Issues of KB Journal

KB Journal began publishing in October, 2004. New issues are published twice per year.

Volume 16, Number 1 Winter 2023

Contents of KB Journal Volume 16, Issue 1 Winter 2023

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

Cody Hunter, University of Nevada, Reno


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generative and Generating Principles: Temporizing the Essence of Nuclear Weapons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Feehan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Unintended By-Products

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

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

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

Two Principles

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

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

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

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

Three Laws

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

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


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

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

The Two Roads to Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personalizing: Existing Technologies

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

Personalizing: Emerging Technologies

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


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

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


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


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

Unintended By-Products

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

—. Letter. April 13, 1989.

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

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

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

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

Jeremy Cox
The University of Texas Permian Basin


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

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

Burke and the Transvaluation of Values

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trained Incapacities and (Im)Piety

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

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

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

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

Perspective by Incongruity, or the Method of Making Gargoyles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Introduction and Preview

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

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

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

The Origins of the Terms in Pre-literate Greek Poetics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inventional and Philosophical Uses of the Terms in Ancient Athens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inventional Uses of the Terms in Hellenistic and Roman Rhetoric

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who did the deede.

What was doen.

Where it was doen.

What helpe had he to it.

Wherefore he did it.

How he did it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dramaturgical Uses in Shakespeare’s England

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vico’s Inventional Uses of the Terms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theoretical Uses in the Twentieth Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burke-Inspired Uses of the Terms

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Karen Gulbrandsen
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Technological Psychosis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overfishing as a Technologized Construct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhetoric and Technological Psychosis

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Morality Martyr Homology

Lisa Glebatic Perks, Merrimack College


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Terministic Cycle from Order to Guilt to Sacrifice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis: Traitor to Martyr

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michonne: Mmm, but you are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Slaying the Vile Beasts Within: Theorizing a Mortification Mechanism

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kennedy’s Convention Speech: Catharsis and Redemption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vicarage in Scapegoating and Mortification

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

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

Charting the Dialectics of Mortification

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

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

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

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

Scapegoating and Mortification Compared and Contrasted

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

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

Summary and Conclusion

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

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


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

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

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

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

Greig Henderson, University of Toronto

Cover of Philosophical Turns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Volume 15, Number 1 Spring 2021

Contents of KB Journal Volume 15, Issue 1 Spring 2021

“Eye-Crossing from Brooklyn to Manhattan" by Kenneth Burke. Video, Captioning, and Artist Statement by Victoria Carrico

Victoria Carrico, Clemson University

"Eye-Crossing from Brooklyn to Manhattan."Read by Kenneth Burke and Adapted and Captioned by Victoria Carrico on Vimeo.

Poet, Rhetorician, Theorist, Wordman—Kenneth Burke reads this lyric poem that Gregory Clark says helps us find consubstantiality in our shared experience of the American landscape: "it invites readers to identify themselves with the poet by adopting as their own the attitude the poem expresses toward circumstances that they share" ("“Sinkership” and “Eye-Crossing”: Apprehensive in the American Landscape," KB, 2006, Videographer Victoria Carrico renders the poem in a stunning visual and audio interpretation. "Eye-Crossing—From Brooklyn to Manhattan appeared in The Nation 02 June 1969. (c) 1969 by The Nation. Used by permission. Royalty-free stock footage collected from and The background music track, "Sad Winds," was used with permission from This production received generous support from the Department of English at Clemson University and Dr. David Blakesley, Campbell Chair in Technical Communication and Professor of English.

Artist Statement

Often, we look at poetry as a beautiful but hardly theoretical form of writing. We interpret it, attaching deeper meaning to verse, but it is not typically viewed as a form of ‘theory,’ per se. For Burke, though, poetry and theory are inseparable; in fact, he “only started writing theory because people weren’t getting his point in his fiction and poetry” (Clark). Burke used poetry as a vessel for his theory, and “Eye-Crossing from Brooklyn to Manhattan,” specifically, carried his thoughts about our encounters with technology.

“Eye-Crossing,” according to Gregory Clark, “articulate[s] Burke’s apprehension, while spending time . . . in New York . . . about technology’s effects on nature and human reactions. But poetry, unlike theory, enables readers to share this apprehension at an attitudinal level that encompasses all levels of identity. Through [this poem], readers can become consubstantial with Burke” (Clark). In Burke’s “Poetics, Dramatistically Considered,” he describes the word “poetry” as “essentially an action word, coming from a word meaning ‘to make’” (Burke, qtd. in Clark). If poetry is action, then, it follows that one should be able to see it, rather than just hear or read it.

With this in mind, I decided to bring “Eye-Crossing from Brooklyn to Manhattan” to life by creating a visual accompaniment to the poem in order to increase the “consubstantiality” between readers and Burke. By adding a visual element to the poem, viewers will be able to experience the apprehensions, fears, and thoughts Burke expressed in this poem in a new medium, deepening their understanding of his ideas. In completing this project, I used an audio file of Burke himself reading the poem at Washington University at St. Louis in 1970.1 In my opinion, poetry is meant to be heard rather than read, and what better way to experience Burke’s poetry than by hearing his own voice reciting the poem? The visuals included in my video are not meant to be a full story-adaptation or a new version of Burke’s poem; they are simply meant to accompany his reading and provide a visual depiction of the themes, feelings, and thoughts expressed throughout the poem.

In creating this project, I worked extensively with ADOBE AUDITION and PREMIERE PRO. The original audio clip of Burke reading the poem was filled with unwanted background noise, side comments, and distortion that I removed using AUDITION’s editing tools. Because the full audio clip was not just a reading of “Eye-Crossing” (Burke read this poem during a longer lecture and interrupted himself while reading the poem several times), there was additional commentary that needed to be removed in order for me to have a clean audio file that didn’t stray from the poem.

After exporting the cut and cleaned audio file, I compiled video material. In order to give my video a professional appearance, I used published, royalty-free stock video available for public use.2 Because this poem is so metaphorical and doesn’t always “paint a picture” of a specific scene, it was difficult to find appropriate or fitting visual material at times. In reading Burke’s “glosses” that were published alongside the poem, though, I realized that this poem is filled with implicit apprehension about aging, technology, war, and the state of America. I included video clips that reflected these fears in my collection.

Throughout this poem, Burke struggles to articulate both the view that he is seeing and the rhetorical meaning behind it. Because Burke himself cannot quite find the words to express what he sees and feels in this moment, my visual accompaniment to his poem is not meant to be an exact depiction of his experience. Instead, it is intended to capture and display the feelings, ideas, and mood behind the poem in ways that are at times straightforward and at others more abstract, much like the poem itself.

The overall tone of this poem, though laced with areas of humor and lightness, is pessimistic and fearful. In Clark’s words, “Here an aging Burke—now in his seventies—is facing his losses: of friends, of freedom to walk and wander, and the imminent death of his wife. . . . In ‘Eye-Crossing,’ the city is encountered from behind an apartment window by a lonely man about to become more lonely. . . . For him, for the voice with which his readers are invited to identify, [this landscape] afford[s] experiences of alienation and risk” (Clark). I expressed this loneliness visually by making my entire video black and white. By removing the color from the video clips and images used, I simultaneously aged the video to better fit into the time period in which the poem was written and created a somber feeling. I also gave my video a melancholy, pensive feel through the chosen background music track.3 I intentionally chose dramatic music in a primarily minor key in order to auditorily express the tone of the poem.

After collecting hundreds of video clips, I used ADOBE PREMIERE PRO to create my project. To achieve a professional feel, I took the time to layer video clips, time each clip to fade in and out, and adjust the opacity and contrast of each clip so that the overall video looked cohesive, which was a time intensive process. Once the video itself was completed, I used PREMIERE PRO’s caption feature to create closed captions by hand, which were then exported as a .srt file and uploaded alongside the video onto Vimeo to ensure accessibility of the project.  The audio clip of Burke’s poem was over 32 minutes, and each minute of visual accompaniment took about three hours to create, not including the time required to type captions. Therefore, well over 100 hours were spent on this project from beginning to end including audio editing, video clip collecting, and creating the video project itself. However, an infinite amount of knowledge was gained by the producer during this process.

The resulting project combines poetry, audio, and visuals to translate Burke’s work to a new medium. Through this new expression of his work, I hope that Burke can become more accessible to a wider audience, thus furthering his impact on a new generation of rhetoric scholars. By staying true to Burke’s feelings and intentions and by making rhetorical choices that express his articulated and insinuated thoughts, fears, and concerns within the poem, I believe that my resulting video project is something the Wordman himself would appreciate.


1. Audio used with permission from The Nation.
2. Royalty-free stock footage collected from and
3. The background music track, Sad Winds was used with permission from

Works Cited

Clark, Gregory. “‘Sinkership’ and ‘Eye-Crossing’: Apprehensive in the American Landscape.” KB Journal, vol. 2, iss. 2, Spring 2006, Accessed 5 Dec. 2019.

Eye-Crossing—From Brooklyn to Manhattan

Kenneth Burke

To Marianne Moore
whose exacting yet kindly verses
give us exceptionally many twists and turns
to rejoice about
even in a lean season


Scheming to pick my way past Charybdýlla
(or do I mean Scyllýbdis?)
caught in the midst of being nearly over,
not "midway on the roadway of our life,"
a septuagenarian valetudinarian
thrown into an airy osprey-eyrie
with a view most spacious
(and every bit of it our country's primal gateway even),
although, dear friends, I'd love to see you later,
after the whole thing's done,
comparing notes, us comically telling one another
just what we knew or thought we knew
that others of us didn't,
all told what fools we were, every last one of us—
I'd love the thought, a humane after-life,
more fun than a bbl. of monkeys,
but what with being sick of wooing Slumber,
I'll settle gladly for Oblivion.


Weep, Hypochondriasis (hell, I mean smile):
The bell rang, I laid my text aside,
The day begins in earnest, they have brought the mail.
And now to age and ailments add
a thirteen-page single-spaced typed missile-missive,
to start the New Year right.
On the first of two-faced January,
". . . the injuries you inflict upon me . . . persecution . . .
such legal felonies . . . unremitting efforts . . . malice, raids,
slander, conspiracy . . . your spitefulness . . .”
—just when I talked of getting through the narrows,
now I'm not so sure.
Smile, Hypochondriasis, (hell, I mean wanly weep).


So let's begin again:
Crossing by eye from Brooklyn to Manhattan
(Walt's was a ferry-crossing,
Hart's by bridge)­—
to those historic primi donni,
now add me, and call me what you will.
From Brooklyn, now deserted
by both Marianne Moore and the Dodgers—
an eye-crossing
with me knocked cross-eyed or cockeyed
by a saddening vexing letter from a dear friend gone sour.
I think of a Pandora's box uncorked
while I was trying to untie Laocoön's hydra-headed Gordian knot,
entangled in a maze of Daedalus,
plus modern traffic jam cum blackout.
Let's begin again.


The architectural piles, erections, impositions,
monsters of high-powered real estate promotion—
­from a room high on Brooklyn Heights
the gaze is across and UP, to those things' peaks,
their arrogance!
When measured by this scale of views from Brooklyn
they are as though deserted.

And the boats worrying the harbor
they too are visibly deserted
smoothly and silent
moving in disparate directions
each as but yielding to a trend that bears it
like sticks without volition
carried on a congeries
of crossing currents.

And void of human habitation,
the cars on Madhatter's Eastern drive-away
formless as stars
speeding slowly
close by the feet of the godam mystic giants­—

a restlessness unending, back and forth
(glimpses of a drive, or drivenness,
from somewhere underneath the roots of reason)

me looking West, towards Manhattan, Newark, West
Eye-crossing I have seen the sunrise
gleaming in the splotch and splatter
of Western windows facing East.


East? West?
Between USSR and USA,
their Béhemoth and our Behémoth,
a dialogue of sorts?
Two damned ungainly beasts,
threats to the entire human race's race
but for their measured dread of each the other.
How give or get an honest answer?

Forgive me for this boustrophedon mood
going from left to right, then right to left,
pulling the plow thus back and forth alternately
a digging of furrows not in a field to plant,
but on my own disgruntled dumb-ox forehead.

My Gawd! Begin again!


Turn back. Now just on this side:
By keeping your wits about you,

you can avoid the voidings,
the dog-signs scattered on the streets and sidewalks
(you meet them face to faeces)
and everywhere the signs of people
(you meet them face to face)

The Waltman, with time and tide before him,
he saw things face to face, he said so

then there came a big blow
the pavements got scoured drastically
—exalted, I howled back
into the teeth of the biting wind
me in Klondike zeal inhaling powdered dog-dung
(here's a new perversion)
now but an essence on the fitful gale

Still turning back.
Surmarket—mock-heroic confrontation at—
(An Interlude)


(an interlude)

Near closing time, we're zeroing in.
Ignatius Panallergicus (that's me)
his cart but moderately filled
(less than five dollars buys the lot)
he picks the likeliest queue and goes line up
then waits, while for one shopper far ahead
the lady at the counter tick-ticks off and tallies
items enough to gorge a regiment.

Then, lo! a possibility not yet disclosed sets in.
While Panallergicus stands waiting
next into line a further cart wheels up,
whereat Ignatius Panallergicus (myself, unknowingly
the very soul of Troublous Helpfullness) suggests:
"It seems to me, my friend, you'd come out best
on that line rather than on one of these."
And so (let's call him "Primus")
Primus shifts.

Development atop development:
Up comes another, obviously "Secundus,"
to take his stand behind Ignatius, sunk in thought.
No sooner had Secundus joined the line
than he addressed Ignatius Panallerge approximately thus:
"Good neighbor, of this temporary junction,
pray, guard my rights in this arrangement
while I race off to get one further item,"
then promptly left, and so things stood.

But no. Precisely now in mankind's pilgrimage
who suddenly decides to change his mind
but Primus who, abandoning his other post,
returns to enroll himself again in line behind Ignatius.
Since, to that end, he acts to shove aside
Secundus' cart and cargo, Crisis looms.

Uneasy, Panallergicus explains
"A certain . . . I am sorry . . . but you see . . .
I was entrusted . . . towards the preservation of . . . "
but no need protest further—
­for here is Secundus back,
and wrathful of his rights
as ever epic hero of an epoch-making war

Both aging champions fall into a flurry
of fishwife fury, even to such emphatical extent
that each begins to jettison the other's cargo.
While the contestants rage, pale Panallerge
grins helplessly at others looking on.
But Primus spots him in this very act and shouts
for all to hear, "It's all his fault . . . he was the one . . .
he brought this all about . . .”
and Panallergicus now saw himself
as others see him, with a traitor's wiles.

I spare the rest. (There was much more to come)
How An Authority came swinging in,
twisted Secundus' arm behind his back
and rushed him bumbling from the store.
How further consequences flowed in turn,
I leave all that unsaid.
And always now, when edging towards the counter,
his cargo in his cart,
our Ignatz Panallerge Bruxisticus
(gnashing his costly, poorly fitting dentures)
feels all about his head
a glowering anti-glowing counter-halo . . .

Is that a millstone hung about his neck?
No, it is but the pressing-down
of sixty plus eleven annual milestones.

(It was before the damning letter came.
Had those good burghers also known of that!)


But no! Turn back from turning back. Begin again:
of a late fall evening
I walked on the Esplanade
looking across at the blaze of Walt's Madhatter
and north to Hart's graceful bridge, all lighted
in a cold, fitful gale I walked
on the Esplanade in Brooklyn now deserted
by both Marianne and the Dodgers.
Things seemed spooky—eight or ten lone wandering shapes,
and all as afraid of me as I of them?
We kept a wholesome distance from one another.
Had you shrieked for help in that bluster
who'd have heard you?

Me and my alky in that cold fitful bluster
on the Esplanade that night
above the tiers of the mumbling unseen traffic
It was scary
it was ecstacatic


e decades earlier, before my Pap
fell on evil days (we then were perched
atop the Palisades, looking East, and down
upon the traffic-heavings of the Hudson)

I still remember Gramma (there from Pittsburgh for a spell)
watching the tiny tugs tug monsters.
Out of her inborn sweetness and memories
of striving, putting all that together,
"Those poor little tugs!" she'd say.
God only knows what all
she might be being sorry for.

And now, fronting on sunset,
repeatedly we watch the tugs, "poor little tugs,"
and hear them—­
their signals back and forth as though complaining.
The two tugs help each other, tugging, pushing
(against the current into place)
a sluggish ship to be aligned along a dock,
a bungling, bumbling, bulging, over-laden freighter.

Their task completed,
the two tugs toot good-bye,
go tripping on their way,
leaning as lightly forward
as with a hiker
suddenly divested
of his knapsack.
"Good-bye," rejoicingly, "good-bye"—
whereat I wonder:
Might there also be a viable albeit risky way
to toot
"If you should drive up and ask me,
I think you damn near botched that job"?
"I think you stink."

What might comprise the total range and nature
of tugboat-tooting nomenclature?


a plunk-plunk juke-box joint
him hunched on a stool
peering beyond his drink
at bottles lined up, variously pregnant
(there's a gleaming for you)

Among the gents
a scattering of trick floozies.

Maybe they know or not
just where they'll end,
come closing time.

He'll be in a room alone
himself and his many-mirrored other.

It was a plunk-plunk juke-box joint
its lights in shadow


But turn against this turning.
I look over the water, Me-I crossing.
I was but walking home,
sober as a hang-over with a fluttering heart
and homing as a pigeon.
There comes a dolled-up Jog-Jog towards myself and me.
We're just about to pass when       gong!        she calls—
and her police dog (or was he a mountain lion?)
he had been lingering somewhere, sniffing in the shadows
comes bounding loyally forward.

Oh, great Milton, who wrote the basic masque of Chastity Protected,
praise God, once more a lady's what-you-call-it has been saved—
and I am still out of prison, free to wend my way,
though watching where I step.

I frame a social-minded ad:
"Apt. for rent. In ideal residential neighborhood.
City's highest incidence of dog-signs."



Profusion of confusion. What of a tunnel-crossing?
What if by mail, phone, telegraph, or aircraft,
or for that matter, hearse?

You're in a subway car, tired, hanging from a hook,
and you would get relief?
Here's all I have to offer:
Sing out our national anthem, loud and clear,
and when in deference to the tune
the seated passengers arise,
you quickly slip into whatever seat
seems safest. (I figured out this scheme,
but never tried it.)

Problems pile up, like the buildings,
Even as I write, the highest to the left
soars higher day by day. Now but the skeleton of itself
(these things begin as people end!)
all night its network of naked bulbs keeps flickering
towards us here in Brooklyn . . .
then dying into dawn . . .
or are our . . . are our what?


As with an aging literary man who, knowing
that words see but within
yet finding himself impelled to build a poem
that takes for generating core a startling View,
a novel visual Spaciousness

(he asks himself: "Those who have not witnessed it,
how tell them?—and why tell those who have?
Can you do more than say 'remember'?")

and as he learns the ceaseless march of one-time modulatings
unique to this, out of eternity,
this one-time combination
of primal nature (Earth's) and urban, technic second nature,
there gleaming, towering, spreading out and up
there by the many-colored, changing-colored water

(why all that burning, all throughout the night?
some say a good percentage is because
the cleaning women leave the lights lit.
But no—it's the computers
all night long now
they go on getting fed.)

as such a man may ask himself and try,

as such a one, knowing that words see but inside,
noting repeated through the day or night
the flash of ambulance or parked patrol car,
wondering, "Is it a ticket this time, or a wreck?"
or maybe setting up conditions there
that helicopters land with greater safety,

so puzzling I, eye-crossing . . .
and find myself repeating (and hear the words
of a now dead once Olympian leper),
"Intelligence is an accident,
Genius is a catastrophe."

A jumble of towering tombstones
hollowed, not hallowed,
and in the night incandescent
striving ever to outstretch one another
like stalks of weeds dried brittle in the fall.

Or is it a mighty pack of mausoleums?
Or powerhouses of decay and death­—
towards the poisoning of our soil, our streams, the air,
roots of unhappy wars abroad,
miraculous medicine, amassing beyond imagination
the means of pestilence,
madly wasteful journeys to the moon (why go at all,
except to show you can get back?)

I recalled the wanly winged words of a now dead gracious leper.

(My own words tangle like our entangled ways,
of hoping to stave off destruction
by piling up magic mountains of destructiveness.)


Do I foresee the day?
Calling his counsellors and medicos,
do I foresee a day, when Unus Plurium
World Ruler Absolute, and yet the august hulk
is wearing out—do I foresee such time?

Calling his counsellors and medicos together,
"That lad who won the race so valiantly,"
he tells them, and His Word is Law,
"I'd like that bright lad's kidneys­—
and either honor him by changing his with mine
or find some others for him, as opportunity offers."

No sooner said than done.
Thus once again The State is rescued—
and Unus over all, drags on till next time.

Do I foresee that day, while gazing across, as though that realm was alien
Forfend forfending of my prayer
that if and when and as such things should be
those (from here) silent monsters (over there)
will have by then gone crumbled into rubble,
and nothing all abroad
but ancient Egypt's pyramidal piles of empire-building hierarchal stylized dung remains.

Oh, I have haggled nearly sixty years
in all the seventies I've moved along.
My country, as my aimless ending nears,
oh, dear my country, may I be proved wrong!


"Eye-crossing," I had said? The harbor space so sets it up.
In Walt's ferry-crossing, besides the jumble of things seen
(they leave him "disintegrated")
even the sheer words "see," "sight," "look," and "watch" add up
to 33, the number of a major mythic cross-ifying.

In the last section of the Waltman's testimony
there is but "gaze," and through a "necessary film" yet . . .
"Gaze" as though glazed? It's not unlikely.
"Suspend," he says, "here and everywhere, eternal float of solution."
And the talk is of "Appearances" that "envelop the soul."

Between this culminating ritual translation
and the sheer recordings of the senses
there had been intermediate thoughts
of "looking" forward to later generations "looking" back.
Walt the visionary, prophetically seeing crowds of cronies
crossing and recrossing
on the ferry that itself no longer crosses.

Six is the problematic section.
There he takes it easy, cataloguing all his vices
as though basking on a comfortable beach.
His tricks of ideal democratic promiscuity
include his tricks of ideal man-love.
In section six he does a sliding, it makes him feel good.

Blandly blind to the promotion racket stirring already all about him,
he "bathed in the waters" without reference to their imminent defiling
(Now even a single one
of the many monsters since accumulated
could contaminate the stream for miles.)

He sang as though it were all his—­
a continent to give away for kicks.
And such criss-crossing made him feel pretty godam good.

Flow on, filthy river,
ebbing with flood-tide and with ebb-tide flooding.
Stand up, you feelingless Erections,
Fly on, O Flight, be it to fly or flee.

Thrive, cancerous cities.
Load the once lovely streams with the clogged filter of your filth.
even to the moon and beyond yet.
"There is perfection in you" in the sense
that even empire-plunder can't corrupt entirely.


And what of Hart's crossing by the bridge?

"Inviolate curve," he says. Who brought that up?
The tribute gets its maturing in the penultimate stanza,
"Under thy shadow by the piers I waited."
Hart too was looking.
But things have moved on since the days of Walt,
and Hart is tunnel-conscious.

And fittingly the subway stop at Wall Street,
first station on the other side,
gets named in the middle quatrain of the "Proem"
(Wall as fate-laden as Jericho, or now as mad Madison
of magic Madhatter Island.) Ah! I ache!
Hart lets you take your pick:
"Prayer of pariah and the lover's cry."

(If crossing now on Brooklyn Bridge by car,
be sure your tires are sound­
for if one blows out you must keep right on riding
on the rim. That's how it sets up now
with what Hart calls a "curveship"
lent as a "myth to God."
I speak in the light of subsequent developments.)

Elsewhere, "The last bear, shot drinking in the Dakotas,"
Hart's thoughts having gone beneath the river by tunnel, and
"from tunnel into field," " whereat "iron strides the dew."
Hart saw the glory, turning to decay,
albeit euphemized in terms of "time's rendings."
And by his rules, sliding from Hudson to the Mississippi,
he could end on a tongued meeting of river there and gulf,
a "Passion" with "hosannas silently below."

Treating of our culture's tendings
as though its present were its own primeval past,
making of sexual oddities a "religious" gunmanship,
striving by a "logic of metaphor"
to span whole decades of division,

"I started walking home across the bridge,"
he writes­—
but he couldn't get home that way.

Only what flows beneath the bridge
only that was home . . .

All told, though Walt was promissory,
Hart was nostalgic, Hart was future-loving only insofar
as driven by his need to hunt (to hunt the hart).

And as for me, an apprehensive whosis
(cf. Bruxistes Panallerge, Tractatus de Strabismo),
I'm still talking of a crossing on a river
when three men have jumped over the moon,
a project we are told computer-wise
involving the social labor of 300,000 specialists
and 20,000 businesses.

Such are the signs one necessarily sees,
gleaming across the water,
the lights cutting clean all through the crisp winter night.

"O! Ego, the pity of it, Ego!"
"Malice, slander, conspiracy," the letter had said;
"your spitefulness ..."


Just as the roads get jammed that lead
each week-day morning from Long Island to Manhattan,
so the roads get jammed that lead that evening
from Manhattan to Long Island.
And many's the driver that crosses cursing.

Meanwhile, lo! the Vista-viewing from our windows at burning nightfall:
To the left, the scattered lights on the water,
hazing into the shore in Jersey, on the horizon.
To the right, the cardboard stage-set of the blazing buildings.
Which is to say:

To the left,
me looking West as though looking Up,
it is with the lights in the harbor
as with stars in the sky,
just lights, pure of human filth—
or is it?

To the right,
the towerings of Lower Manhattan
a-blaze at our windows

as though the town were a catastrophe as doubtless it is  . . .


Creative Commons License
“Eye-Crossing from Brooklyn to Manhattan" Video: Artist Statement and Reflection by Victoria Carrico is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. "Eye-Crossing—From Brooklyn to Manhattan" appeared originally in The Nation, 02 June 1969. (c) 1969 by The Nation. Used by permission.

All Hands on Deck: A Cluster Analysis of Key Images/Terms in James Cameron’s Titanic

Richard Thames, Duquesne University


Burke claims literature can be inductively analyzed by indexing key terms and their associations—i.e., a “cluster analysis.”  This critique claims motion pictures can likewise be analyzed by indexing key images, as illustrated by indexing the recurring imagery of “hands” and associated images and story elements in James Cameron’s Titanic.

Introduction: Author’s Note and Abstract

Most of this analysis was spontaneously generated in 1997 (the spring Titanic was released) during a lecture in which I was asked for an instance of “synecdoche.”  For years thereafter faculty and graduate students would goad undergrads into asking me about Titanic knowing I could go “on and on.”  I began lecturing on the movie more formally when teaching rhetorical criticism, discussing Richard Coe’s analysis of Bram Stoker’s Dracula as well as William Rueckert’s of the “witch elm” in E. M. Forster’s Howards End and Kenneth Burke’s of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Yong Man.  Finally, in 2011 I gathered together what notes I had for a semiotics conference at my university.  By then an annotated screenplay had been published (Titanic: James Cameron's Illustrated Screenplay), a motherload of evidence external to the film itself.   I wrote the essay out by hand over the course of a day, then typed it the next.  That version sat for nearly ten years on my hard drive awaiting an introduction and a conclusion that I always found reasons to avoid, sensing theoretical material might aesthetically detract from the critical case.  Thus, this note and extended abstract:

In his essay “Fact, Inference, and Proof in the Analysis of Literary Criticism,” Burke argues that fiction [and, one could assume, to some degree nonfiction too] can be inductively analyzed by indexing key terms and their associations, a technique he calls “cluster analysis” by which a complex concordance is assembled to aid interpretation.  This essay argues that motion pictures can likewise be analyzed by indexing key images and their associations, opening interpretation to a level of composition beyond mere montage.  This claim is illustrated by an analysis of James Cameron’s Titanic, specifically an indexing of the recurring imagery of “hands” and those images and story elements with which hands are associated—the hands of time (clocks/watches), a hand of poker (chance), a helping hand, lending a hand, giving a hand (applause), the laying on of hands, laying hands on another, caressing hands, fists, handguns, (hand) axes, handcuffs, a potter’s hands, an artist’s hands, etc.

In his earlier essay, “Psychology and Form,” Burke defines form as “the creation and satisfaction of an appetite.”  Using a musical analogy (thus, form devoid of content), Burke argues that if the first two notes of an arpeggio are sounded, the body cries out for their resolution in a third (thus precluding our idealizing appetite as merely metaphorical).  Frustrating resolution is one means of moving plot along; and the greater the frustration, the greater the satisfaction in the end.  So—Rose meets Jack.  They fall in love, but their love is continually frustrated.  Its eventual consummation would appear to point toward a happy ending, but disaster is to follow.  With the ship’s sinking and Jack’s subsequently dying, the promise of form appears to have been broken.  Then, that last, most fearful frustration (that ultimately shall befall us all) is resolved in the final scene, perhaps explaining the astonishing success of Titanic across ages and cultures, speaking as it does to something profound, something essential to bodies that learn language—the formal satisfaction of a uniquely human appetite.

My analysis involves a somewhat jumbled telling and retelling, following multiple paths of formal development that may sound for those unfamiliar with Titanic (and perhaps for those familiar with it as well) like a twelve-year-old’s rendering of a favorite movie—what film critic Pauline Kael called “an eternity.”  My apologies.

James Cameron, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Eric Braeden, Victor Garber, Scott Anderson, Paul Brightwell, Mark Lindsay Chapman, Gregory Cooke, Simon Crane, Martin East, Jonathan Evans-Jones, Edward Fletcher, Bernard Fox, Ioan Gruffudd, Bernard Hill, Samantha Hunt, Laramie Landis, Alex Owens-Sarno, Jonny Phillips, Ewan Stewart, and Reece P. Thompson III at an event for Titanic (1997)

Figure 1.  Cameron supervises filming the finale.  © 1997 Paramount Pictures & the Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

“Just like Romeo and Juliet”

James Cameron first pitched Titanic to Twentieth-Century Fox executives as “Romeo and Juliet on a boat” (Paula Parisi, Titanic and the Making of James Cameron 34)—“a story of tragic love set against a tragic event.”  Some thought the fictional story would detract from the real events, Cameron explained in the interview accompanying his screenplay.  Given the sensational history and fascinating factual characters, why waste screen time on “a sappy love story”?  But Cameron thought differently.  Considering a dozen other films about Titanic, most dealing only with the historical situation, “there would have been little reason for audiences to line up around the block for this version if that’s all it had to offer.”  Viewing the tragedy from the vantage of young lovers about whom the audience cared would make for a different experience than watching a docu­drama.  Cameron believed the fictional story and the real events could “turbo-charge each other,” whereas “they would not have been as powerful” apart (Titanic xii-xiii).

The film would be driven by dramatic irony, the characters’ ignorant of what the audience knows—“death and doom are coming.”  A creeping dread would inform “every moment, no matter how frivolous or innocent.”  Lovers “walking round and talking endlessly about sweet nothings” would work, because “we know that possibly one of them will die and certainly that everything around them will be destroyed” (Titanic xi).

Cameron was resolved “the film had to be about first young love” (Parisi 96), teenage emotions being “the most intense you’ll ever have in life.”  At sixteen or seventeen, he explained, there’s a feeling “you’re on the verge of a discovery unlike anything in the history of the world, even though most people on the planet have already passed that marker.”  But when it’s happening to you, it “fills your universe.”  So Rose was to be seventeen, Jack twenty (Titanic xi).

The character of Rose was a “refraction” of Beatrice Wood combined with fictional elements and “memories of Cameron’s grandmothers (one of whom was named Rose1).”  Born in San Francisco in 1893 and raised in New York, Wood had rebelled against her high-society up-bringing, running away at various times starting at 17, though never freeing herself from her mother until 23.  She studied painting at the Académie Julien and acting and dance at the Comédie-Française.  With the onset of World War I, she reluctantly returned to New York where she acted in the French National Repertory Theatre.  She met cubist painter Marcel Duchamp who introduced her to art collector, diplomat, and writer Henri-Pierre Roché who became her first lover—though she became romantically involved with Duchamp too, leading to later speculation their love triangle was the basis of Roché’s famous novel, Jules et Jim (made into the classic 1961 film of the same name by François Truffaut).  Befriended by art patrons Walter and Louise Arensberg, Wood was invited to regular gatherings of artists, writers, and poets associated with the avant-garde movement, a relationship that earned her the sobriquet “Mama of Dada.”  British actor and director Reginald Pole introduced her to Annie Besant of the Theosophical Society and Indian sage Jiddu Krishnamurti whom she followed to Los Angeles (where the Arensbergs had moved) when an affair with Pole ended.  In her 40s she became a ceramic artist and set up shop in Ojai, remaining productive past 100.  In her late 80s she became a writer.  Cameron learned of her from Bill Paxton’s wife who lent him Wood’s autobiography, I Shock Myself, the model and encourage­ment for which was Pole’s daughter-in-law, Anais Nin, herself a famous autobiographer.  “Beatrice was proof,” says Cameron, “that the attributes of Rose’s character that I thought might have been perceived as far-fetched were not. When I met her, she was charming, creative and devastatingly funny” (Titanic 7 facing).

The character of Jack was inspired by Call of the Wild author Jack London, born in 1876, also in San Francisco where he grew up in a working-class family. Required from an early age to contribute to the family’s income, he sold newspapers and toiled long shifts at a cannery.  At 15, he borrowed money to buy a sloop and worked as an oyster pirate until his boat was irreparably damaged.  At 17 he signed onto a sealing schooner bound for Japan.  Returning home to economic depression, he took grueling jobs in a jute mill and a street-railway power plant before tramping cross country.  Thirty degrading days in jail for vagrancy convinced him to get his high school and college degrees. But at 21, forced for financial reasons to drop-out of the University of California at Berkeley, London headed for the Klondike.  A year later, still poor and unemployed, he determined to become a writer.  There­after he sustained a prodigious output of novels and stories as well as serving as a journalist and war correspondent.  He was married twice (at 24 and 29), cruising parts of the Pacific with his second wife, sometimes in his own schooner, the Snark.  He died at 40 on his ranch, probably from an accidental overdose of morphine taken to alleviate the pain of uremia.  Pointing to London, Cameron contends “there is plenty of historical precedent for a character like Jack Dawson”—people at that time “were out in the world and on their own at a much earlier age than they are now.”  (Titanic 20 facing)

London was a self-taught writer (in fact one of the first to gain fame and fortune from his fiction alone).  Cameron imagined Jack as a self-taught artist who (in a deleted scene) identifies himself with the “Ash Can” school, a realist artistic movement inspired by faces and venues of everyday life in the poorer quarters of New York (Titanic 49 facing).  But Jack is Cameron too.  The hands filmed in cutaway close-ups of Jack’s sketching were actually Cameron’s own (Parisi 112).  (See Figures 2 and 14.)


Figure 2.  Jack draws fellow passengers.  © 1997 Paramount Pictures & the Walt Disney Company.  All rights reserved.

Jack’s character was personal for Cameron, according to Parisi, his own personality falling “somewhere between Jack’s free-spirited artist—the person Jim wants to be—and Brock [Lovett]—the guy so focused on the logistical details, the mission [to find the ‘Heart of the Ocean’], that he’s lost sight of the big picture” (102).  Paxton said he modeled Brock on Cameron, and Cameron admits that “Brock’s quest to find the diamond and my quest to make that film were very resonant” (Titanic xx). 

Intriguingly, Jack tells Rose he is from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin; Cameron himself grew up in Chippewa, Ontario, near Niagara Falls.  The older Rose resides in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, only 200 miles from Chippewa Falls, suggesting Rose settles near where she and Jack might have lived had he survived.)

Where Romeo and Juliet are separated by familial enmity, clearly Jack and Rose (like London and Wood) are separated by money and class.  When Jack first spots Rose (scene 56), he is sketching on the poop deck near the stern (Figure 2); she stands above at the aft rail of the B-deck promenade.  His Irish acquaintance Tommy complains first-class passengers have their dogs taken to the lower decks “to shit.”  So we’ll know “where we rank in the scheme of things,” jokes Jack.  Then Tommy notices his staring at Rose—“You’d as like see angels fly out o’ yer arse as get next to the likes of her.”  Rose and Jack represent diametrical opposites on Titanic in their likelihood of survival—first-class females having a 98% chance, third-class males 10 to 15%—“the greatest obstacle to love you can think of,” claims Cameron (Parisi 55).

In the scene (60) almost immediately following (Cameron’s having deleted most of the intervening scenes), Rose runs to the stern intent on suicide, startling Jack who is lying on a bench, staring at the stars (scene  61).  Jack dissuades her, coaxing her to climb back over the rail, then saves her when she slips.  In the confusion he is accused of assault—what else could be occurring with an upper-class woman screaming for help and a lower-class man lying on top of her? 

But Jack is absolved and proclaimed a hero, setting in motion events that lead to his getting very close indeed; because, though separated by class, Rose and Jack are kindred spirits sharing a love of art and a longing for adventure.  Randall Frakes writes in his annotation of the screenplay concerning the paintings Rose has purchased that Cameron associated the Picasso with Rose herself (who “admires his courage to try new things”) and the Monet with Jack (who “likes his visual truth”).  (See Figure 3.)

Figure 3. Rose & the Picasso—note the clock.  © 1997 Paramount Pictures & the Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

Degas’s “joyful dancers” represent “the way Rose wants to feel.”  She opens her heart to Jack (scene 71, deleted in post-production) in a way she never does with Cal despite his entreaties (scene 63, see below): “There’s something in me, Jack.  I feel it.  I don’t know what it is, whether I should be an artist, or, I don’t know . . . a dancer.  Like Isadora Duncan . . . a wild pagan spirit  . . . or a moving picture actress,” which she eventually becomes (scene 21).  She asks, “Why can’t I be more like you, Jack?” (scene 72).  Frakes indicates the Degas is always present during Rose’s confrontations with Cal or her mother (Titanic 25 facing).  Rose’s first real break with upper-class decorum comes when she joins the dancing and drinking in the third-class general room with Jack (scene 82), enraging Cal (scene 84).

Cal hardly shares Rose’s interest in art.  He dismisses her prized canvases as “finger paintings” (scene 43), but grudgingly admits to liking the Degas (scene 44, deleted in post-production), perhaps indicating how he hoped Rose would feel with him—as he implies when he gives her his engagement gift, an enormous blue diamond (the “Heart of the Ocean”), saying, “There’s nothing I couldn’t give you.  There’s nothing I’d deny you if you would not deny me.  Open your heart to me, Rose” (scene 63).  He offers his love, but at the same time offers money for her love in return, seeking to acquire her with a diamond he hopes will open her heart.  She in turn would become a gem for him to own and display, an ornament for his arm.  (See below—like Juliet on Paris’ arm.)  When Jack joins the first-class guests at dinner as his reward for saving Rose (scene 76), the stage directions have Cal’s accepting praise from his male companions, admiring Rose like “a prize show horse.”  “Hockley,” one says, “she is splendid.”

The next day after quarrelling with Ruth and Cal, Rose rebuffs Jack’s pleas to let him help—“It’s not up to you to save me” (scene 92). But shortly thereafter she changes her mind, watching a mother and her daughter at tea in the first-class lounge.  As we watch the child trying so hard to please, her expression so earnest (the stage directions read), we glimpse Rose at that age and see the relentless conditioning, “the path to becoming an Edwardian geisha” (scene 93).

Ironically, despite class differences Jack and Rose face similar circumstances.  Jack has never had money, but Rose has none either—as her mother Ruth reminds her daily (scene 85).  Her father has left them nothing but “bad debts hidden by a good name.”  As Ruth scolds her, she tightens Rose’s corset.  Cameron notes Ruth’s generation was defined by the corset, while Rose’s favored a more flowing look and would have been less likely to wear one.  Corseting Rose strongly underlines Ruth’s character, he continues, “and helps the audience viscerally feel how trapped Rose is” (Titanic 63 facing).  Rose is tightly corseted when she runs to the stern intent on suicide, because she feels trapped by choices forced upon her by her mother’s financial circumstance.  She frees herself from the corset when she has Jack draw her reclining naked on the divan.  Up to that point money traps both women.  Ruth dreads its loss (“working as a seamstress . . . our fine things sold at auction”); Rose dreads the means by which her mother would regain it—her own loveless marriage to Hockley.

Cal’s character was loosely modeled on Harry K. Thaw, heir to a railroad fortune, who shot and killed the famous architect Stanford White whom he suspected of having an affair with his wife, Evelyn Nesbit (as Cal suspects Jack of doing with Rose), a crime for which he spent only a few years in prison and a private asylum—men like Thaw, writes Cameron, being “almost totally insulated from the effects of their behavior by their social status and wealth” (Titanic 36 facing).  Cal’s wealth may enable him to escape the consequence of his actions, but he is ensnared nonetheless, like Ruth perceiving himself and his life as worthless without money—therefore his putting ”a pistol [a handgun] in his mouth” after losses from the Stock Market Crash in 1929 (scene 283).  Jack never lets his lack of money prevent his leading a rich life.

In Titanic, just as in Romeo and Juliet, an impending marriage stands as a looming obstruction to young love.  Ruth admonishes Rose, the match with Hockley is a good one and will ensure their “survival”—a foreboding choice of words given what is coming.

Lady Capulet tells Juliet of her betrothal to Paris (Act 1, scene 3) the afternoon prior to a ball which Romeo and his friends attend disguised.  Upon first spying Juliet, Romeo asks a servant, “What lady’s that which doth enrich the hand of yonder knight?” (Act I, Scene 5).  The servant cannot say.  Romeo commences a monologue, enrapt:

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear—
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.

Cameron takes up the image of the jewel from Romeo.  For Rose is—like Juliet—a gem, one Cal treasures and longs to possess.  Brock too treasures the gemstone worth millions.  But he is disappointed to find Jack’s drawing instead in the salvaged safe (scene 15).  When old Rose sees the drawing on television (scene 17), she calls Brock shipboard and teases him (scene 19)—"Have you found the ‘Heart of the Ocean,’ Mr. Lovett?”  Brock asks who the woman in the picture is.  Rose says she is.  She’s then flown by helicopter to the research vessel.  There in response to Brock’s request—“Tell us, Rose” (scene 33)—she opens her heart (scene 34 forward), described as “a deep ocean of secrets” when she concludes her tale (scene 286)—Rose, the gem, her heart, her secret all now one.  Rose has carried her secret throughout her long life—a story not of tragedy but salvation, a story with the power to free Brock and his fellow treasure hunters (nay, grave robbers) and the audience as well from the grip of money.  Brock confesses to Rose’s granddaughter, Lizzy (scene 288), that for three years he has thought only of Titanic but never gotten it, never let it in.

But Rose holds one last secret—the “Heart of the Ocean.”  Standing on the stern rail as she had done on Titanic—in a sense standing over Jack’s grave—her story done, her heart, her secret revealed, she consigns the gemstone to the sea (scene 289). 

In the original screenplay, more attention was paid to Brock’s story.  He, Lizzy, and salvage crew members see Rose and dash to the stern.  Realizing she’s about to cast the diamond overboard, they plead with her.  Rose says she has come all this way so that the jewel “could go back to where it belongs.”  Brock asks to hold the stone.  She allows him, saying, “You look for treasures in the wrong place, Mr. Lovett”—thus his name [perhaps a bit too obvious].  “Only life is priceless, and making each day count.”  She takes the jewel and tosses it behind her over the rail.  A cascade of emotion courses through Brock who finally laughs and asks Lizzy to dance (scene 289 as filmed).  But screening the entire film for the first time, Cameron realized neither he nor the audience cared at that point about Brock’s “epiphany,” giving up “his quest for material wealth in favor of the simple spiritual treasures Rose so valued” (Titanic 13 facing).  Enough is said in his short conversation with Lizzy to finish his story.  More would detract from the story of Rose and Jack—and the finale (Titanic xx).

Having appraised Juliet as a rich jewel, Romeo resolves [the dance or]

The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand
And touching hers make blessed my rude hand.

Meeting Juliet, he speaks (and she responds, their dialogue comprising a sonnet),

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this,
My lips two blushing pilgrims ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Having taken up the image of a jewel, Cameron now takes up the image of hands.

Figure 4.  Old Rose at the potter’s wheel.  © 1997 Paramount Pictures & the Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

The first image of old Rose is of her hands at a potter’s wheel (Figure 4) in a home filled with memorabilia of a rich life (scene 17)—an artist now (having never let go of Jack), her hands skilled with clay like his with charcoal crayons.  Likewise, the first image of young Rose is her hand as the chauffeur assists her exiting Cal‘s Renault (scene 34), and the last image the same (see Figures 1 and 18) as Jack assists her ascent of the Grand Staircase in the film’s final scene (292), ending with their kiss.

In between Cal and Jack vie for the jewel—her hand, her heart.  Cal’s hands would possess her; Jack’s would caress.  We know for certain she has chosen Jack when Rose breaks through the barriers of class (a lady and her chauffeur—where to? he asks; the stars, she replies), pulling him into the back of the red Renault (shown hanging from a loading crane as she steps with the chauffeur’s help onto the dock from Cal’s white one), and opens her heart, revealing, offering her inmost self—a flower, a rose, her deepest secret, a jewel of surpassing worth—a moment marked by her hand on the window wet from their breath and the heat of consummation (scenes 114 and 118). (Figure 5.)

Figure 5.  Rose’s hand on the Renault’s window.  © 1997 Paramount Pictures & the Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

Jack, the “Ash Can” artist, is very good at drawing hands—the first thing Rose notes about his sketches (scene 69).  When he sketches Rose reclining naked (move your hand just so, he says), we see his own hands in close-up (scene 100).  (Figure 14.)

Figure 6.  Jack’s “very lucky hand.”  © 1997 Paramount Pictures & the Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

But the first image of Jack is of his holding a poker hand (scene 36), “a very lucky hand” (scene 78).  In the pot are tickets to Titanic and a pocket-watch like the one Cal checks before boarding (scene 34), like the one ship’s architect Thomas Andrews checks for the time remaining once his ship has hit the iceberg, before adjusting the hands on a mantel clock (scene 225) after bidding farewell to Rose and Jack.

Like jewels hands mean many things—the hand we’re dealt in life, the hands of time, the hand-written note Jack hands to Rose.  “Make it count. Meet me at the clock.” (scene 79) 

The morning following dinner, at a worship service in the first-class dining saloon (from which Jack is barred by the stewards), we hear the hymn2 (scene 86),

Almighty Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidds’t the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep.
O hear us when we cry to thee
For those in peril on the sea.

No one anticipates what the audience knows—believing like Cal that “God himself couldn’t sink this ship” (scene 34)—that they pray for themselves, that little time remains, that many in the coming night will consign themselves to the hands of God

The ship having sunk, Jack helps Rose climb onto an intricately carved section of staircase that unfortunately can hold only one (scene 266).  “I love you, Jack,” she says.  He takes her hand.  “Don’t say your good-byes. . . .  You’re going to get out of this. . . . You’re going to die an old old lady, warm in your bed.”  Then, “Winning that ticket was the best thing that ever happened to me.  It brought me to you.  And I’m thankful, Rose. I’m thankful.” (scene 271)  He has made the most of the hand he was dealt.

He struggles to continue, “You must do me this honor. . . .  Promise me you will survive. . . .  Promise me now, and never let go of that promise.”  She promises.  He kisses her hand (the last thing he ever does in his life) just as he had earlier at the Grand Staircase.  His life slips away with hers promising to follow soon thereafter.  But then her eyes start open.  She remembers her pledge.  Gently unclasping their hands, she says, “I won’t let go.  I promise.”  She commits his body to the deep, then acts to save herself, to survive as she has pledged she would (scenes 274 and 276).

What does Cameron glean from Romeo and Juliet?  Various plot elements—the intensity of first love, a conflict that separates the lovers (not family, but class), an impending marriage resisted by the heroine but stubbornly pursued by her mother, and a secret consum­mation of their love—all mentioned; while unmentioned—an older (lower-class) woman who facilitates their relationship (Nurse; Molly Brown), the hero’s commission of a crime (killing Tybalt; stealing the diamond—but see below), perhaps even the lovers joined in death.  And the imagery of jewels and hands. 

“One true time I’d hold to”

What does Cameron himself contribute?  The final plot in all its formal eloquence.  Parallels—what Cameron calls “rhyming sequences” (Titanic 136)—joining parts together in an organic whole, run throughout the screenplay and the film’s imagery, the most important being the drama of Jack’s and Rose’s first encounter at the stern (the seminal or synecdochic scene from which most of the plot emerges with all its variations [the discussion of which was the origin of this essay]) and the imagery of hands (for ultimately the cards, the timepieces, the jewel, etc.—even Rose herself!—are “handled”).  Over and over, themes arise from or refer back to their meeting—obviously the theme of love, but also imprisonment and freedom, despair and hope, desperation and salvation; and overarching all the question of what we do with the time we are given—“Make it count.  Meet me at the clock.”  Do we love others, fully sharing the gift of life with them, or do we seek to own them, controlling life selfishly and self-righteously?  Do we value others or use them as mere things? 

The great “rhyming sequences” are the three at the stern (the lovers’ meeting and the ship’s sinking, with what happens at the stern contrasting with what happens at the bow; plus Rose’s casting the diamond over the stern) and the three at the staircase (the dinner’s before and after and the film’s finale; plus Cal’s contrasting gun-toting pursuit of the lovers).  The stern (and bow) scenes involve themes enumerated above; the staircase scenes involve time and its value. And the two sets of scenes are held together by the imagery of hands.

Figure 7.  Jack offers Rose his hand.  © 1997 Paramount Pictures & the Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

“Take my hand,” says Jack to Rose as she stands over the vortex at the ship’s stern “like a figurehead in reverse” (scene 61).  She has climbed over the rail in despair and desperation.  “I felt like I was standing at a great precipice,” Rose says in her narration, “with no one to pull me back” (scene 57).  But someone lends a hand.

Two days later, having sought out Jack—after watching a mother and her daughter at tea, imagining her life as an Edwardian geisha, a jewel on Cal’s arm—Rose closes her eyes and steps up on the bow rail as Jack holds her.  “Do you trust me?”  “Yes.”

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic (1997)

Figure 8.  Jack and Rose at the prow . . .  © 1997 Paramount Pictures & the Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

Jack raises her arms, outstretching them like wings, then releases them, leaving a figurehead angel3 to grace the prow, transforming Titanic—no longer a ship returning her enslaved to Cal (scene 34), but a ship transporting her past Lady Liberty (who Fabrizio said he could see from the bow when the ship set out to sea—scene 54) to a life with Jack now that he has pulled her from the brink and set her free.  Opening her eyes, she gasps—nothing but water around and beneath.  “I’m flying!” she exclaims.  Jack softly sings, “Come Josephine in my flying machine.”  He raises his arms.  Their hands intertwine (Figures 8 & 9).  Dreaming of freedom, imagining flight—they kiss for the first time.

Figure 9.  . . . their hands intertwined.  © 1997 Paramount Pictures & the Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

But the lovers dissolve, leaving the floodlit bow of the shipwreck filling the screen (scene 96), reminding us that in six hours Titanic sinks, dashing their dreams.  Jack is left in the freezing water and Rose on a floating section of staircase (imagistically tying stern and staircase scenes together), absently singing, “Come Josephine,” staring at the stars (scene 274) (where to? he asks; the stars, she replies)—just as Jack had been doing, lying on a bench, when (as luck would have it) Rose ran by (scene 61).  She knows she is dying.  A lifeboat’s silhouette “crosses the stars.”  She turns to Jack—but finding him dead releases him to the deep, repeating her pledge to survive. 

The next evening, wrapped in Cal’s topcoat (the diamond unbeknownst to her tucked in its pocket), standing in a downpour (Nature herself weeps) with steerage survivors on Carpathia’sdeck, she passes the Statue of Liberty (scene 284), with Jack’s help having freed herself of her mother and Cal and all their plans for her life.  More resolute than sorrowful, inspired by the Lady’s lamp lifted against darkness and the storm, she gives her name—“Rose Dawson”—to an officer (scene 285) and, newly baptized by the rain, disembarks to lead the life she and Jack had dreamt of living.

“Take my hand,” Jack urges Rose.  She tells him no, go away. “I’m involved now.  If you let go, I have to jump in after you.”  Her retort—“The fall alone would kill you.”  Still seeking to dissuade her, Jack points out how painfully cold the water will be—foreshadowing his end.  She relents and gives him her hand (foreshadowing their pledge to one another).  Two days later, knowing her anguish, he pleads with Rose a second time to let him help, saying the same thing.  “I’m involved now.  You jump, I jump, remember?”  As she had on the stern, Rose dismisses him.  “It’s not up to you to save me” (scene 92).  He does anyway—when she slips on the stern rail, when Titanic goes down.  Rose is only on the sinking ship because she has jumped back on from the lifeboat rather than leave Jack behind—“You jump, I jump, right?” (scene 211).  So, they find themselves together at the stern.  “Jack, this is where we first met” (scene 246)—“one of the best moments in the film,” claims Cameron (Titanic 134 facing).  They climb over the rail as the stern is lifted higher.  “I’ve got you,” says Jack. “I won’t let go”—not only the exact words Jack utters when he first coaxes Rose to safety (scene 61), but the exact voice track copied “to make it the strongest possible rhyming sequence,” says Cameron (Titanic 137 facing.)

Figure 10.  Jack holds on to Rose.  © 1997 Paramount Pictures & the Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

“I’ve got you.  I won’t let go,” Jack assures Rose who has lost her footing on the stern rail.  She screams, suspended above the black water until he pulls her up enough for Rose to secure her footing and clamber over the rail, knocking him to the deck.  They roll entangled with Jack ending slightly on top of Rose just as crewmen reach them, running to the rescue in response to her cries.  Jumping to conclusions, they call for the Master at Arms who is handcuffing Jack just as Cal rushes up.  “What makes you think you could put your hands on my fiancée?” he demands (scene 62).  But two nights later Rose tells Jack in the back­seat of the red Renault, “Put your hands on me” (scene 114).  “He had such fine hands, artist’s hands, but strong too . . . roughened by work,” says Rose in a voice-over (deleted in post-production).  The crewmen and Cal mistakenly  assume Jack had sexually assaulted Rose, so they cuff his hands—i.e., cast the supposed criminal into “chains,” which is how she in her despair imagines herself (scene 57).  Two nights later, knowing Jack has drawn Rose naked (and no doubt suspecting him of having done more), Cal falsely accuses him of stealing the diamond (scene 154)  that Lovejoy had planted in his pocket (scene 153) and has him handcuffed and taken below (scene 163).  Left alone in the suite, Cal slaps Rose, saying, “It is a little slut, isn’t it?” (scene 158).  But later, refusing to board a lifeboat with her mother, she ripostes, “I’d rather be his whore than your wife,” and rushes off to find Jack (scene 170).

Originally Cal wrongfully assumes Jack has handled his “jewel” (which he gives to Rose in the scene [63] immediately following).  But two nights later, in a sense he rightfully accuses Jack of taking the jewel he prizes (of “stealing” Rose’s “heart” or even more!)—though she was never really his.  Rose saves Jack in the first instance, freeing him from handcuffs by claiming she had slipped trying to see the propellers and would have fallen overboard if not for him.  And she saves him in the second instance, freeing him from handcuffs with an ax (scene 186).

The misunderstanding at the stern having been explained to the satisfaction of all (except Lovejoy who notices Jack’s boots are unlaced), Cal instructs Lovejoy to give Jack a twenty for his heroics.  Reproached by Rose who asks if twenty is the going rate for saving the woman he loves, Cal invites Jack to dinner instead.

Meeting Jack the next afternoon, she thanks him for his discretion, explaining she had felt so trapped the night before, her life plunging ahead with her powerless to stop it (holding up her hand with the engagement ring to make her point).  Jack advises her not to marry Cal.  Rose says it’s not so simple.  He asks if she loves Cal.  Taking umbrage, she changes the subject, snatching his sketch­book and opening it to discover drawings which she realizes are quite good, particularly the nude with such “expressive hands.” 

Figure 11.  Jack’s sketch of a prostitute’s hands. © 1997 Paramount Pictures & the Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

(Figure 11)  He shows her his sketch of “Madame Bijoux,” an old woman who sat night after night at the bar in all the jewelry she owed, “waiting for her lost love”—perhaps a particu­larly poignant sketch for Rose, wearing a gaudy engagement ring, remem­­bering the immense blue stone—priceless jewelry, yes, but a life devoid of love (scene 69).

Jack tells Rose about his life—logging, sketching portraits on Santa Monica’s pier, living in Paris.  “Why can’t I be more like you, Jack?”  And they imagine things they might do together (scene 72)—all of which Rose eventually does, as we see from photographs the camera pans over before we first meet her (scene 17), then lingers over at the end with Rose, “an old old lady, warm in her bed,” dreaming or . . . having died (292).

That evening at dinner (scene 78—dialogue as re-written by Cameron, emphasis mine), Ruth asks Jack where he lives.  The RMS Titanic, he replies.  “After that I’m on God’s good humor.”  And your means to travel, she asks.  Working his way, he answers, tramp steamers and such.  “I won my ticket on Titanic here in a lucky hand of poker . . . a very lucky hand.”  Perturbed and probing deeper, she queries him concerning the appeal of “so rootless an existence.”  Jack’s short speech is the heart of the film: “I figure life’s a gift and I don’t intend on wasting it.  You never know what hand you’re going to be dealt next.  You learn to take life as it comes at you, to make each day count.”  “Well said,” from Molly.  “Here, here,” from Colonel Gracie.  Rose raises her glass, “To making it count.”  All at the table return the toast.  “To making it count.” 


Figure 12.  Jack slips Rose a note after dinner.  © 1997 Paramount Pictures & the Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

Dinner over, the men excuse themselves.  Jack indicates he’s heading back—to “row with the other slaves.”  As he kisses her hand, he slips Rose a note—“Make it count.  Meet me at the clock.”  A few moments later she follows, finding him on a landing of the Grand Staircase, facing the clock (Figure 13)—the same stance he takes in the film’s finale (Figure 17), their second meeting at the clock.

Figure 13.  Rose meets Jack at the clock.  © 1997 Paramount Pictures & the Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

Rose goes with Jack to a party in steerage.  Lovejoy spies on them and reports to Cal who confronts Rose the next morning at breakfast, forbidding such behavior.  Rose objects and Cal becomes enraged (scene 84).

Later that morning, Ruth comes in as Rose is being corseted and forbids her seeing Jack again, insisting, “This is not a game.”  They are desperate for money, her father having left them “bad debts hidden by a good name.”  That name is “the only card we have to play.” Ruth is playing the hand she has been dealt, but Rose is the one in the pot (scene 85, emphases mine).

That afternoon, having been bullied by Cal and Ruth, Rose resists Jack’s entreaties to let him help.  (He—“I’m involved now.  You jump, I jump, remember?”  She—“You don’t have to save me, Jack.”)  But watching the mother and her daughter at tea, Rose changes her mind, no longer willing to live her life in “hock” to a man like Hockley.  She seeks Jack out, finding him on the bow, where with his help (“Do you trust me?”) she stands on the rail like a figurehead angel, no longer in despair.  She and Jack share their first kiss.  They retreat to Cal’s suite, where Rose has Jack draw her wearing nothing but the diamond.  She leaves the drawing and the diamond in the safe with a hand-written note—“Darling, now you can keep us both locked in your safe.”


Figure 14. Jack’s (Cameron’s) hand drawing Rose.  © 1997 Paramount Pictures & the Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

Lovejoy enters hunting for Rose just as she and Jack exit into the corridor.  They run through the engine room, eventually hiding in one of the ship’s holds and making love in the back of the red Renault.  “Put your hands on me, Jack”  (See Figure 5.)

Afterwards they climb to the main deck, distracting the lookouts for a critical instant, thus delaying their spotting the iceberg which Titanic disastrously grazes.  Over­hearing Andrews’ and the Captain’s discussion of the damage and surmising the situation’s gravity, Jack and Rose hurry to warn Ruth and Cal.  

But when they reach the suite, Jack is accused of stealing the diamond which a steward finds in his coat pocket (where Lovejoy had surreptitiously planted it just moments before).  Jack is handcuffed and taken below, all the while protesting his innocence.  At the urging of the stewards, Cal takes Ruth and Rose to the lifeboats.  But Rose refuses to abandon Jack and anxiously rushes off in search.  Finding him handcuffed to a pipe on a level that is flooding, she frees him with an ax. 

Trapped below with most of the steerage passengers as the water rises, they struggle to escape, finally emerging to encounter Colonel Gracie who directs them to where lifeboats are being launched.  Cal arrives and with Jack’s help convinces Rose to board a lifeboat.  But she leaps back onto Titanic rather than leave Jack.  (“You jump, I jump, right?”)  Together they race off with Cal in pursuit, firing Lovejoy’s handgun at them. 

At the base of the Grand Staircase below the clock, Cal screams at the fleeing lovers as they slog through water covering the saloon, “Enjoy your time together.”  Lovejoy catches up to find him laughing.  “I put the diamond in my coat pocket,” says Cal, “And I put my coat . . . on her.”  Resigned to losing both Rose and the gem, he turns back up the stairs to save himself (scene 212, emphasis mine).

In their flight Rose and Jack encounter Andrews who gives Rose his life-vest and wishes her luck.  Once they are gone (the string quartet’s playing “Nearer my God to Thee” over the sequence of scenes that follows), he checks his pocket watch and adjusts the hands on the mantel clock to the correct time (scene 225).

Rose and Jack fight through the panicked crowd, climbing the steeply tilted deck toward the stern.  They push past a man reciting the 23rd Psalm—“Yeah though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . . ,” with Jack chiding him to “walk faster” (scene 238 moved to the end of scene 239).  Reaching the rail, Rose realizes this is where they met.

A priest’s voice carries over the din, reciting a Bible passage ofttimes read at passings:

. . . and I saw new heavens and a new earth. The former heavens and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no longer.  I also saw a new Jerusalem, the holy city, coming down out of heaven from God, beautiful as a bride prepared to meet her husband.  I heard a loud voice from the throne ring out; “This is God’s dwelling among men.  He shall dwell with them and they shall be his people and he shall be their God who is always with them.  He shall wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, crying out or pain, for the former world has passed away. (Revelation 21:1-4, emphasis added)

The ship’s stern crashes back into the sea as Titanic breaks in half, only to be lifted high again, subject to the fully flooded fore section’s enormous weight.  Jack scrambles over the rail and reaches for Rose.  (“I’ve got you. I won’t let go.”)  Swiftly filling with water, the aft section is pulled under.  (“Don’t let go of my hand.  We’re gonna make it, Rose.  Trust me.”  “I trust you,” she says, echoing her words on the prow).  They jump at the last instant and struggle as the suction pulls them down.  Losing hold of one another, they surface into chaos.  Jack finds Rose and helps her climb onto a part of the staircase.  He takes her hand and makes her promise to survive, to never let go of that promise.  (“You’re going to die an old old lady, warm in your bed.”) He kisses her hand as he did at the base of the Grand Staircase before their dinner.  They wait for the lifeboats.  Spotting one, Rose turns but, finding Jack dead, releases him to the deep (“I won’t let go”), then fulfills her pledge—a scene suggestive of a dying Robert’s beseeching Maria to leave him in For Whom the Bell Tolls,4 “As long as there is one of us there is both of us.”

Rose concludes her story.  Told they could find no record of Jack, she says there would be none.  She has never spoken of him, not even to her husband.  “A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets,” she says.  “But now you all know there was a man named Jack Dawson, and that he saved me, in every way that a person can be saved.”  And then, “I don’t even have a picture of him.  He exists now only in my memory” (scene 286).

That evening Rose walks alone in her nightgown to the ship’s stern and standing on its rail commits the diamond to the deep.  She watches the jewel sink into “the black heart of the ocean,” glimmering “end over end into the infinite depths” (scene 289), perhaps reminiscent of Jack’s sinking “into the black water,” seeming “to fade out like a spirit returning to some immaterial plane” (scene 276).

She returns to her room.  The camera lingers over pictures of the life she and Jack had talked of living—riding a horse in Santa Monica’s surf, the roller-coaster behind her; posing in front of a bi-plane (“Come Josephine . . .”).  (Figure 15.)

Figure 15.  “An old old woman, warm in her bed.” © 1997 Paramount Pictures & the Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

“One short sleep past . . . ”?

“I get asked about the ending all the time,” says Cameron: 

When you love someone, you cannot imagine an end to that love, that you won’t be reunited.  I think this is a basic psychological need that drives spirituality.  And even though there are many people who don’t believe this, they would like to.  Such a universal yearning is a powerful force to tap into.  (Titanic 152 facing)

The camera pans over the last picture and then over Rose herself, “warm in her bunk.  A profile shot.  She is very still.  She could be sleeping, or maybe something else” (scene 291). “You decide,” says Cameron (Titanic 152 facing).

But when Rose turns to Jack, the ship having sunk, the stage directions read, “He seems to be sleeping peacefully” (scene 274) like other passengers in the freezing water (scene 273)—all seemingly asleep but actually dead.  Why would Rose be different, especially given Jack’s foreseeing her dying “an old old lady, warm in her bed” (scene 271).

Brock and his crew are grave robbers, the ocean a graveyard.  The research vessel floats over Jack’s grave.  Rose stands on the stern rail as she did when she thought to commit suicide (until Jack saved her); as she did when she feared she would die as Titanic sank (until he saved her again, making her promise to survive); as she does now, committing the diamond to the deep, a jewel of surpassing worth which has become her, her heart, her love, her life, her story, her secret revealed at last.  As Rose tells Brock in the deleted scene (289), she has come all this way so that the jewel “could go back to where it belongs.”  Much suggests her own symbolic burial at sea—beside Jack.  

In his annotations Frakes reveals that “the script contains many references to the concepts of metamorphosis and emergence, equating Rose’s emotional transformation to that of a caterpillar [sic] becoming a butterfly” (Titanic 14 facing)—thus her ornate art-nouveau comb with a jade butterfly on the handle (scene 28) which she pulls from her hair as she disrobes (scene 99) and her silk kimono which she opens to reveal her naked body before Jack draws her reclining on the divan (scene 100).  Ultimately Cameron decided to play out the butterfly theme in visuals only (Titanic 69 facing), subtly pointing toward Rose’s future metamorphosis—an emotional transformation as Frakes contends, but perhaps an ultimate one as well.

The 1892 Book of Common Prayer service for “Burial at Sea” reads,

We therefore commit her body to the deep, looking for the general Resurrection in the last day, and the life of the world to come, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose second coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the sea shall give up her dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself.  (emphasis added)

We see Rose, “an old old lady, warm in her bed.”  Then blackness.


Figure 16.  Titanic being raised from the sea.  © 1997 Paramount Pictures & the Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

The shipwreck looms ghostlike out of the dark.  We speed along a ruined deck.  Of a sudden the sea is no more and the ship transformed, returning to life.  (Figure 16.)

We hear music.  A steward opens a door.  He ushers us before the Grand Staircase.  In the gallery surrounding stand passengers and crew, all who perished with Titanic and thereafter, dressed in their finest.

Figure 17. Rose meets Jack at the clock again.  © 1997 Paramount Pictures & the Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

A young man wearing the rough clothes of steerage stands like a groom at the altar rail, waiting where Jack first waited after dinner—facing the clock, stopped at the moment the great ship foundered—as if at the end of time­.  (Figure 17)  Turning, Jack extends his hand, taking the hand Rose offers, ascending the staircase, resplendent in white.  (Figures 1 & 18)  At the landing they embrace—a lifetime past, nothing left to part them, now, again, at last, forever.  The gallery applauding, he kisses the bride.  (scene 292)5

Figure 18.  Rose gives Jack her hand ascending the Grand Staircase (see Figure 1).  © 1997 Paramount Pictures & the Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

Perhaps Rose dreams.

Perhaps not.

The closing prayer in the “Burial at Sea” alludes to Revelation 20:13—“And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds.”
Would Rose really dream of their meeting at the clock, Titanic’s gallery gathered entire, standing, like the host of heaven hovering, watching over her, admiring her, giving her a hand?6

You be the judge.


Originally the rights to James Cameron’s Titanic were shared by Paramount Pictures (domestic) and 20th Century Fox Film Corporation (international). In 2019 the Walt Disney Company purchased 20th Century Fox (the parent company), thereby acquiring part-ownership in the film with Paramount. Figures 2-18 are screenshots taken from the film. Figure 1 is a photo (#429 of 452) taken from the International Movie Data Base website ( which credits only Paramount.


1. Rose is a popular Catholic name, the flower being associated with the Virgin Mary as well as the rosary (a bouquet of prayers—“Hail Mary, full of grace . . . “).

2. An anachronism: the second and third verses from the 1937 Missionary Service Book were sung.

“Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” known to many as the “Navy Hymn,” has oft been cited as the most popular hymn for travelers in the English language. It was written in 1860 by William Whitting and has gone through numerous revisions to the present time. The hymn text was so well thought of when it was written that it was included in the 1861 edition of the highly regarded Anglican Church hymnal, Hymns Ancient and Modern, set to the “Melita” tune composed especially by John B. Dykes, one of nineteen century England’s most esteemed church musicians.  The present version is taken from the 1937 edition of the Missionary Service Book, in which one of the editors, Robert Nelson Spencer, added the second and third stanzas to include a plea for God’s protection for those who travel by land and air as well as those on the high seas.,_Strong_to_Save

3. Rose stands like “a figurehead angel” at the prow, but also like “Christ the Redeemer” atop Mount Corcovado watching over Rio de Janeiro like “Our Lady” watching over New York Harbor.

Suspended in a cable car to Sugarloaf our last day in Brazil, we watched the clouds obscuring Corcovado part and through the break saw the statue appear.

4. Ernest Hemingway’s great novel was made into a film starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman.  Literary critic Harold Bloom argued that writers are greatly influenced by other writers.  The same could be argued concerning directors and other directors.  George Lucas, for example, modeled the battle for the Death Star in the first Star Wars  (as well as the skirmish in the forest in the third) after a famous aerial battle sequence in the Bridges of Toko-Ri.  True movie buffs could probably point to shot after shot, sequence after sequence throughout Titanic alluding to one film or another.  I suspect, for example, that the finale may have been influenced by the finale of the Joseph Mankiewics’ classic (later a television series) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.  A notable quote from Captain Daniel Craig (Rex Harrison) fits Titanic—“You must make your own life amongst the living and, whether you meet fair winds or foul, find your own way to harbor in the end.”  The allusion here is more a maybe than the obvious one to Hemingway.

5. The finale would have been filmed before the scenes of Titanic’s sinking.  I’ve always wondered how the experience of filming the finale influenced that of filming the scenes of Titanic’s sinking afterwards and how the experience of filming the scenes of the ship’s sinking affected memories of filming the finale—a kind of mystic dislocation. 

Also of note, according to the Book of Revelation time ends with a wedding. For the Victorian upper class, a meal represented gathering at the Lord’s Table, a communion that itself looked forward to the Great Communion, the wedding feast—the Messianic Banquet—at the end of time.  (There was an interesting discussion of this matter in one of the short, supplemental documentaries that sometimes followed episodes of the popular public television series “Downton Abbey.”)  The dinner to which Jack is invited as his reward for saving Rose from falling may itself look forward to that final feast.

I was taught in literature classes that tragedy ends in death but comedy ends in marriage and sex (sacrifice or sex recapitulating the hierogamy being the two means by which the world is ritually regenerated according to Mircea Eliade in his Myth of the Eternal Return, Princeton University Press; reprint edition, 2018). Dante of course writes The Divine Comedy and J. R. R. Tolkien claims the Gospels are the greatest fairy stories ever written (fairy stories, like comedies, being characterized by "happy" endings or eucatastrophes); they point, says Tolkien, to the Great Eucatastrope at the end of time (see his famous "On Fairy-Stories" in Essays Presented to Charles Williams edited by C. S. Lewis, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1966).

6. The attractions of form are such that Cameron may be suggesting more than he knows.  He might have meant for the end to be ambiguous.  But Jack has foretold Rose’s dying “an old old woman, warm in her bed.”  A priest has cited Revelation 21:1-4 (“the sea was no longer”). Dreaming of the gallery’s applauding her (“giving her a hand”) for a life well lived would not seem consistent with Rose’s character.  And one might think dreaming of meeting Jack would be more intimate (reclining on the divan, lying in the back of the red Renault, standing on the bow—as an angel, no less!—a scene which would have made for a compelling ending were it not for the absence of a clock) than the spectacle on the Grand Staircase.  (I dream of meeting my parents at the Table, though the table gets larger every year.)  Cameron observed (quoted above), “When you love someone, you cannot imagine an end to that love, that you won’t be reunited.  I think this is a basic psychological need that drives spirituality.  And even though there are many people who don’t believe this, they would like to.”  (Titanic 152 facing)  I have argued that the expectation of form requires a resolution (at least a meeting, maybe even a marriage) at the end and that a great part of Titanic’s success is due to the immense frustration of that resolution (Jack’s death) only for that resolution to finally come, no matter how ambiguously—the greater the frustration, the greater the satisfaction.  Cameron’s observation may be indicative of his own inclination (as well as that of this critic and perhaps the reader as well) concerning how that ambiguity might be resolved.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. “Psychology and Form.”  Counter-Statement.  University of California Press, 1968, pp. 29–44.

—. “Fact, Inference, and Proof in the Analysis of Literary Criticism,” Terms for Order, edited by Stanley Edgar Hyman(with the Assistance of Barbara Karmiller), Indiana University Press, 1964, pp. 145–72.

Cameron, James, and Randall Frakes (Contributor).  Titanic: James Cameron's Illustrated Screenplay, Harper Perennial, 1 January 1998.

Coe, Richard M. “It Takes Capital to Defeat Dracula: A New Rhetorical Essay.” College English, vol. 48, no. 3, 1986, pp. 231–42.

Marsh, Ed W. James Cameron's Titanic. Harper, 1997.

Parisi, Paula. Titanic and the Making of James Cameron: The Inside Story of the Three-Year Adventure That Rewrote Motion Picture History. Newmarket Press, 1999.

Rueckert, William H. Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations. 1963. 2nd ed., University of California Press, 1981.

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Lakoff via Burke: Hillary, Bernie, and the Narrative Challenge to the Metaphor

Stephen Morrison, South Texas College


This paper situates Lakoff’s metaphoric theory of political affiliation within Burke’s classification of poetic forms, and finds that Lakoff’s strict father and nurturant parent worldviews align with Burke’s tragic and comic forms. However, applying this to the 2016 Democratic debates complicates Lakoff’s view of political identity, and suggests that such identities are still better understood through the full range of Burkean identification, in which narrative and metaphor play important, but not singular, roles.

Built on a substantial foundation of scholarly articles and books, six popular books with at least one selling more than half a million copies, numerous media interviews, and two organizations offering specific application of his ideas, George Lakoff’s argument that political ideology is rooted in differing conceptions of the Nation-as-Family metaphor is extensively cited in academic research and also widely known outside of academia (Lakoff, “New Book”). The left, he argues, sees the nation as a nurturant parent, while the right sees it as a strict father. As a consequence, partisans on each side support institutions and policies that align with their understanding of the proper role of government.

While research on metaphor remains the foundation of his academic scholarship, his more recent work focuses on the persuasive role of framing in political communication. Such framing, he asserts, has the ability to alter the metaphor through which an audience views the political world, which in turn drives this audience to adopt the ideological perspective associated with that metaphor, and so persuades even strong partisans. Lakoff discusses a range of framing techniques, but states that one of the most effective forms is narrative (The Political Mind). However, he does not offer a systematic account of how narrative forms or formal elements align with metaphoric worldviews and so drive such framing, nor does he integrate his ideas into the extensive rhetorical scholarship on narrative.

This paper begins to address these issues by situating Lakoff’s discussion of metaphoric worldviews within Burkean scholarship. It can be seen that Lakoff’s liberal nurturant parent view of the Nation-as-Family aligns with key dramatistic elements of Burke’s poetic form of comedy, while the conservative strict father worldview aligns with Burke’s tragic (or possibly melodramatic) form (ATH). This alignment permits the use of Burke’s more detailed work on forms to supplement Lakoff’s discussion of framing. The greater “resolution” of this approach broadens potential subjects of analysis: while Lakoff focuses on major distinctions between the political left and right, a more detailed dramatistic formal analysis permits an examination of framing by competing candidates within a single political community.

In the following sections, I first situate Lakoff’s discussion of Íthe primary metaphoric worldviews of the left and the right within a dramatistic frame, building from Appel’s analysis of elements of Burkean poetic forms. Next, I apply this analytical frame to the 2015–2016 Democratic primary debates between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, which offer an interesting challenge to Lakoff’s view of framing and partisan identity insofar as they feature two candidates with broadly shared policies (at least as contrasted with their Republican opposition) and general agreement on the communities with whom—and against whom—they identify. Despite this, the nature of any primary contest demands that candidates frame their policies—and indeed themselves—in a way that differentiates them from others in the field. In other words, while the primary created a rhetorical situation that would seem to require the candidates to adopt contrasting narrative frames, Lakoff would suggest their similar policy positions should arise from similar framing that activates the same nurturant parent view of the Nation-as-Family metaphor.

The results of this analysis complicate the reductive clarity of Lakoff’s argument. What will be seen is that these narrative frames, and the metaphoric worldview with which they are associated, do not merely divide left from right, as Lakoff suggests, but also divide factions within political communities. This challenges Lakoff’s view of the relationship between narrative surface frames, metaphorical worldview, and ideological identity, and ultimately suggests political affiliation is still better understood through the full range and complexity of Burkean identification, in which both narrative and metaphor play important—but not singular—roles.

A Burkean Approach to Metaphor

Lakoff began his approach to political identity with an attempt to find an underlying coherence behind the seemingly unrelated policy positions of the political left and right (Moral Politics 25). He found this coherence in metaphor, arguing that different conceptions of the Nation-as-Family metaphor lead to differing prioritizations of the approximately two-dozen “foundational metaphors” that are possessed by everyone, rooted in the physical experience of the world, and underlie all morality (“Metaphor, Morality, and Politics” 184). The left, he argues, sees government’s role in this family primarily as that of a nurturant parent, while the right sees it as that of a strict father. These, he further suggests, are unconscious worldviews, “deep frames” as he calls them, and operate in a schematic fashion (Moral Politics 36).

However, Lakoff later revised this basic idea, presenting a role for persuasion through framing. Most people, he argues, have both strict father and nurturant parent worldviews, and though they may favor one, they understand and sympathize with both (Thinking Points 14). For Lakoff, then, framing (via surface frames) is persuasive insofar as it activates the “deep frame” of metaphor and causes the audience to prioritize certain metaphorical worldviews over others (Don’t Think of an Elephant 20-21). This, he believes, leads the audience to an ideology logically derived from that metaphoric prioritization, and ultimately to the decision to align one’s self with the political party that supports policies aligned with that ideology.

Lakoff offers an example of such narrative framing in his discussion of the justifications offered to support the Iraq war, which he argues relied on two narratives adhering to the structure of fairy tales: “the self-defense story and the rescue story. In each story there is a hero, a crime, a victim, and a villain. In both stories the villain is inherently evil and irrational: The hero can’t reason with the villain; he has to fight him and defeat or kill him. In both, the victim must be innocent and beyond reproach” (71). Even in this brief passage several clear elements of Burke’s poetic forms can be seen: the emphasis on the “tragic (sometimes melodramatic) names of ‘villain’ and ‘hero’ [rather than] the comic names of ‘tricked’ and intelligent’” (ATH 4-5), the hierarchical organization of characters that justifies unequal power by claims of unequal worth (LSA 15), and perhaps most essentially, transcendence through the Freudian substitution of guilt displaced to a “perfected” enemy scapegoat (18).  

For a more structured framework through which to view Lakoff, I turn to Appel’s dramatistic classification of Burke’s poetic forms. Writing in response to Schwarze’s discussion of the benefits of environmental melodrama, and specifically to the assertion that melodrama is a subset of Burke’s “factional tragedy,” Appel offers a dramatistic classification of tragedy, melodrama, burlesque, and comedy, ultimately arguing that melodrama merits its own category, distinct from tragedy. Below I include Appel’s classification scheme, organized into a table for clarity, and omitting the burlesque form, which is essentially unused by Clinton or Sanders.

Table 1
Appel’s Dramatistic Classification of Burke’s Poetic Forms                   





Morally Disordered Scene

crimes and evils

binary polarizations of good and evil

mistakes or impediments

Guilt-Obsessed Agent

god-like mythic hero

hero, but not so god-like

competent leader

Guilty Counteragents

diabolical total enemies

villains, but not devils

mistake-prone klutzes

Sacrificial Act

severe punishment, permanent banishment, or death

categorical defeat of opponents and their policies, in the legislature and at the polls, expressed in the idiom of moral outrage or offense, often on behalf of innocent victims

slap-on-the-wrist instruction and correction, temporary social distance

Redemptive Purposes and Means

utopian goals and strategies, total salvation

triumph of transcendentally
virtuous values, materially embodied, not just pragmatically serviceable ones

imperfect improvement, or mere restoration of the status quo, better not best

Source: Appel 191

A close reading of Lakoff within this context reveals that the strict father worldview aligns with Burke’s tragic or melodramatic forms, while the nurturant parent worldview aligns with the comic form.

Scene, Agents, and Counteragents in Lakoff

To examine the operation of these three elements in Lakoff it is first useful to return to Appel’s descriptions of the morally disordered scene, in which tragedy is characterized by “crimes and evils,” melodrama by a “binary polarization of good and evil,” and comedy by “mistakes or impediments” (191). I would suggest this phrasing indicates scene is best understood as the conflation of two sub-elements: stakes, and scene-agent ratio. Consider, in particular, the distinction between “crimes and evils” and “mistakes and impediments.” On one hand these differ in degree: an impediment connotes a problem—a scenic imbalance driving the narrative—that is significantly less dangerous than a crime or an evil. As such, tragic narratives are in part defined as having significantly higher stakes than comic narratives. However, the implications of these terms about agents and agency are much more important. Crime and evil both imply the existence of an active counteragent. An impediment, on the other hand, requires no active agent at all, and indeed is an agency-reducing term, implying that the driving problem of the narrative is either embedded in the scene or driven by some “mistake-prone klutz” (191). Consider, for example, the difference between an argument that inequality is driven by the tax system, and an argument that inequality is driven by billionaires influencing tax laws. The difference is not merely that the second seeks a more fundamental cause, but that the second offers an embodied cause—one “that has connotations of consciousness or purpose” (Burke, GM 14). We see then that Burkean tragedy and melodrama are primarily agent-driven forms in which the central problem of a given narrative is the result of deliberate activity by a villainous counteragent who is perhaps “diabolical,” or perhaps simply a villain who is not quite a devil, but either way is the cause of the narrative imbalance (Appel 191). Comedy, on the other hand, is often a primarily scenic form in which characters struggle with problems that are inherent in the situation or driven by accident and misunderstanding.

Evidence of this same distinction can be found in Lakoff, with his explanation of the conservative strict-father worldview aligning with the agent-driven forms of melodrama and tragedy, and the liberal nurturant parent worldview aligning with a scene-driven form of comedy. He argues that one consequence of the strict father view of the Nation-as-a-Family metaphor is that the metaphor with the highest priority is Moral Strength, in which “evil is reified as a force, either internal or external, that can make you… commit immoral acts. Thus, to remain upright, one must be strong enough to ‘stand up to evil’” (“Metaphor, Morality, and Politics” 184). Lakoff further divides this metaphor into two forms: courage, which is the strength to stand up to external evil, and self-control, which is concerned with internal evils (185). However, Lakoff’s subsequent discussion of Moral Essence suggests that for conservatives, internal conflict—associated with the struggle for self-control—is largely limited to children. By maturity, one’s essential character is set. Thus the behavior of adults does not define their morality, but rather reveals it. Good characters are not good because they behave well; they behave well because they are good. One inverse of this, of course, is that once a character’s essential goodness in known (as with strong partisans’ view of their group’s leaders), the goodness of their actions follows automatically and inevitably. Strict father adherents thus believe that adults live in a world of external conflict, struggling not with their own less-than-virtuous tendencies, but rather with outside enemies. They see a world in which problems are caused not by abstract circumstances or by otherwise decent people making poor choices, but by embodied external evil. Crime, for example, is not caused by poverty or lack of opportunity, or even by a single poor choice, but by criminals who are fundamentally criminal in nature. Brock et al. make a similar point, arguing that agent-driven narratives and images “permeate conservative discourse,” and underlie the anti-government ideology of the right (86-87).

In contrast, Lakoff’s description the nurturant parent worldview suggests a narrative that promotes the influence of the scene and diminishes the power of agents. Those who have such a view see a world in which we all struggle for goodness, and succeed largely as a result of our environment. Lakoff, for example, states that nurturing, questioning of others, and frank self-examination “are all seen as necessary for the development of a self-conscious and socially conscious person” (Moral Politics 111). More essentially, for the left, “the world must be as nurturant as possible and respond positively to nurturance” (112). This emphasis on the world—the scene—deemphasizes agency, as well as any moral judgment of a given act that might attach to the agent. Instead, it is one’s environment, manifest in the “support of and attachment to those who love and care about you,” that is to be judged (“Metaphor, Morality, and Politics” 197-198). Evil, in other words, is not an innate product of one’s character, but rather the consequence of interaction between agent and environment. Again, Brock et al. make a similar point, arguing that “liberals’ major rhetorical strategy argues from the situation or scene” (87). Or, as Lakoff states, “In the nurturant parent model, causation is sometimes direct and individual, but just as often it is systemic” (The Political Mind 188). Lakoff would therefore argue that the typical liberal position would be to suggest that society cannot merely condemn criminals, for example, without also examining the scene in which such criminals exist.

Sacrificial Act and Redemptive Purpose and Means in Lakoff

A consequence of the agent-driven nature of the tragic and melodramatic forms is that villains deserve literal, or at least functional, destruction. Their pure nature—the moral essence of villainy that defines them—means they must be killed, or at the very least driven from society, as they cannot be reformed. Additionally, the fact that the central disorder driving the narrative is itself a product of these villains means their removal must inevitably resolve the central problem. Thus the severe sacrificial act is inherently connected with “a perfected redemptive outcome: ‘Total salvation’” (Burke, LSA 21). On the other hand, the scene-driven nature of the comic form implies first that the sacrificial act must be limited or even nonexistent. After all, the worst villains in such narratives are merely guilty of mistakes, and in many cases the real “villain” is a lack of understanding, or even the innate structure of the society itself. Furthermore, because the problem is driven by the situation—which generally cannot easily be fixed—the redemptive purpose and means tends toward mere imperfect improvement.

Again, this same distinction can be seen in Lakoff. He describes strong-father narratives, which prioritize the metaphor of Moral Strength, as driven toward an absolutist approach to the resolution of a given conflict. “The metaphor of Moral Strength,” he writes, “sees the world in terms of a war of good against the forces of evil, which must be fought ruthlessly… Evil does not deserve respect, it deserves to be attacked!” (Moral Politics 74). Because the problem is caused by an embodied villain, the scene is rebalanced only by the defeat or destruction of the villain. Likewise, the destruction of the villain is synonymous with the resolution of the problem.

In contrast, the scene-driven nature of the nurturant parent worldview tends to result in narratives with resolutions that offer “imperfect improvement, or mere restoration of the status quo, better not best” (Appel 191). This is implied first by the tendency of such narratives to focus on empathy, which must be directed not at the villain but rather at the victim (Lakoff, The Political Mind). The natural response is thus to protect the victim rather than to attack the villain. Additionally, the possibility of moral growth and complexity means the left tends to see even villains as possessing redeeming characteristics. Most essentially, though, the nurturant parent narratives’ high scene-agent ratio means such imperfect solutions are simply the only ones available. Scenic problems are often beyond most human agency; they are vast, pervasive, complicated, and possessed of immense inertia. In some cases the only possible answer is to mitigate harm, offering aid to the afflicted. In other, more tractable cases, some limited progress may be made, but this generally requires the sustained effort of a large group, not simply the heroic actions of an individual. It is thus not surprising that the nurturant parent narratives of the left call on the resources of the government, which is, after all, the embodiment of collective agency. Even then, however, it is rare to see the left assert that government can eliminate a problem. Instead, it is seen as the tool that might enable some restructuring of the scene. Government can, for example, offer care and compensation to those victimized by corporate pollution, and can alter the regulatory environment that permits much of this bad behavior. However, even the fiercest advocates of strict regulations will freely admit they will not halt all such pollution. Still, this is sufficient; the left seeks improvement, not paradise.

Applying the Narrative Model

What we can see then is that Lakoff’s two primary metaphoric worldviews map onto Burke’s poetic forms. This allows us to use Burke’s more detailed discussion of formal elements to examine Lakoff’s notion of framing with considerably greater resolution. Framing, Lakoff argues, is effective insofar as it activates a specific metaphoric worldview. Therefore, should Lakoff’s model of ideological affiliation hold, we should see on the right a tendency to use elements of tragedy or melodrama, and on the left a tendency to use elements of comedy.  

Broadly speaking—accounting for what Appel terms the “taxonomic confusion” of existing narrative studies (187)—research has tended to support this, noting in particular the frequent use of identifiably tragic or melodramatic forms by right wing individuals and media outlets. Lewis, in his study of Reagan’s use of narrative, concludes that throughout his presidency Reagan created a mythical narrative that aligns with tragedy or melodrama: “a story with great heroes…with great villains…and with a great theme” (316). Dobkin argues that in an attempt to gain audience commercial news networks end up promoting military action by structuring events into romantic quests, which she describes as “two-minute morality plays with heroes and villains and a tidy moral to be summed up at the end” (146). West and Carey note a mythical form in George W. Bush’s post 9/11 political narratives, which echoes Nossek and Berkowitz’s assertion that all news structures events into “mythic quests” (691). Simons describes Bush’s use of melodramatic narratives involving “two-dimensional characters,” representing a “valorized ‘us’ and a dehumanized or demonized ‘them’” (338). And Anker, in her study of Fox News programming, also notes the extensive use of melodrama in the reporting on the 9/11 attacks.  

Once again, though, the more interesting application of this connection between Burke and Lakoff is in the added detail afforded by Burke’s deeper discussion of formal elements. The narratives of Trump and Clinton may be easily distinguishable and recognizably aligned with Lakoff’s theory, but can this same theory help us characterize the difference between factions within a single community? To address this I turn to an analysis of the nine Democratic primary debates from 2015 to 2016, noting all the instances in which a response by either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders uses formal elements aligned with Appel’s dramatistic classification. Again, the expectations per Lakoff are not entirely clear. To the extent that both Sanders and Clinton have the same general left-wing nurturant parent view of the role of government—regulate industry, promote equality, ensure opportunity—we would expect both candidates to use comic framing. However, as noted earlier, the nature of any contest demands distinction, if not outright dispute, and the animosity between the candidates and their supporters, which continues even to this day, suggests this distinction was present.

The most obvious path to such distinction would be for the candidates to cast themselves as the true comic hero, while undermining their opponent’s attempt to do likewise. Indeed, when discussing a wide range of topics, this “heated agreement” is precisely what we see. However, approximately half the time—and generally only when discussing a set of characters I collectively describe as “corporations, banks, or billionaires”—Sanders turns to the tragic or melodramatic forms associated with the conservative strict-father view of the Nation-as-Family. The implications of this are striking. Reckoning by way of Lakoff, we would expect such framing to undermine Sanders’ left-wing policy proposals. Instead, he consistently gained support throughout the primary, and though he ultimately lost the contest, his run was far more effective than anticipated.

In the sections that follow I first present the summary results of the analysis of all nine debates for each formal element, and then offer some brief examples to illustrate the narratives in practice.

Morally Disordered Scene

The presentation of problems as agent-driven or scene-driven is likely the most essential difference between the candidates. Indeed, it is so central that it may well be the seed from which larger distinctions in narrative form arise. Furthermore, because tragedy and melodrama share key characteristics that distinguish both from comedy, they are considered together here.

Table 2
Scene-Agent Ratio: Clinton

Number of References




Comic (scene driven)



Tragic or Melodramatic (agent driven)



Source: see note 1

Table 3
Scene-Agent Ratio: Sanders

Number of References




Comic (scene driven)



Tragic or Melodramatic (agent driven)



Source: see note 1

What is first notable is the near inversion of the results, with Clinton primarily relying on the lower-stakes scene-driven framing of the comic form, while Sanders more often relies on melodramatic or tragic framing. Consider, for example, Clinton’s opening statement in the first debate, in which she says she will focus on “ways to even the odds to help people have a chance to get ahead,” “make the tax system a fairer one,” and take “the opportunity posed by climate change to grow our economy” (“CNN Democratic Debate”). In each case the comic framing is clear: the stakes are moderate and the problems are a product of the scene rather than of some villainous counteragent. People can get ahead now, she implies, but she would simply like to improve their chances of doing so. The tax system is not fundamentally corrupt, but merely not sufficiently fair. And even climate change, a problem that might seem to involve innately melodramatic stakes, is described as an opportunity. Furthermore, in no case does she mention any villain causing the problems she seeks to address. As with taxes, “the system”—the morally disordered scene itself—is the problem.

Sanders, on the other hand, utilizes a melodramatic or tragic form far more frequently, framing situations as having extreme stakes in which classes of people, or even the nation itself, are in danger. So, in his opening statement at the same debate, Sanders begins by stating that the U.S. faces “a series of unprecedented crises.” He goes to note that “the middle class of this country for the last 40 years has been disappearing,” “our campaign finance system is corrupt and is undermining American democracy,” and that without action on climate change the planet itself will not be “habitable” for our children and grandchildren. Furthermore, the problems he identifies are much more often presented as the consequence of deliberate actions by villainous counteragents. The disappearance of the middle class and the loss of democracy are not merely terrible consequences of the system, as a comic frame might suggest, but are instead the result of “millionaires and billionaires [who] are pouring unbelievable sums of money into the political process in order to fund super PACs and to elect candidates who represent their interests, not the interests of working people.”


As with their scenic constructions, the candidates’ use of narrative agents has important differences, particularly in the specific characterizations of both themselves and of the United States. However, in one essential way—their characterization of government—a vital point of overlap remains.

Table 4
Agents: Clinton

Number of references





Clinton (on herself)






Democrats or Obama or liberals






Other nations or allies






Source: see note 1

Table 5
Agents: Sanders

Number of references





Sanders (on himself)









Democrats or Obama or liberals



Average people or Sanders supporters



Muslim nations






Source: see note 1

Both candidates frequently present themselves as the hero of the story. However, the primary heroic characteristics they assign to themselves are quite distinct. For Clinton, the single largest category, comprising 31% of her 375 references, focuses on her experience and her plans: a typical “competent leader” of the comic form (Appel, 191). Indeed, the word “plan” and its associated variants appear a striking 88 times in Clinton’s responses, but a mere 8 times in Sanders’. On the other hand, and in what may at first seem at odds with the stereotypes of his campaign and its online supporters, Sanders actually makes fewer references to himself as the heroic agent than does Clinton. The most frequent category of such references, though, comprising 34% of the total, are those that attempt to define himself as strong, uncorrupted, and opposed to the key counteragent of corporations, banks, and billionaires. He describes himself as having the “courage to stand up to big money” (“The Brooklyn Democratic Debate”), and repeatedly notes that he doesn’t take donations from “Wall Street.” Thus Sanders, in a clear echo of Lakoff’s notions of Moral Essence and Moral Strength, foregrounds his virtue and power (as opposed to his competence), and does so by focusing not on what he will do, but rather on who he will defeat.  

Equally interesting is the two candidates’ respective characterization of the United States as a heroic agent. Sanders’ 188 references to the U.S. are immediately striking when compared to Clinton’s mere 31 references. When examined more closely, though, what can be seen is that 163 of Sanders’ references focus on problems the nation faces such as the lack of universal health care, a flawed criminal justice system, poverty and inequality, and the cost of college. Certainly some potential for heroic agency remains in his narrative, as indicated by his other 25 references, but taken as a whole, what emerges is less the U.S. as a flawed hero, than as a profoundly damaged victim: an agent shorn of agency. No doubt this is in part driven by Sanders’ status as the outsider and candidate of change, but this in turn suggests the potential for synergy—or its inverse—between a campaign’s narratives and its relationship to the existing power structure.

Despite these distinctions, however, what is equally important is Clinton’s and Sanders’ shared focus on government, as this demonstrates that both possess a belief in regulation that stands in direct opposition to Lakoff’s strict father worldview, in which government is “the dragon to be slain and overcome,” and the hero one enlists for this task is “the entrepreneur, the individual who starts a business, which might turn out to be a multibillion-dollar corporation” (Whose Freedom? 151, 153). In other words, despite the key differences in narrative framing discussed in this paper, both Clinton and Sanders in many ways still fit the nurturant parent view of governance.


In examining the counteragents discussed by Clinton and Sanders, it became apparent that rather than constituting the self in contrast to a singular counteragent via identification by antithesis (Burke, “The Rhetorical Situation”), both candidates utilize a two-tiered hierarchy of counteragents, with a primary counteragent depicted as the cause of the scenic disorder, and a secondary counteragent—typically the political opposition—depicted as the enabler, permitting the actions of the primary counteragent due to foolishness, corruption, or weakness. In effect, such a construction melds the tragic and comic, permitting the perceived civility of the comic form to be married to the jingoistic lure of the tragic. The candidates’ secondary counteragents are quite similar, but the difference in their discussion of primary counteragents is significant and revealing.

Table 6
Primary Counteragents: Clinton

Number of references





Corporations, banks, billionaires



Other nations (various)






NRA or gun makers or guns



Source: see note 1

Table 7
Primary Counteragents: Sanders

Number of references





Corporations, banks, billionaires



Other nations









Source: see note 1

As can be seen, both candidates focus on the same general cast of counteragents, which again demonstrates their broadly similar community identity. That is, just as both candidates constitute their own political identities by identifying with a largely shared set of agents, so too do they define themselves through their opposition to a largely shared set of primary counteragents: big banks, rogue nations, terrorists, and so forth. However, Sanders makes nearly twice as many references to this group, and nearly 80% of these are to large businesses or extremely wealthy individuals, a conglomeration of actors I again classify under the heading “corporations, banks, and billionaires” (CBB). Sanders, in fact, makes approximately one hundred more references to this collective counteragent than Clinton does to all primary counteragents combined. Furthermore, 127 (44%) of Sanders’ references to CBB emphasize their power and control over government, which promotes their agency, 80 (28%) focus on their criminal or deceptive behavior, while 78 (27%) focus on the specific harms they inflict. In contrast, of Clinton’s 90 references to CBB, only 15 (17%) focus on their power or control, and 12 (13%) focus on their criminal or deceptive behavior, while 53 (59%) emphasize the specific harms they inflict. Thus Sanders’ primary emphasis is on the agency and villainy that underlie melodramatic or tragic narratives, while Clinton’s is on the scenic impact that is the moral focus of her comic narrative.

Sacrificial Act

Just as the candidates’ differing views of the scenic disorder lead to differences in their selection and characterization of the primary counteragents against whom they identify, so too does it lead to a difference in the sacrificial act each proposes. Agent-driven narratives demand the elimination of the villain. In one fails to eliminate the villain—through, for example, solutions focused on helping victims—the problem will inevitably recur. Scene-driven narratives, though, require scenic solutions. If the problem is the tax system itself, then breaking up the banks will have little effect, as new entities will spring up to take advantage of the still-flawed system. As such, comic narratives inevitably have much less emphasis on a sacrificial act. In cases of villains committing mistakes, there may be some attempt to provide the “instruction and correction,” or “temporary social distance” Appel describes, but in other cases there is simply no villainous counteragent at all, and so no sacrificial act is required (191). The effect of these differences can be seen in each candidate’s preferred sacrificial act.

Table 8
Sacrificial Act: Clinton

Number of References













Source: see note 1

Table 9
Sacrificial Act: Sanders

Number of References













Source: see note 1

The results here are largely in line with what one would expect. Sanders, with his greater reliance on agent-driven narratives, not only proposes more total sacrificial acts than Clinton, but more importantly proposes far more tragic or melodramatic acts and a far higher percentage of such acts than Clinton. In some cases such references are tied to terrorism, as when he states that “this country will rid our planet of this barbarous organization called ISIS” (“Democratic Debate Transcript: Clinton, Sanders, O'Malley in Iowa”). In most cases, though, the most extreme sacrificial acts focus on his central counteragent of CBB. Indeed, in the sentence immediately after his reference to ISIS, he returns to a focus on the “rigged economy,” and proposes a “political revolution.” As such, it can be seen that this is not (or at least not only) a product of a general preference for the tragic or melodramatic forms, but rather a function of a preference for these forms when focused on the particular “character” of corporations, banks, and billionaires. Clinton, for instance, makes a total of 41 references to a sacrificial act associated with CBB. Of these, 71% align with a comic form, 17% are melodramatic, and only 12% are tragic. In contrast, Sanders makes 63 total references to a sacrificial act associated with CBB, or half again as many as Clinton. Furthermore, of these, only 38% are comic, while the rest are either tragic (37%) or melodramatic (25%). Thus, when discussing a sacrificial act, Sanders makes 50% more total references to CBB than does Clinton, and while approximately two-thirds of Clinton’s references are comic, approximately two-thirds of Sanders’ references are tragic or melodramatic. Notably, a large percentage of the remaining tragic/melodramatic sacrificial act references for both candidates are focused on terrorism. In other words, for Sanders (and at times for Clinton), corporations, banks, and billionaires occupy the same rhetorical space as terrorists.

The role of the tragic sacrificial act is so central to Sanders, in fact, that it became something of a catchphrase in his campaign. As he states in the ninth debate, “banks, in my view, have too much power. They have shown themselves to be fraudulent organizations endangering the well-being of our economy. If elected president, I will break them up… end of discussion” (“The Brooklyn Democratic Debate”). The solution he offers, “break up the banks,” flows inevitably from his agent-driven view of the scenic disorder. Because, as he argues, CBB have total agency over government itself, no government regulation can ever restrain them. To attempt such an approach, or merely to focus on helping those facing economic suffering, will inevitably be insufficient, as the cause of the problem will remain.

Clinton, however, even when discussing the shared villain of CBB, tends to adopt a scene-driven comic frame, and so proposes the “slap-on-the-wrist instruction and correction” Appel associates with the form (191). She suggests the best way to address the problem is to help those who are having trouble getting ahead, and to pay for it by “taxing the wealthy more, [and] closing corporate loopholes, deductions and other kinds of favorable treatment” (“Democratic Debate Transcript: Clinton, Sanders, O'Malley in Iowa”). A scenic problem, she suggests, should have a scenic solution—a restructuring of the system that involves a moderate increase in taxes for CBB, and an effort to “rein in the excessive use of political power to feather the nest and support the super wealthy” (“Democratic debate transcript: Clinton, Sanders, O'Malley in New Hampshire”). The solution is not to eliminate those using this political power, because for Clinton this is merely a consequence of the structure of the system.

Even in those cases where Clinton does adopt a tragic frame, she retains elements of scene-driven comedy. For instance, in the final debate she offers the following approach to bank regulation: “I will appoint regulators who are tough enough and ready enough to break up any bank that fails the test under Dodd-Frank. There are two sections there. If they fail either one, they're a systemic risk, a grave risk to our economy” (“The Brooklyn Democratic Debate”). Despite picking up Sanders’ “break up the banks” phrasing, she describes it as a consequence of the regulatory process, and in particular a consequence of her proposed scenic reforms (a revision of the Dodd-Frank law). Furthermore, while Sanders calls banks “fraudulent organizations” and endows them with great agency, Clinton uses the passive description of banks as “a systemic risk,” reducing their agency even as she suggests some may be broken up. Thus we see Clinton nudged toward melodrama or tragedy—perhaps as a consequence of a preexisting Democratic view of banks, or perhaps as a consequence of what Desilet terms the media “feedback loop” which makes melodrama rhetorically “contagious” in a way comedy is not— but still largely holding to her comic tendencies (170).

Redemptive Purposes & Means

Appel’s description of the redemptive purposes and means is most clear when distinguishing the comic from the tragic or melodramatic, and again ties to the scene or agent-driven nature of the central issue at hand. As noted earlier, agent-driven narratives tend to suggest the solution is simply the elimination of the villain, with a consequent tragic or melodramatic conditions of “total salvation,” or at the very least the “triumph of transcendentally virtuous values” (191). Scene-driven narratives, however, involve problems that are often profoundly difficult or impossible to completely solve, and so the redemptive purpose is generally characterized by the comic “imperfect improvement.” This may involve some restructuring of the scene, and perhaps some effort to offer support to victims, but in virtually every case the emphasis is on better, not ideal.

Once more, though, distinguishing between tragedy and melodrama is often a difficult task. Appel offers the following distinction: “Redemptive purposes in the melodrama of democratic party squabbling will, too, be a bit less grandiose: not quite so perfected, less than utopian. Those visions will be grand. We will not hear often, though, about the likes of a Thousand-Year Reich or heaven on Earth” (190). As the last sentence makes clear, the standard for tragedy is high. As a result, no statement by either Clinton or Sanders qualifies as tragic, though some, particularly those from Sanders, might come close. For instance, in the first debate Sanders suggests the election will determine “whether we're going to have a democracy or an oligarchy” (“CNN Democratic Debate”). Clearly this is at the very least melodramatic insofar as it is an expression of transcendentally virtuous values. But is it tragic? Perhaps, though it does not meet Appel’s standard of the “Thousand-Year Reich.” One might argue Appel’s standard for tragedy is excessive, but I would suggest there is less a sharp division between forms than a continuum. Therefore, I would likewise suggest that the most useful metric in this particular case combines the tragic and melodramatic, and then compares that sum to the comic.

Table 10
Redemptive Purposes and Means: Clinton

Number of References













Source: see note 1

Table 11
Redemptive Purposes and Means: Sanders

Number of References













Source: see note 1

Several points of note stand out. First, while the comic form is the most prevalent for both candidates, Sanders uses a melodramatic formulation far more often than Clinton. Furthermore, 76% of Sanders melodramatic references focus on CBB, compared to only 35% for Clinton’s. Additionally, even Clinton’s comparatively rare melodramatic references tend to keep their scenic emphasis, focusing on improving the lives of the victims. Thus, in the fifth debate, she offers a largely scenic view of the problem coupled with a comic goal, and only slips in the “transcendentally virtuous value” phrasing of melodrama in the last line:

Yes, of course, we have special interests that are unfortunately doing too much to rig the game. But there's also the continuing challenges of racism, of sexism, of discrimination against the LGBT community… I want to imagine a country where people's wages reflect their hard work, where we have healthcare for everyone, and where every child gets to live up to his or her potential. (“Transcript: MSNBC”)

This can be classified melodrama, but only just, and a melodrama built from a proposed restructuring of a complex and problematic scene on behalf of innocent victims, rather than from the destruction of a dangerous villain. Indeed, this is Clinton’s general approach, and we see something very similar in the next debate as she proposes to “knock down all the barriers that are holding Americans back, and to rebuild the ladders of opportunity that will give every American a chance to advance, especially those who have been left out and left behind” (“Transcript of the Democratic Presidential Debate”). Again, the solution is a restructuring of the scene on behalf of the victims, and a restructuring that only slips into melodrama insofar as it promises universal transformation rather than incremental progress.

While Clinton’s few instances of melodrama thus teeter on the edge of the comic form, Sander’s far more frequent instances of melodrama verge on the tragic. Moreover, as in his frequently stated desire to “break up the banks,” his ideal redemptive purpose and means of “revolution” becomes an iconic catchphrase, repeated—often multiple times—in virtually every debate. In the first debate he describes his own campaign as exemplifying “a political revolution” supported by people who want “real change in this country” (“CNN Democratic Debate”). Similarly, in the fourth debate he proposes specifics such as eliminating Super PACs and overturning the Citizens United court decision, but frames those specific (and incremental) actions as elements of “a political revolution which revitalizes American democracy” (“The 4th Democratic Debate”). Again we nearly see the utopian goal of tragedy, lacking only the thousand year timeframe.

What is particularly interesting, though, is that Sanders’ melodramatic goals are so frequently coupled with specific policies that are fundamentally comic in their incrementalism. For instance, he begins one comment by stating his campaign is about “thinking big,” which involves universal health care, a $15 per hour minimum wage, a plan to rebuild infrastructure, and a tax system that requires the wealthiest people to “start paying their fair share of taxes.” However, he then suggests these specific reforms will be transformative, making “a government that works for all of us, and not just big campaign contributors.” Similarly, he later suggests that we need “a revolution in this country in terms of mental health treatment,” which translates to adding insurance coverage for mental health care. Perhaps the strongest example of this might be in the final debate, when discussing climate change he attacks Clinton’s ideas, stating that “incrementalism and those little steps are not enough” (“The Brooklyn Democratic Debate”). His solution, though, is a carbon tax, which is itself fundamentally incremental insofar as it would merely reduce fossil fuel use by making it somewhat more expensive. What we see then is that while narrative is tightly bound to the specific communities, it is not inevitably bound to policy. It is quite possible, in other words, for two candidates with identical policies to justify these policies with profoundly different—perhaps even incompatible—narrative worldviews.


An analysis rooted in Burke’s poetic forms thus helps illustrate the fault lines within political communities, rather than just between them. Furthermore, it reveals that Sanders effectively uses the tragic and melodramatic forms associated with Lakoff’s strict father worldview, but does so to promote liberal/progressive policies that Lakoff asserts should only arise from the nurturant parent worldview. This suggests that the link between metaphoric worldview and political ideology is less straightforward than it appears. One can, it seems, be a strict father liberal, or, presumably, a nurturant parent conservative.

Sanders’s promotion of fundamentally incremental policies through the use of a tragic or melodramatic redemptive purpose and means likewise suggests a remarkably flexible relationship between narrative and policy. It seems self-evident that candidates’ policies and their narrative framing of those policies must be at least loosely aligned if such framing is to be accepted by the audience. But like his strict father liberalism, Sanders’ “revolutionary incrementalism” was clearly a successful rhetorical strategy.

Taken together, this first helps explain factional divisions within the political left. Despite the often-fierce disputes between their supporters, many of the policy proposals of Sanders and Clinton differed more in degree than in type. It may be that the distinct narrative worldviews within which each candidate contextualized these policies served to amplify even small differences. Indeed, it may be that in some cases it is the narrative framing itself, and not policy disputes at all, that drove the candidates’ competing public identities and fueled the animosity between their supporters. At the same time, Sanders’ framing in particular reveals surprising narrative connections between elements of the left and the right—connections that defy their profound policy differences. Sanders’ agent-driven conflicts, his discussion of a deeply flawed—even victimized—United States, his focus on moral strength and his demand that counteragents be destroyed: all are the hallmarks of typically conservative framing, though used in the service of truly progressive goals. Sanders and Trump may not agree on the heroes and villains of the American story, nor on the solutions that should be pursued, but to a surprising extent they do agree on the kind of story it is.

While the role of metaphor in political identity would seem to be complicated by this finding, it may be that this complication can best be understood by once again returning to the full complexity of Burkean identification through consubstantiality. Lakoff himself states that “narratives and melodramas are not mere words and images; they can enter our brain and provide models that we not merely live by, but that define who we are” (The Political Mind 231). Narrative, in other words, and perhaps even metaphor, may be better understood as a marker of partisan consubstantiality rather than as a singular driver of ideology. Such a claim recalls McClure’s discussion of Fisher’s narrative paradigm, and in particular his conclusion that Fisher’s approach “narrowed Burke’s notion of identification, wedding it too tightly to normative conceptions of rationality” (191). Lakoff too seeks an underlying rationality for identity, and perhaps in so doing, he also “limits the range and descriptive utility of identification,” offering a prescriptive simplicity that obscures the profound complexities comprising partisan identity and political ideology (191). Recognizing such complexities—the narrative and metaphorical worldviews that not only separate factions within communities, but also provide surprising links between ideologically distinct communities—may complicate the perception of political identity, but can only improve political communication.


  1. Sources for Tables 2-11: “The 4th Democratic Debate Transcript”; “The Brooklyn Democratic Debate Transcript, Annotated”; “CNN Democratic Debate”; “Democratic Debate Transcript: Clinton, Sanders, O'Malley in Iowa”; “Democratic Debate Transcript: Clinton, Sanders, O'Malley in New Hampshire”; “Transcript: MSNBC 2016 Democratic Candidates’ Debate”; “Transcript of the Democratic Presidential Debate in Milwaukee”; “Transcript: The Democrats’ Debate in Flint, Annotated”; “Transcript: The Post-Univision Democratic Debate, Annotated.”

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. A Grammar of Motives. 1945. University of California Press, 1969.

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“Democratic Debate Transcript: Clinton, Sanders, O'Malley in New Hampshire.” CBS News. 20 Dec. 2015. Accessed 31 July, 2019.

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—. “Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals in the Dust.” Social Research, vol. 62, no. 2, 1995, pp. 177–213.

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—. The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century Politics with an 18th-Century Brain. Viking, 2008.

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The Redemption of Jake “The Snake”: Guilt, Mortification, and Purification of Professional Wrestling's Prodigal Sinner

Matt Foy, Upper Iowa University


This essay examines the thirty-year career arc of professional wrestler Jake “The Snake” Roberts by employing a Burkean approach to understanding Roberts’s symbolically resonate performances of mortification. Through performances of mortification both during and following his active wrestling career, Roberts is transformed into a purifying agent for wrestling fans’ collective guilt over systemic “demons” of addiction and human frailty that have haunted professional wrestling and its fandom increasingly since the 1990s.

I want to talk about people who have the world by the tail, so to speak. People that have everything right in their hand they could possibly want. People that have reached the pinnacle of success in their own sports. But what do they do? A moment’s weakness, and they take the devil’s powder, and they run it up their nose. They call it cocaine, say it’s a good time, and their careers are gone…. It’s a shame any man has to be so weak inside.” — Jake “The Snake” Roberts, promo on Maple Leaf Wresting, 1986 (“Jake Roberts Interview [08–16–1986])

“Order leads to Guilt
(for who can keep commandments!)
Guilt needs Redemption
(for who would not be cleansed!)
Redemption needs Redeemer
(which is to say, a Victim).” — Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion (4–5)

Introduction: Two Snakes Entwined

Twenty-five years ago, two contrasting yet inextricable manifestations of professional wrestler Jake “The Snake” Roberts grappled to entanglement in the consciousness of wrestling fans. In one corner: the Roberts who appeared on a 1986 episode of the World Wrestling Federation’s Superstars of Wrestling (“Jake Roberts Interview [09–13–1986]”). The WWF, then and still the most popular and influential wrestling promotion in the world with a global audience of millions, is famous for its larger-than-life characters, and Roberts is the promotion’s newest and hottest antagonist. Towering over backstage interviewer Ken Resnick, Roberts sneers confidently and oozes malevolent charisma as Resnick introduces him to the home audience as the wrestler who has climbed “to the very top” of the WWF faster than any man before him.

Roberts launches into one of the mesmerizing promos1 upon which his growing legend will be built:

I am at the top, and I have done it in a shorter time than anybody else, even Hulk Hogan. I have risen to the top, and why? Because I’ve got something else to offer that nobody’s ever seen before. Something that amazes people. It’s a mystery to you.

Unlike the bombastic full-throated interview style of his contemporaries, Roberts speaks deliberately and only occasionally raises his voice, forcing his audience to lean in—too close for comfort to a villain known for dropping opponents suddenly and conclusively on their heads with his finishing maneuver, the DDT.2 This Roberts is the dark antithesis of the WWF’s transcendent hero Hulk Hogan—preaching deceit, self-preservation, and betrayal in contrast to Hogan’s training, prayers, and vitamins—but every bit as irresistible. This is also the Roberts who will seamlessly transition to playing the hero by 1987, captivating a generation of wrestling fans with his promos, smooth in-ring work, and his giant python Damien, whom he carries in a bag and wields to terrorize his antagonists.

But in the other corner is the Roberts who headlined the ill-fated 1999 Heroes of Wrestling event (“Heroes Of Wrestling PPV 10/10/99”). Far removed from peak physical condition, staggering and sounding severely intoxicated, Roberts slurs his words and clings to visibly alarmed interviewer Michael St. John for balance as he cuts an incoherent promo on that night’s scheduled opponent, fellow WWF legend Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart:

You know, you’re a casino (gesturing to the backdrop with the Casino Magic logo). Everybody says, well gosh, it’s a casino, you should gamble. Let me tell you something, Anvil, you don’t want to play cards with me ‘cause I’ll cheat. OK? I cheat. You wanna play 21? I got 22. You wanna play blackjack? I got two of those, too. You wanna play aces and 8’s? I got too many of those, too.

After cursing out the camera operator and finishing his promo, Roberts stalks into the arena to wrestle before an audience of a couple thousand, approximately one-fortieth the size Roberts once enthralled at WrestleMania 3 in 1987.

Meandering toward, away from, and back toward the ring unsteadily, Roberts approaches a fan; he seizes her hands and forcibly fondles his shirtless pecs with them. The match falls apart quickly. Roberts places Damien between his legs and feigns masturbation; the camera feed cuts away. The match is aborted when fellow WWF alumni Yokozuna and King Kong Bundy, scheduled to wrestle later, rush the ring to salvage the event. Neidhart, Yokozuna, and Bundy finish a trainwreck impromptu tag match, nominally involving Roberts, who has removed his trademark snakeskin boots and struggles to stand up.

In his review of Heroes of Wresting, wrestling reviewer Scott Keith wrote the following assessment of Roberts’s performance: “I suppose it would be harsh of me to wish Jake would just choke on his own vomit one night and spare us all ever watching him ruin his life or the lives of the people that care about him ever again, but at the rate he’s going he’s probably not far off” (“The SmarK Retro Repost”). Roberts ultimately outlived Neidhart, Yokozuna, and Bundy, as well as five others on that night’s card. But Keith’s words, a mixture of disgust and sadness, are indicative of the guilt that Roberts has long evoked in the eyes of wrestling fans past and present. Substance-addicted and physically degraded yet nominally evocative of what made him so special, this traumatizing incarnation of Roberts became a wraithlike childhood repression, semi-regularly reemerging long enough for another depressing spectacle of impaired anti-wrestling posted by fans to YouTube (e.g., “Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts Wrestling in the Worst Match Ever”) and a round of fresh guilt over caring enough to click on it.

The tragedy of Jake “The Snake” took a most unexpected twist in 2015 when the world was reintroduced to Roberts in the documentary The Resurrection of Jake the Snake. The documentary depicts Roberts struggling to get sober and rebuild his broken body with the help of DDP, Diamond Dallas Page, former pro wrestler turned yoga guru and entrepreneur of DDP Yoga. The documentary ends with Roberts achieving sobriety for the first time in his adult life, losing over 50 pounds and regaining physical mobility, and being inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE, formerly WWF) Hall of Fame, effectively bringing wrestling’s prodigal sinner full circle.

What is it that about the story of Jake “The Snake” Roberts that has fascinated observers, even non-wrestling fans, for nearly thirty years? The question may first appear simple enough to dismiss outright: Roberts was a popular performer in a period in which wrestling was booming, and the salacious lows of his descent into addiction make irresistible headlines and discussion fodder. Yet the annals of sports and entertainment history burst with tragic tales of talented performers falling from grace after succumbing to personal “demons”3. And though the genre of rise-fall-redemption narratives in which The Resurrection of Jake the Snake participates is an easy sell to mainstream audiences, the story of Roberts defeating his demons transcended the wrestling niche, bringing the stories of Roberts and Page to mainstream audiences and garnering significant news media attention from outlets that rarely devote attention to professional wrestling outside the occasional spectacular death. Though the form of Roberts’s rise-fall-redemption arc is common among several wrestlers of the era (e.g., Shawn Michaels, Sting, Scott Hall, Lex Lugar), only Roberts’s story appears to have resonated with audiences in ways that transcend both wrestling fandom and the saturated “overcoming addiction” genre of mediated storytelling.

I argue that the transcendent appeal of the thirty-year narrative arc of Jake “The Snake” lies in its power to symbolically cleanse wrestling fans and observers’ collective guilt over the deadly excesses (i.e., “demons”) suffered by professional wrestlers. By employing a Burkean approach to reading Roberts’s public performances, and mediated discourses on him as a performer and public figure, the analysis reveals how Roberts has at multiple points during and after his wrestling career performed symbolically resonate acts of mortification for his sins, doing so in ways that symbolically transform him into a purifying agent for fans’ collective guilt over systemic demons of addiction and human frailty that have haunted professional wrestling and its fandom increasingly since the 1990s.

Narrative Functions of Sin, Redemption, and Mortification

Building on Kenneth Burke’s foundational “Definition of [Hu]man” as a symbol-using animal (Language as Symbolic Action 3–20), Walter Fisher argues that “symbols are created and communicated ultimately as stories meant to give order to human experience and to induce others to dwell in them to establish ways of living in common” (4). Burke identified stories as “equipment for living” (Philosophy of Literary Form 293–304) and suggested that stories can be understood as “strategies for selecting enemies and allies, for socializing losses, for warding off evil eye, for purification [my emphasis], propitiation, and desanctification, consolation and vengeance, admonition and exhortation, implicit commands or instructions of one sort or another” (304). The stories we choose to tell and embrace fulfill ideological functions: they do something for us as individuals, communities, and societies through their telling. It is through this perspective that I sought out to explore what the public rise, fall, and resurrection of Jake “The Snake” Roberts fulfills. The answer, I will demonstrate through close reading of Roberts's life narrative, lies in purification through mortification.

Burke observed that humans are “moved by a sense of order” (Language as Symbolic Action 15): “If order,” Burke reasoned, “then a need to repress the tendencies to disorder” (The Rhetoric of Religion 314). In our pursuit of perfection through maintaining order, we are compelled to avoid or remedy disorder. When we realize we have become inundated (or have inundated ourselves) with disorder, we experience guilt, which we are motivated to purge through symbolic action in order to restore order and reaffirm the hierarchies that undergird our conceptions of order. We are hailed through hierarchy, authority, and morality to embrace self-repression and to shun and resist symbolic threats of disorder. “If repression,” Burke suggests, “then responsibility for imposing, accepting, or resisting the repression. If responsibility, then guilt. If guilt, then the need for redemption, which involves sacrifice, which in turn allows for substitution” (The Rhetoric of Religion 314). Through acts of substitution—on display in “Rituals [and] dramatic enactments” that “provide us with visible symbols in which hierarchy is built up and in which rejection in atoned for” (Gusfield 33)—social actors collectively undertake this purgation of guilt through processes of symbolic (or in extreme cases, literal) sacrifice. Through the symbolic punishment of a vessel deemed worthy of sacrifice, order may be restored and hierarchy reaffirmed—albeit temporarily, for as Carlson and Hocking observe, we are never able to permanently cleanse ourselves: “there is always something wrong in the world, always a new source of guilt” (206).

Burke identifies two primary avenues by which we undertake our processes of ritual sacrifice: victimage and mortification. Unlike victimage—in which social actors identify a scapegoat, symbolically saddle it with their collective guilt, and sacrifice it so that society may reconvene purified—mortification involves acts of self-sacrifice, which Burke equates to symbolic “suicide” (The Rhetoric of Religion 190) in penance for one’s own sins via the “scrupulous and deliberate clamping of limitation upon the self” (Permanence and Change 289). Moore explains mortification as “a symbolic attempt to purify or atone for pollution or guilt through confession or self-sacrifice for the sake of forgiveness” (312). In Rhetoric of Religion, Burke frames mortification in Biblical language:

“the subjugation of the passions and appetites, by penance, abstinence or painful severities inflicted upon the body,” mortification as a kind of governance, an extreme form of “self-control,” the deliberate, disciplinary “slaying” of any motive that, for “doctrinal” reasons, one thinks of as unruly. In it is a systematic way of saying no to disorder, or obediently saying yes to order. (190)

In order to cleanse guilt, acts of mortification cannot be performed superficially or merely to avoid or alleviate punishment: “It must come from within. The mortified must, with one aspect of himself, be saying no to another aspect of himself” (Rhetoric of Religion 190). In order to understand and contextualize Roberts’s performances of mortification, we must first understand the nature of the guilt those acts might cleanse.

Original Sin: Unholy Unions

“Cocaine, it speeds me up so fast I can’t think about my past. It speeds me up so fast that I don’t have to be responsible.”— Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Beyond the Mat

The 2015 documentary The Resurrection of Jake the Snake opens with Roberts despondently shambling about his modest home. Sitting in a recliner, rounded stomach poking out the bottom of a white A-shirt, Roberts weighs over 300 pounds and suffers from limited mobility. His trademark gravelly voice sounds exhausted and frail. “I was getting tired of people coming to me going, “Didn't you used to be Jake ‘The Snake’? Man, what the fuck happened to you?” The irony of Roberts’s otherwise heartbreaking statement is one would be hard-pressed to find a person who would both recognize Roberts and be unaware of what has happened to him.

The narrative of Roberts’s descent with addiction is well-traveled lore among wrestling fans past and present: his life story reads like a literary tragedy and as equipment for living functions as just that. Roberts’s willingness to publicly and viscerally tell his taboo-laden story positions Roberts as a willing agent of mortification. That he revealed his immense gifts for performance before succumbing to the demons that bestowed them empowers him to serve as a tragically perfect vessel for the guilt his acts of mortification would cleanse.

Aurelian Smith, Jr., the man who would become Jake “The Snake,” was born to his father, influential professional wrestling Grizzly Smith. Roberts was conceived when Smith raped and impregnated the twelve-year-old daughter of a woman he was dating. Roberts’s “demonic” possession by drugs and alcohol seems tragically ordained. He fell into alcohol abuse as early as eleven, a product of living with a “hopeless” alcoholic grandfather (Ackerman) while estranged from his parents. After moving back in with his father, Roberts was regularly raped and abused by his stepmother, who dumped a boiling pot of spaghetti on him for nonverbally acknowledging her abuse (Vela). Roberts alleged that his father was also sexually molesting his sister, who at eighteen married a fifty-five-year-old man before being kidnapped and killed by her husband’s ex-wife.

Roberts’s tragic origin myth as a wrestler begins shortly after high school. While attending a wrestling event with his father, Roberts recalled (Vela):

The alcohol, youth, and ignorance told me that if I wanted to impress my father, the only way I was going to be able to do that is to get in the ring and wrestle one of those wrestlers. So I went up and challenged a guy, and he proceeded to tear my ass apart. Basically after he got through with me I crawled out of the ring and into the locker room on my hands and knees; I couldn’t stand up, I was hurting so bad. And my father was right there at the door, and I opened it up and he looked down at me and he goes, “I’m ashamed of you. You’re gutless, and you’ll never amount to anything,” and turned and walked away. I wanted to die.

Following the incident, Roberts claims he begged the Devil to help him succeed in wrestling: “I would do anything that it took to get where I needed to be, which was the top of the wrestling heap, so I could show my father I was better than he was” (Vela). As in the legends of Jonathan Moulton or Robert Johnson before him, Roberts got his wish, honing his craft in the southern and southeastern territories in the early 1980s before gaining international stardom with the WWF.

Roberts became one of the period’s wrestling icons, his undeniable talents sufficient to transcend his behind-the-scenes struggles with injuries, substance abuse, and a battery arrest for a post-show bar fight (Oliver), all of which would have been unknown to the majority of WWF followers. Roberts left the WWF in 1992 after owner Vince McMahon allegedly reneged on a promised position on the WWF’s creative staff (“Jake Roberts on Why He Left WWE”). After a three-month main-event run in World Championship Wrestling, Roberts traveled the world both as a wrestler and a born-again Christian preacher.

The origin myth and profound impact of Roberts's ascent to stardom is a key substantive component by which Roberts is symbolically transformed into a sacrificial vessel for fans’ collective guilt over wrestling’s demons. Though we often associate guilt as a byproduct of sin, Burke observed in The Rhetoric of Religion that “the circularity is reversible, allowing not just for a progression from crime to guilt, but also for a progression from guilt to crime,” which Burke connected to original sin (224). By virtue of his electrifying talents and the nature of his sins, Roberts was capable of being transformed into what Burke called a charismatic vessel of an “absolute” substance. As such a vessel, Burke writes, “the person transcends his nature as an individual, becoming instead the image of the idea he stands for” (Rhetoric of Religion 277). Roberts’s sins can be read as products of the original sins of the wrestling business—he was to suffer for the sins of the father.

One of the most oft-noted elements of Roberts’s je ne sais quoi as a performer is his ability to entice audiences to suspend their disbelief, to believe his on-screen persona is authentic. In The Resurrection of Jake the Snake, wrestler Chris Jericho said Roberts “casts a spell on you. It’s almost like you get caught in his web.” Page explained: “Jake Roberts is the guy who made me want to watch professional wrestling because, you know what, with Jake you didn’t know what was real and what was fake. You just didn’t know.” Even McMahon, the most powerful man behind wrestling’s curtain of unreality, conceded, “I don’t know that you can separate Jake Roberts the performer from Jake Roberts the person because quite frankly I never knew which one I was talking to. I don’t know that they’re not the same” (Beyond the Mat).

As Roberts explained, his gift for entrancing audiences is born of the abuse he suffered early in life:

At a very young age I was being sexually abused. When you’re in that position, you have to learn how to talk on the fly. You have to learn how to lie on the fly, and you have to make it look believable … because your life is on the line. If I tell the right lie, I won’t get abused today. Guess what? I’m going to come up with a damn good one, and it’s going to seem real. Well, I think that’s what helped me with my interviews. (Cavacini)

That the genius of someone who entertained and inspired so many people is the product of abject disorders of the highest degree—incest, abuse, neglect, addiction—contributes to the guilt-inducing nature of the absolute substance for which Roberts is to stand.

Because Roberts’s tragic origins were not widely known in the 1980s and early ‘90s, fans could enjoy his performances guilt-free. But the guilt Roberts embodied would soon grow impossible to ignore.

Guilt and Mortification, Act I: Beyond the Mat

“Sadly, this did not turn out to be the Roberts fans had come to love years prior: the Machiavellian snake handler had been replaced by a Bible-thumping, sober-living, tubby shell of his former self. (He now wore a sleeveless snakeskin-print shirt, which was obviously a functional decision to hide his middle-age gut but which also served metaphorically as a serpentine hair shirt, an act of penance on the part of the God-fearing Jake for his prodigal heyday.)” — David Shoemaker, The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling

Roberts returned to the WWF in 1996, and it is during this period that mass audiences were acquainted with the guilt-inducing image of a suffering, diminished hero. Roberts’s former toughest-guy-at-the-bar physique was now rounded. He began incorporating Evangelical preaching into his character, even exchanging Damien for an albino python named Revelations.

Instead of the cold, darkly poetic prose of the interviews that made him a star, Roberts’s promos now leaned heavily into weakness, vulnerability, and repentance:

Forgive me father for what I’m thinking. You see, you’ve told me, father, that you “let the light shine, Jake. I’ll take care of the rest.” Lord, I’ve been trying to do the very best I can, standing out and saying what I believe in, trying to show somebody else the right way to live. (“Jake Roberts Promo on Mankind [07–20–1996]”)

Roberts’s struggles with addiction became substance for his on-screen conflicts (i.e., feuds) with mixed results. Roberts’s conflict with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin helped launch a new boom period in wrestling—Austin’s industry-shifting “Austin 3:16” promod4 was a direct retort to Roberts’s on-screen piety. But his feud with Jerry “The King” Lawler was memorable for feel-bad moments such as when Lawler beat and incapacitated Roberts before forcibly pouring a bottle of (mock) whiskey down his throat.

Roberts’s in-ring skill had declined, and his born-again persona was met with diminished enthusiasm from fans and skepticism behind the scenes, where he was transitioning from on-screen performer to writer on the creative team (Jake “The Snake” Roberts: Pick Your Poison; Prichard). Roberts fell off the wagon, and unlike in the 1980s his talents no longer transcended his liabilities. He was fired from WWF in 1997, and after a brief stint in Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) began toiling in obscurity in independent promotions.

Roberts returned to the public eye in 1999 with the release of the documentary Beyond the Mat, a film that despite its popularity and warm critical reception is best remembered today for its bleak depiction of Roberts’s post-WWF life, and thus constitutes an informative artifact to demonstrate Roberts’s transformation as a mortifying vessel. Released during a period in which professional wrestling had once again captured the cultural zeitgeist, Beyond the Mat director Barry Blaustein set out to depict the lives of wrestlers who were just beginning their careers, at their peak, or on the decline. Roberts was featured as emblematic of the third group, and his portrayal in the film represents one of the first and most visceral mediated depictions of a wrestler struggling to survive.        

Blaustein meets with Roberts at an independent show in North Platte, Nebraska. “For a guy who once wrestled in front of 80,000 people in the Pontiac Silverdome,” Blaustein narrates over cuts of Roberts urinating into a bucket and sitting, apparently passed out, backstage, “this was about as far down as you can go in professional wrestling without starting over.” Blaustein stresses: “It was depressing seeing Jake in such bad shape, but once it came time to perform, he could still turn it on.” This tense depiction of Roberts—degraded yet still captivating—reifies much of what in Roberts’s story induces such dissonance in fans. Here, Roberts embodies disorder in that his generation-defining charisma and talents have been rendered impotent due to the demons that entrapped him since his conception.

Beyond the Mat’s guilt-inducing depiction of Roberts foregrounds several recurring elements of Roberts’s mythopoetic arc. Contemporary attitudes toward Roberts framed him as at once (1) inherently brilliant and (2) existentially constrained by his demons. After Paul Heyman, at the time ECW owner, describes Roberts as “one of themost phenomenal performers this industry has ever seen,” Jim Ross, then WWF’s director of talent relations, confirms that Roberts “had [my emphasis] great gifts and great skills in our business.” Ross follows with the following elegy: “If Jake Roberts could control the demons, Jake Roberts could be one of the most influential, creative forces in our industry.”5

Beyond the Mat depicts Roberts struggling to rekindle a relationship with his estranged daughter, Brandy. After another independent show in Nebraska, Jake meets Brandy for the first time in four years. What follows is a harrowing exchange in which Roberts admits his tragic failure as a parental figure: “When I was growing up, I swore up and down I would never treat my kids the way my father treated me. And twenty-four years later I look back and say, ‘My God, you’ve done the exact stinking same thing.’” After Jake admits that he “quit learning” how to improve himself, Brandy urges him to begin learning again; “Maybe, if there’s time,” Jake replies, the implication he is pondering suicide palpable. “I don’t know. I just don’t want to hurt anymore. . . . I’m sorry. I don’t know where to go. I’m getting really fucked up inside.”

Years later, Roberts admitted that he resisted suicide “because I couldn’t have done that to my mother or my kids” (Barrasso). From this viewpoint, even continuing to live can be read as an act of mortification: Roberts symbolically sentenced himself to twelve more years of purgatory to wrestle with addiction, a broken family life, and physical agony. Such was his self-imposed punishment for his demons: “I had a life, but I poisoned it,” Roberts lamented in The Resurrection of Jake the Snake. “I screwed the fans. I screwed myself.”

Roberts’s professional degradation and personal abjection were revealed to the public during a time of increased public awareness of the real-life struggles of professional wrestlers. Prior to this period, the private lives and human frailties of wrestlers were real but largely obscured from the public save for a small community of enthusiasts. The dawn of the internet and internet wrestling communities (IWC), along with the deconstruction of kayfabe (the code by which members of the wrestling industry shield its behind-the-scenes realities from the public), resulted in wrestlers becoming more willing to discuss, and mainstream audiences and journalists more willing to observe, the private lives of wrestlers. What they subsequently learned was horrifying.

In the years following Roberts’s abject portrayal in Beyond the Mat, Bryant Gumbel would inform HBO Sports audiences that the wrestling industry leaves one in four dead, “victims of a culture defined by indulgence, addiction, and pain” (“DDPTv HBO Real Sports”). Medical researchers (Herman et al.) would seek out factors in what was causing wrestlers to suffer and die before their time. The New York Times (French) reported:

In a 2003 survey of news reports, a medical examiner found that the death rate for wrestlers 40 years old and younger is seven times as great as that of the general population. From 1983 to 2003, 64 wrestlers in that age group died, many of them from heart problems or from complications of drug and alcohol abuse. A rough calculation of more recent numbers, from 2004 to 2007, indicates that at least another 18 under age 50 died as well.

Though the 2007 double-murder-suicide committed by Chris Benoit was the most sensational wrestling-related death, the public witnessed a steady stream of wrestlers dying young and/or publicly struggling with hardships from in-ring abuse or out-of-ring addictions in the years following Beyond the Mat. Today, watching a wrestling event from twenty years ago is a trip through a morgue filled with childhood superheroes. For example, the card of WrestleMania VII, the WWF’s highest profile event of 1991, features twelve performers who died younger than sixty and several others who publicly struggled with health or addiction issues—none of the latter group more publicly than Roberts.

Since Beyond the Mat but as far back as his religious-themed ‘90s WWF comeback, Roberts publicly embodied several of his wrestling industry’s systemic issues: physical debility, addiction, depression, poverty, and suicidal thoughts. The degree of his suffering and his candidness in sharing his hardships renders him the most visible living symbol of the excesses and inequities of professional wrestling’s glory days.

Mediated accounts of Roberts’s physical degradation portray the cumulative destruction and concomitant hopelessness of the discarded wrestler’s body and mind: “A series of concussions Roberts suffered while wrestling had causing synapses in his brain to misfire,” The Atlanta-Constitution (Waterhouse) reported. “As a result his hands and feet were stiff and curled.” Roberts also perfectly symbolizes the self-destructive behaviors and the hopelessness from which they spring: “First thing I did every day was get my dope and get my alcohol set up for the day,” Roberts told ESPN (Robinson). “That’s what I was living for, and that’s the only thing I was living on.” “In many ways, he is the sum of his own personal destruction,” Deadspin’s Tom Ley concludes after painting a pathos-drenched portrait of Roberts’s numerous disabilities resulting from wrestling.

Roberts’s own narration of his misfortunes significantly tends to connect his self-destructive behaviors to systemic inequities within the wrestling business without explicitly gesturing toward victimage, as the following monologue from Beyond the Mat demonstrates:

I used to tell myself I’ll never, ever do drugs. Never, no way. It’s for losers. We were wrestling twenty-six, twenty-seven days a month, twice on Saturday, twice on Sunday, catching eight, nine airplanes a week. It was basically a necessity just to continue. You took pills to go to sleep, you took pills because of your pain, you took cocaine to wake up so you could perform. You drank to go to sleep; you took sleeping pills. It’s a trap.

Though Roberts delivers his monologue stoned on crack in the wake of his gut-wrenching meeting with his daughter, he remains committed to self-flagellation rather than attempting to blame others. “I do not feel sorry for myself, OK?” he insists. “If that’s what you’re getting on that camera, it’s wrong. I do not feel sorry for myself. I asked for every damn thing I got, OK?”

The symbolic labor of accepting blame while connecting personal sin to larger systemic issues enables Roberts to serve as a vessel who is appropriately consubstantial with the disorder for which he elects to solicit punishment. Through symbolically resonate acts of “open confession of [his] ‘sins’ and actual or symbolic punishment of them” (Brummett 256), Roberts becomes a mortifying subject who inflicts self-punishment in order to accept and symbolically purge the corresponding guilt.    

Mortification, Act II: Symbolic Suicide and Rebirth Through DDP Yoga

“Shame is something you put on yourself. You can’t shame me, man. I have to do it myself.” — Jake “The Snake Roberts, The Joe Rogan Experience

The Jake “The Snake” of the early 2000s was such a poetic distillation of the guilt and disorder with which he is associated that his adult life was closely mirrored in the award-winning 2008 film The Wrestler: the fictional story of Randy “The Ram” Robinson, an aging wrestler struggling with drug abuse, his failing body, and his broken relationship with his estranged daughter. “It's sad to say what has happened to Jake is not that original a story for pro wrestling,” director Darren Aronofsky told NPR (Pesca), though he denied taking inspiration directly from Roberts or his portrayal in Beyond the Mat. “We met so many guys who had similar journeys, who were big stars and just didn't take care of themselves and ended up in really, really terrible situations.”

The same year The Wrestler opened in theaters, Roberts was recorded again in one such terrible situation. After allegedly consuming “nearly two dozen” airplane bottles of vodka before an independent show, he stumbled through a one-minute match before exposing his penis to the audience. TMZ reported (“Jake ‘The Snake’ Implodes”):

Backstage, the madness continued. People close to the situation tell us Snake broke his hand punching a wall, then ran into the street crying. An ambulance and police were called to the scene, but Roberts, who refused medical treatment, was not arrested.

Had Roberts disappeared into the night never to return, such an ending could be read as a tragically poetic finale to his literary tragedy, a real-life analog to Randy The Ram’s climactic in-ring heart attack. Yet the thirty-year narrative arc of Jake “The Snake” Roberts had a different final reel.

As depicted in The Resurrection of Jake the Snake, Roberts retired from wrestling in 2011 at age fifty-five and was living alone in pain and despair. “Toward the end I got rid of the mirrors in my house ‘cause if I see that I want to punch that son of a bitch,” Roberts recalled on HBO Real Sports (“DDPTv HBO Real Sports”). “I begged to die…. I would curse God when I would find out that another wrestler had died. I’d say ‘why not me, you son of a bitch?’” Roberts attempted suicide by overdosing on valium. “I woke up, and all I’ve done was puke on myself,” he told Joe Rogan. “And I said, ‘What a fucking loser you are.’ You can’t even die right. You’re a piece of shit.”

It was during this nadir that Diamond Dallas Page called Roberts and offered to get him started on a diet and exercise program Page markets as DDP Yoga. Page, an unlikely former World Championship Wrestling heavyweight champion who didn’t begin wrestling until age thirty-five, counts Roberts as a mentor and one of few willing to support him as he trained for a career as an in-ring performer. After a career-threatening back injury, Page incorporated yoga into his rehabilitation, which he credits for getting him back in the ring when no doctor thought it possible. Page’s brand of yoga, which combines elements of Ashtanga yoga and Iyengar yoga with calisthenics and Bruce Lee-inspired “dynamic resistance” exercises, was featured on ABC’s Shark Tank. Though DDP Yoga was rejected by the Sharks, the exposure, along with viral videos of success stories and testimonials from celebrities and fellow wrestlers, helped Page and DDP Yoga become well-known within wrestling- and fitness-dedicated circles.

After accepting Page’s offer “just to get him off the phone” so he could obtain drugs, (“Ex-Wrestler Page”), Roberts dieted down under 300 pounds and, encouraged by the results, moved in to Page’s home in Smyrna, Georgia after Page volunteered to pay Roberts’s bills while he worked to get healthy. Page’s home, alternately known as the Accountability Crib, is The Resurrection of Jake the Snake’s primary setting, the scene that contains many of Roberts’s most resonate acts of bodily mortification: physical mortification through painful exercise, internal mortification through symbolic purgation of impurities, and gestational mortification through clean nutrition.

The Resurrection of Jake the Snake’s most compelling scene of physical mortification occurs early in the documentary when Roberts physically falters within minutes of his first workout under Page’s supervision. Seeing Roberts barely able to stand or stretch with the assistance of a folding chair, Page discontinues the workout. Roberts pursued Page and demanding that he continue the workout: “Had it not happened that way, I don’t know if I would have ever done it,” Roberts told Fox Sports (“Ex-Wrestler Page”). “I was angry and I had just enough pride to get me through that one workout.” This scene sets the tone for Roberts’s subsequent acts of physical mortification through rigorous, often painful, exercise: we view Roberts struggling but slowly gaining strength and mobility, intercut with scenes of Roberts stressing the urgency of the project—“I know this is my last fucking chance at life”—or Page supporting Roberts while admitting to the camera that Roberts is in worse shape than anticipated.

As Roberts performs physical mortification through exercise, he performs internal mortification by symbolically purging his system of drugs and alcohol: i.e., his demons. Within one week in Smyrna, Roberts suffers a relapse with alcohol at the Atlanta airport. The audience watches as Page angrily confronts Roberts; Roberts, after stumbling through the airport and parking ramp without shoes (shades of his humiliating Heroes of Wrestling performance), attempts to escape Page’s car while insisting he is not drunk. The next day, Roberts watches the incident with Page and plaintively acknowledges the mental processes of his addiction.

Roberts begins taking Antabuse, a drug that makes a person violently ill after ingesting alcohol—a public performance of, to recall Burke (Rhetoric of Religion), “‘subjugation of the passions and appetites, by penance, abstinence or painful severities inflicted upon the body” (190). Later in the film, when Steve Yu (Page’s business partner and director of the documentary), suspects Roberts has been drinking and challenges Roberts to ingest Antabuse, Roberts angrily but willingly consents to this act of humiliation, passing the test for the world to see. Though Roberts admits to relapsing on alcohol a few times, by the end of the film Roberts has achieved sobriety and attends weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, having mortified himself through purifying abstinence and compulsory displays of accountability.

Another key performance of mortification is Roberts adapting his dietary intake to DDP Yoga’s strict limitations. The nutritional section of the official DDP Yoga Program Guide includes three phases of nutritional restriction, even the most permissive of which forbids processed foods, fast food or soft drinks, fried foods, and alcohol; advanced performance requires abstinence from grain, wheat, and dairy and eating strictly organic foods. Within DDP Yoga, eating organic foods and foregoing processed foods is both a health necessity and a symbolic act of purification. Page explains to ABC News (Rothman): “I knew I had to get clean, organic food in [Roberts]. When you are dealing with someone at this level, who is an alcoholic, pill head, coke head and crack addict, you need to get real food in that mother——, so he at least starts to feel alive. Not feeling better, but alive.” Page also encouraged Roberts to discard negative thoughts and signifiers, even throwing away Roberts’s T-shirts with negative language: a symbolic purification of perception and attitude (Mooneyham).

Notions of self-denial and self-discipline are familiar elements of dominant Western attitudes toward exercise and physical fitness. French and Brown observe in their discussion of mortification and victimage in attitudes toward women and weight maintenance:

People practice “mortification” through dieting, purging, self-starvation, dehydration, excessive exercising, and other means, including using mealtime and cyberspace as confessionals relating what they do, should, and won’t eat. These efforts at “mortification” reinforce their adherence to the social value of controlling appetite and body size even as their bodies may be perceived as reflecting the [symbolic action] of recalcitrance or laziness. (6)

Roberts is depicted as regularly engaging in what can be interpreted as a campaign of redemptive symbolic suicide. Through continued bodily practice of postural yoga (“painful severities inflicted upon the body”) and purposeful abstinence from ingesting impurities (“subjugation of the passions and appetites”) Roberts embodies a satisfying and guilt-cleansing “deliberate, disciplinary ‘slaying’” (Rhetoric of Religion 190) of the demons he embodied for so long.

It is poetic that yoga serves as the purifying agent in Roberts's redemption arc, for yoga functions generates a rich field of multivalent significance that satisfies both the self-sacrificial and religious elements potent enough to facilitate the most potent exorcism of collective guilt. Neither Roberts nor Page frame DDP Yoga as being religious or spiritual in nature: in his 2005 book Yoga For Regular Guys, Page states, “The yoga I’m talking about is not a religion. We won’t be meditating or chanting “‘Om’” (10). Yet public discourse on Page and DDP Yoga in light of Roberts’s redemption arc lend a quasi-religious frame to Roberts’s mortifications, particularly in light of the dissonance and skepticism Roberts’s audience felt toward his ‘90s evangelical persona.

Bramadat notes that spirituality discourses in contemporary postural yoga frame “practices and perspectives oriented towards an elevation in awareness, wellness, wisdom, healing, and wholeness that typically occurs outside of formal religious settings” (492), all discourses in which DDP Yoga workouts dabble despite the strategic absence of meditation or references to The Lord (Ishvara). Though framing of DDP Yoga as anti-namaste and for “regular guys” would seem a gesture toward separating DDP Yoga from other products in the booming yoga market, DDP Yoga participates in a fifty-year trend of what Jain explains in Selling Yoga as indicative of contemporary postural yoga’s “dominant religio-philosophical mode of consumer culture, which links the self to the body so that the attainment of health and beauty is central to the transformative and transcendent process of self-development” (105). Viewed through the lens of Emile Durkheim’s century-old definition of religion in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life —“a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (as cited in Jain 116), DDP Yoga functions pseudo-religiously and promotes “deep connection between physical and mental discipline, between breath and mind, and even the impact of diet on one’s spiritual awareness” (Malkovsky 3).

Despite Page disavowing religiosity, within the narrative of Roberts’s sin and redemption the program functions as a divine signifier, and contemporary discourses on postural yoga uniquely empower it in this role. Likewise, though Page does not portray himself as a guru of divinity and resists comparisons to transcendental gurus associated with more explicitly spiritual models of postural yoga, within Roberts’s redemption he signifies a redeemer whose “techniques of disciplined self-mastery” are “aimed toward an extraordinary state of consciousness … an ultimate union with the divine” (Godrej 3). “DDP Yoga to me is much more than just doing Dallas’ routine and doing his food,” Roberts confirms. “It’s a way of life. It’s a change in attitude. DDP to me means dedication, desire and positive thinking” (Mooneyham).

Mortification, Act III—An Eternity of Servitude

“I was given an innate amount of talent by God a long time ago…. You guys got a little bit. I’m ashamed to say I wasted a lot of it.” — Jake “The Snake Roberts, during his acceptance speech into the WWE Hall of Fame. (The Resurrection of Jake the Snake)

Jake “The Snake” has remained a public figure since symbolically completing the sin and redemption cycle through acts of mortification. Following his acts of guilt-purgation, Roberts has transformed into a new signifier of mortification: public servant. “When I talk about my addiction and how it controlled me,” Roberts tells The City Pages, “I’ll see someone occasionally push their glass to the side and I think, ‘Alright, there’s one right there. Who else?’” (Strait). Through continuing to tell his story in interviews and his spoken-word performances, his season of mortification continues indefinitely.

Roberts first embodied his new role of sober public servant in The Resurrection of Jake the Snake when he aids Page in convincing Scott Hall, another ‘90s wrestling star plagued by his own demons, to join them at the Accountability Crib. “I really feel like God’s talking to me right now,” Hall states over the phone. With Page’s guidance and Roberts’s support, Hall, too, defeats his demons and is inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2014.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Roberts embarked on speaking tours in which he combines humorous stories from his wrestling days with inspirational messages. The language is often vulgar, and the tone of his stories veers from hilarious to tragic. In one instance, Roberts regales the audience with stories of “Ravishing” Rick Rude being arrested for breaking into a hotel kitchen to steal Saran Wrap for fashioning into a makeshift condom. In another, Damien freezes to death in a car trunk when he is forgotten on a cold night, forcing Roberts to use his decaying corpse in the ring over the course of several shows. Joining him on the road is daughter Brandy, whose presence in Beyond the Mat two decades earlier drove him to tears. Once estranged from all his children, Roberts now has relationships with his children and grandchildren. Roberts has even returned to big-time professional wrestling, debuting with All Elite Wrestling in 2020 as the on-screen manager of Lance Archer, a role he continues to play to fan approval as of this writing. The sordid details of a forty-six-year wrestling career that once evoked guilt and pity have scarred over to signify a new career as a mortifying public servant. “If you really want to get high … if you really want to get the best high you’ll ever get,” he tells his audience while speaking at the Diamond Jo Casino in Dubuque, Iowa, “it’s not from drinking, it’s not from drugs. Help somebody.”

As this analysis demonstrates, the redemption arc of Jake “The Snake” Roberts uniquely resonates not only due to its uplifting conclusion but because Roberts functions for fans and observers as a perfect sacrificial vessel for the audience’s collective guilt over wrestling’s demons, which Roberts both poetically embodies and played a key role in exposing to the world. The story of Jake “The Snake” is evidence that, despite its marginalized status in the U.S. cultural marketplace as one of the lowest forms of mass entertainment, professional wrestling and the stories and characters it generates function as powerful equipment for living, “proverbs writ large” (The Philosophy of Literary Form 296) that “size up situations in various ways and in keeping with correspondingly various attitudes” (304). Burkean theory provides the critic a powerful analytical perspective from which to better understand how compelling wrestling narratives and characters (and the performers who embody them) resonate with audiences by tapping into their shared attitudes, ideologies, and cultural myths.


1 . In wrestling vernacular, a promo is a speech a performer delivers to the audience intended to develop his or her character or build anticipation for an upcoming contest.

2. The DDT is Roberts’s signature maneuver in which he seizes his opponent’s head, locks it beneath Roberts’ arm, and falls backward, driving his opponent’s head into the mat.

3. Demons is a strategically vague catch-all euphemism professional wrestling commenters often deploy to reference a performer’s struggles with drugs, alcohol, or other vices without specifically naming them.

4. At WWF’s 1996 King of the Ring event, Austin defeated Roberts in the event’s tournament final match. As Roberts was leaving the arena in defeat, Austin cut his now-iconic promo: “You sit there and you thump your Bible, and you say your prayers, and it didn’t get you anywhere. Talk about your Psalms, talk about John 3:16 … Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass!” That moment helped propel Austin to becoming the most popular wrestler in WWF/E history, and the phrase “Austin 3:16” became WWF’s best-selling merchandise slogan.

5. This tragic dichotomy of Roberts and his demons also serves as an introductory frame to the events of The Resurrection of Jake the Snake. Austin introduces Roberts as having “everything that you needed to be a great professional wrestler and one of the great minds in the history of the business” yet laments, “It’s scary to think what Jake could have done had he been totally straight his whole career.” Chris Jericho says of Roberts, “He’s one of the best, but he’s got a lot of issues that stop him from doing more.”

Works Cited

Ackerman, McCarton. “Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts: ‘I Started Drinking When I Was 11.’” Salon, 5 Mar. 2013,

Barrasso, Justin. “Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts Film Delivers Sad Tale with Happy Ending.” Sports Illustrated, 23 Sept. 2015,

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Bramadat, Paul. “A Bridge Too Far: Yoga, Spirituality, and Contested Space in the Pacific Northwest.” Religion, State & Society, vol. 47, no. 4–5, 2019, pp. 491–507.

Brummett, Barry. “Burkean Scapegoating, Mortification, and Transcendence in Presidential Campaign Rhetoric.” Central States Speech Journal, vol. 32, no. 4, 1981, pp. 254–64.

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

–––. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. The New Republic, 1935.

–––. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Louisiana State UP, 1941.

–––. A Rhetoric of Motives. Prentice-Hall, 1950.

–––. The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. U of California P, 1970.

Carlson, A. Cheree, and John E. Hocking. “Strategies of Redemption at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial.” Western Journal of Speech Communication, vol. 52, 1988, pp. 203–15.

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DDP Program Guide. DDP Yoga, Inc., 2016.

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Review: Dinosaur Bones: Poems by Michael Burke. Reviewed by Steven B. Katz

Cover of Dinosaur Bones by Michael BurkeMichael Burke, Dinosaur Bones: Poems, Parlor Press, 2021. 100 pp. $17.99 (paperback; color); $9.99 (PDF and EPUB)

Reviewed by Steven B. Katz, Clemson University

Sweep away your expectations, put aside your suppositions, dispense with your assumptions about what you think contemporary poetry, modern poetry, or even twentieth century poetry is, what poetry can and cannot do, what it is supposed to be in the twenty-first century.

Open your eyes to the possibility of a new collection of verse where the poet playfully sometimes dabbles with old- fashion’ contractions (“t’is”), in vogue from Shakespeare to the nineteenth century (except perhaps in the extraordinarily contradictorily iconoclastic work of Ezra Pound); sonnets in which appear inversions grammatical at the end of a line for meter’s and especially rhyme’s sake, as not only acceptable but devilishly relished; and even the occasional cliché that bounces around inside the poem like a happy basketball in the hands of adult kids in a playground court.

If you can do these things, you will not only thoroughly enjoy but perhaps absolutely rejoice in Dinosaur Bones (Parlor Press, 2022) by Michael Burke—son of the famous literary and rhetorical critic Kenneth Burke. Michael Burke is or has been an astronomer, city planner, architect, graphic artist, mystery writer—and now with the publication of this book—a poet.

This is Michael Burke’s first collection of poetry, and Parlor Press’s second in a series of what publisher David Blakesley calls “a poetry of ideas” (the first was Socrates at Verse and Other Philosophical Poems by Christopher Norris [2020]).  (M. Burke’s collection of verse also contains his original and very interesting post-industrial, posthuman black and white illustrations of what appear to be contemporary renderings of both dinosaurs and buildings—futuristic dinosaur buildings.)

As M. Burke states in his short, succinct Preface, these poems were written over the course “of many years”—and one might add, the course of many careers, because the diversity of the subjects in Dinosaur Bones reflect a continually roving curiosity and a living interest in and knowledge of multiple fields in detail. As M. Burke says, “From long to short, serious to light-hearted, literal to abstract. They were inspired by past loves, past losses, fantasies, hopes and strange fears” (p. ix). Published during a pandemic and another age of horrendous police violence against African Americans, this time captured on police video cameras and cell phones from multiple angles, the Preface not only acknowledges but situates this collection in the era of the almost mutual viruses of Covid-19, racism, and Trumpism; only the last, light poem, “Pandemic,” is explicitly on this subject.

Instead, this collection of verse does not pretend to directly address the globally atrocious year of 2020, but instead offers readers a joie-de-vivre that I think only Michael Burke could conjure, a life-affirming temporary escape rooted in his personal past: “I’ve tried writing poems that reflect the present, and have found it impossible. I’ve tried to shrink the distance between then and now, with the hope that it engages the thoughts of the present and hope for the future” (ix).

It succeeds in doing just that, and more. What is remarkable about this collection is that it seems to say and do everything it wants to, in any way it wants to, and revels in an unbridled freedom to do so—a freedom that, unburdened by scholarly concerns, the strictures of poetic etiquette and form (except for the humorous Shakespearian sonnets), and/or modern and poetmodern definitions and edicts of what poetry is—we can only fondly envy and wistfully admire, and enjoy.

However, the book is not haphazard, nor are the poems presented willy-nilly. The collection is tightly organized into four sections: the poems following the Preface, “The Martini Triptych,” “Sonnets,” and “Poems for the Summer Solstice.” Within these sections are poems on a wide array of topics and titles as diverse as caterpillars, the music of the spheres, beetles (a few childhood bugs and other creatures crawl and hop and fly around in these poems), dinosaur bones of course, old age, drinking alone, the silliness of sex, dark matter, planetariums; Albert Einstein (there are a number of poems—fully accessible—that are informed by science and astronomy and new physics, poetic subjects close to my own heart); driving, watches, alarm clocks, drawing, dentist chairs, chaos, rain, oaks, and “The Tar-Pit Machine.”

As in most good collections, in addition to being organized into groups, the poetry and verse in Dinosaur Bones are sequenced and layered and create meaning and surprise by their juxtaposition and order. This dimension of the collection is only enhanced by M. Burke’s original illustrations, which create various relations and effects with the poems, and are very well placed in the collection by author and press. (I will take this opportunity to point out here that author and Parlor Press did an excellent job reproducing and positioning these illustrations in relation to individual poems, and the book as a whole is beautifully designed.)
The poems themselves often begin with sheer description that then will suddenly veer off into a personal memory or story or analogy, with images that light up the poem like fireflies in a cozy but expansive backyard on a warm summer night. For example, here are two free verse stanzas that also reveal the meaning of style and structure, from the tittle poem, “Dinosaur Bones”:

This dinosaur once rested in soft tar
And remained, until
      Its bones were spooned from the earth
          By men who love their trade
Labeled, cleaned, polished
      Reassembled in a ladder of ribs
          Each a smaller copy of the one before (p. 21)

These are ‘storied poems’ (which figures given that M. Burke is a novelist), but like digging in and filling “the warm dark mud” (“Dark Matter” [p. 37]), the language often contains lines of great simplicity and beauty, such as the ones above, and sometimes an arresting metaphor, as in the way a butterfly will “become a piece of wind” (“Caterpillars Don’t Write Poems” [p. 3]).

Dinosaur Bones is a surprising and entertaining book, and one finds both delight and solace in its poems and drawings—not infections, but affections, generous reverences, subtle forms of love. And the reader cannot help but respond in kind, return the emotions. Poems start on the ground but soon take off into some sphere of the outer space of imagination, or insightfully delve down into the probabilities of the uncertainties of perception. This is not what I expected—and it works! What fun! And a love of life/life of love that is so comforting right now.

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Review: Mindful of Greek: Select Fictions of Kenneth Burke, Norman Douglas, and Albert Camus by Donald L. Jennerman. Reviewed by Greig Henderson.

Jennermann, Donald L. Mindful of Greek: Select Fictions of Kenneth Burke, Norman Douglas, and Albert Camus. Monon Publications, 2019. 81 pp.

Reviewed by Greig Henderson, University of Toronto

Professor Emeritus of Classics and Humanities at Indiana State University, Donald Jennermann is both an erudite linguistic scholar and an astute literary critic.  He is one of the founding members of the Kenneth Burke Society, and—along with other devotees of Burke like William Rueckert, Wayne Booth, and Denis Donoghue—he produces work that is elegant, sophisticated, and insightful.  The man of letters with his humanist values and liberal imagination is certainly an anachronism in our day, but the current trend toward reparative criticism is oddly in sync with what liberal humanists used to champion.

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

I do not believe that symptomatic and reparative approaches to criticism are mutually exclusive.  Burke, after all, is no stranger to excavating the hidden depths of the text and engages in both negative and positive hermeneutics, in demystification as well as in restoration.  However, I do believe that stressing the reparative is a welcome corrective, for, as Jennermann is well aware, even if we sometimes feel compelled to interrogate and indict works of art, we also look to them for catharsis and transcendence, for solace, release, and replenishment.  What Felski calls enchantment matters “because one reason that people turn to works of art is to be taken out of themselves, to be pulled into an altered state of consciousness.”

Anesthesia is an altered state of consciousness that is in the foreground of Jennermann’s first chapter, “With Greek in Mind: Kenneth Burke’s Last Short Story.”  In this story, “The Anesthetic Revelation of Herone Liddell,” Burke deals with what Jennermann calls “the theme of health, body and soul, mind and memory, and the apprehension of their interconnectedness.”  The protagonist of the story experienced an almost fatal fall during childhood and suffered afterwards from recurrent nightmares.  Now as a middle-aged man, Liddell fears the anesthesia he must undergo prior to a minor operation.  In his mind “the fall and the anesthesia both feed his ensuing fear of death…He has lost touch with reality.  The anesthetic troubles his sleep; he has no control, just as he had none as a boy falling.”

For a classical scholar like Jennermann, the name Liddell has luminous significance.  Editor of the formidable Greek-English Lexicon, Henry George Liddell was a consummate word-man and thus an apt surrogate for Kenneth Burke.  “Herone,” Jennermann suggests, paronomastically evokes “her own” and cryptically alludes to Burke’s second wife, Libbie, his “first and most trusted critic,” a helpmate who found her own consummate word-man in her husband.

Jennermann’s detailed and nuanced reading of the story resists summary, but it succeeds brilliantly in showing how the optative, the anesthetic, the oneiric, the thanatoptic, and the revelatory interfuse in the symbolic action of the narrative.  As a grammarian, he connects these aspects of the narrative with the Middle Voice, a concept that Burke uses in his explanation of George Herbert Mead’s philosophy of the act.  Jennermann notes that the middle voice is “a complex feature of the ancient Greek verb.”  Mediating between the active and passive voices, “verbs of the middle voice function almost as reflexives and indicate an action that is done by and for the subject itself.  As an aesthetic term, the middle voice pertains to the innate power of a poem or a story to bring itself to completion, by and for itself, and in terms of itself.”

This is a major insight.  At the core of Burke’s story are Liddell’s reflections on the human ability to learn and acquire language, language being what he calls the grace that perfects nature.  At its purest, Liddell suggests, language eschews referentiality.  As he puts it, the rhymes of Mother Goose, who

in her archetypal perfection, may be as near as poets qua poets ever get to Heaven.   Poetry could not say something, while remaining pure.  Poetry can be pure only when  it attains the sheer gestures and tonalities of itself, being statement but ‘in principle,’   Utterance in the Absolute . . . signifying sound and fury, full of nothing.  At the farthest  reaches of the mind, there can be but the undirected feel of language, going beyond  doctrine to grammar, beyond verbs to the paradigms of verbs, loving verse most for its  bare prosody, needing meaning only because by shades of meaning, we increase the  subtlety and range of accents.

Such archetypal perfection is akin to what Burke elsewhere calls pure persuasion, “the saying of something, not for an extraverbal advantage to be got by the saying, but because of a satisfaction intrinsic to the saying.  It summons because it likes the feel of a summons.  It would be nonplussed if the summons were answered.  It attacks because it revels in the sheer syllables of vituperation.”   Taking delight in language for its own sake, Burke recognizes the cathartic power of linguistic exercising, a kind of cleansing achieved just by getting something said.

The second essay, “Kenneth Burke’s Poetics of Catharsis,” first appeared in Representing Kenneth Burke.  Since it is well known to most Burkeans, I shall not give it the detailed consideration it would otherwise merit.  Seeing catharsis as religious and ceremonial purification on the one hand and medicinal and psychological purgation on the other, Jennermann explores the connections among language, tragedy, catharsis, homeopathy, and scapegoating.  As Burke reflects, “tragedy might well be said to appeal not merely by resolving a conflict but rather by causing us somehow to re-enact this conflict.  Thus to be ‘cured’ of a ‘disease’ that we already have we should first be subjected to much a heavier attack of the disease.”  Whereas ostracism seeks allopathic removal of the source of civic pollution, tragedy, in a more homeopathic fashion, seeks “to provide a remedy for the pollution by aggravation of the symptoms under controlled conditions designed to forestall worse ravages of the disease.”  Burke does not see how “one can get around the fact that ‘tragic pleasure’ involves sympathetic meditation of the suffering undergone by persons not ourselves.”  It thus is grounded in “vicarious sacrifice” and the “scapegoat principle.”

The third essay, “Freudian Aspects of Burke’s Poetics,” points out that symbolic action is often symptomatic action.  In “Freud and the Analysis of Poetry,” Burke divides the verbal act into three components: dream, prayer, and chart.  On the level of dream (“the unconscious or subconscious factors in a poem”), symbolic action is symptomatic action and plays a compensatory or therapeutic role.  It has an author-regarding element and is expressive, either directly or indirectly, of his or her psyche. The dream component involves the psychological and expressive elements embedded in a text.  On the level of dream, an obsessive pattern of engrossments and avoidances expresses itself as a cluster of interrelated images, which in turn implies a structure of interrelated ideas.

As waking dreams, texts express the obsessions and evasions of their authors, what engrosses or captivates them as well as what they are at pains to evade or avoid.  Writers’ burdens, Burke avers, are symbolic of their style, and their style is symbolic of their burdens.  Jonathan Swift, for example, unveils an excremental vision, a revulsion toward materiality and the flesh.  In Gulliver’s Travels, human beings are portrayed as Yahoos, filthy animals who throw excrement at each other. With Nathaniel Hawthorne it is his ancestral guilt, his obsession with the sins of the father, with the racist persecution of Native Americans and the religious persecution of Quakers and witches. With Franz Kafka it is his paranoid vision of bureaucracy and authority, his fear of the father figure, his oedipal burden.

Dream, then, as Jennermann suggests, is both thematic and tropological.  Metaphor is the trope of condensation, and metonymy is the trope of displacement.  Condensation involves a fusion of unconscious desires whereas displacement substitutes the socially acceptable for the socially unacceptable.  Freud maintains that the manifest content of a dream or text has a smaller content than the latent dream or text.  Condensation is brought about by fusing latent elements into a single composite image, an image with multiple meanings.  Objectionable and unacceptable thoughts are thereby disguised.  In legal decision making, for example, graphic descriptions of sexual deviancy allow judges to combine disgust and desire at the same time, thereby fusing the reprehensible with the titillating and allowing us voyeuristic and perhaps vicarious pleasure in learning about all the ways people may deviate from the supposed heterosexual norm of reciprocal, affectionate sexual behaviour.  Displacement replaces a latent element not by a component part of itself but by something more remote.  As Freud suggests in one of his case histories, the plucking of bright yellow flowers may disguise and equal the fantasy of deflowering a young girl given to wearing yellow outfits. 

Burke's point, as Jennermann makes clear, is not to endorse uncritically Freudian psychology but merely to use it a frame of reference for his consideration of the text as dream.  Seconding Burke, Jennermann argues that the problem with psychoanalytic interpretation is that it deploys an essentializing rather than a proportional strategy, treating the nucleus of fantasy as an origin or essence at the centre of the text instead of seeing it as but one ingredient in the overall motivational recipe.  In regarding language as symbolic action in the multi-levelled Burkean sense, one looks not for originary causes but for the proportion of grammatical, rhetorical, and symbolical ingredients.  The text as dream—the symbolic—is simply one of these ingredients; it is not the essence of the literary act.  Thus it would be as great an error to regard dream as the origin or centre of the literary act as it would be to disregard the rich suggestiveness of psychoanalytic interpretation.

The third chapter, “Catharsis in Nerinda: Homeopathic to Aesthetic,” exploits the rich suggestiveness of psychoanalytic interpretation.  The tale of Nerinda is written in the form of diary kept by a highly neurotic and somewhat sympathetic young man slowly going mad.  As his mind deteriorates, he becomes obsessed with a young woman’s life-like cast now kept in a museum he repeatedly visits at Pompeii.  A victim of the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius, she has been immortalized in the plaster cast and becomes the object of the young man’s love.  He imagines she came from the sea, and she tells him in a dream that she is Nerinda, daughter of an ocean king.  The diary ends with his homicidal fantasies, and we learn from a local newspaper that a museum guard has been murdered, the plaster cast has been destroyed, a suspect has been arrested, and the body of our narrator has been found in the harbour of Castellammare.  What interests Jennermann is how the author, Norman Douglas, has boldly fused the forms of mythic folktale and psychotic diary.  “In so doing, he created a formal tension between one of the most communicative of literary arts, the folktale, and one of the most private or potentially alienated of literary forms, the diary of a madman.  The resolution or aesthetic catharsis is achieved symbolically through the union of Nerinda and the narrator in the waters of the Bay of Castellammare.”  Both Douglas and Jennermann live in a lush intertextual universe, and Jennermann expertly reveals how Strindberg’s Inferno, Maupassant’s Horla, and Fouquet’s Undine interinanimate and inform the symbolic action of Nerinda

The final chapter, “Camus’ The Fall in Light of Tolma,” focuses on the symbolic action of writing the story and the interior narrator’s description of that process.  Tolma, an effort requiring great daring, represents “a writer’s inner need to take severe risk in the exercise of his craft.”  In The Fall, the narrator, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, boldly risks undermining the veracity of his own narrative.  He says to his unnamed narratee that when he talks “it’s very hard to disentangle the true from the false.”  As Jennermann suggests, no matter how authentic or inauthentic the narrator is, he desperately needs an audience.

In his “Introduction to the Study of the Narratee,” Gerald Prince notes that all fiction presupposes not only (at least) one narrator but also (at least) one narratee, the narratee being someone whom the narrator addresses.  Narrators “are novelistic constructs as are the individuals to whom they speak and for whom they write.”  Everyone distinguishes the narrator of a novel from its author.  Few people concern themselves with the narratee. 

In The Fall Clamence’s narratee is supposedly a lawyer visiting Amsterdam.  “It is only by studying the reactions of Clamence’s narratee,” Prince maintains, “that we can know whether the protagonist’s arguments are so powerful that they cannot be resisted, or whether, on the contrary, they constitute a skillful but unconvincing appeal.”  As Jennermann points out, the narratee remains silent, and we cannot know for sure whether Clamence is addressing another person or an alter ego.  We glean from his remarks that the narratee, not unlike himself, is a middle-aged, bourgeois, Parisian lawyer who knows about Dante and the Bible.  As the story progresses, we infer that Clamence senses resistance in his narratee.  He protests too much and at times appears to be rattled and discomfited.  By the end, he may not be defeated, but he is not triumphant either.  If his world view and values are not completely false, neither are they unequivocally true.  Maybe he has not lived as he should have.  

Jennermann concludes that if one looks “at La Chute as if there were an accompanying para-chute, one detects an ironic form of intended self-rescue, in a sense, a homeopathic exercise.”  The tale “can then be seen as a means of protection against a fall from great heights,” as a substitutive form of symbolic action.  But, given “its ironic narrative style” and “spiritually sordid topos,” it can also be seen as a preparation for a real act, its conditions being “suitable for a mariner’s tale, one that seeks cathartic redemption, not as was the case for Coleridge’s mariner for a crime seemingly committed against nature and the divine, but, in Camus, the completion of the negative, for an action not taken, namely the refusal to attempt a rescue of a most probable suicide.”  Clamence suggests clemency, but the author’s sentences taken in their entirety may point towards what ends up being a life sentence at best, an act of self-immolation at worst.

Jennermann deepens his analyses by adding a narratological ingredient to the overall motivational recipe.  As I have noted elsewhere, the curious thing about narrative theory in the critical corpus of Kenneth Burke is its virtual non-existence.  Though Burke repeatedly notes that story is a duplication of sensory experience and that narrative is what human beings add to speechless nature, his writings contain little if any sustained analysis of narrative technique, little if any discussion of narrative perspective and narrative voice.  Indeed, Burke conspicuously ignores what makes narrative narrative–temporality, focalization, narrators, narratees, and so forth.   Jennermann does not ignore what makes narrative narrative, and his discussion of perspective, voice, interior narration, and the like is all the richer for including a narratological dimension to supplement his concern with cathartic redemption and the homeopathic principle.

I have barely touched upon the book’s charm, much of which derives from its abundance of etymological insight and its seemingly effortless display of classical learning, learning that is worn lightly by the author.   Jennermann shows that the rewards are many if we look to literature for catharsis and transcendence, for solace, release, and replenishment.  In his hands, literature and criticism are indeed equipment for living. One might go so far as to hope that reports of the death of liberal humanism are greatly exaggerated.

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Review: Perspectives on Science and Culture edited by Kris Rutten, Stefaan Blancke, and Ronald Soetaert. Reviewed by Julia Longaker

Cover of Perspectives on Science and CultureRutten, Kris, Blancke, Stefaan, and Soetaert, Ronald. Perspectives on Science and Culture, Purdue University Press, 2018. 308 pp. $45.00 (paperback; color); $39.99 (EPUB)

Reviewed by Julia Longaker, Clemson University

Burke and Scientific Criticism

In April 2019, author Ian McEwan caused a stir in the literary community when, while promoting his new novel Machines Like Me, he seemed to draw a firm line between the gravitas of his futuristic novel and existing work categorized as science fiction: “There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas” (The Guardian).

The backlash was swift; readers wondered just how McEwan could truly believe that science fiction did not look at “human dilemmas.” McEwan later clarified his comments, appearing on the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast and stating, “I’d be very happy for my novel to be called science fiction, but it’s also a counterfactual novel, it’s also a historical novel, it’s also a moral dilemma novel, in a well-established traditional form within the literary novel...I’m very happy if they want to call my novel science fiction, even honored. But it’s much else, that’s all I’m trying to say.”

McEwan’s initial posturing was neither new nor unique. Science and the humanities have often been presented as at odds with one another. Fiction about science would not have been taken seriously by either literary or scientific communities. But as evidenced by McEwan’s comments, those attitudes are changing. There is increasing public and academic interest in the intersection of science and culture and how they interact with one another.

Perspectives on Science and Culture, edited by Kris Rutten, Stefaan Blancke, and Ronald Soetaert, adeptly explores this intersection from an interdisciplinary perspective. (Two of McEwan’s earlier novels are analyzed in one chapter.) According to the book jacket summary, their objective was “to explore how particular cognitive predispositions and cultural representations both shape and distort the public debate about scientific controversies, the teaching and learning of science, and the development of science itself.” The editors ground the theoretical background of the articles included in the collection with C.P. Snow along with Jerome Bruner’s confrontation between narrative and logio-scientific modes of thinking; however, the influence of Kenneth Burke’s critical work is woven throughout the book (xii).

The volume is divided into four parts: Narrative and Rhetorical Perspectives, Cognitive Perspectives, Epistemological Perspectives, and a thematic bibliography compiling narrative, rhetorical, cognitive, and epistemological perspectives. In the introduction, Rutten, Blancke, and Soetaert immediately establish strong connection between science and the humanities, discussing the rise of rhetorical studies that are focused on science. They emphasize the importance of a rhetorical approach to science: “A rhetorical approach to scientific discourse studies how particular framings of scientific findings and developments influence the socioethical debate, how this relates to science policy, and how an awareness of the rhetorical dimensions of science is important for scientific as well as nonscientific audiences” (xii)

Part 1 aims to bring together “new work on the public understanding of science from the perspective of literature, narratology, cultural studies, anthropology, and rhetoric” (xvi). Burke is referenced specifically in Chapter 1, “Experiencing Nature through Cable Television,” by David J. Tietge. Tietge discusses cable television’s representations of nature and its influence over public understanding. He employs Burke’s use of the term “occupational psychosis” in Permanence and Change to describe how the content of nature programs mirror the economic principles of the culture in which it was produced. He references Burke’s example of tribes whose food source manifests itself symbolically and conceptually in everything the tribe does (5). Tietge observes how, through this lens, nature entertainment becomes its own product to consume. He further explores how this framing of nature might impact public attitudes toward it.

Burke is referenced directly once more in Chapter 5, “A Rhetorical Analysis of the Two Cultures in Literary Fiction,” by Ronald Soetaert and Kris Rutten. The authors reconstruct the debate about the two cultures from a rhetorical perspective. Two novels by Ian McEwan are analyzed to examine how the author problematizes and thematizes the confrontation between art and science (67). In their analysis, Soetaert and Rutten note that there was a rhetorical turn when we all became aware of how language constructs reality: “Such a perspective implies a metaperspective synthesized by Kenneth Burke as ‘a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing’ (Language 49). Rhetoric makes us aware that ways of seeing the world can be considered rationalizations.” (73).

The authors further their Burkean analysis in referencing terministic screens. They describe another concept from Burke that focuses on how language and stories allow us to think and act in a certain way, but also prevent us from choosing alternative ways. Occupational psychosis is a similar concept. The authors illustrate how McEwan confronts different terministic screens, inspired by a particular training or psychosis. (76). These Burkean concepts each invite additional cultural metacriticism. This approach is woven throughout the essays in the book, whether or not the authors reference Burke by name. Each essay contains significant exploration of not only how culture influences science, but also how our understanding of our culture influences our understanding of science.

The authors featured remain concerned with the way the human experience is shaped by examination of said experience. Returning once again to the chapter on McEwan, the authors discuss Clifford Geertz in relation to Burke: “Inspired by Burke, Clifford Geertz described the human being as ‘an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun,’ and he takes ‘culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive on in search of meaning” (73). 

They further draw connections between Burke’s analysis of literature and a broader analysis of culture: “From this perspective, the rhetorical turn can be linked with the narrative turn. Burke’s study of rhetoric starts from an analysis of literature and drama as tools to comment on society and the nature of human symbol use in general” (74). This apt distillation of Burke’s approach to rhetorical study could also be applied to the stated purpose of Perspectives on Science and Culture: to explore “the intersection between scientific understanding and cultural representation from an interdisciplinary perspective.” (ix)

Just as Burkean literary analysis acted as sociological criticism, the interdisciplinary approach to understanding science and culture throughout the book functions similarly. Each essay included brings a different lens to examine a consistent theme of a blending of the two cultures and discover how the way we think about the material impacts what we learn about it. In A Grammar of Motives, Burke was reluctant to describe his analysis of motive in terms of science: “Our speculations, as we interpret them, should show that the subject of motivation is a philosophic one, not ultimately to be solved in terms of empirical science” (xxiii). Perspectives on Science and Culture embodies this Burkean approach. Its authors do not seek to prove empirical cause and effect; rather, each essay examines the interplay between logic and emotion, science and philosophy, action and motivation.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. 1945. University of California Press, 1969.

Ditum, Sarah. “'It Drives Writers Mad': Why Are Authors StillSsniffy about Sci-Fi?”. The Guardian, 18 April 2019,

“Ian McEwan Doesn’t Hate Science Fiction.” Wired, 4 May 2019,

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Review: Rhetorical Touch: Disability, Identification, Haptics. Reviewed by James L. Cherney

Cover of Rhetorical Touch: Disability, Identification, Haptics by Shannon Walters

Walters, Shannon. Rhetorical Touch: Disability, Identification, Haptics. U of South Carolina P, 2014.

James L. Cherney, University of Nevada-Reno

In this highly insightful and important book, Shannon Walters makes a compelling case for exploring the rhetoric of touch. Adding to the work of scholars who examine rhetorics of disability (e.g., Brenda Brueggemann, Margaret Price, and Jay Dolmage) and scholars examining corporeal rhetorics (e.g. Debra Hawhee, Nathan Stormer, and Robin Jensen), Walters shows that a rhetoric of touch facilitates a better understanding of how some disabled people practice identification. Walters provides several case studies—including those of Helen Keller, Temple Grandin, Harriet McBryde Johnson, and the technology of machine interfaces—to reveal numerous ways that a rhetoric of touch already operates throughout rhetorical praxis, and how its absence in rhetorical theory generates unfortunate assumptions about disabled rhetoricians. Her review of the relevant literature in disability studies connects her work to an impressive list of scholars whose research supports her claims. This results in a fairly comprehensive and ultimately persuasive argument for rhetorically investigating haptics.

Walters’ work reveals the potential of studying a rhetoric of touch that extends beyond the areas of disability and body studies. Like Dolmage and Price, Walters’ analysis of touch calls for renewed attention to the ideas of mētis, kairos, ethos, pathos, and logos, particularly as they can be reconceived within the context of haptics. Integrating haptics with these concepts, Walters rescues touch from approaches to rhetoric that traditionally ignore it. The result challenges contemporary rhetorical critics and scholars to consider touch in their own work, and to “let go of the idealized image of an independent, nondisabled, singular rhetor and to embrace the possibilities of new configurations among communicators, speaking and nonspeaking, and multiple audiences across ranges of ability and disability” (199).

Readers of this journal will be impressed by Walters’ thorough analysis of Kenneth Burke, whose theory of identification and its explicit connection to touch plays a prominent role in her argument. For the extensive group of scholars inspired by Burke, her exploration of this often-overlooked aspect of his work encourages many to reread him from a new perspective, and provides those encountering Burke for the first time the opportunity to discover an important dimension of his writing.

For reasons like these I conclude without reservation that rhetorical scholars of all backgrounds should read this book. The exciting and enlivening injection of disability into conversations about rhetoric open doors to new ideas and refreshing reviews of classic concepts. As with any discipline, such moments promote the growth necessary for rhetoric to remain viable and vital.

The book’s strengths outweigh what I see as a potential flaw. Walters generally does not investigate and bring attention to the problem of ableism; the word appears only twice in the first 150 pages of the book. This allows her justification for the study of haptics to rest on the cultural pervasiveness of ableist ideas. I do not suggest that Walters herself encourages an ableist orientation, but her approach locates haptics as a solution for disabled rhetoricians and tends to erase ableism from classical rhetorical theory.

For example, her discussion of how Autism should encourage analyzing touch rests on what she aptly identifies as the misperception and false stereotype that Autistic persons cannot practice identification because they lack the “ability to share common interests with others” (112). Walters suggests that an investigation of haptics would illuminate a common ground between Autistic people and neurotypicals, through which the former could craft ethos. In other words, she claims that recognizing the ways Autistic persons employ “a rhetorical strategy of ethos construction based on touch” (117), would resolve the problem that when “people with autism are assumed to be emotionless, apathetic, and unconnected to the world around them, audiences are less likely to be receptive to their efforts at ethos formation” (113). Articulated this way, this invalid assumption becomes a problem for the Autistic, instead of a flaw in rhetorical theory or a problem for ableist audiences. Walters writes: “In rhetorical terms, disabled rhetors are often limited by a predetermined set of emotions or appeals of pathos based on audience expectations about the negative experience of disability” (144, emphasis added). In this stance, it is the disabled people who are limited, rather than the ableist audiences or perspectives of contemporary rhetorical theorists.

Positioning the lack of ethos and pathos associated with these disabilities in this way tends to distance the issue from the ableist perspectives that motivate it. Like the classic ableist view which situates the “problem of disability” in the disabled—in contrast to the activist view that situates the problem of ableism in society—these warrants ground the need for change in the rhetorical disadvantages of being disabled. I contend that the absence of haptics should not be seen as a disabled peoples’ problem; it should be seen as a rhetorical theorists’ problem. Autistic people and activists do not need a theory of haptics so that audiences and rhetorical theorists learn a different way to construct ethos and pathos; audiences and rhetorical theorists need a theory of haptics to help them see and confront their assumptions about disability.

The subtle difference between these two appears salient in the way that the first view deflects attention from the widespread presence of ableist thinking in traditional rhetorical theory, while the second view emphasizes it. Throughout the work, Walters constructs detailed arguments that suggest an implicit recognition of the importance of touch in the theories of classical rhetoricians, instead of arguing that the rhetorical theory at least since Aristotle has treated haptics as inconsequential. I find this move unnecessary and occasionally counterproductive. Walters contends the treatment of sensibility—including touch—in De Anima locates it as an important human capacity, so she concludes that Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric as finding the available means of persuasion must necessarily consider touch as one of those means. Similarly, she points out that Aristotle suggests that “meaning can be grasped,” and, since grasping is a “tactile act,” Walters concludes that Aristotelian rhetorical theory incorporated persuasive means that involved touch (34). Through such somewhat tenuous arguments Walters finds ways to insert touch into the classic Aristotelian definition of rhetoric, which she admits seems “at first blush” to be “particularly unaccommodating to disabled rhetors” (31).

This approach may appeal to scholars who desire to maintain Aristotle’s hallowed position in the rhetorical pantheon, but I suggest that a more convincing, and ultimately more useful position, would be to articulate Aristotelian theory as unabashedly ableist. As scholars like Rosemarie Garland-Thompson and I have argued, Aristotle’s On the Generation of Animals, one of the first texts to develop the study of monsters (teratology) employs an explicitly ableist logic. The presence of ableism in Aristotelian writings suggests a simpler explanation for the lack of developed attention to touch in the Art of Rhetoric: Aristotelian rhetorical theory—and, by extension, a good deal of rhetorical theory built upon it—accepts ableist assumptions as valid warrants. Given the pervasiveness of ableism throughout the history of Western culture, this should not surprise us. And it should encourage rhetorical scholars to investigate touch throughout rhetorical praxis as a way to help combat ableism wherever it can be found, including in their work.

I regard this concern as a space for further development of research into haptics, rhetoric, and ableism, and I strongly encourage you to read this exceptional book. Walters does an impressive job demonstrating the value of a rhetoric of touch to all rhetoricians, and she cannot possibly be expected to take on all the problems promoted by ableist culture. Walters’ contribution should play a vital and significant role in the overall project of rhetorical and disability studies to expose ableism and work to emancipate disabled people from it. Her book may appeal most directly to those whose work intersects with disability and bodies, but it should engage and illuminate any critic or theorist who seeks useful ways of understanding rhetoric and what it can accomplish.

Work Cited

Garland-Thompson, Rosemarie. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. Columbia UP, 1997.

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Review: Kenneth Burke's Permanence and Change: A Critical Companion by Ann George. Reviewed by Jill Quandt

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George, Ann. Kenneth Burke's Permanence and Change: A Critical Companion. University of South Carolina Press, 2018. 296 pp. $49.99 (hardcover); $49.99 (ebook)

Jill Quandt, University of Nebraska, Omaha

In her new book, Kenneth Burke's Permanence and Change: A Critical Companion, Ann George describes the historical and modern significance of Burkean studies. She frames Permanence and Change (P&C) as “the foundational text for modern rhetoric and, in particular, for the twentieth-century body of theory called New Rhetoric” (11). George provides a detailed, accessible analysis of Burke. She draws from twenty years of archival study to tell a new story that extends, and even challenges in some cases, current understandings of Burke’s life and personality, as well as interpretations of P&C and its place within the field of rhetoric. George's critical companion is certainly a valuable tool for students who are new to Burkean studies. However, amateur and expert readers alike will benefit from reading this comprehensive contribution to Burke scholarship. George explains that she wrote "in memory of the bewildered reader I once was" with the hope that "inexperienced Burke students will read my volume alongside P & C " (xiii) and come to a fuller and more nuanced understanding of Burke's most foundational text. George is not only a premier scholar of Burke’s work but also a captivating storyteller. She humanizes Burke, challenging the lore depicting him as an eccentric genius by providing evidence that Burke’s mission to inspire collaboration in order to promote human welfare can be applied to modern topics of rhetoric.

George’s critical companion opens with a concise twenty-five page introduction that should be required reading for all first time readers of Burke, regardless of whether they are specifically reading P&C. The introduction, “A First Look at Permanence and Change and Its Significance,” provides precisely the quick, clear overview students need. Students who are taking an introductory course in rhetoric and are reading just an excerpt of P&C will find the context provided in George’s introduction especially useful. The bulleted list of what George describes as “the claims fundamental to [Burke’s] life’s work” (9-10) provides students with an overview of the main elements of P&C so clear and all-encompassing, I found myself offering it to graduate students who were reviewing for their comprehensive exam in rhetoric. The section of the introduction titled “Situating P&C in 1930s America” is especially important because it contextualizes Burke’s desire to inspire social change within the historical events of the time, specifically the Great Depression and rumors of war in Europe. The introduction will likely be most appreciated by undergraduate and graduate students who need an overview of Burke before they read P&C for the first (or second or third) time.

George begins Part 1, “Translating Burkean Terms,” with an explanation of why Burke needed to coin seemingly peculiar, inherently ambiguous terms such as piety and metabiology and then draws from important scholarly conversation and her own archival research to provide nuanced definitions of those terms. Part I of the two-part book includes three subsections: “Pieties, Perspectives, and Incongruities”; “Metabiology as Purification of War”; and “Enacting the Poetic Orientation.” Like the introduction, Part I is especially useful for novice Burkean scholars because George provides a variety of accessible working definitions. For example, George defines piety as a term that for Burke “captures the often inexplicable or unarticulated (“It just isn’t done!”) intensity with which people bind themselves to, and are bound by” (35). She explains piety as more than just a social grace; it is a frame that determines what actions are appropriate and therefore available. George not only provides definitions for some of Burke’s most complex terms, but she also unites the terms in order to present a cohesive argument that P&C’s ultimate goal is portray “a need for communication, cooperation, participation—a need for humans to exercise their considerable powers as symbol users” (124). This argument solidifies her claim that P&C exemplifies New Rhetoric and its associated move away from logical empiricism.

In the much longer Part II, George offers three sets of documents she calls “archival interventions.” These documents provide new and exciting information for both new readers and scholars who may already understand Kenneth Burke the theorist but want to learn more about Kenneth Burke the human. Furthermore, students and scholars interested in archival research could certainly benefit from reading “Caught in the Act: A Writer in the Archives,” in which George provides an overview of archival research and justification of her theory and practice. In this chapter, George narrates her two-decade journey during which she produced her archival accounts, “not only to remind readers of their inevitable constructedness but also to mark my reflection on this construction as an integral part of scholarly knowledge creation” (128). George thoughtfully explains her research process and findings. Some of George’s most interesting findings can be found in “Archival Recalcitrance: The Ins and Outs of Communism,” which traces Burke’s arguments for communism as they unfolded throughout drafts of P&C. More specifically, George discusses why “Burke included arguments for communism in drafts leading up to the first-edition text and then removed them for the second edition published in 1954” (164) apart from the specter of McCarthyism. Although George readily admits it is impossible to read Burke’s mind, she proposes that Burke’s unsteady relationship with communism was more than “merely idiosyncratic” (187). George’s archival research led her feel that Burke “began to see it [Burke’s decision to eliminate arguments for communism in later drafts of P&C] as an extremely difficult practical decision in a fractured, unstable political scene” (187). Although it is difficult to know for sure why Burke from an initial belief that communism would reorient American culture to a decision to omit arguments for communism from P&C altogether, it is possible that decision “reflects his uncertainty about the practical means of establishing a civic art of living” (168). In “Archival Recalcitrance: The Ins and Outs of Communism,” George also elaborates on Burke’s tremendously influential collaboration with Mildred Ligda and Hermes Publications, a relationship George calls a “persistent blind spot in Burke studies” (166). While George does not believe Ligda is responsible for Burke’s decision to remove references to communism for P&C, she does argue that Ligda’s faith in Burke’s work “unmistakably shaped the book and its reception” (188). Ligda not only published all the editions of P&C, she also recirculated his books that had gone out of print (188). Feminist scholars interested in recovery might especially enjoy reading the information George includes on Ligda.

The final chapter of Part II, “Finding Time for Burke,” also pushes back against seemingly obvious understandings of Burke. George’s archival research offers a fascinating look inside Burke’s writing process, his relationship with his editors, and his crafty marketing skills. Readers are invited to understand Burke as a writer whose ideas evolved over time, not a savant whose ideas flowed effortlessly straight from a brilliant mind onto paper. George provides evidence of Burke’s detailed outlining, drafting, and revision. She explains that when students and scholars are confronted with Burke’s humanity, it becomes possible to understand P&C “as a material artifact that was written and produced” (127) as opposed to collection of abstract theories. George recognizes the common Burkean stereotypes that construct the lore surrounding his theories, explaining “in the 1930s Burke was dismissed, embattled, misunderstood” (191) but also asks readers to consider the idea that Burke’s story is more complicated, highlighting the intrinsic value of archival research. Although this in-depth study of Burke’s writing process is engaging, its optimal audience is more specific than earlier chapters of the book; it is for readers who want to understand the how P&C was first received. Lastly, George’s conclusion section makes the case that P&C is relevant today for scholars and for “everyday people in their everyday lives” (205). George’s critical companion is exactly the text everyday people, and even students or scholars, need to navigate Burke’s notoriously dense P&C.

Ultimately, Kenneth Burke's Permanence and Change: A Critical Companion is one of the most comprehensive sustained explorations of P&C available and is an excellent resource for new readers and experienced scholars alike who seek to understand Burke’s challenging text. George makes a persuasive case for “(re)claiming P&C as the inaugural New Rhetoric” in order to foreground the book’s “civic and pedagogical agenda” (207). Although the first parts of the book offer more than just a refresher course, George’s introduction and Part I would likely be most useful to students who are new to Burkean studies because it functions as an overview of key concepts. Though Part II is clear enough for new readers to follow, students trying to make their way through P&C will likely be best served by focusing on the first part of the book unless they are interested in learning more about Burke’s personal life. Seasoned Burkean scholars may find themselves jumping straight into George’s archival work, where they will certainly appreciate the glimpse into George's account of her access to “this brilliant, moody, hilarious, flawed individual who poured himself onto the page” (130). Kenneth Burke's Permanence and Change: A Critical Companion ambitiously claims to make P&C accessible for first time readers while still providing a nuanced resource for established scholars. Ultimately, George fulfills her purpose, and a variety of readers will enjoy reading her book alongside P&C.

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Resisting Community with Burke and McKeon: Rhetoric and Poetic in Their 1970 Debate

James Beasley, University of North Florida


In 1970, Burke and McKeon held a debate at the University of Chicago, with the topic the difference between “Rhetoric” and Poetic.” This debate has never before been published, and Bob Wess and I present this debate with the following notes. We begin with our own interest in the debate, follow this with a brief outline of the debate, and then we make some observations about the significance of this debate for rhetorical scholarship today.

The transcript of the debates is embedded in this article as two separate PDF files (see below).

Kenneth Burke taught at the University of Chicago two different times, once in the summer of 1938, and in the fall of 1949. Liz Weiser has brilliantly detailed Burke’s 1938 relationship with Chicago in her excellent article, the title of which comes from Burke’s own admission of where he felt he belonged at Chicago: “Once More I Fell on the Bias.” I have written in several places about Burke’s 1949 lectureship at Chicago, and to connect a bit to David’s paper just now, I’ve always asked the question whether Burke considered himself a member of the Chicago Community? Yes, since of any other university faculty he was a member of, he disagreed with them the loudest. However, If Burke’s disagreement is a characteristic of community, then would the opposite also be true? Would the lack of conflict with the Chicago circle indicate when he didn’t feel he was a part of that community?

On November 13, 1970, Kenneth Burke returned to Chicago for a debate with Richard McKeon. The topic of this debate was the difference between “Rhetoric” and Poetic.” As a true logomachy in real time, this debate reveals much about Burke's understanding of conflict and community. For Burke, conflict was predicated on being part of a member of a community that sought identification, even as its divisions were simultaneously being multiplied. Conflict is the agency that is able to find identifications where only divisions were perceived. By examining when Kenneth Burke initiates conflict in the transcript of this 1970 debate, it is possible to understand how Burke saw himself as part of the community of scholars at the University of Chicago. But by also examining when he avoids conflict in this debate, it is possible to understand how Burke attempts to distance himself from this Chicago community. 

Before I discuss the specific characteristics of their 1970 debate, I’d like to give a little background on the history between Burke and McKeon. I’ve already mentioned Liz Weiser’s work on Burke’s lectureship in 1938, but also Ann George and Jack Selzer detail Burke and McKeon’s early friendship at Columbia in their work, Burke in the 30’s. If we take as our premise that for Burke, conflict meant community, what I would like to do is to focus on moments of conflict in their early relationship that suggest close friendship. This is to provide a baseline of sorts, for if we can identify moments of conflict that demonstrate community, then when we turn to their 1970 debate, we can identify moments that demonstrate how Burke felt he was not part of McKeon’s community.

Burke’s invitation to Chicago is most comprehensively told in Selzer and George’s Burke in the 1930’s and Robert Wess’s “Burke’s McKeon Side.” Both of these histories take as their major claim that Burke was influenced by McKeon and the Chicago circles and both recover Burkean theory within those moments of connection and discussion. However, it can just as easily be  demonstrated that McKeon not only took much from Burke but in many ways considered Burke his audience for his landmark 1942 article, “Rhetoric in the Middle Ages.” For instance, McKeon describes the confusion over rhetoric during the middle ages as "the tradition of “logic which passed as ‘Aristotelian’ yet which followed Aristotle only in the treatment of terms and propositions, and Cicero in the treatment of definitions and principles (4). Furthermore, in McKeon’s correspondence with Burke, McKeon sharpens his hierarchical attitude toward Aristotelian demonstration. While both Selzer and George and Wess’s histories utilize the letters exchanged between McKeon and Burke as evidence of their spheres of influence, these letters also demonstrate the extent to which McKeon was willing to demonstrate his Aristotelian attitude at the expense of Burke. In other words, Neo-Aristotelianism changed McKeon’s orientation to authority. It was not only a critical stance towards literature, but a critical stance towards others. In a response to McKeon on August 27, 1939, Burke writes the following:

Finally sent some stuff off to Crane, but I fear, very belatedly. The point was that, after getting started on the Coleridge material, I had to lay it aside in preparation for some lectures at Syracuse. And since they seemed to go well, on my return I wrote them up (borrowing the magic synecdoche, I mean title, “Psychology of Literary Form,” in which I not only summarized my perspective, but also did a lot in the “what to look for, how, when, where, and why” mode, on the basis of said perspective, with the whole focused on matters of literary analysis). It is now being typed—and begad I’d like to burden you with it, on the grounds that, since the hero is a function of the villain and the villain a function of the hero, one should choose only the best of opponents (“judge a man by the enemies he keeps”)—and so, in self-flattery I keep worrying about them as has been ordained by Aristotle (Burke to McKeon).

Both Burke and McKeon began the twentieth century debating the importance and effects of universals and particulars, and they were still squabbling about universals and particulars into the latter half of the twentieth century. Wess writes, “One record of a face-to-face encounter survives in the form of an unpublished transcript. At the University of Chicago in 1970, Burke and McKeon engaged in a debate, moderated by Wayne Booth, which centered mainly on how to draw a theoretical line between rhetorical and poetic analysis” (54).
At this time, we would like to give a brief overview of the structure of the debate and its transcript. The transcript of the debate is 39 pages total, however, the last 15 pages are from the question and answer period.

1. Introduction/Exigence: pgs. 1-2

Wayne Booth moderates, but after his brief introduction, McKeon takes over and acts as the moderator until near the end, where Booth helps to bring the event to an end. This procedural hiccup directly connects to McKeon and Burke's respective attitudes toward hierarchy, given their critical commitments. It also connects to Booth's role as "mediator" between them, a role that he believed he had.  In the introductory remarks, McKeon says of Burke, "This is merely his dramatistic way of misinterpreting..." (top of page 2). This seems tongue and cheek to me, winking at the notion that "dramatistic" and "misinterpretation" are in close proximity. McKeon says about Burke’s arguing that "I would resent being treated as a scholar...and Burke would always resent my treating him like a poet" (2). While I think McKeon really did resent that, I'm not sure that Burke would have. The point here, though, seems to be that it is McKeon that addresses how they feel they are being treated by one another, while Burke does not.

2. Background: pgs. 3-4

Burke says that "Some of my colleagues would object to me because I didn't analyze one work in particular" (3). This seems familiar in "The Problem of the Intrinsic" and his discussion of the Chicago School, and it might be that Burke is being ironic in this place.

3. McKeon and Burke on the problem of rhetoric and poetic: pgs. 5-6

In this section, McKeon discusses how the difference in rhetoric and poetic. While doing so, McKeon says, "among other things we discovered Aristotle" (bottom of 5). I laughed out loud the first time I read this, since McKeon himself was quite an Aristotelian before he came to Chicago. No doubt he brought Aristotle to the School, but there is perhaps a sense in which the School did discover Aristotle. Aristotle became important for Crane after he ran into McKeon, for example, not before, and this speaks to McKeon’s authoritative attitude that his Neo-Aristotelianism would value.

4. McKeon and Burke on particulars and universals: pgs. 6-10

McKeon interrupts Burke on page eight, "This is the point where I have to explain what you're saying" (8). Burke has just spent a couple pages talking about Aristotle, and McKeon interrupts him and sets about to correct his interpretation. He does it again on page 16. Whenever Burke starts talking about Aristotle, McKeon interrupts and corrects. This goes back to "Rhetoric in the Middle Ages" (1942), when McKeon writes about the tradition of logic which passed as ‘Aristotelian’ yet which followed Aristotle only in the treatment of terms and propositions, and Cicero in the treatment of definitions and principles (4). It seems at these moments that McKeon thinks that Burke is a kind of interloper in discussing Aristotle.

5. Burke on words as symbolic action: pgs. 14-16

The main contrast between rhetorical and poetic approaches becomes central around p. 15, where McKeon, using example of King Lear, contrasts Burke’s view of text as symbolic action and Chicago School’s view of it as an artificial object. It is also one of the few times that Burke actually interrupts McKeon, “You don’t worry about jealousy?” Burke erupted. “About marital jealousy? You’re not allowed to speak of it? What kind of scheme is that? You can’t talk about what the damn thing is built on!”
It’s from this point on that the contrast between rhetoric and poetic dominates the discussion, much of which revolves around how to decide what is inside a text and what is outside. Listen to how McKeon interrupts Burke and Burke’s reply: You’re doing that in this method, Dick. But you’ve got this motive that you are dealing with.

“On the contrary, if you bring all your sociological gunk in.”
“Now wait a minute...” Burke replies.

Debate over how to decide this issue carries over into the Q&A period.

7. McKeon on Criticism Booth's Rhetoric of Fiction: pgs. 16-20.

McKeon is very complimentary of Booth throughout (14, 19). Booth seemed to indicate that his Rhetoric of Fiction was a result of both the influence of McKeon and Burke.  McKeon seems to be suggesting to Booth in front of Burke that Booth's work is less dramatistic and more philosophical, as is also suggested by Timothy Cruisus’s introduction to Burke and the End of Philosophy, as he places Wayne Booth within the philosophical rhetoric of McKeon, rather than the dramtistic rhetoric of Burke. The debate concludes with a Question and Answer Session: pgs. 20-39. At one point during the Q&A, they had to move the entire audience to a different room, so in many places the transcript is incomplete.

There are several characteristics of their 1970 debate that shed light on how Burke himself saw his place in the Chicago rhetorical community. Throughout the debate, McKeon speaks for Burke and interrupts him many times. It is worth noting, however, when McKeon interrupts Burke. "This is the point where I have to explain what you're saying" (8). Burke has just spent a couple pages talking about Aristotle, and McKeon interrupts him and sets about to correct his interpretation. Whenever Burke starts talking about Aristotle, McKeon interrupts and corrects. It seems at these moments that McKeon thinks that Burke is a kind of interloper in discussing Aristotle. What is also interesting is not just that they needle each other, but who does it, and when. While I hear a little insecurity in McKeon’s taunts to Burke, there aren't any instances of the wordplay that Burke was so adroit with here either. McKeon says in the debate that, “Mr. Burke and I were undergraduates together. We argued at that time; we’ve been arguing ever since.” By generally avoiding conflict throughout the debate, however, Burke demonstrates his own position as an outsider to the philosophical rhetoric of McKeon and Booth.

In writing about letters exchanged between Burke and McKeon, Bob Wess writes, “Turning to Aristotle in the Burke/McKeon correspondence, one finds Burke and McKeon sometimes referring to Aristotle as “Howard” (Wess 2014). In the McKeon archives at Chicago, the last reference to “Howard” that appears in letters to McKeon is on March 4, 1949, “Whisper this to Howard,” Burke writes (Burke to McKeon 1949). In his letters to McKeon after this date, he refers to “Aristotle,” but never “Howard.” For instance, in his August 14, 1961 letter to McKeon, Burke writes, “For instance, how can one accept Aristotle’s term chrestos as requirement number one for a tragic here without plunging into the tangle of its etymology?” (Burke to McKeon 1961). In their debate in 1970, there are 15 references to Aristotle, and not one to “Howard.” Wess speculates on the origins of the “Howard” references, “Burke’s propensity to give nicknames suggests that he may have started the “Howard” references. But anyone familiar with McKeon is likely to suspect that in all things Aristotle, McKeon would demand precedence. Furthermore, a transcript of one of McKeon’s courses has been published, and in it, McKeon refers to Aristotle as “Howard,” without explanation and evidently for a laugh, which the transcript indicates he did get. So McKeon used “Howard” outside his correspondence with Burke” (Wess 2014). If this is the case, then why would not either Burke or McKeon refer to “Howard” in a debate about Aristotle? What is most fascinating to me about Bob’s analysis is the "fan" characteristics of the letters. So, there's a performative aspect in the letters--they are performing for each other at different times. When they do not perform for each other, Burke using "Aristotle" for Aristotle rather than "Howard," seems just as important. As a kind of linguistic marker, therefore, Burke did not use Howard for Aristotle after that date.

Wess seems to describe this condition as well by using another example: Burke’s use of “Charlie Marx’ for “Charles Marx.” Wess writes, “When the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto appeared, the authors were identified as ‘Citizens Charles Marx and Frederic Engels’; also, years later, when visiting a European health resort, Marx signed in as ‘Herr Charles Marx.’ Perhaps, then, Burke’s “Charlie Marcus” aims to separate those in his audience who share this esoteric information from those who do not” (Wess 2014). To me this suggests a shifting of their relationship—not only was Burke was no longer “performing” for McKeon, but neither was McKeon performing for Burke.

Both Bob and I present the 1970 debate between Burke and McKeon, “Rhetoric and Poetic,” in its full form. I would just like to speak to the use of the debate transcript as a document of rhetorical history and its place in the rhetorical theory canon. I teach Burke, McKeon, and Booth in a rhetorical theory seminar, and the way in which we have used it is to conduct staged readings of this debate in class. By “dramatizing” the transcript of this debate, students encounter not just Burke or McKeon’s theories, but their theories as an act, an unintended result that I hope Burke would have approved.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Letter to Richard McKeon, March 4, 1949. Richard McKeon Papers. Chicago: Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago.

Burke, Kenneth. Letter to Richard McKeon, August 14, 1961. Richard McKeon Papers. Chicago: Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago.

Wess, Robert. “The Aristotle(s) in the Burke/McKeon Correspondence: Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and His Chicago Circles.” Paper given to the 9th Triennial Conference of the Kenneth Burke Society, St. Louis University, July 17–20, 2014.

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Richard McKeon and Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric and Poetic

Robert Wess, Oregon State University


In 1970, Burke and McKeon held a debate at the University of Chicago, with the topic the difference between “Rhetoric” and Poetic.” This debate has never before been published, and James Beasley and I present this debate with the following notes. We begin with our own interest in the debate, follow this with a brief outline of the debate, and then we make some observations about the significance of this debate for rhetorical scholarship today.

The transcript of the debates is embedded in this article as two separate PDF files (see below).

Kenneth Burke and Richard McKeon appeared together with Wayne Booth at the University of Chicago on Friday, November 13, 1970. By 1970, Burke had been friends with McKeon for over fifty years, beginning with their time together as students at Columbia University and continuing for years when they saw one another regularly in the New York area. Later, when McKeon moved from Columbia to the University of Chicago, Burke added McKeon to his many correspondents, writing to him on 10/24/34 to begin their long correspondence. In a sense discussed below, their 1970 appearance together supplements their correspondence, supplements it “synecdochically,” to use one Burke’s favorite terms, so that this appearance combined with their correspondence gives us perhaps the best picture we are likely ever to have of their friendship.

As McKeon indicates, after Booth introduces him and Burke, he and Burke appeared together a few years before at Brockport, where Burke responded to his paper in the formal setting of an academic conference. McKeon quotes from Burke’s response a passage that appears on p. 417 in Burke’s “Poetics and Communication,” the paper Burke read at this conference. Burke indicates in a 4/28/68 letter to William H. Rueckert, who evidently accompanied Burke to the conference (see 5/16/68 letter to Rueckert), that he would respond to McKeon’s paper one day and give his own paper the next day. Perhaps the passage McKeon quotes also appears in Burke’s actual response to McKeon’s paper; Burke does return to this response to add to it on p. 415 of “Poetics and Communication.” In any case, in the sentence McKeon quotes, Burke takes offense at a sentence at pp. 320-21 in “Philosophy of Communications and the Arts,” McKeon’s paper at this conference, “Conclusions are, with a change in the mode of analysis, denouements, consummations, ends, fulfillments, climaxes, or achievements.” Burke construes this sentence as “riding smooth‑shod over” over his speculations on the relations of logical and temporal orderings. Burke also remarks on his response to McKeon in a 2/21/68 letter to Rueckert, quoting a long, dense sentence from p. 312 of McKeon’s paper, then quipping in his inimitable way, “As you can see, silly ole Kink Leer is going to have his hands full, since it would be equally hazardous to abdicate and not to abdicate. Jeez, my methodological polysyllables are baby‑talk, the billing and cooing of young love.”

Correspondence relating to this appearance at Brockport is extensive (McKeon to Burke 12/14/66, 1/17/67, 11/7/68; Burke to McKeon 1/12/67, 2/24/67, 11/30/67, 4/19/68, 9/26/68) compared to the little correspondence relating to their appearance at Chicago. The latter consists of a few letters discussing an initial plan for the appearance that is abandoned when an opportunity arises for McKeon to attend a conference in Italy and see his grandson (Burke to McKeon 12/16/68, 4/3/69; McKeon to Burke 1/10/69, 3/28/69), then an additional 11/20/70 letter after their appearance in which Burke devotes a brief paragraph to saying he thinks it went well, remarking, “And I’m proud of us both, for the way in which we both sparred, yet yielded on the platform. I think, bejeez, we were pretty civilized.”

Years later there are additional letters when McKeon discovers their appearance was recorded (McKeon to Burke 6/19/79, 6/28/79, 9/22/79, 12/28/79; Burke to McKeon 6/23/79, 9/27/79, 12/24/79). I know from personal experience that students commonly recorded McKeon’s classes, which was fine with McKeon, so it is not surprising that his appearance with Burke was recorded, but it is surprising that McKeon did not know it at the time. In any case, when he learns of the recording, McKeon has a transcript made, which is what survives as a far from perfect record of the event. McKeon discusses publishing the transcript with Burke. They submitted it to Critical Inquiry, where it met a rejection. Evidently it was not submitted anywhere else.

It is possible that the recording still exists. In an effort to find out who may have recorded it, I got one response from William G. Swenson, who attended the event as a student and went on to co‑edit with Zahara K. McKeon the first two volumes of Selected Writings of Richard McKeon (1998, 2005). Swenson speculates it may have been Eliot Krick, a lecturer in the University Extension Division, who taped and transcribed many classes by McKeon and other star faculty at Chicago. Krick, however, has not been located. In his email to me, Swenson also recollects some details of the event:  

The room where it was originally scheduled was too small to hold the very large number of listeners who showed up.  It was decided to move to a larger room in Ida Noyes Hall, and I believe that this entailed a march across campus with Burke and McKeon leading the way and a large crowd streaming along behind them. Even the Ida Noyes space (a lounge area on the west side of the building) was too small, and I remember standing under an archway unable to hear most of what was said. There were hundreds of people crowded in, I would estimate. It was a real occasion.  

They may have made this spontaneous change in location without knowledge of an event scheduled at Ida Noyes that became disturbingly noisy during the Q&A period.

Burke’s correspondence, it deserves mention, probably has an important place in the history of letter writing, something that would be recognized if some publisher saw the wisdom of publishing the complete correspondence, obviously an effort that would be the work of many hands over many years but in the end would, I believe, result in an enduring work. Because Burke corresponded with so many important figures of his time, his complete correspondence might exhibit him related to the intellectual life of twentieth‑century America in a manner akin to the way Samuel Johnson is related to eighteenth‑century English culture. It is likely that the heyday of letter‑writing occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Possibly the great popularity of epistolary fiction in the eighteenth century is a sign that letter‑writing was becoming increasingly widespread and having a marked effect in the culture, perhaps comparable to the effect of social media on the internet that we are experiencing today. It is plausible that the telephone in the twentieth century dealt a blow to letter writing that initiated a decline from which it will never recover completely. Burke's correspondence with Booth, for example, evidences instances when Booth telephoned Burke instead of writing him a letter. The telephone’s disincentive to letter writing makes Burke’s extraordinary correspondence despite this disincentive all the more extraordinary. Burke may be among the last great letter writers. Today, letter writing of the sort Burke practiced may be dying for good, replaced forever by the cell phone and email. Email may foster a renaissance of letter writing in terms of quantity, but qualitatively it is letter writing of a different kind.

When Burke wrote McKeon in late 1934, he wanted McKeon’s reaction to the manuscript that would become Permanence and Change. A few letters follow leading to scheduling a meeting in December when McKeon returns to New York. In these follow-up letters there are a few remarks about this manuscript but it is clear that the real discussion about it occurs when they meet, not in the correspondence. From the standpoint of Burke’s “temporizing of essence” in A Grammar of Motives, one might see this beginning as the essence of their correspondence. For this correspondence is face‑to‑face centered in the sense that a common feature of it is discussion of the possibility of face‑to‑face time together. The most common pattern is for a McKeon trip to New York to prompt exploration of the possibility of meeting in New York or Andover. Sometimes the possibility is realized, sometimes not. Some letters are a follow‑up to a meeting for which there are no letters leading up to it; in these cases, it is not always clear where or how these meetings occurred. Another variant of this pattern are letters involving McKeon’s recruitment of Burke to teach at Chicago. All of these, in their varying ways, lead to time together, face-to-face.

When all of these examples are taken into account, the letters involved constitute about two‑thirds of the total correspondence. In this context, their appearance at Chicago takes on added importance as evidence of what their exchanges were like when they finally would get together face‑to‑face. This appearance might thus be viewed as the synecdochic part that stands for all the absent face‑to‑face parts of the episodes in their relationship that begin in correspondence and end in meetings that leave no record.

In an age of email, Burke’s correspondence with McKeon might have been very different. Email makes it much easier to communicate with brief messages. If one wants to take up the possibility of meeting, one need not go beyond the relevant details. In the days of letter writing, by contrast, when faced with a blank page, one more or less felt obligated to cover it with words, or at least come close.

Covering their pages, Burke and McKeon engage in bantering wit that ranges from needling the other to simply amusing the other to laughing at oneself. This is an essential lens through which to view their exchanges at Chicago: if any line can be read as bantering, it is probably best to read it that way. If one wanted to classify rhetorical strategies of wit, one would find abundant material for analysis in their letters. It would be interesting to see if McKeon’s bantering wit appears in his correspondence with others or is unique to his correspondence with Burke. Burke’s letters are truly sui generis. Imagine getting a letter from Burke. You would no doubt feel that if you reply in a conventional way, you will appear to be a boring flunky. McKeon steps to the plate to try match Burke. He never ventures into Burke’s recklessly imaginative inventiveness with spelling, but he makes a valiant effort to match Burke’s wit.

Their exchanges at Chicago are probably representative in the sense that the focus is on Burke’s ideas, Burke defending them passionately, and McKeon playing the role of the Socratic interlocutor, occasionally giving Burke the satisfaction of agreement, but usually disagreeing or at least offering an alternative view. McKeon was comfortable in this role because he defended a pluralist philosophizing. For him, no word was the final word. Burke responding to McKeon at Brockport may have been something of a role reversal. 

Notably, Burke casts McKeon in this role of interlocutor in a late letter written in October 1981 (whether Burke sent it is not clear; he sometimes wrote unsent letters). Burke is putting together a kind of bucket list as he envisions how he would like to spend the time he has left. Half the time, he would indulge in just “being moody in all sorta of ways.” In the other half, he would be “haggling” with McKeon “in line with my notion that, whatever Occam was the end of, Logology is the end of the Next Phase.” Burke goes on,

And you would be the guy who could both come close to going along with me in my woefully non‑erudite medieval tinkerings, and could and would belabor me with erudite Howevers, and thereby help me to try again in hopes of saying it better (sentence for sentence).

Burke repeatedly depicted himself divided between a literary side represented by Malcolm Cowley or William Carlos Williams and a philosophical side represented by McKeon (Wess 50). McKeon’s great command of the history of philosophy provided Burke “Howevers” valued as tests of his ideas.

Ideas prominent among those Burke defends at Chicago appear in “Rhetoric and Poetics,” reprinted in Language as Symbolic Action (1966), and “Othello: Essay to Illustrate a Method,” reprinted in Essays Toward a Symbolic of Motives: 1950‑55, ed. William H. Rueckert (2007). Other notable ideas come from Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare, ed. Scott L. Newstok (2007) (analysis of Midsummer Night’s Dream); and “Psychology and Form” in Counter‑Statement (1931) (analysis of scene from Hamlet). One idea meriting special attention appears about a third of the way in, during the discussion of the pentad, when Burke interjects “a totally different point of view,” explaining himself first with his distinction between motion and action, then going on, “Now, if then I take action as a primary term, then the whole idea is, what is implicit in this term?” Burke answers by elaborating on how other terms in the pentad are implicit in act. A statement in Dramatism and Development suggests that this “different point of view” arises from his interest, developed in The Rhetoric of Religion, in tautological cycles of terms:

[I]f I were to rewrite the book [A Grammar of Motives] in the light of later developments, I would now present it as a “Cycle of Terms Implicit in the idea of an `Act,’” based upon my anti‑Behaviorist equation, “Things move, persons act.” Somewhat shamefacedly, when I first began working with my Dramatistic pentad (act, scene, agent, agency, purpose), I thought of them as but related by “and” (this term and that term and the other, etc.) But later, on peering more closely into them, I realized their analytic familyhood. (21‑22)

Burke introduces this “totally different point of view” to take issue with McKeon’s treatment of the pentadic terms, particularly in the form of two‑term ratios (scene:act, agent:act, etc.), as a modern variant of medieval commonplaces used for rhetorical invention. McKeon’s treatment appears in composition textbooks such as William F. Irmscher’s The Holt Guide to English: A Contemporary Handbook of Rhetoric, Language, and Literature (1972). Burke considers such textbooks in “Questions and Answers about the Pentad,” clarifying,

Maybe I can now make clear my particular relation to the dramatistic pentad, involving a process not quite the same as either Aristotle’s or Irmscher’s. My job was not to help a writer decide what he might say to produce a text. It was to help a critic perceive what was going on in a text that was already written. (332)

Put differently, one could say that Burke here says that for him the pentad was not a rhetoric of invention but a grammar of interpretation. The “different point of view” fleshed out in Dramatism and Development suggests that Burke changed his view of the basis of this grammar.
As Burke’s interlocutor at Chicago, McKeon plays two roles, both of which derive from his pluralism. He brings these two together during the Q&A period, in a moment that Burke may have seen as the one when McKeon “yielded.”

McKeon’s pluralism develops considerably over the decades but his principal antagonist always remains the same. Many may also oppose this antagonist and thus be a bit of a pluralist in their thinking without realizing it. This antagonist appears, as McKeon puts it at the end of the introductory section in his 1942 essay “Rhetoric in the Middle Ages,” in “the conception of intellectual history as the simple record of the development of a body of knowledge by more or less adequate investigations of a constant subject matter” (263). Rejection of this conception has become widespread in the wake of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which contends that this conception does not hold true even in science, the one discipline that would seem to conform to it more firmly than any other. Kuhn characterizes this conception as “development-by-accumulation” (2), dismissing it in favor of a view of science as a history of revolutions necessitating the scientific “community’s rejection of one time‑honoured scientific theory in favor of another incompatible with it” (6). Different theories conceptualize the subject matter of science in different ways (4‑5). “Paradigm,” Kuhn’s term for a reigning theory (10), has gained widespread currency.

By 1970, McKeon’s pluralistic philosophy had attained its mature form, combining (1) a historical semantics distinguishing major shifts in the subject matter of philosophy from historical period to historical period and (2) a philosophical semantics distinguishing principles, methods, interpretations, and selections that explain how philosophers sharing a subject matter in a historical period analyze it in ways that place them in oppositions that should be understood ultimately as complementary rather than contradictory. One can see both sides of this mature pluralism in “Imitation and Poetry,” a long essay included in McKeon’s Thought, Passion, and Action (1954).

Probably because of the complexity of this mature pluralism, the pluralism informing McKeon’s activity as Burke’s interlocutor at Chicago is the earlier and simpler pluralism that appears in “Literary Criticism and the Concept of Imitation in Antiquity,” a 1936 essay that McKeon wrote for the faculty group that, with the exception of Mortimer Adler, all later appeared in Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern (McKeon, “Criticism” 4, 17), the major work the Chicago school of criticism produced. This group drew on McKeon’s 1936 essay (1) for a model for literary criticism in Aristotle’s Poetics and (2) for a framework for critical pluralism. The pluralism sketched in this essay is developed fully in R. S. Crane’s The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry (1953). It is the pluralism I learned in the University of Chicago’s English department in the 1960s before venturing into McKeon classes in the Philosophy department and encountering his very different mature pluralism.

The two roles McKeon plays as Burke’s interlocutor can be defined with language from McKeon’s summary, in the final paragraph of his 1936 essay, of the critical approaches analyzed in the essay:

It seems apparent that each of these approaches and each of their variants is distinct from the others. If its full intention is stated clearly, it is difficult to understand how one of them could be constituted the contradiction of the other, except in the sense that a given critic might prefer one to all the rest. Much that passes for differences of taste in literature consists in reality of differences of taste in criticism, of differences in the preferred approach to literature. (174–75)

In one role, McKeon distinguishes approaches to see not how one contradicts the other but how each illuminates in a distinctive way. In the other role, McKeon defends his preferred approach, appearing in doing so as someone who sees only one correct view of a literary text. He relates the two in the “yielded” moment that Burke discerns.

Good examples of McKeon distinguishing approaches appear around the midpoint when he distinguishes Horatian and Aristotelian approaches, affirming that they are equally good, then adding a page later that Booth offers still a third approach in his The Rhetoric of Fiction, though this is not fleshed out. A few pages later, McKeon adds that there may be fourth and fifth approaches as well, though these are not delineated in any way. The possibility of multiple approaches is clearly entertained, but remains mainly speculative insofar as little to nothing is done to work them out in detail.

McKeon sketches near the beginning how one might pluralistically work out such details. First, Burke gives his view of the relation of rhetoric to poetics. Then, McKeon contrasts it to the Chicago school’s view based on Aristotle. The pluralistic step appears when McKeon underlines how the two approaches both instantiate the commonplace distinction between the universal and the particular but in opposite ways. In Burke, rhetoric is to poetic as particular is to universal; in Aristotle, rhetoric is to poetic as universal is to particular. 

By contrast to the distinguishing of approaches, much more space is taken up by McKeon debating Burke from the standpoint of his preferred approach. Here, he and Burke debate within the familiar opposition between intrinsic and extrinsic criticism, with poetic aligned with intrinsic and rhetoric aligned with extrinsic. In this debating, they do precisely what McKeon in the second paragraph of his opening statement said they wanted to avoid. In doing so, they may simply be lapsing into a familiar groove from years of debating issues posed in Aristotelian terms. Aristotle even got the nickname “Howard” in their correspondence.

Aristotle’s definition of beginning, middle, and end in Poetics, chapter 7, appears to inform some of the things McKeon says about formal structure. About that definition, Burke remarks, “There are few statements that are more platitudinous, and even fewer that are more fertile” (“Poetics” 415), finding in it a basis for his broadening of temporal sequence to include logical sequence as well (416). McKeon’s strong interest in form also goes beyond strictly narrative form in the Q&A, during the exchanges with Questioner #3, when McKeon remembers a passage in “one of Burke’s books” about a man who was a genius with numbers. The question put to the man was whether some numbers gave him a formal pleasure. McKeon is misremembering insofar as this passage appears not in a book but in a footnote on p. 418 in Burke’s “Poetics and Communication.” But McKeon does remember the main point. The man did experience pleasure in the form of some numbers. An example is 712491, which produces the number 8 three times: multiply the middle two numbers (2 x 4), add the first and the last (7 + 1), and subtract the second number from the second to last number (9-1).

The form in Aristotle’s Poetics that McKeon defends is a proximate cause. Poetics treats an artificial object, the characteristic of which for Aristotle is that it consists of materials that would not become the object without the intervention of an external cause, a human maker, by contrast to natural objects that come to be by internal causes. A human being is part of the causal chain leading to the existence of an artificial object but not the proximate cause. A human makes a wheel, but the proximate cause of the wheel is the form it must have to be a wheel. Form is a proximate cause. As McKeon puts it in one of his essays, “When terms are defined literally, the principles of the discussion are to be found in the causes by which an object is to be isolated in its essential nature” (“Philosophic Bases” 472). A proximate cause is a cause of the object found nowhere except in the object. McKeon’s Aristotelian objections to Burke center on Burke’s reliance on causes external to a work.
McKeon brings together the two roles he plays in responding to Questioner #3 when he first sketches the “[t]wo totally different analyses” of Othello in his and Burke’s differing approaches, here stressing pluralist interest in distinguishing approaches, then adds that when defending one approach one faults the other, as McKeon faults Burke for bringing into his analysis “a basic psychosis of a monogamistic” society and as Burke faults McKeon for missing the point of the play by ignoring this psychosis. In debate, each defends their preferred approach and the two approaches appear to contradict one another. Viewed pluralistically, what appears to be a contradictory relationship is revealed to be a complementary one.

Exchanges with Questioner #3 continue for an unusually long time. In the process, McKeon becomes abrasive in some of his responses. These responses reminded me of some experiences in his classes, which were in some ways like an intellectual boot camp insofar as there was no chance that any student would leave class with a false sense of self‑esteem. Susan Sontag probably speaks for many students when she says, “I revered McKeon. But he also made me, and I think not only me, cringe. He might put a question to the class, a student would dare to say something, and if it were less than brilliant, McKeon often replied, `That is a very stupid answer’” (275). Such anecdotes make it easy to see why students would “cringe,” but their occurrences were the exception rather than the rule. By contrast, it is not possible to illustrate by simple anecdotes why Sontag nonetheless “revered” McKeon. In the blurb she wrote for the dust cover of Selected Writings of Richard McKeon, Volume 2, she said, “Richard McKeon was a teacher and a thinker of incomparable authority and importance. I had the good fortune to be one of his students and the skills I learned from him have remained central to the way I think.” Better evidence than such testimonials consists of the recordings of his classes that were turned into books: On Knowing: The Natural Sciences (1994), On Knowing: The Social Sciences (2016). Other recordings and transcriptions exist and may yet eventually be published, though it is difficult to turn old reel‑to‑reel recordings into publishable books. A McKeon class was like a book that could profitably be read and reread.

At the beginning, after McKeon describes what they will not do but in fact end up doing, he makes a promise that goes unfulfilled when he suggests that the world is just catching up to where he and Burke have been for a long time and that they hope to get into the significance of this development. These remarks would appear to apply most clearly to the historical revival of interest in rhetoric that was underway in 1970 and continues to this day. Contrary to McKeon, though, it would be more accurate to say that in this interest in rhetoric Burke was there before McKeon. When Burke defined form in his 1925 essay “Psychology and Form” essay, he defined it in terms of a relation to the audience. He did this in the heyday of modernism when the reigning orthodoxy was “True Art Ignores the Audience,” as Booth puts it in his title for chapter four in The Rhetoric of Fiction. McKeon’s turn to rhetoric comes later, when the development of his historical semantics leads him to see the turn to language in the twentieth century as a turn to a new subject matter that needs rhetoric to complete itself for reasons he introduces in “The Methods of Rhetoric and Philosophy: Invention and Judgment,” included in volume two of Selected Writings of Richard McKeon. In any case, by 1970 they were together in this revival, on their way to becoming, as Richard Lanham would later put it, “out two greatest rhetoricians” (165).

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Dramatism and Development. Clark UP, 1972. PHeinz Werner Lecture Series 6.

—. Letters from Kenneth Burke to William H. Rueckert, 1959‑1987, edited by William H. Rueckert. Parlor P, 2003.

—. “Poetics and Communication.” Perspectives in Education, Religion, and the Arts, edtied by Howard E. Kiefer and Milton K. Munitz, SUNY P, 1970, pp. 401‑18.

—. “Questions and Answers about the Pentad.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 19, no. 4, 1978, pp. 330–35.

Crane, R. S., ed. Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern. U of Chicago P, 1952.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd ed. U of Chicago P, 1970.

Lanham, Richard A. The Electronic Word. U of Chicago P, 1993.

McKeon, Richard. “Criticism and the Liberal Arts: The Chicago School of Criticism.” Profession vol. 82, pp. 1-18.

—. “Literary Criticism and the Concept of Imitation in Antiquity.” Crane,pp. 147–75. Originally published in Modern Philology, vol. 34, 1936, pp. 1–35.

—. “The Philosophic Bases of Art and Criticism.” Crane,pp. 463‑545.

—. “Philosophy of Communications and the Arts.” Selected Writings of Richard McKeon. Vol. 2, edited by  Zahava K. McKeon and William G. Swenson, U of Chicago P, 2005, pp. 307–25.

—. “Rhetoric in the Middle Ages.” Crane, pp. 260‑96.

Sontag, Susan. Conversations with Susan Sontag, edited by Leland Poague, UP of Mississippi, 1995.

Wess, Robert. “Burke’s McKeon Side: Burke’s Pentad and McKeon’s Quartet.” Kenneth Burke and His Circles., edited by Jack Selzer and Robert Wess, Parlor P, 2008, pp. 49‑67.

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“Scientific Rhetoric”: Kenneth Burke’s The War of Words and the Detection of the Conscious and Unconscious Biases of the Mainstream News Media

Jim A. Kuypers, Virginia Tech


In The War of Words Burke uses the term scientific to describe the news “in the sense that it deals with information” but is also rhetorical since “it forms attitudes or induces to action.” In this essay I outline Burke’s major ideas in his “Scientific Rhetoric” chapter; present for consideration Burke’s assumptions about the press; and conclude with comments about how one might productively extend Burke’s insights into future studies of the news media.

Rare is the opportunity that Kenneth Burke’s posthumously published The War of Words offers us—to re-examine through Burkeian theory and rhetorical practices our view of mass mediated news communication. Within this context, I look specifically at the chapter on “Scientific Rhetoric” in which Burke examines in detail the reportorial practices of the American news media in late 1940s/early 1950s. In that chapter Burke states that news is scientific “in the sense that it deals with information” but is also rhetorical since “it forms attitudes or induces to action” (169), an observation certainly as applicable today as it was when he wrote it. This newly available work fits in well with Burke’s corpus, and opens doors of opportunity for scholars to expand their understanding of Burke’s work further into today’s world of news media studies and beyond. It is a world, unfortunately, dominated by social scientific approaches, one sorely in need of thoughtful qualitative assessments (Kuypers, “Framing Analysis”). Moreover, Burke’s work provides additional insights for those using his theories to better understand the workings of the news media, developing further the idea that facts are interpretations and the news is drama. I proceed in three sections. First, I briefly outline Burke’s major ideas in his “Scientific Rhetoric” chapter, positioning them within the context of contemporary news reporting practices; second, I present for consideration Burke’s assumptions about the nature of the press and reportorial practices, also positioning them within the context of contemporary news reporting practices; finally, I conclude with comments about how one might productively extend Burke’s insights into future studies of the news media.

Kenneth Burke’s “Scientific Rhetoric”

The initial thought conveyed in Burke’s chapter is that the American public could “call news ‘scientific’… in this sense in that it deals with information . . . and at its best this information is accurate” and purports to be objective. Yet the underlying truth is that it is not. As most rhetoricians know, and Burke stresses, “‘Facts’ are interpretations” (169).  Burke tangentially links his definition of “facts” to an Aristotelian understanding, so facts as inartistic proofs, and once in the hands of a journalist, they take on some qualities of artistic proofs, though also moving outside, and in some instances beyond, our general understandings of logos, pathos, and ethos. It is well known that a series of words can form the indicative (the stating or indicating as objective fact), but they can also be optative (or the verbal mood expressive of hope or desire). For Burke, the facts as stressed by reporters are generally their interpretation of the facts, and beyond this, many are “selections among his interpretations” (170).

To clarify how this works, Burke points out that the same “facts” are often reported differently in Moscow and Washington because reporters “have different philosophies, theories of motives, interpretations” (170). Even today in 2020 this is so. For instance, a major Russian state-owned news publication described the presence of the Wuhan Virus on board the U.S.S. Roosevelt, not only in terms of its harming the military readiness of the vessel, but also as yet another indication that the entire aircraft carrier fleet structure was “a futile show of strength” and that “seven out of eleven ships of this class proved to be unprepared for combat missions. Moreover, it was revealed that no aircraft-carrier was prepared for combat missions on the East Coast of the country” (Lulko). And this was certainly conveyed by the headline: “Coronavirus Causes US Aircraft Carriers to Sink to the Bottom of World Ocean” (Lulko). Concerning the same event, a major American news outlet focused on how “the coronavirus may strike more Navy ships at sea after an outbreak aboard an aircraft carrier in the Pacific infected more than 400 sailors. . .” (Burns and Baldor). The outlet speculated on how more cases will occur, and also focused on a minor political drama surrounding the ship’s captain who was relieved of duty. Military readiness of the U.S. fleets was never an issue as it was in the Russian story. Same fact (infections), different interpretation. With this in mind, consider how Burke suggests that when reading, consumers are “absorbing a philosophy, as written by reporters who probably despise philosophy, and take their trade to be the very opposite of it” (170). In one sense, for Burke, reading a newspaper (and today, consuming broadcast news as well) is a form of “meditation,” of “pondering ‘representative’ things” (170). And these things are an interpretation put together by a reporter, even if those reading (viewing) do not consciously realize this. Thus, the meditations of the Russian news audience is quite different from the meditations of the American news audience.

Understood in this light, facts certainly gain power because we believe they can speak for themselves, yet reporters provide (as do we as individuals), knowingly and unknowingly, interpretive frameworks through which to assess and judge them. We see this process in the cases above, and Burke suggests that we look not at the fact, but at the framework in which the fact is judged (Burke, “Scientific Rhetoric”; Burke, “Scope and Reduction”). Additionally, “the report must be given through the medium of terms.” Burke proposes here considering facts as “primary interpretations” and the arrangement of facts into a meaningful order as “secondary interpretations” (172), much like inartistic to artistic proofs.  This is, of course, larger than particular political bias (which Burke believes to be pre-existing).

Burke acknowledges that many people are, as is he, skeptical of the press in the superficial sense (in suspecting that their news is slanted in accordance with editorial policy). However, what is quite uncommon is skepticism in the more “radical, or methodic sense” that Burke is proposing (something also true today):

that “the newspaper, being not a set of ‘facts’ (which are things and situations), but [rather] a set of interpretations (reports of things and situations), is not antithetical to philosophy, but is itself the uncritical and unsystematic, or implicit, philosophy. (172)

Think here of philosophy, as well as the attendant meditation, as Burke uses it above. As a beginning to such an analysis (and I will suggest more later) Burke offers what he calls “headline thinking” and presents three main elements to explore that concept.

Genius Headline Thinking

Burke acknowledges that there is news rhetoric that can be quantitatively assessed. For instance, the sheer volume and placement of news, the size of font, color, amount of headline, etc. He wishes to move beyond that, however, to explore what he in part calls the “Genius of the Headlines.” Headlines, of course, signal the substance of articles; they are ritualistic, reductionistic, and, Burke suggests, work like news tickers. The emphasis is often on first syllables, so a nervous or excited sense is imparted to readers. Additionally, Burke notes that the short words and common omission of both definite and indefinite articles also lead to this excited sense. The headlines capture the “essence” of the news in the article, its rhetorical nature. For examining the news itself, of which the headlines capture the essence, Burke offers three major and interanimated considerations: selectivity, reduction (or gist), and tithing.


Facts are selected (in conjunction with headlines) to make them rhetorically effective and done so in a way to guide possible interpretations. Facts selected by journalists and editors may well be true, but “could be falsely tendentious in the sense that they do not give a properly rounded picture of the situation reported but are ‘truths’ selected for a particular polemic purpose. Hence, although they could be placed in the category of science or knowledge, since they are ‘true information,’ the partiality of their truth makes them rhetorically persuasive in the worst sense” (177).

Of course, what facts are chosen, and subsequently “interpreted” are important to consider, and will be below. As telling can be what facts are omitted, and this “bias by omission” is a common example here also of how the press can frame and control our understanding of issues and events (Burke, “Scientific Rhetoric”; Kuypers, President Trump). Take, for instance, the sexual assault allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Certainly, a person being nominated to such a position deserves public scrutiny, and such charges should be explored, as they were in this case. Looking at the three major 24 hour cable news outlets we find that in September 2018, Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations were mentioned by one outlet 1,898 times, another 1,878 times, and the third 1,066 times. Of course, someone running to be a major party’s candidate for the office of President of the United States also deserves scrutiny and similar charges should be explored as well. Yet this did not happen to Joe Biden during the spring of 2020. Also in a one month period, mentions of Biden accuser Tara Reade’s name on cable news were almost nonexistent. Consider the three major 24 hour cable news outlets mentioned above. One mentioned her 57 times, another nine times, the third mentioned her just once (Leetaru). We see this same principle operating during the protests/riots/looting following the death of George Floyd in June 2020 when the mainstream news media (MSM) failed repeatedly to report the deaths (almost all black, including black police officers) that were occurring at the hands of the protesters/rioters. Of note is that the number of these deaths were higher than all the unarmed black American deaths at the hands of police the previous year (Watson; Krumholtz; D'Agostino).

Walter Lippmann provides us with insight into the importance of having all the facts, noting also the trend of the press to “make opinion responsible to prevailing social standards, whereas the really important thing is to try and make opinion increasingly responsible to the facts” (Lippmann 64). Importantly, he stresses that there “can be no liberty for a community which lacks the information by which to detect lies" (64). And that it “may be a bad thing to suppress a particular opinion, but the really deadly thing is to suppress the news" (64). Moreover, “the press threatens democracy whenever it has an agenda other than the free flow of ideas. . . (64).

Thus, the importance for investigations into such practices is well noted by Burke and others. For Burke, the press desired attitude is grounded in “ever-changing procession of specific details (all different in their particularities, though similarly directed or weighted),” and if a reporter cannot range freely to gather new “facts” in the area to be “adversely reported” upon, thus providing new information daily, editors (and opinion writers) then must editorialize overtly and create news (177). One cannot help but see this as ever growing today in the world of a continuous 24 hour news cycle, especially during times of crisis. For instance, during the early months of the pandemic lockdowns the American press was swift to publish the latest on the situation, updating their website front pages every five minutes, even when there was no real “new” news. Speculation, editorializing, and repetitious droning ruled the day. From “the standpoint of an ulterior motive,” then, “the ever-changing details of each day’s news (when treated to perpetuate a fixed attitude on the part of the readers) are but the varied reindividuations of a single underlying form, concretions (in terms of particulars, or ‘images’) that bring the abstract ‘principal’ or ‘idea’ into the realm of feeling” (178).

Reportorially importantly here, “all such choices, besides resting on philosophical assumptions, invite readers to accept the same underlying assumptions” (178). As such, they are “inducement to action” (178). Clearly Burke moves beyond our contemporary notion of agenda-setting here to what I have called elsewhere agenda-extension, which postulates “an evaluative component to media coverage of issues and events. In short, the press not only tells us what to think about (agenda-setting), but it also tells us how to think about it (agenda-extension)" (Kuypers, Presidential Crisis Communication 188). With such an understanding, we move beyond merely representing a day’s events to discovery of the meaning and inducements behind what is highlighted in press reports. Burke offers in his chapter some initial ways into doing this, taking into consideration two areas, timing and quietus.

Selectivity: Timing. Here Burke considers how the release of stories can be timed to facilitate or hinder their impact upon other stories or the others’ impact. This can take the form of “organizational designs,” (178) or the timed release of a story to help (or hurt) a particular organization or candidate. Burke suggests here that a “rhetoric of juxtaposition” (178) can also operate, that a very different story (or photograph) could be placed so as to draw attention to certain aspects of the main idea the editor wants to push.  In this sense, some facts (in written or photographic form) brought in and others left out to realize editorial lean.

Selectivity: Quietus. A quietus is a subtle but powerful inducement to action, a small slighting of an emergent trend for which the journalist or editors hold disdain. It is considerably more effective than refutation. So, report on a trend, but with a slight negative tone, an “absolute quietus.” Yet if the trend gains ground, focus on it, provide fair (or even slightly negative) coverage, then drop it (it is no longer “important”), an “irruptive quietus.” In terms of its rhetorical workings, “the most effective use of headlines-in-reverse would be the absolute quietus. Next in effectiveness would be this ‘irruptive quietus,’ the lapse into silence after publicity. And if this in turn fails, there remains the standard resource of selectivity, the featuring of stories that represent the opposing philosophy, or terminology of motives, which the given newspaper favors” (182).

As an example of this quietus process recall in early 2019 when the top three Commonwealth of Virginia political leaders were embroiled in scandal--two involved with potentially racist actions and the third faced with credible accusations of multiple sexual assaults. As one MSM major daily paper reported, “In the space of a week in early February, the public was stunned by revelations about each of the three highest statewide elected officials . . . ; the racist photo in the governor’s yearbook; accusations of sexual assault against the lieutenant governor; and the attorney general’s appearance in blackface at a party in college” (Campbell). The three major news networks had a combined coverage of barely over 116 minutes for the first week as all three scandals broke, followed by a combined coverage of just over 96 minutes the following week as all three scandals were in full cry (Houck). Reporting during this time exhibited classic quietus characteristics, with there being more minimization or dubiousness than explanation and fact-finding exertions. Of note, however, is that, even with no resolution to the scandals, this reportorial period was followed in the third week with only “an additional eight minutes and eight seconds devoted to the Virginia officeholders between two newscasts” (Houck). Additionally, the networks, after initial reports mentioning the Democrat party affiliation of the three office holders, dropped those labels from coverage that followed.

Reduction (Gist)

“Gist” is put into headlines. Although Burke did not use this specific language, in contemporary terms it could be considered an announcement of the primary “frame” for each news story. For Burke, this process of reducing the news event to its gist allows the press to amplify a particular point of view, and it is accomplished through two means. First, explanatory motives (motivations), or the apparent purpose of the act/event being reported upon are employed. Second, behavioral descriptions could be used, manipulating the “facts” in such a way that the preferred take of the press is advanced (184). Burke brings in an example of a debater starting the debate with the statement, “I will prove,” and ending it with, “I have proved.” In a sense, Burke argues, headlines are both “exordium and peroration rolled into one, without being formally recognized as either” (185). In making this observation, he points out to us the overlooked aspect of headline power through its function as “thesis of an argument masked as the ‘gist’ of some ‘facts’” (185).

Inattention best facilitates the working of gist, and its potent influence is best seen through the skimming of headlines, or only reading them and a first few sentences (very often with each sentence as its own paragraph). It is well known that a plurality of news reading Americans only read headlines, and of those who do read beyond that, only the first few sentences are usually read—perfect for the working of gist. And this is something that holds true in today’s world of online reading as well (Manjoo) and is something well-known by the MSM (Cillizza; Unnerman).

As an extended example of this process, let us take a look at reporting during the spring of 2020 on the use of hydroxychloroquine in the treatment of the Wuhan Virus. The Lancet, a leading popular medical journal, published a study on the administration of hydroxychloroquine to already seriously ill COVID-19 patients, and limits its comments to those hospitalized patients only, with no mention of zinc, a major consideration in studies showing the positive effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine (Mehra, et. al). Looking at the headlines and then initial sentences of three stories from MSM outlets about this newly published study we find that all three fail to mention zinc’s important role in recovery and effectiveness, and none mention that it is already known that hydroxychloroquine results have been best with mild to moderate cases that include zinc treatment as well.

Headline no. 1: “Drug touted by Trump as Covid-19 treatment linked to a greater risk of death, study finds.” (Gumbrecht and Cohen)

Here are the first few sentences: “Seriously ill Covid-19 patients who were treated with hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine were more likely to die or develop dangerous irregular heart rhythms, according to a large observational study published Friday in the medical journal The Lancet. President Donald Trump has been a frequent cheerleader for a combination of the antimalarial hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin as a Covid-19 treatment” (Gumbrecht and Cohen). This particular outlet also produced a mocking montage video of President Trump saying, dozens of times, the word “hydroxychloroquine” and placed this immediately following its headline for viewing prior to reading the story.

Headline no. 2: “Antimalarial Drug Touted by President Trump is Linked to Increased Risk of Death in Coronavirus Patients, Study Says: An analysis of 96,000 Patients Shows Those Treated with Hydroxychloroquine Were Also More Likely to Suffer Irregular Heart Rhythms.” (Cha and McGinley)

Here are the first few sentences: “A study of 96,000 hospitalized coronavirus patients on six continents found that those who received an antimalarial drug promoted by President Trump as a ‘game changer’ in the fight against the virus had a significantly higher risk of death compared with those who did not. People treated with hydroxychloroquine, or the closely related drug chloroquine, were also more likely to develop a type of irregular heart rhythm, or arrhythmia, that can lead to sudden cardiac death. . .” (Cha and McGinley).

Headline no. 3: “Hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine linked to increased risk of death in hospitalized coronavirus patients, study finds.” (Hein)

Here are the first few sentences: “A study of hospitalized coronavirus patients who were treated with hydroxychloroquine – the drug President Trump said he has been taking daily for about two weeks to stave off infection – as well as chloroquine, another drug recently touted as a possible COVID-19 antidote, found an increased risk of death associated with both medications. The findings, published in The Lancet on Friday, focused on exploring the use of hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine both alone and in combination with a second-generation macrolide, and the associated safety and benefit in patients diagnosed with COVID-19” (Hein). This was the only study to mention “hospitalized” or seriously ill patients in the headline. Additionally, the article did mention, half way in that, “The drugs were thrust into the spotlight by Trump, who said he requested hydroxychloroquine from his physician. . . . He said he had been taking it daily, along with a zinc supplement, after the pair decided the potential benefits outweighed the risks” (Hein). This was the single mention of zinc in the stories. Of note is that none of these outlets reported the importance of zinc that was stressed in studies showing hydroxychloroquine’s effectiveness in treating outpatient COVID-19 sufferers (Louise).

After imparting a particular gist to the Lancet study, a little over a week later the three outlets minimally reported that the original study, which the outlets had used to belittle hydroxychloroquine, was retracted by the researchers due to seriously flawed data (Mehra, et al.). This was a major news item given the importance placed on the original study. One outlet, for instance, had given 90 minutes in one day to reporting the original study, in a tone clearly reflecting the headline no. 1 example, but spent only one minute and 45 seconds on its retraction (Houck). The outlet publishing headline no. 2 published a story about the retraction, but kept it behind a paywall, whereas the original story was and still is several months later free to view, with no mention of the study’s retraction there. The third outlet reported the retraction as news, and had no paywall. Thus, in a real sense, the initial gist was negative, and in a large sense, maintained by at least two of the three outlets even through the retraction, with all outlets failing to mention retroactively in the original story that there was a retraction, even as emendations to news stories posted online are commonplace. Again, though, in all the retractions, zinc remains unmentioned.

Tithing by Tonality

Tonality is, as is gist, an exceptionally subtle modality of bias, and one that could easily circumvent social scientific means of detection. According to Burke, it is the

journalistic building of animus by countless strokes of style, each so trivial that you can hardly bring yourself to point out its tiny inclination. As you see the infinitesimal but endlessly repeated reinforcement of an attitude, by different particulars, through months and years, you collect a body of testimony each item of which is as microscopic as bacteria, yet so powerful in the mass as to threaten the very foundation of human society, particularly in an age which has so many new means of destruction as ours, goading us in our unimaginative moments to try using the new weapons as a cure for economic ills inborn to our society” (185-86).

Thus, small items over time build up within news audiences an attitude toward an object, a person, a policy; thus, tithing over time. For Burke here, “the power resides not in the brilliance of the message, but in the efficiency of the technology by which an idea can be institutionally amplified until it is equivalent, in its suasiveness, to an evangelical doctrine like Christianity, vibrant with intellect and poetry. This is the rhetoric of small profit made stupendous by big turnover” (186). And in the age of digital news and social media, as well as a narrowly branded, monolithic MSM culture (Kuypers, Partisan Journalism), Burke’s observation takes on even more poignancy. Keep in mind as well that tonality is “a kind of implied identification” (190), and once established, even a “correct reporting of an adversary’s statement can be a further step in deception” (192). To sum, then, tithing “is the establishing of an attitude by trivial effects that become important in the aggregate. The very triviality of the device adds to its effectiveness, if there is a constant opportunity to repeat it, in varying details” (187).

I believe Burke correct when he writes that it “is difficult to cite examples, because they are in their very essence made not for close attention but for inattention” (187). Moreover, this process can often work through the omission of information (which we discussed above), which is practically impossible to detect save one has exposure to oppositional information or prior knowledge (Kuypers, President Trump).

Although Burke was talking primarily of radio broadcast, we can easily enlarge his comments to include broadcast news when he asserts that tithing also involves physical tone of voice. So we have not only headlines and news story content, but also actual tone of voice and inflections of announcers to consider when discussing tithing by tonality. These are elements rarely examined in bias studies where overwhelmingly the emphasis is on textual, not paralinguistic, features.

Consider again motivational versus behavioral reporting. A focus on behavioral reporting can also support tonality. When focusing on the behavioral, the act itself, not the purpose or motive behind it is highlighted. This could also be, for instance, a focus upon what happened today versus the day before. So, leaving out motives (context) can add to or detract from the tone, particularly in relation to a specific news audience. (One might consider here enthymematic structures in relation to the cultural, social, or ideological make-up of a particular news outlet’s audience.) Tonality is more than simply using censorious terms, or terms with the force but not form of argument. For instance, what is described as foolhardy action in an enemy might be described as bravery in an ally. Or, for instance, when President Obama used the term “thugs” to refer to the Baltimore rioters the MSM accepted it; when President Trump used the term to describe the Minneapolis rioters the MSM condemned it (Post Editorial Board). Tonalities can go beyond these types of usages and also weight terms. They impart an emotional weighting by use of tone. For Burke, there are two choices here, 1.) either a choice between two terms (material or idealization) or 2.) tone, (same word, but choice between different weightings, as in the “thugs” comparison above). And keep in mind that “without tonality, no tribal cohesion”; thus tone can be used to examine press cohesiveness across media outlets (197). This tonality has implications for news audiences and also journalists since rhetoric “as a pragmatic means of inducing collective action begins in tone” (197). Although applicable to all, consider especially here a novice journalist: “A newcomer ‘belongs’ when he has mastered the tonal subtleties of his group, when he knows spontaneously what he is expected to mention in accents of approval, scorn, boredom, apprehension, amusement, and the like” (197). Thus tonalities in the newsroom is a quick way of enculturating new reporters, and the pressures for reporters to ideologically conform to the group mentality are greater today than ever (Tiabbi). Tonalities are also a way of enculturating news audiences, as shown by the political leanings of audiences who routinely consume publications whose ideological leanings match their own, as was mentioned above.

Part of the reason tithing by tonality works is that papers and broadcast news thrive on the inattention of audiences. As Burke pointed out then, and is true today, audiences are generally “inattentive” and “distracted” (198), so a great deal of tithing is necessary for impact. Tonality works especially well with persons passive about their news consumption, those who simply accept uncritically what the MSM tells them, which, of course, would magnify the impact of omission of oppositional information as well. We can easily see this process at work by looking at some recent headlines and their subsequent changes in response to the violation of the tithing expectations of the outlets’ audiences (Golding). In one example, a major MSM daily paper changed its Sunday edition lead story headline not once, but twice in response to reader criticism concerning Democrats in Congress initially blocking a 2020 pandemic relief bill:

Initial headline: “Democrats Block Action on $1.8 Trillion Stimulus.”
Changed headline 1: “Democrats Block Action on Stimulus Plan, Seeking Worker Protections.”
Changed headline 2: “Partisan Divide Threatens Deal on Rescue Bill.” (Barkoukis)

Concerning this same issue, when an additional $250 billion emergency relief fund for small businesses was set for a vote, a major cable news outlet provided this story headline on its website:

Initial headline: “Democrats block GOP-led funding boost for small business aid program.”
Changed headline: “Senate at stalemate over more COVID-19 aid after Republicans and Democrats block competing proposals.” (Wulfsohn)

In another example, a major MSM daily responded to reader criticism by changing its front page headline about President Trump’s response to the 2019 El Paso shootings.

Initial headline: “Trump Urges Unity VS. Racism.”
Changed headline 1: “Assailing Hate But Not Guns.” (Greve)

In each case we see the changes made to comport with the “tithing” expectations of the news audience. Of note is that editorial explanations for the changes were generally an apology for rushing that led to an initial inaccurate headline, even as the initial headlines were factually accurate. In short, the corrected headlines reflected the ongoing, deliberate tithing of the news outlet.

News as Drama

Drama, as Burke uses it here, does not mean dramatistical, unfortunately, but rather dramatic, with Burke enjoining us to consider situational elements beyond the verbal when studying the rhetoric of the press (200). In this sense, shock and scare tactics make for more “newsworthy” stories; they are dramatic. However, journalists also promote this, thus we move beyond just sources or the occasional true dramatic story. One cannot help but think of some of the contemporary biases of the press--money bias, sensationalism, visual bias--ultimately helping sales as well. Burke brings up the press generated horserace frame used for political campaigns, and also the practice of relaying negotiations as a prize fight; thus, step-by-step, blow-by-blow, not as neutral announcers, but rather laced instead with tonalities. For Burke, “not human nature, but ‘journalistic nature,’ must be held responsible for the excesses of dramatization in the news” (206). In highlighting the importance of this “nature,” Burke intones:

the essence of journalistic dramatization is real in this foible: The first estimates of damage and death in reports of a catastrophe are usually much higher than the final accounting (which, of course, rates small headlines). Usually, catastrophe is minimized only when there are political reasons for weakening the purely dramatic value of the event. . . . (203)

One cannot help but think of the MSM coverage of the 2020 pandemic in this instance. Initial grossly overly-inflated rates of infection and death were hammered into the American psyche (I am certain those reading this recall the initial estimates of over 2.2 million U.S. deaths figure), and given that New York City was the area hardest hit, journalists, so many of which nationally are centered in that area, transferred their own fear onto their reportorial practices. Such reporting existed throughout the worst of the pandemic, and continued even into the reopening phases of the recovery. Take, for example, the MSM’s initial cries of catastrophe when Florida’s Governor announced he was beginning the process of reopening Florida. Instead of responding with measured reporting of the science and logic behind the decision (medical and economic forecasts, avoiding ruin, and civil liberties considerations), the MSM responded with tales of doom and gloom, going so far as to accuse the governor of actions designed to turn Florida into New York City and Italy at their worst. Yet weeks after the re-opening, and the press was wrong (Caruso), and spikes seen in late July across the US also showed a steep lowering of the rate of death. Yet to this day the MSM continues to report to induce panic (I&I Editorial Board). The fear engendered by such reporting is, for Burke, not so much public opinion driving the news, but “public response to the rhetoric of the news” in many cases (203).

Of importance, Burke asks, How do the motives of journalistic dramatization operate? Again, though, it is not so much a dramatistically understood notion of motives working here as it is actual dramatizing. The principle of reduction is in play: policy measures linked with headlines of the day for their dramatizing qualities, and with today’s press, the journalistic bias to focus on negative news leads, coloring interpretations and headlines. Tonality is still at play, of course, and continues to thrive through variations on a theme, which may include what Burke calls the Principle of Ill Will: antithesis used as a means of dramatizing, and also adding tonality. Certainly, when a story first breaks it can be featured by dramatic value alone, then combined with tithing and tonalities in later iterations. Burke also asks us to consider that when a story first breaks, and might counter the news media’s rhetorical policy, it can be combined with “another story which reaffirms the tonalities” (210).

Another way this can work is through the Principle of “Failing to Realize” the position of one’s opponent. Burke suggests here that a journalist could “damn by faint reporting” (210). Accordingly, “Whenever a speaker is eloquent in a cause you do not favor, and you would report his speech factually without allowing him the persuasiveness of his eloquence, tell it in your own words, reduce it without quotation, or select for quotation sentences which, without their proper preparation in the address, are lame or even repugnant” (211). An example of this occurred in late July 2020 when the press secretary for the White House was asked about the White House support for opening public schools in the fall. Her entire reply explains the White House stance:

[T]he president has said unmistakably that he wants schools to open. And I was just in the Oval talking to him about that. And when he says open, he means open in full — kids being able to attend each and every day at their school.

The science should not stand in the way of this. And as Dr. Scott Atlas said — I thought this was a good quote — “Of course, we can [do it]. Everyone else in the…Western world, our peer nations are doing it. We are the outlier here.”

The science is very clear on this, that — you know, for instance, you look at the JAMA Pediatrics study of 46 pediatric hospitals in North America that said the risk of critical illness from COVID is far less for children than that of seasonal flu.

The science is on our side here, and we encourage for localities and states to just simply follow the science, open our schools. It’s very damaging to our children: There is a lack of reporting of abuse; there’s mental depressions that are not addressed; suicidal ideations that are not addressed when students are not in school. Our schools are extremely important, they’re essential, and they must reopen (White House).

Many MSM outlets, and reporter twitter feeds “highlighted [this] sentence only, ‘The science should not stand in the way of this,’ while deliberately ignoring the rest of the quote… that the science supports reopening schools. [Many major MSM print and broadcast outlets] deliberately took her out of context in their headlines” (Margolis, “Media Deliberately”). Reading through the original there is absolutely no doubt but that the Press Secretary “never meant to say or to imply that schools should reopen despite science saying it isn’t safe” (Margolis, “Media Deliberately”)

I see this practice linked to the interanimation of political animus and to what political communication researchers have called the Incredible Shrinking Soundbite. In the late 1960s the average soundbite from politicians was a bit over 40 seconds. Today that has “shrunk” to just about 8 seconds today. Into this void we have both the reporters and their so-called “experts” offering more interpretation of the news event or particular person being covered. In particular, the use of “experts” or news shapers, is going up in both print and broadcast (Soley), filling the gap left by reducing the length of quotes from the primary news makers; this diminution of primary source time empowers reportorial interpretation and contextualization of both primary and “expert” remarks, making it increasingly easy to “fail to realize.”

Polls, Forums, Accountancy

On these topics Burke offers only a short, incomplete section, although some of his observations are borne out by more contemporary work in these areas. Burke sees forums as often bland, and organizers able and often willing to plan for one side to be more strongly defended. For instance, in the weeks leading up to the 2020 Presidential election, one of the major broadcast networks intentionally masqueraded several anti-Trump activists as “uncommitted voters” (Anderson) and another network labeled several known pro-Biden supporters as “undecided voters” (Moore). In another contemporary example, a major cable news outlet intentionally snubbed then-Democrat presidential primary candidate Tulsi Gabbard by not allowing her participation in early Democrat town halls. Additionally, this outlet’s long history of planting Democrat party operatives in town halls is a way of controlling the outcomes (Steinhauser and DiRienzo; Malkin; Laila).

Polls are similar, with the way questions are worded playing an important part in knowledge generated (Hogan; Choi and Pak). Burke also alludes to an assertive nature in the quality of questions; the more they seem purely truth seeking, the more there is a level of sheer assertion, or underlying assumption, lurking. This might not be dissimilar to “factual” (as opposed to optative) style questions. One may also take the way a question is delivered into account, as in the command form as a question. Much of the insight about polls can be applied to forums, and Burke admits that much of accountancy is actually best considered as Bureaucratic Rhetoric (a brief and incomplete chapter in War of Words), although at its core, as presented in the news, it is a way for journalists to use different accounting methods to make the same amount seems greater or lesser depending upon how they wish to engage in tonality.

Burke would not have been familiar with Darrell Huff and Irving Geis’s 1954 classic, How to Lie with Statistics when he wrote “Scientific Rhetoric,” yet his observations fit in well with their concerns: “The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify. . ." (10). One can see accountancy in action looking at recent examples of the reporting on the pandemic in America. MSM reports for months during this time highlighted the daily increase in both number of cases and deaths from the virus. Focusing on the number of cases, such reports stressed a total number comparison, often made to other countries, with the MSM stressing that the United States had more cases than any other country--which in one sense is a fact--implying, one could say tithing, that our country was doing a poor job at mitigating the crisis. Here is one such example of cases from late May, using Johns Hopkins University of Medicine figures:

1.USA (96,046)
2.UK (36,757)
3.Italy (32,735)
4.Spain (28,678)
5.France (28,218)
6.Brazil (22,013)
7.Belgium (9,280)
8.Germany (8,275)
9.Iran (7,417)
10.Netherlands (5,841) (Margolis, “Don’t Buy”)

Burke though did, in his chapter, use the term tendentious in pointing out the way that facts can be applied by the press. As pointed out by an alternative media outlet, here is what happens when you adjust the above figures on a per capita basis, with deaths per million of population considered:

1.Belgium (791.76)
2.Spain (573.38)
3.UK (558.95)
4.Italy (524.58)
5.France (415.90)
6.Sweden (391.87)
7.Netherlands (338.01)
8.Ireland (309.86)
9.USA (288.74)
10.Switzerland (226.80) (Margolis, “Don’t Buy”)

These figures, showing the United States doing considerably better than other nations, are comparatively rare in MSM coverage of the pandemic. Going even further, taking into consideration the New York City-centric reporting by the MSM during the crisis, one could factor out lower New York state, the hardest hit area of the US, to even better see the contrast. When one theoretically considers lower New York state as a separate country, one finds this:

1.Downstate NY (1,771.86)
2.Belgium (791.76)
3.Spain (573.38)
4.UK (558.95)
5.Italy (524.58)
6.France (415.90)
7.Sweden (391.87)
8.Netherlands (338.01)
9.Ireland (309.86)
10.USA sans downstate NY (233.44) (Margolis, “Don’t Buy”)

Usually left out of coverage of numbers is that the United States, at 330 million, is the world’s third most populous country. Moreover, the world’s two most populous countries—China and India—as well as Russia and Iran, are known to undercount both cases and deaths, which could also factor into the total counts. Yet with all of this, the MSM overwhelmingly uses the total case count daily, like a prize fight announcer, announcing each uptick in total cases without contextualization, making America seem to be the winner at obtaining the most cases. Or, adding to the tithing on this subjest, as one cable news outlet in mid-June 2020 sensationally put it, “more than 8 million coronavirus cases have been diagnosed worldwide, more than 2.1 million of which are in the U.S., the most impacted country on the planet” (Ciaccia).

Burke’s Assumptions Concerning News Bias

As one reads “Scientific Rhetoric,” it becomes increasingly clear that Burke does not believe the press is objective; although to what degree conscious versus unconscious reporter partisanship plays, he leaves unclear. Regardless, let us examine the more direct assumptions Burke makes in his chapter:

  1. Tellingly, he throws out almost casually the thought that so many in the general public, in a “superficial” sense, suspected “that the news is slanted in accordance with editorial policy. . .” (172). That is, the public expected that hard news stories (in the golden age of press objectivity no less) are slanted to reflect the ideological predispositions of editors and even at times owners. This is opposed to the “radical” sense he describes as philosophy, that we discussed in the earlier section.
  2. He identifies contextualization as a tool of reportorial bias: “A news item reporting a bad situation in some quarter which it is the editorial policy of the paper to denigrate may be quite literally true; indeed, a whole series of such articles may be quite literally true; yet the articles could be falsely tendentious in the sense that they do not give a properly rounded picture of the situation reported but are ‘truths’ selected for a particular polemic purpose” (177).
  3. He notes “journalists’ insistence upon full freedom to gather information in areas which, for political reasons, are to be presented in an unfavorable light.” He explains that reporters and editors are in “effect … but demanding a better opportunity to work adversely upon the imaginations of their readers. For if they have a few stories on which to base the attitudes which they would inculcate, they confront a technical embarrassment. They must ground the desired attitude in an ever-changing procession of specific details (all different in their particularities, though similarly directed or weighted)” (177). He highlights that when reporters cannot obtain enough new information to continue along, that editors end up relying “too greatly upon overt editorializing. . . .” in the areas to be “adversely reported” (177-78).
  4. Writing of the actual production of the news, he argues that “from the standpoint of an ulterior motive, the ever-changing details of each day’s news (when treated to perpetuate a fixed attitude on the part of the readers) are but the varied reindividuations of a single underlying form, concretions (in terms of particulars…) that bring the abstract ‘principle’ or ‘idea’ [wished to be conveyed by journalists and editors] into the realm of feeling” (178).
  5. He recognized the effort at the time in 1948, following the aftermath of WWII, of the press to “promote popular ill will” toward a particular government, providing as examples three different broadcasts of negative stories specifically cast “as an item of general news interest” by the press (180).
  6. He provides as an example how candidate G for public office could give a stellar speech, with only one small error, and then, with intentionality, “the headline writer for a newspaper backing a rival candidate [Candidate S] could ‘honestly’ report, as the essence of [Candidate G’s] address, that one erring paragraph in a speech” (182).
  7. He specifically states of one paper, “it’s an editorial policy to keep alive a feeling of ill will toward that nation…” (186).
  8. He speaks to the “anti-labor ‘tithing’ in which our press was then exceptionally active” (194).
  9. He provides as another example the deliberate attempt to influence the political process, when “the press began a new campaign, attempting to prevent further legislative reform” (197).
  10. He offers this rather telling statement, particularly so when viewed in light of the reporting of the 2020 pandemic: “catastrophe is minimized only when there are political reasons for weakening the purely dramatic value of the event, as in reporting of losses suffered by the journal’s own side in battle” or for “exaggeration . . . if there are factional reasons for playing up the disaster as a basis for criticizing the persons in authority” (203).
  11. He suggests that the biasing process can often be seen when an unusual or startling story first breaks: the story may be featured for dramatic value alone, in which case “several days may elapse before editorial policy crystallizes” (208).
  12. He demonstrates how journalists can sustain a long “sequence of tithing by tonality, which at once exploits and confirms a popular prejudice in accordance with editorial preferences, [that] can be justified purely as dramatic expediency or can as properly be condemned as tendentious selectivity dictated by ulterior motives” (209).
  13. He also addresses “tonalities maintained as rhetorical policy . . .” (210).

These specific items, taken together within the context of the book, demonstrates Burke’s belief that news construction, in both headlines and article content is guided (to a greater or lesser degree) by the partisan politics and worldviews of the journalists and editors involved with the story telling. Burke does not ascribe bald faced lies to editors and journalists in shaping the interpretation of the “facts” (although he does not rule those out, either). He says instead that, in general, “We are discussing not lies, but the tendentious selection of ‘hard facts’” (221). Keep in mind that tendentious here is not a synonym for mendacious, necessarily, but it rather highlights news reporting which is partisan or prejudiced, or that favors a particular point of view. Importantly, though, we can detect this bias, whether strong or weak, intentional or not.

Burke also hints at the role the news audience plays in the biases presented by the press and offers some observations to suggest that audiences congregate to MSM outlets that comport with their views. This observation is certainly not new; it is well known that papers in the early days of the Republic attracted like-minded partisans, and that today certain outlets attract audiences with similar ideological leanings, although this is not exclusive (Kuypers, Partisan Journalism). Although not “proof” of an ideological bias of those outlets, there is a strong correlation. Regardless, Burke does suggest that audience is an important consideration for interpreting news in that their perspective can turn “scientific” reporting to exhortation (169). For example, “But if your report is read by a reader for whom the tonalities have already been set… your behavioral account both exploits and confirms these tonalities” (193). One might think of Edwin Black’s notion of the second persona here, only with the construction of news stories hinting at the persona of the audience (Black). Also on audience, “often the king’s ambassadors told him not just what was, but what he wanted to hear—and we can expect ‘confidential’ advice [to readers] in new services to show a like trend” (199). And studies have shown that audience members with certain ideological leanings (conservative, moderate, liberal, progressive) do tend to read/view news from particular outlets that are reputed (although some would argue “proven”) to have certain ideological points of view, with traditional or legacy MSM audiences largely left of center (“Ideological Placement”; Attkisson).

It seems easy to believe Burke’s “taken for granted” observations from the late 1940s and early 1950s, but what about today? Do editors and journalists today actually engage in the very behavior Burke took as truth then? Survey data and much academic literature on this subject strongly suggests that if one is an academic scholar (Langbert and Stevens), journalist, someone who identifies as liberal/progressive, or a Democrat, the answer is most likely no, that there is minimal political bias in MSM reportorial practices; or if it is seen, it is of a particular kind, not seen by the general public.

The journalistic body today is itself, however, a quite the monolithic culture. In terms of church attendance, voting habits, political affiliations, political donations, etc., mainstream journalists are far to the left of average Americans (Kuypers, Partisan Journalism). The key question is, however, does this overwhelming progressive culture leak out into reportorial practices? Americans in general seem to agree that it does, although the more to the left of the political spectrum, or the more similar to journalists one is, the less one sees such bias operating. For instance, numerous surveys show that moderates and political independents generally see the same bias as Republicans and those leaning right on the political spectrum, suggesting strongly that something other than perception is the cause of observed bias. Although we ought not rely on one Gallup poll for the formation of our opinion on this (or any issue), the results here are within keeping of other such polls and my own observations so I feel are worth noting to establish a general sense of this subject.

  • In 1984, 58% of Americans said that the news media was careful to separate fact from opinion; it is down to 32% now.
  • In 1989 only 25% of Americans saw political bias in news coverage; it is up to 45% who see “a great deal” today. The percentage is considerably higher when asking for any degree of political bias.
  • A majority of Americans cannot name a source that reports news objectively. (Jones and Ritter)

Looking at Republican, independent, and Democrat interpretations of news coverage one finds that

  • 53% of Democrats, but only 27% of independents and 13% of Republicans, believe the media are careful to separate fact from opinion.
  • Whereas 67% of Republicans perceive a “great deal” of political bias in news coverage, only 26% of Democrats do.
  • Independents fall in between Republicans and Democrats on this consideration, with 46% saying news coverage has a “great deal” of political bias. (Jones and Ritter)

Of note is that when those identifying as Democrats and liberals/progressives see bias operating it is not a conservative political bias, but rather a bias in terms of supporting one candidate over another (i.e., Biden over Sanders) or a bias toward supporting the ideological status quo (Herman and Chomsky). Additionally, the more one has political leanings similar to that of the journalists producing the mainstream news, the less one sees political bias favoring one ideological view over another in the reporting of political issues by the MSM.

Going Beyond Burke: Suggested Extensions

There are numerous ways of examining MSM reports for the qualities Burke mentions, as well as for tendentiousness and countless biases; some of these flow from contemporary work in political communication and, more to our point in this essay, some flowing from Burkeian theory. To potentials using Burkeian theory we now turn. These are just what the subject heading implies, “suggested extensions,” and certainly only hint at the potential of applying Burkeian thought to journalistic artifacts; I do not intend it as a comprehensive literature review of Burkeian theory that has been used in some manner to examine the MSM. These are rather some suggestions for using his work that flow organically from his chapter, “Scientific Rhetoric,” in which he wrote: if one is “skeptical in the radical, or methodic sense” that he is proposing, then one can see that “news papers” (or a news report), “being not a set of ‘facts’ (which are things and situations), but a set of interpretations (reports of things and situations), is not antithetical to philosophy, but is itself the uncritical and unsystematic, or implicit, philosophy (172). So how might one go about exploring this undercurrent of reportorial philosophy today using Burkeian ideas to study news artifacts?

Cluster analysis is one way that Burke’s insights may fruitfully be used to examine a wide range of artifacts. For instance, looking at crisis leadership portrayals by the news media, Robert S. Littlefield and Andrea M. Quenette used cluster analysis to specifically explore how news outlets interpreted authority figures during a time of crisis. They found that through clustering of terms that the press could frame leaders in a positive or negative light. Adriana Angel and Benjamin Bates used this type of analysis in their critique of Columbian radio conversations surrounding the word “corruption.” Their analysis consisted of four steps. First, they focused on the terms that “guided the consecutive search for other terms” (Angel and Bates); thus, they found main terms that radio hosts used when they defined or described the term corruption. Second, they explored corruption talk by identifying terms used by the speakers when referring to corruption. Next, they identified clusters of terms that showed patterns of meaning, which were based on similar ideas that speakers use when referring to corruption. Finally, they determined the rhetor’s motives behind the meanings associated with key terms, although they did not explore the philosophical implications of their worldviews.

There are, of course, other such instances of Burke being used to examine news media productions, but such analyses stop far short of determining the worldviews of the journalists or how such views influence reportorial practices. Neither do these get into political bias as revealed and enacted through “motivations,” in the dramatistical sense, although they are important considerations about how language use shapes our understandings of events and issues. I have long used rhetorical framing analysis for examining how the news media act to shape public awareness, understanding, and evaluations of issues and events in a particular direction (Kuypers, Framing Trump; Kuypers, Presidential Crisis), yet this methodology is limited in terms of discerning any dramatistical elements to reportorial practices, although it could be used to determine “tithing,” “selectivity,” and perhaps “tone” in news reports over time, especially in comparative analyses if MSM and non-MSM reports are used. Regardless, with these shortcomings in mind, I began exploring the use of Burkeian ideas to examine the less obvious elements in press bias. I found motivational analysis a particularly fruitful approach to use here. Moreover, it seems the next logical step given Burke’s discussion of press practices, and his a priori assumptions about press bias. Even as motivational analyses tend to focus on single textual instances, one can enlarge the scope to look at aggregates of discourse, meta-narratives, or other combinations of discourse (Kuypers, “News Media Framing”).

My interest in using Burkeian perspectives to analyze the content of news stories saw its first publication in 2012 in an essay focusing on the troubled Martin Luther King, Jr./Charles R. Drew Medical Center, now rededicated as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Behavioral Health Center. My co-author and I first focused on “the journalists’ actions in writing the series and then conducting a similar analysis of the dramatic world that they created within King/Drew….” By doing this, “we were able to explore how King/Drew’s scene allowed for persistent medical malpractice actions that prevented the hospital from fulfilling its purpose of healing and serving the community. Finally, by uniting both pentadic analyses, we were able to identify the missing piece to resolution despite many attempts to solve the hospital’s problems” (Gellert and Kuypers). Still, although showing the dramatistical power of reportorial practices, the analysis fell short of getting at a deep motivational level of analysis.

More recently, I undertook a two-stage project in which I subjected the presidential nomination acceptance speeches of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to a dramatistic analysis with the goal of ascertaining the expressed worldviews of the speakers. The results were telling in that both speeches strongly presented specific pentadic elements and terministic screens, ultimately providing a philosophical clarity about the differences between the two candidates (Kuypers, “Presidential Nomination Acceptance Speeches”). Although illuminating, it was certainly not a radical application of Burkeian dramatism. For the second part, however, I subjected the MSM coverage of both speeches to the same style of analysis, taking into account the multiple voices of the journalists and quoted sources, and also the differences between editorials, opinion essays, news analyses, and hard news stories. Looking over the results of the analysis it was clear that the press coverage of Trump was inconsubstantial with him; however, that same press was clearly consubstantial with Clinton. In short, the worldview expressed by Trump was not conveyed to the American people, whereas that of Clinton was. Moreover, the press reporting actually acted to extend and amplify Clinton’s worldview (Kuypers, “News Media Framing”).

In terms of implications, as I have noted elsewhere, the “tendency would be for those consubstantial with each other to see reality is much the same manner, and with the press, to report the same as true” (Kuypers, “News Media Framing,” 118). In Burkeian terms, the “terminological screens of the press prevented it from fairly and accurately covering both candidates. The implications for this are stunning when considering the power of terminological screens to select, reflect, and deflect our attention from one aspect of reality toward another” (Kuypers, “News Media Framing,” 118). Keep in mind that these screens are “indicative of the internal thinking of the communicator” and affect the very “nature of our observations. . . .” Or as Burke puts it, “many of the ‘observations’ are but implications of the particular terminology in terms of which the observations are made” (Language as Symbolic, 46). And here we see the heuristic power of Burkeian theory to illuminate areas of journalistic practices that the social scientific method cannot begin to adequately examine.

These are but a few examples of possible uses of Burkeian thought gleaned both from previously published works and also the ideas contained in the posthumously published War of Words. There certainly are others. I am convinced that used in combination, Burkeian dramatistical theory and the press related insights expressed in “Scientific Rhetoric” can do much to enhance our analyses of the news media. Certainly, using them can extend and provide insights that numerically oriented social scientific approaches simply cannot achieve. Burke was incredibly inventive, imaginative, and open minded in how he approached news artifacts, and his examples can help to expand the perspectives available for examining the reportorial products of the news media, thus breathing new life into what has to some become an area rather narrow in terms of methodological acceptance.

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Devices and Desires: Concerning Kenneth Burke’s The War of Words

Richard H. Thames, Duquesne University

“We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.”—The General Confession from the Service of Morning Prayer, The Book of Common Prayer (1979)


Before McLuhan or Ong, “Speech” secured a place in Academe as the offspring of “Poli-Sci.” Accordingly, the discipline traced its roots to democracy’s birth in Athens. With reconsideration of “orality” inspired by developments in communication technology, the discipline reclaimed its place as foremost among the trivium, a restoration foretold by Burke and other New Rhetoric exponents. Publication of the The War of Words and the issue of its relationship to the Rhetoric and the Motivorum tetralogy raise questions concerning Burke’s as well as the discipline’s significance.  

Introduction: “My History”

I remember one of my college roommates telling me he was taking public speaking. I was somewhat surprised, never having considered Public Speaking a college course. We had remedial classes in “bone-head” English and math. I knew nothing of such classes in speech. Who taught the course? The school drama director, a speech and theater graduate from the University of Iowa. More surprise. There were such departments? Offering graduate degrees?

Meanwhile I meandered my way through myriad majors. I eventually settled on psychology, but having earned enough credits to major, abandoned it my final semester for poetry, philosophy, and theology, then followed a second roommate to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
At PTS I was drawn to Homiletics professor David Buttrick who graciously directed an independent study in theology and poetry my second semester. I was reading Oscar Williams’ anthology Master Poems of the English Language which matched each poem with an equally masterful critique. Reading Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” I encountered Kenneth Burke. I ran across campus to ask Buttrick if he’d read this astonishing critic. Of course! And he’d ordered everything Burke for the library. I started with Language as Symbolic Action but quickly realized there was more to Burke than I then had time for.

Buttrick encouraged me to pursue graduate work in English. My great hope was to study Eliot and Auden in England (more theology and poetry). Alas, I did not get the fellowship I’d applied for. Deeply depressed, I shambled into Buttrick’s class the next morning. He was lecturing on Augustine. My depression began to lift. After class I told him my bad news but quickly moved on to his lecture. If I wanted to learn more about the issues he was addressing, what would I study. “Rhetoric,” he replied. There was a good graduate program across town at the University of Pittsburgh. What department? “Speech and Theater.” I WAS MORTIFIED.

Still, I applied. My first class was with Trevor Melia! More incredibly, that spring Burke was contracted as Visiting Mellon Professor. The following fall Melia offered a seminar on Burke, that spring a seminar with him.

On occasion I saw Burke home after class when Melia couldn’t. We talked more about poetry than rhetoric. When my turn came to present in seminar, Burke responded enthusiastically. He opened up his battered briefcase, pulled out a manuscript, and copied things onto the board. After class I asked, was that the Symbolic? Yes. Could I make a copy? Yes. And so, in 1974 I copied a manuscript that did not see the light until Burke died in 1993. The manuscript played a significant part in my dissertation. I came to realize my manuscript (from the early 60s) was different from the one Burke had distributed in 1958. I told William Rueckert when I first met him at ECA New Haven in 1982 (coincidently the convention at which the Temple conference on Burke was first broached, a conference at which the Kenneth Burke Society was founded). Rueckert was not much interested.

The point of my story? I came to rhetoric through epideictic. Burke did as well.

The Discipline’s History

The second point? My poor opinion of speech was not uncommon, even within the discipline.

Jeffrey Walker argues in Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity (Oxford University Press, July 13, 2000) that originally judicial and legislative rhetoric were secondary to and derivative of epideictic. Aristotle “rescued” rhetoric from Plato’s condemnation by treating it as a species of logic concerned with uncertainty. Judicial and legislative rhetoric were classified as genre (characterized as repetitive arguments made in recurring situations) that were independent of and (at least) equal to epideictic. But rhetoric in antiquity was actually dominated by the citizen-orator tradition associated with Isocrates, a tradition that continued to value epideictic. (See Walker’s The Genuine Teachers of This Art: Rhetorical Education in Antiquity, University of South Carolina Press, December 7, 2012.)

Isocrates advocated enkyklios paideia—a“rounded education” that would improve the quality of debate about human affairs and hopefully its outcome. The letter-based disciplines of dialectic, grammar, and rhetoric constituted the trivium; the numbers-based disciplines of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music the quadrivium—the original “arts and sciences.” (See Bruce Kimbel’s Orator and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education, College Board; expanded edition, January 1, 1995.)

Late in the Medieval era, rhetoric again came to the fore with Italian Renaissance Humanism (see Charles G. Nauert’s Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe, Cambridge University Press; updated edition May 4, 2006) when the power of the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor (who was neither holy, Roman, nor an emperor) over northern Italy was broken and the now free urban centers saw themselves as antiquity’s city-states reborn—thus, the renaissance. Self-ruling like their ancient counterparts, they looked to antique models proper to the education of their citizens. Rhetoric was central, as was ethics (as with Protagoras’ burden, humanity being “the measure of all things” absent sure access to some superhuman criterion). History, politics, and political economy were also stressed, having been part of rhetoric for more than a millennium.

But other educational reformers such as Agricola carved up rhetoric’s domain and distributed the parcels to other disciplines. The canons of rhetoric were reinterpreted vis-à-vis the trivium. Logic was logic, there being nothing different about the logic of uncertainty. So, invention was given to dialect. Organization, involving logic or narrative, was split between dialectic and grammar/literature. No one cared about memory with printing and the greater prevalence of books. Style was of course relegated to grammar/literature. All that was left for rhetoric was delivery—Speech!

A New History

Early in the 20th century the emerging discipline of Speech sought to distinguish itself from English—thus Herbert Wichelns’ 1925 “The Literary Criticism of Oratory” and Hoyt Hudson’s 1924 “Rhetoric and Poetry.” Epideictic only confused the disciplines. During graduate school a constant complaint about Burke was his failure to adequately distinguish between rhetoric and poetic. The editors claim the Rhetoric’s opening anecdote of Milton and his Samson Agonistes “erases clear differences between rhetoric and poetic works” (WoW 22)—but perhaps not (see below).

Speech also sought to “distinguish” itself (i.e., establish its significance) by designating political discourse as its field of study. Still, the discipline’s self-esteem suffered for the remainder of the century, its repeated applications for admission into the American Council of Learned Societies being rejected until 1997.

The new discipline constructed a history addressing its identity issues. Rhetoric’s emergence coincided with democracy’s rise in Ancient Greece, its decline with Alexander’s conquests. Rhetoric’s re-emergence coincided with the Roman Republic’s rise, its decline with the Empire’s advent. The degraded rhetoric associated with decline was “display” rhetoric, a rhetoric valuing “style” over “substance,” rhetoric “literaturized”—in other words, epideictic.

But the growth in communication technology over the 20th century eventuated in a different history for the discipline. Scholars such as Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, and more recently Walker, looked back to the first great technological breakthrough—the alphabet—and further back to oral cultures. The authority of judges and rulers, argued Walker, was established by epea, “great words” allusive of epos, the treasure house of poetry preserving cultural values against the forces of change and forgetfulness—e.g., Homer and Hesiod for the Ancient Greeks. The Bible is (was?) part of the Western world’s epos. Lincoln’s “Four score and seven” alludes to the Biblical “three score and ten” and clues his audience to the Gospel narrative underlying his address (a fantasy theme, though Wills never uses the term)—a miraculous birth (“conceived in liberty”), dedication (“to the proposition”) at the Temple, suffering and death (“a great civil war”), and resurrection (“a new birth of freedom”) (Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, Vintage, reprint edition January 2, 2018, xx).

Culture, which varied from time to time and place to place, was the product of rhetoric. Culture was a socially constructed reality, nomos as opposed to phusis, a “second” nature in contrast to Nature, that which was made in imitation of Nature which itself made things, imitation made possible by our acquisition of speech. Aristotle’s “animals with logos” (Burke’s “bodies genetically endowed with the ability to learn language”) anchored that which is subject to change (and forgetfulness) in that which is not, that which is permanent; they anchored second nature in human nature.

The poetic motive, using language purely for the sake of using language, speech for the sake of speech, is the joyful exercise of our nature, our specific way of being—like birds swooping in the spring air, flying for the sheer love of flight. Burke defines “form” in Counter-Statement as the creation and satisfaction of an appetite (31). Too often readers interpret “appetite” metaphorically, thereby idealizing Burke. But “appetite” is meant literally. In music “Every dissonant chord cries out for its resolution, and whether the musician resolves or refuses to resolve this dissonance into the chord which the body cries out for, he is dealing in human appetite” (CS 34, emphasis mine)—a specifically (i.e., characteristically of the species) human appetite.

Form is cathartic for Burke. As a Marxist seeking to stimulate change, Bertolt Brecht argues against catharsis—i.e., he argues for rhetoric over poetry. Rather than purge emotion, Brecht would heighten tension and reject purgation, leaving an audience frustrated, hoping frustration would lead to thought and thought to action. Burke’s notion of “perspective by incongruity” is Brechtian and rhetorical, the violation of formal expectation stimulating thought—not the anticipated “trained capacity” but the unanticipated “trained incapacity.

Our appetite for form is natural like hunger or thirst. As a natural appetite it bears repetition. We do not tire of sating hunger or slaking thirst. We may listen to our favorite song, sonata, or symphony again and again, just as we may return to a favorite sonnet, short story, novel, drama, or film. There is joy in rediscovery.

Music is form devoid of content, like language for the sake of language, like a baby’s babbling. Content is rhetorical. Content changes. Formal appeal does not. Form appeals to Chaim Perelman’s universal audience, while rhetoric addresses historical (local and temporal) audiences. The poetic always has an audience, whereas the rhetorical may lose its original intended audience as time passes, then later find another. I remember my daughter’s bringing home Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and my asking if her class was studying McCarthyism. No, she said. What was McCarthyism? We forget Brecht’s Galileo was an apology for naming names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. We now interpret his drama in terms of the science/religion conflict. We forget that Inherit the Wind also addressed McCarthyism. We interpret it just as we interpret Galileo (substituting evolutionary theory in particular for science in general). We enjoy The Crucible for its poetic qualities much as we enjoy Othello or Coriolanus, ignorant of enclosure laws (see Scott Newstok’s Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare. Parlor Press, 2007); or Virgil’s Aeneid, ignorant of his patron Augustus’ campaign to restore Roman virtues following decades of civil war (see the 1986 Oxford History of the Classical World edited by John Boardman et al.—in particular essays by R.O.A.M. Lyne, “Augustan Poetry and Society,” and Jasper Griffin, “Virgil” but especially Nicholas Purcell, “The Arts of Government” in which he argues (pp. 589-90) that “[t]here was no distinction between the Arts of Government and the other techai, artes, with which ancient elites concerned themselves. The art of rhetoric above all united what we see as these two distinct worlds. . . . The generalizations and principles expressed in Roman governmental pronouncements are not a coherent ideology . . . but simply commonplaces of moral or political thought deployed appropriately in a literary composition.”) In Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (Simon & Schuster; reissue edition November 14, 2006), Wills resurrects forgotten rhetorical issues about which the historical audience would have been aware—the Greek Revival, the rural cemetery movement, the Webster-Hayne debate, Transcendentalism. Laurence Olivier’s WWII film version of Shakespeare’s Henry V inspires England to fight an enemy on the continent against overwhelming odds much as Henry himself successfully did.

If poetry is play, using language for the sheer joy of using language, then it makes sense as Auden says in “The Truest Poetry is the most Feigning” that “Good poets have a weakness for bad puns.” Every “body that learns language” does to some degree—poets more, others less, but still, every body. When Melia and I went sailing on the Chesapeake, we invented names for restaurants: a seafood bistro in Annapolis, home of the Naval Academy—“Wharf Fare”; al fresco Chinese—“Side Wok”; Thai food in a gorgeous garden—“Beau Thai.”  Then names for other businesses—a hair salon, “Curl Up and Dye” (the favorite of my wife and daughter’s hair stylist). Advertising slogans—a plumber’s “Don’t sleep with that drip tonight.” Advertising jingles. Country-Western lyrics: “I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.”
The poet loves linguistic play. He writes to write. He finds a subject—perhaps a personal dilemma (like Milton or Arnold); perhaps a social, political, or economic problem that his audience would know of or be caught up in, a problem that might be forgotten over the years (see above). It matters not. Poetic form, rhetorical content. Poetry making rhetoric memorable.

Burke’s early form/information distinction in Counter-Statement is a variation on the familiar form/content distinction (typical of literary criticism) which develops into his later poetic/rhetoric distinction. Awkwardly housed at first in a discipline stressing political discourse as its field of study, Burke is now embraced like an old friend, offered a Burka and a chair by the fire, at home in a discipline changed, enlarged by media ecology, a discipline once more comfortable with epideictic.

The Rhetoric

During a period in which our department at Duquesne University was affiliated with English, I gave a colloquium presentation on Burke. In the discussion following, an English colleague asked if such “dry formalism” characterized Burke’s understanding of poetry. Clearly, she was not fond of formalism. Today, literary criticism is more rhetorical, more focused on content than form.

Literary studies cycle through different approaches over time. Once, persuaded the poet was extraordinary, if not unique, scholars focused on biography. Then critic William Empson (Seven Types of Ambiguity) complained literary scholars knew what Wordsworth had had for breakfast on any given morning but nothing about what made his poetry “poetic.” Empson’s approach has since given way to the current stress on content.  In Burkeian terms literary studies shift, stressing agent (prior to Empson), then action (Empson and the New Critics with whom Burke was associated), or purpose (today’s fashion).

In his 1954 essay “The Language of Poetry, ‘Dramatistically’ Considered” (Chicago Review 8 (1954): 88-102; cont. 9 (1955): 40-72.; also in Essays toward a Symbolic of Motives, 1950-1955. Ed. William H. Rueckert. Parlor Press, 2006. 36-48), Burke supplements Cicero’s three “offices of the orator” with a fourth—teaching (associated with scene andthe Grammar), pleasing (associated with action and the Symbolic, “poem” meaning “action” in Greek), moving (associated with purpose and the Rhetoric), plus expressing or portraying (associated with agent and the Ethics, Burke’s analysis of Augustine’s Confessions in the Rhetoric of Religion being an exemplar).

The anecdotes opening the Rhetoric would now be considered “ethical” (involving agent) as well as “rhetorical” (involving purpose), but in 1950 the Symbolic had not yet split, rendering the Motivorum trilogy a tetralogy (with the fourth volume on Ethics). A reader then would have characterized the anecdotes and the act of identification (the process by which a reader or viewer associates him or herself with a character in film and literary studies) as literary.

Brecht argued that the process of identification drew an audience into a work, making catharsis possible (through intensification and purgation).  Identification had to be countered by alienation to arrest catharsis, leaving an audience filled with strong emotions and thus frustrated enough to provoke thought and eventually action. Buttrick used to argue the parables were Brechtian. Listeners would identify with more and more workers being hired for the harvest over the course of the day (some from the afternoon, others the morning) but be alienated with the master’s choice to pay all the same. Jesus told the parable to provoke thought about the nature of God’s grace.

Milton and Arnold clearly identify with their characters and use their poems to work through personal problems. In their cases the audience is the self; the poem is understood as an instance of the self persuading the self. The poems clearly function rhetorically (and/or “ethically”).
Aristotle’s key rhetorical term is ­persuasion, a term connoting “conscious intent.” Burke advocates identification, a term opening rhetoric to “an intermediate area of expression that is not wholly deliberate, yet not wholly unconscious” (RM xiii).

Like Aristotle, Burke looked to characterize genre—repetitive arguments made in recurring situations, forms arising out of sitzenleben. Unlike Aristotle, he looked to hierarchy, arguing that wherever two or three were gathered together, there would be hierarchy. Friends might minimize it. Hierarchical relations might be nominal; they might be ever fluid, ever changing. Rhetorical savvy involved recognizing situations for what they actually were and acting accordingly. Inferior to superior rhetoric employs flattery or imitation (flattery’s sincerest form), identification, or prayer; superior to inferior, inspiration or mystification. There are broad genres such as those associated with hierarchy. There are more specific strategies. At Pitt Ted Windt argued that faced with a dilemma, presidents would look to predecessors who had dealt with a similar problem successfully and adopt their strategy—thus “presidential rhetoric” as a genre. One might wish to engage a political opponent without giving credence to his position—thus the “diatribe.” Burke’s “devices” catalog such strategies, much like Aristotle’s “topics.”

A common strategy is to claim one is not engaged in persuasion to hide the fact that he is. Such would be the case with supposed equal to equal rhetoric which might serve to mask superior to inferior.

Newspapers early in the 19th century were financed by political parties. With the possibility of profit from wide circulation made possible by modern presses and even greater profits from advertising addressed to ever larger audiences, it made sense for newspapers to appear less partisan, separating editorials and business interests from news reporting which could then lay claim to an objectivity associated with modern science. Press associations such as the AP or the UPI could save newspapers money on correspondents, but their reports would also have to be neutral rather than partisan.

Federal judge Richard Posner has argued that with the low cost of publishing made possible by computers and the internet, news and editorial organizations have been able to attract followers from the audiences of large, supposedly neutral news organizations such as CNN, MSNBC, and FOX by appealing to more partisan interests, forcing larger organizations to take on more partisan identities to survive being nibbled to nothing. (“Bad News,” New York Times Book Review, July 31, 2005.) We may be witnessing the reverse of what happened in the 1800s.

Burke’s Devices1

And now, having dispensed with preliminaries, let us turn to The War of Words.

The editors claim that “from the beginning Burke had conceived of the Rhetoric and the War of Words together, “as part of one sustained argument,” and that “until the last minute” he expected the Rhetoric to contain a section on “The War of Words.”

In other words, the story of The War of Words is intertwined with the larger story of the development of A Rhetoric of Motives. Taken together The War of Words manuscript and the recountal of its compositional evolution provide an opportunity to outline Burke’s vision of modern rhetorical studies as a coherent project. While it is somewhat artificial to treat The War of Words and A Rhetoric of Motives as proceeding through discrete phases, nevertheless the two did develop together across four overlapping phases. Informing each of the four phases was the backdrop of World War II and its aftermath; each phase offers witness to Burke’s obsession with the problem of “purifying war.” (WoW 10)

 A Grammar of Motives having been published in December 1945, Burke had turned to the Rhetoric.

Focusing on the relationship between war and words had always been the plan for “On Human Relations” [begun in 1939, see below] in general and A Rhetoric of Motives in particular. After all, A Grammar of Motives had been published with the motto “Ad Bellum Purificandum,” a motto that just as easily could serve for the entire motives trilogy [emphasis mine]. However, the introduction of atomic bombs into world history during the summer of 1945 added urgency to Burke’s vision. (WoW 12)

But we have known about the “Devices” (if not the rest of the War of Words) for 67 years. Burke’s 1953 account in “Curriculum Criticum” dates their origin to the early 1930s. The editors’ account of their evolution starts in 1939.  They associate the devices somewhat with the Grammar and later with the Rhetoric but mostly with the Rhetoric. Burke associates them with Permanence and Change, Attitudes toward History, the Grammar, the Rhetoric, and the Ethics (the fourth volume of the Motivorum trilogy that unexpectedly morphed into a tetralogy in the early 1950s, see below).

Following publication of Counter-Statement in 1931, Burke says he began taking notes on “corporate devices whereby business enterprisers had contrived to build up empires by purely financial manipulations.” Unexpectedly finding answers to many of his questions in Congressional committee records, Burke moved on, widening “his speculations to include a concern with problems of motivation in general.” Permanence and Change in 1935 was “the first completed manuscript of this material.” Attitudes toward History followed in 1937 (and Philosophy of Literary Form in 1941). Along the way Burke’s notes on “corporate devices” resumed in a more general form which he finally sought to treat in a book, “On Human Relations,” that would “round out the concerns of P&C and ATH.” But as he sought to write up his notes, he found “more preparatory ground-work” was needed, leading to A Grammar of Motives in 1945 (“Curriculum Criticum,” CS 216-18). According to the book jacket of the 1945 Prentice-Hall edition, the Grammar was the first volume of a trilogy on human relations to be followed by A Rhetoric of Motives in 1947 and A Symbolic of Motives in 1948.

After the difficulties Burke had encountered with the Grammar (“I wonder whether there has ever been a more revised and rerevised book?” he had asked of his patron James Sibley Watson on April 12, 1945), he predicted to Malcom Cowley on October 13, 1945 that

The Rhetoric should be the easiest volume of the three to write. My main problem is to keep the book from disintegrating into particular cases (so that it becomes in effect a disguised way of saying repeatedly: “another instance of this is . . . and still another instance is . . . etc.”). I want it to be rather a philosophizing on rhetoric (as the main slant), though the particular instances should be there in profusion. (WoW 12)

Burke’s prediction, however, “proved naive.” His plans “changed several times.” But “through it all, The War of Words and its component chapters . . . would remain central to his developing vision” (WoW 16)—

So central, in fact, that The War of Words and its component chapters would constitute the first, second and fifth parts of the Rhetoric according to the January 2, 1946 prospectus submitted to Prentice Hall (WoW 13-15); would be included in what is Part Three on “Order” in the published version of the Rhetoric as indicated by Burke’s footnote on page 294 (“The closing sentences were originally intended as a transition into our section on The War of Words. . . .) (WoW 1); would be published separately (“. . . But that must await publication in a second volume” (ibid)—a theory/application division also contemplated for the Symbolic and later the Ethics); would be included in the Ethics—“the Ethics . . . furthermore quoth the raven should contain our lore of Devices, Burke on de virtues and de vices . . . ” according to a September 27, 1954, letter to Cowley (Williams, “Toward Rounding Out the Motivorum Trilogy: A Textual Introduction” Unending Conversations: New Writings by and about Kenneth Burke. Edited by Greig Henderson and David Cratis Williams. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001, p. 12) and according to his first letter to Rueckert on August 8, 1959, “The Ethics also is scheduled to contain ‘a batch of devices’ that I never published except for a few samples on the pages I have marked in the enclosed offprint [of ‘Rhetoric—Old and New’] from the [April 1951] Journal of General Education” (Rueckert, Letters 3).

Having suffered from ALS for several years, Burke’s wife Libbie died the morning of May 25, 1969. Late that July, Burke mentioned to Rueckert his settling down to clear away the “Poetics biz” (Rueckert, Letters 153); in September he indicated to Cowley, that doing so would be largely a job of “editing and typing” (Williams, UC 19). In March 1973 he wrote to Cowley about putting together a Shakespeare book with unpublished work on “William Himself” plus all his published essays as well as editing two manuscripts (presumably the “Devices” and the Symbolic). In May he talked about the former two (Shakespeare and the devices) and a topical index for the new edition of Philosophy of Literary Form but not the Symbolic (Williams, UC 20).

The editors of The War of Words add details to Burke’s on again, off again plans for “the Devices” from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. October 17, 1968, Burke wrote Bob Zachary at the University of California about publishing the “Devices.” He mailed the manuscript December 2 and followed up with letters on December 4 and 8 elaborating his plans. “And yet a month later, Burke was expressing second thoughts.” He and Zachary “exchanged comments” about the Devices in letters throughout 1970. In spring 1971 Burke “got enthused about publication” once but nothing materialized. Early in 1972 Zachary again ”expressed interest in the project.” May 11, 1973 Burke wrote both Zachary and Malcom Cowley that he was “turning his attention to finishing the book.” But thereafter nada. In May 1974 and August 1976, Zachary yet again expressed interest. Zachary left the press early in 1977.

Burke had written to Zachary on March 3, 1974: “Heck. I got to taking a hard look at the MS, . . . and I see no grounds for its publication now. . . . Troubledness lies behind it, . . . [so] it shd. be published posthumously.” (WoW 33-36)

In a Strange Way Then, the “War of Words,” Is Both Everywhere and Nowhere

Buttrick claimed his wife Betty was his finest critic. He would sometimes ask for her opinion on a sermon he was writing. “Very good,” she might opine. “What did you think of the second point?” of which he was quite proud. “Oh—particularly good. Cut it! It doesn’t fit.” He followed with a story of Rodin sculpting a statue of Balzac, a great bear of a man with the most delicate hands. The statue finished, Rodin thought the sculpted hands his finest work. But he smashed them with a sledge, because they did not fit.

Sometimes, the artist just knows, though he remains ambivalent, though he may finally yield to temptation.

For years Burke talked about an unpublished manuscript that preceded Permanence and Change. “Auscultation, Creation, and Revision” was finally published in Extensions of the Burkeian System (edited by James W. Chesebro, University of Alabama Press, 1993, 42-172), the volume from the Kenneth Burke Society’s first (1990) triennial in New Harmony, Indiana. The work is interesting to Burkeians who are glad to have it, but in this case Burke appears to have yielded to temptation, the now published monograph impressing the reader as greatness treating the trivial seriously, like rolling out artillery to annihilate an army of ants.

As fine as The War of Words is, as welcomed as its final publication is, Burke may have felt it didn’t fit the Rhetoric—nor Permanence and Change, nor the Grammar, nor the Ethics; that it should finally be published as its own volume, posthumously—even 25 years after his death, decades after the events he analyzed were as immediately relevant as Elizabethan enclosure laws.

The editors argue that “The relative hastiness of Burke’s decision” to submit the Rhetoric sans The War of Words whose publication he would sort out later “helps explain in part why some readers have had such a hard time making coherent sense of A Rhetoric of Motives”—a problem I have never had. I find the third part on “Order” both powerful and coherent. I recommend students read it if possible in one session to experience the ascent to its final lines, “while the strivings of the entire series head in God as the beloved cynosure and sinecure, the end of all desire” (RM 333). I sought the same effect writing “The Meaning of the Motivorum's Motto.”

The editors continue, “The War of Words” was designed from the start to be the analytic realization of Burke’s theory of the rhetorical motive, which constituted the first half of the book. Without The War of Words,the RM remains incomplete.”(WoW 30) As perhaps the Grammar does too?

As chronicled above, Burke began taking notes on “corporate devices” early in the 1930s. Later in the decade those notes took on a more general form which he finally sought to treat in “On Human Relations.” But seeking to write up his notes, he found “more preparatory ground-work” was needed, eventually leading to the Grammar (“Curriculum Criticum,” CS 216-18). Surprise—writing the Grammar proved difficult. He wondered in a letter to Watson if any book had ever undergone more revisions and re-revisions. Perhaps Burke asked himself the same thing regarding the Rhetoric (which was going to be easier to write) or the Symbolic (which split, yielding the Ethics); or “Auscultation, Creation, and Revision” and Permanence and Change; or Attitudes toward History with its infinity of footnotes? Perhaps writing for Burke was always a struggle! The Rhetoric has no claim to being unique.

So—why the “hasty decision” to cut out The War of Words? No doubt “the unexpected amount of energy it would take to complete” the last two sections (an expenditure Burke must have anticipated would prove colossal given his never completing the manuscript in his remaining 43 years). And the ubiquitous, “Perhaps the political fears associated with developing McCarthyism figured in too” (but see below, the 1950 critique by Richard Chase in Partisan Review).

The editors do report thoroughly on a third reason—though they then appear to ignore or dismiss it, perhaps because they favor another explanation.

In a July 29, 1948 letter Burke reported to Watson regarding his progress on “Scientific Rhetoric”( the second section of “The War of Words”)—per the editors, he worried about “getting bogged down in overly topical cases that could potentially alienate readers and reduce the book’s shelf life.” In a May 30, 1948 letter, he reported Stanley Edgar Hyman’s worries that “the political logomachy will just about get you tarred and feathered by the reviewers.” Burke explained to Watson that “he would remove any topical invective by means of a generalizing stylistic move.” The illustrations of each device would be “de-localized, exactly as I de-localized the personal anecdotes.” (WoW 26).

Perhaps Burke’s concerns about topicalities were not as trivial as the editors assume. Perhaps Burke suffered from trepidations from which the editors are immune.

From the beginning (see above) Burke had said his “main problem” was “to keep the book from disintegrating into particular cases.” He wanted the Rhetoric to be “a philosophizing on rhetoric.” (WoW 126) In the published book’s introduction he writes

We have tried to show how rhetorical analysis throws light on literary texts and human relations generally. And while interested always in rhetorical devices, we have sought above all else to write a “philosophy of rhetoric” (RM xiv-xv, emphasis mine).

Burke’s Motto2

The second leg of the stool supporting the editors’ evaluation of The War of Words as central to the Rhetoric is their identification of the motto ad bellum purificandum principally with the Rhetoric. They do admit that the motto “just as easily could serve for the entire motives trilogy” only to dismiss that position by claiming the United States’ dropping of atomic bombs in the summer of 1945 “added urgency to Burke’s vision” (WoW 12).

But the motto stands at the head of the Grammar, not the Rhetoric, and serves more as a motto for the Motivorum tetralogy than for the Rhetoric alone. Given the tendency to quote the standard translation, “toward the purification of war,” rather the actual Latin begs the question—why render the motto in Latin in the first place for any reason other than scholarly pretense? Because Burke can say more in Latin than English. The Latin is ambiguous. War (bellum) is indeed associated with the Rhetoric, but Beauty (bellus, the accusative of which is bellum) might be associated with the Grammar or the Symbolic or even the Motivorum entire given its association with Plato’s Symposium (discussed at the end of the Grammar), making ad bellum purificandum (“toward the purification of beauty (or the beautiful)” and/or “toward the purification of war”) a perfect motto for a modern trivium of dialectic, rhetoric, and poetic—i.e., Burke’s Grammar, Rhetoric, and Symbolic.3

Burke indicates in a lengthy interview in the 1980s with the now defunct journal All Area that after having written “Psychology and Form” and “The Poetic Process” in Counter-Statement, he intended to round things out with a third essay on “Beauty and the Sublime,” but “that fell through, and I’ve been racing around ever since. You’ll find little bits of it in The Philosophy of Literary Form [“Beauty and the Sublime,” pp 60-66], but it never got fully developed.” (On Human Relations 374).

Beauty is the traditional end of poetry going back to Plato. And Burke’s fascination with beauty explains his fascination with Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” according to Burke the most perfect lyric embodiment of Platonic dialectic. But not beauty as decoration. Rather beauty as the sublime—the mystic experience of a power beyond all parturition, an ultimate unitary ground, the experience of which he discusses in the final pages of the Rhetoric (which Burke associates with the pentadic term purpose which he in turn associates with mysticism)“the beloved cynosure and sinecure, the end of all desire” (emphasis mine).

In 1959, writing Rueckert “concerning the final bits of the Poetics,” (echoing his comments at the end of the unfinished 1957 draft of the Symbolic), Burke proposes doing “a section on comic catharsis, . . . though the general lines are already indicated in the Kenyon article” [“On Catharsis, or Resolution” which appears to be a sketch for the penultimate chapter] and making clearer “the relation btw. dramatic catharsis and Platonic (dialectic)/transcendence,” the main lines having been indicated there as well.

Burke wrote to Malcom Cowley in a 1956 that he had finished an essay on Emerson that will be a big part of his “godam Poetics.” (Williams, UC 13) Among other things, the essay addresses the relationship between “dramatic catharsis and Platonic (dialectic)/ transcendence.” The essay ends with the image of transcendence alluded to in the subtitle of “The Meaning of the Motivorum's Motto”—the scene from book six of the Aeneid where early in Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld Virgil descries a wailing throng stranded on the shore opposite death, the land of life behind them; unburied and hence as yet unferried to their final abode, those shades are said to have “stretched forth their hands through love of the farther shore” Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore (LSA 200, emphasis mine).

But writing Rueckert on June 18, 1962, Burke indicates he will conclude the Symbolic with a discussion of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” drawing upon his essay, “The Principle of Composition” (Poetry 99 (October 1961), pp. 46-53; also Stanley Edgar Hyman (editor), Terms for Order, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964, pp. 189-98). Burke also indicates in the unfinished Symbolic that the direction in which he is “ultimately headed” will involve discussion of Poe’s essay (SM 129). [My position in “The Gordian Not” has “evolved” with more research.] Somewhere between 1956 and 1961, Poe’s essay on “The Raven” replaces Emerson’s “On Nature” but the same issues are examined. Some of those issues are discussed in Burke’s other essay on Poe, “Poetics in Particular, Language in General” (Language as Symbolic Action 25-43; taken from a talk given at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the fall of 1964).

Burke’s “The Principle of Composition” is concerned with Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition.” Burke addresses the relationship between the critic (Burke) and the author (Poe)—an appropriate topic for the end of the Symbolic—and the problem of logical priority and temporal priority (i.e., the temporization of essence, a long discussion of which ends the Grammar, specifically a discussion of Pier Gynt). But he is also concerned with Poe’s claim to have arrived deductively at his subject in “The Raven,” the death of a beautiful woman—death (the end of transcendence by dialectical mounting, the final slaying of image by idea; and “a species of perfection” or “finishedness”) and beauty (the traditional end of poetry and aesthetics),4 both appropriate topics for the end of the Symbolic. (Terms for Order 197)

“Pure” Burke

Without doubt one of the most devilishly difficult notions in dramatism is that of “pure persuasion.” One need not be ancient in the ways of Burke to beware his invocation of the adjective “pure,” tempting him at every diabolical twist and turn to ensnarl in paradox whatever it modifies.

Burke’s analysis of “pure persuasion” is supposed to be unique, but Aristotle’s analysis of money in Nicomachaean Ethics (5.5) and Politics (1.8-10) is remark­ably similar and may provide an easier entry.

According to Aristotle, in barter one commodity is exchanged directly for another (wine for wheat). In more advanced markets money mediates exchange; one commodity is sold for money to buy another (wine is sold to buy wheat). But as exchange after exchange extends over time the exchange of commodities mediated by money becomes instead the exchange of money mediated by commodities (money buys wine or wheat to be sold in turn for even more money). Ultimately the mediating commodity is dropped and money is exchanged directly for more money still (money is lent for interest—or in modern times made by playing exchange rates, though ancient “bankers” were often money-changers. Jesus may have thrown the money-changers out of the temple because they charged “exchange rates” for their service.) Thus money, intro­duced as a means to facilitate the end of exchange, is transformed into an end in itself.

Commodities have natural ends—wheat to be eaten, wine to be drunk. There are natural limits to consumption, duration, and therefore acquisition—wheat spoils, wine sours. Because there are natural limits to the acquisition of any one thing, as well as many things in toto, at some point there will be enough. In other words, wealth is not unlimited; its natural end is in whatever constitutes enough—not the store of money for exchange but the stock of real things useful for living the good life, achieving happiness, realizing our nature in the polis.

But money as a means has no proper end. There is no natural limit to its accum­u­lation, no such thing as enough. Its pursuit as an end is therefore endless, irrational, and unnatural.

Pure persuasion would likewise involve transforming a means (persuasion) into an end (persuasion for the sake of persuasion alone), thus making pure persuasion the endless pursuit of a means.  

Burke’s point is more than mere wordplay, an end being not only a goal or purpose but also a termination. Therefore pure persuasion as a means transformed into an end would paradoxically become both purposeless and perpetualpurposeless in that once persuasion’s purpose is accomplished, it ceases to be persuasion for the sake of persua­sion alone, becoming instead persuasion for the sake of whatever was purposed (RM 269-70); and perpetual in that once persuasion reaches its goal, it ceases, thereupon becoming something else (RM 274).

The perpetual frustration of purpose requires an element of standoffishness or self-interference, says Burke (RM 269, 271, 274), to prevent persuasion’s ever achieving its end. For example, constructing a Rhetoric around the key term identification means confronting the implications of division (RM 22). Identification compensates for division, but pure identification could never completely overcome it; identification for the sake of identification alone would require standoffishness, the perpetuation of some degree of division for identification to forever overcome.  Or, insofar as rhetoric involves courtship grounded in biological and/or social estrangement (RM 115, 208 ff.), pure persuasion would require coyness or coquetry (RM 270)—again a degree of standoffishness, but more obviously connoting eros.

According to Burke rhetoric is rooted in the use of language to induce cooperation as a means to some further end (RM 43). Cooperation is always being sought because there is always competition. Cooperation for the sake of cooperation alone would require some interference, the perpetuation of some degree of competition for cooperation to forever overcome.

Burke’s analysis of pure persuasion reveals a resistance to rhetoric that lies at its very heart. His point is that analysis of an ultimate form (e.g., pure persua­sion) reveals a motivational ingredient present even in the most elemental form (RM 269, 274)—i.e., what is ultimately the case is always the case to some degree. Or—“if the ultimate reaches in the principle of persuasion are implicit in even the trivial uses of persuasion, people could not escape the ultimates of language merely by using language trivially (RM 179).

Burke’s exact phrasing is important given his claim: “though what we mean by pure persuasion in the absolute sense exists nowhere, it can be present as a motivational ingredient in any rhetoric” (RM 269); and “as the ultimate of all persuasion, its form or archetype, there is pure persuasion. . . . The important consideration is that, in any device, the ultimate form (paradigm or idea) of that device is present, and is acting. And this form would be the ‘purity’” (RM 273-74, emphases mine).

Therefore, any rhetorical act would comprise a complex of motives, minimally consisting of (1) persuasion itself, compounded with (2) some degree of pure persuasion (i.e., some degree of standoffishness or self-interference). Rhetoric as rhetoric then can never transcend itself. Rhetoric as rhetoric can never be salvic, for all rhetoric is somewhat self-defeating. Burke’s argument is a variation on the theological argument that the sinful man cannot by his own action save himself because every act would to some degree be sinful. He can be saved only by someone without sin.

War constitutes the ultimate instance of pure persuasion—the greatest degree of cooperation perpetuated by the greatest degree of competition; the greatest degree of identification perpetuated by the greatest degree of division. (See also RM 218 where Burke discusses Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and the “antinomian yet intimate relation between love and war” where he characterizes the marriage between Venus and Mars as “a love match that is itself a kind of war.”)

Burke regards war as diseased cooperation (RM 332) in that complete cooperation cannot be achieved by means of competition, because there must always be some­thing against which we compete; the communion of complete identification can­not be achieved by means of division, because there must always be an enemy from which we are divided, an enemy in opposition to which we stand united.

War, says Burke, is a special case of peace—“not as a primary motive in itself, not as essentially real, but purely as a derivative condition, a perversion”(RM 20)—like evil for Augustine. Little wonder then that Burke writes that the Rhetoric

must lead us through the Scramble, the Wrangle of the Market Place, the flurries and the flare-ups of the Human Barnyard, the Give and Take, the wavering line of pressure and counter­pressure, the Logo­machy, the onus of ownership, the War of Nerves, the War. It too has its peaceful moments: at times its endless competition can add up to the transcending of itself. In ways of its own, it can move from the factional to the universal. But its ideal culminations are more often beset by strife as the condition of their organized expression, or material embodiment. Their very universality becomes transformed into a partisan weapon. (RM 23)

If war constitutes pure persuasion’s ultimate instance, then we are always somewhat at war. If war constitutes pure persuasion’s ultimate instance, then war would be the “essence” of rhetoric. And the motto “ad bellum purificandum,” “toward the purification of war,” could be justly translated “toward the purification of rhetoric” as well. Rhetoric cannot save us from war, for rhetoric is itself essentially war.

If war perverts cooperation, turning it toward competi­tion, war purified would transform competition, turning it toward cooperation—as in dialectic. In rhetoric, says Burke, voices cooperate in order to compete (i.e., “cooperative competition”); but in dialectic, voices compete in order to cooperate (i.e., “competitive cooperation”) (LSA 188). If rhetoric is in essence war, then dialectic is in essence not peace negatively defined as the absence of war but positively defined as loveas in Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus where Beauty is the ultimate object of love or eros (see “Catharsis—Second View” 132; PDC 359).

Burke’s own etymological analysis supports as much, bellum suggesting war on the one hand, beauty and good on the other. The “bellum-bellus” or “war-beauty” pair suggests the rhetoric-dialectic contrast again, but embodied in victimage (associated with tragedy) on the one hand and on the other eros (associated with comedy and dialectic as well). The adjective bellus is derived from benus and bonus meaning “good,” once more suggesting Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus and the dialectical climb to the mystic experience of Beauty “by itself with itself” (Symposium 2111b), the Good, the One.


How can we sum up? Let me count the ways, my having attempted at various times to summarize Burke’s system.

First—Plato, Aristotle, Marx (and Eliade)

Burke’s conception of the relationship between language, mind, body, and reality is informed by (a) naturalism, the mean between an anti-scientific idealism and a reductive materialism; and (b)organicism (biology), the source for hierarchy (an organism’s organization) and entelechy (its development). Language is the entelechy of the human organism, generating the mind, the highest (meta-biological) level of a body genetically endowed with the ability to learn language. Language itself mirrors biology (a terminology generating a hierarchy on the path to its entelechy) and possesses its own entelechy (an all-inclusive “nature . . . containing the principle of speech,” or NATURE. (see RM 180) The system resulting is basically Aristotelian.

However, while Burke’s system is Aristotelian, his concept of rhetoric is Platonic. There is no “fall” for Aristotle, but there is for Plato and a corresponding fall for Burke, the consequence of which is a “false” or “fallen” conscious­­ness regarding the relationship between body and mind, nonverbal and verbal, material and ideal, as well as ourselves and others. Being primarily ontological rather than historical, this fallen consciousness can be characterized on the one hand as Platonic; being a fall into the ideal world of language rather than the material world, it can be character­ized on the other as Marxoid (Burke’s neologism); but being naturalistic (i.e., being primarily neither idealistic as with Plato nor materialistic as supposed with Marx, but acknow­ledging both the material and the ideal as natural), it is more Aristotelian than either (unless like Burke one considers Marx a naturalist and an Aristotelian).5

Consistent with Plato, rhetoric leaves us mired in this fallen realm; only dialectic can mystically lift us from it. All rhetoric (i.e., action for the sake of some purpose) is always to some degree self-defeating; every attempt to compen­sate for or overcome the imbalances and conflicts that characterize the human condition leads to but further imbalance and conflict. Only dialectic (i.e., lin­guistic action for itself alone) leads to true, though momentary, transcendence. No linguistic action is ultimately efficacious other than purely linguistic action effecting transcen­­dence through dialectic (the preferred route) or catharsis through drama (the less preferred in that drama mixes dialectic and rhetoric). The problem being language, the only solution is more of the same—rhetoric’s giving way to dialectic (i.e., a true and transcendent Rhetoric as with Plato) that overcomes the imbalance or conflict between body and mind, nonverbal and verbal, material and ideal, the conflict between ourselves and others, and for the moment makes us whole.

The cause of this fall can be traced to language which in its thorough (“cathartic”) operation turns distinctions (such as mind and body) into divisions. The remedy is likewise found in language which in its thorough (dialectical and in the Crocean sense “cathartic”) operation overcomes divisions. The cause is too much language, the cure more of the same—a “homeopathic” approach Burke characterizes as Aristotelian.

But the ultimate cause must be traced to the very nature of things (the existence of time and space and thus of distinction and potential division between parts which language in its thorough operation makes actual)—a “proto-fall” for which language provides no remedy. The ultimate remedy lies only in an end to the nature of things—the escaton. Language provides temporary solace by generating an experience of wholeness through drama and (preferably) dialectic. But the experience of wholeness is shattered by (linguistic) action of any kind. The experience can be maintained only by a constant repetition of drama or dialectic. The eternal repetition which at first provides solace eventually becomes a source of despair from which death is the only escape, a position characteristic of Zen Buddhism in which the Nirvana of nothingness and oblivion is sought. Thus, action is depreciated by Burke, the only action sanctioned being incipient (or more accurately, substitutive): an attitude of Neo-Stoic resignation à la Spinoza.6

Second—Richard Chase

My dissertation’s thesis was “Underlying the system of Kenneth Burke is an anhistorical, mystical ontology that leads to the depreciation of historical, political acts.” In the final chapter (“The Critique”) I turned to a 1950 review of the Rhetoric by Richard Chase (“Rhetoric of Rhetoric,” Partisan Review 17 , 736-39) collected in Rueckert’s Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke 1924-1966 (University of Minnesota Press, 1969, pp. 251-54; Rueckert’s comments are on 255). I summarized Chase’s argument in “The Gordian Not: Untangling the Motivorum” in KB Journal (2007).

Artists may be fully aware of writing a poem or play or novel, but they are not always fully aware of everything they are producing. They often incorporate elements in a work that are organically related to the whole but are not “consciously intended.” To the extent that we are all artists (bodies that learn language engrossed in the sheer exercise of our distinctive trait), we would do the same, but not always with the awareness of “writing”(i.e., giving form to our desires or experiences). We would be ignorant or unaware in two and ultimately three regards—(1) our linguistically motivated act of giving form (writing a drama); (2) our linguistically motivated act of tracking down implications of our original action; and (3) our unconscious projection of such linguistic acts (dramas) onto human relations where real rather than stage blood is spilt.

In his (rather strident) review of the Rhetoric in 1950, Richard Chase criticizes Burke for characterizing our interactions with the world in just such a fashion, writing that for Burke every aggressive act begins in

man’s incorrigible delight in creating symbols and becomes reflexive, in the sense that as an aggressor you are really only using your victim as a device for purging or transforming a principle or “trait” within yourself. Thus, on Mr. Burke’s own implicit assumption that the extensions of linguistic method are reality, are human events translated into a ghostly dumb show.

(Or, perhaps, a Platonic shadow play.) For Burke, he continues, the play’s the thing. “Nobody has ever taken so literally the idea that all the world’s a stage. Behind every human event there lurks man’s natural desire to perform symbolic acts” (Critical Responses 253).

Chase attacks Burke’s Rhetoric as less a “rhetoric” than a “meta-politics.”

One will be disappointed if one expects from Mr. Burke as rhetorician a firm and adequate idea of politics—and such an idea surely must be implied by (though not confused with) any responsible investigation of rhetoric. The book carries a very heavy charge of political implications, but the author, like so many of his admirers and so much of the modern world, is beyond politics. He has no idea of man as a social animal, no idea of the state, no idea of democratic, socialist, or even aristocratic institutions, and no idea, in any concrete form, of either the philosophy or the rhetoric of politics. He has “purified” politics and political man out of existence. (Critical Responses 252)

Chase is hard on Burke, but even Rueckert admits his essential attack holds. Commenting on Chase’s review, he writes that Chase objects to Burke’s tendency toward “purely verbal manipulation and problem solving,” because it is

essentially conservative and anti-revolutionary, because it substitutes verbal for real solutions and hence encourages the maintenance of the status quo. . . . There can be no question that this tendency does exist, powerfully, in Burke and that it supports the motto—toward the purification of war—of A Grammar of Motives (Critical Responses 255).

I agree and at the same time somewhat disagree with Rueckert, pointing not to Burke’s language-centered view of reality but his mysticism as the culprit. His anhistorical, mystical ontology leads to a depreciation of historical, political action. His inclinations to inaction (being in fact disinclinations to possibly disruptive change) are consequentially conservative. But Burke’s Platonic suspicion of change on the one hand is balanced on the other by his dehistorized Marxoid faith in the material recalcitrance of Nature and the human body. Continuing action of the same kind grows increasingly problematic, encountering obstacles that eventually create pressure for change.

Burke analyzes this dialectic in Permanence and Change where he argues that historic institutions result from the externalization of non-historic, biologic patterns. These externalized patterns bring forth recalcitrances that eventually frustrate the same biologic needs satisfied at an earlier stage or other equally important biologic needs—e.g., ecological issues resulting from the hubris of modern scientism (PC 228-29, 257). Increasing recalcitrance leads to new patterns being externalized and embodied in new institutions, in turn bringing forth new by-products, new orders of recalcitrance, new patterns, and so on. A never-ending cycle . . .

Over the decades, critical response to Burke has varied from appreciative to adverse. Hostile critics have chastised him for being radical or revolutionary on the one hand and conservative or anti-revolutionary on the other (e.g., Chase). Rueckert explains these hostile charges from a chronological, developmental perspective—the perspective that forms the basis for both his own study of Burke and his edition of others’ critical evaluations.

Such “periodization” is the biggest crutch in Burke criticism. Samuel Johnson famously said, “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. ” Too often periodization is the first resort of the critic. 7

As I observed in “The Meaning of the Motivorum’s Motto, ”

All too often we over-complicate Burke, bifurcating him into early and late; then middle, post-modern, post-structuralist, etc. Actually, Burke is simple in the sense that all great thinkers are—which is not to say easy. Great thinkers thoroughly, relentlessly, and oft times systematically pursue one or two profound ideas for decades or even a lifetime.

Continuing in a footnote,

The question of how systematic Burke actually may be is subject to ongoing debate. Burke’s system is not readily apparent because he was an autodidact with a dense and difficult highly personal (not to say jargon-laden) style. Had he stayed at Columbia he might have proven easier to categorize and read, but within the straitjacket of academe he might never have become the protean thinker beloved by his admirers.

When Burke explains Burke, he sees but one Burke, not many. Burke acknowledges that when the author speaks of his own work, he speaks not as an “authority” but as a critic competing with other critics with their own critiques. (See above, Terms for Order.) But Burke is consistently the best critic of Burke!

So—according to Rueckert, Burke was “always essentially radical, revolutionary, open: he was the great acceptor and synthesizer . . . who was committed to change (change or perish, he once said) without the loss of what was permanent and valuable.” Around the mid 1950’s, however, the dramatistic vision finally set and “the radical drive that produced it began turning conservative to defend its own. . . . The truth had been revealed; the energies were now expended on applications and defense. ” (Rueckert, Critical Responses 244, emphasis mine) Such is “the discovery of youth turned dogma of old age” explanation that Thomas Kuhn rejects in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

But this chronological explanation for the contradictory antagonisms Burke provokes in his critics is not wholly adequate for Rueckert. He suggests another reason that goes more to the heart of the matter. Burke’s “language-centered view of reality” prompts two kinds of opposition. The extraordinary emphasis “on purely verbal analysis and on the study of verbal system building as an end in itself” that goes with a language-centered view of reality that “tends to encourage a curious kind of stoical withdrawal into an ironic contemplation of human affairs.” Thus, Burke is opposed as a conservative whose thought encourages maintenance of the status quo. (See discussions of Brecht above.) At the same time “this language-centered view of reality always tends toward the mixing, the pluralism, the breaking down of the old categories” that many critics of Burke object to. (Critical Responses 255) “Verbal action becomes the prime human act and the difference, in kind and value, between verbal acts tends to be forgotten in the emphasis on verbalization as such. ” (Critical Responses 122) Thus, Burke is opposed as a radical whose thought threatens traditional systems of thought and action.

I have claimed throughout this study that Burke is a mystic. If we approach him as such, we can make more sense of his system and more sense of the harsh and contradictory reactions of critics to it. Howard Nemerov describes Burke as “radical,” “ explosive,” a “lyric and rhapsodic philosopher whose entire effort is to make every poor part contain the glorious, impossible whole” (“Everything, Preferably All at Once,” Critical Responses 197-98). What are distinctions, the Many, when ever before Burke shines a vision of unity, the One? How exasperating for those who do not share that vision, who insistently point to the need for clear distinctions, who turn pale and puffy at the slightest inclination toward ambiguity. But, besides Burke the radical, there is also Burke the conservative, the mystic with a static view of history. What is time when ever before Burke is the blaze of eternity’s light? How infuriating for those who insist we can act meaningfully within the arena of history, who call us to forsake the heights of mystic attitude and inaction, who exhort us to come down and engage in righting vast inequities.

Within the field of speech and rhetoric, though the first critique (that Burke is radical) has been articulated more than once, the second (that Burke is conservative) has to my knowledge seldom been advanced. Admonishers and admirers both seem blind to the anhistorical character of his work; the apolitical implications of his anhistorical thinking are often invisible to them. They wax indignant, they wax indulgent, seldom noticing that in Burke’s system incentive to “political” action is everywhere on the wane. Aristotle’s political animal and Burke’s symbol-using animal are vastly different creatures ranging in vastly different realms.

Third—Paul Tillich

I discovered Chase in the course of writing my dissertation. From the beginning I had planned to start my dissertation on the word “mysticism” and end on the word “monologue.” (I remember John Baiz, rector of Calvary Episcopal where I attended services having decided upon the academy rather than the church, used to criticize “mysticism” for starting in mist, ending in schism, and revolving around I.)

My position had arisen out of reading Paul Tillich8 in seminary with theology professor Walter Wiest, himself a student of Tillich at Columbia University where he earned his Ph.D. Wiest was the outside member of my dissertation committee. Given my interest in Tillich’s mystical apriori, he had directed me to Authority in Protest Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959) by Robert C. Johnson, his former colleague at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and at that time Dean of the Divinity School at Yale. Johnson argues that

Tillich posed for himself quite early the two-edged query, What fate would the Christian faith suffer if skepticism as to the existence of the man Jesus should prevail, or if criticism should so alter the picture of this historical figure that it became entirely incompatible with the Christ of the Gospels and Christian tradition? He felt that this threat, which was quite real in 1922, called for a serious attempt “to answer the question, how the Christian doctrine might be understood if the nonexistence of the historical Jesus should become historically probable.” And , for whatever reasons, at its deepest level this is precisely what the principle of authority developed in Tillich’s system endeavors to accomplish. (Authority 130)

Of course, given that Christianity like Judaism and Islam is an historical religion, Tillich’s apology is an heterodoxy. Christianity cannot be saved from the possibility that concerned Tillich (with good reason at the time) and still be Christianity.

I believed that Tillich and Burke shared de-historizing tendencies. My position was that you could not be both a Burkeian and a Marxist or a Christian believing in the efficacy of historical, political acts. Given their dehistorical tendencies, while writing my dissertation, whenever I stalled, I would read Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology.

For years I was puzzled why reading Tillich always seemed to help with Burke. So let us end there (near where we began), summing up not with Aristotle the ancient philosopher, nor Aquinas the medieval theologian, but Augustine the rhetorician who stands between them, their Loves being similar though not quite the Same—let us call such Love the theistic motive.

Augustine famously says, “God has made us for Himself, and our hearts remain restless until they find rest in Him.” Modern theologian Paul Tillich agrees: God is the end of all our striving, that with which we are ultimately concerned. Our actions may be misdirected toward other ends (wealth, power, glory—other “gods”), but no substitute can fully satisfy. The theistic motive (though often unrecognized as such) inspirits every aspect of our lives, so no account of human motivation is complete without it.

The theistic motive in Augustine and Tillich is secularized as the hierarchic motive in Burke. The end of all striving is not God but a principle (such as money) infusing every level of a particular hierarchy and functioning as God. Thus, “sheerly worldly powers take on the attributes of secular divinity and demand our worship” (Burke, A Grammar of Motives and A Rhetoric of Motives, Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Company, Meridian Books, 1962, p.523—an extension of the introduction in that joint addition).

But for Burke the hierarchic motive is ultimately linguistic, and the linguistic motive ultimately natural—meaning the natural world would comprehend more than the merely material as with nature containing the principle of speech (RM 180). The end of all linguistic striving would be that NATURE which gives birth not simply to our bodies but also to language and our minds. Such is Language and such too Love.

Thus, Augustine and Tillich’s theism is transformed into Burke’s naturalism— we emerge from NATURE as symbol-using animals, remaining restless until our symbols bring us to rest in IT. Such is the wonder of Language, such too the wonder of Love.9

The first triennial of the Kenneth Burke Society was held in New Harmony, Indiana, the site at which theologian Paul Tillich’s ashes are interred in his eponymous park. 

Postscript—The Unending Conversation

More Burke, unpublished Burke, is always to be desired. No matter our evaluation of the book vis-à-vis the Rhetoric and the larger corpus, we owe Anthony Burke, Kyle Jenson, and Jack Selzer thanks for finally shepherding The War of Words to posthumous publication as Burke had wished and especially Jack Selzer for his archival work over the years. The rest is the delight of debating over Burkas.


1.The following is taken from my mammoth (140+ page) review of Essays toward a Symbolic of Motives edited by William H. Rueckert (West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2007), “The Gordian Not: Untangling the Motivorum” (KB Journal, Spring 2007). It draws on Burke’s own 1953 account of the “devices” in “Curriculum Criticum” (Counter-Statement 213–25) supplemented by David Cratis Williams’ archival work as recorded in “Toward Rounding Out the Motivorum Trilogy: A Textual Introduction” (Unending Conversations: New Writings by and about Kenneth Burke. Edited by Greig Henderson and David Cratis Williams. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001, 5-34) and Burke’s correspondence with Rueckert (Letters from Kenneth Burke to William H. Rueckert: 1959–1987. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2002).

2. The following two sections are taken from my essay, “The Meaning of the Motivorum’s Motto: “Ad bellum purificandum” to “Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore” (KB Journal, Spring 2012)—though more so the second section (“Pure” Burke) with minimal change given the argument’s complexity. The essay has been republished in Best of the Independent Journals in Rhetoric and Composition 2012, edited by Julia Voss, et al., Parlor Press, 2014. It is to be collected in a forthcoming anthology edited by Clarke Rountree. The essay is a “close reading” of the Latin motto and the last four pages of the Rhetoric.

3. Burke warrants a close closing of the Latin given his detailed discussion in the unpublished second draft of A Symbolic of Motives (left unfinished in 1963) in which there is an early section entitled “Preparatory Etymology” with a sub­section on “Beauty and War.”  

4. See the ever-perceptive critic of Burke, Denis Donoghue, Speaking of Beauty, Yale University Press, April 10, 2003.

5. In his Grammar ( 200-14) Burke argues that, so far as dramatistic terminology is concerned, Marxist philosophy begins by grounding agent in scene but requires a systematic featuring of act given its poignant concern for ethics; in other words, that Marx, an “idealistic materialist,” should be grammatically classified with Aristotle and Spinoza as a “realist” (or “naturalist”)–like Burke! Consequently, Burke offers “a tentative restatement of Marxist doctrine formed about the act of class struggle”–a “somewhat Spinozistic” characterization consistent with Soviet philosophical thought during the 1920s and ‘30s but also with Burke’s own philosophical stance. (See G. L. Kline, Spinoza in Soviet Philosophy, London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1952.)

Burke accepts the idealistic-materialistic dialectic as descriptive of the dynamic underlying social change but not the Marxistescatology–sub specie aeternitatis all revolutions are essentially the same, ultimately leading to but another revolution, one system of inequality being replaced by another perhaps for some period more adequate to the demands of a particular time and place. (See Thames, “The Gordian Not: Untangling the Motivorum. Part One: Seeking the Symbolic.”)

Not only does Burke assimilate Marx to Spinoza and Aristotle and the naturalist tradition in the Grammar, he assimilates him to Plato and the dialectical development of terms in the Rhetoric (183-97). There Burke distinguishes between three orders of terms: the positive that names visible and tangible things which can be located in time and place; the dialectical (i.e., says Burke, dialectical “as we use the term in this particular connection”) that permeates the positive realm but is itself more concerned with ideas than things, more with action and attitude than perception, more with ethics and form than knowledge and information; and the ultimate (or mystical) that places the dialectical (actually from context, the rhetorical—see above)competition of voices in a hierarchy or sequence or evaluative series, a developmental series ordered by a “guiding idea” or unitary principle, transforming the competing voices into “successive positions or moments in a single process” (RM 183-87). The dialectic development typical of Platonic dialogue is the instance par excellence of the third order (see the discussion above in “Bellus”).

Burke contends the Marxist dialectic gains much of its strength by conforming to an ultimate order. Rather than confronting one another merely as parliamentary voices representing conflicting interests, various classes are instead hierarchically arranged, each with a disposition or “consciousness” matching its peculiar set of circumstances, “while the steps from feudal to bourgeois to proletarian are grounded in the very nature of the universe” (RM 190).

The assimilation of Marx to Spinoza and Plato are both examples of Burke’s tendency to de-historicize—to essentialize the temporal rather than temporize the essential (see Trevor Melia’s “Scientism and Dramatism” in The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, edited by Herbert W. Simons and Trevor Melia, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989, pp. 66-67).

See also Richard H. Thames, “Unforgetting a Tradition: Kenneth Burke, Karl Marx, and Aristotelian Naturalism.” Russian Journal of Communication 7.1 (January 2015) 116-124.

6. See Mircea Eliade, Myth of the Eternal Return (Princeton University Press; reprint edition, November 20, 2018). According to Wikipedia, , Eliade moved to the United States in October 1956, settling in Chicago the following year. He had been invited by Joachim Wach to give a series of lectures at the University of Chicago. He and Wach are generally admitted to be the founders of the "Chicago school" that basically defined the study of religions for the second half of the 20th century. Upon Wach's death (before the lectures were delivered), Eliade was appointed as his replacement. In 1964, he was appointed the Sewell Avery Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions. Beginning in 1954, with the first edition of his volume on Myth of the Eternal Return, Eliade also enjoyed commercial success: the book went through several editions under different titles, and sold over 100,000 copies.

Burke must have read Eliade by the mid-50s. He discusses Eliade in his Rhetoric of Religion (238-40) regarding an explanation for the experience of déjà vu. But Eliade’s influence or more likely his reinforcement of many of Burke’s own positions figures significantly into the Symbolic to which Burke had returned having worked out the nature of the Ethics after the Symbolic split. (See Richard Thames, “Mystical Ontology in Kenneth Burke: Consequences for His Theory of Rhetoric.” Dissertation. University of Pittsburgh. 1979.)

According to Eliade, “sex” and “victimage” were central to primitive festivals in which time and space were ritually abolished and regenerated. Both constitute repetitions of the cosmogony—the act of Creation. Sexual intercourse ritually repeated the hierogamy, the union of heaven and earth resulting in the cosmos’ birth. In the Babylonian New Year festival the king and a temple slave reproduced the hierogamy, a ritual to which there corresponded a period of collective orgy. Intercourse and orgy represent chaos and a rebirth of the universe. It was also during New Year festivals that demons, diseases, and sins were expelled in ceremonies of various types, all involving some form of victimage. According to Sir James Frazer (in that part of the Golden Bough entitled the Scapegoat) the “riddance of evil” was accomplished by transferring it to something (a material object, an animal, or a human being) and expelling that thing (now bearing the faults of the entire community) beyond inhabited territory. With the scapegoat’s sacrifice, chaos was slain. Such ritual purification means a combustion, an annulling of the sins and faults of the individual and the community as a whole—not a mere purifying, but a regeneration, a new birth.

Both sex and victimage repeat the cosmogony. Both represent attempts, in the words of Eliade, “to restore—if only momentarily—mythical and primordial time, ‘pure’ time, the time of the ‘instant’ of the Creation” (Myth 54). In illo tempore the gods had displayed their greatest powers, the cosmogony being “the supreme divine manifestation, the paradigmatic act of strength, superabundance, and creativity.” Religious man, says Eliade, thirsts for the real. “By every means at his disposal, he seeks to reside at the very source of primordial reality, when the world was in statu nascendi” (The Sacred and the Profane 80).

Burke argues that Aristophanic comedy culminates in secularized variants of the “sacred marriage” (the hierogamy) and the “love feast” whereas tragedy culminates in secularized variants of ritual sacrifice, victimage, the “kill” (“On Catharsis” 348, 362).

Dionysian ritual comes first (an issue both Nietzsche and Burke examine), then tragedy, then comedy, then Platonic dialectic which Nietzsche views negatively as “the death of tragedy” but Burke views positively as the emergence of that which was implicit all along within language itself—thus the issue that runs through the Symbolic of the relationship between dramatic catharsis and dialectical transcendence, the issue Burke indicates will be the subject of the Symbolic’s ultimate chapter (anticipated in his essay on Emerson and his two essays on Poe).

7. Many suppose a break between epistemological (“poetic metaphor”) and ontological (“dramatization is literal not metaphorical”) periods; or the “meta-biology” of P&C and the “dramatism” of the Grammar—though the latter could be interpreted as the realization of the former. From the Grammar on Burke clearly thinks he is being systematic, the question thereafter being whether he abandoned “dramatism” following the Rhetoric with the development of “logology,” though Burke himself claims dramatism is his ontology and logology his epistemology (“Dramatism and Logology, ” The [London] Times Literary Supplement, August 12, 1983, p. 859)—as Aristotle’s “political” is his ontology (we cannot become what we are—animals with logos—outside the polis as a language-using community, language being a potential that is actualized only within the polis, our never learning to speak without our first being spoken to); and “rational” his epistemology, both definitions secondary to and derivative of the primary definition, “animals with logos.” (See Richard Thames, “Kenneth Burke: Bodies in Purposeful Motion. ” An Encyclopedia of Communication Ethics: Goods in Contention. Edited by Ronald C. Arnett, Annette M. Holba, and Susan Mancino. New York: Peter Lang Inc., International Academic Publishers, May 31, 2018). Burke’s never publishing his proposed Symbolic is also supposed as the ground for arguing he abandoned dramatism. Clearly the author believes otherwise. Burke’s thought is systematic though its expression may be more like that of a poet than a philosopher, more Plato than Aristotle.

8. Having been dismissed by the Nazis from his position at the University of Frankfurt, Tillich was offered a position at Union Theological Seminarywhich is affiliated with Columbiathrough the efforts of the Seminary’s Reinhold Niebuhr and the University’s F. J. E. Woodbridge, Dean of the Faculties of Political Science, Philosophy, and Pure Science and former head of the Philosophy Department. (Burke had studied Bergson with Woodbridge while at Columbia—Jack Selzer, Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village: Conversing with the Moderns, 1915-1931, University of Wisconsin Press, 1996, p. 186). From 1933 until 1955 Tillich taught at the Seminary. During 1933–34 he was also a Visiting Lecturer in Philosophy at the University.

9. See my essay “God Is a Circle Whose Center Is Everywhere: Kenneth Burke & Charles Williams, Language & Love.” Listening: Journal of Communication Ethics, Religion, and Culture 50.3 (2015) 199-297.

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Volume 14, Issue 1 Summer 2019

Contents of KB Journal Volume 14, Issue 1 Summer 2019

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

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


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

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

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

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

Donald J. Trump’s Road to the White House

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

The “Make America Great Again” Campaign Phrase

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terministic Screens and Cluster Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cluster Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of the Keywords

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


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

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


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

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

Washington, D.C.

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

2. Most of these speeches can be found at the Avalon Project at Yale University:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. See Mediaite for examples: Justin Baragona, “He’s Kidding, Right? Trump Thanks Media For ‘GREAT’ Reviews of Inauguration Speech,” Mediaite, January 21, 2017,

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Rotten with Consensus: Toward a Dialectic Transformation of Genocide

Victoria Houser, Clemson University


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

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

—Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form

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

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

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

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

Agonism and the Dialectic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Burkean terms, the symbolic constructs and determines the conditions for agonism; it is the very nature of the symbolic that the pol