Book Review: Identity’s Strategy: Rhetorical Selves in Conversion

Anderson, Dana.  Identity’s Strategy: Rhetorical Selves in Conversion.  Columbia: University of South Carolina, 2007.

Given the prevalence of post-modern skepticism and the textual turns in the humanities and social sciences, many traditional rhetorical concepts have become difficult to assume, and rhetoric is faced with either abandoning or reclaiming and redefining core concepts. Traditionally rhetoric has presumed a role for an individual speaker to craft language in such a way as to affect the social and material world, and rather than abandon discursive agency, many contemporary scholars have been theorizing anew core rhetorical concepts as diverse as intention, agency, deliberation, subjectivity, hermeneutics, identity, and rhetoric itself.

Dana Anderson’s Identity’s Strategy: Rhetorical Selves in Conversion, a significant reclamation, constructs a rhetorical theory of personal identity. Asking “how rhetors constitute the identities of audiences,” Anderson also examines how rhetors constitute their own identities” (14). To accomplish both tasks, he reads first-person conversion narratives, investigating both how individuals describe their conversion or identity-transformation and how their narratives might work also to transform audiences. In choosing to look at reported moments of transformation to develop a theory of identity, Anderson foregrounds the dynamic, strategic, and effective nature of the rhetorical subject, arguing against the skepticism that diminishes current relationships between the humanities and civic engagement. The method is smart as are his choices of texts to read. He examines Dorothy Day’s religious conversion, David Brock’s political conversion, Deirdre McCloskey’s gender transformation, and the effects of scenic transformation in the autobiography Black Elk Speaks. Each example allows Anderson to consider identity as an experiential, contextual, and temporal term. In approaching identity with three perspectives, he escapes more static Cartesian antecedents and defines identity as dynamic.

Adding the richness of his vision, Anderson develops his concept of identity within a Burkean frame of grammar, rhetoric, and symbolic, ultimately building his key insights on Burke’s “Dialectic of Constitutions,” specifically the substance of constitution, the agon of constitutional principles, and the dialectic of merger and division. Following A Grammar of Motives in premising language as a resource of boundless transformations, Anderson argues that language’s ambiguity “both anchors and animates Burke’s ‘problem of identity’” (25).  Then building on the concept of identification within Burke’s Rhetoric, he argues that identity is itself a kind of symbolic action. Anderson sees identification as the means by which a unique “I” is formed, whether in a deliberate, suasive strategy of appealing to an audience or through social identification with a group. In the process of engagement within multiple social relationships, the unique I develops, and through those ongoing relationships, she maintains a degree of consistency over time. Similar to identity within constitutions, individual identities are formed of merger and division (which perhaps are “partial acts”). In developing his statement about identity, Anderson lays out the multiple, complicated roles that identification plays for Burke, glancing at several entanglements of identity and identification; but Anderson focuses more specifically on the tensions between identification or union and division within identification, for it is within that tension that conversions and transformations take place.

On initial reading of Anderson’s theoretical orientation, one might think that linking the substance of constitutions with the substance of identity, and the linking of identity with identification, are too analogic and metaphoric to be useful. The loose chain of insights, backward and forward from identity to identification to constitution to merger and division is certainly Burkean in its luster and lack of lucidity (here a Burke-like paradox of light), but the looseness is generous and productive in two very significant ways. First, to reclaim the concept of identity and acknowledge a rhetorical capacity for self-definition, temporal definition, and situational definition, the reclaimed concept will have to be copious enough to acknowledge a number of discourses, power dynamics, historical agons, and cultural constructions as well as be acute enough to engage a number of rhetorical theories. Furthermore, demands for more rigorous division, definition, and denials of ambiguity are not Burkean (a sacrilege!), and they are inappropriate to reclaiming a concept of identity open to transformation rather than status or essence.  Anderson’s commitment is to moving from earlier desires for an authentic individual to an individual of fluid or molten autonomy formed in historical struggle. The desire for a logical rigor or rigidity is at odds with the premises of an ambiguous and transformative language. The argumentative style of Anderson’s reclamation of identity is a productive part of its logic and method.

The analytic richness of analogy between the substance of identity and the substance of the constitution are clear in Anderson’s readings of autobiographies; each reveals the place of identity in rhetorical exchange. Most telling is the chapter “Black Elk Speaks and Is Spoken” based on Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux (1932). Here Anderson demonstrates how changing scenes transform the constitution of identity. John G. Neihardt, a Western writer, interviewed sixty-eight year old Black Elk, documenting his holy vision.  In the decades since, the tension over who actually speaks in the autobiography demonstrate the rhetorical effects of identity: whose identity and whose motives affect what audiences?  Reviewing the readings of the autobiography through the decades further demonstrates the power of scenic transformation on identity.

In Anderson’s reading of Black Elk’s constitution, initially Neihardt sought to memorialize Lakota history, constructing Black Elk as a tragic hero.  The scene, and so constitution and identity, however, change. First during the 1960’s and then during the 1980’s, cultural and political forces brought new attention to Native American history, and this reopened identity questions, specifically whether Black Elk’s spirituality is a resources for Native Americans or the invention of a white writer. Questions of Black Elk’s real identity became debatable.  In addition to the autobiography’s reception in the 30’s, 60’s, and 80’s, Anderson discusses the 1985 publication of the interview transcripts and Black Elk’s death bed statement as a regenerate Catholic (1933). These multiple autobiographical texts demonstrate how literary multiculturalism—not just multiple cultures, but multiple texts, constitutions, and audiences—creates alterations in the constitution or the identity of Black Elk as both a text and a rhetor. Black Elk’s identity constitution repeatedly becomes a new act, and he becomes more tensely layered and controversial. His identity which would transform a scene becomes transformed by the scenes in return.

Anderson argues that conversion narratives are not just therapeutic self-representations, but significant assertions or acts of individual substance.  His four case studies of conversion become the bases for understanding the rhetorical self. If rhetoric can no longer premise a self-defining and self-constituting identity, Anderson’s insight has helped rhetoric retain identity and identification as core concepts to its art. Anderson’s conception offers a way into the continued “study of persuasive self-presentation” (165).  Rather than sovereignty, more rhetorical than sovereignty, it is agon and audience that create “who I am.”  The rhetorical self, the self as a situated, deliberative practice, is the substance of identity.

Arabella Lyon