10.20–22). He divides them into the “accidents of persons” and the “accidents of things” (5.10.23). “Accidents of persons” include “birth,” “nationality” or “race,” “country,” “sex,” “age,” “education and training,” “bodily constitution,” “fortune,” “condition,” “natural disposition,” “occupation,” “ambitions,” “past life and previous utterances,” and “name” (5.10.24–31). “Accidents of things” include “causes, time, place, occasion, instruments, means and the like” (5.10.23). “In regard to every action,” Quintilian explains, “the question arises either Why or Where or When or How or By what means the action is performed” (5.10.32). Along with persons (Who) and actions (What), Quintilian altogether emphasizes the seven circumstances of the Greek peristasis theory.

Quintilian treats the circumstances as resources for discharging a variety of inventional tasks, including the construction of parts of speech. They are central to creating statements of fact or narratives in judicial speeches (4.2.11–16). Among various uses, prosecutors can employ the terms to create credible narratives that plausibly characterize an alleged wrongdoer’s motive and character, as well as the place and time in which the action was done (4.2.52–53), while the defense can characterize the defendant and alleged actions in ways that diminish the power of the prosecutor’s narrative and proofs (4.2.76–77). The terms can inform an orator’s tactical choices in composing the narratives, including decisions about their length, such as foregoing discussion of motive, or manner, or accomplices, or some other circumstance until engaging them in the proofs (4.2.48–49) or, more generally, shaping narratives as prelude to issuing arguments to meet conjectural issues (4.2.81).

The terms, of course, are also useful for inventing the arguments or proofs of the speech, as well as narratives (4.2.55). “Arguments are drawn,” Quintilian writes, “from persons, causes, place and time … from resources (under which we include instruments),” and “from manner” (5.10. 94).The attributes of persons and of things aid in generating arguments in response especially to conjectural issues, but also have uses for engaging definitional and qualitative questions, as well as questions of law (5.10.33–52). Finally, Quintilian also discusses how the terms can be employed to arouse the judges’ passions, particularly in the peroration of judicial speeches (6.1.14–18).

Douglas Estes shows that several other first century works exhibit the use of circumstances in composing narratives, particularly prologues. All seven “rhetorical peristaseis” are found explicitly in the Gospel of John’s prologue (203–04). The Gospel of Luke’s prologue also has seven, with “when” and “where” implied by Luke’s “first-person, eyewitness style” (202). So too does the prologue to Josephus’s The Jewish War, but with “when” and “where” implied by his “autobiographical point of view” (201). Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe exhibits five (200). The later Hellenistic work, “book of Tobit,” exhibits four circumstances in its prologue, leaving two others for the reader to find in the subsequent work. “It is possible that the author … was aware of peristaseis theory,” Estes writes, “but it is more likely that the circumstances arose from the general expectations that come with narrative prose writing” (199). Nonetheless, Estes concludes that “what makes the book of Tobit interesting (given its place in the history of literature) is its clear leading with four of the seven circumstances” (199).

In the early fourth century CE the earliest available commentary on Cicero’s De inventione appeared, Marius Victorinus’s Explanationes in Ciceronis Rhetorica. Victorinus’s thorough and clarifying commentary that relates Cicero’s topical doctrine to the peristases would exert influence on late eleventh and twelfth centuries commentaries (Leff 35–36). According to Robertson Jr., in Victorinus’s account “the circumstances appear as questions”—quis (person), quid (action), cur (purpose), ubi (place), quando (time), quemadmodum (how), quibus adminiculis (faculties)—and he reiterated Cicero’s treatment of them as resources for making effective confirmation with emphasis on “attributes of the person or the action” (10–11).

Use of the circumstances for purposes of rhetorical invention continued long after Rome fell to the Goths in 410. Over the next thirteen centuries, rhetoricians distinguished general and specific questions, elucidated stasis doctrine, and elaborated circumstances as precepts of discovery, usually following how Cicero, Ad Herennium, or Quintilian described them. As we show in the next section, hermeneutical uses of the circumstances emerged alongside ongoing inventional uses during the early middle ages, beginning with Augustine.

Inventional and Hermeneutical Uses of the Terms in the Early Middle Ages

Augustine’s On Rhetoric follows the traditional theory of invention by distinguishing theses and hypotheses [5–6 (pp. 10–12)], reviewing the seven peristases [7–8 (12–13)], and elaborating stasis doctrine [9–10 (pp. 13–14). Roman rhetorician C. Chirius Fortunatianus’s c. 450 work, Artis Rhetoricae Libri Tres, always appeared before Augustine’s treatise in one volume, suggesting that he “somehow shared in the reflected glory of the most venerated Christian scholar” (Miller et al, 25). Fortunatianus recommended employing the seven terms to disclose errors and omissions made during testimony [Artis Rhetoricae Libri Tres, I, 4 (pp. 29–30)]. In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine makes a hermeneutic turn in the use of the Latin circumstantiae, shifting from their inventional usage as precepts for discovery of subject matter for arguments to employing them to reveal the meanings of biblical texts. That hermeneutic shift is evident in the third book dealing with the problem of interpreting ambiguous signs. Richard McKeon observes that the circumstances aided in reconciling contradictory literal interpretations of texts “by consideration of ‘who’ said it, ‘where, when, why, how, with what assistance” (On Christian Doctrine 3.12.19, quoted at 7). Both literal and figurative “senses” of textual signs could be clarified using the circumstances as interpretive aids (3.12.18–3.15.29; McKeon 7).

In the fourth book of his predominantly dialectical work, De topicis differentiis, early sixth century philosopher Boethius distinguishes dialectical theses and rhetorical hypotheses (1205C1–27), articulates stasis doctrine (1208C34–1209A4, 1209A26–1209D3), and rehearses the familiar “attributes of the person and the action” as peculiarly rhetorical topics in contrast with dialectical topics (1211C25–1214B18). Boethius also discusses the hypothesis-thesis distinction and stasis doctrine in “An Overview of the Structure of Rhetoric” and the circumstances in “An Examination of the Rhetorical Places.” Unlike previous commentators, Boethius did not place the circumstances under a particular part of speech; rather, he treated them as the method of rhetoric as a discipline (Copeland, 68–69).

In the early seventh century work, The Etymologies, Isidore of Seville discusses stasis doctrine [5.1–4 (pp. 83–85)], the thesis-hypothesis distinction [15.1–2 (p. 95)], and the utility of qualities of persons and of actions for creating the figure of ethopoeia, or an imagined speech suited to a person’s character [14.1–2 (p. 95)]. In his early ninth century dialogue, Rhetoric, Alcuin responds to Charlemagne’s queries about legal cases by enumerating the seven circumstances and their corresponding questions [6.104–117 (pp. 72–73)],  and the  “localities of controversies”—the four stases—with illustrations [7.118–157 (pp. 72–75)].

Rita Copeland shows that the circumstantiae were put to hermeneutical and inventional uses in the prologues of commentaries on biblical and secular texts—the accessus ad auctores or introduction to the author—during the Carolingian period. She explains these distinctive functions as follows:

The exegete can take possession of the text as a discursive totality in the way that the rhetor (or orator) can grasp the case as a circumstantial totality (the summation of attributes of the person and the act). Exegetical practices treats the text … as an action situated in particular historical circumstances.  In the Remigian prologue, the topical system of the circumstantiae functions as a kind of hermeneutical application: it allows the exegete to ‘invent’ arguments about the text—or ‘action’—which are appropriate to new conditions of interpretation or reception, just as the orator invents a speech that is suited to the particular conditions of time, place, and audience” (Copeland 70–71).

Copeland illustrates this use of the circumstances with prologues attributed to Remigius of Auxerre, whose commentaries were written during the latter half of the ninth and the first decade of the tenth centuries. Here is how Remigius employed the seven circumstances in an accessus to a commentary on Sedulius’s Carmen Paschale:

[W]ho produced it? Sedulius. What did he produce? A paschal song according to the Old and New Testaments. Why did he produce it? Because he noticed that there were few who had written poetry about the humanity and incarnation of the savior. In what way did he fashion it? In verse, not prose. When did he write it? In the time of the emperors Theodosius and Valentinian. Where did he write it? In Achaia. With what means did he write it? By means of those sources that he imitated. (qtd. in Copeland 66).

The materials these questions furnish enable commentators to contextualize their interpretive renderings in the prologue. In addition to inventional and hermeneutical functions, the circumstances acquired specialized theological applications during the high middle ages.

Inventional, Hermeneutical, Theological, and Mnemonic Uses of the Terms in the High Middle Ages

During the high middle ages, inventional usage of the terms continued in the works of Alan of the Isles’s Anticlaudianus, Vincent of Beauvais’s Speculum doctrinale, and Humbert de Romans’s De eruditione praedicatorum. In his late twelfth century work, Alan followed Cicero by discussing qualities of “arguments properly fitted to the persons involved” and “whatever changes the complexion of the deed, whatever place or time, occasion, cause, or circumstance exists…” (225). In his thirteenth century work, Vincent turned to Boethius for the thesis-hypothesis distinction and the seven circumstantial questions (Howell, Logic and Rhetoric 77–78). Humbert, Vincent’s contemporary, wrote a work for Dominican preachers that provided “materials for a hundred sermons suited to various kinds of persons and for another hundred suited to various occasions” (Robertson, Jr., 13). The preacher is thus well-equipped, as Robertson Jr. puts it, “to take into consideration the dominant circumstances of person and action that confront him” (13).

John of Garland, in the first chapter of his early thirteenth century work, Parisiana poetria, makes hermeneutic use of the five “species” of invention: “where, what, what kind, how, and why” [1.88–89 (p. 9)]. His treatment differs from that of Cicero or Boethius. “If the classical circumstances serve as topics to organize information about an action that exists or occurs outside the prospective text,” Copeland explains, “John’s use of them serves to organize the text itself’ (163). From that distinctive vantage, “the circumstances turn the text into a kind of action performed and the author into the performer of that action” (163). John thus uses the circumstances not “to describe an action performed which is the res or the case to be argued (e.g., what was done, where was it done, when, who did it); rather, he employs them “to describe the text that comes into being through invention” (163).

The terms had wide use in penitential literature. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council of the Roman Catholic Church incorporated the seven circumstances into the 21st canon to assist clergymen in securing confessions so “that they might justly weigh the crimes confessed to them and administer suitable remedies” (Robertson, Jr., 6; Osborne, Jr., 150). As Thomas N. Tentler explains, a “complete” confession included not only disclosure of “all mortal sins, but also their ‘aggravating circumstances’” (116). They also appeared in summas for confessors, originating with the widely influential Raymond of Peñaforte’s Summa Confessorum, known as Raymundina (Tentler 31). Confessors were furnished with mnemonic verses to assist them in conducting confessions (Robertson, Jr., 7). The standard form presents the seven circumstances in this specific order:

Quis, quid, ubi, quibus auxiliis, cur, quomodo, quando” (qtd. in Robertson Jr., 7). (Who, what, where, with what, why, how, when.)

Some verses substituted one or two different terms or added an eighth circumstance, such as the number of times or how often the sin was committed:

Quis, quid, ubi, per quos, quoties, cur, quomodo, quando” (qtd. in Robertson Jr., 7). (Who, what, where, by whom, how often, why, how, and when.)

The circumstances would continue to appear in penitential literature through the fifteenth century.

The recovery of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in the thirteenth century influenced how the terms were used in medieval philosophical theology (Jonsen and Toulmin 123). “The earliest medieval translation of the Nicomachean Ethics into Latin,” Jonsen and Toulmin explain, “introduced the word circumstantiae into the text and enumerated them as of eight kinds” (133). Thomas Aquinas was influenced by that work. In the first article to question 7 of the Summa Theologica he writes: “[W]hatever conditions are outside the substance of an act, and yet in some way touch the human act, are called circumstances” (Article 1). He insisted that theologians must attend to circumstances in the analysis and appraisal of human action (Article 2). “Touching an action” occurs in three ways:

It touches the act itself, either by way of measure, as “time” and “place”; or by qualifying the act as the “mode of acting.” It touches the effect when we consider “what” is done. It touches the cause of the act, as to the final cause, by the circumstance “why”; as to the material cause, or object, in the circumstance “about what”; as to the principal efficient cause, in the circumstance “who”; and as to the instrumental efficient cause, in the circumstance “by what aids” (Article 3).

We thus find Aquinas doing a causal analysis of Cicero’s circumstances with some slight modifications (Article 3). Cicero’s “occasion” is not used,  but an eighth circumstance is added from Aristotle’s Ethics, “about what” (Article 3); Jonsen and Toulmin render the terms “about which or on whom,” 133). Aquinas further qualifies the circumstances’ relationships to an act’s substance. “The circumstance ‘what’ must be distinguished from the ‘what’ that is the act’s matter,” Osborne explains, “and the circumstance of the end must be distinguished from the proximate end, which is the interior act’s object” (183). He continues, “With respect to the other circumstances, what is ordinarily a circumstance can be a condition of the object, such as a location in a church might be part of sacrilege’s object” (183).

The circumstantial terms were integral to thirteenth century theological disputations about moral and immoral action (Osborne 149–84). A central issue was whether an act could be considered good or bad based on its intent or end alone or whether other circumstantial features shaped its moral quality (Osborne 150–54, 182–84). Osborne observed that a new Latin term, “obiectum” or “the power of willing or choice” (152), became in some respects a circumstance itself in these disputations, enabling Aquinas to argue, for example, “that many acts are good on account of their object unless made bad by their circumstances” (170).

The circumstances informed the practice of casuistry during its “high” era from 1556–1656.  The casuists worked out the meanings of principles beginning with an example that few would disagree was a paradigmatic instance of violation, and then follow with a series of increasingly less obvious instances “that moved away from the paradigm by introducing various combinations of circumstances and motives that made the offense in question less apparent” (Jonsen and Toulmin, 252). Using the Fifth Commandment against killing for illustration, “it might be asked whether a judge was morally permitted to impose the death penalty; whether subjects may kill a tyrant; or whether self-defense extends to killing in defense of one’s family, one’s property, or one’s honor” (252). When casuists introduced “complicating circumstances to the paradigm cases,” Jonsen and Toulmin explain, they “drew on the traditional list of circumstances—‘who, what, where, when, why, how and by what means’” (253).

The circumstantial terms had a wide circulation in late-medieval culture due in large part to the influence of Aquinas and Raymond. Mnemonic verses assured their ready use for religious and educational purposes. Burke noted that the seven terms recited in the prescribed order—“quis? quid? ubi? quibus auxillis? cur? quo modo? quando?form a “hexameter line” (“Counter-Gridlock,” 366). This prescribed line is included in Aquinas’s discussion of the circumstances of moral action (Article 3). “If the terms are put in exactly that order,” Burke explains, “they make a line of verse in classical Latin prosody” (366). The verse’s hexametric structure and its alliteration function mnemonically in facilitating recollection of the terms. Jonsen and Toulmin, attributing that verse to “an unknown rhetorician” from “the early Middle Ages,” conclude that it “became the standard enumeration of circumstances in subsequent medieval discussions” (132; also Robertson, Jr., 13).

Dialectic and the Decline of Inventional Uses of the Terms in the Early Renaissance

The topics of dialectical logic are increasingly emphasized as the circumstances’s inventional usage declined during the late fifteenth through the early to mid-sixteenth century. Rodolphus Agricola’s De inventione dialectica libri tres (1479) and its “place-logic” is pivotal in initiating this shift, subordinating the terms “accident” and “circumstance” within “a more comprehensive classification of ‘topics’ or strategies of argument, including genus, species, similarities, differences, etc.” (Hutson 17–18). Dialectic became the source of the substance of all discourse, with rhetoric left bereft of any inventional function at all. “This implied spread of dialectic to cover all discourse,” Walter Ong observes, “is made fully explicit by Agricola in his assertion that ‘there are no places of invention proper to rhetoric’” (Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue 101). “Cicero, Quintilian, and Boethius, who treat places in rhetoric, are all wrong on this point we are told,” Ong asserted negatively (101–02). Agricola thus “decreed” the “Renaissance divorce in the chronologically uneasy union of rhetoric and dialectic” by assigning the loci exclusively to dialectic, a divorce “which will carry through Ramism” (102).

Petrus Ramus followed Agricola in assigning invention to dialectic rather than rhetoric (Howell 149). He and his followers formed a tradition in which dialectic furnished the method of generating thought and rhetoric was left with the expressive tasks of style and delivery (Howell 146–72). “Ramist rhetoric is concerned with expression, with communication, with speaking,” Ong points out. “But it is a rhetoric which has renounced any possibility of invention within the speaker-auditor framework; it protests in principle if not in actuality, that invention is restricted to a dialectical world where there is no voice but only a kind of vision” (288). Ramus’s dialectical topics are illustrated by the fourteen places or “arguments” in his 1543 Training in Dialectic (Ong, 183). In the absence of rhetorical invention, the circumstances gave way to those abstract places. Still a few sixteenth century rhetoricians continued to find the circumstances useful in “giving voice” to an increasingly “dialectical world” as evidenced by three rhetoric handbooks.

One of those works is Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus’s textbook De copia (1512), which Lorna Hutson calls “the most popular compositional textbook for schoolboys of Shakespeare’s generation” (2). Erasmus thought that the terms are applicable to a variety of inventional tasks in the construction of speeches. In the second book of that work entitled, “Abundance of Subject Matter,” he discusses the peristases—“the circumstances peculiar to the case”—as the eighth of eleven methods for generating materials for a speech (Copia 591). He divides them into those “partly of non-personal and external details”—“contributing events, place, opportunity, instrument, time, method”—and those “partly of personal details”—“race, country, sex, age, education and training, physical state, material circumstances, place in society, type of personality, occupation, previous conduct, motivation, intention, reputation” (591). He forgoes offering examples because use of circumstances “pervades the whole speech” and has relevance for other methods of expansion, including "amplification or building up, and extenuation or toning down … vividness … also confirmation and credibility” (591–92). Erasmus revisits Quintilian’s treatment of the accidents of persons and of things as resources for accumulating proofs about the “likely, possible, and not impossible” (605). Appropriate use of circumstances, marks the “true orator.” “[J]ust as one can recognize the trained athlete or musician even when he is not concentrating particularly,” Erasmus writes, “so one can perceive the true orator anywhere in the speech by the way details of this sort are aptly added to the mixture in the appropriate place” (592).

The second book is Leonard Cox’s The Arte or Crafte of Rhetoryke (c. 1530), the first book on rhetoric printed in English, that is addressed to “yonge begynners” (Cox, 87) who lacked thorough training in Greek and Latin (Carpenter, “Introduction,” 27–28). The book largely follows fellow humanist Philippi Melanchton’s treatment of invention in Institutiones rhetoricae (1521), supplemented with examples drawn from Cicero’s speeches, among other sources (Carpenter, “Introduction,” 29–31). Cox’s Arte emphasizes the circumstances as useful for constructing the parts of speech for demonstrative, deliberative, and judicial oratory, leading Howell to note that Cox, not unlike Cicero, had thereby treated “the most important aspect of the rhetorical doctrine of arrangement without having to take it up directly” (93).

We thus find Cox discussing the circumstances as resources for generating materials for preambles generally (52) and demonstrative (viz., place, time, occasion, person) (62), deliberative (67), and judicial preambles specifically, with the last centered on the nature of the cause (71–72). So, too, with creating demonstrative narratives praising persons from attributes discovered during review of their lives and actions (e.g., offices, dispositions, fortune, and the like) (55–57), and with judicial narratives employing person, place, time, purpose, and occasion (72–73). The speech “confirmation”—the first of two parts (along with the “confutation”) that together comprise a speech’s “contention”—is fashioned for speeches praising actions from considering “what was done /who dyd it / whan / where it was done / amonge whom / by whofe help” (63–64): for praising “things,” such as “religion” or “matrimony,” from the circumstances generally (66); for establishing an action’s utility in deliberative speeches from considering the “circumstances of the cause,” including time, place, means, helps or impediments, and others (70–71); and for supporting accusations from consideration of the qualities of persons and the circumstances of the cause in judicial speaking (71, 75–79).

The third book is Thomas Wilson’s Arte of Rhetorique (1553), the most influential treatment of rhetoric printed in English during the English Renaissance. Wilson’s Arte, which went through eight editions, covers invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery (Derrick, “Critical Introduction,” lxiii–lxix). The work is comparable to Cicero’s and Quintilian’s treatment of the circumstances in its scope and detail. Wilson casts the seven circumstances as questions:

Who did the deede.

What was doen.

Where it was doen.

What helpe had he to it.

Wherefore he did it.

How he did it.

At what tyme he did it. (Arte 54.17–25)

He follows those questions with a felicitous verse containing eight terms:

Who, what, and where, by what helpe, and by whose:
Why, how and when, do many thynges disclose. (Arte 55.1–3).

His work overall offers orators a nuanced and strategically astute perspective for using the circumstances as inventional resources.

 “When we firste enter upon any matter,” Wilson writes, “it is wisdome to consider the tyme, the place, the man for whome we speake, the man against whom we speake, the matter whereof we speake, and the judges before whom we speake …” (36.18–23). The terms are widely applicable for inventional purposes. All “definite” questions require that the orator address such circumstances as person, time, and place (23.14–17). “These places helpe wonderfully, to set out any matter,” Wilson maintains, “and to amplifie it to the uttermost, not onely in praisyng, or dispraisyng, but also in all other causes where any advisement is to bee used” (55.4–7). The terms should always be employed strategically, not slavishly. “Yet this one thynge is to be learned, that it shall not bee necessarie, to use theim altogether,” he advises, “but rather as tyme and place shall best require” (55.7–11). Orators, then, should adjust their use of the terms to the constraints of their speaking situation.

The circumstances can be employed to invent “any parte of the Oration” (55.11). Wilson explicitly discusses their use for constructing introductions (210.8–11) and narrations (223.2–8; 224.4–8), with specific attention to judicial (224.18–225.5) and sermonic (227.1–6) narratives. Wilson draws from Cox’s Arte in his discussion of the demonstrative praising of persons, actions, and things (Derrick, lxxxv). He revisits the attributes of the praised person’s life (Wilson, 44.3–25) and employs the seven circumstances in praising actions with an extensive illustration of their use in generating materials for praising King David for the act of killing Goliath (54.14–64.6). Further, Wilson discusses the utility of circumstances for a hypothetical instance of advising a friend about the profitability of studying the law (91.17–92.22) and for making conjectures in a hypothetical trial of a soldier charged with murder (192.13–199.20). “Confirmation in matters of judgment,” in particular, partly turn on arguments generated from places related to persons (he lists eleven of them) (233.25–234.16), and partly on arguments about the alleged action generated from such terms as act, time, place, manner, and opportunity (234.21–235.6).

The circumstances have stylistic uses. They are central to enacting “amplification by conjectures” (263.8–16), illustrating their use “to prove by conjectures a murder committed” by compiling the accused’s attributes and circumstances together to solidify suspicions (263.16–265.3). The terms are also employed to generate vivid descriptions (356.18–20).Wilson elaborates this usage of the terms by listing and discussing eight questions he attributes to Quintilian (270.1–271.21). He further explains their use in “movyng affections” (269.4) by discussing how to vividly depict an evil actor and action. “The report must be suche and the offence made so hainouse, that the like hath not been seene heretofore,” he elaborates, “and al the circumstances must thus be heaped together” (269.7–9). Despite the merits of Wilson’s delineation of the precepts of classical Greek and Roman rhetoricians, his book’s popularity was short-lived (Derrick xci). As Ramism tightened its hold on pedagogy there was no place for rhetorical invention.

Dramaturgical Uses in Shakespeare’s England

The circumstantial terms had a profound inventional influence on the development of Elizabethan dramaturgy. Hutson accounted for the achievements of the “imagined dramatic world” of the latter half of sixteenth century English theatre in terms “of the compositional techniques of inventing arguments out of topics of circumstance” rather than of “innovations in theatrical mimesis—of staging or of bodies in performance” (171). The circumstances are employed to invent the arguments that actors delivered in their speeches, engaging with the audience’s “imagining of extramimetic elements as part of the play’s fabula—the times, places, and events that are merely implicit” (15). Audiences are thereby positioned “to infer psychology and imagine dramatic time and space” based on those invented “circumstantial arguments” (15). Hutson elaborates:

We . . . need to be able to think of Shakespeare and other dramatists reading chronicle histories and novelle with a mind to transforming their temporally and spatially expansive narratives into probable or provable arguments on the circumstantial topics of time and place. It is these arguments that enable audiences and readers to infer the exterior circumstances of time and place, as well as the inner circumstantial topic of causa or motive/purpose. Arguments enable audiences imaginatively to “conceive” the play’s temporality and shifts of location as believable and probable because they infer them in relation to the subjectivities—the motives and desires—of dramatis personae (42).

For Hutson, the circumstances are among “the techniques by which a complex sequence of events is persuasively invented and communicated, both within the fiction (between the dramatis personae) and to the audience or spectators” (5). Without inventional use of the circumstances, then, dramatists would be unable to shape how their audiences would imaginatively engage with the play unfolding before them.

Hutson analyzes several of Shakespeare’s plays, disclosing in detail the use of terms in Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, and MacBeth, among others. For example, the topic “quando?” is featured in her analysis of scenes from Romeo and Juliet. The Watch discovering the two lovers’ dead bodies illustrates:

Watch. The ground is bloudie, search around the churchyard.
Go, some of you, who ere you find attach.
Pitiful sight, heere lies the Countie slain,
And Juliet, bleeding, warme, and newlie dead:
Who here hath laine these two daies buried …
We see the ground whereon these woes do lye,
But the true ground of all these piteous woes
We cannot without circumstance descry (Qtd. in Hutson, 55–56)

Hutson agrees with commentaries that this scene shows that Shakespeare had technical knowledge about investigating conjectural issues using the circumstantial terms, presumably drawn from Ad Herennium (56). But she adds that that interpretation does not go far enough. Shakespeare’s pun “discriminates between the visible ‘bloudie’ ground (blood being a sign) and the ‘true ground’ which cannot be seen without circumstance” (56). “If we need ‘circumstance’ to see the ground in the sense of descrying motive or cause,” Hutson elaborates, “this alerts us to the way in which circumstances, in Renaissance compositional theory, are forms of enquiry that themselves constitute the rhetorical probability and imaginative visible reality of the motive or cause” (Hutson 56–57). We thus learn that Shakespeare is not merely showing “an enquiry into circumstances as the objective facts of the case; it is, rather, that questions of circumstance, particularly the circumstance of Time, themselves shape and render imaginable the narrative and explanatory ground (as ‘character’, as ‘motivation’) of the ‘piteous woes’ we witness in Romeo and Juliet” (57). Other chapters contain analyses that feature “opportunity” in Lucrece and in King Lear, “where?” and “how?” in Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Maid’s Tragedy, and “why?” or “motive” in Macbeth.

Vico’s Inventional Uses of the Terms

After the influence of Ramism and its emphasis on dialectic, the seventeenth century would turn to an entirely non-discursive logic exemplified by Rene Descartes’s Discourse on Method (1637) and Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole’s The Port-Royal Logic  (1662) (Howell 342–63). Rhetorical invention and the terms were further diminished. “Techniques of expression will still be taught,” Ong writes, “but all the while a curious subconscious hostility to speech in all its forms will eat away at the post-Ramus age…. Only after the Hegelian rehabilitation of the notion of dialogue and the later discrediting of the Newtonian universe would this hostility begin effectively to wane” (291).

The use of circumstantial terms and other topics declined from the late sixteenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries. One notable exception is eighteenth century rhetorician Giambattista Vico. Vico argues for the pedagogical use of topics rather than Cartesian logic in On the Study Methods of Our Time. Topics also play a central role in his “poetic logic,” as elucidated in The New Science. However, it is in his early work, The Art of Rhetoric (Institutiones oratoria), that we again encounter circumstantial terms among the topics.

In The Art of Rhetoric, Vico follows Cicero’s distinction between general and special topics. General loci are not treated as exclusive to philosophical disputation, nor are special topics exclusive to oratory. Evidently, just as orators needed topics such as “genus” and “species,” so too did dialecticians need such loci as “the agent,” “purpose,” and “collateral circumstances (verba adiuncta) of either thing or person in place or in time.” The peristases are fully incorporated in Vico’s survey of motive, possibility, and signs, three special loci for addressing conjectural issues in judicial oratory (58). Vico, like Cicero and Quintilian, also thought the circumstances useful for invention of narratives as well as of arguments. “A narration will be verisimilar if all of the circumstances of the fact are organized in a believable manner so that they agree with persons, things, times, places, motives, and events,” Vico writes. “[I]f the circumstances are fittingly consistent with the nature of things, with the characters of men, and common sense, so that the facts as they are presented will appear as they must have naturally happened,” Vico explains, the narrative will achieve verisimilitude (77). Vico did not stand alone in using the circumstances as resources of invention, as we shall see in the next section.

Inventional, Investigative, and Mnemonic Uses in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

The Ramist and Port Royalist conceptions of rhetoric were taught in American colleges prior to approximately 1750. Thereafter students were also taught classical-rhetorical doctrines (Thomas 193–210). "Although Quintilian and Aristotle still remained comparative strangers,” Thomas writes, “Cicero’s De oratore obtained wide circulation" (201–02). Cicero's speeches, rhetorical works and other writings were required in the curricula of nearly every American college," reports James M. Farrell ("Classical Rhetoric at Salem” 41).Such being the case, one would expect to encounter uses of the circumstantial terms in late 18th and 19th century oratory. In analyses of courtroom orations by two American orators, John Adams (“Pro Militibus Oratorio” 243) and Daniel Webster (“Classical Rhetoric as Salem” 52), and Irish lawyer John Philpot Curran ("Classical Rhetoric in the Legal Speeches of John Philpot Curran" 396), Farrell found that all three orators did employ the Ciceronian rendering of the circumstantial terms in their courtroom pleadings. Given the emphasis on classical education at the time, it seems unlikely that these uses of the terms are singular; rather, use of the terms in oratory of the period,  forensic or otherwise, was widespread. 

In the late nineteenth century, clergyman William Cleaver Wilkinson articulated a method of biblical study based upon earlier oratorical uses of the circumstantial terms that he called the “three Ws”: What? Why? What of it? Fellow clergyman Henry Clay Trumbull, a leader in the Sunday-School movement, gave an account of Wilkinson’s work in his book on Sunday-School instruction. Trumbull writes: “‘What? Why? What of it?’ is a plan of study of alliterative methods for the teacher, emphasized by Professor W.C. Wilkinson, not as original with himself, but as of venerable authority. ‘It is, in fact,’ he says, ‘an almost immemorial orator's analysis. First, the facts; next, the proof of the facts; then the consequences of the facts’” (120).  Trumbull further elaborates:

This analysis has often been expanded into one known as "The Five W's:""When? Where? Whom? What? Why?" Hereby attention is called, in the study of any lesson: to the date of its incidents; to their place or locality; to the person speaking or spoken to, or to the persons introduced, in the narrative; to the incidents or statements of the text; and, finally, to the applications and uses of the lesson teachings (120).

Trumbull thought that these questions were insufficient as a “guide to fitting and successful study” (121). They can point out “various directions of research” in lesson planning, but “one difficulty with them all is, that while they seem to give limitations, they really open up fields which are limitless” (121). The result of applying such questions as “Where,” “When,” and “Whom” would exhaust the inquirer long before it exhausted the Biblical subject under study for the planned lesson (121). “Suppose, for example, that … the ‘Whom’ included … Job,—how much longer than Methuselah would the man have to live before he reached the bottom of that lesson?” (121–22).

Nineteenth century orators and clergymen were not alone in turning to the “question words” as instruments of investigation and discovery. The “5Ws plus H” became commonplace in late nineteenth and early twentieth century journalism. Rudyard Kipling, a journalist as well as a literary figure, articulated that schema. In his Just So Stories the tale, “The Elephant’s Child,” was accompanied by a poem that begins as follows:

I KEEP six honest serving-men
   (They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When  
  And How and Where and Who.

I send them over land and sea,
   I send them east and west;

But after they have worked for me,
   I give them all a rest. (79)

Joseph Pulitzer’s “new journalism” probably exerted the most influence on making the 5Ws plus H a commonplace of journalistic composition, especially with respect to writing ledes. That schema provides a mnemonic for securing accuracy—the facts—for news stories. Novelist and journalist Theodore Dreiser wrote about the day he sought work as a reporter for Pulitzer’s New York World: “I looked about the great room … and saw pasted on the walls at intervals printed cards which read: Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy! Who? What? Where? When? How? The Facts—The Color—The Facts! I knew what those signs meant,” he continues, “the proper order for beginning a newspaper story” (Dreiser 467). These questions, which were taught in high school journalism courses as well as in the newly emerging university departments of journalism, became common practice in news writing. Although Frank Mott, writing in 1942, thought that they were outdated and waning (“Trends” 65), the 5Ws plus H are still employed in media news reporting today. In fact, a widely used contemporary journalism textbook, James Glen Stoval’s Journalism: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How, not only features the terms in its title but contains a chapter instructing students on their use in contemporary newswriting.

Theoretical Uses in the Twentieth Century

The philosophical school of pragmatism emerged in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a school that featured action rather than ideas or things as the focal source of human meaning. That philosophical movement would influence early twentieth century social theorizing in its formulation of social action as a central conceptual construct (Duncan, Symbols and Social Theory 200–07). Talcott Parson’s work exemplifies this emphasis.

Parsons argued that the “action frame of reference” is central to sociological explanation (Structure of Social Action 731–37). The core of that explanatory schema is the “unit act” (Structure 43). “Just as the units of a mechanical system in the classical sense, particles, can be defined only in terms of their properties, mass, velocity, location in space, direction of motion, etc.,” Parsons writes, “so the units of action systems also have certain basic properties without which it is not possible to conceive of the unit as ‘existing’” (Structure 43). Properties logically related to the “unit act” include: (1) “agent” or “actor”; (2) the purpose or the “end” in view; (3) the “situation” in which the act occurs, which includes “conditions of action” that the actor “cannot alter, or prevent from being altered, in conformity with his end,” and situational features that the actor can alter and control as “means” for securing the end; and (4) “a normative orientation of action” involved in the “choice of alternative means to the end” (Structure 44; also 732–33). He writes of the normative dimension: “Within the area of control of the actor, the means employed cannot, in general, be conceived either as chosen at random or as dependent exclusively on the conditions of action, but must in some sense be subject to the influence of an independent, determinate selective factor, a knowledge of which is necessary to the understanding of the concrete course of action. What is essential to the concept of action is that there should be a normative orientation, not that this should be of any particular type” (Structure 44–45). Parsons adds that “the time category is basic to the scheme” (Structure 45). Altogether, then, Parsons articulates a logically integrated framework of individually necessary and collectively sufficient terms for explaining and understanding “all change and process in the action field” (Structure 733).

Harold D. Lasswell designated constituents of political and communicative processes in circumstantial terms. Politics, in contrast with government or the state, consists of responses to questions implied by the title of his book: Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. This perspective, Lasswell contends, “underlies the working attitude of practicing politicians” (7). “One skill of the politician,” Lasswell explains, “is calculating probable changes in influence and the influential” (7). His book purportedly details the “methods of the influential” (symbols, violence, goods, practices) that “elites” employ for acquiring “consequences for the influential” (27), such as the most “deference,” “income,” and “safety” relative to the uninfluential “mass” (13). In “The Structure and Function of Communication in Society,” Lasswell defines “the act of communication” in circumstantial terms:

Says What
In Which Channel
To Whom
With What Effect? (37)

“Who” relates to “factors that initiate and guide” communicative action, “Says what” relates to the action’s content, “Channels” are the media through which the message is conveyed, “To whom” designates the “persons reached by the media,” and the “impact upon audiences” is its “effect” (37). Lasswell accords a distinct area of scientific study to each of these five features of communicative action: respectively, control analysis,  content analysis, media analysis, audience analysis, and effects analysis (37).

Richard Braddock adds two additional features: “for WHAT PURPOSE” and “under WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES” (“An Extension of the ‘Lasswell Formula’” 88). Braddock thus stresses, respectively, end or aim and time or setting. He also maintains that Lasswell’s five “considerations are interrelated” and could not be assigned to “distinct fields of study” (88). With these amendments, the “process” or the “act” of communication answered seven questions: Who? What? To whom? What circumstances (time and setting)? What medium? What purpose? What effect? (88).

Kenneth Burke’s Original and Innovative Uses of the Circumstantial Terms

Kenneth Burke’s “original formula,” “the formula” that served as “the basis of the pentad (hexad),” was “the mediaeval Latin hexameter: quis (who), quid (what), ubi (where), quibus auxiliis (by what means), cur (why), quo modo (how) and quando (when)” (“Counter-Gridlock” 366; also “Questions and Answers About the Pentad” 332, and “Afterword” 393–94). Thomas Aquinas seems to have been the only other influence on Burke’s formulation of the terms. Burke’s writings show no acquaintance with the inventional uses of the terms by Greco-Roman and later rhetoricians. Nor was he acquainted with Aristotle's salient discussion of the terms: "I could have cited, if I had known it, a related passage in Nicomachean Ethics" (“Questions and Answers 332). Burke, however, transformed the Latin hexameter into a universal grammar of human motives. As we will show, Burke’s dramatism, with its notion of pentadic ratios and its correlation of philosophical schools of thought with pentadic terms, represents probably the single greatest innovation in the long history of the circumstantial terms.

Burke made original use of the circumstantial terms, envisioning them as critical resources for disclosing human motivations in linguistic texts. “Any complete statement about motives,” Burke states, “will offer some kind of answers to these five questions: what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose)” (Grammar xv). Burke described the terms as “the basic forms of thought” that “are exemplified in the attributing of motives” in “accordance with the nature of the world” as all persons “necessarily experience it” (Grammar xv). Burke’s understanding of the terms, however, represents a striking departure from the traditional view in that he considered circumstances not as features of “real” or situated experience but rather as designating “the necessary forms of talk about experience” (Grammar 317). Some have misunderstood Burke, thinking that he used the terms, as rhetoricians historically have, to analyze “real” persons and contexts in generating arguments for discourse. But Burke did not use the terms that way. He limited their use to “talk about” experience and he did not apply them to actual situated experience. Burke described his “concern” as “primarily with the analysis of language rather than the analysis of ‘reality’” (Grammar 317). Burke thus transformed the terms into critical instruments useful in analyzing existing texts, at the same time ignoring their traditional usage in creating texts. Previous uses of the terms for generative purposes and Burke’s intended use for critically engaging texts are miles apart. “My job,” Burke writes, “was not to help a writer decide what he might say to produce a text. It was to help a critic perceive what was going on in a text that was already written” (“Questions and Answers” 332). In a 1980 interview, Burke further elaborated on his use of the terms: “The theory of my pentad (or hexad) tells me what kinds of questions to ask of a work and by inspecting the work I enable it to give me the answers” (“Counter-Gridlock” 364). Burke’s exclusive use of the terms for engaging texts represents a departure from the traditional generative uses of the terms. In fact, the only other person included in our survey who limited the terms exclusively to the analysis of texts, as Burke does, was the thirteenth century philologist John of Garland.

Although Burke did not himself use the terms to create texts he did see such usage as legitimate. This can be seen in his discussion of William Irmscher’s book, The Holt Guide to English, which Burke describes as “a handbook of rhetoric, language, and literature” (“Questions and Answers” 330). The book discusses Burke’s pentad and recommends its use for inventional purposes in composing essays. Burke opines that Irmscher has made “good use” of “some terms I worked with in my Grammar of Motives” (“Questions and Answers” 330). “My relation to the terms differs somewhat from their role in the Irmscher handbook, yet there would be nothing invidious in the distinction,” Burke says, “Both uses have their place” (“Questions and Answers” 330). Irmscher’s  inventional use of the terms and Burke’s endorsement of it inspired proposals that the terms also be used in composing  speeches: “Dramatism, with its pentad and its notion of pentadic ratios, constitutes both a powerful and an elegant heuristic for generating motivational arguments for suasory discourse” (Kneupper and Anderson, “Uniting Wisdom and Eloquence” 323 and Kneupper, “Dramatistic Invention” 130–36).

The originality of Burke’s use of the terms in dramatism is further shown by his correlation of them with distinct philosophical nomenclatures (Grammar xvi–xvii). This is one of the most innovative uses of the terms in their long history, converting them into a dialectical instrument for placement and sorting of ideologies and systems of thought. “Dramatistically,” Burke writes, “the different philosophic schools are to be distinguished by the fact that each school features a different one of the five terms, in developing a vocabulary designed to allow this one term full expression (as regards its resources and its temptations) with the other terms being comparatively slighted or being placed in the perspective of the featured term” (Grammar 127). When act is featured, the philosophical terminology is realism; with scene, it is materialism; with agent, idealism; with agency, pragmatism; and when purpose is featured, the terminology is mysticism (Grammar 128). Burke breaks the “symmetry” of these correlations by adding nominalism and rationalism. Nominalism “applies to all the other six schools insofar as each of them can have either a collectivistic or an individualistic (‘nominalist’) emphasis” (Grammar 129). Rationalism applies across them all “in the sense that it is the perfection, or logical conclusion, or reductio ad absurdum of the philosophic métier” (Grammar 129). Overall, according to Burke, the terms taken alone and in their abstract grammatical interrelations could be considered analogically “as principles” and “the various philosophies as casuistries which apply these principles to temporal situations” (Grammar xvi).

Burke maintains that “a Grammar of motives” is concerned “with the terms alone, in their purely internal relationships,” “their possibilities of transformation, their range of permutations and combinations” (Grammar xvi). This concern exhibits another innovative use of the terms, namely, the pentadic ratios which enable the naming of “forms necessarily exemplified in the imputing of human motives” (Grammar 402). Because of their interrelationships and because they never stand alone in human interactions, pentadic ratios form a range of different word pairs, correlations, analogies or ratios. The concept of ratio is important because motives cannot be imputed without them. Single terms cannot impute motives. Burke initially distinguished ten ratios: “scene-act, scene-agent, scene agency, scene-purpose, act-purpose, act-agent, act-agency, agent-purpose, agent-agency, and agency-purpose” (15). These ten are reversible, increasing the number to twenty. In the 1969 edition of Grammar, Burke added attitude as a sixth term, converting the pentad into a hexad (Grammar 443–44), yielding five “attitudinal” ratios, also reversible, yielding an overall total of thirty ratios. However they are variously manifested, whether in written texts or in other symbolic forms, the ratios altogether encompass the full range of formal possibilities for motivations; they are “necessary,” linguistic forms and are thus ubiquitous in human thought, motivation and action. Burke describes his method of criticism as “synoptic” in “that it offers a system of placement, and should enable us, by the systematic manipulation of the terms, to ‘generate’ or ‘anticipate’ the various classes of motivational theory” (Grammar xxii–xxiii). Relationships disclosed among terms are universal because “all statements that assign motives can be shown to arise out of them and to terminate in them” (Grammar xvi).

Burke was long conflicted over whether or not five terms were sufficient to encompass the full range of human motives or if a sixth term, attitude, was also needed.  In his initial formulation of the pentad, Burke conflated quibus auxiliis (by what means) with quo modo (how), combining them under a single term, agency (Grammar 443). In the section of Grammar entitled “‘Incipient’ and ‘Delayed’ Action” he made attitudinal considerations “implicit” in act and agent, negating any need for a hexad (Grammar 235–47; also see Anderson and Althouse, “Five Fingers or Six” paras 16–20). “What I did in making it a hexad,” Burke explained, “was to make a difference between” “how” and “by what means.” “It really is an improvement,” Burke contended. “‘How’ is your attitude, and ‘by what means’ is your instrument” (“Counter-Gridlock,” 367). Burke confided to an interviewer in 1980 that his initial decision to use five rather than six terms had been influenced by personal rather than theoretical considerations. “I cheated in a way when I worked with it as a pentad, and I always think I did it as a pentad because I only had five children (“Counter-Gridlock,” 366). The interview tellingly continued:

KB: If I’d had six …
FG: If you’d had nine!
KB: Oh God! Eaneads . . . “ (“Counter-Gridlock,” 366).

Discernable from this jocular exchange is the implication that the pentad could not only have been a hexad but also a septad or even an eanead. Unbeknownst to Burke and his interlocutor is that there is substantial precedent for a septad in the classical peristases, and even for an octad in Aquinas’s and Thomas Wilson’s renderings of the terms. The pentad/hexad can be theorized to accommodate any number of terms. Whether pentad or hexad, Burke never wavered from his original position that the terms in their various combinations and interconnections can disclose the “forms of talk about experience” as they are manifested in linguistic texts.

Burke-Inspired Uses of the Terms

Cognitive psychologist Jerome S. Bruner also made use of the circumstantial terms in developing his concept of “Trouble with a capital T,” a concept especially useful to narrative psychologists. Bruner was influenced by Burke’s Grammar of Motives as well as by discussions he and Burke had “typically while sipping coffee somewhere”  (“RE: Trouble with a capital T”). Burke’s Grammar stresses consistency between the terms of paired pentadic ratios, but Bruner, a psychologist accustomed to dealing with “troubled” people, was inclined to identify the incongruous relationships (mismatches, imbalances) between the terms that were causing the Trouble (Bruner, Making Stories, 110n1; Althouse and Anderson, “‘Trouble with a Capital T ,’’’paras 2, 11, 24). Bruner contends that the presumed consistency between terms is grounded in cultural beliefs, norms and expectations, the violation of which, in the form of incongruous or mismatched terms, leads to “Trouble” (Bruner, “Narrative Construction of Reality,” 16; Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, 20–21). “Story structure is composed minimally of the pentad of an Agent, an Action, a Goal, a Setting, an Instrument—and Trouble,” says Bruner. “Trouble is what drives the drama, and it is generated by a mismatch between two or more of the five constituents of Burke’s pentad” (Bruner, “Life as Narrative,” 697). Trouble “can be a misfit between Agent and Action, Goal and Setting, any of the five elements of the pentad,” Bruner maintains (Making Stories, 34). He did not see Trouble as a separate pentadic term but rather as a relationship between the existing terms when they are paired in ratios (Althouse and Anderson, “‘Trouble with a Capital T’”, para. 12). Trouble requires redress, and when redress is not possible, the unresolved Trouble could become the new norm. For the narrative psychologist, locating the Trouble in a client's story is an essential step in devising a program of therapeutic treatment.

An increasingly common usage of the terms in the last half of the twentieth century was made by rhetorical critics. The earliest attempts to employ Burke’s pentad for critical purposes were disappointing, but later pentadic criticism showed more sophistication and was frequently insightful and thought provoking. A list of exemplary pentadic critiques would include the following: Ling’s pentadic analysis of Edward Kennedy’s 1969 speech regarding his involvement in the Chappaquiddick drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne (Ling); Brummett’s use of the terms to explicate discourses about gay rights (Brummett); Blankenship, Fine and Davis’s pentadic analysis of Ronald Reagan’s debate performance in the 1980 presidential primary election (Blankenship et. al.); Birdsell’s utilization of the terms in critiquing Ronald Reagan’s address on Lebanon and Grenada (Birdsell); Kelley’s use of the terms to explain the narrow election defeat of Idaho Congressman George Hansen despite the fact that he faced four felony charges for financial wrongdoing (Kelley); Bello’s employment of pentadic ratios to clarify the “political correctness” confrontation in higher education (Bello); Brown’s use of the terms both to define feminist rhetoric and to critique a text (Brown); Althouse, Gable and Hughes’ use of the pentad plus Bruner’s Trouble to analyze “recovery narratives” of people who stutter (Althouse et. al.); and Fisher’s use of the terms to discover the motivations underlying a murder-suicide (Fisher).

Early in the twenty first century, an extension of Burke’s pentad, pentadic cartography, was developed by Floyd D. Anderson and Lawrence J. Prelli. According to Anderson and Prelli, advanced industrial civilization is so pervaded with a technological rationality that it fosters a closed universe of thought and discourse that stifles and silences all other points of view (“Pentadic Cartography” 73).The task of the pentadic cartographer is to open the universe of discourse to alternate, competing perspectives. Several other authors have employed pentadic cartography. Beck employed pentadic cartography plus Bruner’s Trouble to analyze the narratives of mothers who had experienced birth traumas (“Mapping Birth Trauma Narratives”). More recently she analyzed the narratives of women suffering from postpartum psychosis (“Mapping Postpartum Psychosis Narratives”). Meisenbach, Remke, Buzzanell and Liu employed pentadic cartography to map women’s maternity leave discourse (Meisenbach et al). DePalma, Ringer and Webber mapped speeches by Sharon Crowley and Barack Obama and discovered that although both individuals intended to open the universe of discourse, they both unintentionally closed it (DePalma et al). Althouse, Prelli and Anderson mapped Lee Strobel’s book about intelligent design and discovered that, unlike science, which is grounded in scene, intelligent design is grounded in the opinions of human agents (“Mapping the Rhetoric of Intelligent Design"). Althouse mapped discourse generated by an adult Bible study group who had studied and discussed Lee Strobel’s book. He found that their understanding of ID closed the universe of discourse to perspectives other than idealism (“Charting the Idealism of Intelligent Design”). McClure mapped media coverage of the 1993 Great Flood of the Mississippi and discovered that media accounts of the disaster closed the universe of discourse around a single, preferred perspective (McClure). Bates examined two potential mappings of a speech by Michael Levitt, a pragmatic agency-purpose map and an idealistic agent-act map, and he assessed both for their ability to open the universe of discourse (“Mapping US Humanitarian Aid”). In a second study, Bates examined two competing maps of a speech by Kathleen Sibellius outlining a new strategy for global health (“Mapping International Health”). Li and McKerrow identified two potential mappings of Xi Jinping’s Keynote speech to the Belt and Road Forum and demonstrated that the speech was an attempt to enhance the influence of China’s discourse (Li and McKerrow).

Most pentadic critics have used the terms the way Burke used them, to interpret and critique existing texts which “talk” about experience. A few, however, have misunderstood Burke and have used the terms the way rhetoricians have traditionally used them, to interpret and critique actual, lived experiences. Pentadic cartography, by contrast, was specifically designed to interpret and critique existing texts. However, once pentadic maps have revealed the existence of hegemonic perspectives that close the universe of discourse, it becomes the task of the cartographer/critic to invent counter-statements that attempt to reopen the closed universe of discourse. So, pentadic cartography employs the terms both for criticism and for invention.


Our historical survey shows that the circumstantial terms are among those “resources of symbolism” that Burke maintained “have always been the same” (Counter-Statement 370). The terms are not tied to any specific historical time, place, culture, occasion, agent, or usage. Rather, they have been generative of a myriad of historically specific uses and functions. The ubiquity of the terms for nearly three millennia provides strong support for Burke’s contention that they are “transcendental” terms that represent “the basic forms of thought” which accord  “with the nature of the world” as all people “necessarily experience it” (Grammar xv, 317).

Our survey enabled us to more fully appreciate the originality of Burke’s dramatistic pentad/hexad by setting it against previous uses and functions of the circumstantial terms. Virtually all previous rhetoricians have used the terms for inventional purposes, using them to analyze people and situations in the “real” world. Burke’s pentad/hexad is a departure from that tradition. For Burke the terms are concerned not with actual existence. For him the terms designate only “the necessary forms of talk” about experience. He employs them exclusively for criticism, the critical engagement of linguistic texts. However, as we have shown, Burke did recognize the utility of the terms for generative purposes.

Although Burke’s pentad/hexad departs from tradition, it also represents one of the most original and innovative uses in the long history of the terms. Burke’s equation of the pentadic terms with philosophical schools of thought provides a powerful heuristic for sorting out, charting, and placing discrete systems of thought. Equally innovative is Burke’s notion of pentadic ratios for disclosing motives embedded in language.

Finally, our survey of the terms in their varied uses also provides convincing historical support for Burke’s contention that “the dramatistic screen” is sanctioned by a “collective revelation of long standing” (“Terministic Screens” 53–54). That the collective revelation is continuous and ongoing is evidenced by a recently designed framework for teaching critical thinking in secondary schools called “The Ultimate Cheatsheet for Critical Thinking” (Wabisabi Learning). That framework consists of the terms who, what, when, where, why, and how, each of which serves as a prompt for several critical questions. This recent novel use of the terms suggests the possibility of other similar new uses. Our survey of the terms’ varied historical uses and functions further underscores Burke’s observation that they are transcendental because they are “the basic forms of thought” (Grammar 317).

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A Technological Psychosis: The Problem with “Overfishing” in the Magnuson-Stevens Act

Karen Gulbrandsen
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth


A group of scientists publicly advocated to remove the word “overfishing” from the Magnuson Stevens Act, calling its use metaphorical. I draw on Burke’s terministic screens and technological psychosis to trace the implications embedded in the term and show how a terminological screen can become entrenched in dialectics that substantiate technology and innovation. This case raises questions about how to counter-balance a technological rationality that continues to dominate our perspective on many public issues.


Kenneth Burke began his essay “Terministic Screens” by making a distinction between a “scientistic” and a “dramatistic” approach to language: language as instrumental and language as suasive or motivated. In many ways, this distinction illustrates Burke’s ongoing meditations about the power of language to be used as a tool and the need to recognize the ways in which language motivates action.

In this essay, I examine “overfishing” as a terminology in a federal regulation. In 1976, Congress approved the Fishery Conservation and Management Act, a law that established a 200-mile fishery conservation zone as well as regional fishery management councils to prevent “overfishing”—certain stocks of fish had been overfished to the point where their survival was threatened; other stocks had been substantially reduced. As the primary law that now governs marine fisheries management in United States federal waters, the Act has undergone many amendments, a name change, and three reauthorizations. Commonly known as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Act (shortened to MSA), the Act is once again up for reauthorization. During the reauthorization process, a group of scientists publicly advocated in research journals and other forums to remove the word “overfishing” from the ten National Standards that operationalize the act. Drawing on more than one hundred years of research done across the globe, they want to move the language away from “overfishing” as the organizing term for regulating how fish stocks are managed in the United States. In his article “On the Birth and Death of Ideas in Marine Science,” Brian J. Rothschild summarized the problem. He called its use “uncritical,” arguing it is “not a scientific metric,” and is therefore “a metaphor that refers to any relatively low stock abundance with regard to the cause of depletion” (1241). In 2015/16, the House of Representatives declined public appeals by scientists and others to replace the term “overfishing” with “depleted” in the MSA (Department of Commerce, NOAA, Final Rule).

In this case, “overfishing” moved from describing a problem to being the problem (and cause) of depleted fish stocks in our oceans. Although it creates a form that allows audiences to participate in a public issue, it also directs a perspective that misrepresents the totality of the problem. Furthermore, the term doesn’t correspond with how many in the scientific community think we should be talking about and regulating depleted fish stocks. In general, federal regulations manage human action and intent. But the language used in regulations also embeds choices related to who and what gets privileged in the discourse. In this case, the problem with “overfishing” isn’t so much that it is a metaphor, but that it has come to circumscribe a problematic orientation. This is not to say that scientists disagree that overfishing exists and needs to be addressed. Rather, the scope of the term is insufficient, narrowly circumscribing and amplifying a motivation that has become dissonant with localized knowledge from scientists and fishers about how to approach the problem. Although the form “overfishing” assigns human culpability, it is also entrenched within dialectics that substantiate innovation and an over-emphasis on the technological to solve problems.

In this essay, I draw on Burke’s concepts related to language and technology to analyze the implications of “overfishing” in the MSA, because, in many ways, this case underscores the tension Burke identified between a “scientistic” and a “dramatistic” approach to language. First, I describe the problem in greater detail. Then, I examine Burke’s concept called “technological psychosis” to consider the implications of privileging a scientistic view of language. In this case, the term became an overarching schema that set the conditions to conceptualize and enforce regulatory actions. As a corrective, however, the terminology institutionalized a calculation that cannot be measured. Statements are “true” if they fall within this terministic screen. But the term also came to define and measure the value of a natural resource within economic systems of credit. Placing so much value on the system has the potential to both displace the authority of both fishers and scientists and to distance public interest. This case has implications for the ways in which terminology orients agency when it comes to making change, and it demonstrates the need to activate places to negotiate and debate a technological attitude that continues to dominate our discourse.


Although marine fisheries must comply with a number of federal regulations, the MSA has “chief authority” for fisheries in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (Department of Commerce, NOAA, MSA). Since 1976, fisheries management has undergone many changes, mandating fisheries comply with different systems intended to limit and measure fishing activity. In 2012, the National Marine Fisheries Service began to solicit public comments on potential changes to the ten national standards that operationalize the Act. Before, during, and after this public commenting period, many marine scientists published articles in peer-reviewed journals and presented at conferences and seminars to explain why overfishing should be removed from National Standard 1, which states: “(1) Conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing while achieving, on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from each fishery” (MSA Public Law 94–265, Sec. 201 (a)).

But as scientists have demonstrated, “overfishing” is not a scientific construct. In fact, scientists have shown that models to quantify the fluctuations in fish stocks don’t work. As Michael M. Sissenwine, Pamela M. Mace, and Hans J. Lassen explained, almost all of the frameworks used to prevent overfishing are based on a concept called Maximum Sustainable Yield (154) or the “highest yield that can be taken from a stock on a sustained basis” (167). This concept was first developed in the 1930s by E.S. Russell in a paper called “Some Theoretical Considerations on the ‘Overfishing’ Problem,” in which he put forward principles for assessing fish stocks that continue to underpin today’s frameworks. In his paper, however, Russell qualified his work, noting that the task was difficult because the “conditions to be taken into account are extremely complex and extremely variable, and the data available are as a rule incomplete and not always easy to interpret in an unequivocal way” (3). In the 1930s, the model was further developed and became instantiated in the curriculum of fisheries science.1 But Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) remains “a theoretical construct.”2 It is conditional on “fishing practices (such as size selection and the realized harvest strategy) and environmental and ecological factors”—it is “virtually never obtainable” (Sissenwine, Mace, and Lassen 154). Although current frameworks for defining MSY and overfishing targets are well understood, they are based on measuring a single species in isolation of the ecosystem as a whole. Russell’s caution in 1931 still holds. A framework for “revising the reference points in response to changes in fishing practice or environmental and ecological factors is generally lacking” (Sissenwine, Mace, and Lassen 154). This isn’t to say, however, that scientists don’t want to regulate fishing. Rather, they have shown that they cannot provide the theoretical model for measuring fish stocks as a regulatory mechanism.

In addition, many have shown that the models fail to describe the dynamics of fish populations (Rothschild, “The Overfishing Metaphor” 2). Ray Hilborn and Kevin Stokes pointed out that “many of the definitions of being overfished (or of overfishing) now in place cannot be justified on biological or legal grounds” (114). In their preface, Sissenwine, Mace, and Lassen argued that “a significant proportion of the reported success in rebuilding overfished stocks in the United States was a result of reassessing the stocks (not actual improvement in their status)” (155). In their response to the Discussion Draft of National Standard 1, the Center for Sustainable Fisheries explained that there are different models for calculating and interpreting overfishing, creating what they called an “ambiguity.” Two investigators using the same data can arrive at two different conclusions about the level of overfishing (Center for Sustainable Fisheries). In seminars at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, scientists agreed that the science has moved beyond the theoretical model under which the MSA was written, and which governs current management and conservation measures. They argued for more collaborative models of research, integrating results from fishermen and from other disciplines to help them understand the reproductive mechanisms of fish stocks that account for the effects of climate change and pollution on the ecosystem.3 The question they want to address is how to integrate results from other disciplines in ethical ways (Cadrin).

In subsequent reauthorizations of the Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, however, “overfishing” became institutionalized, signifying an overall system for measuring the value and success of regulations. Hilborn and Stokes explained: “In the United States, and increasingly elsewhere, stopping stocks from becoming overfished, and stopping overfishing, have become the holy grails of fisheries management” (119). Rothschild called it a “preoccupation” (“On the Birth and Death” 1), and Rothschild et al., a “de facto management goal” (7). Goethel et al. argued that “the incorrect implementation of overfishing and sustainable terminology has led to unnecessarily stringent management, overly pessimistic fisheries outlooks, and unwarranted hardship to fishing communities” (1). In addition, scientists have claimed that today’s systems for managing fish stocks are “arbitrarily defined” (Goethel et al.), “rigid” (Rothschild, “Overfishing Metaphor” 2), and “prescriptive” (Sissenwine et al. 155), referring to the one-size-fits-all-species solutions now in place. In many ways, the term itself not only emphasizes a technological orientation, but it has also become a technological psychosis, an overarching schema that sets the conditions under which the regulations as a whole are conceptualized and enforced. “Overfishing” sums up the terms of action. Statements about overfishing are “true” if those statements calculate or terminate within this reason for fluctuating fish stocks.

Technological Psychosis

Throughout his work, Burke theorized a number of concepts about how to counter-balance a technological rationality that continues to dominate our perspective on many public issues. In his essay on “The Human Barnyard,” Ian Hill argued that Burke’s concept of rhetoric is like a fulcrum that negotiates the humanistic and the technological. Hill says, “Rhetoric mediates natural, physiological human necessity by upholding or altering the demands of the counter-natural technological environment: people mold technology, technology molds the situation, and people utilize rhetoric to induce remolding technology to transform society” (9). In other words, rhetoric mediates that push and pull between valorizing technology for all that it can bring to our lives and then regulating the implications of that valorization. In his Afterward to Attitudes Toward History, Burke wrote that he saw Permanence and Change as “a confrontation of permanent technologic change” and introduced “technological psychosis” as a terminology for explaining and critiquing the habits (emphases, discriminations, attitudes, dispositions) that orient and give value to practice and purpose (377). He called it “the one psychosis which is, perhaps, in its basic patterns, contributing a new principle to the world. It is at the center of our glories and distresses” (Permanence and Change 44). Throughout his essays and books, Burke engaged questions about the extent to which all of nature is instrumented and the permanence of technological change. As Floyd D. Anderson and Lawrence J. Prelli noted, the urgency for Burke had to do with whether contemporary discourse discourages or even permits discussion of public issues, such as the impacts of technological change, from a range of perspectives (73).

In his essay “In Haste,” Burke explained the principles related to the permanence of technological change and a state he called Counter Nature. He said, “our ways of life and livelihood are notably different from the conditions that our primordial ancestors lived under, prior to the many inventions which have changed the environment radically enough for it to have become a kind of ‘second nature’” (340). In other words, the technological has become so ingrained into our habits and dispositions that we may not recognize its embeddedness. For Burke, this move to Counter Nature followed the third great rationalization of humans: science or “the attempt to control for our purposes the forces of technology, or machinery” (Permanence and Change 44). Here, science is defined via a technologized, mechanized way of explaining the world, marking a shift from religion to science as the schema for justifying patterns of thinking and doing. For example, in a religious schema, concepts such as heaven and hell shape patterns for what Burke called the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” Under a what he called a “scientific rationalization,” it is the doctrine of use or the promise of what the tool can afford that shapes those patterns. In that shift, we have moved from faith, hope, and creed in the eternal to control and credit (use) in the present, in what things will do for us now, as the prime mover of judgment (Burke, “In Haste” 373). This rationalization formally established “the secular as the point of reference by which to consider questions of valuation,” with which we judge our actions (Burke, Permanence and Change 45). The questions then become, without religion, what is the mechanism for naming the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” and shaping the actions we find praiseworthy and blameworthy? In his essay “Definition of Man,” Burke introduced the concept of Negative Motivation to note the irony that for all the positive that comes with new technology, technology has also introduced a “vast new era of negativity.” He continued, “For they are deadly indeed, unless we make haste to develop the controls (the negative the thou-shalt-not’s) that become necessary if these great powers are to be kept from getting out of hand” (LASA 13). The danger for Burke is the glorified version of mechanized, technologized, a-contextual conception of use— “innovation upon innovation” without regard to consequence, a technological psychosis that celebrates the instrumental and elides human need or consequence as the place of judgment.

In many ways, “overfishing” became the instrument to manage the problem, constituting a system for how different approaches to the managing fish stocks are valued. In many respects, it underscores Burke’s questions about the extent to which all language is instrumental. In her keynote address to the KB Society, Jodie Nicotra referenced Burke’s question as to whether “we simply use words, or do they not also use us?” (6) to argue Burke saw language as more than instrumental and conceived it “less as an instrument than as a force that subsumes us” (2). As Burke argued:

We discern situational patterns by means of the particular vocabulary of the cultural group into which we are born. Our minds, as linguistic products, are composed of concepts (verbally molded) which select certain relationships as meaningful. Other groups may select other relationships as meaningful. These relationships are not realities, they are interpretations of reality—hence different frameworks of interpretation will lead to different conclusions as to what reality is. (Permanence and Change 35).

In other words, terms, such as overfishing, embody relationships and situational patterns for what constitutes positive and negative motivations. We interpret and express the praiseworthy and the blameworthy through the use of symbols. But, not only that, the force that Nicotra references may have to do with Burke’s observation in his afterward to Permanence and Change that what makes us human (as opposed to animals) is not only that we use symbols, but that we can also both profit by and institutionalize their use. He says, “other organisms cannot profit by the kinds of attention and communication that made it possible for our tribe to institutionalize such instrumentalities” (Permanence and Change 309).

In this essay, I argue that part of that institutionalization has to do with a dialectic between faith and credit—faith in the technological system and an adherence to the credit it brings. So not only do we have the push/pull of technology, or the need to both manage and to innovate, but also faith that we can innovate our way out of problems and continue to profit. When such institutionalization becomes a trained incapacity to not recognize the perspectives or motives that substantiate an instrumentality, human agency is certainly tempered. Hence, a technological psychosis is an institutionalized attitude or pattern of thought, symbolized in language, and interpreted through frameworks that place value on some actions and relationships and not others. In this way, technology is both structuring and motivated. Under a technological rationalization, the danger to over-value the instrumental closes off and devalues alternate ways for doing. By privileging the instrumental, we also de-privilege agents and deflect the motivating force of technology. 

As Anderson and Prelli explained, Burke’s methods allow us to expose how “‘legitimate’ perspectives are reduced ultimately to the terms of a single technological system of thought and discourse” and to “reopen that closed system through construction of an alternative vocabulary to those privileged in a technological society” (73). Analysis shows terms in relation to one another. Concepts such as technological psychosis help us to recognize that all perspectives are partial and partisan, and, as James P. Zappen argued, give us ways to re-examine and unsettle “unreflective patterns and properties” (213) showing how terms are substantiated in relation to other terms: “to know a thing is to know its substance (or sub-stance), to know what lies beneath it — hence the dialectical relationship” (214). Our instrumentalities, our use of symbols, have a sub-stance, a position. As positioned, the dialectic that substantiates patterns of thought and systems of use can be observed and unsettled.

As a case for understanding language as a system of use, the MSA is interesting because scientists have questioned the discourse that has dominated regulatory action, calling for alternative language and perspectives to open up discussion and methods for conserving and protecting fisheries. Although this law has generated hundreds (if not thousands) pages of documents related to its enforcement and use (e.g., white papers, news reports, seminars, open forums, public comments, letters to the editor, opinion pages, and research by academics, governmental agencies, and nonprofits), I focus on a group of marine scientists’ problems with the language in National Standard 1. As Rothschild explained, the use of the word “overfishing” in National Standard 1 has had the “triple effect of eliminating major short-falls in current implementation, such as, ignoring economic and social impacts, focusing on the impractical and scientifically specious term ‘overfishing,’ and restricting the Councils to formulate regulations that limit their flexibility in dealing with on-the-ground fisheries management decisions” (“Rewriting” 1). Here, Rothschild recognized the power of a term to not only shape and place value on systems of use but also to become subsuming. The text for National Standard 1 is short. But it was the focal point for this group of scientists. And it demonstrates how a term has taken on a technological rationality that shifts power to the technological system and away from human agency in relation to permanent technological change. 

Overfishing as a Technologized Construct

Predominant in National Standard 1 is the act, “overfishing,” that is/is not to take place, and the corresponding acts to conserve, manage, and protect. The practice exists, and consistent with the purpose of a regulatory law, it needs to be managed. That realism is then followed by a pragmatic solution. National Standard 2 states “(2) Conservation and management measures shall be based upon the best scientific information available” (Public Law 94–265, Sec. 201 (a)). These two standards work to together as problem-solution, a dialectical symmetry that suggests that we can control or regulate for our own purposes the forces of nature. In this way, scientific information takes on a technological orientation that presupposes that the instrumental can solve the problem. This underlying dialectic of “overfishing” privileges the instrumental as the regulatory mechanism.

In this case, however, the solution is not the only technologized construct. Historically, the problem has also been rationalized within technological terminologies and the instrumental use of fish. As early as the 1850s, the term was used to make arguments to mitigate the impact of technology on fisheries. In her history of marine science, Helen Rozwadowski (2002) traced the term “overfishing” to an 1854 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, recounting John Cleghorn’s exhortations about dramatic fluctuations in herring stocks: “May we not have drawn over liberally on our shoals of herring? With such appliances may we not have overfished the sea?” (241). In his address, Cleghorn called on the Association to “lend important assistance towards the saving of our fish” and to preserve a “perennial source of wealth to the nation” (242). Following his remarks, a series of Royal Commissions were established to study “various manifestations of the purported problem” (Rozwadowski 27). This early attempt to mitigate the impact of technology on a natural resource was done by linking fish to their economic value—a perspective that places fish not only in its “natural” environment, but also in a technological one, one that provides wealth to a nation.

Likewise, in the United States, “overfishing” was used to organize arguments related to economic interests. This time, those arguments related to fishing by foreign fleets in coastal waters. Prior to the MSA, waters beyond 12 nautical miles were international waters and fished by fleets from other countries, including Soviet trawlers. Even though overfishing was recognized as a problem worldwide, international agreements were slow to come. With the MSA, Congress claimed authority and expanded U.S. jurisdiction from 12 to 200 offshore. Citing the economic benefits of commercial and recreational fishing to the United States, the Act attributed the depletion of certain stocks to “the activities of massive foreign fishing fleets in waters adjacent to such coastal areas” (sec. 2 (3)), which interfered with domestic fishing, damaging fishing gear and ignoring international agreements (sec. 2 (4)) (Fisheries Conservation and Management Act). In its introduction, the Fisheries Conservation and Management Act characterized the scene largely in economic terms, noting how fishery resources in the United State “constitute valuable and renewable natural resources.” The Act is further rationalized in terms of their economic value:

Commercial and recreational fishing constitutes a major source of employment and contributes significantly to the economy of the Nation. Many coastal areas are dependent upon fishing and related activities, and their economies have been badly damaged by the overfishing of fishery resources at an ever-increasing rate over the past decade. The activities of foreign fishing fleets in waters adjacent to such coastal areas have contributed to such damage, interfered with domestic fishing efforts and caused destruction of the fishing gear of United States fishermen. (MSA, 1976, 1996, 2007, 2(a)(3)).

With this Act, the United States institutionalized a system (or a set of motives) for taking authority, establishing eight new regional Fishery Management Councils to work with the National Marine Fisheries Service (which is part of NOAA) to manage the new territory. And this system or set of motives places fish within systems of credit. Within the language of this Act, we understand the value of fish in relation to future opportunities for United States fishermen—what the fish do for us as a resource. They are instrumental. The problem is defined through their instrumental use. If they had no use, there would be no problem or need to regulate.

To summarize, terminologically, “overfishing” implies a solution. In its simplicity, the term characterizes a story/plot in which people with no expertise or knowledge of the situation can participate. The term amplifies or highlights the acts and agents that are praised and blamed, implicating fishers as bad, and creating an antithesis between those who overdo it as opposed to those who under-do it. And, far from being metaphorical in the sense of ‘mere’ rhetoric, terms such as this one have power because they imply a judgment about the actor and their actions, a judgment in which people can readily participate. But, by placing a natural resource within systems of credit, the term takes on a strategic quality. It becomes a way to explain and justify how we see the situation. Terminologically, it orients and institutionalizes a viewpoint within which all solutions must calculate. In addition, this way of seeing things, or the attitude taken toward the situation, is creative in its own right. As Burke said, “for an affliction is a different affliction if it is thought of as a punishment by a Higher Power, a case of tough luck the doings of a personal enemy, or the curse of a social system that could be remedied, etc.” (Attitudes 415).

In this case, the affliction rests on a perspective of a certain inevitability of technology and the assumption that more technology can solve the problem. In other words, scientific data can quantify the optimal yield for fisheries. But that is not the case. The data used to make recommendations is uncertain, and at times, inadequate. In their report, the National Research Council outlined those areas of uncertainty, including: bias and variability of data; differing assumptions in the models used to characterize nature; inconsistent enforcement and management actions; and the unpredictability of nature (30–31). Contributing to the uncertainty is the effects of climate change—sea level rise, warming temperatures, acidification, and changes to patterns in currents. In ideal cases, the SSC examines both fisheries-dependent and fisheries-independent data from stock assessment models that determine the size and composition of fish stocks. Fisheries-dependent data come from fishers, including catch and landing reports from commercial fishers. Independent data come from on-board government monitors, and in some cases, cameras. But assessments are expensive. In 2016, NOAA shifted the burden of paying for monitors to the boat owners, making it costly for small, private fleets to go fishing.4 To complicate matters further, many don’t trust the assessments because the data used to make decisions are often out-of-date or even falsified.5

Furthermore, the process itself is far from being without interest. Council members are political appointees. They are often chosen by governors to represent the various constituencies that have a stake in the systems used to regulate fishing, including commercial and recreational fishers as well as environmental, academic, and governmental organizations (Crosson 262). On the one hand, the Council represents a broad array of interests from the fishermen themselves to environmental groups invested in sustaining resources. On the other hand, many on the Council lack expertise in fisheries management science. To account for this governing body’s lack of scientific expertise, Congress established a Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) in 2007 to interpret the research presented to the Councils by conducting or evaluating peer reviews (600.315 p. 53) that are relevant, inclusive, objective, timely, transparent and validated. During the public commenting period to amend the guidelines related to “best scientific information available,” however, many questioned the scientific review process (https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=NOAA-NMFS-2008–0299–0054), reflecting Rothschild’s assertion that “despite this seemingly clear mandate, there is much controversy over what the ‘best available science’ is and who should decide what assessments should be used” (“Rewriting” 12). He goes on to say “not only is the frequency of survey data collection disputed, but whether the assessment methods used are the best available. . . . The Agency rarely if ever considers presenting or recommending data from other sources” (12–13). In other words, the system has empowered some, while disempowering others. In this way, the term not only displaces the authority of fishers, but also of scientists, placing increased value on the technological system or the external conditions that must be met.

Such use of the term emphasizes the mandate, reducing human agency to explanations that “fit” the mandate. Other issues, such as pollution and climate change, remain off-stage, factors that have a significant impact on migratory patterns, diseases and the spread of disease, and reproductive mechanisms. Other factors including the gear used in commercial fishing, the size of boats, and even alternate systems for approaching the problem receive little attention. In fact, the reauthorizations of the act in 1996 and 2006 further substantiated the term’s in-built directionality by establishing a 10-year deadline to rebuild all depleted stocks. However, those deadlines were the result of political pressure, and they mandated certainty in situations that are inherently uncertain.6 In the MSA, all management plans and actions have to calculate within this mandate. Although scientists recognized that the frameworks that characterized management plans prior to 1996 were abused, they also questioned the ability of science to meet the certainties posited by the MSA. Sissenwine, Mace, and Lassen questioned whether the frameworks for managing fisheries “sometimes, or perhaps often, have outstripped the ability of science to deliver,” asking “to what degree do today’s fishery management frameworks reflect scientific theory and knowledge (which is of course subject to data limitations), or conversely, to what degree are policy and laws pressuring scientists to overreach the science?” (155). Others have argued that scientists should only assess the data and not be asked to make the policy decisions. 7

Within these arguments, we see the creative power of a technological attitude to distance human agency. In her work, Carolyn R. Miller discussed this kind of problem in relation to open and closed systems logic. “Purposes become external to human motivations and attach to the tools created by those motivations” (231). The technical, objectivity-driven system expands while other explanatory systems contract. “This is the beginning of our belief in ‘objectivity,’ the belief that external reality is the only determining check on our knowledge of it. Objectivity serves both our need to control more and more of the world and our willingness to let machines embezzle purposes from us” (231). In the MSA, although the intent may be for science and public policy to stand together, to work as one to address depleted fish stocks, the dissonance in how “overfishing” functions as a technological narrative has the potential (and in some cases, already has) to push them apart, placing them in opposition. In this way, two endeavors that are meant to be appositional (working together) become oppositional (working against). 

In A Grammar of Motives, Burke described this move from apposition to opposition as when “the synecdochic relationship whereby a part can be taken as consistent with the whole . . . is no longer felt to apply; and instead we encounter the divisive relationship, the genitive transformation of something which is ‘a part of’ a larger context into something which is ‘apart from’ this context” (107). When science is written into public policy, it is meant to be “a part of” a larger context for addressing a problem, not “apart from.” How we account for human agency within scientific inquiry has consequence. The problem with the technological attitude is a psychosis that has the potential to move human agency from a place of apposition to one of opposition. Here we see the power of language to frame who and what is valued, directing attention and resources to agents, agencies, and purposes that may or may not address the problem at hand or the needs of the community. For scientists, much is at stake when it comes to how their acts and agency (i.e., which research agendas get funding; whose science “counts”) are posited when “overfishing” sets the conditions for success. If we dismiss the agency of scientists, is it also easier to dismiss the science?

For communities, too, their agency for affecting change may be seen as standing in opposition to rather than as a part of solutions. Brewer, Molton, Alden, and Guenther characterized the fishing fleets and public forums as increasingly dominated by capitalized interests—with consolidation of quota, large quota holders have more influence; small quota holders rely on the large quota holders to lease them enough quota to stay in business (119). Hence, a system that works to maintain the power of the well-connected corporate interests. In his research, Thomas A. Okey found the Councils have only “token representation” of broader public interests with special and self-interests dominating this decision-making body (194). Brewer, Molton, Alden, and Guenther extended that finding by describing how in New England, commercial fishing interests are often disconnected from the traditional community of fishermen and onshore businesses related to fishing. In their research, they found that by 2012, three corporations controlled nearly 40 percent of quota for a single groundfish species (115–116). Both Okey and Brewer, Molton, Alden, and Guenther articulated a common sentiment that systems used to prevent overfishing have disenfranchised most of the public, privatized a public resource, and diverted attention away from other ways to manage the resource. Okey linked that disenfranchisement to the political and economic process, which “contains strong incentives and feedbacks for maintaining the power of the well-connected corporate interests and very weak incentives for designing a logically grounded and well-designed system of trusteeship” (201) that includes representing a public good.

As shown, the system fails to account for public interests. Capitalized interests dominate even though other solutions may have better results, putting small quota holders and localized communities in an oppositional role if they attempt to make change. That opposition is also evident between some fishers and government scientists. In their work, Heather Goldstone et al. noted the distrust some fishers have of NOAA and the methods government researchers used to decide where and how much to fish (9). As a result, when different solutions and methods for solving overfishing are posited, those voices may then be heard as opposed to rather than as part of the decision-making process even though a cooperative approach produces better outcomes. And, many scientists, working at universities and research centers, value the local fishing community’s perspective. Scientists have long recognized that incorporating multiple types of knowledge, including the localized knowledge of fishers, is invaluable to their work. 8 Such dissonance in motivations has resulted in discounting localized knowledge and solutions as antithetical to the regulatory act when it is not.

Rhetoric and Technological Psychosis

In his writing, Rothschild argued against the use of “overfishing” because it was too abstract of a concept. But the problem really lies in the movement between the abstract and literal. In other words, in its institutionalization, “overfishing” both manages and creates the conditions for the kinds of accountancy that matter. It was a corrective to innovation upon innovation and the technological devices that made it possible to overfish. And, “overfishing” provides a useful form for getting people to care about the problems in our oceans: overfishing is bad; underfishing is good. In the abstract, the term creates a form or place for audiences to consent and cooperate. However, as interpreted through current regulations (the MSA) that generalized, abstract concept is literal. And when the concretized, literal form is privileged without recognizing it as characterized and motivated by agents, we also cede agency and hence power to the form.

In this case, this privileging of the form enacts a situation that over-values the mechanism. And for both the scientists and fishermen, the agency afforded to the mechanism creates a problem. This kind of technological psychosis and the technologizing of a natural resource has consequence. First, fish have value in relation to their usefulness. People have value in relation to maintaining that usefulness, especially in relation to economic concerns. Second, the humanistic and the subjective are disempowered, leading to a troubling definition of “use” and “useful.” Such a-contextual conceptions of use elide human agency and knowledge, relying on the instrumental as the place of judgment. In many ways, this case demonstrates how human knowledge may be ceded to the regulatory mechanism via terminology that not only shapes but also subsumes an orientation. This is not to suggest humans lack agency. Rather it shows the ways in which local knowledges and the human are discounted and/or disconnected from systems of use.

Third, does changing the term change the situation? Although their initial appeal to Congress to remove “overfishing” from the MSA was rejected, in 2017, Representative Young introduced HR 200, an act to amend and reauthorize the MSA. A key amendment is to replace “overfishing” with “depleted.” HR 200 passed the House and has been received by the Senate, read twice, and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. As of December 2020, no further action has been taken (https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/200). But questions about the impact of changing the term remain. Although “overfishing” limits the scope of the acts responsible for depleted fish stocks in problematic ways, its form contains human culpability. As a form, “depleted” removes that human aspect, but the problem with our oceans largely has to do with decisions and actions made by humans. In many ways, this change in term does not necessitate a change in terministic screen. The discourse for how we address vast and permanent environmental change has become institutionalized within a set of dialects that promotes innovation upon innovation. In this case, “science” took on meaning within a technological attitude and when it became a technology for managing a problem. It seems that “depleted” further de-personalizes the situation. A change in term doesn’t altogether change the affliction. A kairos of progress continues to set the grounds for solving the problem within our faith in the technological. In this way, a technological psychosis is about succumbing to the same terministic screen. 

But it also has to do with conflating human purposes with technological progress. This dialectic between permanence and change, the managerial and the generative, seem to also provide places for negotiating and debating a technological ethic that continues to want to distance human purposes. As Hill argued, Burke saw technology as a form of symbolic action. Its creative force “motivates human behavior by determining, in part, the scene in which humans act” (9). But Hill was also quick to point out that Burke maintained that “people can use rhetoric to induce remolding technology to transform society” (9). In his work, Kyle Jensen outlined how Burke’s War of Words and A Rhetoric of Motive together provide the basic coordinate points for rhetorical counteraction. In these works, Burke gives us the coordinates to recognize how we are led to identify with the devices through which human relations are expressed, and in that recognition, to choose whether or not we will be persuaded. The irony, however, is that “rhetorical motive manifests in response to the problem of division” (Jensen 390). To have a motive is to align one’s interests and expectations as part of a set of relationships. As such, motives articulate a stance one takes and are substantiated via divisiveness, to an enemy. In this case, a natural resource is consubstantial with its commodification; Human knowledge with maintaining the commodity. Burke’s approach to counteraction means learning how to be conscious of the rhetorical devices that make us complicit in the forms that perpetuate how we understand technological change and progress. In this way, we might resist being subsumed by the enemy. This case illustrates the continued need to be conscious of the scientific-dramatistic approach to language and the ways in which the one substantiates the other so that we know how we are made complicit in narratives that we might otherwise resist.


I want to thank the anonymous reviewers. Your generous and insightful comments helped me to make this essay stronger.


1. See for example Johan Hjorth, G. Jahn and P. Ottestad, The Optimum Catch. Essays on Population, Hvalr. Skr, 7, 1933, pp. 92–127; Michael Graham, “Modern Theory of Exploiting a Fishery, and Application to North Sea Trawling,” ICES Journal of Marine Science, vol. 10 1935, pp. 264–274; Beverton, Raymond JH, and Sidney J. Holt. On the dynamics of exploited fish populations. Vol. 11. Springer Science & Business Media, 2012.

2. As argued by Sissenwine, Mace, and Lassen, “Preventing Overfishing: Evolving Approaches,” 154. See also R. D. Methot Jr, G. R. Tromble, D. M. Lambert, and K. E. Greene, “Implementing a Science-Based System for Preventing Overfishing and Guiding Sustainable Fisheries in the United States,” ICES Journal of Marine Science, vol. 71, 2014, p. 185.

3. For examples, see Brian J. Rothschild, “On the Evolution of Fish-Population Dynamics,” University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, School of Marine Science and Technology, January 27, 2016. Lecture. https://echosystem.umassd.edu:8443/ess/echo/presentation/e416094b-a172–4bd9–850e-10a18cd5f7f8?ec=true, and Steven Cadrin, “Identifying Spatial Population Structure for More Effective Fishery Management,” University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, October 21, 2016. Seminar.

4. See Jennifer F. Brewer, Kyle Molton, Robin Alden, and Carla Guenther, “Accountability, Transformative Learning, and Alternate Futures for New England Groundfish Catch Shares,” Marine Policy, vol. 80, 2017, pp. 113–122.

5. See Scott Crosson, “The Impact of Empowering Scientific Advisory Committees to Constrain Catch Limits in US Fisheries,” Science and Public Policy, vol. 40, 2013, pp. 261–273.

6. For a discussion about political pressures, see Brewer, Molton, Alden, and Guenther, “Accountability, Transformative Learning” and about mandating certainty, see National Research Council, “Evaluating the Effectiveness,” vol. 31.

7. For example, Hilborn and Stokes, “Defining Overfished Stocks.”

8. For examples, see Oran R. Young, “Taking Stock: Management Pitfalls in Fisheries; Blind Faith in the Validity of Scientific Assessments Can Result in Poor Policy,” Environment, vol. 45, no. 3, 2003, p. 23; Cadrin, “Identifying Spatial Population Structure”; and Rothschild, “On the Evolution.”

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The Morality Martyr Homology

Lisa Glebatic Perks, Merrimack College


This article explicates a “morality martyr” homology with three characteristics: amoral actions against “good” characters, introspection, and a fatalistic final act. Formal morality martyr patterns are analyzed in two characters from The Walking Dead. Exposing the morality martyr’s thinly-veiled suicide endorsement is an initial step in undercutting the deadly terministic cycle. Through comparison of the two characters, a merciful stretching of the formal pattern emerges, offering a set of values that preserve life through forgiveness.

Written into many narratives is a death penalty for characters and an intolerant system for deciding their fate. Even in the age of complex television (Mittell) that embraces morally ambiguous characters (see, for example, Krakowiak and Oliver; Krakowiak and Tsay-Vogel), death sentences often follow violent transgressions. A human penchant for order shapes the jury deliberations. An impulse to purge the guilt accompanying disorder drives the narrative death march. In The Rhetoric of Religion, Kenneth Burke explains that conditions of “moral order” position death as a naturalized form of “capital punishment” (209).

This article positions traitorous characters on narrative death row as part of a morality martyr homology woven from the terministic cycle of order and redemption. Brummett describes rhetorical homologies as discursive formal patterns connecting disparate texts and experiences (Rhetorical Homologies). Collectively, homologies comprise “the engine of stable categories in our consciousness” (Rhetorical Homologies 6). In Rhetorical Homologies, Brummett argues that these formal patterns offer “common ground and shared ways of communicating” (27) and enable people to “discursively attribute motives” (31). The formal characteristics of the morality martyr are: 1) amoral actions that hurt the “good” side, the group of characters with which audiences are meant to identify; 2) recognition of the error of the traitor’s ways, which is often accompanied by a sense that they can never compensate for their wrongs; 3) commitment to helping the moral cause, usually in a bold, brave final act that will save “good” lives at the expense of their own. In the morality martyr’s constellation of meanings, the naturalized response is death, which underscores the importance of uncovering the formal constitutive properties of the homology—and the audience’s role in warranting the outcome.

Reindividuations of the morality martyr homology can be found in film, literature, and television. Common in epics that offer extensive, complex character development, we see morality martyrs in Snape from the Harry Potter series, Boromir in the Lord of the Rings series, Luke from the Percy Jackson series, and Prince Ellidyr from the Chronicles of Prydain series. Contemporary characters with morality martyr features are Nux the turncoat War Boy from Mad Max: Fury Road, Yondu from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Skurge from Thor: Ragnarok. Of note, morality martyrs typically appear to be male and white. Illustrating the homology’s transhistorical nature, one of the earliest formal iterations of the morality martyr can found in the story of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus and, upon confessing to priests and elders was told, “See to it yourself” (New Interpreter’s Bible; Matt. 27.3–5). This example positions mortification (Judas’s suicidal hanging) as a fitting response to perfidy.

To illustrate repeated formal similarities of morality martyrs within the same context, the analysis focuses on two characters in The Walking Dead, the television series on American Movie Classics channel (AMC). Based on Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel series of the same name (Ambrosius and Valenzano), The Walking Dead captures humans’ experiences trying to survive a zombie apocalypse in the United States. The narrative follows a group of survivors led by former sheriff deputy Rick Grimes. The Grimes group integrates some new members along the way and battles other communities, including the “Governor’s” Woodbury settlement and Negan’s Saviors. On the surface, The Walking Dead is a post apocalyptic drama focused on survival; however, the dialogue and character development (including that of morality martyrs) roots much suspense in the humanity that can be lost in survival. Questions about the life worth living are posed and (sometimes conflicting) answers are offered throughout The Walking Dead’s engaging narrative. Characters commonly dialogue about what decisions and acts they can and cannot “come back from”—in terms of reclaiming their soul, their belongingness, their lives (see, for example, “30 Days without an Accident”; “East”; “Too Far Gone”). As Tenga and Bassett observe: “the pervasive threat of violent death forces characters to reevaluate what they are willing to do in order to survive and what constitutes meaningful existence” (1281). This dramatic, suspenseful show was a ratings juggernaut for AMC, drawing over 10 million viewers on average for seasons three through eight (Otterson) before a precipitous ratings drop in the ninth season (Patten). (1)

The upcoming pages review Burkean theory on the terministic cycle of order and redemption. The analysis of the first eight seasons of The Walking Dead then hones in on the guilt and rebirth of two characters, Merle and Dwight. Both characters exhibit the formal properties of the morality martyr’s thinly-veiled suicide endorsement—yet Dwight has a different form of rebirth. Because the guilt/redemption cycle goes “round and round like the wheel,” disparate closure can reframe the entire cycle and its attribution of motives (Burke, Rhetoric of Religion 217). Exposing the formal properties of the morality martyr’s thinly-veiled suicide endorsement—along with a divergent rebirth—promotes a reconfiguration of the narrative death march for those who have erred.

The Terministic Cycle from Order to Guilt to Sacrifice

For Burke, order and human hierarchies prescribe a normalized way of being, which inherently “gives rise to a sense of guilt” (Rhetoric of Religion 210). Brummett catalogues transgressions that may lead to guilt: “hate, violence, lawlessness, rejection, alienation or failure to meet responsibilities” (“Symbolic Form” 66). Order seems simple, valuable, and ideal; yet, the complexities and rigidity of order readily give rise to guilt. Burke captures the challenges of following a moral path, writing, “Often the attempt to obey one moral injunction may oblige us to violate another” (Rhetoric of Motives 253). Burke’s work illuminates the dis-ordering effect of striving for order. Recognizing that contradiction can therefore coach attitudes in a different way of achieving a sense of stability.

Burke offers several mechanisms through which to purge guilt. The two most relevant to this essay are mortification and scapegoating. Mortification is a more insulated process whereby one confesses sins and atones for them through punishment (Brummett “Burkean Scapegoat”; Burke Rhetoric of Religion). Scapegoating involves a sacrificial vessel (the representative animal or goat) “upon whose back the burden of these evils is ritualistically loaded” (Burke, Philosophy 40). The purgation of evils (through the goat’s sacrifice) thus purifies the guilt of an external entity or group. Treat (2008) cautioned against the rhetorical efficacy of scapegoating, identifying Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath as in instance in which fiction (in the form of television show K-VILLE) should “invite reflective national mortification” instead of the “melodramatic individualism” of scapegoating (para. 17).

Acknowledging that internally-held guilt and externally-applied guilt may be purged through the same act, Oldenburg writes about the “hybrid victimage” strategy in which the sinners are punished to “exorcise their own guilt and the guilt of their culture” (para. 5). In both forms of victimage (or the hybrid version), the same outcome is achieved through different means: “The secular variants of mortification, we might say, lie on the ‘suicidal’ slope of human motivation, while the secular variants of redemption by sacrifice of a chosen victim are on the slope of homicide” (Burke, Rhetoric of Religion 208). Uniting mortification and scapegoating inherently unites suicide and homicide, creating a nebulous sense of agency that resides in both the victim who took their own life and the audience that goaded on the action for communal purification.

Both mortification and scapegoating require sin purgation witness. Because mediated texts are designed for others’ engagement, we should consider two concentric circles of witness: fellow characters and audience members. (2) The witnesses are a key element of the third morality martyr criterion: a brave final act. For if the brave act was committed with no witnesses, the ritualized cleansing would never be acknowledged as part of the intra-narrative mythology. Burke explains, “Martyrdom is the idea of total voluntary self-sacrifice enacted in a grave cause before a perfect (absolute) witness. It is the fulfillment of the principle of mortification, suicidally directed, with the self as scapegoat” (Rhetoric of Religion 218). Martyrdom is a displayed or performed act of mortification. According to Burke, the story of Samson (as told in the Old Testament and by Milton in Samson Agonistes) is a fitting example of narratively-sanctioned suicide. Samson’s self-sacrificial act, Burke argues, involves “both aggressive and inturning trends” (Rhetoric of Motives 5). Burke sums up Samson’s fate as such: “Samson is self-killed in a warlike act that kills the enemy” (Burke, Rhetoric of Motives 9).

The cycle of disorder to mortification, which is performed for an audience, has resonance with real life suicides. Although Burke writes about symbolic suicide, which may include changing identifications, roles, or perceptions of the self, this analysis focuses on a more literal application of the suicidal slope. The impact of shifting identifications in The Walking Dead can be fatalistic: transgressions cleave characters from their groups, and groups of trustworthy humans are the main locus of survival during a zombie apocalypse. This analysis uncovers a narrative pathway that makes literal suicide feel inevitable for characters—which is a dangerous audience message. Bridging the gap between media engagement and lived experience, Brummett notes that a symbolic formula “guides the audience in experiencing both life and text” (Rhetorical Homologies 18). In their qualitative analysis of suicide notes, Messner and Buckrop observe, “suicidal individuals appear to perceive their lives as chaotic, painful, and otherwise disordered. To them, suicide is curative, a means of overcoming tremendous anguish, guilt, shame, and/or physical suffering” (2). Building off of Messner and Buckrop’s work, Martinez describes suicide as a communicative act that “always implies an audience for whom such communicative actions are offered for social sanction” (54). These acts are conducted for others who uphold the system of order and bear witness to redemption.

The physical suffering of suicidal individuals, Messner and Buckrop note, relates to guilt from a sense of “tainting the lives of others” (8). It is worth mention that the guilt from “tainting the lives of others,” echoes the mythology of zombie infection that is passed from the undead to the living. The disease thus stays “alive” by preying on a once-healthy host. This zombie/suicide connection is particularly salient when analyzing characters from The Walking Dead, but it can also be applied to other narratives in which the continued presence of transgressors is seen as endangering the heroes or the group mission. Through a dangerous, deadly scapegoating process, witnesses can be at risk of infection and then symbolically purified.

Analysis: Traitor to Martyr

Walking Dead character Daryl Dixon deserves mention at the start of the analysis. A brave and trusted leader of the Grimes group, Daryl is the brother to the first morality martyr analyzed, Merle, and has a fraught kinship with the other marked man, Dwight. Daryl has, at times, advocated for both Merle and Dwight to join the Grimes group—and pushed them away. The associations between Daryl and the two morality martyrs are synecdochal: there is a convertible relationship between the dyads, “a connectedness that, like a road, extends in either direction” (Burke, Grammar of Motives 509). We cannot fully understand one without the other. Daryl is what Merle and Dwight could have been (and vice versa) if the narrative were set up and played out with slight differences. The synecdoche between him and the martyrs throws Daryl’s morality into relief. Indeed, each narrative twist and difficult decision seems to push Daryl closer to the Grimes group’s leadership core.


The very first episodes of The Walking Dead establish a divide between Merle Dixon and the rest of the group. His racism and violence endanger everyone. In the second episode, after Merle fights two characters of color and pulls a gun on them, Rick Grimes handcuffs him to a pipe on an Atlanta rooftop. A hasty escape and lost key force them to leave Merle behind. This scene marks Merle’s substantive break from the group (1.2 “Guts”). When the group goes back to rescue Merle, he is already gone, leaving a hacksaw, a trail of blood, and his hand behind. Viewers later learn that the sadistic Governor and his Woodbury acolytes took Merle in. However, their “rescue” is more like a sentence: using duct tape, metal, and leather to strap a knife in place of Merle’s missing hand, the Governor’s “rehabilitation” signifies Merle’s transformation into a mercenary. By the time he reappears in season three, Merle has racked up over a dozen murders, beat up long-time Grimes group member Glenn, and nearly killed newcomer Michonne.

Maybe the Grimes group would have let Merle back in if they had found him on that Atlanta rooftop. But at their reunion point in the narrative, Merle has driven an even greater wedge between them. When Daryl advocates for his brother to rejoin them, the Grimes group solidifies their distance from Merle: Rick states, “There’s no way Merle’s gonna live there without putting everyone at each other’s throats.” (“Suicide King”). Daryl protests, saying that “Merle’s blood.” However, Glenn and Rick counter that there is no consubstantiality between their new post-apocalyptic adopted family and Daryl’s genetic family:

Glenn: No, Merle is your blood. My blood, my family, is standing right here [….]

Rick: And you’re part of that family. But he’s not. He’s not. (“Suicide King”)

The biological imagery (throats, blood) in these conversations evokes zombification as it cleaves Merle from the group. Glenn’s blood, his newly-constituted family, is made up of those who have cared for and sacrificed for one another. Merle’s “blood” is tainted by hatred and self-preserving violence. Allow Merle back into the group and his amorality will “infect” them all—by putting them at each other’s throats. The narrative intimates that zombies like Merle must be purged, lest they infect or taint the others. Merle is constructed as a character who can never be rehabilitated, healed, or welcomed back into the social order.

Michonne, while still on the Grimes group outskirts, presents her objective stance on Merle’s belongingness. She offers Merle a conversational feint, which coaxes him to see himself in a true light—as separate from the group:

Merle: The folks here, they’re strong, good fighters. But they ain’t killers.

Michonne: Rick is. Maggie is. Carl put down his own mother.

Merle: Mercy killing. That don’t make him an assassin.

Michonne: Mmm, but you are.

Merle: [chuckles] When I have to be. (“Arrow on the Doorpost”)

The dividing line—between protectors and assassins—is not murder, but motives. This perspective of Rick’s group as tough but merciful fighters functions as the moral gaze that viewers are coached on throughout The Walking Dead seasons. Taken in isolation, the Grimes group’s actions are not moral. They kill. They steal. They deceive and hurt others to get resources for themselves. However, Rick’s group, as the main enduring characters of the show, functions as the moral center of this post-apocalyptic world. They are the Robin Hoods of death, stealing lives from the cruel so that their morally superior group may live on.

To complete his full divide from the group, Merle must be cleaved from his flesh and blood. He must be differentiated from Daryl, a man once on the group’s outskirts but who has proven importance in Rick’s “family.” The scene in which the Governor pits Merle in a fight to the death against Daryl to test Merle’s loyalty to the Woodbury community is a significant moment in the narrative. Merle plays along with the Governor’s challenge, saying, “I’m gonna do whatever I gotta do to prove [punches Daryl in the gut] that my loyalty [kicks Daryl] is to this town [Woodbury]!” (“The Suicide King”). Merle signals to Daryl that it is a ruse, which buys time for a Grimes group rescue.

After a daring escape, the brothers walk away together, working through their tumultuous history step by step through the forest. Daryl confronts Merle about leaving him alone with their abusive father years ago, reluctantly revealing the scars of that horrible childhood that are etched angrily into Daryl’s back. Merle remorsefully explains he would have killed their dad otherwise. The brothers’ conversation about their past, their biological family, lengthens the narrative thread of Merle’s cruelty, making his death seem determined long before The Walking Dead begins. Merle is thus framed as a thoughtless zombie, taking out his abuse and unmet human needs with violence and hatred against others. Through contrast with Daryl—who shows kindness, care, and collectivism—characters and viewers are told that Merle has the agency to decide who he will be and how he will act. He abandoned his brother in their youth and again after in the apocalypse. Whether pre- or post-apocalyptic, Merle cannot or does not change his violently self-preserving nature, the seeds of which are narratively planted by his abusive father.

Unsatisfied with his brother’s reason for leaving their childhood home, Daryl uncouples from Merle and begins walking back to Rick’s group, where he “belong[s]” (“Home”). Analyzing this scene, Tenga and Bassett wrote, “Daryl discovers that his personal investment in the culture of Rick’s group supersedes his blood bond to and identification with his brother” (1284). Merle, looking his most remorseful up to this point in the narrative, states rather than pleads, “I can’t go with you. I tried to kill that black bitch [Michonne]. Damn near killed that Chinese kid [Glenn]” (“Home”). Even in his desperation, Merle marks his outsider status by using hateful and ignorant labels that strip Grimes group members their unique identities. Daryl’s response focuses on a defense of his new family—“He’s [Glenn’s] Korean”—rather than the implications of Merle’s division from his brother (“Home”).

Walking away from Merle initiates Daryl’s symbolic separation from his genealogical past, and his full assimilation with the Grimes group. Burke argues that it is not just a separation from one’s past but a re-fashioning of it that occurs with rebirth: “a thorough job of symbolic rebirth would require the revision of one’s ancestral past itself […] in becoming wholly transformed one not only can alter the course of the future but can even remake the past” (Philosophy 41). With that symbolic separation of brother from brother, all of Daryl’s past transgressions (Merle reminds Daryl that they once planned to rob the Grimes group together) are symbolically placed onto Merle, ready to be cast off.

Burke writes of scapegoating in literature: “we so point the arrows of the plot that the audience comes to think of him as a marked man, and so prepares itself to relinquish him” (Philosophy 40). Various narrative signs mark and prepare Merle as a sacrifice. The Walking Dead’s third season episode titles function as a breadcrumb trail leading viewers to his fate: “Made to Suffer,” “The Suicide King,” “Home,” and “I Ain’t a Judas.” Merle is eventually allowed into the Grimes group, but forced to stay locked up in the prison they have made their home. Biblical foreshadowing inches viewers closer to Merle’s end. Hershel, the eldest and most devout of the Grimes group, speaks of redemption to Merle. Quoting the Gospel of Matthew, Hershel begins, “And if your right hand offends you, cut it off, cast it from you. For it is profitable that one of your members should perish…” Merle finishes, “And not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” (“I Ain’t a Judas”). Merle cut off his own hand in order to survive. The “casting off” of his hand could have meant rebirth for Merle, could have saved him. Instead, that casting off made Merle a mercenary. It is a devil’s bargain: body is saved but soul is lost. When considering casting off and rebirth, we must ask for whom the sacrifice is for and to what ends does the sacrifice occur. This synecdoche is reconfigured with Merle as the “hand” of the Grimes gang, the member who will eventually sacrifice self for the greater good.

Merle’s conversation with Hershel quickly shifts to the present danger: the Governor who will kill them all. Merle as a potential enemy, as a danger to the group, is nothing compared to the sadist down the road. This magnified danger also highlights Merle’s value. Merle is a fighter, a killer. If the two settlements battle to the death, vicious Merle can tip the scales in the Grimes group’s favor. The group does not ask Merle to sacrifice himself; indeed, that would taint their moral character. But the plot wheels are already in motion with the fatalistic moral gaze. Set on the outskirts of the group, with no clear path to belongingness, Merle kidnaps newcomer Michonne, with the goal of delivering her to the Governor as a risky peace offering that he hopes will prevent a deadly battle between the two groups.

Merle explains his rationale to Michonne: “I want to be with my brother. My brother, he wants to be in prison. This little trip—maybe it’ll keep that place [the prison] standing. If I pull it off, maybe all is forgiven” (“This Sorrowful Life”). Forgiveness and acceptance are what Merle seeks. We see this type of transformation—sin redeemed through victimage—in Burke:

Insofar as punishment is a kind of ‘payment’ for wrong, we can see flickering about the edges of the idea of punishment the idea of redemption. To ‘pay’ for one’s wrongdoing by suffering punishment is to ‘redeem’ oneself, to cancel one’s debt, to ransom or ‘buy back.’ (Rhetoric of Religion 175–176)

There is an exchange here—past sin is swapped with current bravery or bold deed—and in that exchange resides the potential for rebirth and belongingness.

As they take the fateful car ride back to the Governor, Michonne puts the agency back on Merle, also acknowledging Daryl’s rebirth: “The truth is this could have been your shot. With your skills, a whole new beginning. But you choose to stay on the outside. No one’s gonna mourn you, not even Daryl. He’s got a new family” (“This Sorrowful Life”). In her final appeal Michonne tells Merle, “Both of us. We can just go back.” It is difficult for him to spit out the words, but Merle eventually says with a mix of exasperation and sadness: “I can’t go back. Don’t you understand that?” At that point, he lets Michonne out of the car, frees her wrist ties, and says, “You go back with him. Get ready for what’s next. I got something I gotta do on my own” (“This Sorrowful Life”). Merle recognizes that delivering Michonne to the Governor is not enough of a sacrifice to cancel out his own sins. He has to give of himself, presumably drawing from his killer “skills” that Michonne references earlier. Merle ambushes the Governor’s men, shooting several and narrowly missing the Governor himself—all to give the Grimes group a better chance at survival. Of “redeemed traitors,” Perks writes that brave final acts such as Merle’s function as “redemptive suturing, which allows readers to reflect back positively on the characters, despite their transgressions” (168). His last act was his most beneficent and bravest. In the end, the Governor kills Merle, but it is Daryl who later completes the sacrifice by putting an arrow through zombie Merle’s skull. Daryl must be the one to witness—and even participate in—Merle’s zombie rebirth, which is symbolic of his self-sacrificing, soul altering reincarnation. After “dying” twice over, Merle’s sins are fully cleansed; he no longer walks the earth in any form preying on others. By casting him away, the Grimes gang’s morality is affirmed. They can appreciate his final act, but mercenary Merle never was and never will be them.


After Daryl is separated from his own group in Season 6, he comes across Dwight, Dwight’s wife Sherry, and Sherry’s sister in a charred forest. The trio has staged a daring, fiery escape from the Saviors, a malicious group that is bigger, more powerful, and better organized than even the Governor’s Woodbury town. Dwight and his family assume Daryl is a Savior, so they capture him. Dwight chastises Daryl: “You made the choice to kill for someone else, to have them own you for a roof over your head and three squares” (“Always Accountable”). Acknowledging that the zombie apocalypse has irreparably damaged humanity’s moral compass, Dwight offers an empathic interpretation of Daryl’s (presumed Savior) character: “Everybody’s got their code. You feel you gotta kneel [to Saviors’ leader Negan], it’s fair enough. We don’t” (“Always Accountable”). The charred forest indicates Dwight’s first re-birth: the fire cleansed his soul as it freed him from the Savior total institution.

Despite their rough start, some trust builds up and the small group begins working together to escape their common enemy. Daryl even attempts to recruit Dwight and Sherry to the Grimes group, persuading: “I’m from a place where people are still like they were, more or less, better or worse” (“Always Accountable”). In the zombie apocalypse version of a marriage proposal, Daryl asks Dwight the three questions that are the prelude to acceptance into the Grimes fold: “How many walkers have you killed? How many people have you killed? Why?” Dwight said he killed no humans, explaining, “Because if I did [kill humans], there’d be no going back. There’d be no going back to how things were” (“Always Accountable”). Dwight’s rebirth and escape from the Saviors is thus marked as an affirmation of who he was (prior to the apocalypse) and still is. Daryl’s overture—asking the three questions—acknowledges a willingness to trust and forgive. Despite his gruff exterior, Daryl still expects to find good in the world. However, Dwight’s “everbody’s got their code” circles back around: Dwight and his wife’s code tells them to steal Daryl’s motorcycle and gun, leaving him alone in the forest with Sherry offering a simple, “We’re sorry.”

In season seven, Dwight emerges as a less sympathetic villain: a Savior’s henchman. His return to the narrative includes a visual marker to signify an off-camera return to the dark side. The Saviors recaptured Dwight, and their leader Negan burned the left side of Dwight’s face as punishment. Cruz notes that zombies appear in “various states of decay, with flesh stripping away and appendages falling off” (166). Merle’s amputated hand and Dwight’s burned face serve as plot arrows, gesturing toward zombification. Although his burns can be considered a narrative mark of his “evil turn,” Dwight’s mutilation-as-mortification was an exchange for his wife Sherry’s life to be spared. We thus see that Dwight is a man reborn in flames twice as he seeks to balance protection of his family with adherence to his moral code. After being reinitiated, Dwight takes his Saviors belongingness to the extreme, becoming a heartless Negan acolyte. This is a form of symbolic suicide: Dwight no longer cares about the life worth living. Dwight and Negan kill several of the Grimes gang, also taking Daryl as a hostage.

In the Saviors compound, Daryl is tortured, starved, made a slave. During one of their stolen conversations, Daryl says to Dwight: “I get why you did it. Why you took it [the deal from Negan]. You were thinking about someone else [your wife]. That’s why I can’t” (“The Cell”). Daryl, as synecdoche for the Grimes gang, has a strong moral code that does not allow him to submit to an oppressive community that goes against his character. The interplay of Dwight and Daryl’s characters, their divergent decisions, thus brings into focus the Grimes group’s superior morality.

Dwight and Sherry’s first description of the Saviors echoes throughout their new roles. They once informed Daryl:

Sherry: People will trade anything for safety, knowing that they are safe.

Dwight: Everything. So they got nothing left except just existing. (“Always Accountable”)

Merely existing is again the new life for mutilated Dwight and Sherry, who has become one of Negan’s “wives”—a euphemism for sexual slavery. Sherry ultimately risks her life to free Daryl and to escape on her own, leaving a note of explanation for Dwight:

Now you’ve killed, and you’ve become everything you didn’t want to be, and it’s my fault [….] I let Daryl go because he reminded you of who you used to be, and I wanted to let you to forget [….] Being [with the Saviors] isn’t better than being dead. It’s worse [….] (“Hostiles and Calamities”)

Dwight, the two-faced man, still holds on to the vestiges of who he used to be. The best Dwight can do now is atone for his sins, to figuratively scrub off his scarred façade and reveal his old character. In the final episode of season seven, Dwight goes to the Grimes group in secret with a proposal to take down Negan.

This proposal represents a turning point not just in Dwight’s character evolution, but also in the series. The episode’s title, “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life,” signifies Dwight’s impending third rebirth. Skeptical of Dwight’s motives and angry at his past betrayals, Daryl violently pins Dwight against a wall, fingers on the man’s throat, staring down a quaking knife pointing into Dwight’s head. Resigned, Dwight rasps out, “You go ahead [and kill me]. I’m sorry.” When death does not come, Dwight explains his motives, light illuminating only his scarred side:

[Negan] owned me, but not anymore. What I did, I was doing for someone else. She just got away. So now I’m here [….] You can trust me. We can work together. We can stop it. You knew me then, and you know me now. You know I’m not lyin.’ (“The First Day of the Rest of Your Life”)

These appeals and this act (of turning Saviors traitor) mark Dwight’s attempted return to his old self. He references that self in his persuasive appeal, “You knew me then.” And he attributes his murderous, violent turn to a sympathetic motivation: preserving Sherry’s life. Once Sherry escapes, nothing is stopping Dwight from reclaiming his old self. The narrative builds and The Walking Dead enters an epic battle of civilizations in season eight.

Dwight lost his soul to save his wife. Then, in a much more selfless act, he turns traitor and risks death to help out people he barely knows. Notably, the Grimes group plan is not a Saviors massacre but a battle to break Negan’s authoritarian rule and form a more equitable group from survivors on all sides. Perhaps this more beneficent battle strategy explains his character’s fate: despite close calls, the narrative arrows miss their target in Dwight. Brummett notes that patterns of formal resemblance form “increasingly wide circles” (Rhetorical Homologies 7). Dwight’s narrative closure sketches out the formal structure for a merciful stretching of the homology.

After the battle dust settles, Daryl drives Dwight out into the woods for last words. Dwight: “I knew I’d have to face it. To pay. And I should. I’m ready [….] I’m a piece of shit. There’s no going back to how things were. [He kneels and cries in front of Daryl.] I’m so sorry. Please” (“Wrath”). Again taking the judge role and erring on the side of mercy, Daryl leaves Dwight his life and a set of car keys. Daryl both threatens and instructs Dwight: “You go and you keep going [….] If I ever see your face around here again, I’ll kill ya. You go out there and you make it right. Find her [Sherry]” (“Wrath”). There is a place in the world for Dwight and a way to “make it right” through a solo quest. Dwight’s only tools for survival are keys for his journey. This apocalyptic casting out is a form of isolating mortification—in pursuit of purification and reconciliation. This is a sacrifice to repair one’s soul rather than take one’s life.


The morality martyr homology is a value-laden transhistorical formal pattern. Narrative trajectories function as if traitorous characters have no alternative pathway to atonement but to risk their lives for the “good” group’s cause—whether that’s the Fellowship of the Ring, the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Grimes group, the Order of the Phoenix, the surviving Asgardians, and others. Brummett states that films and other forms of popular media invoke “values that help us get through everyday experiences that are formally similar” (“Popular Films” 64). The many examples of morality martyrs suggest a contemporary cultural penchant for self-imposed justice that elides an external agent. The external agent—the group that has tension with the morality martyr and sometimes even shuns him—thus maintains its moral cleanliness despite playing a powerful, insidious role in goading the self-sacrifice.

These character trajectories and narrative justifications are particularly problematic as they have resonance in suicide notes: Messner and Buckrop write, “the deceased maintained that they must sacrifice themselves for the greater good” (9). Self-sacrifices are thus positioned as a benefit to those surrounding the victim. “Disreputable characters,” Burke argued, “die that we may live” (Philosophy 47). Our socially-constructed order is maintained, but the cost is great. By reindividuating this formal morality martyr pattern, we—as writers, creators, fans, and viewers—warrant the argument that there are sins for which no forgiveness is possible.

In the case studies of both Merle and Dwight, we see sins and transgressions, namely against the Grimes group with whom viewers are coached to identify. However, their terministic cycles of guilt and rebirth differ. Merle’s rebirth is complete. He experienced what Burke saw in Samson: introspection combined with outward aggression. By undertaking a final war-like act against the Governor’s army that threatened Daryl’s new family, Merle was reborn in death. Dwight demonstrates introspection and bravery, by turning traitor and risking his life many times over to help the Grimes group defend against the Saviors. Perhaps because of their unique connection, the narrative seems to have made Daryl into Dwight’s judge and jury. Daryl chooses rehabilitation, thus allowing Dwight to be reborn.

Viewers are shown the potential for redemption in the form of Dwight’s quest (rather than his death in battle) when The Walking Dead’s “Wrath” episode aired in 2018. As Burke wrote, “Conscience-laden repression is the symbol-using animal’s response to conditions in the socio-political order” (Rhetoric of Religion 208). “Wrath” was filmed and edited in a time of tremendous turmoil. The election of Donald Trump in the United States, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, the Brexit vote, Syrian civil war, and the global MeToo movement, among other notable upheavals, drew new lines in the sand. Family members and friends often found themselves on different sides of that line, with decisions to make about loss or reconciliation. Dwight’s casting out—not to be zombified but to make amends elsewhere—represents several features of the socio-political climate: division, accountability, restorative justice, evolution.

A zombie homology is woven through the terministic cycle of sin, sacrifice and redemption. Is a character mindlessly consuming flesh to keep himself alive? If so, redemption is not possible. Merle could never “pay” enough for his sins: he’s an assassin, a murderer serving whatever master will have him. Drawing from the zombie metaphor, we might say that Merle has been fully infected with the virus. The virus, in narrative terms, is about morality. Merle has no chance for narrative survival—because he only cares about his survival. Dwight, in contrast, does not succumb to the zombie infection. When viewers first meet him, they learn he has a “code” to follow and disdains those who do anything to merely “exist.” He is ultimately allowed to battle back to that code, to reassert its governance over his life. Whereas Merle only takes lives, Dwight has greater potential to preserve Grimes group lives. If they “win” against the Saviors, the Grimes group need not sacrifice Dwight to purify themselves; instead, they can demonstrate their goodness with beneficent treatment of the losers.

This analysis encourages critics to scrutinize homologies that deny agency and cast judgment with fatal sentencing. Additionally, critics should question ambiguous morality, for that guise can unwittingly coach unwarranted acceptance or condemnation. Rather than shaking a foundation of order, ambiguous morality can anchor order in even more restrictive and disempowering ways: Merle’s “good” final deed was murder and the narrative therefore allows his life to be lost, narratively murdered with minimal compunctions from surviving characters. By elucidating this homology and its supporting narrative pattern, this research aims to stress the importance of “coming back from” transgressions. What has heretofore been considered character suicide should be considered homicide imposed by a rigid order. The plot arrows pointed toward a fatal ending for Dwight, but narrative space was carved out for rehabilitation, for further bravery in pursuit of making it “right.” By allowing to Dwight to live, the wheel of the guilt/redemption cycle offers empathy for his earlier motives, his protection of family that caused a division with Daryl and the Grimes’ group. This homological stretching—a widening of the formal pattern—offers a pathway toward living redemption, something that the socio-political climate hungered for at the end of a divisive decade.


1. This analysis focuses on seasons one through eight to capture the most popular narrative arcs featuring characters at the show’s moral center from the start.

2. In the case of Nux, the War Boy from Mad Max: Fury Road, his cult-like admonishment “Witness me!” before engaging in life-risking behavior represents the epitome of martyrdom-sought.

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Slaying the Vile Beasts Within: Theorizing a Mortification Mechanism

Floyd D. Anderson, State University of New York at Brockport
Kevin R. McClure, University of Rhode Island


We develop a mortification mechanism that complements Kenneth Burke’s scapegoat mechanism. Employing Edward M. Kennedy’s redemptive 1980 presidential primary campaign as our representative anecdote, we chart the stages of his mortification. Our findings show that self-victimage is more complex than scapegoating, has more ingredients and possesses paradoxical qualities.


“[W]hile recognizing the sinister implication of a preference for homicidal and suicidal terms,” Kenneth Burke writes, “we indicate that the principles of development or transformation (‘rebirth’) which they stand for are not strictly of such a nature at all” (Rhetoric of Motives xiii). Using the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s failed 1980 presidential primary campaign as our “representative anecdote,”1 we devise a “mortification mechanism” that complements Kenneth Burke’s “scapegoat mechanism” (Grammar 406). Burke observes that “the Christian dialectic of atonement is much more complex” than scapegoating and that it “includes many ingredients that take it beyond the [scapegoat] paradigm, and has a paradoxical element” (Grammar 406; also see “Catharsis- Second View” 119). We maintain that what Burke says about the Christian dialectic of atonement—that it is more complex, has other ingredients and is paradoxical— also applies to other instances of self-victimage. One might ask in what ways is it more complex? What are its additional ingredients? Why is it paradoxical? These are precisely the questions that our “mortification mechanism” is designed to answer.

Numerous studies of redemptive rhetoric have explored Burke’s rhetoric of redemption, analyzing both scapegoating and mortification. Previous works on redemptive rhetoric that have influenced our own understanding of it include Bobbitt; Brummett (“Burkean Scapegoating”); Carter; Desilet and Appel; Ivie; Leff; Medhurst; Messner and Buckop; and Tilli. None of these works, however, address the dialectical moments associated with redemptive mortification, nor do they provide a mortification mechanism. A previous study of Kennedy’s 1980 primary campaign by Anderson, King, and McClure does view the campaign as one of redemptive rhetoric and it does give attention to mortification, but it does not chart its moments nor provide a mechanism to explicate it.

We have selected Edward M. Kennedy’s unsuccessful 1980 presidential primary campaign as our “representative anecdote,” (Grammar 59) because it exemplifies both redemption through scapegoating and redemption through mortification, enabling us to compare and contrast the two. The view that Kennedy was conducting a losing campaign was widely voiced at the time. Many of the journalists who covered Kennedy’s campaign saw it as a campaign of atonement, comprised of suffering, humiliation and mortification. Such writers as James Reston, Tom Wicker, Anthony Lewis, George Will, Lewis Lapham, and the political writers for both Time and Newsweek all offered variations of this view in attempting to explain why Kennedy persisted in his campaign long after everyone, including his own supporters, had ruled out any chance of his gaining the presidential nomination. The commonly advanced explanation was that he was seeking some sort of expiation and forgiveness for his shortcomings by championing his convictions in a losing campaign, thus subjecting himself to mortification. Perhaps Kennedy’s friend and one-time college roommate, former California Senator John Tunney, best described the nature of Kennedy’s presidential run. Characterizing it a “campaign of atonement,” he added “that campaign and that speech spell the end of the Chappaquiddick era. It was something that had to be done” (“Kennedy Goes Out In Style”).

In this essay we chart the stages of Kennedy’s symbolic self-immolation in order to facilitate our development of a “mortification mechanism.” Our analysis proceeds as follows. First, we detail the sources of Kennedy’s guilt and his need for redemption. Next, we describe how by conducting a losing campaign for principle and by suffering the mortification of one electoral defeat after another, Kennedy sought and gained redemption. Then we discuss how his 1980 Democratic National Convention speech was the cathartic climax of his campaign, enabling him to slay the “vile beasts” within, culminating in transformation, redemption and rebirth. Subsequently, we show how Kennedy’s scapegoating of Ronald Reagan exemplifies Burke’s “scapegoat mechanism.” We then present our mortification mechanism and show how it is exemplified by Kennedy’s self-victimage. Next, we compare and contrast scapegoating and mortification, revealing that whereas the scapegoat mechanism has three moments or stages (merger-division-merger), the mortification mechanism has six stages (division-merger-division-merger-division-merger) and each of the stages exhibit their own complexities and complications. Finally, we show how mortification possesses a paradoxical quality because it involves an “I” divided from its’ “me.”

The Sources of Kennedy’s Guilt and His Need for Redemption

Redemptive rhetoric, according to Burke, involves movement through seven “interlocked moments” or stages: from Order, Guilt and the Negative, through Victimage or Mortification, to Catharsis and Redemption (Rhetoric of Religion 4–5). These are the stages through which we must traverse to discover the sources of Kennedy’s guilt. What violations of the societal “Thou shalt Nots” had Kennedy committed that required him to endure mortification—to slay his own “vile beasts within”—in order to achieve redemption?2 During the halcyon days of his brother’s presidency, Kennedy had enjoyed widespread personal popularity and political support. These increased following the tragic deaths of his two older brothers. But those days came to an abrupt halt with the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident, and his resulting fall from grace. Doubts about Kennedy’s behavior—his failure to go to the police until ten hours after the accident— lingered in public memory (Barron; and Beck, Doyle and Linsey). In addition, widely reported rumors and gossip about his alleged indiscrete conduct, including wild and reckless driving, intemperate consumption of alcohol, (Lerner 150; Safire “Waterquiddick”), serial marital infidelity (Chellis 143–147; Goodman 17; Lerner 145–153; Wicker, “Kennedy—Valiant”; “Kennedy Private Life Questioned”), and the so-called “Joan Factor” further eroded his public image. The “Joan Factor” was the notion widely reported in the press that Kennedy’s womanizing had driven his wife to alcoholism (Chellis 143–147; Goodman 17; Lerner 145–153; and Wicker “Kennedy—Valiant”). When Roger Mudd of CBS questioned Kennedy about Chappaquiddick, his marriage and Joan Kennedy’s treatment for alcoholism, both his questions and Kennedy’s fumbling answers did much to exacerbate the lingering doubts (“Teddy”). As a result, Kennedy was widely perceived as a person who had repeatedly and willfully transgressed numerous of the moral, social, familial, and religious “thou shalt nots,” as a person who had repeatedly failed to control his negative impulses. The sources of his guilt were ubiquitous. He was widely viewed as a person much in need of atonement and redemption.

Kennedy’s redemptive campaign reversed a political candidate’s usual emotional progress. At the start of the race in fall, 1979, “when most other politicians were brimming with enthusiasm and energy, he went through the motions of campaigning so ineptly” that his performance actually hurt his chances. Then, after a series of bruising defeats, “he at last became a forceful, zesty campaigner” (Reston). “The contrast between his effective performance in the last days of his campaign and his earlier bumbling efforts could not possibly have been more startling,” Time observed, adding that “the further Kennedy seemed from the nomination, the better he performed and was received by voters. There seemed to be some liberation in losing” (“Kennedy Goes Out In Style”).

Kennedy, by waging a losing campaign for traditional liberal principles, sought to achieve both personal and political redemption though mortification and self-immolation. “After the early primaries,” Kennedy later admitted, “we knew our chances of getting the nomination were remote”(“Kennedy Goes Out In Style”). What he also knew was that large numbers of the electorate shared the sentiment of political columnist William Safire that “when in big trouble, Teddy Kennedy’s repeated history has been to run, to hide, to get caught, and to get away with it” (“Prelude to the Bridge”). Had Safire been entirely right about him, he would have turned and run at that point. But he stubbornly refused to do so. Instead of withdrawing from the race, as many advisors and his closest friends urged him to do, he resolved to carry on bravely in the face of defeat, to take the political opprobrium that was heaped upon him (“Kennedy Goes Out In Style”). In so doing he would prove to himself and to the country that he could meet the tests of character; that he was, in the words of his brother John, a man who “does what he must—in spite of the personal consequences, in spite of the obstacles and dangers and pressures” (Profiles in Courage 246).

In championing traditional liberal convictions—the convictions of FDR, JFK and LBJ—in a losing campaign, Kennedy sought and gained a degree of public expiation and forgiveness for his shortcomings. By offering himself as a victim and by bearing up with cheer and good grace under the attacks of his opponents and the media, and by experiencing the mortification of one humiliating election defeat after another, he silenced many of the lingering doubts about his character. His campaign afforded personal redemption insofar as he was able to negate the charges against his character by virtue of his deeds. The atonement afforded by his symbolic political death, however, opened the possibility of rebirth.

Kennedy’s Convention Speech: Catharsis and Redemption

Kennedy’s August 12, 1980 speech at the Democratic National Convention in Madison Square Garden has been accurately described as “the cathartic climax, the final purgative-redemptive moment of the campaign” (Anderson, King and McClure 155). In addition, it dramatically symbolized his rebirth and new identity. Designed to elicit both catharsis and transformation, Kennedy’s speech portrayed him as a cleansed and reborn man, as one who had attained personal and political redemption through self-sacrifice by waging a losing campaign on behalf of his liberal political principles. As he portrayed it, his campaign was “a struggle for salvation” and “a striving for perfection” (Griffin 458). “We kept the faith,” he told the delegates “the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, the dream shall never die!” (Edward M. Kennedy 716).

Catharsis, as we have pointed out, was one of the two functions of Kennedy’s convention speech, which functioned simultaneously as a “purification ritual” (Burke PLF 131) and a “ritual of rebirth” (Burke ATH 317–318). For death, at least in one of its “deflections” is rebirth (Burke “Thanatopsis” 369, 372). “The dying to one identity can imply the being born into another,” writes Burke (Thanatopsis 372). Kennedy, by publicly slaying his own “vile beasts,” was able to “negate negations” and thus “produce a positive” (Ruechert 147) in the form of a new identity. From suffering and mortification came purification, transformation and rebirth. Portraying himself as a vanquished but valiant hero, he sought to dramatically symbolize his rebirth and new identity by quoting from Tennyson’s Ulysses lines he claimed his deceased “brothers quoted and loved—and that have special meaning to me now”:

I am part of all that I have met . . .
Tho much is taken, much abides . . .
That which we are, we are—
One equal temper of heroic hearts . . . strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield (Tennyson Ulysses Lines 65–70).

By identifying himself with the aging wanderer whose years of journey and struggle had made him a wiser and stronger man, Kennedy suggested that he too had emerged from his purgative-redemptive struggle reborn, with a new identity, wiser, stronger and with a new sense of hope and renewed faith, ready to continue the struggle for liberal principles.

As Kennedy delivered his eloquent defense of traditional liberal ideals and values against the neo-liberal policies of Jimmy Carter and the conservative ideology of Ronald Reagan, “nearly each of the text’s 150 well-paced lines drew shouts, laughter and applause” (Magnuson, Brew and Isaacson 16). He was interrupted by applause a total of 51 times and on five occasions there was sustained applause and prolonged chanting of “We want Kennedy.” Some delegates wept throughout the presentation (Devlin 416). As his speech progressed, both Kennedy and his followers, those who pitied and wept for him and for the defeat of his liberal principles, were “cleansed by a bath of pitiful tears, a benign orgastic downpour” (Burke “On Catharsis, or Resolution” 344–345). Kennedy’s declaration that “We cannot let the great purposes of the Democratic Party become the bygone passages of history” (Kennedy 714) elicited sustained applause and brought fresh tears to numerous eyes.

Kennedy’s Scapegoating of Reagan and Burke’s Scapegoat Mechanism

Ironically, in a speech motivated by mortification, one of the strongest sections employs not self-victimage but scapegoating. The object of Kennedy’s scapegoating was the Republican presidential nominee, Ronald Reagan, “who probably more than anyone else personified the growing conservative mood of the country” (Anderson, King and McClure 155). In his attack, Kennedy alternately heaped scorn and ridicule on Reagan while at the same time portraying him as a dangerous man with frightening ideas. It was said at the time that Kennedy “attacked Ronald Reagan more effectively that night then anybody has before or since” (Devlin 416). Scapegoating Reagan enabled Kennedy to unify the diverse convention delegates around their common opposition to Reagan and in the process to ritualistically transfer their collective guilt over the ideological differences between Carter supporters and Kennedy supporters onto the back of the detested scapegoat, symbolically purifying themselves in the process. Ironically, Kennedy’s own status as victim enabled him to more effectively victimize Reagan. Burke describes his tripartite “scapegoat mechanism” in A Grammar of Motives:

All told, note what we have here: (1) an original state of merger, in that the iniquities are shared by both the iniquitous and their chosen vessel; (2) a principle of division, in that the elements shared in common are being ritualistically alienated; (3) a new principle of merger, this time in the unification of those whose purified identity is defined in dialectical opposition to the sacrificial offering (Grammar 406).

This three-fold paradigm of the “scapegoat mechanism” rather accurately describes Kennedy’s victimization of Reagan, but it is not descriptive of Kennedy’s own (or any other) self-victimage. First, let us outline how Kennedy’s scapegoating fits Burke’s three-fold paradigm. In stage one, where there is an “original state of merger,” Kennedy and his followers are merged with other members of the American electorate, among them Republicans and conservatives (including Kennedy’s chosen vessel for scapegoating, Ronald Reagan) in their shared “iniquity” of opposing the policies of the Carter administration. In stage two, where there is a “principle of division,” Kennedy’s vilification and heaping of scorn and ridicule upon Reagan was a way of ritualistically alienating himself and his followers from the Republican nominee and his supporters. In stage three there is “a new principle of merger,” this time in the unification of all those—Kennedy Democrats, Carter Democrats, “Liberal” Republicans—whose “purified identity” is now defined in “dialectical opposition” to Reagan. The long range effect of Kennedy’s scapegoating of Reagan was to enable his own supporters to close ranks behind Carter against Reagan.

Vicarage in Scapegoating and Mortification

Insofar as self-victimage is, according to Burke, one of the “less drastic forms” of suicide, it has “a certain paradoxical element” because “the purgand would seek to cleanse the self by using the self as purgative victim” (“Catharsis—Second View” 119). “The mortified must,” Burke says, “with one part of himself be saying no to another part of himself” (Rhetoric of Religion 190). Thus, Kennedy’s task as “victim” was to substitute, not someone else (as in scapegoating), but some aspect of himself (his own “vile beasts within”) as “vicar,” in order to purify another aspect of himself (Rhetoric of Religion 190). Kennedy was saying “no” to the unruly aspects of his private self in order to say “yes” to his reborn public self.

It is not possible to fully appreciate the purgative-cathartic nature of Kennedy’s speech without relating it to the “act of vicarage, of substitution,” “the principle that underlies purgative victimage in general” (“Catharsis Second-View” 118–119). The principle of substitution makes “for an accountancy whereby the victim designed to suffer . . . may in turn be replaced by a substitute, a scapegoat, who suffers instead” (“Catharsis Second-View” 124). The scapegoat “is profoundly consubstantial with those who, looking upon it as a chosen vessel, would ritualistically cleanse themselves by loading the burden of their own iniquities upon it” (Grammar 406). Mortification, then, is a fundamentally different phenomenon than scapegoating. Scapegoating always involves other agents, loci or events: “in order for A to be cleansed, B must be contaminated or, if A is to live, B must die” (Rueckert 147). In self-victimage, “nothing outside the person involved needs to be polluted or destroyed in order for the purification to take place . . . [It] does not harm, pollute or destroy anyone else” (Rueckert 147). In purifying self, the purgand also purifies followers and supporters.

Charting the Dialectics of Mortification

Let us now explicate a mortification mechanism that complements Burke’s scapegoat mechanism. To facilitate this goal we will chart the various dialectical movements that characterize Kennedy’s self-victimage. Burke’s understanding of atonement through self-homicide was influenced by John Milton’s Samson Agonistes (A Rhetoric of Motives 3–5). Accordingly, our own efforts begin with an examination of the passage Burke quotes at the outset of his discussion:

Messenger: Unwounded of his enemies he fell.
Wearied with slaughter then, or how? Explain.
By his own hands.
Self violence! What cause brought him so soon at variance with himself   among his foes?
Inevitable cause—at once both to destroy and be destroyed (Samson Agonistes, lines 1581–1586).

Milton’s description of Samson as being “at variance with himself among his foes” provides us with a useful clue. Implied in this description are two dialectical stages or movements, one a division (the self in conflict with—divided against—itself) and the other a merger (the self among or “included with” its “foes”).

In charting Kennedy’s self-victimage what dialectical mergers and divisions do we encounter? The first dialectical stage in his mortification involves an initial principle of division in which he is with one part of himself saying no to another part of himself, “at variance with himself.” One part of him, his “I,” is repudiating the “vile beasts” inhabiting his “me.”3 The second stage entails a paradoxical principle of merger in which Kennedy as purgand is actually consubstantial not only with his supporters but also with his political enemies in their mutual detestation of the “vile” aspect of himself that is being “slain” as purgative vicar. Not only is he at “variance with himself,” he is also consubstantial in that goal “among his foes.” Interestingly, Milton’s description of Samson’s self-homicide could easily be confused with a description of the first two stages of Kennedy’s self-victimage. Milton outlines two dialectical movements, one a division (the self in conflict with, divided against itself) and the other a merger (the self “among” or “included with” its “foes”). Kennedy, in Milton’s terms, is “at variance with himself” in stage one, and consubstantial in that goal “among his foes” in stage two. The third stage, a division, is somewhat fluid and overlapping and it may partially occur in stages one and two, but it must reach completion prior to stage four. In stage three a triggering cathartic moment leads to division, namely the complete purging and slaying of “the vile beasts.” Sacrificing its unclean “me,” enables the “I” to start afresh. The fourth stage, a merger, may partially occur in stage three. In this stage the purgand is transformed and reborn. The “I” merges with its new purified self. Besides these four stages in Kennedy’s mortification there are two additional stages which occur, not in sequence, but simultaneously. In stage five, there occurs a new principle of division as Kennedy and his political foes, who had been consubstantial with him in deploring his guilt-ridden state, now become ritualistically alienated from one another, their sole area of agreement having been purged. Stage six involves a new principle of merger, this time in the unification of Kennedy with his friends and supporters around his purified and redeemed new identity.

Scapegoating and Mortification Compared and Contrasted

Our charting of the stages of Kennedys self-victimage, as well as the mortification mechanism that has emerged in the process, clarifies Burke’s contention that mortification is a more complex dialectical process than scapegoating, and that mortification contains additional ingredients not present in scapegoating. Whereas the “dialectic of the scapegoat” involves movement through three dialectical stages, the “dialectic of self-victimage” entails six stages. The tripartite pattern of the scapegoat process is merger-division-merger. The six-part pattern of the mortification process is division-merger-division- merger-division-merger, but the third stage may overlap with the first and second stages and the fourth stage may overlap with the third stage. The last two stages may occur simultaneously rather than sequentially. Furthermore, each of the six stages is more complex than the corresponding stages of the scapegoat mechanism. The initial stage of the mortification mechanism involves a paradoxical principle of division in which one aspect of the sufferer’s self is divided from another aspect of the self, and in which the “I” victimizes the “me” in order to gain purification and redemption. The second stage occasions an equally paradoxical principle of merger in which the mortified is actually consubstantial not only with friends but also with foes in their mutual opposition to the vile side of the self that is being sacrificed.

The third stage of the mortification mechanism, the catharsis stage, has no counterpart in the scapegoat mechanism. It entails catharsis, purgation, and slaying the vile beasts within. The fourth stage involves transformation and rebirth. The negation of an aspect of the self transforms a negative into a positive. The “I” merges with its purified and reborn “me.” The fifth stage involves a necessary principle of division in which the mortified is separated from the “foes” with whom they had been consubstantial in the second stage in their shared rejection of the faulty, unmortified self. At the same time the mortified is being separated from their “foes” in the fifth stage, they are also being merged in the sixth stage with their “friends” or “supporters”—all those who now define themselves in terms of the “cleansed” and “purified” new identity.

Summary and Conclusion

While scapegoating is a well understood process, our analysis focuses instead on the less understood but more complex process of self-atonement. We began by describing Kennedy’s publicly perceived guilt and his need for redemption. Then we showed how by conducting a losing campaign on behalf of his political principles he achieved purification and redemption. Next, we detailed how Kennedy’s speech at the Democratic National Convention culminated in his transformation and rebirth. We then discussed Kenneth Burke’s scapegoat mechanism and showed how it was exemplified by Kennedy’s scapegoating of Ronald Reagan, but was not exemplified by his own symbolic suicide. We then outlined the mortification mechanism that emerged from our charting of Kennedy’s self-victimage. Our survey of Kennedy’s progression through the various stages of the dialectic of symbolic self-suicide clarifies and confirms our contention that mortification is a more complex process than scapegoating, that it contains additional ingredients and is paradoxical.

Our use of Kennedy’s redemptive rhetoric during his 1980 presidential primary campaign as our representative anecdote is synecdochic. Both representative anecdote and scapegoating are synecdoches because they both employ one to represent all. Generalizations, scientific and otherwise, are also synecdochic. Since our own theorizing features a single representative anecdote, we offer no generalizations. Nor would it be possible to generalize from our single example. More to the point, is our representative anecdote actually “representative”? “If the originating anecdote is not representative, a vocabulary developed in strict conformity with it will not be representative,” Burke observes (Grammar 59). Thus, to the extent that Kennedy’s redemptive self-sacrifice is representative, it will be adequate for the analysis of other instances of redemptive self-victimage. Although Kennedy’s redemptive journey occurred in the context of a political campaign, there is no reason to suppose that the various dialectical stages of his redemption is different from those of persons experiencing redemption through self-suffering in less dramatic and less public situations. We therefore maintain that the patterns of divisions, mergers and transformations revealed by our analysis, our mortification mechanism, can be used heuristically to describe, analyze and critique other instances of atonement through suffering and self-sacrifice.


1. For Burke’s discussion of representative anecdote see A Grammar of Motives, 59–61 and 323–325. Also see Brummett, “Burke’s Representative Anecdote as a Method in Media Criticism”; “The Representative Anecdote as a Burkean Method, Applied to Evangelical Rhetoric”; and Crable, “Burke’s Perspective on Perspectives: Grounding Dramatism on the Representative Anecdote.”

2. The phrase—“slay the vile beasts within” —seems to have been coined by Leland M. Griffin in his “Dramatistic Theory of the Rhetoric of Movements” (463, 465). Although Griffin cites Burke’s Rhetoric of Religion as the source of the phrase, Burke only uses the terms “slaying” and “vile” but not “slaying the vile beasts within” (The Rhetoric of Religion 190; see also “Thanatopsis for Critics: A Brief Thesaurus of Deaths and Dying” 372–373).

3. According to Burke, modern rhetoric “must also concern itself with the thought that, under the heading of appeal to audiences, would also be included any ideas or images privately addressed to the individual self for moralistic or incantatory purposes” (Rhetoric of Motives 38–39). Viewed from this perspective, Kennedy’s entire campaign can be regarded as a case of an “I addressing its me.” A person becomes their “own audience,” Burke says, “when they become involved in psychologically stylistic subterfuge for presenting [their] own case to [themselves] in sympathetic terms” (Rhetoric of Motives 39). Seen this way, Kennedy’s entire journey through each of the six stages of the mortification mechanism entails an “I addressing its me.”

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Review: Philosophical Turns: Epistemological, Linguistic, and Metaphysical by Robert V. Wess

Greig Henderson, University of Toronto

Cover of Philosophical Turns

Robert V. Wess, Philosophical Turns: Epistemological, Linguistic, and Metaphysical. Parlor Press, 2023. 288 pages. 978-1-64317-370-2 (paperback, $34.99) 978-1-64317-371-9 (hardcover $69.99) 978-1-64317-372-6 (PDF $29.99) 978-1-64317-373-3 (EPUB $29.99)

The new wave of contemporary criticism rejects both the depth model and the hermeneutics of suspicion that goes with it.  Critique gives way to postcritique, and styles of disenchantment such as symptomatic reading, ideological demystification, and new historicism are seen to be passé.  Reparative styles of criticism supplant paranoid styles, and critics like Rita Felski and Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick have proposed that literature should be equipment for living rather than equipment for debunking and politicizing. “We know only too well,” Felski writes, “the well-oiled machine of ideology critique, the x-ray gaze of symptomatic reading, the smoothly rehearsed moves that add up to a hermeneutics of suspicion. Ideas that seemed revelatory thirty years ago—the decentered subject! the social construction of reality!—have dwindled into shopworn slogans; defamiliarizing has lapsed into dogma.” In a similar vein, Sedgewick maintains that the hermeneutics of suspicion is a “quintessentially paranoid style of critical engagement; it calls for constant vigilance, reading against the grain, assuming the worst-case scenario, and then rediscovering its own gloomy prognosis in every text.”

This postcritical turn is connected with surface or distant reading, a way of reading that supposedly supplants deep and close reading. As Elizabeth Anker and Rita Felski point out in their introduction to Critique and Postcritique, this way of reading works “against the assumption that the essential meaning of a text resides in a repressed or unconscious content that requires excavation by the critic. Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus urge greater attention to what lies on the surface—the open to view, the transparent, and the literal (thin description, just reading, the visible rather than the concealed).”

In literary and cultural studies, the postcritical turn has embraced this new way of reading, while relentlessly exposing the limits of critique. Postcritique, however, is not confined to the fields of literary and cultural studies; it coincides with new directions in contemporary philosophy, namely speculative realism and its rejection of what Meillassoux calls correlationism, “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.” “Because of correlationism we have lost the great outdoors, the absolute outside of precritical thinkers, the outside which is not relative to us and [which exists] in itself whether we are thinking of it or not.” Thinkers placed under the banner of this new realism—Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, and Bruno Latour among them—share with the post-critical turn in literary and cultural studies a fatigue with the theoretical frameworks that take for granted the inaccessibility of the thing in itself, whether that thing be a text or an object. Despite their divergent styles of approach, these thinkers are united in their quest to go beyond the epistemological problem of human access to reality as well as to rethink and unseat the linguistic paradigm and the constructionist premises that undergird it.

In Philosophical Turns, Robert Wess explores and analyzes the turn away from the linguistic paradigm. To illuminate this metaphysical turn, Wess engages in what Richard McKeon calls historical semantics—the changes in subject matter effected by philosophical turns—and philosophical semantics—why philosophers analyzing the subject matter in place during a historical period disagree with one another. Wess foregrounds starting points and ultimate priorities. “Seeing beginnings,” he writes, “entails seeing clearly the subject matter of philosophy, which in turn entails seeing that the subject matter of philosophy changes in ‘philosophical turns.’” The focus is on what we can learn from the turn from a reigning ultimate priority to a new ultimate priority.

This is not uncharted territory. Thomas Kuhn has written about paradigms and paradigm shifts while Louis Althusser has written about problematics, structures of presuppositions that constitute a discourse and its enabling historical conditions. The problematic defines the objects within a field, fixes lines of inquiry, delimits the form of the solutions thinkable within its limits, and determines forms of inclusion and exclusion, the questions asked and those that go unasked.

Wess has written astutely about Althusser in Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, Subjectivity, Postmodernism, but his new book is not concerned with Althusserian concepts of ideology and the interpellation of human subjects. Wess’s turn here is to Richard McKeon, and this turn, I think, is a turn toward trying “to see what happens when an ultimate priority based on subject matter X is displaced in favour of one based on subject matter Y.”

In homage to an unjustly neglected philosopher, the turn to McKeon is a brilliant tactic as is Wess’s new beginning. Stories about the linguistic turn tend to start with Saussurean semiology and move through Russian Formalism to structuralism to poststructuralism. Usually bypassed are logical positivism and the ordinary language philosophy that flows from it. Wess rightly sees logical positivism as integral to the linguistic turn insofar as it makes language its subject matter even if it stops short of conceiving words as prior to things.

For McKeon the subject matter of philosophy always involves thing, thought, language, and action. He offers us a grammar in the Aristotelian sense of a set of verbal terms or categories by means of which a discourse can be analyzed. Different philosophical systems emphasize different parts of the tetrad: realism and materialism emphasize thing; idealism emphasizes thought; logical positivism, structuralism, and their cognates emphasize language; while pragmatism and pluralism emphasize action. The combinatory possibilities, of course, are endless, but McKeon’s point is that any statement about the changes in subject matter effected by philosophical turns must deal with the four terms he has isolated even if it would subordinate one to the other.

Although it runs counter to the idea of philosophy as progressive evolution, McKeon is entranced by the recognition that “truth, though one, has no single expression . . . and [that] truth, though changeless, is rendered false in the uses to which it is put.” This rejection of linearity and teleology, Wess maintains, means that “regardless of changes in the subject matter of philosophy, philosophies all have principles, methods, interpretations, and selections that have affinities with one another, manifesting ‘perennial philosophy,’ despite differences in subject matter.” The interrelations among things, thoughts, language, and action are open-ended in principle and offer opportunities for disposition and transposition, the task of historical semantics being to explore the combinatory possibilities as they reveal themselves in various philosophical systems. Logical positivism is a case in point.

Wess starts out by noting that logical positivism displaces the subject matter of thought in favour of the subject matter of language. According to logical positivism, the meaning of a proposition is its method of verification. A proposition has meaningful content if and only if it is capable of being verified or falsified by empirical evidence. Metaphysical propositions do not fare well under this criterion. Nor do aesthetic, religious, and moral propositions. They are quite literally non-sense. There are words that have an empirical referent (sense) and words that do not (nonsense). By means of philosophy, then, statements are explained; by means of science they are verified. Wess argues incisively that although logical positivism makes language its subject matter, it is grounded in “the commonsensical view that words are posterior to what they are about” and stops short of making language the ultimate priority.

Structuralism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism make language the ultimate priority, but for Anglo-American audiences, the ascendancy of “the linguistic turn” is enshrined in Richard Rorty’s eponymous 1967 collection of twenty-eight essays by logical positivists and ordinary language philosophers. In later books, he articulates his pragmatist take on structuralist, poststructuralist, and postmodern thinkers. As Wess explains, advocates for the linguistic turn maintain that we cannot transcend language. We cannot find a point of view outside of all linguistic frameworks from which the world will appear as it is. We cannot think without thinking in a language. As Derrida famously puts it, there is nothing outside the text. Language is prior to that which is mediated through language. For Rorty, knowledge is not “a matter of getting reality right, but a matter of acquiring habits of action for coping with reality.”

Wess’s discussion of W.V.O. Quine on the two dogmas of empiricism, the pragmatic utility of the myth of physical objects, and the indeterminacy of translation; of Donald Davidson’s coherence theory of truth and rejection of the dualism of scheme and content; and in general of the rhetoricizing of philosophy and the attendant dangers of succumbing to “the tyranny of the new” is as resistant to summary as it is brimming with insight. Wess’s main point is that those who think they are erasing philosophy are actually rhetoricizing it, the reality of language consisting of redescription succeeding redescription and not of words striving to correspond with facts or objects. The prime characteristic of language, McKeon says, is that meanings are arbitrary; therefore, any word can mean anything and often does. In a similar vein, Davidson says “there is no word or construction that cannot be converted to a new use by an ingenious or ignorant speaker.”

Such language-centeredness is inimical to Quentin Meillassoux and Graham Harman, the two proponents of the metaphysical turn that Wess subjects to cogent, extensive, and meticulous analysis. Rejecting correlationism and the epistemological problem of human access to reality with which it is obsessed, Meillassoux aims to retrieve the “great outdoors” we have lost, the “absolute outside” that is not relative to us and exists in itself whether we are thinking of it or not. For him, thought is capable of the absolute despite the supposed destruction and deconstruction of metaphysics. What Wess calls chaotic pragmatism is Meillassoux’s acceptance of the necessity of contingency.

This attempt to retrieve the great outdoors is not to be confused with the attempt to reinstate traditional philosophical realism. True, what exist are facts, but facts are contingent, and contingency itself is the one necessity. As Wess points out, Hume’s skepticism about whether it is possible to prove in the future that the same effects will follow from the same causes is taken further by Meillassoux, who unequivocally asseverates that we could a priori conceive a chaotic modification of natural and physical laws. For him, there are three basic inscriptions of values in philosophies of being: in antiquity, eternal justice in a celestial world; in Rousseau, eternal justice in childlike pre-social being; in Hegel and Marx, evolving justice in a communitarian ideal embedded in a teleological narrative of improvement.

For Meillassoux, narratives of eternal or evolving justice are mere lingering chimeras. What he calls “may-being” is the possibility of lawless change and the thinkability of contradiction. Believe in God, he says, because He does not exist. Atheism leaves no hope for the dead, and religion’s existent God is the one who permitted them to die in the first place. In the spirit of Nietzsche, this is how to philosophize with a hammer. Wess skillfully navigates this dense terrain and reproduces the inimitable flavor of Meillassoux’s style of thought, something no review is capable of conveying.

Wess argues that unlike Meillassoux’s version of speculative realism, Harman’s object-oriented ontology is a metaphysical turn that valorizes perspectivalism. Such a “flat ontology,” Harman says, prevents “any premature taxonomies from being smuggled into philosophy from the outside,” ones like the “implausible taxonomy between human thought on the one side and everything else in the universe on the other.” For Heidegger, the practical is prior to the theoretical; for Harman, the practical and the theoretical afford perspectives that are equally valid. An “is” is prior to “use.” A bridge is a different object of perception for the driver, the sniper, the suicide, the architect, the vandal, the seagull, the insect, and so forth. No totality of perspectives is ever able to access the object. Though real objects are unchanging, sensual objects vary from perceiver to perceiver. As Harman reflects, “reality itself is weird because reality itself is incommensurable with any attempt to represent or measure it. . . . When it comes to grasping reality, illusion and innuendo are the best we can do.”

For Harman, signs have an ultimate signified, the real object whose nature is precisely not to become present. The thing-in-itself is something we deduce from the fact that no number of views of a house suffice to add up to a house. “The important thing is that any object, at any level of the world, has a reality that can be endlessly explored and viewed from numberless perspectives without ever being exhausted by the sum of these perspectives.” Real objects withdraw—with them we have no contact; sensual objects do not—with them we have contact. As Harman puts it, “the sensual is what exists only in relation to the perceiver,” whereas “the real is whatever withdraws from that relation.” But, Wess reminds us, “the perceiver is also a real object, the source of the sensual object,” as when a perceiver sees a bridge or house. “Conversely, a real object can stand alone, producing no sensual objects, while in a ‘dormant’ state.”

What, in the end, one might ask, is the ultimate status of the metaphysical turn towards a new realism? Contingent and uncertain, one might answer, for Harman is well aware of the precarity of all philosophies, including his own. For him, “philosophy is historic because any statement can turn into a platitude once the surrounding conditions have changed, and philosophy is more about outflanking platitudes than about making eternally true propositions. . . . Every statement is doomed to become an empty platitude someday.” Wess expands on this point. “During its day,” he notes, “a statement is a Rortyian ‘normal’ discourse, but it soon becomes a platitude when displaced by an upcoming ‘abnormal’ discourse. . . . This is a formula for rhetoric’s tyranny of the new,” a formula for an arrogant rhetoric that triumphantly soars beyond the dated propositions and problematics that inevitably have sunk into the graveyard of the given.

Philosophical Turns is a tour de force, a sophisticated and erudite book that not only captures the cognitive and emotive rhythms of the contemporary philosophical conversation surrounding speculative realism but also becomes a distinctive voice within that conversation. A reviewer can but adumbrate and applaud the density, complexity, and richness of the arguments Wess prosecutes with rigor and artfulness, paying homage to him just as he paid homage to Richard McKeon, his mentor.

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