Volume 6, Issue 1, Fall 2009

The Fall 2009 issue of the KB Journal begins with a word from Editor Andy King. It is followed by the first of our new Distinguished Scholars Series, a series of conversations with prominent Burkean scholars on the past, present, and future of the field; this issue features an interview with David Cratis Williams. Essays in this issue include Deron Williams & Jim A. Kuypers "Athlete as Agency: Motive in the Rhetoric of Nascar," Herbert W. Simons "Burke's Comic Frame, Marx and the Problem of Warrantable Outrage," Robert Perinbanayagam "All That is Solid Melts into Words," Kevin A. Johnson "Burke's Lacanian Upgrade: Reading the Burkeian Unconsious Through a Lacanian Lens," Garth Pauley "Criticism in Context: Kenneth Burke's The Rhetoric of Hitler's 'Battle,'" Christopher R. Darr & Harry C Strine IV "A Pentadic Analysis of Celebrity Testimony in Congressional Hearings," along with a review of Kenneth Burke's "On Human Nature."

KB Editorial for Fall 2009 - Interview with William Bailey

AS SPRING WAS TOUCHING THE BLUE SPRUCE AND BIRCHES in the high mountains of New Mexico, one of KB’s old friends, William Bailey, died of a heart attack in the rarified atmosphere of the old artist’s colony at Cloudcroft. Bailey, outdoorsman, athlete, artist, philosopher and rhetorician spoke to me two weeks before his death in a brief interview about his relationship with Burke. With a continent between them, Bailey and Burke saw each other irregularly and at long intervals. “Yet when we did see each other we caught up quickly. We had what Red Warren called instant context. We were both immensely over-read and over fluent characters,” said Bailey.

King: I understand that you invited Burke to visit your place in Cloudcroft several times, but he never accepted your invitation?

Bailey: Burke almost accepted in 1976 when he did a sort of college tour. After that he always claimed he was too feeble. He was intrigued by the idea of living in an place so rolly-poly with eccentrics but felt the thin air and the vertical walking might do him in.

King: When did you first meet Burke?

Bailey: Marie Hochmuth Nichols introduced him to me when I was a student at Illinois. Years later as a doctoral student at Northwestern, Lee Griffin had me escort him around campus and get him to lectures.

King: What was your first impression of him?

Bailey: He was short and strongly made like me. He had done manual labor and one of his hands was bigger than the other just like mine.{Bailey showed me that his own right hand was somewhat larger than his left} And he had my nose and my shape of head and my Popeye forearms—He had lived on a small farm in Jersey and I had grown up on one in Southern Illinois. And we had both wanted to be fiction writers.

King: So you had met a surrogate father?

Bailey: Well, no, old son, you are stretching it. It is just that when we spoke together we always had instant context. He knew all the things I knew and felt them as deeply as I did.

King: What did you talk about mostly?

Bailey: Well, we were both wordsmiths but I was fascinated by images. We did talk a little about the art of the comic strip and how it had been influenced by the camera work of the film and how theatre and film were different platforms and altered the content of any piece of written fiction.

King: I understand you had long quarrels about McLuhan.

Bailey: Not really. He was never interested enough in McLuhan’s work to quarrel about his ideas.

King: I know you had debates. What were the issues that divided you?

Bailey: He used to quote Wittgenstein’s saying: “When a tree bends in the wind but grows stronger that is drama, but when it suddenly snaps we have tragedy.” He quoted that when we talked about my problem of trying to write serious fiction that was not mawkish or clownish. I think he worried about the same fault in his earlier attempts at literature. He told me that social criticism was the path I ought to take.

King: And did his attitude make you angry?

Bailey: Yes, he was telling me that he was ashamed of his poetic flights; he was afraid that he could never reach the sublime and so he satirized and laughed at serious and sublime matters. I refused to give up the struggle and become a mere critic and that bothered him. He felt I was making a judgment against him. He once told me that he wanted to act on the world rather than just reflect upon it as I did. He once read a poem of mine and then accused me of stirring up things that were buried deep in other people’s souls and then just playing with them for the exercise of my art.. He was afraid he couldn’t be tough minded and useful and be a real poet. Many Americans who grew up inthe20’s and 30’s of the last century had that attitude. O’Neill and Fitzgerald spent their lives trying to overcome it.

King: So you are telling me that Burke would rather have been a famous writer of fiction than a master rhetorician and social critic? Are you saying that?

Bailey: Yes, I think that is why he hit Faulkner so hard, calling him a social scientist and laughing at what he called his “ponderously slurred Southern voice.” He envied Faulkner as he envied Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, and even Lefty Odets. He felt his talent was analytical and that he lacked that touch of madness that great Poets have. Of course I envied Faulkner at least as much as he did.

King: I don’t agree with that. His writings on Faulkner are laudatory.

Bailey: Maybe. I am talking about what he said to me on a couple of long city walks.

King: A little about your values as opposed to Burke—what things delight you most?

Bailey: Is this a rock star review? I didn’t know this interview was going to be about me. Are you going to ask me to give you a list of my ten favorite possessions?

King: Sorry, I’ll get back on track, Bill.

Bailey: I’ll answer anything if you keep to the subject of KB.

King: I understand that you abhor the extent to which scholars have used Burkean Method as a useful tool box instead of treating Burkeanism as a comprehensive statement on language and human relations.

Bailey: Yes, the crimson thread running through Burke’s fabric is that we are becoming ungrounded, too far from the sources of our being. He worried about the Abstract Society. His whole project was about the social codes of the community subverting the wisdom of the body.

King: Is that what he means in "The White Oxen" when he speaks about “the danger of Ecology overcoming Gallantry” and do you agree?

Bailey: Yes, he taught that language allows sheer animal lust to be masked as agape, phony altruism, social control, codes of etiquette and empire building.

King: You have also worried about the pomposity and grandiosity of language usage in the area of commerce and industry.

Bailey: Burke told us that the cruder and more brutally material the transaction, the more it was invested with a compensatory divinity. And anyone who has lived with artists knows that the more spiritual, the more stratospheric the aesthetic, the more ferocious is the commercial frenzy that is brought in the back door.

King: I am shocked. You found this among the gifted painters at Cloudcroft?

Bailey: Burke predicted there would be some farcically empty careerists among the aesthetes and selfless craftsman. He was right. The entrepreneurial types were a dominant majority. A few of the most famous artists there would sell their souls for a bit of hard currency—the most cretinous goons I’ve ever run across.

Bill told me he was suddenly getting very tired at this point in the interview and we wound it up quickly. Three weeks later David Hardy called me from Tucson to tell me that Bill had been rushed to the hospital complaining of severe chest pains and had died on the way. He told me he once said to Burke: “I hope we both go out game.” We will always think of him at our best. We shall miss him.

Burke Distinguished Scholar Series: An Interview With David Cratis Williams

Conducted By Andy King

David Cratis Williams PhotoAbout David Cratis Williams: David Cratis Williams is a seventh generation Appalachian mountaineer who landed as an Associate Professor of Public Communication at Florida Atlantic University on the flat sands of South Florida in Boca Raton. His study of Burke began in the late 1970's, progressed through several publications on Burke, and continues to this day. He was a funding member of the Kenneth burke Society, served as co-program planner for the Centennial Conference in Pittsburgh with Grieg Henderson (and together they edited Unending Conversations: New Writings By and About Kenneth Burke) and directed the Iowa City Conference. In addition to his work on burke, Williams also publishes in the areas of Appalachian Studies, argumentation, rhetorical criticism, and democratization/democratic renewal. He claims on affinity with Burke: a passion for playing tennis, particularly on clay courts.

King: You have done a great many things in your career but throughout it all you maintained a strong and steady interest in Burke? Why have you continued to explore Burke's theories and methods?

Williams: The Burkean theoretical and critical prism provides one with very resourceful, useful, and ultimately, I think, realistic ways of looking at and coming to understand the realms of human motivations and hence the world of human action and interaction (the 'drama of human relations'). I think it is true that we can become "infected" with Burke's perspectives ("Burke's disease," as he put it; depending upon how much one values the perspective, we might also call it, following Stanley Edgar Hyman, "Burkeology" or, more pejoratively, "Burkeitis"). I am not certain that the disease is curable (or that it should be). So after many years, I remain happily infected.

King: It has been more than 15 years since Burke's death. It still seems as if it were only yesterday, but the world has turned over many times since that violet hour. What do you think Burke would make of the wingspan of the Burkean enterprise if he were alive today?

Williams: My read of Burke suggests that he strongly desired validation of his theoretical and critical enterprise. As one who was frequently 'on the margins' both socially and intellectually, as one who was never properly pedigreed with academic degrees nor properly 'disciplined' within university sanctioned fields of inquiry, Burke thoroughly enjoyed the attention that he received in his later years. However, enjoying recognition and attention are quite different from seeking or encouraging acolytes. In "A Letter from Andover" in an the early issue of the Newsletter of the Kenneth Burke Society (Vol. 2, no. 1, July 1986, p. 3), Burke confessed his awkwardness with a eponymous society whose members were simply to "contribute a modest sum of pay for an honorary wreath on my Pre-Grave," preferring instead that "the members themselves joined the fray" contributing "propositions and plans of their own to do with matters Dramatistic and Logological." His hope was that "my nomenclature is used as the specific point of 'departure,'" with writers "not necessarily agreeing with my positions as interpreted by given members, or even wholly disagreeing; or perhaps but developing some line of thought further."

My guess is that Burke would be flattered, pleased, and somewhat embarrassed at the outpouring of scholarship on or employing of his theoretical and critical perspectives, but that he would take some measure of satisfaction in the range and divergence in that scholarship as well as the interpretive squabbles that have emerged. There is "co-haggling" aplenty, enacting that strangely paradoxical construct: vigorous expressions of differences that remain conjoined, all bounded together within a common nomenclature.

King: What is your favorite Burke story or anecdote?

Williams: This is the question that has me stumped. There are so many wonderful anecdotes about Burke, some funny, some poignant, some sad, some puzzling, etc. Some are published; others abound in the letters, tapes, and films. Still others survive in the oral tradition. Even if I consider only those which arose in my own encounters with Burke, I am somewhat paralyzed by choices—not because I had that many encounters with Burke, but rather because he richly created or inspired good stories. Harold Bloom kissing Burke on the forehead at the Seton Hall conference in 1986, calling him "my rabbi." Howard Nemorov telling how he and Burke, both too drunk late one night to navigate the walk safely between their cabins in Bennington, had spent the early morning hours walking each other home before finally parting halfway between the cabins as dawn approached. Or Burke hosting a party in his hotel room during the NCA in Boston around 1990 when Burke was himself in his 90s, a party that hotel security had to close down because of the noise and congestion. May we all host such gathering when we are in our 90s.

But an exchange with Burke that will always stay with me was of a somewhat different nature. I was fortunate enough in the early 90s to spend a couple of days talking with Burke at his home in Andover. During our conversation, the topic at one point turned to Burke's hearing loss, a problem that began in his youth and continued to worsen throughout his life. He told me that at one point, exactly when I do not recall but I have the impression that it might have been as recently as the mid-1980s, he basically lost all of his hearing. He could not hear the voices of those speaking to him and he could not understand the conversations going on around him. As he was telling me this, he became increasingly agitated. He had become paranoid, he said: he had thought that the conversations he could not hear must be plots against him. He had become quarrelsome. Finally, his family took him to an ear specialist, who used what Burke described as a machine of some sort that was inserted into his ear in an effort to dislodge a deep and compacted wax build-up. As he was telling me this, Burke's agitation increased: he half arose from his seat and leaned across his kitchen table toward me, his eyes riveted on me and his voice gaining volume. As the machine worked, he said, he began to feel pain build up, and the pain grew and grew as the machine got louder and louder. "Louder and louder!" he cried, and tears began streaming down his cheeks as he slowly settled back into his chair. The roar was not a deafening roar, but a roar that announced an end to deafness. Kenneth Burke had rejoined the conversation.

King: Despite your apparent youth, you have been around . Which is the most memorable of the Burke Conferences you have attended?

Williams: Well, I have attended all of them and remember most of them. But a definitional issue comes first. The Burke Society was formed at the Temple Conference, but did not sponsor its own conference until the New Harmony Conference in 1990. The Temple Conference was for me as fledgling Burkean unbelievable, but I think New Harmony really counts as the first "Burke Conference." And for me it is the most memorable, even though I was much more involved personally in the organization of subsequent conferences in Pittsburgh and Iowa City. The reason is of course quite simple: the New Harmony Conference was the only official conference of the Kenneth Burke Society that Burke himself attended.

I participated in the seminar on "Kenneth Burke and Postmodernism," which happened to also be the seminar that Burke attended for much of the time. And of course Burke's presence changed the dynamics within the seminar. Who could forget Burke fielding a cautiously worded question based on a letter in the Newsletter suggesting that scholars should not rely much on recent writings by, or interviews of, Burke. After all, he was quite old and probably not as sharp as he had once been. What, Burke was asked in round-about and indirect fashion, did he think of that. Burke paused and stared for a moment, then opined to the effect of: "In my younger days, I tended to look at the world through a series of what I called my 'representative anecdotes.' Now that I am older, I find that I look at the world more through my representative anecdotage." There was no follow-up question.

Toward the end of the Conference, Burke was interviewed in a plenary session by Jim Chesebro. But I had forgotten a wonderful line from Burke during that interview until reminded of it in Dale Bertlesen's synopsis of the conference, also published in the Newsletter (vol. 6, no. 2, October 1990): "Nobody wins in the unending conversation—it moves on" (p. 6).

King: Why was Burke so hard on the French? He called Jacques Derrida "Dumb Ass Derrida" and he referred to Foucualt as "Wonder Boy Frenchie" and sometimes "Wander-Boy" He once laughed about the matter saying: "Oh, maybe I am just not up to them Frenchies" and used a funny voice. Any ideas about that?

Williams: Hard on the French? Are you kidding? Burke loved the French. He was practically weaned on Laforgue and Flaubert and raised on de Gourmont. He was enamored of France: the pastoral country-sides, the litterateurs, the Symbolists poets, the cafes. The wine. Of course those were the writers of his youth and the France of his dreams. He wanted very much in the post-war teens and the early twenties to be an "exiled" poet, novelist, and short-story writer, drinking in the ambience and inspiration of Paris.

But by the upheavals of the 1930s and 1940s, Burke had moved more toward social theory, with a decidedly domestic slant, and eventually his own theory of human motivation. His focus became more insular; even his "exiled" fellow Francophiles from youth, Malcolm Cowley and Matthew Josephson, "came home" and began focusing more on American literature and biography. Burke's own focus was increasingly on elaboration of his own theories—and defense of them against inquisitors, mostly American. I think he had stopped paying much attention to things in France.

By the time Derrida and Foucault came along, Burke was attending to other things. They did not engage his theories, and I don't think they much attracted his interest. When Burke finally got around to dabbling in some of their writing—and I don't think he did much more than that—he was quite old and I suspect not really at all interested in major new projects that would pull him away from the projects he still had at hand, his "unfinished business." Besides, these weren't the French of his youth, the French he loved. They were mere poseurs in the forever unreal image the artistic milieu of Paris in the 1920s that had burned so radiantly in the imagination of Burke as a young man.

King: How did you first discover Burke and was it a pleasant experience for you?

Williams: It was quite by accident, an extension really of the accident of my matriculation as a graduate student in Speech Communication at the University of North Carolina. Both, as it has turned out, were quite happy accidents. I was an undergraduate English major at Chapel Hill and a member of the debate team. Following my senior year, I planned to work as a VISTA volunteer for a year and then pursue graduate studies in Southern literature, focusing on the relationship between literature and culture. But as that summer ended and I languished in my hometown of Boone, N.C., awaiting word of my VISTA assignment, my "old" debate coach at UNC, Bill Balthrop, called and asked if I would apply for a debate assistantship at UNC, explaining that the position had just come open because the anticipated assistant had changed his mind and decided to go elsewhere. I was excited: I could coach debate, receive an assistantship, and pursue my graduate studies in Southern literature. But then Bill explained the "catch": I had to be in the degree program in Speech Communication, a discipline about which I really knew very little despite the debate team's location within the Department. Not to worry, Bill assured me, I would like rhetoric. Not much knowing what that was, but eager to coach debate regardless, I assented.

The program at UNC in those days was not much like the one today: it was small, a Masters degree only, and did not feature a lot of classes in rhetoric. No sweat, said Bill. He and Robbie Cox would provide independent studies, and they did. It was through those independent studies that I was introduced to Burke, not in great depth but enough to whet my appetite. The Burke that I read offered what were to me new and exciting avenues for looking at the relationships between literature and culture . . . and beyond. "Rhetoric" took on new meaning for me. I became inspired to fulfill the appetite that had been created, so I headed for the doctoral program at the University of Kansas, where I studied Burke with Donn Parson, Karlyn Campbell, and Paul Campbell. I don't know that I would describe it all as "pleasant," but it was certainly an intellectual awakening, one which has shaped much of my thought and work ever since.

My interest in literature and culture made me a receptive host for an infection of "Burke's disease." And it was through Burke that I was led toward broader interest in and study of rhetoric.

King: This concludes the interview. Thank you, David, for what Samuel Johnson called "improving conversation on elevated subjects."

Athlete as Agency: Motive in the Rhetoric of NASCAR

Daron Williams, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and Dr. Jim A. Kuypers, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


We employ a Burkean perspective to examine the role of rhetoric in the sport of NASCAR.  In particular, we explore the role that driver rhetoric plays in the mainstream success of the sport.  We selected six representative television interviews by NASCAR drivers and subjected them to a pentadic analysis.  For comparison purposes, we perform the same analysis on two interviews from each of three other major American professional sports – football, basketball, and baseball.  Our findings suggest that rhetorical norms in NASCAR do differ from those norms of other major American sports, and that this distinction could possibly play a role in the marketing success of NASCAR.

NASCAR, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, is among the top spectator sports in America.  It has $2.8 billion in television contracts, and a $750 million deal with Sprint for the naming rights of the top-level racing series.[1]  This is particularly impressive given that the sport evolved from the illegal pastime of running moonshine on the dusty back roads of the Southeastern US, and was only organized into official events beginning in the 1940’s.  Even then, NASCAR failed to gain widespread popularity or a regular weekly television audience until the 1980’s.

In the years since, the sport has undergone a dramatic metamorphosis from Southern Saturday nights at the dirt track to multi-million dollar sponsorships and multi-billion dollar television contracts.  One in three American adults follows the sport, and in 2006 more Fortune 500 companies—106—participated in NASCAR than in any other sport.[2] Contrary to popular stereotypes, NASCAR’s fan base is more affluent than the general U.S. population: 42% earn $50,000 or more per year, and half of that fan base will purchase products specifically because the brand or company has a sponsorship in NASCAR.[3]  Aron Levin, Chris Joiner, and Gary Cameron studied the impact of NASCAR sponsorship on brand recall and attitudes toward brands among fans; they found that car sponsorship is more effective than regular television ads among fans, and the combination of television ads and car sponsorship was even more potent.[4]  Studies such as this prompted Larry DeGaris, director of the James Madison University Center for Sports Sponsorship to conclude, “NASCAR sponsorship is the best buy in marketing.  The combination of awareness, favorability and effectiveness is unparalleled in the sports world or anywhere else.”[5]

Despite its skyrocketing appeal, the few academic studies that have been done often focus on the business and marketing side of the sport.[6]   Little has been postulated academically as to how and why NASCAR is such a successful venture, or how communication plays a role in this success.  With this in mind, we explore the rhetorical side of NASCAR’s success drawing upon the heuristic power of Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic perpective.  We seek to better understand the Motives operating within and about NASCAR.  Specifically we ask: How does the rhetoric of NASCAR contribute to its marketing success?  How does the rhetoric of NASCAR differ from that of other major sports?  Does the rhetoric of NASCAR indicate that the drivers serve different roles than athletes in the other major American sports?  In order to accomplish this, we analyze interviews from professional athletes in other major American sports and compare the results with interviews given by top-level NASCAR drivers.

Burke’s Pentad and Motivational Analysis

The dramatistic pentad is among Kenneth Burke’s most enduring theories.[7]  It originated as a tool Burke used to systematically dismantle and understand the bases of human conduct and motivation.[8]  Burke was initially interested in answering the question, “What is involved, when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it?”[9]  In order to answer this question, Burke began by distinguishing between action and motion – any object can potentially exhibit motion, but something, in order to have action, would have to have motive behind it.[10]  Motive is distinct from purpose.  Purpose is why a person does something; motive is larger, more akin to the worldview of a person. According to Richard E. Crable and John J. Makay, motive “is to Burke a construct that, when combined with other such constructs, describes the totality of the compelling force within an event which explains why the event took place.”[11]  Burke’s dramatistic pentad, then, is a tool that he adapted from similar heuristics formulated by the likes of Aristotle to Talcott Parsons to get at the root of motive by deeply analyzing what is being communicated as a result of that motive.[12]

The pentad involves the analysis of rhetorical artifacts by looking for five interrelated parts: act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose.  The scene equates to the temporal or spatial environment portrayed in the artifact; the act is what takes place within the artifact; the agent is the person who performs the act; the agency is the means, method, or instrument through which the agent performs the act; and the purpose indicates why the agent performs the act.  The realization of each of these five interrelated elements can allow the critic to tease out the motives underlying the event.[13]

These five elements must also be understood in a way that highlights and privileges their interconnected nature—any changing of a part changes the whole and possibly the other parts.  One element must be understood in its relation to the other elements to determine the terministic screen—the specific filter—through which the communicator views the world.  These two-element combinations are called pentadic ratios.[14]  For example, in act-scene or agent-scene, the scene functions as a container or a boundary that contains the action or the agent.  In agency-purpose, the means (agencies) are adapted to justify the ends (purpose).[15]  Determining pentadic ratios helps the critic focus on a particular dominant aspect of the text.

According to Burke, “what we want is not terms that avoid ambiguity, but terms that clearly reveal the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise.”[16] One’s understanding of a pentadic element will by definition be influenced by the communicator’s perspective or existing philosophy of thought.  Once again, Burke attempts to slightly clarify the muddy waters:

A portrait painter may treat the body as a property of the agent (an expression of personality), whereas materialistic medicine would treat it as ‘scenic,’ a purely ‘objective material’; and from another point of view it could be classed as an agency, a means by which one gets reports of the world at large. . . .War may be treated as an Agency, insofar as it is a means to an end; as a collective Act, subdivisible into many individual acts; as a Purpose, in schemes proclaiming a cult of war.  For the man inducted into the army, war is a Scene . . . and in mythologies war is an Agent. . . .[17] 

David S. Birdsell offers more advice on dealing with the pentad:

Since the terms are convertible, critics are well served by experimenting with various treatments of the terms within the text under study in an effort to determine which formulation will provide the fullest explanation for the relationships between those terms in that text. . . .  Non-obvious uses of pentadic terminology are well established.[18]

Burke’s pentad certainly leaves room for interpretation, as does the rhetoric of NASCAR where the ambiguity of the terms and the room for interpretation can prove overwhelming.  By using a pentadic analysis for this project, we hope to pull back the wizard’s curtain and reveal what is behind the scenes in NASCAR that allows drivers to speak the way they do, and what helps NASCAR to be the success that it is.  Ideally, a “pentadic analysis allows the rhetorical critic to reveal how a discursive text works within the grammar of motives to effectively represent motives for rhetorical purposes,”[19] and that is the crux of this project.

In the pages that follow, we use the pentad to generate insights about sports interviews in our quest for a fuller understanding of the motives that guide them. The unit of analysis for our investigation is the interview.  In looking for terms of the pentad, we were careful to “look for ways in which … statements [by those interviewed] direct attention to particular pentadic terms, characterize those terms, and characterize terministic relationships.”[20]  Or, as Clarke Rountree suggested, the “rhetorical critic must take care to look not simply for terms that are ‘scenic’ (or ‘purposive’ or ‘agency-related,’ etc.) on their face, but for those that function within a particular grammar of motives as ‘scene’ (or ‘purpose’ or ‘agency,’ etc.).”[21]  In this manner, we looked “for the actual grammatical functions of terms for motives, not just their superficial connection to a terministic source.”[22]  Interview transcripts from NASCAR personalities are analyzed in order to establish what rhetorical practices are used.  To provide a basis for comparison, interview samples from the professional level of each of the other major American sports—basketball, baseball, and American football—are analyzed as well.  These sports were chosen because they represent, along with NASCAR, the top four traditionally American professional sports being watched on television today.[23]  Specifically, we look for motive in baseball, football, and basketball interviews.  Next we look for motive in NASCAR interviews.  Finally, we conclude by way of comparing the interviews and the motives we uncovered. 

The Nature of Sports Interview Rhetoric

In order to establish the norms in athletic interviews, at least for the purposes of this essay, we first take a look at six interviews with stars from other major American sports. We make no claim that these interviews are exemplars or that they are fully representative of the majority of sports interviews in the sports in question. Interviews were chosen based upon their different situations, different time periods, different rhetors, and availability of complete interviews.  To this end, we used our personal experience watching sports interviews to help us determine the suitability of these examples.  They do not stand out in any particular way; for us, they represent average and common interviews, given in different situations.

Football: Walter Payton and Brett Favre

The first case study is a post-game interview with a legendary football player, the late Walter Payton, immediately after his team, the Chicago Bears, triumphed in Super Bowl XX on January 26, 1986.  The use of this interview can be likened to the NASCAR Victory Lane interview we will examine later—these types of interviews account for a large portion of the NASCAR interviews featured on television.  Payton, asked if he thought the dream of winning the Super Bowl would ever come true, painted a picture of a hungry athlete being motivated by past losses:  “It’s tough in the off-season, when you see people playing in the Super Bowl.  You wonder and you think to yourself, ‘Are we ever going to get there and see what it feels like?’  It pushes you a little bit harder during that off-season to work and try to get there the following year.”[24]

Payton’s scene is set during the off-season months, when players should be working harder physically than they do during the season—he was known for his amazingly difficult off-season conditioning program.  The agent could be seen as the generic football player, being taunted by visions of the current champions.  The agent is becoming motivated for an upcoming season—this process of becoming motivated would be the act.  The agency, or the instrument that allows him to accomplish the act, can be interpreted as the fact that the player’s season is over – the idea of “loss” may be the best way to sum it up.  After all, he wouldn’t be haunted by the torturous image of other people playing in the Super Bowl and hoisting the trophy if he were there himself holding it.  Finally, the agent’s purpose in this snippet is for that player to come back and win the trophy next year, which, in this example, came to fruition in real life, causing the rhetor to reflect backwards.  For Payton, it is this purpose that makes the off-season worth the extra work.

With his repeated use of the word “you,” Payton is emphasizing and re-emphasizing the importance of the agent in his interview—his “you” is Payton projecting the agent out to the audience, allowing the viewers to put themselves in the place of his agent and feel that void that motivates the agent to work harder and achieve success the following year.  For this reason, the agent is the most dominant element in this example.  Even later in the interview, when Payton refers to his team, his agent (himself) and co-agents (Chicago Bears teammates) remains dominant when he says, “This team had their minds made up after losing to San Francisco last year that we were going to win the Super Bowl this year.”  After agent, we believe purpose is the next dominant element.  In both the personal parts of the interview and the team-related parts, it is the purpose of coming back and winning next year, combined with the agency of loss, which is causing the act of motivation to occur within the agent(s).  So we end with discovering an agent-purpose ratio.

Brett Favre provides our second NFL interview sample.  Favre just completed a stellar 17-year career, 16 of those years spent as quarterback for the Green Bay Packers.  During that time, Favre won one Super Bowl and set several career passing and touchdown records, including most wins for a quarterback and most passing touchdowns.  This interview sample comes from what would prove to be his penultimate game, an unlikely comeback victory over the Seattle Seahawks on January 12, 2008.  About the comeback victory, Favre said:

Well, it is tough to come back for any team, especially for us.  We, in the last couple of years, haven’t had good experiences when we got behind, especially that way.  I knew we had a lot of time left and if we could hold them in check on defense, which we did, it was a matter of us scoring some points and not turning the ball over and we did that.[25]

Favre’s “we” and “us” indicate that he intends himself and his Packers teammates as the agents.  What he describes is a construct of what the team has done and just did—what just occurred on the field—so the agent represents the dominant element here.  The team shared the drive and goal of winning, which would serve as a common purpose, but it is the act of playing the game and winning that is more important than the purpose, scene, or agency.  Therefore, this section of Favre’s interview represents an agent-act ratio.

Favre continues with the interview, though, and switches gears when asked a different question.  Asked whether he’d prefer one team or another to win in the game that would decide who the Packers would play next (thus determining what location the next game would be played), Favre responds: “It would be great to play here again obviously.  Haven’t won in Dallas, there’s always a first time, I hope.  If Dallas wins this game, you know, we go down and give them another shot.  The worst that can happen is we lose, but we’d love to play here and we’ll just see what happens.”[26]  In this snippet, the scene makes an appearance as a significant element, as Favre would like for his team to play the next game at the Packers’ home stadium.  He then indicates that he does not care so much about the location because his team has reached this advanced level of the playoffs.  So while the scene is mentioned here more often than the agent or the act of playing, qualitatively it appears that more emphasis is still being placed upon the agents performing the act (Packers playing football) as the most important part of the interview.  This would continue to support this as an example of an agent-act ratio, internally as well as externally.

Baseball: Roger Clemens and Josh Beckett

The next example of an interview from a major American sport comes courtesy of baseball player Roger “The Rocket” Clemens, a possibly hall-of-fame bound pitcher (depending largely on the outcome of the recent steroid allegations against him) for the New York Yankees.  Providing the backdrop for this interview is that Clemens had just re-joined the Yankees after a stint in the minor leagues—not because his pitching wasn’t good enough for the majors, but because he sat out the early part of the season.  He had just come off the mound after his first outing of the season when he offered this to reporters: “Well, I’ve worked real hard the last couple of days.  Obviously it was a long time in between [starts]. . . .  It’s a lot of work, but you know I wouldn’t have it any other way. . . .  Obviously I want to have better performances when I’m out there.  Some will be tougher than others, but I guess that’s just the way it is.”[27]

Clemens leaves little doubt that he is the agent.  The agent is working hard (act) in order to obtain the goal of playing well (purpose).  Like Walter Payton’s example, Clemens provides the audience with a glimpse into an agent who is striving hard to accomplish a goal, but there is a more direct link between working hard and meeting success in Clemens’s example, while Payton’s agent’s act is not the work, but the gaining of inspiration to then perform the work.

Clemens continues by saying, “There’s things in my delivery I feel I can clean up as we get down the road here and hopefully they will help my delivery and the way I release pitches…it’s real important to what I’m trying to do right now.”  Again, little or nothing is said here of the scene and agency—the scene is left assumed, and is basically exactly what was described immediately before the quote.  The agency, the instrument or means through which Clemens performs the act, in this case might be the New York Yankees, again unmentioned, but the informed audience likely knows this.  It is Clemens’s purpose that moves this text; that drives the agent to perform the act, but the agent’s act of working hard is more important in Clemens’ interview.  So we end with discovering an agent-act ratio.

Josh Beckett, a young pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, provides the next example.  This interview occurred immediately after Beckett had delivered an heroic game-winning performance for the Red Sox in game 5 of the American League Championship Series on October 18, 2007.  The Red Sox season was over if they lost to the Cleveland Indians, so the win in Cleveland’s home park was a major victory; it allowed the Red Sox to eventually win that series and the next to become world champions.  Beckett had what appeared to be a tough start to the game when he gave up a run in the first inning, but he recovered to take the win.  Asked about what changed between the first inning and the rest of the game, Beckett replied:

I don’t know.  I thought I executed my pitches pretty well in the first inning too.  Just unfortunate to give up a bloop hit to a guy that’s…good hitters find a way to get hits, and Grady’s one of those guys.  You know, you give up a bloop hit and they manufacture a run.  That’s part of the deal.  It’s tough because we came out and scored a run in the first, obviously you want to go out and shut them down.[28]

Beckett’s dialogue indicates himself as the agent.  Beckett refers mostly to himself as the agent, free of co-agents, until the end of this section of the interview, when he refers to the offense of his team, in which he does not participate, as “we.”  Beckett speaks about himself “executing pitches, “giving up a bloop hit,” and wanting to “go out and shut them down,” thus indicative of an agent-act ratio.  Beckett continues with, “It basically comes down to the same thing no matter where you’re playing.  If you’re playing in the back yard with your buddies, it comes down to executing pitches.  They hit it at some guys, guys made some great plays, and scored enough runs to win.”  Note the similarities to Brett Favre’s interview earlier, in which Favre spoke of not caring where the Packers played, just that they played.  Beckett seems to be saying something congruent here.  It does not matter at what level a pitcher plays the game of baseball, it matters only that the pitcher properly executes the intended pitches.  The bottom line, for Beckett, is that his team scored enough runs, and he kept the other team from scoring enough runs, so the Red Sox won the game: an agent-act ratio.

Basketball: Carmelo Anthony and Lebron James

We provide as our final example two NBA interviews with Carmelo Anthony and Lebron James.  In an interview about his team’s chances in the upcoming season, Anthony offers this: “The sky’s the limit.  We’re right there with the San Antonio’s, Phoenix’s, you know, Dallas.  Nobody ain’t (sic) going to say it, but I’ll be the first one to say it, that we’re right there with them guys when we do that.”[29]  Grammar aside, Anthony is communicating that his team, the Denver Nuggets (agent), is near the top of the league.  The other teams represent counter-agents, described by Burke as “enemies” of the agent.[30]  The Nuggets hope to achieve what the other league-leading teams have achieved (purpose). This interview, as evidenced by his claim that no one else will say it, could also be viewed as a warning to other teams—Look out, top teams: We’re coming to get you!  So we end with discovering an agent-purpose ratio.

Also under examination is an interview by Anthony’s counterpart, Lebron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers.  After game 5 of the 2007 NBA Finals, in which James’ Cavaliers defeated the Detroit Pistons in double-overtime, James, who hit several big shots, said: “I wanted to try to get that last shot but I kind of seen (sic) there was an opening and I wanted to attack and I was able to get to the lane, avoid a couple defenders and get the ball up on the backboard…this was a great performance by our team, but it wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t come out and play as hard as we did” (reference).

The winded James is clearly holding his agent and co-agents, himself and his team, above other elements here.  It is his desire and will to win that allows him to make the big shot he describes.  It is also his team’s effort that allowed them to win as a team.  It seems, then, that the act of playing hard would play the secondary role here, leading to an agent-act ratio.


Athletes, whether speaking about their long road to a championship or their hard work, are acting for themselves, by themselves, and generally speaking of themselves or their teams as agents—they use their words and their phrases to get across their own messages.  That is to say, they are choosing their own responses to the particular questions asked.[31]  Let there be no mistake, if an athlete were to say something he or she should not, such as a curse word or a personal tirade against the referees, that athlete’s team or league might penalize him or her monetarily or with a suspension.  This happened to Shaquille O’Neal in the NBA in 2003, when he was suspended one game and fined $250,000 for saying two curse words during a live interview.[32]  In that they have to remain straight-laced and present a particular image to the public, these athletes are toeing the company line to some extent, but with minimal direct external influence upon what they say in response to reporters’ questions.

We suggest that it is in this area that the largest difference exists between the rhetoric of NASCAR and that of other sports.  Drivers are on the same level as other major athletes: they are rich, they are famous, they have tens-, or hundreds-of-thousands, or even millions of fans, and many of the drivers can count on having microphones in their faces around every corner.  Some drivers, such as Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, and Dale Earnhardt, have achieved mythic status.  When the red light comes on above the camera lens, though, these drivers speak a language entirely different from what is spoken on football fields, baseball diamonds, and basketball courts around the country.  To clarify, all of these sports have their terminologies that are specific to one sport alone – “free throw,” “ground-rule double,” and “safety” are examples of sport-specific terms in the other sports, just like “tight” and “restrictor plate” are sport-specific to NASCAR.  It is not these sport-specific terms that set NASCAR apart, but rather the fact that every sound bite has the potential to turn into a fully developed sponsor advertisement.  In other words, the money (aka the sponsors) often speaks through the drivers.

The Rhetoric of NASCAR Drivers

We move now to looking at six interview excerpts from popular NASCAR drivers.  The drivers interviewed—Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Martin Truex, Jr., Reed Sorenson, and Dave Blaney—represent different attitudes, experience levels, and success levels within the sport. Newman is a talented younger driver (age 30 as of this writing) who has won 12 races since joining the circuit full-time in 2002, but has never finished better than 6th in the championship standings.[33]  Gordon has driven in every race at NASCAR’s highest level since 1993, he has won four Winston/Nextel/Sprint Cup Championships, and he has won, on almost every track the circuit visits, 81 total races (6th all time, and by-far the most of any active driver).[34]  He is generally ranked among the most popular drivers in the series, as well as the single most hated—he has the second-most fans behind Dale Earnhardt Jr., but more fans single him out as the main despised opponent than any other driver.  Stewart is a two-time champion who has raced regularly since 1999.[35]  He is known as a hot-tempered driver who typically never shies away from confrontation on or off the track. Truex Jr. is a popular newcomer to the sport, joining the highest level in 2006.  Truex drives for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., and with the recent departure of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. from his late father’s team, Truex is now carrying the flag for the organization as their best hope for the coveted championship in the near future.[36]  Sorenson is another relative newcomer to the top level.  He has yet to meet with the success that Truex has found, posting no wins yet, but he has posted several wins in what is now called the Nationwide Series, which would be the “minor leagues” of NASCAR.  The final driver, last and some would say least, is Dave Blaney.  Blaney drove his first top-level NASCAR race in 1992, and has driven full-time since 2000, but in his mid-40’s has yet to win a race.  His role at the track is that he is “there,” but is not typically considered a force with which to be reckoned.

These particular interviews were chosen based upon several factors.  Of the hundreds of drivers that have competed at the highest level of NASCAR, past and present, we wanted to begin our investigation with six drivers who are representative of the field of modern drivers.  We chose these six drivers based upon their diversity among current drivers – the middle-of-the-pack, not-too-young, not-too-old Ryan Newman, the top-notch and highly marketable Jeff Gordon, the fiery Tony Stewart, the young up-and-comers Martin Truex Jr. and Reed Sorenson, and the long-suffering Dave Blaney – we also looked for drivers who had complete interviews available for viewing.   We also looked for interviews given in different situations on and around race day.  With a combined 30 odd years of NASCAR viewing experience between us, we are comfortable suggesting that these interviews represent the norms typically expressed in NASCAR interviews.  We also took care to ensure that the interviews took place at different times during the 2006 and 2007 seasons, as well as at different tracks.

Ryan Newman

The first statement under review comes courtesy of Ryan Newman, driver of the #12 Alltel Dodge Charger, after winning the pole position (known as the Bud Pole Award) at New Hampshire Speedway on July 16, 2006.  Minutes before he was to step into his car to begin the race, a reporter asked a question about his team’s good momentum for the weekend, and he replied: “This is a fun racetrack.  We’ve always run well here.  We just need to take the Alltel Dodge, put it in race trim and make it as fast, and I think we can do that.  I’d like to thank Matt, all the guys back at the shop.  Penske Jasper racing engines got down the straightaway great.  We’ve got a whole field of Chevrolets right behind us.  We want to keep the Dodges up there, so we’ll just do the best we can.”[37]

Here we have a situation where the driver is speaking in terms of “we.”  This could represent Newman and his team (pit crew, crew chief, spotter, etc.) as the agent and co-agents—a single entity striving for one common goal.  In this case, that goal, or the purpose, is to do well in the race, with the racetrack on raceday representing the scene.  The act is getting the car ready, meaning properly tuned and set up, for success on the track.  The agencies, in this view, are the sponsors.  Mentioned are Alltel, Dodge (twice), Penske, and Jasper—all companies who contribute huge sums of money or services to Newman’s cause.  Alltel is the main sponsor on the car’s hood, Dodge is the maker of the car, Penske Racing owns the car, and Jasper builds special engines for this team – Penske-Jasper engines.  Chevrolet is also mentioned, but only to provide contrast – an “us vs. them” dichotomy that paints Dodge as the good guys and Chevrolets as the bad guys.

Viewed from this perspective, Ryan Newman could be seen as the author of his own statements.  Like athletes in the other sports, Newman responds to the question how he best sees fit.  NASCAR representatives are not standing behind the camera telling him to make sure that he mentions these companies.  However, Newman knows that these mentions will satisfy the companies – after all, his statement is being broadcast to over 75 million fans in North America alone.[38]  NASCAR has ingrained this system of speech into its drivers so that they make “shameless plugs” fit naturally into conversations and interviews.

Or is this interview something completely different?  The previous layout could describe the interview, but does it necessarily?  Taking the convertibility of the pentadic terms into account, let us now reconsider Newman’s interview from another angle, that of an external application of the pentad.  If sponsors have such an influence on what is being said, then let us consider them the agents, and Newman and his team as the agency.  The sponsors are speaking through the “instrument” of Ryan Newman in order to advertise themselves (act).  The scene is the same as before, but the purpose is to put money in the sponsors’ pockets.

In the case of Ryan Newman’s interview, we believe this view gives us a more accurate look into the motive underpinning Newman’s utterances.  Given the camera time for a positive reaction, he felt compelled to ensure that his sponsors were given airtime.  It is this compulsion, rooted in the need to appease sponsors, that allowed him to say what he said, and thus Newman could be viewed as not his own agent.  Yes, the message is coming from Ryan Newman, but in order to maintain the good will of sponsors and NASCAR, Newman chose his words differently than he might if he were in a different situation, relegating him to the role of agency. 

That goodwill between driver and sponsor is exemplified in Newman’s later comments, when asked about plans for a dinner to celebrate his pole position: “I didn’t buy last time, the guys from Mobil bought dinner, so it might be my turn tonight.”  Not only did Mobil garner a sponsor mention after being left out earlier, but these comments indicate a personal relationship between Newman’s team and the good folks at Mobil Oil. 

Considering an agency-purpose pentadic ratio here, Newman was adapted by the sponsors to serve the purpose of bringing in money to the sponsors, which makes perfect sense given the text being shown in this light.  Thus an internal application of the pentad, focusing on Newman’s comments, produces an agent-purpose ratio, and external application of the pentad, focusing on the situation surrounding Newman, produces an agency-purpose ratio.

Jeff Gordon

To be completely fair, not all NASCAR interviews feature sponsor mentions in such a light, as this next interview demonstrates.  Jeff Gordon, the circuit’s active wins leader and one of its most popular (and also disliked) drivers, can often be counted on to speak in a similar sponsor-mentioning fashion.  But in his April 21, 2007 interview after winning at Phoenix, Gordon’s six minutes of airtime fail to produce a single sponsor mention.  Keep in mind that this victory was his 76th, tying him with NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt for 6th all-time.  An excerpt follows: “It was so hard to pass, but to be honest our car was so awesome on that last run and it was pretty awesome on short runs all night long.  Tony (Stewart) was a little bit loose through 1 and 2 so I was able to stay close enough to him where he got loose again and I got underneath him. . . .”[39]

Often, this would be a great opportunity for Gordon to extol the virtues of his “Dupont Chevy,” but he did not—for background purposes, Jeff Gordon has long been the “golden boy” of the sport, partially due to his clean-cut, articulate image and high level of marketability outside of the “typical” NASCAR realm.  This shows that NASCAR and sponsors do not always pervade the speech of the drivers, even those drivers in the best position to advertise for their sponsors.  Gordon represents the agent here, trying to pass another car (act), the battle for position is the scene, and his “awesome car” is the agency.  The fusion of Tony Stewart and his car acts as a counter-agent, and the purpose of both agent and counter-agent is to win the battle for position and the race.  This would best be described from an agent-agency ratio, as the scene is all-encompassing here, and it is the car that allows Gordon to complete the pass.  This interview compares well with those from the other sports, because it features the athlete as agent.

An external analysis of Gordon’s comments yields a similar result.  Again, the knowledgeable NASCAR follower will notice Gordon’s lackof sponsorship mentions for a 6-minute interview as an anomaly, perhaps in this case due to his excitement at having tied Dale Earnhardt – noted by many as the greatest driver of all time until his career, and life, were cut short at the Daytona 500 in February, 2001 – for 6th place in all time wins with 76.  Gordon had also not previously won a race at Phoenix International Raceway, so this victory represented a “monkey off the back” victory for him as well, yet another factor that may have influenced Gordon’s remarks.  However, with all surrounding factors in mind, it is still Gordon and his “awesome car” that comprise the main part of his interview.  Gordon’s comments, taken by themselves as well as in consideration of the entire situation surrounding them, seem to be completely congruent with each other.  Thus an internal application of the pentad, focusing on Gordon’s comments, produces an agent-agency ratio, and external application of the pentad, focusing on the situation surrounding Gordon, also produces an agent-agency ratio.

Tony Stewart

Another kind of NASCAR interview is the angry interview, which occurs with relative frequency in this sport.  Tony Stewart is a driver who has been known to speak his mind, and has garnered many fines in the past for his lack of self-censorship.  In contrast to Newman’s pole position interview and Gordon’s from Victory Lane, Stewart’s interview takes place after a race in which he wrecked early due to a rookie driver, Clint Bowyer: “The problem is they don’t learn give and take in the Busch Series, and they run the Busch Series on Saturday. . . they come here to Pocono today and they’re still racing like they’re in Martinsville in the Busch Series.  This is not the Busch Series, it’s the Nextel Cup series.”[40]

Internally, Stewart’s comments reflect his frustration with young, inexperienced drivers congesting the track and making it difficult for experienced drivers like himself to succeed.  Stewart’s agencies are the rookie drivers – they comprise his “they,” to which Stewart repeatedly refers.  Stewart continues, “If they would all learn a little give and take then none of us would have been in this position.  I mean Carl [Edwards] ended up with a bad day because of it, the five car ended up with a bad day…so four cars had a bad day because one guy couldn’t be a little bit patient in the beginning.”  The rookies’ (especially Bowyer’s) acts are their poor driving habits.  These two facets make up the most important part of Stewart’s comments from an internal perspective, thus leading to an agent-act ratio.

Stewart mentions Busch four times in this excerpt.  Busch is a beer company that, until Nationwide took over sponsorship at the end of 2007, provided the title sponsorship for the “minor league” series of NASCAR.  Stewart also mentions Nextel, the title sponsor of the top-level racing league at the time of this interview in 2006.  Clearly, Stewart’s purpose here is not to promote the sponsors, as we’ve discussed.  He is genuinely angry about the rookies who race poorly in his view.  This is where NASCAR has done something no other sport has done: having title sponsors that denote entire leagues transforms these sponsors’ names to normal, everyday adjectives.  Stewart is not trying to make money for Busch or Nextel, but he is short on options of other adjectives he could use to describe the different series.  Therefore, though he is angry and does not necessarily care about sponsor dollars at the moment, Busch and Nextel still get product mentions for their brands nonetheless, something that does not typically happen in other major American sports.  The underlying verbiage that NASCAR has put in place—the nomenclature of their top two series—has once again turned the driver into an agency instead of an agent.  Even in the heat of anger, Tony Stewart has participated in a live-action commercial that has more viewers than any regular-season NFL, NBA, or Major League Baseball game.  Like Ryan Newman’s interview earlier, then, Tony Stewart does not represent his own agent when surrounding events are taken into consideration.  Thus an internal application of the pentad, focusing on Stewart’s comments, produces an agent-act ratio, and an external application of the pentad, focusing on the situation surrounding Stewart, produces an agency-purpose ratio.

Martin Truex, Jr.

This NASCAR excerpt provides a glimpse at another style of interview.  Martin Truex Jr., a 3rd year Nextel Cup driver, casually talks about his main sponsor, Bass Pro Shops, while sitting at a table speaking to interviewers.  Asked about his relationship with Bass Pro Shops, Truex replies: “It’s incredible.  They send me hunting if I want to go.  John Morris, the owner/founder, is just such a cool guy. . . .  A lot of things they do at their stores and their conservation efforts are things I really believe in.  It’s just a perfect fit for me, it’s really cool.”[41]

This is an entirely different kind of interview from the ones previously explored.  Truex is on national TV, but not during or directly before a race.  He is sitting behind a table speaking almost conversationally with the broadcasters and audience.  He is also not being asked about his car or his chances of victory for the week—he was just asked a specific question about his sponsor.  Truex’s comments seem to indicate Truex himself as the agent, who gets to hunt (act) and other things through the agency of his partnership with Bass Pro Shops.  The most important elements would be Truex as agent and Bass Pro Shops as agency, so this would indicate an agent-agency ratio.

To consider all facets surrounding this interview, though, is to reveal a very similar motive to Newman and Stewart before.  Not only is this a free “commercial spot” for Bass Pro Shops, but Truex actually makes it sound as if the company is a personal crusade of his own.  He speaks in terms of personal friendship with the owner, and talks about the good works of the company—the word “conservation” alone carries a very positive meaning that goes far beyond the racetrack.  However, these good feelings would not likely be flowing in such a way if Bass Pro Shops were not Truex’s main sponsor.  Therefore, Truex is once again serving as agency—he is the conduit through which the good will message about Bass Pro Shops is traveling, and the purpose once again involves air time and cash flow.  We feel this is no coincidence.  Thus an internal application of the pentad, focusing on Truex’s comments, produces an agent-agency ratio, and external application of the pentad, focusing on the situation surrounding Stewart, produces an agency-purpose ratio.

Reed Sorenson

This interview represents another phenomenon that is relatively unique to NASCAR coverage.  Of the sports under study here, only baseball is as weather-sensitive as NASCAR, and when a baseball game is under a rain delay, coverage often shifts to something else.  When a NASCAR race is under a rain delay, the coverage typically stays at the track, at least until the race is postponed until the next day, if that occurs.  Otherwise, the broadcasters find themselves with a good deal of airtime to fill, and driver interviews are a common way to accomplish that.

In this case, young driver Reed Sorenson is being interviewed during a delay during the second race of the 2008 season in California.  Coming off a remarkable 5th-place finish the week before in the biggest race of NASCAR’s season, the Daytona 500, Sorenson was asked about his momentum and excitement level heading into the upcoming race: “It’s always fun to start out the season good and it gets everybody pumped up.  Now everybody’s ready to get this car out on the track and see what we got.  We got pink numbers this weekend, we got an Energizer Bunny on the hood so we’re pretty excited – not too excited about this rain right now.”[42]

Internally, Sorenson’s comments are agent-focused.  His use of terms such as “everybody” and “we” indicate that he and his co-agents, the members of his team, are excited about having a good car and want to get going.  In this case, the second element in focus might be considered the scene.  The track is referenced, and the excitement revolves around getting the car out on the track.  Thus, an internal application of the pentad leads one to view this as an agent-scene ratio.

Externally, Sorenson manages to slip in a sponsor mention, and none-too-smoothly, in our opinion.  The mention of the pink numbers and the Energizer Bunny don’t seem to fit in with the rest of his comments, making the mention appear forced.  This would further support the idea of Sorenson as agency instead of agent – Sorenson was somehow compelled to mention a particular sponsor during the interview, whether it flowed with the rest of the interview or not.  Thus, control over the language used would fall with an over-arching agent for some given purpose.  In this case, the hidden agent would be either NASCAR or the sponsor itself, relegating Sorenson to the position of agency, and rendering an agency-purpose ratio.[43]

Dave Blaney

Dave Blaney represents a unique interview because, though he is a long-time driver and a regular on the circuit, he has never won a race at the top level, has only garnered three top-five finishes, and is not considered one of the most popular drivers.  Basically, this interview occurred because Blaney won a pole position in 2007 for the New Hampshire race, representing only the second pole of his career.”[44]

After posting the fastest time so far, then having to wait until all other drivers had finished qualifying, Blaney was interviewed immediately after seeing he’d won the pole:

It wasn’t that bad.  We were just happy with the lap, if it ended up on the pole, great.  We’ve just been happy with that car all day.  Anything in the top 10 we were gonna be pleased with after practice.  You know, it’s just a big credit to the whole Cat team and…such a good race car here today and they’ve been getting better and better cars every week the more testing we do, so…big confidence booster for everybody on our team.[45]

As in several interviews before, Blaney’s use of “we” indicates that, internally, agent and co-agents are the focal point of the interview.  His racing team is pleased with the car and the results of the qualifying period.  The qualifying period, the lap, the practice, and the “here today” are all encompassed within the scene of the New Hampshire track, so it would stand as a logical conclusion that the scene would make up the secondary element in this interview.  Thus, our internal investigation ends up with an agent-scene ratio.

Externally, this interview runs along the same lines as many before.  Considering the surrounding circumstances, one cannot separate Blaney’s intentions from the agent-scene ratio, but again, a higher agent influences the interview here.  Blaney’s own intention is to hold his team and their satisfaction above all other elements, but when pressed for an adjective to assist in identifying his own co-agents, the team is called the “Cat team.”  Blaney’s sponsor is Caterpillar, the construction equipment manufacturer, so like in previous examples, the sponsor becomes an adjective which helps form team identity. 

Similarly, later in the interview, Blaney addresses the improvements of his team: “It’s just another step along the way.  Hopefully our team will keep improving and all the Toyota teams will keep improving, which I think they have.  You know, next year at this time hopefully we’ve got a lot more to talk about.”  Toyota provides the nameplate for Blaney’s car, making his and some other teams “Toyota teams.”  This provides yet another example of sponsor mentions as descriptive terms.  Therefore, viewed externally, Dave Blaney’s interview produces another agency-purpose ratio.

Concluding Thoughts: Comparison of Motivations

Certainly there are no absolute rules in sports interviews—even the most “agency-oriented” drivers, such as Jeff Gordon, do not serve as agencies all the time.  Conversely, we believe that there does exist some of the time, some kind of “in-game” product placement or mention by players of the other sports.  One famous example involved former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens’s infamous 2002 “Sharpie in the sock” incident: after scoring a touchdown, Owens pulled a Sharpie out of his sock, signed the football, and handed it to someone in the stands.[46]  This situation, however, did not result from Owens’s affiliation with the Sharpie company—at that time there was no financial relationship between the company and the athlete.  We realize also that all of the major American sports leagues are money-based.  We do not propose that NASCAR is the only sport with a love of money; we do, however, suggest that NASCAR promotes itself in additional and different fashions.  It is, after all, the prototypical American family business, having been privately owned and operated by the same family since its inception, whereas the other sports leagues constitute an amalgam of smaller businesses that fit under one governing body.[47]  In the other leagues, some teams can flourish while others suffer, but the league will go on.  In NASCAR, it is truly all or nothing.

To follow up on the questions posed at the beginning of the article, we have discussed how NASCAR is a marketing success because of a huge fan base that pays attention to sponsorships and buys products accordingly.  We have also shown that the rhetoric of NASCAR does contribute to this phenomenon by outwardly promoting sponsors’ brands through the drivers, as well as cleverly associating entire levels of professional racing with particular sponsor names (Nextel, Sprint, Busch, etc.) so that drivers sometimes push products without even thinking about it.  Finally, we have shown that the rhetoric of NASCAR differs from the other major American sports in that drivers often function as agencies rather than agents when they speak.

By analyzing the interviews we “sized up” the situation; in doing so, we discerned how “their structure and outstanding ingredients,” were named, and named “in a way that contains an attitude toward them.”[48]  It is with these structures, ingredients, and attitudes that we are concerned.  For within them lies the motive underpinning the interviews, and in this motive lies perhaps a better understanding of how the interviews functioned to help secure NASCAR’s marketing success.  This motive is not the same as the stated purpose of the athletes and drivers, but instead represents a much larger force.  In short, we have teased out of the interviews elements of the pentad, and each of these elements represents a motivational point of view.  Each dominant element of the pentad suggests a particular worldview at work behind the scenes, acting upon the interviewees, and helping to shape their interaction with their audience.

Domination of Agents

Our readings of the non-NASCAR interviews revealed ratios with agent as the dominant term.  Additionally, focusing on the actual statements of the NASCAR drivers produced similar results; all drivers exhibited pentadic ratios with agent dominating.  The stress on agent indicates a philosophical idealism is active within the discourse.  As Richard E. Crable and John J. Makay write, “the featuring of a term implicitly features the motives within that term.  Thus, idealism features “agent” because the idealist believes that the agent’s purposive motion is controlled by the agent’s attitudes, values, opinions, and prejudices.”[49]  According to Burke, idealism involves “ ‘any theory which maintains the universe to be throughout the work of reason and mind.’ ”[50]  In philosophy, it is any “system of thought . . . in which the object of external perception is held to consist, either in itself, or as perceived, of ideas”[51]

The stress on agent does provide an avenue to examine the mindset of the professional athletes examined here, although in moments of speculation we believe that given the representativeness of our samples, we could generalize to professional sports interviews in general.  Be that as it may, “the unadulteratedly idealistic philosophy starts and ends in the featuring of properties belonging to the term, agent.  Idealistic philosophies think in terms of the ‘ego,’ the ‘self,’ the ‘super-ego,’ ‘consciousness,’ ‘will.’ . . .  [V]ariants in esthetic theory stress such terms as ‘sensibility,’ ‘expression,’ ‘self-expression,’ consciousness’” and so on.[52]  Burke suggested that idealism, because of its stress on agent, “leads readily into both individual and group psychology.”[53]  We do as well, believing that by (un-)knowingly stressing agent, these athletes present themselves, and by extension their peers, as autonomous actors in the world.  They alone take responsibility for their actions, their successes.  Whether or not their purpose is to market a product or sell themselves, the results are the same: the cult of personality holds sway.

Agency Domination and the Selling of NASCAR

Certainly the drivers featured some pentadic terms over others, and these are readily apparent when examining to the interviews.  However, when one looks beyond the immediacy of the interviews, looking instead to what Crable and Makay call the interrelationships existing among all of the factors in a given situation,”[54] we find what Burke called “the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise.”[55]  For when examining the external situation in which the driver rhetoric participated, we discovered a shift in pentadic ratios, one that highlighted agency as the dominant term.

When discourse features agency, a pragmatic philosophy is at hand, one “concerned with practical consequences or values.”[56] Writing of William James, who said that “pragmatism is ‘a method only,’ ” Bernard L. Brock, Robert L Scott,  and James W. Chesebro point out that “he goes on to indicate that consequence, function, what it is good for, and the difference it will make to you and me are pragmatic evaluations.  However, pure pragmatism goes beyond James to transcend purpose, as in the applied sciences, when the method is built into the instrument itself.  At this point agency becomes the focus of the entire means-ends relationship.”[57]

Agency acts in some sense analogous to instrument, and is closely linked with purpose.  That is, as Burke pointed out, each time one “announces some view of human ends,” there will be required “a corresponding doctrine of means.”[58]  Thus it comes as no surprise to us that of twelve dominant ratios examined for these interviews, six of the ratios end with purpose, and that five of these are linked with agency as the dominant term.[59] Importantly, this linking with ends suggests the “doctrine that an idea can be understood in terms of its practical consequences; hence, the assessment of the truth or validity of a concept or hypothesis according to the rightness or usefulness of its practical consequences.”[60]  The NASCAR sales pitch brought into the interview process hints at both a conscious and unconscious means for achieving specific ends.

Offered as support for this point is that the drivers who are the most successful agencies maintain the big-money sponsorships regardless of their “athletic” prowess on the track. In a sport in which obtaining a major sponsor is especially crucial to success (and vice-versa), and in which sponsors often pull out of deals with under-performing drivers, being a successful salesperson at this level can aid drivers in keeping their jobs.  A case in point is Michael Waltrip, who hasn’t won a race since 2003 and finished 37th in points in 2006.  Waltrip maintains a strong bond with main sponsor NAPA Auto Parts, even taking them with him when he changed team ownership after the 2006 season.  Bad finishes continue to plague Waltrip, who only qualified for 14 of 2007’s 36 races, placing in the top 10 only twice.  Nevertheless, a recent article has him third in the “Most Popular Driver” list, behind only Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon.  Waltrip’s charisma and notoriety as a humorous and effective pitchman for his sponsors has not only kept him a multi-million dollar sponsor for many years, but has also kept him near the top of the list in popularity among fans.[61]

Certainly, athletes in other sports have multi-million dollar sponsorships.  Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Reggie Bush are all in the top 25 of Forbes’s “The World’s Top-Earning Athletes of 2007” list,[62] and a large portion of their earnings come from sponsorships, not salaries.  The questions to ask, though, are (1) how many of them would still be starters or even in the league at all if their game performances were considered to be well below average for that level of play, (2) how many times do these athletes push their sponsors during on-field interviews, and (3) how many would still maintain their sponsorships if their level of play slipped to the point that they were rarely starters?  The answers, we suspect, are obvious.

To further this point, one can also look to the television commercial to hypothetically illustrate the agent vs. agency differences in the rhetoric of NASCAR and other sports.  If Lebron James is hawking a product in a television commercial, he is using his individual agent status to decide what product to support and how to advertise it.  You will not see Lebron James hawking a product out of “obligation” or “necessity” – he will always have a say in what he promotes.  In contrast, NASCAR is corporatized to the point that drivers may not even have a choice in a similar situation.  Reed Sorenson will certainly participate in promotional activities on behalf of his sponsors – it is part of his job.  However, Sorenson himself did not choose his sponsor(s) – that is left to those who are in charge of his “team,” meaning those in charge of the organization to which he belongs, which includes other drivers and their individual car teams.  In this way, the NASCAR driver is sublimated into the marketing process without active autonomy to truly make his/her own decisions.  Sure, if Sorenson is being asked to promote a product he does not wish to promote, he has the freedom as an American to quit his job rather than “lower” himself to the level of an inferior product, but out of respect for his bosses and his own financial interests, most promotional activities, regardless of the product, are of the ilk which he “can’t refuse.”  We believe this distinction even further illustrates the discrepancy between the typical agent-centered American sport and agency-focused NASCAR.

Interestingly, this same agency-centered phenomenon analogizes to the concept of the “cyborg,” the meshing of man and machine.[62]  Not only are NASCAR drivers physically meshing with machine to make the sum greater than the value of the individual components – neither is capable of doing his/her/its job without the other – but the drivers are also incorporated into the “Machine,” in the sense that they are subsumed into the capitalist system of advertising and Big Media.  Burke, like other thinkers including Stephen Hawking,[63] would caution us against accepting this phenomenon, to say the least.  Certainly the stars of agent-centered sports could be said to be participating in this same money-driven machine as well, but again, with their status as relatively autonomous agents, they are perhaps more willing and potentially judicious participants than their NASCAR counterparts.

The “athlete as agency” viewpoint is likely not one that will pass without controversy, given that the athletes’ intentions are not always reflected by utilizing it (see Tony Stewart).  However, though it may spark questions about our analysis, it is the same Tony Stewart interview that also helps best exemplify the concept’s truth—NASCAR has set itself and its sponsors up in a way that sometimes mentioning them is easier than not mentioning them.  The sponsors have, in a way, “idiot-proofed” their entire racing establishment by associating everything with product placement.  In this way, even the most irate driver cannot help but further the cause of the NASCAR establishment by inadvertently providing particular products with valuable advertising.  Though this phenomenon does not always occur as a product of the driver’s intent, it occurs nonetheless, causing the driver to serve as more of a means of communication than an active, self-serving communicator.  Through subtleties such as this, and more outward plugs such as the “rolling billboards” that race each weekend, 36 weeks a year, NASCAR continues to ensure its financial success through the use of rhetoric.


The authors wish to thank to Jeffrey Black, owner of Black Sheep Reputations, LLC for graciously agreeing to an interview.  As a media coach with several NASCAR drivers as clients, Black’s information was very helpful in the formation of the article, even though it was not directly referenced. We also thank the editor, Andrew King, for his insightful comments.


  1. Richard Popp, “Gentlemen, Start Your Ideologies: NASCAR Telecasts and New Right Ideology,” Conference paper, annual meeting of the International Communication Association, New York, NY, May 26-30, 2005, p. 1.
  2. GoandDoMichigan.com, “The Business of NASCAR: From Racing Cars to a Premiere, Mainstream Brand,” June 16, 2006, http://www.goanddomichigan.com/stories/061506/mor_nascar001.shtml (accessed December 4, 2007).
  3. GoandDoMichgan.com.
  4. Aron M. Levin, Chris Joiner, and Gary Cameron.  “The Impact of Sports Sponsorship on Consumers’ Brand Attitudes and Recall: The Case of NASCAR Fans,” Journal of Current Issues and Research in Advertising 23, no. 2 (Fall 2001): 23-31.
  5. Charles Culbertson, “Roar of the Engines, Smell of the Money,” JMU.edu, July, 2005.  http://www.jmu.edu/madisonscholar/feature004.shtml (accessed December 4, 2007).
  6. Popp; Levin, Joiner, and Cameron.
  7. Philip M. Keith, “Burkeian Invention, from Pentad to Dialectic,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 9, no. 3 (Summer 1979): 137.
  8. David A. Ling, “A Pentadic Analysis of Senator Edward Kennedy’s Address to the People of Massachusetts, July 25, 1969,” Central States Speech Journal 21, no. 2 (Summer 1970): 81.
  9. Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), xv.
  10. Clarke J. Rountree III, “Coming to Terms with Kenneth Burke’s Pentad,” American Communication Journal 1, no. 3 (May 1998).  http://www.acjournal.org/holdings/vol1/iss3/burke/rountree.html (accessed November 1, 2007), p. 1.
  11. Richard E. Crable and John J. Makay, “Kenneth Burke’s Concept of Motives in Rhetorical Theory,” Today’s Speech (Winter 1972) 17.
  12. Crable and Makay, 2.
  13. Burke, xv
  14. Catherine Fox, “Beyond the ‘Tyranny of the Real’: Revisiting Burke’s Pentad as Research Method for Professional Communication,” Technical Rountree, 3.
  15. Burke, xviii.
  16. Ibid., xx
  17. David S. Birdsell, “Ronald Reagan on Lebanon and Grenada: Flexibility and Interpretation in the Application of Kenneth Burke’s Pentad,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 73, no. 3 (August 1987): 273, 274.
  18. Rountree, 4.
  19. Rountree, 6.
  20. Rountree, 4.
  21. Rountree, 6.
  22. HarrisInteractives.com, “While Still the Nation’s Favorite Sport, Professional Football Drops in Popularity,” January 9, 2007.  https://www.harrisinteractives.com/harris_poll/index.asp?PID=719 (accessed December 4, 2007), p. 1.
  23. Walter Payton, Interview by Bob Costas, SuperBowl XX, NBC, January 26, 1986.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibvLHbwdDEY (accessed February 10, 2008).  Written transcript in possession of the authors.
  24. Brett Favre, Interview by Tony Siragusa, Fox Sports, January 12, 2008.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tgezAam5PY (accessed July 1, 2008).  Written transcript in possession of the authors.
  25. Favre.
  26. Roger Clemens, Interview, YES Network, August 7, 2007.  Footage accessible from http://web.yesnetwork.com/media/archive.jsp?cat=media&oid=36019&y=2007&m=08 (accessed October 26, 2007).  Interview also available on YouTube.
  27. Josh Beckett, Interview at press conference, WCBV, October 18, 2007.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A9do3AZlnlw&feature=related (accessed June 21, 2008).  Written transcript in possession of the authors.
  28. Carmelo Anthony, Interview by David Aldridge, The Insider Report, TNT, November 15, 2007.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qluwfXlgZHY (accessed December 5, 2007). Written transcript in possession of the authors.
  29. Burke, xx.
  30. We realize that questions do guide answers, but we are interested in the interview format.  It is how interviewees answer questions poised by interviewers—across the various sports—that is of interest to us.
  31. Brain Biggane, “Foul Mouths: Some Athletes Say, and a Psychologist Agrees, That Cursing is Often a Natural Part of the Heat of Battle,” Palm Beach Post, October 7, 2004.
  32. The Official Ryan Newman Website, “About Ryan,” http://www.ryan12newman.com/about.htm.  Accessed July 1, 2008.
  33. JeffGordon.com.  “About Jeff,” http://www.jeffgordon.com/about_jeff/default.sps?itype=12223. Accessed July 1, 2008.
  34. TonyStewart.com.  “Biography,” http://www.tonystewart.com/page.php?_=bio.  Accessed February 10, 2008.
  35. MartinTruexJr.com.  “Martin’s Bio,” http://www.martintruexjr.com/site.html.  Accessed February 10, 2008.
  36. Ryan Newman,  Interview, NASCAR on SPEED, SPEED Network, July 16, 2007.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7JSNxp39P4 (accessed February 10, 2008). Written transcript in possession of authors.
  37. GoandDoMichigan.com.
  38. Jeff Gordon, Interview by John Roberts, Jimmy Spencer, and Kenny Wallace, NASCAR on SPEED, April 23, 2007.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djgRaY0VS0s (Accessed July 1, 2008). Written transcript in possession of authors.
  39. Tony Stewart, Interview, NASCAR on TNT, July 23, 2006.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PUugQ4q5Clk (accessed February 10, 2008). Written transcript in possession of authors.
  40. Martin Truex, Interview, NASCAR on SPEED, November 11, 2006.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mO5axL7HTgE (accessed February 10, 2008). Written transcript in possession of authors.
  41. Reed Sorenson, Interview by John Roberts, NASCAR on SPEED, February 25, 2008.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EaPI3WaF3E&feature=related (accessed June 20, 2008).  Written transcript in possession of the authors.
  42. Sorenson recently had another interview that supports our contention of a forced nature:  “I am having fun.  We got a pink bunny on the car this weekend with Energizer, so we’re pretty happy with that.  The car is pretty good.   I think we got, what, 25 minutes of practice there?   We made it worse, and then we made it better, so uh, not real sure where we stand as far as competition goes, but as far as the car feels, it feels pretty good.  If we can keep it in the top 15 tomorrow and just have a decent finish, get good points and stay up there in the points we’ll be happy.”
    Notice how he answers the question “Are you having fun or what?” first, by saying that he is.  He then indicates the pink bunny and says “so we’re happy with that.”  There would be little reason for Sorenson, by himself, to make a sponsor mention in that way.  It did not flow or really make sense to say that the team is happy with a pink bunny on the hood, at least in part because that has nothing to do with the performance of the car.
    There is more text in this interview, as interviewer Dick Berggren asks further questions, but this is the important section of it.  The forced sponsor mention really stands out as awkward, and I think really supports what we’re trying to say, that it’s externally compelled.  See, Reed Sorenson, Interview by Dick Berggren, NASCAR on SPEED, February 25, 2008.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HEZBi3Facv0 (Accessed July 1, 2008).  Written transcript in possession of the authors.
  43. Dave Blaney, Interview by Lindsay Czarniak, NASCAR on SPEED, June 29, 2007.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IsE66U8oLiw (accessed June 22, 2008).  Written transcript in possession of the authors.
  44. Blaney.
  45. Monday Night Football, San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks, October 14, 2002.
  46. Mark Spoor,“Brian France Named NASCAR Chairman, CEO,” Turner Sports Interactive, September 13, 2003.  http://www.nascar.com/2003/news/headlines/official/09/13/new_chairman/index.html (Accessed July 1, 2008).
  47. Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form, 2nd ed.  (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967) 1.  See also pages 6, 298-304.  For a detailed discussion of Burke’s notion of motive see, Andrew King, “Motive,” The American Communication Journal 1.3 (1998), (http://www.americancomm.org/~aca/acj/acj.html).  See, too, J. Clarke Rountree, III, “Coming to Terms with Kenneth Burke’s Pentad,” The American Communication Journal 1.3 (1998), (http://www.americancomm.org/~aca/acj/acj.html).
  48. Crable and Makay, 14.
  49. Burke, A Grammar of Motives, 171.
  50. “Idealism,” Oxford English Dictionary, New Edition, http://dictionary.oed.com
  51. Burke 171.
  52. Burke 172.
  53. Crable and Makay, 13.
  54. Burke, xviii.
  55. “Pragmatic,” Oxford English Dictionary, New Edition, http://dictionary.oed.com
  56. Bernard L. Brock, Robert L. Scott, and James W. Chesebro, eds. Methods of Rhetorical Criticism: A Twentieth-Century Perspective 3rd ed. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989), 189.
  57. Burke, 275.
  58. The ball players: Payton—agent-purpose; Favre—agent-act; Clemens—agent-act; Beckett—agent-act; Anthony—agent-purpose; James—agent-act.  NASCAR: Newman—agent-purpose; Gordon—agent-agency; Stewart—agent-act; Truex—agent-agency; Sorenson—agent-scene; Blaney—agent-scene.  NASCAR external ratios: Newman—agency-purpose; Gordon—agent-agency; Stewart—agency-purpose; Truex—agency-purpose; Sorenson—agency-purpose; Blaney—agency-purpose.
  59. “Pragmatics,” Oxford English Dictionary, New Edition, http://dictionary.oed.com
  60. MichaelWaltrip.com, “Waltrip Finishes Third in Most Popular Vote,” December 5, 2007.  http://www.michaelwaltrip.com/ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=16600&ATCLID=1346641 (Accessed July 1, 2008).
  61. Kurt Badenhausen, “The World’s Top-Earning Athletes,” Forbes.com, October 26, 2007.  http://www.forbes.com/sportsbusiness/2007/10/25/sports-tiger-woods-biz-sports-cz_kb_1026athletes.html (Accessed July 1, 2008).
  62. Jessica Santone.  “Cyborg.”  University of Chicago – Theories of Media.  http://humanities.uchicago.edu/faculty/mitchell/glossary2004/cyborg.htm.
  63. “Cyborg Society.”  Living on Earth.  Public Radio International.  Roanoke, VA: WVTF, June 7, 2002.

Burke’s Comic Frame and The Problem of Warrantable Outrage

Herbert W. Simons, Temple University1

I told her  what I used to try to tell my brother about the problem of impassioned speech–tried from the time he was a little kid, for all the good it did him. It’s not being angry that’s important, it’s being angry about the right things. I told her, "Look at it from the Darwinian perspective. Anger is to make you effective. That’s its survival function. That’s why it’s given to you. If it makes you ineffective, drop it like a hot potato."
- Murray Ringold’s advice to his daughter in Philip Roth's I Married a Communist.

KENNETH BURKE HAD WHAT RALPH NADER called the "gift of outrage," (Nader, 2004) but his self-deconstructive comedic frame played havoc with its melodramatic expression. The dialectic of comedy versus melodrama was played out at the 1935 Communist Writer's Conference. Frank Lentriccia's reading of Burke's speech makes Burke the hero, despite Burke's own remorse in the wake of stinging criticism of the speech by fellow travelers. Years later, KB was to get it in the neck from Sidney Hook, now a fervent anti-communist. Thenceforward the dialectic was to take new form. Did Burke abandon Marxism for Method, as McGee and others have claimed? If so, was this a good or bad thing?3

Retrospectively, Burke made his share of egregious moral blunders during the tumultuous thirties.4 Yet Burke also seemed far in advance of his Marxist colleagues at the 1935 conference in his recognition of the need to channel outrage in a way that might win converts to his Marxist cause rather than alienating them.5 His Attitudes Toward History, published in 1937, also provides clues as to how unwarranted or excessive outrage might be kept in check by comedic self-examination while warrantable outrage might be given serviceable expression in the form of satiric "ideology critique." 5 Philip Roth's I Married a Communist provides a stunning example of such critique.

This paper addresses the question of how "Marxoid" intellectuals like Phillip Roth, like Frank Lentricchia, like the Burke of Attitudes Toward History, like those of us here [at the NCA convention] who seek a "Third Way" out of the excesses of “free market” capitalism and totalitarian communism might best reconcile the need to give effective expression to moral outrage with the need to contain and channel outrage by way of a self-deconstructive comedic stance. The paper approaches the question dialectically in three stages: first with an appreciative nod to Burke's comedic approach; second, with a brief note on Burke's method of dialectic and its relevance to the issues under consideration, third, by problematizing Burke's comedic approach in light of the need to give expression to warrantable outrage. Having thus posed the problem, I then propose dialectical ways out, differentiating between impulsive indignation unchecked by comedic irony, and moral outrage that follows upon comedic analysis and is expressed in a manner designed to win thoughtful adherence. As a model of the rhetorical practice here proposed the paper concludes  with Philip Roth's satiric critique of Richard Nixon's funeral service.

In Praise of the Comedic Approach

Were this a church I would urge all of you to rise and recite with me that famous passage from Book Four of the Burke Bible in which he admonishes us to give up our pretensions to superiority over others, pairing our virtue against their madness or badness. Humane enlightenment, says Burke in Attitudes Toward History, "can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken. When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy."6

I like these sentiments of Burke's. I see his call for humility as the great antidote to an energizing but often dangerous form of storytelling in which all good rests with one side, all evil with the other.

That form is melodrama. Populism has always required it, whether the enemy be Frank Capra's corrupt capitalist profiteers in Meet John Doe and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Senator Bilbo's niggers and nigger-lovers. The Church has long used stylized, ritualized melodrama to propagate the faith, while nation-states have been no slouches at getting their minions to sacrifice for war. Melodrama again. Frank Capra's Why We Fight series was not much different in form from British, German and Soviet propaganda films in World War II, and probably not much different from the spin-doctoring on Kosovo coming out of Washington and Belgrade earlier this year.7

The obvious problem with melodrama is its excessive simplicity. All good on one side, all evil on the other. No in-betweens. The enemy’s leaders are devils incarnate; its followers are puppets and dupes. All of them are mad, bad, or sad, no doubt about it. We, meanwhile, have a mission to perform. Good must triumph and good will triumph, but victory will not be easy. The enemy is wily, clever, and will stop at nothing.  This justifies borrowing a page from their book (and theirs from ours). Each side exempts itself from moral standards it imposes upon others. After all, God is on our (their?) side.8

Burkeians should abhor melodrama. The enemy of understanding, including self-understanding. Drawing on Marx, Burke extended Freud's great insights about defense mechanisms. Property may be theft, as Marx claimed, but we are nevertheless all great protectors of what we take to be our property rights. These, said Freud (as read by Burke), begin with the ego, our most basic form of private property. From protection of the individual ego it is but a short step to protection of the national, or the ethnic, or the class, or the racial ego.9 Marx and Engels showed how ordinary people could get sucked into a ruling class ideology even against their own interests--although, as Burke observed, Marx's "science" of ideology could have profited from a bit more humble irony.10 Said Burke repeatedly, all of us are victims of self-denial, repression, mystification (by self and others)–of language itself. Yes, I realize that in “Poetic Categories” he writes wryly about the rhetoric of humble irony, but elsewhere–as in Four Master Tropes–he embraces it. So do I.

Comedy, Burke says in “Poetic Categories,” offers the maximum in “forensic complexity.” No hand of fate, no deus et machina, to intervene. Just people with their ego needs and foibles getting life terribly mixed up.  Critics/theorists usually juxtapose comedy to tragedy, but, given Burke’s special take on it in “Poetic Categories,” I think it is best seen in contrast to melodrama. Burke’s comedic frame is a way of undoing some of the damage wrought by melodrama.11

A Note on Burke's Method of Dialectics

The literary critic, Paul Hernardi, believes Burke has the answer to one of the great questions of our time: how to deconstruct without self-destructing? Hernardi's answer: Burke's humbly ironic comic frame.12

Hernardi links Burke's comic frame to his method of dialectics.13 Begin, says Burke, with a perspective, a way of seeing, and take it to the end of the line. Then, recognizing its limitations, juxtapose it against opposing perspectives--other "partial truths," as he calls them. Then see if you can find a perspective on perspectives--a meta-perspective--that honors the "sub-certainties" of each, perhaps reconciling them in such a way that what once seemed "apart from" now seems "a part of." Operating dialectically in this way should help advance consideration of the question. But keep in mind that the new, ironic perspective is itself but one way of seeing, itself limited for that reason, itself in need of a comic corrective. The method of dialectic is thus never-ending, and, indeed, Burke's own theories have the quality of taking you near to the top of a mountain, only to have you and him come tumbling down. Nothing is stable in Burke, nothing foundational. Indeed, as I shall argue next, there is a problem with the comedic frame, as Burke himself acknowledged.

Comic Irony and the Problem of Warrantable Outrage

When back in the seventies, I wrote that Burke’s method–his comedic frame–prevented the expression of warrantable outrage, he replied: “Bjeez! That guy’s on to me.” How do you warrant outrage if the people whose actions you object to are foolish rather than vicious? And if you don’t generate outrage, how can you mobilize people for action against Evil and in behalf of the Good?  The answer, it would appear, is that you can’t. Melodrama appeals for that very reason.15

At the 1984 Burke conference in Philadelphia,16 a number of us wrestled with that problem, Burke included. One camp insisted that Burke’s writings were replete with outrage and warrantably so. Burke had been uncharacteristically quiet during this exchange. But then he offered up a Zen-like story. Remember the doc he’d gone to see about a pain “that came and went and then came back again”? The doctor, memorialized in his poem, “The Momentary, Migratory Symptom,” had been something of a charlatan–charging him double for diagnosing his trouble. Burke had been outraged, and his blood pressure dangerously up, but then he decided to see if he could learn from that swindler. Sitting with his friend, Jack Daniels, he wrote out all the doc’s tricks. By the time of first light, he had the son of a bitch figured out. “And you know something, the outrage was gone and the blood pressure was way down.” Another conceded my point but insisted that Burke’s conversion of rage into comic irony or stoic resignation was the genius of his system. Said Trevor Melia, wouldn’t we all be better off without the zealots and fanatics of the world shouting their slogans of hate? If there is to be a better life, we had better be prepared to give up on our own claims to warrantable outrage.17

Well, maybe. But, then again, what about a Hitler or a Stalin, or as Ed Appel asked on the Burke-L listserv, what about a Slobodan Milosovic? Need we be zealots or fanatics ourselves to take action against zealots and fanatics? Writing on the issue of warrantable outrage in the July, 1986 issue of the Kenneth Burke Society Newsletter, William Rueckert defended Burke in claiming that “Burke is a critic, not a politician, and inquiry rather than action is his proper business.”  But the Burke of the 1935 Writers Congress insisted that criticism was a form of politics, and Burke’s own criticism–for example, of those on the dock in the Moscow show trials–was surely a form of action.

Let me synopsize. Melodrama energizes but its method is demagogic. It evokes righteous indignation, but not necessarily warrantable outrage. Comedy, as Burke characterizes it in “Poetic Categories,” is the antithesis of melodrama. It offers up the “maximum of forensic complexity.” But, in so doing, it converts villains into fools. And Burke’s method of humble, comic irony renders all of us into fools, thus greatly weakening the capacity of good people to stand up for what we believe. Surely there must be thought and expression that proceeds beyond humble irony. Hence the question: After humble irony, then what?

After Humble Irony, Then What?

My answer is to proceed intellectually from righteous indignation, through comedic self-examination, to warrantable outrage. Correspondingly, it is to move rhetorically from melodrama to high comedy to ideology critique.

The Intellectual Journey

Running through much of the Burke corpus is the sense of outrage as a primal emotion, in need of conversion into something more civilized and more serviceable. Shortly after the 1984 Burke conference, he reminded me in a letter (July 14, 1984) about a passage from the Herone Liddell sequel to his anti-novel, Toward a Better Life:  “The sword of discovery goes before the couch of laughter. One sneers by the modifying of a smart; and smiles by the modifying of a sneer. You should have lived twice, and smiled the second time.” Rueckert echoed this sentiment in the July, 1986 issue of the Burke Society newsletter. Said Rueckert, “‘outrage’ is not a very useful critical response and rage, in general, is debilitating. Critical inquiry may begin in outrage–and it often does–but it should not end there.”

There you have it: from primal outrage to the smile that modifies the sneer. Yet there surely must be in some cases–not all–a stage beyond the sneer of primal outrage and the smile of comedy. The Burke provides clues as to how outrage might be tamed if necessary but retained if warranted. Chapter Six of Attitudes Toward History provides the primary clue: "In sum, the comic frame should enable people to be observers of themselves, while acting. Its ultimate would not be passiveness, but maximum consciousness. One would "transcend" himself by noting his own foibles" (p. 171)

Among those foibles are the impulses to primal outrage, and they are often shaped and reinforced by melodrama, an in the reporting by both sides in the Kosovo crisis. But Burke gives us the comedic tool to check and channel that anger. Practice discounting, he suggests in his "Dictionary of Pivotal Terms."(ATH, p. 244).18 Make allowance for the fact that things are not always as they seem.   Practice perspective by incongruity, he suggests in Permanence and Change. 19 recognizing, for example, that there is an ethic even in gangsterism and a hierarchical psychosis even in the most noble of organizations. Recognize that the same story can be told in many ways, he suggests repeatedly in the Grammar of Motives." Not only does language supply communicators with resources of ambiguity, so too the dramas that we are apt to condemn or condone are apt to look differently depending on our pentadic lenses and sense of scope. Want to cast Slobodan Milosovic as the sole enemy, the evil incarnate? Burke would have urged us, I think, to widen the circumference in our thinking about the Balkans, setting the ethnic cleansing of the Serbs alongside those of the Croations, for example, as a kind of control group. And I suspect Burke would have enjoined us to look at "ourselves"--i.e., those of us in the West who call ourselves humanitarians--to see whether we have not practiced in our pasts, or excused in our allies, the very atrocities committed in Kosovo by the Serbs.

Still, reading Burke's speech to the American Writers' Congress alongside the chapter on "Comic Correctives" in Attitudes Toward History, I don't get a sense that the humble Burke, the Burke who recognized that all of us are fools, was quite as unwilling to condemn as he earlier let on in his injunction to see usurious capitalists, for example, not as vicious but as mistaken.20 What remains consistent in Burke is his distaste for polemic--of melodrama. Reading "Comic Correctives," one gets a sense that the initial impulse to primal outrage needed to be checked, not that the passion that remained after the self-examination had been conducted needed also to be kept to oneself. Rather, that outrage, now a warranted outrage, needed more appropriate expression than was typically found in agitprop theater or in tracts urging Americans to think of themselves as "the masses," or as "the proletariat," or even as "the workers," when they already had a perfectly usable term for themselves: "We the people." This was the essence of Burke's "subversive" message to the American Writer's Congress."

The Artistic/Rhetorical Journey

Corresponding to the path from primal outrage through humble irony to warranted outrage, we need a rhetorical path from melodrama through high comedy to a rhetoric of outrage that plays well outside the church of the already convinced. For Burke, I think, one key to that rhetoric of outrage was a sense of balance. The notion of ambivalence, he says at the outset of "Comic Correctives," gets us to our main thesis with regard to propagandistic (didactic) strategy. We hold that it must be employed as an essentially comic notion, containing two-way attributes lacking in polemical, one-way approaches to social necessity. It is neither wholly euphemistic, nor wholly debunking--hence, it provides the charitable attitude toward people that is required for purposes of persuasion and cooperation. (ATH, p. 166)

The ultimate balance was to be found in high comedy, with its "maximum of forensic complexity," but Burke was not above utilizing the other comic arts, including those that "converted downwards," such as burlesque and satire. Here again, however, Burke sought a form of critique that was intellectually and rhetorically sophisticated. His idols were not those who personalized the enemy; rather they were the practitioners of what the Frankfurt School calledideology critique. These include psychoanalysts like Freud as well as the formulators of "economic psychoanalysis," such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, Voltaire, Bentham, Marx and Veblen.

These social theorists were complexifiers, alive to error and not just evil. But, as Burke acknowledges in a prose that is uncharacteristically contorted, they never permitted themselves "to overlook the admonitions of even the most caustic social criticism." (ATH, 172).

What we have here is reluctant recognition of the value of satire, of burlesque, even of ridicule, provided that it has first been comically corrected and tested against the criterion of persuasiveness as well.Earned outrage, warrantable outrage, must be something more than righteous indignation; it must emerge out of Burke’s stage of comedic irony as something that demands the cry of “Thou Shalt Not” despite awareness of our own limitations; of our own foolishness.  Let me illustrate.

Philip Roth on Nixon's Funeral: An Exemplar

In Roth’s I Married a Communist, the comedy nearly concluded, Zuckerman’s (Roth’s) teacher, Murray Ringold, now ninety years old, reflects on the struggle between communists and anti-communists in America over the course of his adult life. Murray Ringold had been for Zuckerman the voice of temperance against the strident, melodramatic rhetoric of his brother, Ira Ringold, Zuckerman’s fallen hero.  In that cautionary role Murray Ringold had embodied Burke’s method of comedic irony. Yet out of that stage of comedy had come a highly sophisticated sense of outrage, as reflected in a biting critique of Nixon’s funeral, held three years earlier. I quote at length:

“But the whole funeral of our thirty-seventh president was barely endurable. The Marine Band and Chorus performing all the songs designed to shut down people’s thinking and produce a trance state: ‘Hail to the Chief,’ ‘America, ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag,” ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ and, to be sure, that most rousing of all those drugs that make everybody momentarily forget everything, the national narcotic, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’...

“Then the realists take command., the connoisseurs of deal making and deal breaking, masters of the most shameless ways of undoing an opponent, those for whom moral concerns must always come last, uttering all the well-known, unreal, sham-ridden cant about everything but the dead man’s real passions. Clinton exalting Nixon for his ‘remarkable journey’ and, under the spell of his own sincerity, expressing hushed gratitude for all the ‘wise counsel’ Nixon had given him. Governor Pete Wilson assuring everyone that when most people think of Richard Nixon, they think of his ‘towering intellect.’ Dole and his flood of towering cliches. ‘Doctor’ Kissinger, high-minded, profound, speaking in his most puffed-up unegoistical mode–and with all the cold authority of that voice dipped in sludge–quotes no less prestigious a tribute than Hamlet’s for his murdered father to describe ‘our gallant friend.’ ‘He was a man, take him for all and all, I shall not look upon his like again.” Literature is not a primary reality but a kind of expensive upholstery to a sage himself so plumply upholstered, and so he has no idea of the equivocating context in which Hamlet speaks of the unequaled king. But then who, sitting there under the tremendous pressure of keeping a straight face while watching the enactment of the Final Cover–up, is going to catch the court Jew in a cultural gaffe when he invokes an inappropriate masterpiece?...

Who? Gerald Ford? Gerald Ford. I don’t ever remember seeing Gerald Ford looking so focused before, so charged with intelligence as he clearly was on that hallowed ground. Ronald Reagan snapping the uniformed honor guard his famous salute, that salute of his that was always half meshugeh, Bob Hope seated next to James Baker. The Iran-Contra arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi seated next to Donald Nixon. The burglar G. Gordon Liddy there with arrogant shaved head. The most disgraced of vice-presidents, Spiro Agnew, there with his conscienceless Mob face. The most winning of vice-presidents, Dan Quayle, looking as lucid as a button. The heroic effort made by the poor fellow: always staging intelligence and always failing All of them mourning platitudinously together in the California sunshine and the lovely breeze: the indicted and unindicted, the convicted and the unconvicted, and, his towering intellect at last at rest in a star-spangled coffin, no longer grappling and questing for no-holds-barred power, the man who turned a whole country’s morale inside out, the generator of an enormous national disaster, the first and only president to have gained from a hand-picked successor a full and unconditional pardon for all the breaking and entering he committed while in office.”  

Conclusion to the NCA Paper

In emulation of Burke's method of dialectic, this [NCA] paper has offered a Burkeian dialectic of its own. The opposed perspectives in this dialectic--its "partial truths"--were Burke's humbly ironic comic frame counterpoised against the need to stand up against perceived injustice. Its reconciliatory dialectical move was the recognition that outrage needn't be a primitive emotion, a knee-jerk response consistent with an overly simplistic, melodramatic view of the world. It could be a consequence of careful inquiry and mature judgment, and it could be expressed in ways serviceable to self and society. Murray Ringold's impassioned debunking of Nixon's funeral was one embodiment of that. Burke's "economic psychoanalysts," including Burke himself, provide other exemplars.

I expect that the major objections to this paper's argument will come from two opposed directions. Camp One will insist that the causes of "true" justice require melodrama; it is the poetics of the masses; that which mobilizes and energizes when action is needed and time is short. Oppose melodrama and you might as well oppose the daily doses of melodrama that got us into World War II and kept us in the battle during periods of great sacrifice. Oppose melodrama and you might as well have opposed the civil rights movement, for it too enacted on a daily basis a simplistic drama of good versus evil.

Camp Two might well maintain that my case for action in the name of warrantable outrage, as opposed to primitive rage, remains hopelessly vague about what a comically corrected outrage entails and thus provides rhetorical rationale for just about any action by any group that can claim to have first engaged in "self-examination." No doubt those who staged or subsequently supported the Stalin-engineered show trials could claim retrospectively to have conscientiously applied Burke's comic correctives but were caught up by the hysteria of the times.

Neither of these objections, however, undo the problems of melodrama or, by contrast, the problems of inaction born of the assumption that moral outrage of every kind is primal, primitive, and therefore in need of conversion into humble irony. Those of us on the left who value Burke's comedic approach still need to be asking: "After Humble Irony, Then What?"


The questions I raised at NCA in 1999 continued to trouble me. Hence, at the Villanova Burke conference in 2008 I raised them again, but this time as applied to the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.[21] At Villanova and in subsequent e-mails I also had the opportunity of conversations with colleagues,[22] and to continue conversations begun on e-mail with Greg Desilet. I begin with the introduction to my Villanova paper:

What evidence must Burkeians require before denouncing the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq as “more than a mistake?” I ask this question as part of a larger inquiry into the possibilities within Burke’s comedic framework for expressions of warrantable outrage. Does the comic frame require us as Burkeians to join those who attribute the allegedly unanticipated  costs of the war to mere mistakes, whether  in conception, planning or execution? Might the comic frame even oblige us to conclude for now that the war is not yet a mistake? Or, given the enormity of the Bush administration’s transgressions— not just the great harm inflicted upon those we had pledged to help, but also the well documented patterns of public deception, the evidence of premeditation and collusion in bringing America and its allies into war under false pretenses, the cover-ups of illegal practices such as torture and the shifting of blame to underlings—with all that and more, are we not entitled, even obligated, to conclude from our moral accounting that the American-led invasion and its continuing occupation has been “more than a mistake”?

Following my presentation Ann George said she was struck by my jurisprudential criteria. Collusion, premeditation, secrecy, cover-ups, severity of consequences: these, she said were useful criteria in deciding whether an action was “vicious or mistaken.” Desilet had independently proposed the law tribunal as an exemplary model for hearing and weighing opposing views on questions of morality and justice. On this basis he had criticized as “unfortunate” my use of Murray Ringold’s satirical account of Richard Nixon’s funeral service:

This type of satire falls into the category of factional comedy. It has a definite target and it does nothing in terms of balance. It does not attempt to suggest how these “friends of Nixon” (or for that matter Nixon himself) may be seen as in any way “mistaken” in a sense that would evoke any tragic sympathy. None of these men are simple fools (although Quayle and Ford certainly “stress” that assumption). They believed in what they were doing (they had an ideology). And adequate “ideology critique” would require something more than satiric depiction or caricatures of who they are (and were). [23]

Desilet added:

In other words, your example (at least in its excerpt form) certainly arouses a measure of outrage, but in the absence of “perspective” gained by comparison or contrast with opposing “ideologies,” it should not serve to arouse “warrantable outrage” and warrantable means of collective censure. We need to see at least two sides of the argument, both presented in the fairest light, alongside the most penetrating critical exposure, in order to arrive at “warrantable outrage.” This…would not preclude laying out a thorough “debunking” of ideological shortcomings and showing how these shortcomings, when compared to shortcomings of opponent ideological stances, are, on the balance, “shorter” shortcomings.  [24]

I agree with Greg that my chosen satiric exemplar was unfortunate, especially given the dearth of details in my paper about the “high comedy” from whence it came. In retrospect John Stewart’s confrontational interview with finance guru Jim Cramer would have been preferable. [25] But interactions of this sort are rare. Sometimes balance must be achieved in other ways. Not always must the arguments be presented in their “fairest light” if they are open to challenge, as when Olbermann and Maddow on CNBC do their thing and O’Reilly and Hannity on Fox Cable News do theirs. [26]  

I agree too that something closer to the ideal (if there be just one) could be our judicial system, assuming terms and conditions of rough power parity between opposing voices. I would have liked, for example, to have seen George W. Bush and Dick Cheney face impeachment charges in which the opposing sides each gave strong voice to their positions. Then, in addition to evidence of wrongdoing, we might also have heard refutations, as well as exculpatory arguments. If nothing else, Bush and Cheney, or their defenders, could have argued that they were not the first to hear the calls of empire and American exceptionalism. Unfortunately, however, sitting presidents and vice-presidents from political parties in firm control of both houses of Congress, and with dependable political support from conservative Supreme Court judges, have never been impeached, let alone tried or convicted on impeachment charges. A model of the ideal must contend with the reality of power differentials.

As a consequence of my conversations with Desilet, I also became more critical of Burke’s comic frame. (I’m not sure that was his intention.)

1. The paradox of “foolishness.”

Said Desilet,

For Burke, it would seem we are “fools” because of our essentially flawed nature rather than essentially okay and “made to look foolish” because life’s circumstances leave us sufficiently blind that we often cannot avoid choosing wrongly. [27]

I don’t disagree with Greg about Burke. But note the paradox: if we are fated always toward foolishness, then this observation can be applied to itself, and, by extension, to the entire comedic perspective. And by further extension, I should add, to all systems of thought, Marxian and Freudian alike, which assume false consciousness but which nevertheless also assume that some among us can rationally contend with our own foolishness, even if it’s driven by unconscious forces.

2. The Problem of “Self-Reliance”

Said Desilet:

… “it comes down to a process of judgment, of going through the steps of melodrama to high comedy (this would be the same as high tragedy for me), to ideology critique…. But…everything here depends on that process of ‘self-examination.’”

Here I’m reminded of the criticism of Davy Crockett and the “go ahead” boys and the era of “manifest destiny.” Davy used to say: “make sure you’re right, then go ahead.” Trouble was, what counted as “self-examination” then, doesn’t count for much these days. Today we require a “deeper” degree of reflection. But how deep? [28]

Implicit in Desilet’s observation (and in Burke on some issues) is the assumption that we flawed human beings must rely on our own judgments. Why must we? The history of science teaches us the value of communal judgments under conditions that reduce the chances of error or bias: hence, for example, the value of “blind” reviews of journal submissions. Airlines have similarly become wary of “Captainitis,” the assumption that the lead pilot necessarily knows best. (Cialdini, 2009) On the assumption that “even the Captain” is prone to error, airlines now mandate critical review of the captain’s judgments. Much the same rule now applies to the operating room where even the lowliest attendant is encouraged to question authority before and during surgery. Burke’s metaphor of intellectual history as extended conversation is pertinent here: we learn from others and not just our own introspection.

3. “Vicious and/or Mistaken”?

In retrospect this “both-and” should have alerted Desilet and me to a fundamental problem with Burke’s celebrated opposition between “vicious” and “mistaken.” One can be both. Indeed, Burke said as much in his reading of “Hitler’s ‘Battle.” The issue is pointedly addressed in essays arguing that America’s invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq were “more than a mistake.” (See for example Ivie, Milne, Powers, and Simons, 2008) Taken together, the two terms aptly describe the melodramatic crisis  rhetoric of George W. Bush & Co.(Anker, Simons)

Summary and Conclusions

In emulation of Burke's method of dialectic, my NCA 1999 paper offered a Burkeian dialectic of its own. The opposed perspectives in this dialectic--its "partial truths"--were Burke's humbly ironic comic frame counterposed against the need to stand up against perceived injustice. Its move toward dialectical reconciliation of the two was the recognition that outrage needn't be a primitive emotion, a knee-jerk response consistent with a simplistic, melodramatic view of the world. It could be a consequence of careful inquiry and mature judgment, and it could be expressed in ways serviceable to self and society. Burke's "economic psychoanalysts," including Burke himself, provide numerous exemplars.

Do I stand by the 1999 paper? No, not entirely. Irony of ironies, my conversations at Villanova and e-mail exchanges with Greg Desilet have left me more critical than before about the assumptions undergirding Burke’s comedic frame and about the possibilities of dialectical reconciliation between it and the need on occasion for expressions of warrantable outrage.

If nothing else I’m absolutely convinced that “vicious” and “mistaken” are not antinomies. Just think: All these years we who’ve assumed that they were mutually exclusive have been “Burking” up the wrong tree.



*Herbert W. Simons is Professor Emeritus of Communication at Temple University and co-founder of the Kenneth Burke Society. He wishes to thank Editor Andrew King and four anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments on successive drafts of the paper.

[1] But for its new endnotes, this article is but a cleaned up version of a paper by the same title which I presented at the National Communication Association (NCA) convention in November, 1999. That paper was long in the making and has since been commented upon by a number of   interested colleagues, none of whose encouragements and excellent suggestions for revision have overcome my doubts about the path I have taken in addressing the paper’s central problematic. If anything, an attempted collaboration with Ed Appel and Greg Desilet on a “new and improved” warrantable outrage paper have alerted me to new problems with my 1999 paper and with Burke’s comedic method. In 1999 I sought to reconcile Burke’s comedic method with the need to give public expression to warrantable outrage. Now, as an ironic consequence of our collaboration, and of additional contributions by Les Bruder, John Hatch, and Camille Lewis to the larger conversation about Burke’s “Poetic Categories,” I’m further convinced that my approach can at best advance consideration of the issues; it cannot resolve them. Subsequent endnotes (as opposed to the original paper’s footnotes) should help clarify what I mean.
[2] Roth, 1998
[3] See Simons and Melia, Appendix, for transcripts of Burke’s speech and commentaries on it at the Writer’s Congress as well as Frank Lentricchia’s reading of it.
[4] On Burke’s blunders, see George and Selzer, 144-7
[5] Lentriccia is persuasive on this point.
[6] ATH, 41. See also “Debunking” in PLF.
[7] See Gregory Desilet’s Our Faith in Evil  for a trenchant analysis of melodrama, including war propaganda. See also Schwarze for a defense of melodrama in the service of the environmental movement.
[8] See Simons, From Post 9/11…
[9] Burke “Traditional Principles”
[10] “Traditional Principles”
[11] ATH, 39-41
[12] See Appel, for example.
[13] Hernardi
[14] “Four Master Tropes” is Appendix D of GoM. See also Rhetorical Legacy.
[15] My missive, a brash one-pager entitled “Burke Synopsized,” was passed on to Burke by my good friend and Burke mentor, Trevor Melia, Little did I know that Burke was co-teaching a course with Melia at the time on Burke. The “synopsis” also praised Burke as a “maker of scenes” in every sense of that phrase.
[16] The “Legacy of Kenneth Burke, Temple University’s Fifth Annual Conference on Discourse Analysis (co-sponsored by SCA), featured the creation of the Kenneth Burke Society and a wonderful banquet toast to Burke by K.H. Jamieson: “Langauge may do our thinking for us but it cannot do our drinking for us.”
[17] The issue came to a head at a late-night drinkfest, Burke in attendance. Phil Tompkins took issue with my contention that Burke’s method prevented outrage’s legitimate expression. Burke’s commentaries earlier that day had hardly been free of outrage, he observed. (True, I acknowledged, but these expressions were inconsistent with his Method.) Moreover, said Tompkins, Burke has not shrunk from naming and confronting Evil throughout his career; why, the very responsibility for making moral judgments is built into his action/motion distinction. (True again, I conceded, but Burke’s Devils are typically made into Fools. Gang kids are clothed as pious churchmen. Even Hitler is cast as a Christian of sorts. Occasionally, Burke has declared this or that to be counter to nature, but these Scenic smugglings-in of scientific entitlements are counter-Burke.)
[18] Here, ironically, Burke pays tribute to Sidney Hook for having analyzed "the apparently 'contradictory' statements of Marx by such 'discounting.'"
[19] P&C.
[20] See GoM. See also Blakesley. At the Villanova triennial, Ann George evidenced this point with reference to several of Burke’s essays from the thirties. See Works Cited.
[21] My interests in post 9/11 rhetoric and the war in Iraq are expressed in the lead essay for an Rhetoric and Public Affairs issue which I guest-edited on Rhetoric and the War in Iraq. (Simons 2008)
[22] I’m especially grateful to Ann George who chaired the seminars I attended on Burke in the 30s.
[23] Desilet e-mail, May 20, 2008
[24] Desilet e-mail, May 20, 2008
[25] See a transcript of the interview at: www.vancouversun.com/Business/Transcript+Daily+show+interview+betwen+Stewart+Cramer/1386933/story.html
[26] See Boyer’s critique of Olbermann’s polemics.
[26] Simons, Rhetorical History
[27] Desilet, e-mail, May 20, 2008
[28] Desilet, e-mail, May 20, 2008


Anker, Elizabeth, "Villains, Victims, and Heroes: Melodrama, Media, and September 11th," Journal of Communication 55, 2005, 22–37.
Appel, Edward C. “Tragedy-lite” or “Melodrama?”  In Search of a Standard Generic Tag. Southern Speech Journal, 75, 2008, 178-94
Blakesley, David. (2001). The Elements of Dramatism. New York: Longman.
Boyer, Peter J. "One Angry Man." The New Yorker, June 30, 2008, 26-34
Burke, K. A. Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969/1950.
--- A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, (1969/1945).
--- Permanence and Change. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965/1935.
--- Towards a Better Life. 1966
--- The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973/1941.
Burke, K. (1961). Attitudes Toward History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961/1937.
--- "Traditional Principles of Rhetoric," A Rhetoric of Motives.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969/1950,
--- “Four Master Tropes.” Appendix D. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969/1945.
--- “The Momentary Migratory Symptom,” Collected Poems: 1915-1967. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968
--- “Boring from Within,” 63 (16 July 1930)
--- "What is Americanism?" Partisan Review and Anvil (April 1936).
--- The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle,” The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973/1941, 191-220
--- "Twelve Prop’s" The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973/1941, 305-312
--- "The Virtues and Limitations of Debunking" The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973/1941, 168-190.
--- Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.
--- TBL. NY Foster and Ford, 1932
--- "Revolutionary Symbolism in America." Permanence and Change. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1935.
Cialdini, Robert C. Influence: Science and Practice. San Francisco: Pearson, 2009.
Cohen, Richard mistake?
Crusius, T.W. (1999). Kenneth Burke and the Conversation After Philosophy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Desilet, Gregory. Our Faith in Evil: Melodrama and the Effects of Entertainment Violence. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006.
Freedland, Jonathan. Bush's Amazing Achievement, New York Review, 54, June 14, 2007
George, A Seminar: Burke in the 1930’s, Villanova University Triennial, 2008.
George, Ann. "What is Americanism?" Message to the Author. 1/10/08
---. "re: KB's Stalinism." Message to KB listserv. 6/7/2008
George, Ann and Jack Selzer. Burke in the Thirties, Columbia: U. of South Carolina Press.
Hernardi, Paul. "Literary Interpretation and the Rhetoric of the Human Sciences" The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences. Ed. J. Nelson, A. Megill, and D.N. McCloskey. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987. 263-75.
Ivie, Robert L. "The Rhetoric of Bush’s 'War' on Evil," KB Journal 1.1 2004.
Lentricchia, Frank (1983). Criticism and Social Change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Milne, Seamus. "There must be a day of reckoning for this day of infamy." The Guardian, March 20, 2008.
Nader, Ralph, In Pursuit of Justice. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004.
Nelson, J., Megill, A., and McCloskey, D.N.,eds.  The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.
Powers, Thomas. "What Tenet Knew." New York Review July 19, 2007.
Roth, Phillip  I Married a Communist. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998
Schwarze, Steven. "Environmental Melodrama." QJS, 92.3. (2006): 239-261
Simons, Herbert W. “The Rhetorical Legacy of Kenneth Burke.” A Companion to Rhetoric and Rhetorical Criticism. Ed. W. Jost and W. Olmstead. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. 152-167.
--- "From Post-11 Melodrama to Quagmire in Iraq.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs. 10.1 (2007): 183-94.
--- "Iraq, Kenneth Burke, and the Issue of Warrantable Outrage." Paper presented at the Villanova Triennial Burke Conference, Villanova Pa, June 30, 2008
--- "Burke, Marx, and the Problem of Warrantable Outrage." Paper presented at the NCA Convention, Chicago, November, 1999
--- Kenneth Burke Society Newsletter, July, 1986
Simons, H.W. and Melia, T. "The Legacy of Kenneth Burke." Fifth Annual Conference on Discourse Analysis (Co-sponsored by Temple University and Speech Communication Association), 1984.
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"Scapegoating the Big (Un)Easy: Melodramatic Individualism as Trained Incapacity in K-VILLE; by Herbert Simons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

All That Is Solid Melts into Words: An Exercise in Burking Burke

Robert Perinbanayagam, Hunter College of the City University of New York and Graduate Center


In many places in his work Kenneth Burke converted the name of James Joyce into the verb joycing to refer to the "deliberate transformation of a word for heuristic purposes." In this essay I try to burke Burke's speech to the American Writer's Congress and an unpublished essay entitled "Malnutrition" by using one of his papers, "Terministic Screens." I situate my analysis of Burke's essays in Marx's concepts of "surplus value" and "alienation."
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."

The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."

And they said then, "But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are."

- Wallace Stevens

In a few places in his works, Kenneth Burke uses a strategy of explaining or expanding on a meaning of an expression – its multiple meanings – by “joycing” it, alluding to one of James Joyce’s stylistics of composition.  If Burke can do that, one can also convert Burke into a verb and perform the same exercise on his own works. I would like to use this strategy to examine some of Burke’s writings in that momentous decade in American social, political and literary life – the “Thirties."

What was Kenneth Burke up to in the thirties? It appears that he was into developing a very critical attitude to the history that was emerging from 1929 onwards. In Rueckert’s rendering of a useful periodization of the development of Burke’s oeuvre, he notes that from 1924-1932, he published The White Oxen and Towards a Better Life. These stories are not “frivolous” ones, observes Rueckert, but it was only with the publication of Counter-Statement, that he found his true vocation. This work, notes Rueckert, “is really Burke’s defense of the seriousness and the serious social functions of art, the artist and the critic,” (1994: p.62). This work – called “one of the most brilliant books on criticism ever written in America;” by Henry Hazlitt in a review in The Nation (Jan. 20, 1932: p.77) – established Kenneth Burke’s stature as a serious and creative critic once and for all. Rueckert continues:

As Burke tries to show everywhere in his books, writers are counter-agents and their works are “counter statements” – or should be in the sense that they tend to respond to the excesses of their own time and place and work against them to either promote, change or to restore a healthy norm (1994: p.63).

From being a literary critic, in his next work of the thirties – Permanence and Change (1936 [1965] -- he becomes a “social critic", one who wanted to counter   one or other of the pieties of the time. Again, Rueckert gives us a succinct description of Burke’s enterprise at this juncture and forever after-wards, no doubt:

He is going to tell us what Western history and modern society are all about; what is wrong with American society at the present time (early thirties) and what the requirements of the good life are – that is, he is going to write about ultimate matters such as human purpose, about what the permanent human needs are throughout history and how they have been and may now be adequately satisfied in the flux and change that is history (1994:p.64).
One of the ways in which he was to do this was to represent fundamentally revolutionary ideas and radical programs in forms and metaphors that were, shall I say, more accessible to a different audience than to the ones for which they were originally intended, as well as to couch new messages in idioms that could be  better appreciated by suspicious ones.

To appreciate this strategy fully, one must begin by examining one of his brief, but seminal essays, “Terministic Screens." In this essay, he sets up many of the concerns that were to preoccupy him for the rest of his life. This paper asserts and defends what Burke terms the “dramatistic” theory of language as opposed to the “scientistic" one. He summarizes what is essentially a very profound and subtle approach to all forms of symbolized matter thus:

The dramatistic view of language, in terms of “symbolic action” is exercised about the necessarily suasive nature of even the most unemotional scientific nomenclatures. And we shall proceed along these lines: Even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as terminology is must be a selection of reality; and to this extent, it must function as a deflection of reality (1966a: p.45).
In seeking to give a concrete example for this process by which “reality” is made available by and for the symbol-using and symbol-making animals, Burke gives us a description of some photographs that he once saw:
They were different photographs of the same objects, the difference being that they were made with different color filters. Here something so “factual” as a 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 (1966a: p.45).

Where have we heard this, or something like it, before? Where have we indeed heard of the relations between “cameras" and the “reality” they allow to be seen and recorded? It was, of course, in Marx who in The German Ideology (1845) used the concept of “camera obscura” to render the inversion that imprisonment in ideology made of the real state of affairs. What is camera obscura?  Paul Paolucci gives a nice description:

It was a large box like contraption in which a person would often sit. A pinhole let light in on one side, which was reflected off a mirror angled to project an image onto a wall away from the occupant. Plates of varying degrees of opaqueness would be created to display pictures on the wall for the desired perception or distortion, though the image displayed was the inverse of the image on the plate much like the way the retina reverses the image the eye receives (2001; p.78)

The particular form of the camera obscura from which Marx is drawing his metaphor is a simple version in which mirrors and lenses were used to invert the real image from the world to a transformed one. In later years the camera became a more complex instrument and was used by artists to sharpen their handling of “perspective” in their work. The fundamental property of light and its transforming relation to an observer was however known to Aristotle as to ancient Chinese philosophers. One such philosopher Shen Kua in fact made an analogy between the inverted image and the human knowledge-systems. He argued, writes John Hammond, “that there were some people who, like the inverted image ,will so misunderstand a situation as to think  right is wrong. Indeed, there are some, he said, who will be so fixed in their ideas that they could hardly avoid seeing things upside down.”(1981:2-3)

Burke’s version of a camera that filters the object that it is exposed to before it records it on film is indeed a form of transformation by recoloration, as Marx’s usage of the camera obscura was a metaphor to depict the distortion of reality that ideology achieves. Yet, there is, of course, also a major difference. For Marx, there is indeed a basic reality that is distorted by the workings of ideology: “men and their relations” exist un-obscured except when they are distorted by ideology. For Burke, however, for all symbol-using animals and symbol-making ones, all the reality that is the basis of knowledge and action is made available to them only as it passes through terministic screens.

Marx’s camera obscura, which reverses the causal process in the understanding of social reality in which the materialist factors are said to be the consequence of ideological ones, and Burke’s filtering camera, are both instances of “symbolic transformation” – to use Suzanne Langer’s (1970) expression. In one case, the camera transforms one reality that is head-up and feet-down, as feet-up and head-down and Marx shows that what is needed is to put the feet down and keep the head on top. Hegel, like the image in the camera obscura, was standing on his head and it was necessary to correct this, in Frederick Engels’ memorable image (1970; [1880]). In Burke’s work, the intervening symbolic process transforms the object that it perceives and records it with a camera with filters. For Marx the transformations achieved by his camera are sinister – they enable oppression to continue unabated until the obscurity is obviated by the conversion of “false consciousness” to “class consciousness,” while for Burke this is the normal state of affairs for the symbol-using species. To escape from one filter is to really slip into another. Still, Burke argues, that there is no cause for despair: one can still control the symbolic processes by selecting the most semiotically effective terminology, the one that is identity-rich, to advance the progressive cause.

While it is true that, as Marx puts it, “men make history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past” (1963 [1851]; 15), it is also true that it is possible for such men and women to try to save the day by the conscious and deliberate transformation of the historical process. Such men and women, or some of such men and women, can help in the transformation. In an authentic proletarian novel by Jack Conroy, The Disinherited, he depicts, in a novelistic miniaturization, such a scene. Hans, a union organizer is trying to tell Ben, who lives "in a world of poetry” and who wants to join him in the struggle that there is no romance in union work:

“Look at this." He drew back his lips and showed that most of his teeth were gone. "I used to have splendid teeth, remember. The police didn’t get the teeth. Some workers did that. Sometimes they are confused; they fight those that are trying to help them. Could you still want to fight for them if they did you like that?" (1982 [1933]: p. 309.)

In other words, he or she can become a conscious and deliberative and wised-up agent and select one screen over another, reject one and substitute another and so on and so forth as long as he or she is made to recognize the fact that all reality is made available to a human agent through one symbolic screen or another and that one must choose the screen that is likely to be most semiotically effective, as Pierce would have put it (1953: p.98-120).  That one can be – as the workers described by Conroy’s Hans – deceived by the camera obscura , does not mean that workers are not without any capacity to become agents of their own destiny, sooner or later. To achieve this it is necessary to devise rhetorically effective terminologies.

One can examine Burke’s own writings to see that in many instances in his work this is exactly what he was doing: substituting a new screen for an old one, albeit one that made the image more useful in revealing all its social and political implications. He tried to change the image, if not quite the way that Marx wanted it done, but certainly to supplant one coloration of a symbol with another, to correct one shade of a term and put in its place another more effective one, thus one establishing the claim of the social role of the artist and critic that he defined in Counter-Statement.

Literature as Equipment for Revolution

Kenneth Burke’s address to the American Writers’ Congress has achieved almost an iconic status in the history of the politics of American literary criticism and has received a number of analytical comments since it was delivered. Recently Ann George and Jack Selzer have submitted it to a systematic examination (2007), and a few years earlier Lentricchia (1983) also wrote an exhaustive commentary on it. In the aftermath of the speech itself, there were a number of objections as described in the volume edited by Herbert Simons and Trevor Melia (1989).

The call for an American Writers’ Congress opened with these stirring words:

The capitalist system crumbles so rapidly before our eyes that, whereas ten years ago scarcely more than a handful of writers were sufficiently far-sighted and courageous to take a stand for proletarian revolution, today hundreds of poets, novelists, dramatists, critics, short story writers and journalists recognize the necessity of personally helping to accelerate the destruction of capitalism and the establishment of a worker’s government (in George and Selzer, 2007: p.13).

Burke signed this call, along with several others and soon enough he made a presentation to the meeting of the Congress on "Revolutionary Symbolism in America." George and Selzer summarize the intent of the paper nicely as an examination "...in hardheaded, pragmatic terms, of the semiotic associated with the revolutionary movement in the United States, the myths and 'symbols' around which the left was seeking to create 'areas of allegiance' – particularly the terms masses and the worker" (2007: p. 170).

Burke suggested in his address that these words be abandoned and new ones instituted.  The call to the Congress used the phrase "worker’s government” and Burke argued that these words be substituted with the word “people." He said:

The acceptance of the “people” as the basic symbol also has the great virtue that it makes for less likelihood of schematization on the part of our writers…I am suggesting that an approach based on the positive symbol of “the people” rather than upon the negative symbol of the “worker” makes more naturally for his kind of identification whereby ones’ political alignment is fused with broader cultural elements (in Simons and Melia, 1989, p 270-271).

  If Burke had not used the antinomies of “negative” and “positive” and used instead others, for example, “exclusionary” and “inclusionary,” he might well have received a better response. The response to this speech was somewhat explosive. One of the organizers of the conference was moved to shout “we have a traitor among us” write George and Selzer, who add that “someone else explicitly linked Burke’s thought to Hitler’s” and cite from Lentricchia’s description of the event: Burke himself was so upset with these responses to his speech that he described himself as having hallucinations of “excrement dropping from his tongue” (George and Selzer 2007:p.18). George and Selzer give us an exhaustive analysis of this episode in Burke’s life and that of the American Writer’s Congress and situate it very convincingly in the socio-political ethics of the “popular front” line promoted by many leftists at the time.

One can yet ask another question here: What was Burke up to in these efforts to the AWC; what was he doing in terms of the dramatistic methodology that he was to develop more elaborately several years later. He was to write:

Dramatism as a method of analysis and a corresponding critique of terminology is designed to show that the most direct route to the study of human relatives and human motives is via a methodological inquiry into cycles or clusters of terms and their functions (1968a: p.445).

In his speech to the Congress, Burke was in fact doing just this: "a methodological inquiry into cycles or clusters of terms and their functions" with regard to the terms “working class,” “working men,” “workers and peasants,” the “proletariat,” comprising one set of terministic screens and seeking to substitute another filter with the term “people." With this move, Burke was seeking to expand the audience that could be attracted to “identify" with the progressive cause of the written cameras. It was an adroit rhetorical move designed to enlarge the support for the progressive cause and empower it. Again, Burke was to write years later that, “ Identification is affirmed with earnestness precisely because there is division. Identification is compensatory to division. If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim unity” (1968b:p.22). “The working classes” or the “masses” were being set “apart” from the rest of the populace and it was imperative, if the progressive cause was to succeed, to introduce a terminology that would “proclaim a unity.”

In the eyes of his audience of true believers at the congress, however, the essence of Burke’s recommendation was to disavow the distinction/division between “working class” and the “capitalist class,” between “proletariat” and “bourgeoisie” between “alienated labor” and alienating ruling class, and claim a unity of “people” that not only does not exist but cannot possibly exist, dialectically speaking.

Nevertheless, the audience at the congress – differentiated from the “people," to be sure, and presumably containing no members of the authentic working class – was not disposed to accept Burke’s subtleties of identification through terminological transformation nor to examine the political and pragmatic value of such a transformation. From their point of view Burke, a shearsman of sorts that he was, was trying change the tune with his “blue guitar” rather than play the tune to which the listeners were accustomed.

George and Selzer lighten these reaction somewhat and claim that “It is possible to flesh out the episode” with data from other sources and conclude that Burke’s position was “less marginal though not less controversial” (2007:19). Logie, writing in KB Journal, citing Malcolm Cowley, who should know, has a different version of the incident. He was not called a “traitor” it is claimed, but a “snob." Of course the latter term does not have the sting of “traitor,” traitor to the working class, that is, but as terminological screen, it does have the effect of exclusion and expulsion from the club of the true proletarians.

Be that as it may, one can ask why his audience was so deeply hostile in its responses. After all, Burke was one of them, a signatory to the call to Congress and recognized as a “Marxist with Stalinist leanings” as Eliseo Vivas claimed in a review of Burke’s book Attitudes to History in The Nation (11/25/1937:p.230). What was Burke’s particular infelicity in asking that the term “people” be substituted for “workers” or “working classes” in not only the proletarian writings but all appeals to get the “masses” to identify with and support the progressive cause? It is because there is a certain incantatory magic,and certain history, in the words "the workers,”  “the working classes,” and "the proletariat” which  can be traced to the foundational claim of the Marxist movement about the creation of “surplus value,” a foundation again for the claim that the working classes had a moral right to rule the society or that the socio-economic system should be managed for the benefit of the working classes. Any departure from this rhetoric was, for some, in fact a betrayal of the very raison d’etre of the socialist movement. The consequent of this theory -- that the workers produce goods by their own labor whose value the capitalist appropriates and turns into profit, which he keeps, whereas it is the workers who are entitled to it – is the theory of exploitation. The fruits of the workers’ labor were, in fact, taken from them, “appropriated” leaving them under-paid, under-fed, over-worked and isolated from family and friends – indeed “alienated." The terministic screen that Burke introduced – “the people” – does not have the implications of the “workers” and indeed may even include those people who practice the exploitation and profit from it. Many of these “people” – no doubt even some in Burke’s audience – do not produce surplus value. In that sense, it was a screen that showed too broad a spectrum and seemed to diffuse not only the color of the term “working class” but flatten its moral standing.

Yet, there is no doubt at that particular juncture in history – when a truly revolutionary transformation of society did not seem imminent, when the world socialist movement was working towards “Popular Fronts,” as George and Selzer have pointed out, even with “bourgeois” parties, when the struggle against fascism was felt to be of immediate concern – Burke’s terminology was the right one. In fact, most of the leftists eventually ended up supporting Roosevelt and the new deal and accepted the fact that at least some of the “people,” in addition to the working class, could create at least a minimum of much needed social change.

Soon after, or soon enough after, Burke was denounced for recommending the term people as a more rhetorically effective symbol for revolutionary politics, Hitler invaded the U.S.S.R., no doubt in the service of the volk, and a “dirty imperialist war” that U.K. and U.S.A. were waging became a “Peoples’ War” and many of the leaders of the working classes scrambled to endorse it. Soon after, the war ended and “communism” was introduced into various countries in Eastern Europe; they became “Peoples’ Republics." Burke’s choice of the symbol of “people” for the revolution, it turned out, was prophetic.

What then was Burke up to in this controversial speech? He was certainly not rejecting the need for a revolutionary transformation of American society and the right of the American working class to seek redemption from their oppressive working life but to transform the rhetorical strategies so that a more inclusive terminology will be able to draw more people, not only into the militant vanguard but also to the rearguard. The program that Burke presented was not so much an attempt at a rejection of Marx as a dialectical expansion so that the progressive movement will itself move forward.

Alienation to Malnutrition

Burke tried his hand apparently at another terminological substitution in an unpublished document unearthed by Anne George from the Burke archives entitled “Malnutrition” and distributed at the Burke conference 2008 at Villanova University, Pennsylvania. In this piece, he argues, implicitly i.e. transformatively, that, instead of talking in recondite philosophical terms from Hegel and others about the problems of the proletariat, they should be addressed in down-to-earth practical terms.  Not “alienation” then, but “malnutrition." To be semiotically and rhetorically effective, one must indeed speak the “thinking of the body” and the language of the body (Burke, 1966b).

The concept “alienation” has its roots in Hegel, and in earlier religious thought, and was further developed by Fuerbach, and was adopted by Marx, who once again transformed it into a fundamental theme in historical materialism. As Bertell Ollman (1997) has shown, Marx’s fundamental position in all his writings was that there is a “society” which is not a collection of discrete individuals, but a system of interconnected relations. Insofar as this is the case, any social formation that either disrupts these connections or weakens them, like capitalism does, is a human disaster. Such a social formation, Marx wrote:
1. Alienates nature from man.
2. Alienates man from himself, from his own active function, his life activities, so it alienates him from the species.
3. It alienates man from his own body, external nature, his mental life and his human life.
4. A direct consequence of the alienation of man from the product of his own labor, from the life-activity is that man is alienated from other men (and women).

One of the causes of this process of alienation, Marx notes is, that the worker:

"...becomes poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and extent. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he produces…So much does the realization of labor appear as loss of the reality that the worker loses his reality to the point of starvation. So much does objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is robbed of the objects he needs most not only for life but also for work (1959 a [1932]: p.2).

He goes on later in this work to connect such conditions to the practical events of everyday life, “The crudest methods of production are coming back: the treadmill of the Roman slaves, for instance, is the means of production, the means of existence, of many English workers. It is not only that man has no human needs – even his animal needs cease to exist." He then takes up as an example the most exploited section of the working class in England at that time: "The Irishman no longer knows any need now but the need to eat, and indeed the need to eat potatoes, and scabby potatoes at that, the worst kind of potatoes” (Marx,1959b: [1932] p.2). That is, not only is the worker unable to keep connectedness to others and to keep the network of social relations, a sine qua non of human existence, going but is also finding it difficult to meet his or her “animal needs." This is for Marx a direct consequence of the fact that the products of the worker’s own labor are appropriated by the capitalists and turned into profit while the worker remains poor and continues to be increasingly pauperized and eat little or nutritionally unsatisfactory food. In a genuinely proletarian novel, Nobody Starves, Catherine Brody (1932) was able to take alienation and impoverishment all the way to food.

Lo and behold then: the consequences of alienated labor are poverty, pauperization and eventually malnutrition. Translating the philosophical concepts, transforming them terministically, one can go from alienation to poverty to the bodily state of malnutrition. Burke hinted at such a process in a comment in an essay in The Philosophy of Literary Form:

Unless Marxists are ready to deny Marx by attacking his term “alienation” itself, they must permit research into the nature of alienation and into the nature of attempts, adequate and inadequate, to combat alienation (1941: p308).

To do that, one must go down from the head to the lower body, from philosophy to biology and confront the consequences of poverty in the form of sustained malnutrition of the workers. Marx himself transforms the religious conception of alienation to a materialist one. The alienated individual for Marx was one who suffered estrangement from his/her fellow beings as well as from his/her products and the fruits thereof. . One goes from religious alienation to “idealist” alienation (Hegel) to materialized alienation (Fuerbach, Marx) and finally to poverty and from poverty it is but a small step to malnutrition.

A new filter has been introduced into the camera and it has enabled a new, perhaps a more detailed and sharper, picture to emerge. Alienation, in Marx’s sense, ultimately leads to malnutrition among the working classes and leads to weaker bodies, weakened workers, sterile and unfruitful sexual relationships, perverted social relationships, the subversion of the “species qualities” and the collapse of the species! And, before that, perhaps the collapse of the capitalist system itself, unless wage-slavery is ended and the workers paid, at least, a living wage, so that they will have the healthy bodies to go down into the mines.

Kenneth Burke’s work in the two instances, relatively small ones at that, was, of course, part of his larger project focusing on language as symbolic action. It has deep affinities with the other developments in Marxist theory that have been felicitously labeled “Semiotic Marxism” by Albert Bergesen (1993) referring to the work of Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, Nicholas Poulantzas, Ernesto Laclau et al. In their collective work they could be said to have shown, along with Burke, to use a metaphor from Marx himself, that all that is solidly materialistic melts into words. This does not mean that Burke was a wooly headed idealist but a realist who accepted the materiality of the obdurate world and for whom language itself, was, as it was for the latter day semioticians, a material reality.(Coward and Ellis,1977)But that is a different story for a different time.


* Robert Perinbanayagam works for the Sociology Department of Hunter College of the City University of New York and Graduate Center. Correspondence to: perinba@verizon.net.


Bergesen, Albert (1993). “The Rise of Semiotic Marxism." Sociological Perspectives. 36 (1) 1-22
Burke, Kenneth (1965 [1932]). Permanence and Change. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.

(1966a). “Terministic Screens.” In Language as Symbolic Action. Berkeley: University of California Press.

         (1966b). “The Thinking of the Body (Comments on the Imagery of Catharsis in Literature)" in Language as Symbolic Action. Berkeley: University of California Press.

                (1968a). “Dramatism.” International  Encylopedia of the Social  Sciences. New York: McMillan and Company.

                (1968b. [1950]).   A Rhetoric of Motives, Berkeley: University of California Press.

               (1974  [1941]) The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Brody, Catherine (1932). Nobody Starves. New York: Longman Green & Co.

Coward,Rosalind and John Ellis(1997) Language and Materialism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

Conroy, Jack (1982 [1933]). The Disinherited. Lawrence Hill and Company.

          Engels, Frederick (1970 [1880]). Socialism, Scientific and Utopian. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

          George, Ann and Jack Selzer (2007). Burke in the 1930s. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

          Hammond, John.1981.The Camera Obscura:A  Chronicle. Bristol,UK: Adam Hilger

Hazlitt, Henry (1932). Review, "Two Critics." The Nation. January 20, 1932, p 77.

Langer, Suzanne (1970 [1942]).  Philosophy in a New Key. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lentricchia, Frank (1983). Criticism and Social Change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

          Logie, John (2005). “We Write for the Working Classes: Authorship and Communism in Kenneth Burke and Richard Wright." KB Journal – 2005:11:4.

Marx, Karl (1970 [1845]). The German Ideology. New York: International Publishers.

          (1959a [1844]). “Estranged Labor.” In Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Moscow: Progress Publishers. (Trans. Martin Mulligan). Internet Version: www.Marxists.org./archives.

(1959b). “Human Requirements and Division of Labor” in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Moscow: Progess  Publishers. (Trans. Martin Mulligan) Internet Version: www.Marxists.org./archives.

(1963  [1851]).  The Eighteenth  Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Co.

Ollman, Bertell (1977). Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Paolucci, Paul (2001). "Classical Sociological Theory and Modern Social Problems: Marx's Concept of the Camera Obscura and the Fallacy of Individualistic Reductionism." Critical Sociology. Vol. 27, No.1, 77-120.

Pierce, Charles Sanders (1953). “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs” in Philosophical Investigations. New York: Dover Publications.

Rueckert, William (1994). “A Field Guide to Kenneth Burke” in Encounters with Kenneth Burke. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Simons, Herbert and Trevor Melia (1989). The Legacy of Kenneth Burke. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Vivas, Elisio (1937). “Toward an Improved Strategy." The Nation. November 25, 1937:723.

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"All That Is Solid Melts into Words: An Exercise in Burking Burke; by Robert Perinbanayagam is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

Burke's Lacanian Upgrade: Reading the Burkeian Unconscious Through a Lacanian Lens

Kevin A. Johnson, California State University, Long Beach


Kenneth Burke was fascinated by psychoanalytic theory and the work of Sigmund Freud. Burke believed that one of the tasks of the critic was to revise Freud’s terms in order to advance the interests of the literary critic. This essay furthers Burke’s psychoanalytic tendencies by suggesting a theory of the unconscious grounded in the Lacanian extensions and alterations of Freudian theory. This essay argues that Lacanian scholarship on the unconscious offers a descriptive update to the “dramatistic dictionary” that decreases the vagueness of Burke’s lexicon about the unconscious.

Kenneth Burke was no stranger to psychoanalysis. In fact, Freud had a major influence on his theory of dramatism. For example, in Rhetoric and Religion, he credited Freud for “great contributions” and called him a “genius” (Burke, 1970, p. 265) In Language as Symbolic Action, he noted that Freud had “done well” (Burke, 1966, p. 66). And in his most lengthy praise of Freud, he wrote:

The reading of Freud I find suggestive almost to the point of bewilderment. Accordingly, what I should like to do would simply be to take representative excerpts of his work, copy them out, and write glosses upon them. Very often these glosses would be straight extensions of his own thinking. At other times they would be attempts to characterize his strategy of presentation with reference to interpretive method in general (Burke, 1957, p. 221).
Burke suggested that Freud’s methodology should have a profound effect on the literary critic. He noted that “the Freudian perspective was developed primarily to chart a psychiatric field rather than an aesthetic one; [1] but since we are here considering the analogous features of these two fields rather than their important differences, there would be glosses attempting to suggest how far the literary critic should go along with Freud and what extra-Freudian material he would have to add” (Burke, 1957, p. 221). There are at least two important things to note in relation to these praises of Freud’s work. First, Burke was heavily influenced by Freud’s writings. By his own admission, Burke wished to take certain fragments of Freud’s works and make them a direct part of his own work. Second, and perhaps more important than these praises, Burke demonstrated his reluctance to accept the totality of Freud’s work (and/or at the very least, he thought Freud’s works were incomplete).

Since Burke thought Freud’s theories were simultaneously “great contributions” and problematic, he sought to make alterations to Freud’s theories while maintaining a significant portion of them. That is, Burke did not want to throw Freud’s proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Burke (1957) stated, “As we grow up, new meanings must either be engrafted upon old meanings (being to that extent double-entendres) or they must be new starts (hence, involving problems of dissociation).” He continued:

Revise Freud’s terms, if you will. But nothing is done by simply trying to refute them or to tie them into knots. . . . If you would, accordingly, propose to chart this field by offering better terms, by all means do so. But better terms are the only kind of refutation here that is worth the trouble. . . . Freud’s terminology is a dictionary, a lexicon for charting a vastly complex and hitherto largely uncharted field. You can’t refute a dictionary. The only profitable answer to a dictionary is another one. (pp. 232-233)
With such thinking, Burke worked with and against the Freudian terminology. Specifically, Burke worked within the Freudian lexicon and offered “better terms” in his dramatistic theory of rhetoric. Of course, the only way to examine the Burkeian concept of “better terms” is to explore the ways Burke both distanced and connected his dramatistic theory with Freudian psychoanalysis (and the unconscious).

Unfortunately, few scholars have undertaken such an investigation. O’Leary and Wright (1995) provided one of the only pieces of work to systematically examine Burke’s Freudian tendencies. The fact that this article was written more than ten years ago gives testimony to the neglect of scholars in further interrogating Burke’s Freudian connections. Even more telling, according to O’Leary and Wright (1995), is that while numerous studies since 1963 mention Freud in relation to Burke there is no study that mentions or has more than a couple sentences about the connection. O’Leary and Wright (1995) explained that such a gap in the research ought to be interrogated in an attempt to comprehend at least two of Burke’s most important innovations—“his expansion of rhetoric to include Unconscious factors in the production and reception of discourse, and his substitution of ‘identification’ for ‘persuasion’ as the master term for the rhetorical process” (O’Leary and Wright, 1995, p. 104). They argued that these two innovations can be traced directly to Freud.

Although O’Leary and Wright (1995) made important connections between Burke and Freud, there are many connections that remain underexplored. This is surprising given Burke’s continuous mention of Freud’s influence on his dramatistic theory. For example, Burke (1957) discussed in Philosophy of Literary Form the centrality of Freud’s influence in the conflict that exists between conscious and unconscious factors—that this conflict is an internal private drama that is directly related to the outward public drama. Moreover, Burke mentions Freud in nearly every concept that rhetorical scholars have employed in rhetorical criticism. Specifically, Burke (1957; 1966; 1968; 1969a; 1969b; 1970; 1984a; 1984b) mentioned the Freudian influence on the following concepts: rationalization vs. analysis, comic frame, audience persuasion, cluster criticism, surrealist ingredient in art, purposive forgetting, proportional strategy, matriarchal symbolizations, prayer and chart in literary criticism, occupational psychosis, scapegoating, perfection, terministic screens, the negative, the guilt cycle, beauty and sublimity, original sin, motive, and identification. Burke used all of these terms in his analysis of rhetoric and language.

This essay begins with a more modest goal than interrogating each of these connections between dramatism and psychoanalysis. The purpose of this essay is to follow Burke’s suggestion of revising Freud’s terms by beginning with the idea of the unconscious. This essay will further Burke’s initial objective by: (1) explaining Burke’s own revision of Freud’s terms and their impact on his theory of dramatism, and (2) offering revisions to his ideas of the unconscious based on Jacques Lacan’s alterations and corrections of Freudian thought. This essay argues that Lacanian scholarship on the unconscious offers a descriptive update to the “dramatistic dictionary” that decreases the vagueness of Burke’s lexicon about the unconscious.

The reason for a move toward Lacanian scholarship is that Lacan has made significant alterations and extensions to Freudian psychoanalysis. While Burke began writing earlier than Lacan, both writers were at work simultaneously between approximately the 1950s through the 1970s. However, they both failed to mention each other explicitly in their writings. In the years since Burke quit writing, rhetorical scholarship (Biesecker, 1998; Gunn, 2003; Gunn, 2004; Lundberg, 2004) has attended to the work of Lacanian scholars in an attempt to articulate a theory of subjectivity as it relates to rhetorical phenomena. Lacan’s insight is important to the study of the unconscious as the location of that which is repressed in human drama. Zupančič (2003) argued that psychoanalysis offers the ethical regime of modern culture because it forces us to confront the limits of desire in our capacity for moral courage. What Lacanian scholarship has to offer is an articulation of an ethics of motives in the dramatistic lexicon that forces dramatism to confront the limits of desire in our capacity for moral courage. Articulating the Lacanian alterations and corrections to the Burkeian unconscious is a necessary step in that direction.

In order to accomplish such a task, this essay is divided into three sections. Section one will examine the specific mentions of Freud and the unconscious in Burke’s work in order to discern Burke’s theorization of the unconscious. Section two will present a Burkeian and Lacanian influenced concept of the unconscious as part of the human psyche. Section three will survey Lacanian clarifications to a couple of the observations that Burke made regarding the examination of the unconscious in the psychotherapeutic technique.

Burke and the Unconscious

For Freud, the unconscious exists in the form of an adjective and a noun. As an adjective, Freud defined the unconscious as “acts which are merely latent, temporarily unconscious, but which differ in no other respect from conscious ones” (p. 172). These acts, thoughts, or ideas are capable of being known and present no difficulty to the subject. Gunn and Treat (2005) argued that in the adjectival sense, “all rhetorical criticism trucks in the unconscious insofar as the point of criticism is to bring latent rhetorical elements into the conscious awareness of readers or hearers. Indeed, interpretation as such betokens the dialectic of the manifest and the latent” (150). In the form of a noun, the unconscious refers to a psychical topography whereby repressed materials (i.e., traumatic and/or guilty ideas, thoughts, desires) reside and continuously deny access to preconscious and conscious systems. Repressed material in the unconscious is not passive as is sometimes assumed. Rather, repressed material is constantly and ceaselessly attempting to re-enter consciousness (termed “the return of the repressed”), but can succeed in doing so only in disguise.

Attempting to comprehend Freud’s ideas on the unconscious as they influenced Burke’s conceptualization of the unconscious in dramatistic theory is a tricky proposition. Cheney, Garvin-Doxas, and Torrens (1999) highlighted the tricky balance by noting that “Burke incorporates Freudian insights about the unconscious (see especially Rhetoric of Motives); he also considers unintended consequences of actions (see especially Permanence and Change). So, Burke is careful not to rest too heavily on either an Aristotelian consideration of ‘man’ as the rational animal or on a Machiavellian emphasis on strategy” (p. 144). Burke’s most systematic engagement with the works of Freud and the unconscious appears in his essay “Mind, Body, and the Unconscious” (Burke, 1966). In that essay, he attempted to form a sketch of the relationship between the unconscious and dramatism. Specifically, he noted that the “genius of the Freudian terminology” of the unconscious “leads beyond the specifically psychiatric analysis of symbolic action (the symptoms of sick souls) to thoughts on symbolic action in general” (Burke, 1966, p. 72).  This section will describe these characteristics by performing a close reading of Burke’s “Mind, Body, and the Unconscious” to gain insights in his thoughts on the relationship between the unconscious and symbolic action.

Burke begins his sketch of the unconscious by noting its relationship to the difference between action and motion. Burke referred to the difference between action and motion as the basic Dramatistic distinction. He noted that, “‘Things move, people act,’ the person who designs a computing device would be acting, whereas the device itself would be going through whatever sheer motions its design makes possible” (Burke, 1966, p. 64). He continued, “In brief, man differs qualitatively from other animals since they are too poor in symbolicity, just as man differs qualitatively from his machines since these man-made caricatures of man are too poor in animality” (p. 64). It is here that Burke talks about “symbolic action” in the specific Freudian sense of the term. In his discussion of symbolic action in the context of dramatism, Burke (1966) wrote that Freud offered symptomatic action as a “synonym” for Burke’s concept of “symbolic action” (p. 64). Burke (1966) provided the following example of a pedestrian to illustrate the source of similarity:

[I]f a person found it almost impossible to cross streets even where there was no apparent objective danger (as from traffic), the situation might be neurotically symbolic or symptomatic of an inability to arrive at a decision in some other matter that was of great importance to the sufferer, but was not consciously or rationally associated with the crossing of streets. (p. 64)
In other words, the crossing of streets may be a symbol/symptom of another action that was of great importance to the person who fears crossing the street. In this sense, Burke dedicates the entire essay to his thoughts on the unconscious, infusing Freud with his own understanding of the unconscious.

After Burke noted the connection between symbolic action (as the basic Dramatistic action/motion distinction) and the unconscious in his essay, he turned to the connection between the “negative” and the unconscious. For Burke, the negative allows the establishment of commands or admonitions that govern the actions of individuals. Burke (1970) referred to these commands as the “thou shalt nots,” or the “do not do that’s” (p. 278). Moral commands such as the Ten Commandments are examples of the “thou shalt nots” that encompass the negative. The ability to distinguish between right and wrong are the consequences of the negative. According to Burke (1970), without the negative implicit in language, moral action, or action based on conceptions of right and wrong behavior (such as law, moral and social rules, and rights) would not exist.

Burke (1966) explained that “Freud’s concept of ‘repression’ in the ‘Unconscious’ is on its face doubly saturated with the negative” (p. 65). He wrote the following to detail this connection:
According to the Freudian nomenclature, the “unconscious” process of “repression” involves the fact that the thou-shalt-not’s of the “superego” would negate the desires of the “id,” that portion of the “unconscious” which knows no Negation (or, more resonantly, “knows no No”). And “symbolic” or “symptomatic” kinds of action are said to result from unconscious attempts to elude repressions imposed by the tyranny of the “superego.” Though the role of the negative in the Dramatistic concept of “symbolic action” covers a wider area than Freud’s usage, the two realms are by no means mutually exclusive. Each in its way stresses the importance of the moralistic negative. But whereas the Freudian negative is identified solely with the process of repression in the Unconscious, the Dramatistic negative must focus upon the negative as a peculiar resource of symbol systems. (pp. 65-66)
This distinction becomes important since it places the status of the unconscious as but a “part” of Dramatistic theory. In Dramatistic theory, the negative is in the domain of language and has a repressive function.[2] Put another way, for Freud the unconscious as the depository of repressed content is the essence of his psychoanalytic theory, whereas for Burke the “symbolic system” is the essence of Dramatistic theory of which the Freudian notion of the unconscious is just a “part” of a larger Burkeian “unconscious” that is defined by its existence “outside” the “symbol system.”

After his discussion of the negative in his essay, he canonized[3] eight varieties of the unconscious in order to note the similarities and departures from the Freudian unconscious. The first kind of unconscious involves the “sheerly physiological processes of the body” (Burke, 1966, p. 72). This is mostly known in biological terms as the energy that works involuntary muscles in the body such as “growth, metabolism, digestion, peristaltic ‘action,’ respiration, functions of the various organs, secretions of the endocrine glands, ways in which elements in the bloodstream reinforce or check one another, and so on” (Burke, 1966, p. 67). Burke (1966) asserted that if we were specifically aware of all or some of these processes as some neurotics are sometimes aware of some visceral processes, “we’d be in a condition that, as judged by our present norms, would be little short of horrible” (p. 67). Then Burke differentiated this type of unconscious from the Freudian unconscious by drawing the distinction between “types” of repression. He argued that “Maybe our transcending of all such happenings . . . is to be treated as a kind of ‘repression.’ But it seems to differ from the moralistic kind of repression with which Freud was concerned” (Burke, 1966, p. 67). Thus, Burke sees no “moral” question in the repression of strictly physiological processes that reside in the unconscious.

The second variety of the unconscious is the “universal incorporation of the past with the present” (Burke, 1966, p. 72). In this sense, the unconscious functions as a depository of those things that continue throughout history and resurface in the temporally present. In other words, those things that happen prior to the person being a person (their prehistory) come to resurface and shape their cultural norms through discourse. Burke (1966) explained that “many aspects of expression that once might have been studied in terms of rhetorical resources natural to language at all stages of history are treated rather as survivals from eras of primitive magic, ritual, and myth” (p. 68). What Burke (1966) had in mind here was the thought that “any present moment is the ‘Unconscious’ repository of the past, not just as regards some possible ‘primal’ scene or ‘Oedipal’ crime, but in terms of all the evolutionary unfoldings that are somehow summed up in each of us, at his given moment in history” (p. 68). The example that he provides here is the relation between the members of the Supreme Court and the Constitution. Each side in a Supreme Court case has their Constitutionally asserted wish, without explicit reference to the other wishes. According to Burke (1966), “legal conflicts arise because, in particular cases, this ‘id’-like wishing on the part of the Constitution confronts problems of denial. In gratifying one Constitutional wish, the courts must frustrate or ‘repress’ another” (pp. 68-69). The history of the Supreme Court that continues to resurface in the temporally present is a history of “changing choices as regards the hierarchy of such wishes (decisions as to which of the wishes should be given preferential rating), since for better or worse there is nothing in our egalitarian Constitution itself that establishes such a scale once and for all” (Burke, 1966, p. 69).

Burke’s (1966) third variety of the unconscious concerns the “recallable but not explicitly recalled. Here also might be included knowledge which one has, but which does not happen to be associated with the given topic under discussion” (p. 72). This refers to all of those things that we “know,” but that remain under the realm of direct consciousness. In other words, this form of the unconscious refers to the stuff in the filing cabinets of our brains that can be recalled upon conscious associations. Burke (1966) distinguished this from the Freudian unconscious by providing the example of forgetting a childhood language: “if one forgot a language that one had not spoken since childhood, surely this would not be a prime example of repression in Freud’s moralistic sense. However, Freud might offer invaluable cues as to why, of a sudden, the ‘lost’ words began turning up again” (p. 69).

The fourth variety pertains the “closely related category of dissociation among ‘sub-personalities’” (Burke, 1966, p. 72). For Burke, this is the category of the unconscious where different “roles” are stored. For instance, a person might be at the same time a parent, a brother, an uncle, an alcoholic, a teacher, a bartender, and an athlete. When a person is an athlete thinking about hitting a baseball, they might not be consciously thinking of themselves as a parent. Burke noted that when various conflicts among more than one personality occur, this could be a source of guilt and/or denial. For example, when President Bill Clinton stated, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” he was acting in his legal persona (arguing over definitions of “sexual relations”) and was ignoring his Presidential persona (supposedly leading by not deceiving the public). In this sense, Clinton was able to deny having sexual relations. His persona when addressing the public was radically different than a legal persona addressing a Federal Grand Jury. Burke did not seek to differentiate this variety of the unconscious as it pertained to the Freudian unconscious, but merely noted it as a variety of the unconscious that exists under the purview of dramatism.

The fifth kind of unconscious consists of the “entelechial” kind of “futurity.” Burke (1966) likened this to “certain kinds of observations or conclusions [that] may be implicit in a given terminology, quite in the sense that a grammar and syntax are implicit in a given language” (p. 72). What he had in mind here were the “implications of a symbol system, its ‘future possibilities’ in a purely formal sense. Surely, in this sense, the relation between Conscious and Unconscious is not to be considered as a matter of ‘repression’ in the specifically Freudian sense of the term” (Burke, 1966, pp. 69-70). It is here that Burke likens the syntax of a language that is unconscious to the play of mathematic formulations. He argued that “one can hardly be said to have ‘repressed’ one’s understanding of the propositions that Euclid deduced from the definitions and axioms of his geometry. Rather, we must look upon Euclid as having developed with thoroughness the implications of his position” (Burke, 1966, p. 70).

Burke’s (1966) sixth variety of the unconscious refers to “the ‘Ismic’ paradox whereby any terminology that systematically calls attention to a hitherto unnoticed area of speculation by the same token creates a corresponding kind of ‘unconscious’” (p. 72). In this sense, according to Burke, this variety parallels the Marxian distinction between consciousness and false consciousness (class consciousness vs. class unconsciousness). He explained, “By Marx’s scheme, if the bourgeois conceives of all mankind in terms of the bourgeois, said bourgeois has unconsciously represented (or revealed) his bourgeois consciousness” (Burke, 1966, p. 70). He uses this example to merely illustrate that “there is a kind of ‘unconsciousness’ that is sheerly a reflection of whatever terminology one happens to be using” (Burke, 1966, p. 71). The distinction being made here between Freud’s unconscious and Burke’s unconscious is a matter of attention versus repression. Specifically, Burke (1966) draws this distinction by noting that “we here confront kinds of attention that often are not reducible to terms of repression” (p. 71).

The seventh variety of the unconscious concerns the “‘intuitive’ recognition that something is as it is” (Burke, 1966, p. 72). This form of the unconscious is discernable in “the weather eye of the weather prophet, the ability to be a ‘good judge of character,’ the mathematical physicist’s ability to ‘idealize’ a problem in a way that affords a solution, the expert player’s ability to make exactly the right adjustments needed for his play . . .” (Burke, 1966, p. 71). He applied this variety of the unconscious to relate to “taste,” “tact,” “propriety,” or “what the Greeks called to prepon and the Latins decorum, and the eighteenth century the je ne sais quoi” (Burke, 1966, p. 71). Burke (1966) noted his separation from Freud’s unconscious in this sense by noting that such “bepuzzlements here are not instances of ‘repression’ in the strictly Freudian sense” (p. 71).

The last category of the unconscious was Burke’s (1966) “catchall category” that he labeled “Error, Ignorance, Uncertainty” (p. 71). This category is where he relegates all of those things that are unknown and that cannot be possibly known. For instance, “One may eat a certain contaminated food through sheer ignorance, not owing to any psychological ‘repression’ of such knowledge. One just happens to be ‘unconscious’ of its true nature” (Burke, 1966, p. 71). These are simply all of those things that a person has yet to be exposed to that could not possibly be “repressed” and are thus unconscious to the person. Burke is unclear as to whether or not this last category is influenced by Freudian theory, but we will see a direct overlap between this category and Lacanian scholarship in the next section on the application of Lacanian theory to Burke’s unconscious.

Together, these eight varieties form the place of the unconscious as Burke understood it. After the “end” of his essay “Mind, Body, and the Unconscious,” Burke made the observation that “Unconscious is to repression as conscious is to expression (or as latent is to patent)” (p. 77). Then, in a rather telling passage on the Freudian lexicon, he wrote:

“Repression” suggests a set of terms implicit in the idea of process; the “Unconscious,” by reason of its dialectical relation to the Conscious, provides the particular content (the realm of associations) that is to be “processed” (the gerundive). And the two terministic lines, in conjunction, set up the conditions for a dialectical relation between a “pleasure principle” (on the “Unconscious” side) and a “reality principle” (on the Conscious side). Also, by keeping this genesis in mind, we can more easily understand why Freud never yielded to Utopian hopes for the ultimate elimination of repression. The repression-unconscious-preconscious-conscious relationships may be thought of as capable of modification or mitigation, the very nature of the initial equation implies, or “foretells,” that conflict is permanently “built into” the system. (p. 78)
This is particularly telling of the larger relationship that Burke had with Freudian psychoanalysis since this observation is homological to Burke’s own corpus. Specifically, is it not also that the Burkeian system of Dramatism has “conflict” permanently “built into” the system? How could Dramatism function without “conflict” as a necessary component? What Burke and Freud share, therefore, is the necessity of conflict as an essential characteristic of their methodological techniques. However, the major difference is that Burke focused predominantly on an analysis of the unconscious to explore the nature and extent of repression in the larger category of “drama,” where Freud was principally concerned with the specific drama in the mind of the analysand. Having a good idea of the topography of the Burkeian unconscious, we need to establish the basic characteristics of the Lacanian unconscious if we are to move toward an application of Lacanian theory to the Burkeian unconscious.

The Lacanian Unconscious

Lacan viewed the conscious and the unconscious as distinct, closed systems[4] that work by logics that are different from each other. In other words, the unconscious and the conscious are two parts of the human psyche that do not come into contact with each other without rupture in the logic in both domains. That they are, nonetheless, dynamically intermingled offered Lacan a solution to Freud’s unresolved problem: How can the unconscious think? For Lacan, the answer is via the elusive subject of an unconscious network of signifying representations. Lacan designated this subject by the letter “S” barred thus: $. In other words, the conscious subject cannot speak or think of its unconscious aspects in a unified fashion (Ragland-Sullivan, 1986). This conscious incapacity to grasp the unconscious in its totality is due precisely to both the evasiveness of the unconscious and the rupture to speaking and thinking when the unconscious content comes into contact with the conscious. Lee (1990) observed that if language lies at the heart of Freud’s own theorizing, then, Lacan nevertheless believed that it is crucial for psychoanalysts to be more systematic and, indeed, more philosophical in their reflections on language than was Freud. Lacan’s (1977) own contribution in this direction begins with an unmistakably structuralist definition of the relationship between a language and its elements: “What defines any element whatever of a language [langue] as belonging to language [langage], is that, for all the users of this language [langue], this element is distinguished as such in the ensemble supposedly constituted of homologous elements” (274/63). In other words, language is the formal vessel that sorts and abstracts particular content—or as Brummett (2004) noted, the “content or information” of abstracted language “is what we get we get in the historical, situated, less or least abstracted moment; form is what we get from the more or most abstracted patterns that cut across several historical, situated moments. Homology is a formal linkage among two or more kinds of experience” (p. 39).

Lacan (1977) defined the unconscious in essentially linguistic terms as “that part of the concrete discourse, insofar as it is transindividual, that is not at the disposal of the subject in re-establishing the continuity of his conscious discourse” (258/49).[5] In this statement we find that, as far as Lacan is concerned, any understanding of the unconscious is fundamentally an understanding of language, and this means that psychoanalysis is itself a particular way of coming to know a language (that of the analysand) and is thus one of the sciences of the Symbolic. Therefore, Lacan’s description of the unconscious promises to be a valuable site for examining Burke’s concept of the unconscious in Language as Symbolic Action. But how exactly can Lacanian scholarship inform Burke’s conception of the unconscious?

Applying Lacanian Theory to the Burkeian Unconscious

Having documented the Freudian influence on Burke’s concept of the unconscious, as well as the features of the Lacanian unconscious, we may now describe the nature and scope of the application of Lacanian theory to the Burkeian unconscious by using Lacanian scholarship to analyze each of the eight characteristics (outlined in the first section of this essay) of Burke’s idea of the unconscious. Before doing this however, we should begin where Burke did with the distinction between action and motion, and then examine the role of the negative in the unconscious.

Revisiting the distinction Burke made between action and motion, we find a stark comparison between the human that acts and the computer that moves—that the computer fails in its animality. For Lacan, the reason for this is that the computer does not have an unconscious and it does not share a realm of fantasy (there might be an exception with current advances in artificial life and mega-computers, but these types of advancements were not considered by Burke to constitute a computer in the same way as computer technology functioned in 1966 when Language as Symbolic Action was written). The computer, as Burke conceived it, is a purely Symbolic space in the Lacanian sense. The computer is programmed with characters that come together to form certain images. These are all programmed by the human and will only function within the totality of the computer’s programming. In this sense, the computer merely moves within the circuits that it is programmed with. While things are stored in files, the stored materials function in a more preconscious sense, since they can be explicitly recalled with ease.

The computer not only fails in its animality[6] by not having an unconscious, it also fails in its animality because it does not have an Imaginary.[7] Specifically, the computer does not have a fantasy that is hooked on the Symbolic network.[8] Fantasy may be defined as that which “fills the gap between the abstract intention to do something and its actualization: it is the stuff of which debilitating hesitations—dread imagining what might happen if I do it, what might happen if I don’t do it—are made, and the act itself dispels the mist of these hesitations which haunt us in this interspace” (Žižek, 2002a, p. xl). The computer, as Burke conceived of it, does not fill a gap between abstract intention and its actualization because no such gap exists for the computer. The computer merely carries out the act that it has been programmed to carry out. It does not dread imagining what might happen if it responds to your hitting the “enter” key.[9] It merely carries out the command “enter” as the word “enter” is designed to function within its Symbolic network. Therefore, for Lacan, the computer fails in its animality because it does not have a Real or Imaginary register. The three registers (Real, Imaginary, Symbolic) together are necessary to give the ability for humans to act and computers to move. More simply, if Lacan designates the Imaginary and the Symbolic as weak fortresses built to prevent encountering the Real, then we might note that: In Burke’s sense, the Real acts, the Symbolic and Imaginary move. In other words, if no Real, then there is only motion and the human will fail in its animality. Therefore, studying the language of drama includes the ability to contextualize Symbolic language in relation to the Imaginary and Real in the psyche.

Burke’s proceeded from the action/motion distinction to and explanation of the relationship between the negative and the unconscious . The negative in Burke’s terminology involves the moral laws—the thou-shalt-nots—that are implicit in language. The negative in the repressive sense is necessary because a symbol system has the character of totality: there is meaning only if everything has meaning. Žižek (2002a) provided the analysis of a dream as an example of this process:

In the analysis of a dream, for example, one cannot simply distinguish among its elements those that can be interpreted as signifiers from those which result from purely physiological processes: if dreams are “structured like a language,” then all their ingredients are to be treated as elements of a signifying network; even when the physiological causal link seems obvious (as in the caricatural case of a subject who dreams of a tap leaking when he feels a need to urinate) one must “put it in parentheses” and confine oneself to the signifying range of the dream’s ingredients. What Freud called “primordial repression” is precisely this radical rupture by means of which a symbolic system fractures its inclusion in the chain of material causality: if some signifier were not missing, we would not have a signifying structure but a positive network of causes and effects. (pp. 215-216)

The inevitability of the symbolic fragility necessitates the existence of the negative as a precursor to attempting to give the symbolic its totality. In this way, the negative that Burke mentions in relation to the unconscious is an always already “weak” negative. That is, for Lacan, repression and the return of the repressed are two sides of the same coin. Žižek (2002a) explained that the repressed content “constitutes itself retroactively, by means of its failed/distorted return in symptoms, in these ‘unaccounted for’ excesses: there is no unconscious outside its returns” (p. 95). The negative is thus “weak” because the negative’s repressed content is known by its returns (as in the case of haunting).

Moreover, both Burkeian Dramatism and Lacanian psychoanalysis share the notion of a moralistic negative as being established against a radical nothingness (or “Void” of subjectivity). For example, Žižek (2002a) explained that “Not only do both religion and atheism insist on the Void, on the fact that our reality is not ultimate and closed—the experience of this Void is the original materialist experience, and religion, unable to endure it, fills it in with religious content” (p. xxix). The Void is the original materialist experience because there is no soul or “other world” for the materialist—we live, breath, eat, sweat, shit, fuck, die, decompose—we were originally without material form, then we attained material form, and we will lose our material form. There is nothing “more” to life than “mere” biological organisms. In the Lacanian sense, death-drive is what clears the space of the Void. Žižek (2002a) noted that “in order for (symbolic) creation to take place, the death-drive has to accomplish its work of, precisely, emptying the place, and thus making it ready for creation” (p. xxx). It is death-drive that thus creates what Burke (1984a) described in the famous passage:

We in cities rightly grow shrewd at appraising man-made institutions—but beyond these tiny concentration points of rhetoric and traffic, there lies the eternally unsolvable Enigma, the preposterous fact that both existence and nothingness are equally unthinkable. And in this staggering disproportion between man and no-man, there is no place for purely human boasts of grandeur, or for forgetting that men build their cultures by huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of the abyss. (p. 272)

If it is the negative that people build their cultures around, then the “abyss” and the “Void” may be identical terms where both are cleared/made possible by the death-drive. In this sense, the moralistic negative is made possible in both the Burkeian and Lacanian systems by affirming a culture of “thou-shalt-nots” in response to the nervousness that confronting such an abyssal existence brings forth. Therefore, the moralistic negative is both “weak” and a product of the Lacanian death-drive. To study language as it pertains to the moralistic negative is thus to place it in the context of the Void/abyss as the original materialist experience. This is also a way to study the connection between language and culture that is built around the abyss.

Having touched on the distinction between action and motion, as well as the negative, we may turn to an application of Lacanian scholarship to Burke’s eight varieties of the unconscious. The first variety for Burke entails those physiological processes of the body that are not directly in consciousness. In Lacanian terms, the linkage between the conscious and unconscious parts of the psyche occur in those moments when things go terribly wrong. In Lacanian terms, consciousness occurs with an experience of the Real, of an impossible limit. What is at issue here is the conception of an “original awareness” that “is impelled by a certain experience of failure and mortality—a kind of snag in the biological weave. And all the metaphysical dimensions concerning humanity, philosophical self-reflection, progress and so on emerge ultimately because of this basic traumatic fissure” (Žižek, 2004a, p. 59). We see this in the case of many heart attack survivors. Although some people prior to their heart attacks acknowledge that they probably do not have a healthy diet and exercise plan to delay a heart attack until much later in life, many of these same people do not see a heart attack as imminent. That is, they see it as something that will happen “someday in the future.” However, all of a sudden, they experience a heart attack—the heart fails to function properly or in the expected way. This failure makes them conscious at a very personal level the extent of their health problems. As a result, this newfound consciousness often results in people changing their diets and exercising more frequently after their first heart attack. So the experience of the Real directly informs the way the physiological process becomes conscious and relates with the unconscious. While Burke identifies the physiological processes that reside in the unconscious, he did not attempt to theorize how such repressed content comes into consciousness. More specifically, in terms of the physiological process he did not attempt to theorize the way the unconscious physiological aspects “become” conscious (if they do at all in the Burkeian landscape). It is through the Lacanian “experience of the Real,” that Lacanian scholarship ties the conscious and unconscious parts of the psyche together when it comes to the physiological processes of the body.

The second variety of the unconscious concerns the universal incorporation of the past with the present. As previously noted, the example that Burke provides here is the relation between the members of the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Constitution. What this parallels is the fundamental Lacanian thesis concerning the relation between the signifier and the signified: “instead of the linear, immanent, necessary progression according to which meaning unfolds itself from some initial kernel, we have a radically contingent process of retroactive production of meaning” (Žižek, 2002b, p. 102). In the Constitutional example we might find the original signifiers that are re-presented in the Constitutional document. However, these are merely the empty signifiers—they are not “attached” to any “future” signifieds. When the U.S. Supreme Court is faced with a “contingent” case, they participate in a Lacanian structure whereby “the past exists as it is included, as it enters (into) the synchronous net of the signifier—that is, as it is symbolized in the texture of the historical memory—and that is why we are all the time ‘rewriting history,’ retroactively giving the elements their symbolic weight by including them in new textures—it is this elaboration which decides retroactively what they ‘will have been’” (Žižek, 2002b, p. 56). For Lacan, this process always already occurs due to the presence of a certain gap inherent to any Symbolic “structure.” This “gap” is inherent to the Lacanian lexicon. Žižek (2002a) explained:

[I]t is precisely because the chain of linear causality is always broken, because language as synchronous order is caught in a vicious circle, that it attempts to restore the “missing link” by retroactively reorganizing its past, by reconstituting its origins backwards. In other words, the very fact of incessant “rewriting of the past” attests to the presence of a certain gap, to the efficacy of a certain traumatic, foreign kernel that the system is trying to reintegrate “after the fact.” If the passage from “genesis” into “structure” were to be continuous, there would be no inversion of the direction of causality: it is the “missing link” which opens the space for reordering the past. (p. 203)

The “gap” is thus the fundamental precursor to the “universal incorporation of the past with the present” because it “re-Constitutes” the Constitution that is always-already missing in links. Thus, we get the abundance of cases that continue to prove the initial “gap” in the Constitution. The Supreme Court is necessary because the law (Symbolic order) is always lacking.[10] In this way, Burke identifies the universal incorporation of the past with the present as a variety of the unconscious, but does not theorize the relationship between a necessary “gap” in the symbolic as the precursor to the universal incorporation. Nor does Burke have a theory concerning the role of the signifier as connected to the unconscious that sets the incorporation into motion.

The third variety of the unconscious that Burke identified was the recallable but not explicitly recalled. The example that Burke provided for this variety is foreign language loss (as when a child learns a foreign language, and then “forgets” it). Aside from the fact that there could be numerous reasons for forgetting a language (i.e., neurological disorders), Burke acknowledges situations where Freud might identify why certain words begin “turning up again” in consciousness. Lacan usually referred to the idea of signifier as articulated speech, whether in conscious or unconscious discourse. There is a Symbolic structure that is organized in a linguistic sense, and there is also the unconscious that is also “structured like a language.” Ragland-Sullivan (1986) explained that “speech traces do accompany the earliest images [for a child]; theses percepta and their effects operate an unconscious network of fantasy relations prior to coherent speech. Once a child can name things, these fantasies serve as a reference bank of memories” (p. 164). This reference bank may be “structured like a language” and are recallable but not explicitly recalled. Take for example the recurring dream of a child that has “forgotten” a language. The child may dream that they were speaking in Spanish. They[11] might even remember “knowing” what they were saying in Spanish while in the dream. However, once outside the dream space, the child may have no recollection of the “actual content” of the Spanish (they may not even recall a Spanish word). In this sense, the child is “able to recall” speaking a different language, but not able to “explicitly recall” what they said in the dream. For Lacan, symbols were not icons, but differential (opposed) elements “without meaning in themselves; they acquire value in their mutual relations” (Ragland Sullivan, 1986, p. 168). When he argued that “the unconscious is structured like a language,” he portrayed the unconscious as a meaning system that was closed, complete within itself, as is the system of language.[12] Thus, while Burke identified this third variety of the unconscious as pertaining to the recallable but not explicitly recalled, he failed to identify the structure of this “recallable” information. Moreover, if fantasies serve as “a reference bank of memories,” then Lacan is able to articulate the barrier that exists between the recallable (in the unconscious) and the ability to explicitly recall (in the Conscious).

Burke’s fourth variety of the unconscious concerns the existence of “subpersonalities.” Yet, Burke never attempted to identify what he meant by the term “personality” that would precede the usage of the term “subpersonalities.” Lacan defined the term “personality” to be the characteristic of the human being that is influenced by three things: “biographical development, meaning the way subjects reacted to their own experience; self-concept, meaning the way they brought images of themselves in their consciousness, and tension of social relations, meaning their impressions of how they affected other people” (Roudinesco, 1997, p. 45). If we were to take the proposition of “subpersonalities” offered by Burke, whereby the subject has multiple instances of these three components that conflict with one another, we might find that the realm of the unconscious is the realm where personalities “hide,” only to come out in contingent experiences. Specifically, if the human “personality” is the entire make-up of the person’s biographical development, self-concept, and tension of social relations, then the “subpersonalities” that Burke refers to are constituted by “fragments” of each of the three personality components that appear when confronted with a contingent circumstance. For instance, a parent that disciplines their child may do so by recalling fragments of different experiences that they had where they were disciplined (i.e., a fragment from their parents, a fragment from their school teachers, a fragment from “that one time”) and pitting those fragments against how they see themselves and how they affected other people. All of these fragments may come together to form a specific “subpersonality” to confront the contingent circumstance. Thus, whereas Burke did not explicate the way “subpersonalities” are formed to confront specific circumstance, Lacan helps us approach the variety of the unconscious that pertains to “subpersonalities” in a more explicit manner.

The fifth Burkeian variety of the unconscious involves the deployment of logical conclusions that are not yet realized. There are at least two explanations for this in the Lacanian landscape: (1) sensory exposure, and (2) the “symbolic Real.” In terms of sensory exposure, the mind continues to work through the logic of senses because the sensory data can never be totalized. In other words, “our knowledge is literally a Be-greifen (‘seizing’) as synthetic production, the outcome of our mind’s active manipulation of the sensual data we passively receive. For this reason, our knowledge is limited to the phenomenal reality accessible to us as finite beings” (Žižek, 2002a, p. xxv). This is confirmed in the work of cognitivists who found that we literally do not live in the present time: “that there is a certain delay from the moment our sensory organs get a signal from outside to its being properly processed into what we perceive as reality, and then we project this back into the past. So that our experience of the present is basically past experience, but projected back into the past” (Žižek, 2004a, p. 55). Moreover, our consciousness can “only operate at a maximum of seven bytes per second” (Žižek, 2004a, p. 56).[13] Lacanian scholars use this cognitivist research to explain why the mind “deploys the logical conclusions that are not yet realized”—the information is unconscious since the conscious mind simply cannot process it all. As such, there is always the Lacanian “barred subject” whereby the unconscious does the thinking by which “empirical” reality is projected back into conscious life. Specifically, Lacan (2006) advanced the idea that “I (the subject) am in so far as it (the Unconscious) thinks” (¶ 51). What he meant by this is that the unconscious is literally “the ‘thing which thinks’ and as such inaccessible to the subject: in so far as I am, I am never where ‘it thinks.’ In other words, I am only in so far as something is left unthought: as soon as I encroach too deeply into this domain of the forbidden/impossible thought, my very being disintegrates” (Žižek, 2002a, p. 147).

This idea of the “permanently un-thought” is intimately tied to the idea of the “symbolic Real.” This idea is found in equations in quantum and subatomic particle physics, whereby there is always an elusive feature (excess) for the equations. The symbolic Real is the meaningless scientific formulae. In quantum physics, Richard Fineman (a “great” quantum physicist) emphasized that “you cannot understand quantum physics, you cannot translate it into your horizon of meaning; it consists of formulae that simply function” (Žižek, 2004a, p. 68). The “symbolic Real” is the “scientific Real” which is based on a meaningless, almost presubjective, knowledge. This is also the case in sub-atomic particle physics. While the scientific formula for the fastest possible speed is the formula for the speed of light,[14] the boundaries of such equation are beset by a “knowledge in the Real” that suspends such equations:

Subatomic particle physics…repeatedly encounters phenomena that seem to suspend the principle of local cause, i.e., phenomena that seem to imply a transport of information faster than the maximum admissible according to the theory of relativity…Let us take a two-particle system of zero spin: if one of the particles in such a system has a spin UP, the other particle has a spin DOWN. Now suppose that we separate two particles in some way that does not affect their spin: one particle goes off in one direction and the other in the opposite direction. After we separate them, we send one of the particles through a magnetic field that gives it a spin UP: what happens is that the other particle acquires a spin DOWN (and vice versa, of course). Yet there is no possibility of communication or of a normal causal link between them, because the other particle had a spin DOWN immediately after we gave the first particle a spin UP, i.e., before the spin UP of the first particle could cause the spin DOWN of the other particle way down in the fastest way possible (by giving signal with the speed of light). The question then arises: How did the other particle “know” that we had given the first particle a spin UP? We must presuppose a kind of “knowledge in the real,” as if a spin somehow “knows” what happens in another place and acts accordingly. Contemporary particle physics is beset by the problem of creating experimental conditions to test this hypothesis (the famous Alain-Aspect experiment from the early 1980s confirmed it!) and of articulating an explanation for this paradox. (Žižek, 1992, pp. 45-46).

Because such equations based on the theory of relativity are always-already a limitation for terms to represent the totality of a “logic,” but that in material reality works itself out (what could be faster than light in the theory of relativity?). There is always the “impossible limit” of a symbolic enterprise that sustains the drive for the symbolic to continue functioning. The “symbolic Real” is thus a necessary component to the conscious Symbolic by sustaining its driving force—which is a linkage that Burke failed to make between the variety of the unconscious that “deploys the logical conclusions not yet realized” and its influence on conscious “symbolic action.”

The sixth variety of the unconscious for Burke is that a given terminology has an unnoticed area of speculation. Burke used the Marxist term “false consciousness” in order to explain the unnoticed area of speculation. As such, he defined this variety in an ideological way since “false consciousness” is intrinsic to Marx’s definition of ideology whereby “they do not know it but they are doing it” (also the definition of false consciousness). The point Lacanian scholars like Žižek (2002b) make in relation to this Burkeian variety of the unconscious is that having an “unnoticed area of speculation” is the only way that a terminology can sustain itself since it is only by this “unnoticed area of speculation” that there is a part of logic that escapes the subject—it is the only way that the subject can “enjoy his symptom” (p. 21). In other words, if the “unnoticed area of speculation” were to be noticed, then the given terminology would dissolve itself. If false consciousness were to turn into “true” consciousness (i.e., by knowing “too much”), then the social reality of capitalism would not be possible according to Marxist ideological thought. The measure of the success of interpreting capitalist social relations is that capitalist social relations would cease to exist because “true consciousness” would be attained. Žižek (2002b) thus reads ideology to function a bit differently in relation to the knowledge of a given terminology to explain social relations:

[I]deology is not simply a “false consciousness,” an illusory representation of reality, it is rather this reality itself which is already to be conceived as “ideological”—“ideological” is a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence—that is, the social effectivity, the very reproduction of which implies that the individuals “do not know what they are doing.” “Ideological” is not the “false consciousness” of a (social) being but this being itself in so far as it is supported by “false consciousness.” Thus we have finally reached the dimension of the symptom, because one of its possible definitions would also be “a formation whose very consistency implies a certain non-knowledge on the part of the subject”: the subject can “enjoy his symptom” only in so far as its logic escapes him—the measure of the success of its interpretation is precisely its dissolution. (p. 21).

So rather than the Burkeian description of a given terminology as having an “unnoticed area of speculation,” we have the more radical Lacanian reading that this “unnoticed area of speculation” is the very basis for the existence of the terminology.

Burke’s seventh variety of the unconscious was the category of “intuition” that includes those elements of “to prepon,” “decorum,” and the “je ne sais quoi.” This category of the “intuition” is a magical entity for Burke. However, for Lacan it is precisely bound up in the paradox of desire. Specifically, this “je ne sais quoi” is the Lacanian “object petit a” or the “object cause of desire.” For example, Žižek (1997) specifically used the terms “object petit a,” “unfathomable X,” and “je ne sais quoi” interchangeably to explain the same concept (p. 23). The Lacanian object petit a is posited by desire itself. According to Žižek (1992), the paradox of desire is “that it posits retroactively its own cause, i.e., the object a is an object that can be perceived only by a gaze ‘distorted’ by desire, an object that does not exist for an ‘objective’ gaze” (p. 12). Žižek (1992) described this in other words by noting, “the object a is always, by definition, perceived in a distorted way, because outside this distortion, ‘in itself,’ it does not exist, since it is nothing but the embodiment, the materialization of this very distortion, of this surplus of confusion and perturbation introduced by desire into so-called ‘objective reality’” (p. 12). More simply, the objet petit a is objectively nothing although it assumes the shape of something. Another feature of the objects petit a is that they are always elsewhere (in a permanent state of displacement) and are thus always objects of excess. A melancholic is “somebody who has the object of desire but who has lost the desire itself. That is to say, you lose that which makes you desire the desired object” (Žižek, 2004a, p. 113). Moreover, the object petit a is directly implicated in the concept of fantasy since fantasy is that which “designates the subject’s impossible relation to a” (Žižek, 1992, p. 6). With all that surrounds the term “je ne sais quoi” as “object petit a,” Lacan created a distinct lexicon for talking about “intuition” in a more descriptive fashion than a simple magical variety of the unconscious.

The eighth variety of the unconscious is Burke’s “catch-all” category of “error, ignorance, and uncertainty.” Burke says with accuracy that this category is not a function of repression in the Freudian terminology. While differentiating this category from “repression,” he still maintained that “error, ignorance, and uncertainty” is a variety of the unconscious. However, there is little here to suggest what “all” this category might be “catching” that are not encompassed in the previous seven categories. For instance, Burke used the example of a person being “unconscious” of a type of poisonous food. But this example seems to beg the question of the first variety of the unconscious referring to the unconscious “physiological processes of the body” since it is only though the contact with the food and the “failure” of a physiological process that one becomes conscious that they were previously unconscious of the poisonous food. In other words, the bio-chemical responses of the body to food digestion are conscious of what makes the body work as expected, even though such process may not be in the cognitive processing of the person. When a poison is introduced into the body, the body knows that it has just encountered something that did not fit within its “normal” processing of food. In this way, there is something embedded “in the body” that is not conscious “to the body” which is the unconscious knowledge of the poison (so it reacts by sending its immune system and other defenses to the “poison”).

The other example Burke alluded to for this variety is that of a voter who cannot have adequate knowledge for how a candidate will react to a situation with which the person has yet to be confronted. This category thus might refer to the inability to tell the future—that since we are unaware of what will happen in the future, we must be unconscious of it. With the exception of the classical philosophical problem of free will versus determinism, we might find that, instead of this being a variety of the unconscious, it is something that is altogether “non-conscious.” That is, the events of the contingent future irrespective of the sensory subject, are simply not a question of consciousness or unconsciousness unless and until they are “sensed” in the unconscious or conscious. Because this category is a “catch all category” with no articulation of what it might be catching, the category is not useful for the study of language aside from having the function as a place-holder for future developments that might develop about the unconscious that are not related to the previous seven.

Burke;s Post-Script on the Unconscious

“Mind, Body, and the Unconscious,” as it appears in Language as Symbolic Action, is part of a paper that was cut considerably to meet the restrictions of a fifty minute lecture. The omitted material from the paper was added in the “Comments” section immediately following the essay. So, having analyzed the main essay, we need to examine some of the further reflections that Burke made to gain a comprehensive account of Burke’s theory of the unconscious and the Lacanian correctives. This section, therefore, will analyze Burke’s omitted comments on the unconscious using Lacanian scholarship to further articulate the application of Lacanian theory to the Burkeian unconscious.

In the omitted materials, Burke (1966) reminded the reader that “Freud is so thoroughly Dramatistic” (p. 75). Still, Burke included the originally omitted notes as a critical warning against the analyst’s role in analyzing the unconscious. He wrote that: “Since it is often the case that a sick soul needs to have implicit faith in the analyst, perhaps a concern, no matter how appreciative, with the terministic deployments of the Freudian nomenclature as such threatens to impair the effectiveness of the analyst’s role, with regard to his patient (or customer)” (Burke, 1966, p. 76). For our purposes of delving into Burke’s concept of the unconscious, there are two critical points of concern that he made in his commentary: (1) purpose and responsibility, and (2) authoritarianism. We shall therefore examine each in turn.

First, there is the issue of purpose and responsibility when the category of the unconscious enters into discussion. Since the idea of purpose is implicit in the idea of an act for Burke, “repression” takes on “teleological possibilities” (Burke, 1966, p. 76). Burke (1966) explained that “If A hurts B unintentionally, the incident is not an act in the full sense of the term, but an accident. . . . once the element of the ‘unconscious’ is introduced, a terministic situation is then set up whereby we might look for a kind of ‘accident’ that is ‘unconsciously’ an act, in ‘unconsciously’ possessing a kind of purpose” (p. 76). This “unconscious” purpose is that which fails to be expressed. Thus, Burke (1966) advanced the proposition that “Unconscious is to repression as conscious is to expression (or as latent is to patent)” (p. 77).[15] In other words, Burke’s notion of the unconscious in this respect concerns all the mental content that exists but that is not “pressed” out of the body (ex-pressed/patent). Specifically, Burke’s idea here is that if A hurts B, and the expressed/conscious reaction is to call it an accident, then the category of the unconscious beckons forth the possibility that the conscious “accident” was no accident at all. In other words, the category of the unconscious brings forth the possibility that there are no “accidents” and that responsibility for “hurting B” is also always already possible.

This radically re-orients the conception of “purpose” in Burke’s lexicon because an unconscious purpose introduces the possibility that a “purpose” is not always rationally/conscious. In other words, a “purpose” cannot be separated between an “official purpose” on the side of the conscious, and a “sub-official purpose” that is on the side of the unconscious. For example, we can look to a common sibling quarrel. When a little boy pushes his little sister, the little boy does not necessarily rationally/consciously intend to make her fall over and hurt her head. When the little boy apologizes to his sister for hurting her head, a parent jumps in and quickly tells him, “Sorry only counts if it was an accident!” The boy is confused because he thinks he did not rationally/consciously think he would hurt his sister’s head, so he makes a plea to his parent, “but I did not mean to hurt her!” The parent responds by stating, “Don’t lie. I saw you push her!” The question of purpose is thus a murky situation in the “expressed” form. That is, the evidence available is that the boy pushed his sister. But why did he push her? What was his “purpose”? He expressed a conscious “official purpose” where he proclaims that he did not intend to hurt his sister. Complicating the “official purpose” statement is that the parent suspects intention on the part of the brother. Is it possible that the boy unconsciously intended to harm his sister? Perhaps there were a series of such behavior that led the parent to suspect that the boy intended to harm her. Introducing the category of the unconscious thus makes purposeful acts always already possible. In this example, it would always already be possible that the boy’s “sub-official purpose” (unconsciously) was to hurt his sister—that it was no accident. The distinction between the “official purpose” and the “sub-official purpose” is rooted in the Lacanian idea of the “obscene unwritten” that supplements any symbolic order.

We might further articulate the “obscene unwritten” and its relation to purpose and responsibility through the idea of the “obscene unwritten” as “collateral damage” in the “official purpose” of war. Taking a more political example into consideration, we might examine the relationship between the role of the unconscious, purpose, and responsibility in the use of “collateral damage” as a euphemism for mass murder. The United States Air Force Targeting Guide (1998) defined “collateral damage” as “unintentional damage or incidental damage affecting facilities, equipment or personnel, occurring as a result of military actions directed against targeted enemy forces or facilities. Such damage can occur to friendly, neutral, and even enemy forces” (section A7.1). So, when the U.S. drops bombs in many cities around the world it can shrug off responsibility for killing people by claiming them as “unintended targets” or “collateral damage.”

This is not far removed from what has happened in the case of the U.S. war on terrorism. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld (2001) scapegoated responsibility for casualties by stating that “responsibility for every single casualty in this war, whether they're innocent Afghans or innocent Americans, rests at the feet of the al Qaeda and the Taliban” (17th ¶). General Franks (2003) attempted to elude responsibility by framing the innocent in terms of “victims” (that he intends to rescue), not “enemies” (that he intends to kill): “When you begin to do that weapon/target pairing, then you'll begin to look at all of the places where we know we do not want to strike because we're Americans, because we're part of a coalition that treats citizenry like that in Iraq as victims, not as enemies, as the president has said.”  Many people believe the idea that the Bush administration did not intend to kill civilians. For instance, a statement by the Friends Committee on National Legislation (2001) stated, “While we know that the administration’s intent is not to harm innocent civilians with its bombing, Afghan civilians have already suffered this unintended effect. Weapons inevitably malfunction, are misdirected, or put civilians adjacent to the intended targets in harms way” (5th ¶).

So what happens when we introduce the concepts of the unconscious, purpose, and responsibility? What is “repressed” from the conscious decision for the U.S. to go to war is that such decision brings forth the intention of killing civilians. The fact that the Department of Defense has a euphemism for the murder of civilians indicates that they are unwilling to acknowledge (ex-press) that they intended to kill them. If civilians are killed in every modern war, and you make the decision to go to war, then it is fair to say that you intend to kill civilians by going to war. How is it that the Department of Defense can on the one hand know that going to war will kill civilians (the rhetoric of trying to “minimize” not “eliminate” civilian casualties), and on the other hand consciously express that they did not “intend” to kill civilians as in the case of the rhetoric of “collateral damage”? The answer is that they repress their intention in their unconscious. They cannot bear the trauma that they actively and knowingly kill the civilians. In other words, in their calculative rhetoric, they focus more on the ends by repressing the means. However, responsibility lies in both the ends AND the means. If you are responsible for the ends, you are responsible for the means and vice-versa. They are inseparable. And whereas the ends are most often the “purpose,” and the means are achieved through the “act,” responsibility must apply to both the “act” and the “purpose.”

This Burkeian reading of the unconscious is informed by Lacan’s concepts of the “university discourse” and “production.” Lacan’s theory of “university discourse” and “production” extends Burke’s relationship between the unconscious, purpose, and responsibility by introducing power as a related variable. The “university discourse” is enunciated from the position of “neutral” knowledge. Žižek (2003) explained that “the ‘truth’ of the university discourse, hidden beneath the bar, of course, is power, i.e. the Master-Signifier: the constitutive lie of the university discourse is that it disavows its performative dimension, presenting what effectively amounts to a political decision based on power as a simple insight into the factual state of things.” “Production” does not stand simply for the result of the discursive operation as in Foucault’s concept of “discipline” as it relates to knowledge-power. Rather, it stands for the “indivisible remainder,” for the excess which resists being included in the Symbolic. Žižek (2003) provided the example of the doctor-patient relationship: “at the surface level, we are dealing with pure objective knowledge which desubjectivizes the subject-patient, reducing him to an object of research, of diagnosis and treatment; however, beneath it, one can easily discern a worried hystericized subject, obsessed with anxiety, addressing the doctor as his Master and asking for reassurance from him.”

Cannot the same be said about the press conferences of the Department of Defense? As previously noted, that which resists being included in the Symbolic is that the decision to go to war comes with the intent of killing civilians. We can thus see how the “university discourse” and “production” introduce power into Burke’s equation: we are dealing with “objective” knowledge of the war that comes from the Department of Defense which desubjectivizes the subject-citizen by reducing the subject-citizen to an object of research (as in the Department of Defense finds that the public is ailing for security). So, they diagnose the subject-citizen with a “fear of terrorism” and treat it by reassuring them that the subject-citizen is cared for in all cases (no civilian casualties intended) through the elimination of the cause of their dis-ease (terrorists). And, beneath all of this we see the subject-citizen hystericized, obsessed with anxiety, addressing the Department of Defense and asking reassurance from it. The “truth” of the repressed content of the Master is the reduction of people to bare life as the essential kernel that sustains biopolitical power. That is, only a Master that reduces the subject to an object of diagnosis and treatment can claim that “external” effects are “collateral damage” (like the doctor who has “unintended complications” in surgery or “side effects” of drugs). And, reducing the subject to the status of object is the fundamental feature of biopolitical power (the administered life).

Second, there is the concern that the apparent freedom of the method deflects from the very authoritarianism at its heart. Burke’s (1966) mention of the unconscious in the post-script makes an argument about authoritarianism regarding the way Freudian psychotherapy analyzes the unconscious of patients. Specifically, he wrote “Though the Freudian terminology, viewed as a ‘philosophy of life,’ does lay major stress upon emancipating the patient, this very feature of Freedom deflects attention from the notably Authoritarian aspects of psychotherapy, in the patient’s subjection (however roundabout) to the analyst’s role of priest of the confessional couch” (pp. 79-80). He continued by noting that “the element of authority is doubly concealed by the fact that the overtly libertarian style of the terminology contrasts so greatly with the authoritarian element explicitly indicated in Fascist, Communist, and theological doctrine (a kind of unconscious deception found also in much contemporary science, that continually appeals to the testimony of the ‘authorities’ in a given field)” (p. 80). Here, Burke’s idea of authoritarianism may be further advanced by Lacanian scholarship on the exercise of authority.

For instance, Žižek (2002a) introduced three elementary structures of the exercise of authority as they pertain to psychoanalysis: traditional authority, manipulative authority, and totalitarian authority. Traditional authority is based on what Žižek (2002a) calls the “mystique of the Institution” (p. 249). This type of power is rooted in the charismatic power of “symbolic ritual, on the form of the Institution as such” (Žižek, 2002a, p. 249). This type of authority is seen in the king, the president, the judge, and so on, who can all be dishonest and rotten but “when they adopt the insignia of Authority, they experience a kind of mystic transubstantiation; the judge no longer speaks as a person, it is Law itself which speaks through him” (Žižek, 2002a, p. 249). The Lacanian “plus-One” accounts for this type authority: “every signifying set contains an element which is ‘empty,’ whose value is accepted on trust, yet which precisely as such guarantees the ‘full’ validity of all other elements. Strictly speaking it comes in excess, yet the moment we take it away, the very consistency of the other elements disintegrates” (Žižek, 2002a, p. 250). In other words, according to Lacan, when the charisma fades along with the symbolic ritual, the transubstantiation is lost and traditional authority rapidly fades.

Žižek (2002a) called the second elementary structure of authority “manipulative authority” (p. 251). Manipulative authority is that authority which is “no longer based on the mystique of the Institution—on the performative power of symbolic ritual—but directly on the manipulation of its subjects” (p. 251). This is the kind of authority that relates to the “late-bourgeois society of ‘pathological Narcissism,’ constituted of individuals who take part in the social game externally, without ‘internal identification,’—they ‘wear (social) masks,’ ‘play (their) roles,’ ‘not taking them seriously’: the basic aim of the ‘social game’ is to deceive the other, to exploit his naivety and credulity’” (Žižek, 2002a, p. 251). The fundamental attitude of manipulative authority is cynical in the strictest Lacanian sense—the cynic only believes in the Real of enjoyment. In manipulative authority, the cynic preserves “an external distance towards the symbolic fiction; he does not really accept its symbolic efficacy, he merely uses it as a means of manipulation” (Žižek, 2002a, p. 251). The symbolic fiction takes its revenge on manipulative authority when the fiction and reality coincide and the manipulators perform as “their own suckers” (Žižek, 2002a, p. 251).

The third elementary structure of authority is “totalitarian authority.” This involves the Lacanian concept of the fetish. Totalitarian authority occurs when people acknowledge themselves as those who—although knowing very well that they are people like others—at the same time consider themselves to be “‘people of a special mould, made of special stuff’—as individuals who participate in the fetish of the Object-Party, direct embodiment of the Will of History” (Žižek, 2002a, p. 252). This type of authority thus occurs when people maintain a certain truth in the face of a fiction—when despite knowing that their reasons are just because, they assert them all the more in the face of this non-reason. In other words, totalitarian authority does not necessarily believe in the Real of enjoyment, but the very maintenance of the symbolic Law itself even though the law is a symbolic fiction.

The point in introducing the three forms of authoritarianism is to demonstrate that Lacanian scholarship enables a better reading of the Burkeian unconscious than Burke originally proposed because Lacanian scholarship differentiates between the various types of authoritarianism as they pertain to both the conscious and unconscious parts of the psyche. When we return to Burke’s (1966) statement that, “Freedom deflects attention from the notably Authoritarian aspects of psychotherapy, in the patient’s subjection (however roundabout) to the analyst’s role of priest of the confessional couch” (pp. 79-80), we find that the two forms of authoritarianism (the priest and the psychotherapist) are notably complex. The complication arises because different priests may rely on different forms of authority.  The forms of authority applicable here are traditional and manipulative.

The traditional priest is the one who, although a sinner (rotten) possesses charisma through the symbolic ritual and undergoes a mystic transubstantiation (dishonest) in order to speak the word of Law itself. Traditional authority is reliant on the symbolic rituals and proprieties since it is the ritual and propriety that defines “priestness.”  For example, a priest who deploys traditional authority uses their position of power within the space of the confessional to enact the Law. To do so requires the priest to deny their fallibility, not because in all spaces and at all times the priest believes in their sinless nature.  Instead, traditional authority is employed for the sake of the sinner confessing with the goal of gaining adherence to the symbolic Law of the church. However, without the cloak of the tradition that makes possible the transubstantiation (the symbolic ritual itself), the priest is revealed as rotten and dishonest—not worthy of re-presenting the church.

Manipulative authority is used for the sake of the non-transubstantiated priest, or the priest in sheep’s clothing. An example of manipulative authority is when a person desires sexual satisfaction from young boys and becomes a priest to achieve his desire.  In this case, the “priestness” attained through ritual and tradition becomes the “social mask” to attain jouissance from little boys. When fiction (their status as “priest”) coincides with reality (their sexual escapades made public), their “mask” is removed and they are their own suckers. Even though the symbolic ritual may continue, their authority within that ritual is gone (which, if allowed to continue participation in the ritual, may destroy the ritual itself).

The same two types of authority may also apply to the psychotherapist, however Burke’s claim of the psychotherapist as priest of the confessional couch does not take into account the complexities that may occur as a result of the repressed content underneath the masks of both traditional and manipulative authority. And, of course, it is that which is underneath the “masks” that is the domain of the repressed content stored in the category of the unconscious. Thus, Lacanian theory helps to clarify Burke’s observation by detailing the very conditions whereby Freedom deflects from the Authoritarianism of Freudian psychotherapy.


In sum, we have surveyed the landscape of the Burkeian concept of the unconscious. We first examined the Dramatistic action/motion distinction and the negative. In analyzing Burke’s distinction between action and motion, we clarified the distinction with the Lacanian psychic registers by noting that the Real acts, and the Imaginary and Symbolic move. We also found that the Lacanian “death drive” clears the space (creates the abyss/Void) which is the necessary precondition for the culture of “thou-shalt-nots” to be advanced in the form of the moralistic negative. We then analyzed the eight Burkeian varieties of the unconscious and explicated the following Lacanian correctives to the varieties: (1) The unconscious of bodily processes that return from the repressed when something goes terribly wrong, (2) The unconscious that constitutes the “gap” as the precursor to the universal incorporation of the past with the present whereby the signifier sets the incorporation in motion, (3) The unconscious that is a closed meaning system, complete within itself (as is the system of language) whereby parts of the meaning system are recallable but not explicitly recalled, (4) The unconscious as the hiding place for “subpersonalities” that only come out when confronted with contingent experiences that exceed Imaginary and Symbolic appropriation, (5) The unconscious that thinks outside of consciousness in order to deploy the logical conclusions that are not yet realized, (6) The unconscious that stores unnoticed areas of speculation that are the very basis for a given terminology (the “leap of faith” for belief to exist), (7) The unconscious that includes the category of “intuition” that results from the objet petit a being permanently displaced/excessive to the Symbolic order, and (8) The unconscious that is altogether ignorant of future contingent encounters. Finally, we examined Burke’s commentary on the unconscious, purpose, and responsibility as well as his idea of authoritarianism as it relates to psychotherapeutic methodology. We found that the category of the unconscious makes it always already possible that there is no such thing as an accident and the implications for responsibility. Therefore, this essay has served the vital function of positioning the unconscious in relation to language as symbolic action/motion that is central to a Lacanian influenced account of the human unconscious.


Kevin A. Johnson (PhD, Communication Studies, University of Texas at Austin, 2007; M.A. Communication Studies, California State University, Long Beach, 2002) is lecturer in the Department of Communication Studies and the Director of Research at the Center for First Amendment Studies at California State University, Long Beach. He would like to thank the members of his dissertation committee who helped this essay emerge: Dr. Barry Brumett; (Chair), Dr. Richard Cherwitz, Dr. Dana Cloud, Dr. Diane Davis, and Dr. Joshua Gunn for their thoughtful comments on different versions of the essay.  He would also like to thank the reviewers for their insights.


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  1. We might be tempted to view this as a limitation in Freud’s theory because of the failure to chart an aesthetic field. However, this is where Burke acknowledges the limitation in order to work through Freud’s theory to find “what extra-Freudian material he would have to add” in order to more effectively use Freudian theory for literary criticism.
  2. While the Burkeian term “the negative” is not in Freud or Lacan’s theory of the unconscious, the concept of the negative may be found in the way both Freud and Lacan psychoanalyze the symptom(s) of the unconscious in language.
  3. By “canonized,” I mean that Burke created his official declaration of the nature and scope of the Unconscious. We might even call this his “eight canons of the unconscious.”
  4. By “closed systems” I mean to suggest that there are two very different systems operating by two very different logics that, when they come together, wreck havoc on each other. For example, imagine two engines that spin gears in the same direction (i.e., both gears spin clockwise). If the gears from the two engines come into contact with each other, they grind each other since gears must turn in the opposite direction of each other if they are to smoothly function together. The two engines may be a metaphor for the two closed systems from each other. When the unconscious and conscious parts of the psyche come together, they grind each other. The unconscious comes into contact quite often in human life.
  5. This may seem contradictory to the beginning of the previous paragraph where the conscious and unconscious are two closed systems. However, an important nuance is that the unconscious is both inside and outside language. The unconscious is inside language in the form of the symptom, and outside of language in the form of the content that is repressed by the signifier.
  6. I focus on “animality” here because the unconscious is not uniquely human, and because Burke uses the term in his discussion of action vs. motion.
  7. I am not making a claim here about all animals having an unconscious and an Imaginary. However, humans are not the only animals to have an unconscious and Imaginary. For example, the academy award nominated documentary film The Story of the Weeping Camel documents the potential existence of an unconscious and Imaginary in camels. These traits may also exist in other animals including orangutans, bonobos, and dogs.
  8. We know this based on the instance where the computer fails in the symbolic order. For instance, world chess champion Garry Kasparov battled “Deep Blue” a PC based chess computer. The computer ultimately failed as the game went on because it has no ability to imagine when placed in the situation of unpredictability. According to Peterson (2007), “there are about 10^120 possible 40-move games. To give you a sense of how enormous this number is: It dwarfs even the most generous estimates of the number of atoms in the universe. If each atom were replaced by a supercomputer, it would still be impossible to complete all the evaluations in preparation for a perfect game’s first move. The most unexpected things happen in the middle of a game, after a largely predictable sequence of opening moves and before the endgame when only a few pieces rule the chessboard and paths are relatively clear. It is in this muddled middle ground, with its explosion of possibilities, that humans excel and computers can lose their way.”
  9. Dread is one of the key symptoms of an imaginary.
  10. We might also note here the extension into Lyotard’s theory of the differend. Two competing interpretations over signifiers in the constitution are just that—two competing interpretations. The violence occurs when the stabilization of a signifier is litigated. See Lyotard, J. (1988). The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. G.V.D. Abbeele, trans. (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P).
  11. I am using “they” here as a plural singular pronoun. This might seem a bit clumsy, but is a way of speaking about an abstract person in non-gendered terms.
  12. Meaning systems of language are not necessarily closed in a finite way. Each language system may expand infinitely as floating signifiers expand in their meaning. The point here is that the conscious and the unconscious each have meaning systems that are closed off from each other. They are complete only insofar as they are momentarily stable and unruptured, or rather, left undisturbed by contact with each other.
  13. Žižek is referring here to the speed of the brain’s information processing. The point here is that the conscious mind processes things much slower than the unconscious. The conscious mind is biologically limited in its processing capabilities. For instance, Dr. Pawel Lewicki (2007), a cognitive researcher, noted that “The mechanism of preconscious processing (the preconscious processor) is equipped to efficiently process complex information and appears to be incomparably more able to process complex knowledge faster and ‘smarter’ overall than our ability to think and identify meanings of stimuli consciously” (p. 1)
  14. The speed of light is exactly 299,792,458 meters per second. This is determined by James Clerk Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetism. Specifically, the speed of light is determined by the value of “с” as equal to the permittivity of free space that is represented in the following formula: с = 1/√ε0μ0.
  15. The opposite of expressed is impressed, but here Burke is concerned with the relation between expression and repression.

Criticism in Context: Kenneth Burke's "The Rhetoric of Hitler's 'Battle'"

Garth Pauley, Calvin College


Many scholars are only familiar with the version of “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” reprinted in The Philosophy of Literary Form; the rich history of Kenneth Burke’s essay has been neglected.  “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” was situated in a particular historical context that deserves scholarly attention.  Burke formulated his analysis of Hitler’s book as a response to contemporary reviews of the unexpurgated translation of Mein Kampf, and he presented his essay before the Third American Writers’ Congress during the peak of a critical debate about fascist rhetoric.  By understanding the influence of contextual factors on Burke’s essay, scholars will have a fuller account of one of his most acclaimed works.

“The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” has been heralded as one of Kenneth Burke’s greatest essays and as an exemplar of rhetorical criticism.  Burke’s analysis of Mein Kampf revealed that “the patterns of Hitler’s thought are a bastardized or caricatured version of religious thought” (Philosophy 199), and he exhorted critics to ward off a similar “crude and sinister distortion” in America (219).  Malcolm Cowley claims that Burke’s analysis was his “most brilliant” essay and one of the most “brilliant examples of the critic’s art” (“First Principle” 17).  William Rueckert argues that Burke’s analysis of Hitler’s book is a “masterly analysis” (Kenneth Burke 151) and “a paradigm of all Burke’s later work on the seductive, destructive inducements of ideological and political rhetoric” (“Field Guide” 18).  Several scholars have also emphasized the critical responsibility embodied in Burke’s essay.  Rueckert, for example, suggests that by exploring Burke’s analysis of Mein Kampf critics can better understand “the role of the critic and the function of criticism in a democratic society” (Encounters 122).  Grieg Henderson asserts that Burke’s essay “is an exemplary illustration of how literary criticism can perform a vital social and political role” (36). [1]

But apart from scholars’ admiration for the essay and emphasis on its role as an archetypal instance of critical responsibility, little has been written about Burke’s analysis of Mein Kampf.  A particularly glaring gap in the scholarly literature on Burke is the neglect of the historical context in which “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” was situated.  Burke himself opened the essay by placing it in response to a particular historical event: “The appearance of Mein Kampf in unexpurgated translation” (Philosophy 191).  The history of the essay itself has also been neglected: many readers are familiar only with the version reprinted in The Philosophy of Literary Form; in fact, Burke first published the essay in The Southern Review and presented it before the Third American Writers’ Congress in the summer of 1939. [2]  My goal in this essay is to fill in the gaps in the literature about Burke, to provide a fuller account of one of his most acclaimed works.  Given the importance of Burke’s essay and that it was formulated as a response to other discussions of Mein Kampf, it is worth looking carefully at the circumstances in which it was situated.  Since Burke presented his analysis at the Writers’ Congress during the peak of a critical debate about fascist rhetoric, it is important to examine the history of Burke’s presentation at the Congress.  The essay proceeds by: (1) examining Burke’s essay as a response to the contemporary reviews of the unexpurgated translations of Mein Kampf, published in 1939, (2) tracing the publication history of Burke’s analysis of Hitler’s “Battle”, thereby highlighting the critical essays that Burke responded to and was read against, and (3) discussing Burke’s presentation of his analysis at the Writers’ Congress in 1939.

Sacking the Vandals

“The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” was situated in a particular historical context: the controversy surrounding the publication of two new translations of Mein Kampf in 1939.  Americans had only recently gained access to an unexpurgated version of Hitler’s book when Burke’s essay was published in July 1939.  Houghton Mifflin had published an abridged translation in 1933, but the book never lived up to the publisher’s expectations; by 1939 the book had sold only 15,000 copies (“‘Mein Kampf’ in Complete Translation” 2217).  The Houghton Mifflin edition, translated by E.T.S. Dugdale, compressed Hitler’s original 205,000 words into a 75,000 word volume.  Many reviewers dismissed the translation as a watered-down version of the original. [3]  The Nation boldly claimed that Dugdale’s abridgement presented a portrait of “a man who bears only a vague resemblance to the one originally portrayed in the autobiography” (Lore 515).

The Munich crisis in September 1938 aroused public interest in Hitler’s book; perhaps, many reasoned, the key to future Nazi policy lay buried in the pages of Mein Kampf (Barnes and Barnes 82; Krohn 137-38).  Several American publishing firms began to explore the possibility of printing an unexpurgated version to meet the demand.  Publishers Reynal & Hitchcock employed Helmut Ripperger at the New School for Social Research to translate Hitler’s book in September, while Stackpole & Sons put Mussey Barrow to work on a translation in December: both editions became available on the same date--February 28, 1939.  A widely-publicized legal battle preceded publication.  Reynal & Hitchcock had leased the American copyright to Mein Kampf from Houghton Mifflin and, therefore, sued Stackpole for copyright infringement.  Stackpole, however, claimed that Hitler had not been a citizen of any country at the time of copyright and hence was not protected by copyright law.  The book was public domain, Stackpole argued, and therefore Reynal & Hitchcock’s copyright was invalid.  This publication battle contributed to increased sales of Mein Kampf (“‘Mein Kampf’ Kampf” 182).  By early March, the Reynal & Hitchcock version alone had sold nearly 30,000 copies (Barnes and Barnes 107).

The publication of the two unexpurgated versions also led to a flood of book reviews.  Many reviewers simply filled their space by characterizing Hitler as delusional, insane, vulgar, and psychotic.  In the introduction to “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle,’” Burke positioned his essay against these “vandalistic” reviews of Hitler’s book:

The appearance of Mein Kampf in unexpurgated translation has called forth far too many vandalistic comments.  There are other ways of burning books than on the pyre--and the favorite method of the hasty reviewer is to deprive himself and his readers by inattention.  I maintain that it is thoroughly vandalistic for the reviewer to content himself with the mere inflicting of a few symbolic wounds upon this book and its author, of an intensity varying with the resources of the reviewer and the time at his disposal. (Philosophy 191)
Burke’s critique of vandalistic reviewers extended his discussion of the critic’s function and obligation in Attitudes Toward History.  There he called critics’ failure to analyze closely the documents of history “cultural vandalism,” and argued that critics had a “moral obligation” to apply their methods to those artifacts (214). “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” again emphasized the critic’s obligation.  Burke argued that Hitler had put “his cards face up on the table,” and exhorted critics to study Mein Kampf: “Let us, then, for God’s sake, examine them.  This book is the well of Nazi magic; crude magic, but effective.  A people trained in pragmatism should want to inspect this magic” (Philosophy 192).

The sheer volume of “vandalistic” book reviews that Burke indicted prevents an exhaustive study here.  A brief survey of the contemporary reviews of Mein Kampf, however, will reveal the type of commentary that Burke’s analysis attempted to counter.  Ludwig Lore described Mein Kampf as “an outpouring of willful perversion, clumsy forgery, vitriolic hatred and violent denunciation” (qtd. in Thompson 15).   James Green, a reviewer for The Saturday Review of Literature, claimed that the unexpurgated versions contained “all the torrential verbiage, the racial nonsense, the egocentric emotionalism, and the surpassing shrewdness that was lacking in the abbreviated version” (11).  Green claimed that Hitler was “Europe’s latest Napoleon” and condemned him as “the Machiavelli of our age” (11).  He also argued that Mein Kampf revealed Hitler’s “fanatical and frustrated idealism” (11).  The Spectator’s R.C.K. Ensor described Hitler’s book as “a vast rambling medley of autobiography, exposition, rant, argument, and prophecy” (491).  The Nation claimed that Mein Kampf reveals “the eerie pathological quality of the mind that rules Germany” (“France is the Enemy” 263).

Alfred Vagts and Miriam Beard of The New Republic claimed that Hitler’s book was characterized by “awkward and peculiar style” and plagued by a “mixture of bad sophomoric composition [and] stiff bureaucratic jargon” (171).  The Nation’s Frederick Schuman claimed that Mein Kampf “is devoid of intellectual content or any pretense of rationality” (323).  Schuman repeated a metaphor employed by several reviewers, [4] calling Hitler’s book the “Nazi Koran.”  He noted, however, that “Mein Kampf differs from most holy writ in that it is vicious, vulgar, and violent.  These qualities, however, are but a measure of that cultural degradation of which Hitlerism is the most complete contemporary expression” (323).  Schuman concluded his review by calling Mein Kampf an index of “Hitler’s neuroses and his sadistic drive toward omnipotence” (323).

Burke’s primary grievance against these “vandalistic” reviews was not that they denigrated Hitler and denounced his book, but rather that the reviewers only engaged in denigration and denouncement.  In doing so, book reviewers provided the public with what they wanted to hear about Mein Kampf rather than what they needed to hear.  Burke warned: “Hitler’s ‘Battle’ is exasperating, even nauseating; yet the fact remains: If the reviewer but knocks off a few adverse attitudinizings and calls it a day, with a guaranty in advance that his article will have a favorable reception among the decent members of our population, he is contributing more to our gratification than to our enlightenment” (Philosophy 191).  Here, Burke criticized reviewers for what he had labeled “cashing in” in Attitudes Toward History.  That is, the vandalistic reviewers of Mein Kampf drew upon their audience’s attitudes--the public’s desire to caricature Hitler--to ensure their own rhetorical success.  By “cashing in” on the historical situation, however, they did not equip their readers “to understand the full complexities of sociality” (Attitudes 93); that is, the reviewers did not explore the most important aspect of Mein Kampf, how Hitler was able to manipulate social consciousness for his purposes.

Many reviewers also emphasized that Nazi plans for world domination were disclosed in Hitler’s book.  Frederick Schuman, for example, claimed, “Most readers will doubtless peruse these pages in the hope of finding answers to the perennial question: What will Hitler do next?  They will not be disappointed, for the Leader follows his blueprint closely” (323).  Ira Williams, reviewer for The Saturday Evening Post, posed and answered a rhetorical question: “What is Adolf Hitler’s ultimate goal, and what sort of world does he intend to carve out for the future?  Fortunately he himself disclosed his plans for the future of Germany and the world in Mein Kampf” (23).  The March 4, 1939 issue of The Nation reprinted excerpts from the Reynal & Hitchcock translation of Mein Kampf in order to “throw light on Germany’s real intentions toward France” (“France Is the Enemy” 263).  The editors at The Nation claimed that Hitler’s book was important “in view of the remarkable degree to which the plans embodied in that volume have been carried out” (263).

Burke positioned “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” against these types of reviews, which only fueled a preexisting public interest in Hitler’s book as a blueprint for the future. [5]  He claimed, “Here is the testament of a man who swung a great people into his wake.  Let us watch it carefully; and let us watch it, not merely to discover some grounds for prophesying what political move is to follow Munich, and what move to follow that move, etc.” (Philosophy 191).  Although Mein Kampf may prove useful for predicting Hitler’s political moves, Burke suggested, it had far greater importance as the chronicle of a “crude magician” who effectively unified his nation.  If Hitler could bastardize “fundamentally religious patterns of thought” (219) for his own purposes, a similar hoax might be possible in America.  Burke’s goal, then, was to apply his critical methods “to discover what kind of ‘medicine’ this medicine-man has concocted, that we may know, with greater accuracy, exactly what to guard against, if we are to forestall the concocting of similar medicine in America” (191).

Publishing History

Burke’s essay clearly responded to the publishing controversy and the ensuing book reviews, but it is not clear when he actually wrote “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle.’”  For his quotes, Burke used the Reynal & Hitchcock unexpurgated translation, available on February 28, 1939, which suggests that he wrote the essay in March.  However, Burke was fluent in German-- he had translated several essays and pieces of fiction from the German during his tenure at The Dial—and may have begun the essay using the German edition of Mein Kampf, revising it upon the publication of the English translations.  Furthermore, Burke may have had access to the Reynal & Hitchcock volume before its publication; he was teaching at the New School for Social Research during its translation there in 1938.  If he did not begin the essay until the publication of the Reynal & Hitchcock translation, Burke wrote the article quickly: he first sent out “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” for possible publication in Harper’s magazine in March 1939.

Burke’s interest in publishing the essay in Harper’s seems to have been piqued by several articles on Hitler that had appeared in the periodical in the preceding months.  The December 1938 issue featured two essays on Hitler: Wilson Woodside’s “The Road to Munich” and Elmer Davis’s “The Road from Munich.”  Woodside’s article was primarily an indictment of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s negotiations at Munich.  He argued that British foreign policy was in a period of crisis, a state of transition, which explains the incredulity of the Munich agreement.  Woodside claimed that while British foreign policy was confused, Germany’s policy was crystal clear; it had already had been mapped out in Hitler’s Mein Kampf (34-35).  The fourth section of Woodside’s essay emphasized that the world should pay closer attention to Hitler’s book because it contains his plan for world domination.  Chamberlain “probably has not read Mein Kampf,”  Woodside claimed, which explains--in part--the outcome of Munich (34).

Davis’s essay also claimed that Hitler’s book is a clear outline of German foreign policy.  He called Mein Kampf “a preview of the history of Europe after Munich” (40).  Davis argued that the world must take Hitler more seriously and that Mein Kampf is a vehicle for understanding the Führer’s intentions.  Davis claimed that “certainly it is a bleak and hardboiled Weltanschauung that underlies the doctrines of Mein Kampf,” which is precisely why the book must be scrutinized: it reveals Hitler’s world view (41).  Hitler’s book, Davis claimed, also explains Germany’s policy toward Czechoslovakia: “As for the Czechs, it is clear from the early chapters of Mein Kampf that he has had a special hatred for them from boyhood” (41).  Davis suggested that the book also foreshadows the course of German territorial expansion in Europe: “How much land does Germany want?  No more after the Sudeten lands, said Hitler to Chamberlain; but . . . Mein Kampf insists that all Germans must be brought into the Reich, and there are still plenty of them outside” (45).  Henry Wolfe’s essay in the February 1939 issue of Harper’s echoed Davis’s claims.  Wolfe asserted that Hitler’s dream of world power was “moving from the pages of Mein Kampf to the realm of actuality” (253).

Burke’s essay was, in part, a response to the types of arguments published in Harper’s.  As noted previously, the introduction of Burke’s analysis of Mein Kampf positioned his thesis against claims about the predictive power of Hitler’s book, such as those made by Woodside, Davis, and Wolfe.  He argued that people should read Mein Kampf “not merely to discover some grounds for prophesying what political move is to follow Munich” (Philosophy 191).  Burke suggested that people who focused on Hitler’s future plans--as outlined in Mein Kampf--were misguided, for already Hitlerism’s “ominousness is clarified by its record to date” (219).  Rather, Burke claimed, Americans should focus on scrutinizing Hitler’s doctrine and “tracking down its equivalents in America” (219).

Publication of “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” in Harper’s would have put Burke in dialogue with those analyses of Nazism to which he was responding.  The editors at the magazine, however, decided not to publish his essay.  George Leighton sent a rejection letter to Burke on March 24, 1939:

I am sorry to say that we can’t use your piece on Hitler’s “Battle.”  God knows, I don’t imply duplication, but we are running Drucker’s “The End of Economic Man in Europe” in the May number and while the two pieces are completely unlike [sic] he nevertheless chews enough around the edges of this theme to make it desirable to let this ms. of yours go. (Leighton)

Peter Drucker’s essay did touch upon some of the same points as Burke’s analysis of Mein Kampf.  Like Burke, he claimed that Hitler was successful because he articulated a philosophy during a period when “the masses in Germany had reached a point where there was nothing left in which the individual could believe” (561).  Drucker also commented on Nazism’s attempt to translate an individual’s social rank, function, and satisfaction from economic to non-economic principles (567).  Unlike Burke, he did not acknowledge that the Nazis proclaimed economic success will follow from inborn dignity.  Drucker’s essay also suggested that the anti-Semitic principle of Nazism was misunderstood as a prevalent feeling of hostility toward the Jewish people, when in fact German anti-Semitism was a form of scapegoating (569).  The essay did not, however, acknowledge the unifying function of the scapegoat.  Finally, Drucker emphasized the importance of Hitler speaking as the one voice for all the German people (562), yet he explicitly denied the possibility of identification between the people and the Führer, as suggested in Burke’s analysis. [6]

After receiving the rejection notice from Harper’s, Burke promptly sent the manuscript to The Southern Review, which accepted the essay for publication in the summer edition.  Robert Penn Warren wrote the acceptance letter to Burke on March 29, 1939:

We do want to use “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle,” probably in the summer issue.  But we hope that you can reduce it.  A sentence might come out here and there, as, for example, in the first paragraph or on page 22.  I am afraid that we shall have to dispense with the notes, enlightening as they are.  Our acceptance, of course, is not contingent upon the amount of reducing you can do, but any space saved for us now is a cause for rejoicing. (Warren)

Unlike Harper’s, The Southern Review had not regularly published essays on Hitler or Nazism.  The only recent articles that touched on the subject were I.F. Stone’s review of Jerome Frank’s plea for isolationism, Save America First, and Lindsay Roger’s “Munich: British Prestige and Democratic Statecraft,” in which he called Mein Kampf a statement of the Germans’ political aims “in their own words” (630). Burke’s essay can be read in tandem with Stone’s: both writers suggest, contrary to Frank, that the rise of fascism in Europe could be repeated in America. Burke may have chosen The Southern Review as an outlet simply because he had good fortune in publishing in the journal: his essay “The Virtues and Limitations of Debunking” had appeared in the Spring 1938 issue, and “Semantic and Poetic Meaning” was published in the Winter 1938 edition.  Joseph Montesi notes that the editors encouraged Burke and other critics “to develop their strategies and programs in the Review” (6). [7] Furthermore, Burke apparently believed that the journal paid it contributors well.  In a letter to Burke dated July 19, 1939, Edgar Johnson wrote: “I’ve just finished a chapter of my book that I think I might do for The Southern Review (of which I seem to recall your [sic] saying that they pay well)” (Johnson).

“The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” first appeared in print in the July 1939 issue of The Southern Review. Burke’s article was reprinted almost immediately.  Even before its publication in journal form, publishers Scott, Foresman and Company asked permission to reprint Burke’s analysis of Mein Kampf in a book on contemporary literature and criticism. [8]  By the end of the summer, Burke’s essay was reprinted in This Generation: A Selection of British and American Literature from 1914 to the Present with Historical and Critical Essays. Burke’s article was also praised by several fellow writers.  I.F. Stone wrote to Burke on July 6, 1939: “I have long admired your work.  I can’t resist sending you a line to let you know how much I liked and enjoyed your analysis of Mein Kampf in the latest issue of The Southern Review.  You did a marvelous job” (Stone). Cleanth Brooks, Jr., a managing editor at The Southern Review, praised Burke’s essay in a letter dated August 8, 1939: “By the way, let me pay a personal tribute to your article on Hitler, which I thought was extremely good--indeed one of the best things of yours I have seen for some time” (Brooks).

A Congressional Hearing

After “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’ was accepted for publication, Burke began to prepare his essay for presentation at the League of American Writers’ Third American Writers’ Congress, held in New York City on June 2-4, 1939.  Burke certainly hoped for a better response than the scandal generated by his presentation at the First Writers’ Congress in 1935. [9]  In the words of Armin Paul Frank, Burke’s address to the League had “aroused the solid indignation of many hard-core partisans” (24).  Burke’s speech, “Revolutionary Symbolism in America,” suggested that the Left should choose a symbol broad enough to encourage more people to identify with the movement: “The symbol I should plead for, as more basic, more of an ideal incentive, than that of the worker, is that of ‘the people.’ . . . It contains the ideal, the ultimate classless feature which the revolution would bring about--and for this reason seems richer as a symbol of allegiance” (89-90).  Burke’s presentation upset the Congress and generated accusations about his lack of loyalty to the movement (Heath 16).  Ironically, Friedrich Wolf, author of the anti-Nazi play Dr. Mamlock, equated Burke’s suggestion with Hitler’s propaganda; Wolf opposed using the term “the people” because it was the same symbol Hitler used as “a supplement to his blackjacks and machine guns” (Hart 168).

In spite of his past problems with the League, Burke was on the committee to draft the call for the Third Congress.  In a letter to Burke on April 11, League Executive Secretary Franklin Folsom asked Burke to draft a brief call “incorporating the best features” of the versions prepared by Malcolm Cowley, Harry Carlisle, and Henry Hart (Folsom).  The final version of the call included Burke’s primary suggestion, a focus on the term “democracy,” which he believed was the key concept underlying earlier drafts.  The call for the Congress also emphasized the importance of the international political climate to the community of writers:

The call to the Third American Writers’ Congress goes forth at a time when the world fears the outbreak of more invasions and wars.  We address ourselves to all professional writers who recognize the need to face the immediate problems--technical, cultural, and political--that confront them today, and warmly invite them to attend.  (“Call to the Third”)

Malcolm Cowley claimed that although more attention was given to purely literary matters than at previous Congresses, the international political situation was “an ominous background taken for granted” (“Notes” 192).  Writers were concerned about the rise of fascism in Europe and worried that it was spreading in the United States. [10]  Burke’s essay clearly fit into this historical context: he used his presentation on Mein Kampf as a vehicle to emphasize the writer’s role in heading off the fascist ideology that Hitlerian propaganda had been so effective in spreading.

A public session at Carnegie Hall on the evening of June 2 inaugurated the Third American Writers’ Congress.  This session featured speeches by writers Thomas Mann, Langston Hughes, Ralph Bates, and Sylvia Townsend Warner, journalist and Newspaper Guild founder Heywood Broun, and Eduard Benes, former president of Czechoslovakia.  Over 2,500 people attended the opening event (“Writers’ Congress” 78).  The remainder of the Congress centered around closed sessions on different literary arts held at the New School for Social Research.  For example, one session titled “Folklore and Folksay” included presentations by Hyde Partnow and B.A. Botkin, writers at the Folklore Department of the Federal Writers’ Project.  A session on the novel included presentations by writers Edwin Lanham, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Richard Wright, and Dashiell Hammett.  Langston Hughes and Alain Locke spoke at a session titled “The Negro in Fiction.” [11]  The closed sessions were a success: over 450 delegates attended the sessions, which Franklin Folsom called “a good deal more communal and friendly that the isolated writer of the past could have ever believed” (Folsom, Days of Anger 84, 86).  Malcolm Cowley called the Congress “the greatest achievement of the League of American writers” (“In Memoriam” 219).

On Sunday, June 4, Burke presented his paper at a closed session on “The Writer in Politics,” which included presentations by two of the editors of The New Masses--A.B. Magil and Joseph Freeman--and by Vincent Sheean, a journalist and future vice-president of the League.  Magil discussed fascist rhetoric in America, warning that its “anti-fascist pretense” was “its most potent rhetorical device” (qtd. in Stewart 144).  His presentation also emphasized the role that the writer must play in countering fascist rhetoric in America:

Let us not underestimate our enemies.  The fascists have shown themselves masters of the art of rousing the emotions of the common man.  True, they operate with counterfeit coin and have developed deception into a system and a science.  But this does not relieve us, the anti-fascists, the fighters for ‘democracy and more democracy,’ of the necessity of being at least equally skillful in appealing to the basic needs and desires of our fellowmen.  And we have the advantage that ours are the words of truth and freedom. (qtd. in Stewart 145)
Magil’s speech echoed many thoughts expressed earlier in his co-authored book (with Henry Stevens), The Peril of Fascism: The Crisis of American Democracy and in his pamphlet “The Truth about Father Coughlin,” which had a circulation of over 200,000. [12]

Burke presented his essay on Mein Kampf after Magil and was followed by Freeman’s historical analysis of democracy.  Ironically, Freeman had been one of Burke’s harshest critics at the First Writers’ Congress: Burke later recalled him as exclaiming, “We have a traitor among us!” following Burke’s speech in 1935 (qtd. in Yagoda 68).  Freeman’s speech at the Third Congress suggested that writers must understand history in order to stop the spread of fascism and to promote democracy.  He claimed: “The past has come alive again.  We must recall the good of the past because its greatest evils have been raised from the dead for a terrible moment.  Fascism has revived slavery; we must recall the great struggles of mankind for liberty” (qtd. in Stewart 149).  Freeman’s discussion of the history of democracy put writers at the front; he claimed that by examining the lives of writers like Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, contemporary writers could better understand “the relation of the writer to the central historic events of his age” (qtd. in Stewart 153).

Sheean’s speech addressed the role of the writer in the social revolution.  He claimed that writers must be involved in politics to the extent that their art will help “raise more and more of the submerged classes to the surface of life, to a share of its rewards . . . to a share of its desires and responsibilities” (qtd. in Stewart 159).  Sheean’s presentation was not a prescription for what proletarian literature should look like, but rather a motivational address.  His speech functioned epideictically: it praised contemporary writers for acknowledging their responsibility “to that brotherhood whose progress we wish to accelerate” (qtd. in Stewart 160-61) and placed blame on writers who “wish to work in seclusion for a limited number of their spiritual kind” (qtd. in Stewart 161).  Sheean ended his address with a writers’ “call to arms.”  Like Magil, he urged American writers to enlist in the struggle against fascism:

That struggle is one of the prime conditions of our lives; we know it will be long and that its course will be studded with failures as well as, sometimes, with victories.  But if what I have said earlier is true, the adult contemporary writers of this country have found their place and will not abandon it. (qtd. in Stewart 164)

Burke was the only presenter at the session to emphasize the role of the critic in fighting against fascist propaganda, with his own essay as an example.  He urged writers “to find all available ways of making the Hitlerite distortions of religion apparent, in order that politicians of his kind in America be unable to perform a similar swindle” (qtd. in Stewart 147). Burke’s presentation at the Congress also countered the League of American Writers’ attempt to prevent circulation of Hitler’s book.  Earlier in 1939, the Book-of-the-Month Club had circulated a new translation of Mein Kampf as a book dividend to its members.  A committee of the League of American Writers visited Harry Sherman, head of the Club, to attempt to persuade him to not circulate the book.  In his memoir of the League, Franklin Folsom notes, “We wanted to persuade him not to give Hitler’s anti-human words the kind of circulation Hitler wanted for them.  Our anti-Nazi zeal was such that we easily forgot that we were also anti-censorship.  We failed to persuade Sherman not to circulate Mein Kampf” (Days of Anger 73).  In contrast to the League’s strategy, Burke’s analysis of Hitler’s “Battle” emphasized that people must inspect Hitler’s words in order to prevent the rise of fascism in America.

Burke’s paper--a slightly abbreviated version of the essay that would appear in The Southern Review--was well received by members of the League. [13]  Magil, who read the essay before its presentation to the Congress claimed: “I found it enormously interesting--a really acute study of the methodology of fascist propaganda.  It should provoke real discussion. . . . The article is really an outstanding piece of critical work” (Magil).  Soon after the Congress, Franklin Folsom wrote to Burke to request a copy of the essay:

The work is already started on getting out a book about the Congress, and I found I neglected to get your paper from you. . . . I am even more eager to get a copy from you because I had to be out of the New School during most of the time you were reading and I have only been able to gather information about it from the many who praised it.” (Folsom)
The July/August 1939 issue of Direction claimed, “Kenneth Burke gave a ‘preview’ of his coming [essay] on Hitler’s Mein Kampf, brilliantly analyzing the Nazi blood-and-force system” (“Third American Writers Congress” 4).  Burke’s speech was among the few to appear (in abbreviated form) in the book about the Third Writers’ Congress--Fighting Words, edited by League president Donald Ogden Stewart and published by Harcourt Brace in 1940.

Ralph Ellison also praised Burke’s essay.  Ellison had attended the session on “The Writer in Politics,” and later acknowledged Burke’s presentation as a key influence on his development as a writer.  Burke and Ellison became close friends, and in a letter to Burke on November 23, 1945, Ellison wrote:

My real debt lies to you in the many things I’ve learned (and continue to learn) from your work. . . . That is a debt I shall never stop paying back and it begins back in the thirties when you read the rhetoric of “Hitler’s Battle” before the League of American Writers, at the New School (I believe you were the only speaker out of the whole group who was concerned with writing and politics, rather than writing as an excuse for politics--and that in a superficial manner). (Ellison)

Ellison also noted in the letter that he was “writing a novel now” [Invisible Man] and claimed that “if it is worthwhile it will be my most effective means of saying thanks.  Anything else seems to me inadequate.”


This essay has provided a historical account of one of Kenneth Burke’s most influential critical works.  By reading Burke’s article against the texts discussed in this essay, Burke scholars can gain a better perspective on “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle.’”  As a piece of rhetorical discourse itself, Burke’s analysis of Hitler’s book intervened into a particular historical moment.  Burke himself suggests that rhetorical acts participate in an “unending conversation” (Philosophy 110).  The intellectual conversation about Hitler and Mein Kampf had begun before Burke arrived at the parlor.  After listening for awhile and catching the tenor of the argument, Burke put in his oar.  By publishing his essay in The Southern Review, Burke participated in the critical dialogue about Hitler’s influence in Europe and offered a corrective to the vandalistic reviews of Mein Kampf.  Burke’s presentation of his analysis before the Third Writers’ Congress allowed him to participate in the intellectual conversation opposed to fascism when the League of American Writers was at the height of its influence (Gilbert 225).  The intellectual discussion about Hitler and Mein Kampf continued when Burke left, yet his intervention into that unending conversation provided scholars with an outstanding example of rhetorical criticism and a model of critical responsibility.

Works Cited

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Barnes, James J., and Patience P. Barnes.  Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” in Britain and America: A
            Publishing History, 1930-39.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980.
Benet, William Rose.  “The Poetry Session.”  Saturday Review of Literature 10 Jun. 1939: 10-11.
“Blueprint of a Dictator.”  Collier’s 30 Apr. 1938: 78.
Brooks, Cleanth, Jr.  Letter to Kenneth Burke.  8 August 1939.  Kenneth Burke Papers.  Pattee
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Burke, Kenneth.  Attitudes Toward History.  3rd. ed.  Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California
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---.  “Revolutionary Symbolism in America.”  American Writers’ Congress.  Ed. Henry Hart.
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“Call to the Third American Writers Congress.”  Direction 2.3 (1939): 1.
Cowley, Malcolm.  “A Critic’s First Principle.”  New Republic 14 Sep. 1953: 16-17.
---.  “In Memoriam.”  Rev. of Fighting Words, ed. David Ogden Stewart.  New Republic 12 Aug.
            1940: 219-20.
---.  “Notes on a Writers’ Congress.”  New Republic 21 Jun. 1939: 192-93.
Daly, Jim.  Letter to Kenneth Burke.  11 June 1939.  Kenneth Burke Papers.  Pattee Library, The
            Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
Davis, Elmer.  “The Road from Munich.”  Harper’s Dec. 1938: 40-48.
Drucker, Peter F.  “The End of Economic Man in Europe.”  Harper’s May 1939: 561-70.
Ellison, Ralph.  Letter to Kenneth Burke.  23 November 1945.  Kenneth Burke Papers.  Pattee
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Ensor, R.C.K.  “Hitler Unexpurgated.”  Rev. of Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler.  Spectator 24
            Mar. 1939: 491-92.
Folsom, Franklin.  Days of Anger, Days of Hope: A Memoir of the League of American Writers,
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Frank, Armin Paul.  Kenneth Burke.  New York: Twayne, 1969.
Gilbert, James Burkhart.  Writers and Partisans: A History of Literary Radicalism in America.
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Green, James Frederick.  “Hitler Without Scissors.”  Rev. of Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler.
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Guterman, Norbert.  Letter to Kenneth Burke.  28 Mar. 1939.  Kenneth Burke Papers.  Pattee
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Hart, Henry, ed.  American Writers’ Congress.  New York: International, 1935.
Heath, Robert L.  Realism and Relativism: A Perspective on Kenneth Burke.  Macon, GA: Mercer
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Henderson, Grieg.  Kenneth Burke: Literature and Language as Symbolic Action.  Athens and
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Hochmuth, Marie.  “The Criticism of Rhetoric.”  A History and Criticism of American Public
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Hook, Sidney.  Letter.  Nation 27 May 1939: 626.
Jenkins, Virginia.  Letter to Kenneth Burke.  14 May 1939.  Kenneth Burke Papers.  Pattee
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Johnson, Edgar.  Letter to Kenneth Burke.  19 Jul. 1939.  Kenneth Burke Papers.  Pattee Library,
            The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
Josephson, Matthew.  “Making of a Demagogue.”  Rev. of My Battle, trans. E.T.S. Dugdale.
            Saturday Review of Literature.  28 Oct. 1933: 213-14.
Krohn, Claus-Dieter.  Intellectuals in Exile: Refugee Scholars and the New School for Social
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Leighton, George.  Letter to Kenneth Burke.  24 Mar. 1939.  Kenneth Burke Papers.  Pattee
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            Dugdale.  Nation 1 Nov. 1933: 515-16.
Magil, A.B.  Letter to Kenneth Burke.  14 May 1939.  Kenneth Burke Papers.  Pattee Library,
            The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
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Montesi, Albert Joseph.  “The Southern Review (1935-1942): A History and Evaluation.”  Diss.
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            W. Chesebro.  Tuscaloosa and London: U of Alabama P, 1993.  3-41.
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  1. Marie Hochmuth also argues that “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” exemplifies the critic’s social responsibility: “He should be ready to alert a people, to warn what devices of exploitation are being exercised, by what skillful manipulation of motives men are being directed to or dissuaded from courses of action” (17).
  2. Burke later noted that it was at the suggestion of the editors at The Southern Review, where the essay first appeared, that he “put together for publication by the Louisiana State University Press the collection of essays and reviews: The Philosophy of Literary Form” (qtd. in Louisiana State University 11).  The version of “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” reprinted in The Philosophy of Literary Form  includes the footnotes that were excised for publication in The Southern Review.
  3. See, for example, Josephson 213-14, and Rudin 400-02.
  4. The New Republic referred to Hitler’s book as “The Brown Koran” (Vagts and Beard 170); The Saturday Evening Post called Mein Kampf “the official Koran for the German people” (Williams 23).
  5. The New Republic acknowledged this public sentiment its March 15, 1939 issue, claiming that the average reader “will be tempted to regard ‘Mein Kampf’ as a handy guide to Nazi actions, a blueprint for the future as well as a graph of the past” (Vagts and Beard 170).  This type of sentiment, however, preceded the issue of the unexpurgated translations.  Collier’s, for example, called Mein Kampf the “blueprint of a dictator” in its April 30, 1938, edition (“Blueprint of a Dictator” 78).  The Nation proclaimed, “‘Mein Kampf’ Unfolds,” in an essay that analyzed the European political situation (“‘Mein Kampf’ Unfolds” 316).
  6. In a letter to Burke on March 28, 1939, Norbert Guterman (who had translated Konrad Heiden’s 1936 Hitler: A Biography) praised “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” and expressed his surprise that Harper’s published Drucker’s essay and not Burke’s: “I think that your prospects are good and the corruptio pessimi optima [sic] idea quite timely and consoling. . . . It is quite strange that they [Harper’s] should run pieces on the ‘end of the economic man’ when he is just beginning” (Guterman).
  7. Montesi also notes that by 1939 there was a dearth of superior literary and critical journals: “The Dial and The Hound and Horn were dead; The Symposium had also folded . . . the Sewanee appeared inadequate” (5).
  8. On May 9, 1939, Eda Lou Walton wrote Burke, “Will you please write Scott, Foresman and Company . . . a note saying that you allow the use of your Hitler article for $50?  They require a personal statement” (Walton).  Virginia Jenkins--an editor at Scott, Foresman--wrote Burke on May 14, 1939: “We greatly appreciate your permission to reprint “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle” (Jenkins).
  9. In a letter dated June 11, 1939, Jim Daly asked Burke about his presentation before the Third Congress: “What about the Writers’ Congress?  Did they bop you this time?” (Daly).  For an analysis of the controversy at the First Writers Congress, see Aaron, Writers on the Left 287-92, and Lentricchia 21-38.
  10. For example, the Committee for Cultural Freedom--a group comprised largely of members of the League--wrote a warning against American fascism in 1939.  The manifesto, published in the May 27, 1939, edition of The Nation, claimed, “Even in the United States its beginnings are all too evident in the emergence of local political dictators, the violation of civil rights, the alarming spread of phobias, of hatred directed against racial, religious, and political minorities.  Ominous shadows of war are gathering in our own land.  Behind them lurk dangers . . . to a free culture” (Hook 626).
  11. Descriptions of the closed sessions held at the Congress are contained in Smyth, “Third Writers’ Congress,” Benet, “The Poetry Session,” and “Third American Writers Congress.” Excerpts from several of the presentations are included in Stewart, Fighting Words.
  12. New Masses, 6 June 1939, p. 20.
  13. In a letter dated May 14, 1939, A.B. Magil suggested that Burke shorten his essay for presentation: “I suggest you consult Folsom about the length of your report.  My impression is that it is now too long” (Magil).  A comparison between the excerpts from Burke’s presentation at the Congress printed in David Ogden Stewart’s Fighting Words and the version printed in The Southern Review reveals some of the abridgement.

A Pentadic Analysis of Celebrity Testimony in Congressional Hearings

Christopher R. Darr, Indiana University Kokomo
Harry C. Strine IV, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania


The existing literature on celebrity testimony in Congress suggests that celebrities are nothing more than pawns of committees who use these witnesses to publicize their hearings. The current study modifies this understanding by looking at the rhetoric of celebrities using Burke’s dramatistic pentad of act, scene, agent, agency and purpose. Our use of Pentadic analysis, which takes the perspective of the witnesses rather than the perspective of the committee, reveals a much different view of celebrities and their purposes for testifying. We argue that the scene-act ratio dominates the rhetoric of celebrity witnesses: Celebrities portray their testimony as giving voice to the voiceless (act) and as motivated by significant societal ills (scene). They commonly use emotional appeals (agency) toward the self-professed end of improving the lives of the less fortunate (purpose) and downplay their own celebrity status (agent).

For better or worse, the American people pay deference to celebrities, and celebrities often capitalize on their status to draw attention to issues important to them. For instance, actor Michael J. Fox severed ties with his popular television show, Spin City, to help pursue a cure for Parkinson’s disease in 2000, telling a United States Senate committee “what celebrity has given me is the opportunity to raise the visibility of Parkinson’s disease and focus attention on the desperate need for more research dollars” (Abelson, 2000, p. F1). Other entertainers have used their celebrity status to draw attention to stem cell research (Christopher Reeve), AIDS (Elton John), diabetes (Mary Tyler Moore), music piracy (Lars Ulrich), freedom of religion (Isaac Hayes), and other medical, social, legal and political issues. Celebrities are clearly aware of their latent political power and are willing to use it to advance various agendas.

Likewise, legislators often use celebrities to draw attention to specific issues and legislation by inviting celebrities to testify before Congressional committees. Since 1969 there have been at least 400 celebrity witnesses at House and Senate hearings, including Ben Affleck, Charleton Heston, Danielle Steele, Muhammad Ali, Sheryl Crow, Tony Bennett, Julia Roberts, and a host of other actors, musicians and athletes (Strine, 2004). Strine (2004) points out that despite the large number of celebrity witnesses to appear as experts, their role in the legislative process has been largely ignored by political scientists. Communication scholars have also largely ignored this phenomenon—indeed, committee hearings, with the exception of Supreme Court hearings, have been almost totally neglected by rhetorical critics. Recent communication studies of Congressional communication have focused on floor speeches given during confirmation debates (Bates, 2003; Darr, 2005) and the Supreme Court nomination process (Darr, 2007; Parry-Giles, 2006), but to our knowledge no study has yet looked directly at the rhetoric of celebrity witnesses.

This study seeks to address this issue by examining the rhetoric of celebrity witnesses in House and Senate hearings using Kenneth Burke’s pentad. We begin by briefly reviewing the literature on committee hearings in order to give context to the phenomenon of celebrity testimony, then explain Burke’s pentad (act, scene, agent, agency and purpose) as a critical method. Third, we apply the pentad to a sample of celebrity opening statements. Our pentadic analysis suggests that celebrity testimony functions as persuasion designed to win public and lawmaker support for legislation on the basis of personalized, emotional appeals: Celebrities portray their testimony as giving voice to the voiceless (act) and as motivated by significant societal ills (scene). They commonly use emotional appeals (agency) toward the self-professed end of improving the lives of the less fortunate (purpose) and downplay their own celebrity status (agent).

Celebrities, Congress and Committees

The existing literature on celebrity testimony in congressional committees, sparse as it may be, characterizes celebrities as the pawns of committees: Committees and committee members use celebrities to draw media attention to issues and hearings in order to gain strategic leverage in the legislative process. In terms of the larger process of committee hearings, scholars (including Bailey, 1950; Cohen, 1950; Davidson & Oleszek, 1977, 1985; Deering & Smith, 1997; Keefe & Ogul, 1973; Redman, 1973; and Reid, 1980) have long argued that hearings fulfill a strategic purpose in that they are designed to advance the interests of either the committee chair or other members of the committee. Hearings, these authors argue, are political maneuvers as much as they are information-gathering exercises. Strategic moves—including witness selection—are made by committees and their members in order to further or oppose particular policies rather than to gather the information needed to craft quality legislation. For example, Cohen (1950) warns that “it is doubtful” that hearings serve as information-gathering exercises, instead arguing that they serve as “sounding board[s]” where policy makers gauge the strength of their support (p. 892). Similarly, Hinckley (1971) asserts that “hearings may provide the opportunity for representation of different interests, although chairmen have been known to ‘pack’ the hearings with spokesmen [sic] for one point of view” (p. 95). Likewise, DeGregorio (1992) reports that while committee staffers usually invite both “pro” and “con” witnesses, this is usually done to provide “political cover” so the majority is not accused of silencing the minority’s witnesses (p. 980). So scholars tend to look at committee hearings as only partly informational (if at all)—their information-gathering potential is overshadowed by the strategic considerations of committee members.

Thus celebrities enter the strategic situation in terms of their potential to garner attention for legislation and issues: Celebrities draw attention to hearings when they testify, and are usually invited specifically for that purpose. For instance, Oleszek (2001) claims “the testimony of celebrity witnesses, such as movie stars, television personalities, or professional athletes, is a surefire way to attract national attention to issues” (p. 94). And according to Leyden (1992) and Vincent (1999), committees take great care to select witnesses that will have maximum impact on the hearings, including the generation of media coverage and public attention. But this attention does not always facilitate the passage of legislation or guarantee enlightened debate. As Smith (1999) puts it, “some hearings generate little but rhetoric and media coverage—members’ questions turn into lengthy statements, celebrity witnesses offer scripted answers, and the television networks later replay a twenty-second exchange between an antagonistic committee member and an acerbic witness” (pp. 58-59). So in terms of publicizing an issue or the work of a committee, celebrities attract media attention but may do little in terms of providing information to the committee that alters the legislation being considered.

This literature suggests that celebrities are simple pawns of committees who use them to further their own political goals. A Burkean approach to this phenomenon, however, encourages a different view of celebrity testimony. Specifically, Burke’s pentad encourages scholars to ask several questions, including: What motivations are apparent or are attributed in celebrity testimony? How do celebrities characterize their own motives or the motives of others? How does celebrity rhetoric portray the activity of celebrities and the purposes of hearings? Given that celebrity testimony has received so little attention and that the rhetoric of committee hearings has also been largely ignored, we turn to Kenneth Burke’s pentad to help answer these questions and to more fully explain the rhetoric of celebrity witnesses.

Burke’s Pentad as Critical Method

Burke’s pentad of act, scene, agent, agency and purpose provides a useful tool for analyzing rhetoric, specifically in terms of the attribution of motive. It therefore makes sense to investigate the questions posed above using pentadic analysis (What characterizes the rhetoric of celebrity testimony? How do celebrities characterize hearings? How do they characterize their own involvement in the legislative process?).

Burke (1967) asserts that by studying the language—or “terministic screens”—of people, we can glean insight into the ways in which they attribute motives to themselves and to others. Motive and terminology are related, and dramatism is concerned with this connection. As a system, dramatism is designed to enable the investigation of language and specific rhetorical acts via the “methodic inquiry into the cycle or cluster of terms and their functions implicit in the key term, ‘act’” (1967, p. 332). The pentad is the centerpiece of such investigations.

Burke (1945) describes the pentad in depth in his essay “The five key terms of dramatism.” The five terms are, of course, act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. Burke says that these terms, or some variant of them, will always figure into any statement of motives, and we can explore how a rhetor attributes motives by looking at how he or she uses the five terms. Act is central—as dramatism is a theory of symbolic action—and refers to how a person describes what was done or what happened. Scene refers to the setting of the act. Agent, of course, is the person or entity that committed the act, and agency refers to how the act was committed (means, method, etc). Finally, purpose refers to why an act was committed (toward what ends). According to Burke, humans use the terms of the pentad to attribute motive (either to themselves or to others), and all five of these terms will figure into any rounded statement of motive.

Burke (1945) elaborates on how critics might investigate the terms of the pentad, stating that any term of the pentad can be paired with any other term in order to come up with a ratio (such as act-agent, scene-purpose, act-purpose, etc.). These ratios constitute statements that attribute motive. The scene-act ratio, for example, grounds an act in its scene. So, for example, a person might portray his or her actions as the only possible option, given the setting. Or scene might serve as a justification for future action. Similarly, the scene-agent ratio might portray the agent as a product of his or her environment. Ratios, Burke says, are used to portray the terms of the pentad, and thus human motivation, in certain ways: They are used to justify and explain behavior, and critics can investigate motivation by applying the pentad to texts in order to determine what ratios exist. As he puts it, “the explicit and systematic use of the dramatist pentad is best designed to bring out the strategic moments of motivational theory” (1945, p. 67).

To view an artifact dramatistically using the pentad is to look for what is featured so that we can understand how people attribute motives to themselves and to others. The systematic application of the pentad illuminates the “terministic screen” used by the rhetor so that critics may discover what is emphasized and what is minimized, what is included and what is excluded. To apply Burke’s method, critics must (a) apply the five terms, noting how the artifact portrays act, scene, agent, agency and purpose; (b) label the ratios in order to identify the dominant term, and thus the way in which the artifact attributes motive.1 In the next section, we apply the pentad using these two steps.

Telling the Stories of Others: A Strategy of Personalized Emotional Appeals

For analysis we selected 72 opening statements given by celebrities between 1997 and the present in both House and Senate committee hearings. Obtaining such statements is problematic, since rules for committee procedure are not uniform in either the House or the Senate (see Riddick, 2003), and therefore not all committees publish complete and accurate transcripts of all hearings. Moreover, the concept of “celebrity” itself is troublesome, as Boorstin’s (1987) popular definition illustrates—he defines a celebrity as “a person who is known for his [or her] well-knownness” (p. 57). We used Strine’s (2004) more concise definition of a celebrity as “someone who entertains and/or works in a visible component of the entertainment industry” (p. 17). This definition includes people involved with college and professional sports, movies, television, music, literature, and theater. Using key words suggested by this definition (including “actor,” “actress,” “coach,” “musician,” “artist,” “author,” etc.), we conducted a search of the Lexis-Nexis Congressional Universe database to create our sample of 72 items. Our analysis is broken up into two sections. First we describe the five key terms as they appear in celebrity testimony: act, agent, scene, agency, and purpose. Second, we argue that two ratios prevail in celebrity testimony: agent-act and scene-act.

Key terms

The literature reviewed earlier suggests that one function of celebrity testimony is to publicize an issue or the work of a committee (Oleszek, 2001). While it is undoubtedly true that this occurs, Burke (1978) encourages critics to apply the pentad internally rather than externally—in other words, to look at how the speaker describes his or her own actions and therefore his or her motives. From this point of view, few celebrities actually portray their actions as publicizing an issue. Instead, they characterize act as giving voice to the voiceless.

For instance, Catherine Bell (2001) and Isaac Hayes (2001) both testify about alleged abuses of human rights and religious freedom by the French government. Bell sums up the testimony of several celebrities by stating “Artists like Isaac Hayes, Anne Archer, Chick Corea, John Travolta and I appreciate the forum to speak out for people, who otherwise would have no spokesperson. We are here to make sure their voices are heard” (para. 6). Likewise, Michael J. Fox (2000) characterizes his testimony as an act of speaking for other sufferers of Parkinson’s disease when he states “none of these people mind that I get more attention than they do. They simply say that if I get a shot in front of a microphone—I should start talking. So here I am” (para 1). Similarly, Carroll O’Connor (2001) portrays his actions as speaking for the families of drug addicts, composer Alan Silvestri (1999), Tony Bennett (1999) and Mary Tyler Moore (1999, 2000, 2003) speak on behalf of diabetic children, Muhammad Ali (2004) represents less famous professional boxers, actor Sam Waterston (1998) claims to be speaking for international refugees, and singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow (2000) claims to speak for herself as well as “artists unable to attend the hearing today but who would like to have their voices heard” (para. 1).

These statements are similar in that the celebrities portray what they are doingtheir actas giving voice to the voiceless. Several even use this terminology, including Catherine Bell (see above), golfer Terry-Jo Myers (1998), who says “I am here to give a voice to all those IC [interstitial cystitis] patients who are still too ill to leave their homes, and cannot speak to you today” (para. 1), and Anthony Edwards (1999), who mentions autistic children who “have no voice” (para. 1). These celebrities portray themselves as representatives of those who are suffering, be it physically, politically or otherwise. Their personal experience may or may not be directly related to the subject matter of the hearing. For instance, Michael J. Fox suffers from Parkinson’s disease, but Bob Barker (2000) and Loretta Swit (1998) are obviously not victims of animal abuse. Likewise, celebrities like Ben Affleck (2001), Steve Beuerlein (2000), and Katie Couric (2000) have no direct experience with ALS or colon cancer, but discuss at length their friendship with those who have had such direct experience. Even those like Fox who have such direct experience go to great lengths to make clear that they are speaking out for others, not for themselves. Thus these celebrities downplay their own status even as they use it to draw attention to the issue at hand. This rhetorical “bait and switch” may function to boost the ethos of the celebrity witnesses, who portray their act as the benevolent assistance of those who are less fortunate.

Moreover, in terms of agent, we might expect to see celebrities use their status as celebrities to lend credibility to their testimony. However, this is rarely the case. Some celebrities do use this tactic, including singer Chuck Blasko (1999), who begins his testimony by discussing his singing career as part of the classic rock and roll group The Vogues, and Eva Marie Saint (1999), who begins with a resume of sorts, listing several films she has appeared in including On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando. Far more common is for a celebrity to briefly mention her or his status in passing, as do Bryton McClure (1998) (from television’s Family Matters), Danica McKellar (2000) (The Wonder Years), Doris Roberts (2002) (Everybody Loves Raymond), and Dick Schaap (2000) (a well-known sports reporter). Unlike Blasko and Saint, these witnesses only briefly mention their celebrity in passing, rather than as a way of introducing themselves to the committee and other audiences. For instance, Jane Seymour (1999), testifying about alternative medicine, discusses her own experience using nontraditional and non-Western techniques. During one lengthy anecdote near the end of her remarks she says that “during my 16 hours a day, 5 days a week job on Dr. Quinn, I rarely got sick” (para. 3).

So contrary to what we might expect, most celebrities do not open with introductory passages about their celebrity status. Instead, most downplay this status in favor of private personal experience or other credentials designed to build credibility. For instance, Christopher Reeve (2002) begins his testimony on cloning and medical research by stating “for the record, I am a C-2 ventilator-dependent quadriplegic, which means that I am paralyzed from the shoulders down and unable to breathe on my own” (para. 1). Reeve (1997, 2000a, 2000b, 2002, 2003) appears before Congress five times in our sample of statements, and never once mentions his acting career. In three separate appearances concerning funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and diabetes, Mary Tyler Moore (1999, 2000, 2003) introduces herself as “International Chairman of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation,” and Michael J. Fox (1999, 2000, 2002) begins each of his appearances by talking about his personal fight against Parkinson’s disease. Fox’s (1999) appearance is illustrative of how celebrity witnesses often downplay their celebrity status in favor of personal experience. He begins by saying “perhaps most of you are familiar with me from 20 years of work in film and television. What I wish to speak to you about today has little or nothing to do with celebrity” (para. 2), then proceeds to discuss the effects Parkinson’s has had on him and his family.2

For these witnesses, agent is not synonymous with celebrity. Each portrays him or herself as a spokesperson for others (as described in the previous discussion of act) or as a witness whose opinion is valuable because they have direct, personal knowledge of the hearing topic. Pragmatically, this rhetorical approach makes sense: Michael J. Fox’s celebrity is obvious to the committee and likely evident to most outside audiences. As a truly iconic figure and perhaps the most famous boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali embodies his celebrity and needs to do little to remind audiences of who he is. Instead, these and other celebrities emphasize their experience with the topic—be it Parkinson’s disease (Ali, Fox), spinal injuries (Reeve), or mathematics (McKellar). If they lack direct experience, they use the experience of family and friends to build credibility (Affleck, 2001; Bell, 2001; Beuerlein, 2000; Edwards, 1999). In either case, celebrities construct an agent who is personally involved with the issue and who cares deeply about those who are affected by it. Celebrity per se is rhetorically subverted to personal or indirect experience with the issue at hand.

Scene also plays an important role in the celebrity testimony. Many describe the scene in terms of some social, political, or medical problem that exists. For instance, David Hyde Pierce (1998, 2002) describes scene as the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease on victims and their families. Other “scenes” include AIDS (Elton John, 2002), teen steroid use (Curt Schilling, 2005), teen drug use (Bryton McClure, 1998), the need for stem cell research (Christopher Reeve, 2000; Michael J. Fox, 2000), diabetes (Mary Tyler Moore, 1999, 2000, 2003), and coastal pollution (Ted Danson, 1999).

Not all descriptions of scene involve health issues. Jesse “The Body” Ventura (2001) describes a scene in which Major League Baseball operates as a “self-regulating, billion-dollar monopoly” (para. 25). Television actor and musician John Schneider (1998) testifies in favor of an anti-flag burning amendment, portraying a scene in which “flag desecrators go beyond the bounds of decency and civility. They are no longer fellow citizens expressing opinions, but violent thieves, attempting to steal our nation’s soul” (para. 13). Schneider discusses the 1989 Supreme Court decision protecting flag burning as free speech and details several instances of protest involving flag burning. Baseball manager Tommy Lasorda (1998), testifying at the same hearing, portrays a similar scene in which “baseball, like the American flag and national anthem, ties everyone in this great country of ours together” (para. 4). For Sheryl Crow (2000), the scene is one in which recording artists are treated unfairly by record labels.

For some, scene is more personal. Former NFL quarterback Jim Kelly (1999) describes the scene in terms of his own son’s struggle with Krabbe Disease. Tony Bennett (1999) uses a similar approach with diabetes, discussing two friends and fellow musicians:

I was fortunate to be close friends with two wonderful performers—Ella Fitzgerald and the coronet player Bobby Hackett. Through the years that I knew them, I would witness how this terrible disease took their toll on them, as they suffered from the complications caused by diabetes. (para. 1)
For these celebrities, the scene in which they are acting is a more personal one. Each describes the “setting” of their own personal life or the life of a family member or close friend, implying that others are also suffering in this way. Regardless of whether these celebrities describe scene in terms of large groups of people or individuals, nearly all celebrities portray the scene of their testimony as one in which some social, political or medical problem is causing suffering for others—and sometimes themselves. Once more, pentadic analysis reveals that celebrities subvert their own status as public figures in favor of a more private or personal ethos.

For Burke, agency describes how the act is done. One theme that runs throughout the celebrity testimony we examined is that of pathos—celebrities often use emotional appeals as they “give voice to the voiceless.” Appeals to pity, sadness, fear and unfairness are common. For example, Christopher Reeve (1997) combines both pity for victims and their families with anger toward insurance companies when he states “it is hard to sympathize with insurance companies when you watch a mother in tears begging for a chair so that her quadriplegic son can take a shower” (para 18). John Schneider’s (1998) testimony is replete with angry emotional appeals, as when he describes the 1989 Supreme Court flag burning decision as “absolute, unadulterated hogwash” (para. 6), while Mary Tyler Moore (2000) describes the horrors of facing amputation due to diabetes (para. 6). Sam Waterston (1998) describes the experience of a Ugandan refugee in horrific detail, telling how she fled her country only to be denied refugee status and imprisoned in an American jail alongside dangerous criminals:

It was then that Yudaya broke down. She began to sob, “I want to die.” The prison sent a team of men dressed in riot gear, accompanied by a dog, to restrain her. They then began to strip search her . . . . She begged them not to remove her bra and panties, but they ignored her pleas. They then placed her in four point restraints, nude and spread-eagled on a cot in a solitary confinement cell. She was heavily sedated for three days and left in solitary for a week. (para. 3)
Even Lars Ulrich (2000), drummer for the heavy metal band Metallica, creates an angry emotional appeal in relation to the topic of music downloading when he describes the popular download service Napster as having “hijacked” Metallica’s music (para. 3).

All of these celebrities (and others, including Danielle Steel, 2000; Carroll O’Connor, 1998, 2001; Anthony Edwards, 1999; Catherine Bell, 2000, 2001; Christopher Reeve, 2003; David Hyde Pierce, 1998, 2002; Jim Kelly, 1999; Michael J. Fox, 1999, 2000, 2002; Sam Moore, 1998; and Stephen Curtis Chapman, 1999) use emotional appeals as the agency by which they tell their stories and the stories of others. This is not surprising. Celebrities—even those with direct personal experience—are not experts in the sense that other witnesses are. Expert witnesses like doctors and scientists can provide committees with testimony about the scope and breadth of social problems in ways that those with limited personal experience cannot. But rather than allowing their limited experience to negatively affect the quality of their testimony, celebrities use their experience to focus on specific individuals and their personal struggles with the issues being considered—scope is traded for depth. The emotionally-laden testimony of celebrities serves the rhetorical goal of personalizing an issue in ways that broad scientific testimony cannot. Thus, in terms of hearings as a whole, celebrity testimony can be seen as providing pathos where other witnesses would have to provide more logos-driven statements.

As for purpose, the final element of the pentad, celebrities describe their purpose as helping to pass legislation and therefore to improve the lives of the less fortunate. Many celebrities appeal to the committee to support or vote for a specific piece of legislation, resolution, or constitutional amendment, including Bob Barker (2000), Catherine Bell (2000), Isaac Hayes (2000), Muhammad Ali (2004), and Tommy Lasorda (1998). Others appear before committees or subcommittees who are not considering specific legislation, but are exploring the need for funding for research—usually related to specific diseases—including Michael J. Fox (1999, 2002), David Hyde Pierce (1998, 2002), and Christopher Reeve (1997, 2003). Although specific legislation is not being considered, these celebrities portray their purpose as helping to create legislative solutions through increased appropriations. For instance, Fox specifically calls for the Senate Appropriations Committee to double National Institutes of Health funding for Parkinson’s research (1999, para. 1).

Others make an indirect call to action, describing how life for the voiceless would be different if Congress passes a particular bill under consideration or acts to solve some problem. Art Alexakis (2000), for example, reflects on his impoverished childhood, stating “what a different life I would have had if HR 1488 [a bill to help mothers collect child support from absent fathers] had been in existence when I was a child” (para. 1). Similarly, Catherine Bell (2000) discusses the importance of stopping alleged human rights violations against religious minorities in Europe so that minority groups can worship freely.

While their act is described as giving voice to the voiceless, celebrities portray their actions as designed for the purpose of not simply being heard, but creating change through legislation. They have added their voice to the debate in order to positively affect a scene in which others are suffering. They portray themselves as providing a voice for those who cannot stand up for themselves or who cannot be heard. Celebrity has given them the opportunity to change the scene for the better, and they portray their purpose as noble and selfless.

Ratios: Agent-Act and Scene-Act

The second step of pentadic criticism is to label the dominant term and describe the key ratios. Oleszek’s (2001) claim that “the testimony of celebrity witnesses . . . is a surefire way to attract national attention to issues” (p. 94) neatly summarizes most of the literature concerning celebrity witnesses and suggests a purpose-act ratio (the purpose of attracting attention controls the act of calling celebrity witnesses). However, this perspective is clearly that of the committee: Undoubtedly, committees use celebrities to draw attention to their work (see also Smith, 1999; Vincent, 1999). Despite the popularity of this perspective and its practical utility for congressional committees, the rhetoric of celebrities rarely attributes motive in this way.4 Much more common are attributions of motives in terms of the agent-act and scene-act ratio. Celebrities portray their actions (giving voice to the voiceless) as controlled by agent (their own personal experience with the subject—not their celebrity status) and scene (the suffering of the voiceless).

Several examples help clarify the agent-act ratio in the rhetoric of celebrity witnesses. For instance, Christopher Reeve (2002) describes himself as motivated to speak out because of his own personal experience with paralysis, while Don Henley (2003) and Lars Ulrich (2000) portray themselves as speaking out because of their personal experience with music piracy. Danica McKellar (2000) portrays her motivation to testify about the lack of women’s and girls’ involvement in math and science as grounded in her personal experiences as a college math major. And musician Art Alexakis (2000) portrays his motivation to speak for neglected children as arising from his own experience growing up without a father. These celebrities argue that they are compelled to testify because of who they are in a private, rather than public sense. They are speaking as victims of spinal injury (Reeve), as victims of theft (Henley, Ulrich), as victims of sexism (McKellar), or as the children of delinquent parents (Alexakis), not as celebrities. Although celebrities may be invited to testify because of their ability to draw attention to hearings, and although it may be impossible to truly set one’s celebrity aside, the rhetoric of celebrities portrays a different, more personal motive. They are people with direct experience, not pawns of committees. They have come to improve the lives of the less fortunate, not simply to provide publicity to politicians and their work.

Far more common, however, is the scene-act ratio, in which celebrities portray themselves as motivated to speak for the voiceless because of the scene (whether that scene is widespread disease, political oppression, or some other perceived societal ill). For instance, Steve Beuerlein (2000) says

I am here for Jeff Sherer. But I am also here for all of the ALS patients, family members, and other ALS activists who have filled this hearing room. I am here for the Americans who already living with ALS. And I am here for the 14 Americans who will be called into a doctor’s office today and be told that they have been diagnosed with ALS. (para. 15)
David Hyde Pierce (2002) attributes his presence to the suffering of Alzheimer’s victims and their families, and Isaac Hayes (2001) describes a scene in which French citizens are oppressed because of their religious beliefs.5 These celebrities position themselves as agents of societal change motivated to speak for the voiceless because of the suffering being inflicted upon them through disease, political oppression, sexism, ageism, or other evils. Their motivation is altruistic and pure, not self-centered or celebrity-driven. Celebrities portray their work as far more important than simple attention-gaining: Their purpose is not simply to create publicity for hearings, but to improve the lives of the voiceless and the less fortunate.

Implications of the Scene-Act Ratio: Celebrity Testimony as Emotionally Laden Victimage

This study sought to improve our understanding of the role of celebrity testimony in Congressional hearings. Using Burke’s pentad, we found that the scene-act ratio (and to a lesser extent the agent-act ratio) dominates the rhetoric of celebrity witnesses: Celebrities portray their actions as giving voice to the voiceless and as motivated by significant societal ills. They commonly use the agency of emotional appeals toward that end, and portray their purpose as creating social change through legislation.

Three implications of these findings merit discussion. First, the scene-act ratio downplays the importance of agency, particular celebrity status. This is somewhat surprising, given the suggestion in the literature that celebrity testimony functions simply to draw attention to hearings and their subject matter. From an outsider’s point of view, this certainly makes sense: Hearings involving celebrities attract greater media attention and the public therefore has a greater chance of learning about them, as Strine (2004) has demonstrated. But celebrity rhetoric downplays this role, instead framing the celebrity appearance as an act of speaking out for the voiceless that is motivated by an urgent societal condition. A quote by Michael J. Fox (2000) summarizes how the scene-act ratio downplays celebrity status in this way:

By now, many of you have heard my story. But, you haven’t heard this story,—about a 38-year old senior editor whose PD [Parkinson’s disease] caused her to lose her job at a publishing house, plunging her from New York’s middle class into poverty. (para. 4)
What is important for celebrities like Fox is not their own celebrity or even their own personal struggles—they describe themselves as motivated to tell the stories of other, less visible victims. Agent is pushed aside in favor of scene. These celebrities do not argue “I’m here because I’m famous”—they argue “I’m here because the situation demands that someone give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves.”

Secondly, and following from this observation, the scene-act ratio creates a much nobler motive for celebrity testimony. Celebrities do not portray themselves as public relations tools of Congress: They portray themselves as good people taking a stand on important issues. Whether the problem is a disease, lack of research funding, religious oppression, ageism, the mistreatment of animals, or a host of other issues, celebrities ascribe noble motives to themselves. This finding is not necessarily surprising, but is mostly ignored by the literature on committee hearings and witnesses, which suggests that celebrity witnesses are little more than pawns to be maneuvered about for political gain. This is also a more powerful rhetorical strategy—celebrity testimony may indeed be designed to draw attention to a particular problem, but if the public sees such testimony as nothing more than a public relations stunt, it is likely to become cynical about congress rather than to agree to the importance of the issue being considered.

Third, emotional appeals are the primary method (agency) used to tell the stories of others (act). By their nature, stories are more emotionally-laden than statistics and other forms of evidence, and celebrities take full advantage of this difference. By and large, the celebrity testimony we examined tells the stories of victims using emotional language and personal anecdotes. What are we to make of this phenomenon? Perhaps committees invite celebrity witnesses because of their ability to craft and deliver emotionally laden testimony that compliments the more logical approach of other expert witnesses (many of them are actors, after all). Future studies could compare the ratios of non-celebrity witnesses to those of celebrities in order to determine if this is true.

Regardless, it is clear that committees will continue to invite celebrity witnesses and that these celebrities will have much to say. If nothing else, they will undoubtedly continue to draw attention to these issues and to the committee hearings about them. Our pentadic analysis suggests that even though this may be the case, a more fuller accounting of the roles of celebrity witnesses must consider the rhetoric of the celebrities directly, as they characterize their purpose and motives quite differently than others do. Committee members may indeed look at celebrities as tools to be used in order to pass legislation or to promote their work to constituents. But by emphasizing the scene-act and agent-act ratio, celebrity witnesses portray themselves as noble and altruistic agents of social change, not just the pawns of committees. Only by recognizing this difference—as made clear through the application of Burke’s pentad—can we begin to more fully understand the “strategic moments” of celebrity testimony.


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Author Note

Christopher R. Darr (Ph.D. Purdue, 2004) is Assistant Professor of Communication Arts at Indiana University Kokomo.

Harry C. “Neil” Strine IV (Ph.D. Purdue, 2004) is Associate Professor of Political Science at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.

The authors wish to thank the anonymous reviewers and the editor of K. B. Journal for their helpful feedback on this project.

Correspondence concerning this article may be addressed to Christopher R. Darr at 2300 S. Washington St., P.O. Box 9003, Kokomo, IN 46904-9003 or to darrc@iuk.edu.


  1. See Foss’s (2004) textbook on rhetorical criticism for a succinct summary of the pentadic method. For examples of rhetorical criticism using the pentad as method, see Brummett (1979), Hayden (1999), Ivie (1974), Ling (1970), Stewart (1991), and many others.
  2. Other celebrities who appeal to personal experience and non-celebrity forms of expertise (such as membership and/or leadership roles in charity organizations) include Carroll O’Connor (1998, 2001), Anthony Edwards (1999), Alan Silvestri (1999), Ben Affleck (2001), Charleton Heston (1998), Catherine Bell (2001), Isaac Hayes (2001), and Danielle Steele (2000).
  3. Ventura, a former professional wrestler, occupies a unique position. At the time of his testimony he was both governor of Minnesota (home of the Minnesota Twins baseball franchise) and a celebrity. His credentials raise an interesting question: Is he a celebrity or a politician? Our answer is “both.” Given our definition of celebrity, we included Ventura in our sample.
  4. One clear exception is Michael J. Fox’s (1999) assertion that “what celebrity has given me is the opportunity to raise the visibility of Parkinson’s disease” (para. 2).
  5. Other celebrities whose rhetoric can be classified as exhibiting this same scene-act ratio include Ben Affleck (2001), Muhammad Ali (2004), Bob Barker (2000), Catherine Bell (2000, 2001), Tony Bennett (1999), Peter Breinholt (2000), Steven Curtis Chapman (1999), Ted Danson (1999), Anthony Edwards (1999), Michael J. Fox (2000, 2002), Charleton Heston (1998), Lou Holtz (2001), Mary Tyler Moore (1999, 2000, 2003), Sam Moore (1998), Michael Medved (1999), Christopher Reeve (2000), Loretta Swit (1999), and Sam Waterston (1998).

A Review of Kenneth Burke’s On Human Nature

Boykin Witherspoon

I have read several reviews on this remarkable book. I do not intend to offer another in the usual sense of writing a book review. When I came across the book recently I was overwhelmed by its raw oral quality. This speaking volume of essays communicates the essence of Kenneth Burke’s mode of invention in a way that no one of his other works has done.

I was introduced to Burke at Princeton by that magisterial figure, Wilbur Samuel Howell, in 1970. I was one of “Howell’s boys” for Princeton was still an all-male school until the fall of 1972. As one of Howell’s boys I got stuffed with knowledge about the historical development of rhetoric in England and America.  A man of gravity, Howell never talked about applied rhetoric or the role of rhetoric in the popular culture. His students were to be guardians and explicators of the master texts.

Ironically, relatively few of his students entered the academy. In fact, like so many of his boys I took the short journey up the pike to New York and worked in advertising during Manhattan’s so-called Silver Age.  Although I never asked Howell about the matter, I think it must have bothered him that his young eagles wrote cheap doggerel for huge pay labor while he remained as the keeper of the flame teaching each rising generation about the rhyming scheme of the Elizabethan sonnet and the tragic journey of Peter Ramus.

One afternoon after completing a lecture on the anti-ciceronianism of Erasmus, Professor Howell handed me a battered copy a paper entitled “Creativity” (originally given at The Northwest English Conference of 1970).  The author’s name added in what looked like grease pencil was Kenneth Burke. The stapled sheets were covered with red ink annotations and marginal notes. The blue mimeograph ink l stained my hands and the smell reminded me of hand press announcements of anti-war demonstrations.

“I think you should read this,” said Howell, “it is written by a friend of mine. He has a rambling, free association kind of style, but if you stick with it, you will find he has a lot of very interesting ideas.”

 In 1970, the last decade of the steam age, creativity was not as good a word as it is today. Howell had schooled us in its dark side and we associated it with physically diseased and mental unstable 19th century Romantic poets ravaged by venery. These tubercular opium eating wrecks were seen as dangerous, destructive, and invincibly attractive to weak minded and undisciplined non-Ivy League undergraduates.  In many ways the 1970’s was an old fashioned decade, an interval between feverish Hippiedom and the 1980’s Neo-Gilded Age. We admired models, imitation, and were full of helpless admiration for Quintilian. I read the manuscript Howell had given me. It struck me as bombastic and shallow; something halfway between an essay and a bombastic speech. It was both pedantic and hyperbolic, straining for effect and then collapsing into broad parody. I was young and scared. I had an older brother who had been killed in military service in 1966 and I was taking no chances. I admired Howell’s tidy assessment of Hugh Blair suddenly delivered just at the close of an arid fact packed lecture:: “Classical discipline like an oriflamme streamed through all his works.”

I was immersed in personal and family tragedies at that time and I found Burke a kind of irritating gadfly rather than a serious intellectual.  When I finally met him at a luncheon at NYU in 1975 he told me he was experiencing traumatic shock. I suspected a death in his family or a terrible financial reverse. He told me that he was in mourning over the news of the dramatic ritual suicide of the famous Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. I walked away speechless and tried to hide my self behind a sideboard of sandwiches and dips.  A few minutes later I mustered the courage to wander back and Burke engaged me in the friendliest manner with a series of witty attacks against most of the famous literary critics I had studied in college.

 I had found Burke in print over-fluent and obsessive, irritating without informing, shining yet opaque.  Burke was very different in the flesh. He was profane and reckless and funny. Within five minutes I felt as if we were old, old friends.

On Human Nature was intended to be Burke’s ultimate logological statement. These were the “summing up essays” collected and edited by William H. Rueckert and Angelo Bonadonna. The most important part of the book is the Interview with Burke called Counter-Gridlock (Chapter 14). This interview gives a vivid picture of Burke the conversationalist. It is repetitious, witty, energetic, digressive, full of brilliant insights, happy verbal associations, and a mind that leaps runs, jerks and rolls. Burke often said that we do not think with thoughts but think with our words. The reader of the interview will be impressed by the worlds that Burke has built with his words. The earlier essays reflect Burke’s lifelong involvement with technology, human entelechy, and logology. But the interview shows Burke at his most characteristic. He is the original Adam engaging in what he used to call “the naming day in Eden.”

The true Burke, the talking Burke is fully realized in the Final Interview. That was the Burke his friends knew. He was the Edenic Adam fixing names to everything about him, scrapping old names, testing new names and then becoming frustrated because the names suddenly seem confining, inadequate or inchoate.  On the final page of the book he characterizes the poet Wallace Stevens as trying to experience something that he doesn’t yet have a word for. Burke once told me the human capacity to invent names was powerful enough to invent destructive technology but not smart enough to control it. He said that our propensity to taxonomy meant that we could put all of our intelligence into our machines and then “just as that old bastard Samuel Butler predicted relinquish control of our societies to them”

He believed in word power and that every word was just like Plato’s archetypes, a vortex of light strong enough to generate an entire social system. Not until he was into his nineties did the daemon cease to assault him. This book is a record of the unique ardor of his linguistic pursuit.

Boykin Witherspoon
Independent Scholar