Volume 8, Issue 1, Spring 2012 Special Issue

Andy KingThis special issue of KB Journal (8.1, Spring 2012) is the last prepared by outgoing editor Andy King. The issue begins with Andy's Editorial: Soldiers of the Burke Legion and is followed by an outstanding series of interviews and articles that take Burke and related scholarship in new directions. Andy interviews James Klumpp in “The Burke I Knew.” This interview is followed by Richard H. Thames's The Meaning of the Motivorum’s Motto: "Ad bellum purificandum" to "Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore," Kevin R. McClure's Media Coverage of Natural Disasters: Pentadic Cartography and the Case of the 1993 Great Flood of the Mississippi, Robin Patric Clair's Rhetorical Ingenuity in the New Global Realities: A Case of the Anti-Sweatshop Movement, Rebecca Walker's Flash Flooding: A Burkean Analysis of the Scene-Agent and Scene-Agency Ratio in the Flash Mob, Jim A. Kuypers and Ashley Gellert's The Story of King/Drew Hospital: Guilt and Deferred Purification, Tonja Mackey's Introducing Kenneth Burke to Facebook, Michael Feehan's A Note on the Writing of A Rhetoric of Motives, and Grace Veach's Divination and Mysticism as Rhetoric in the Choral Space.

Editorial: Soldiers of the Burke Legion

This is my last roll call with you. My signal fires are dying on the mountain; the bivouac in wild terrain is abandoned. The staff is decommissioned. Our cartridge boxes are empty and we have beaten our swords into ploughshares.

My tenure as editor is ended, and it is time to put up the shutters and go home. Only the kindness of David Blakesley and Clarke Rountree have indulged me in a last supplement issue to clear the decks. And I am grateful. This issue contains a long-awaited article by Richard Thames, one I consider an unprecedented piece of blinding magnificence. There is also an interview with James Klumpp, a wonderful conversation with a senior scholar.

There is also a review of Michael Burke’s novel Music of the Spheres, a novel so full of brilliant imagery that the whole work is like a light-struck canvas. Kevin McClure’s "Media Coverage of Natural Disasters" represents an ingenious use of Burkean cartography. And there are more riches in the rest of the articles and features.

Since November, 2010,I have been fighting a battle with throat cancer, and it has complicated my editorial work. Please forgive any roughness and marks of haste in the issue. I finished my last treatment a few days ago and am deeply grateful to everyone who has supported me in this difficult time.

Andy King
Summer 2011

“The Burke I Knew”: An Interview with Professor James Klumpp

Andy King

King: Can you tell our readers how long you have been part of the Burke Society?

James Klumpp photoJ.K.: I was, as they say, there at the founding. I attended the first meeting set up by Herb Simon in Philadelphia in 1984. When the formal organization was completed (by 1987) I joined the organizational structure on the board of directors, and served on the conference planning committee through the 1999 conference that David Blakesley and I planned. Along the way I chaired the Eastern Communication Association branch and the Speech Communication Association branch. So, I have been pretty much continually involved.

King: You and I have been at this for a long time. We remember when Burke was a rather marginal figure in departments of English and Communication. Recently he has become fully mainstream and scholars at the recent Southern Communication convention complained about his hegemony. What do you make of all this fame and expansion and does it surprise you?

J.K.: In the introduction of a special issue honoring him in the Southern Communication Journal after his death I referred to Burke’s ideas now being “the air that we breathe.” That affirms your idea that he is fully mainstream and more. It also explains the hegemony. You and I remember the time when, if your criticism looked anything like a Burkean criticism, the editor demanded that you justify the use of Burke. I think that today the kind of orthodox demand we encountered has been subordinated to a demand for insight, but perhaps that is just me not recognizing the new orthodoxy.

For those in communication, Burke came along at a time when contextualism was taking control of our criticism. We were participating in the linguistic turn that was happening throughout Western intellectual circles. The difference was that for us, the linguistic turn elevated what we studied to the central place in human action. That was unusual heights for rhetoricians, who had been toiling with the “harlot of the arts” for millennia. We were fortunate because Burke gave us such a well-rounded statement of contextualist motive. After a false start in the early 1950s, by the late 1960s we were not only following Burke, but leading him to new insights.

As far as the hegemony is concerned, I can fill out your story. A number of years ago I was sitting in a panel at the Eastern Communication Association that dealt with culture. I can no longer remember exactly what the topic was, but I remember the panelists attacking Kenneth Burke because he had nothing to say about culture. I was incredulous. I prepared my scathing rebuttal for the question and answer period. I was ready to point to Permanence and Change and A Rhetoric of Motives, and surely A Grammar of Motives. But as I listened on, I realized what was happening. I remembered back to those of us attempting to loosen up the orthodoxy of Neo-Aristotelianism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We launched some attacks on Aristotle that, no matter how fair to the neo-Aristotelians, were certainly unfair to Aristotle. We were attacking Aristotle and his “failings” as a way to make room for our voice in a hegemonic discussion. I realized as that panel proceeded that this was what was happening here, that these students were trying to make room for their voice by attacking the orthodox. Is that orthodoxy charge justified? I don’t think so because I believe the inherent power of permanence and change will always give power to new voices. To the extent that by acknowledging hegemony we give room to those voices, I am all for acknowledging that it is Burke’s ideas that today compose the taken-for-granted.

But you ask if I am surprised. No. From where I sit contextualism was a powerful and important move that has unleashed much understanding and much good on the world. This has led to its dominance.

King: Did Burke think of himself as a contextualist? I do not remember him using the term. Do you think there are keys to understanding Burke as a contextualist?

J.K.: No, I do not recall him using the term either. But, Burke was not one to embrace “category terms.” He didn’t mind “agro-bohemian” but obviously that phrase is half metaphor and half perspective by incongruity and suitably playful. He deflected the label “Marxist” and “Freudian” by admitting to being a “Marxoid” and a “Freudoid.” He thought of our question of whether he was “post-modern” as unimportant and uninteresting to him.

But, of course, labels are important and interesting not because of the fences they include people in but because of the influences that they track. They entail narratives of development that are important ways of perceiving the “launches” that create order like the ones on that photograph at MOMA that he refers to in the Introduction to A Grammar of Motives.

I believe the best explanation of contextualism is Stephen Pepper’s (World Hypotheses). Using Pepper’s scheme captures the formalism (formism) of the classical tradition in rhetorical theory and the mechanism of Neo-Aristotelianism and the dominant social science of the 20th century as well as the contextualism of the linguistic turn. There are times when Burke is moving toward an organicism as Pepper defines the intellectual identity, but for most of his life he demonstrates how a contextualist thinks.

King: Do you reckon Burke would be pleased by the growth of the Burke industry?

J.K.: Yes, but not with your metaphor. I truly believe that Burke believed the formation of the Kenneth Burke Society was one of the highlights of his life. He believed it affirmed his intellectual influence. He cared a great deal about his ideas having a life beyond his own biological life. He wrote to Cowley one time about the search for their legacy. So, he would be very pleased.

King: Some Burke scholars believe that he left us a coherent body of theory. Others, like our mutual friend, Robert L. Scott, see Burke as a kind of excitable polymath who always developed his ideas unevenly and invented under the pressure of events and publication deadlines. Do you line up in either camp or do you have a different take on Burke, the “unsystematic system builder” as Howell called him during a long-ago NCA debate?

J.K: All these folks are right. He was an excitable polymath, first and foremost. Good contextualists are. At the time Burke was emerging in our discipline (Communication), there was a political (more, I think, than intellectual) struggle between the humanists and the social scientists. In intellectual terms that struggle was between the domination of the mechanistic metaphor for social science and the emerging contextualists in the humanities. Of course, the same struggle was going on in the social sciences for contextualists trying to earn traction for their approaches to understanding human action. As a result, the question of whether there is a “coherent body of theory” led to a search for a theory in the theory-practice mode of mechanistic social science. Theory means something different to a contextualist,, more akin to “I have a theory that . . .” This notion is grounded in interpretation rather than in the primary/secondary categories of mechanism. Stable interpretation does require categories, and the vocabulary that provides those categories is a cousin of theory as the mechanist sees it, but with pragmatic rather than referential tests for the theories’ usefulness. And, there is no doubt that Burke has provided us an abundant jargon with which interpretation may proceed. Coherence, for a contextualist like Burke, does not lie in the theory however. It lies in the interpretation. So, what we would say is that Burke has provided us a body of work—vocabulary and categories—that permits coherent interpretation of the moments of our lives. Contextualism has above all a texture of probes in which the things being interpreted and the interpretation must interpenetrate. Thus, it is unsystematic, but informed by the system. I like Howell’s phrase: “unsystematic system builder.”

King: What is your favorite Burke piece?

J.K.: “Rhetoric of Hitler’s 'Battle.'"

King: There is still no consensus on whether Burke’s pentad is a metaphor or a literal entity. I know that beginning in the 1980’s with the advent of post—modernism a lot of scholars refused to accept Burke’s apparent foundationalism. Is the metaphoric pentad a point of view for you or is it the only point of view? Or do you consider it rubbish. Burke made a number of statements that suggest his belief in a relentless material world. “You better not put your out house above your well. You will be poisoned and it doesn’t matter what you think about the matter. Mother Nature is a bitch,” he stated. This quarrel still arouses
fury and some anti-foundationalists have actually abandoned Burkean studies because of it.

J.K.: The pentad is a vocabulary for characterizing the variety of points of view. It is utilitarian and it is a vocabulary. It belongs to the realm of methodology, stretched perhaps into epistemology, but definitely not ontology.

As you present them foundationalism and anti-foundationalism are dichotomous terms. If so, Burke was neither. Those who label Burke a “linguistic realist” have it about right, I think. We forced him to emphasize the material by using him—incorrectly for certain in his view—as the base of our nominalism. When we would say “It is all language!” he would strenuously object. He would do so with some turn of phrase such as the one you quote; drawn beautifully, I might add, from his agro-bohemianism. But he was a good distance from the referentialist assumptions that are inevitably a part of a foundationalism. For Burke, the material was “recalcitrant” to our efforts to impose interpretation; but this was important because we are interpreters. Interpretation is not right or wrong, it is the essence of motivation. No foundationalist would cotton to this. But Burke is pragmatic through and through. Interpretation must deal pragmatically with all sorts of reality, including the material. I usually prefer to say the world is not fluid but sticky. Change happens but within the dialectic of permanence and change. At the heart of this is the imperative of “both/and.” If foundationalism and anti-foundationalism are dichotomous rather than dialectic terms, then “both/and” precludes either side from claiming Burke.

King: In your justly famous “Burkean Social Hierarchy and the Ironic Investment of Martin Luther King,” you wrote that you could not find any strong proof in Burke that he believed in the inevitability of hierarchy. That piece got several people’s goat (I can think of three Sociologists). I know that William Bailey angrily called the piece “wish fulfillment” and “a Leftist apology for the old man.” Those strong reactions are still evoked when my conservative graduate students read the piece. What is your reaction and have your beliefs about Burke and hierarchy changed?

J.K.: Well, that is a misinterpretation of my point. What I said was that I could find no place in all of Burke’s corpus where he makes the empirical argument that social hierarchy is inevitable. I believe the reasoning here is critical because the dismissal of Burke on the basis of a mythical symptomatic reasoning deprives those repulsed by the claim of important insight.

My argument in the piece is long and complex. I do not wish to repeat it in toto here. But perhaps with a few words I can urge our readers to invest in the full argument again.

Most of the people who are bothered by the idea that hierarchy might be inevitable are bothered because they are egalitarians who value the possibility that a social order can feature equality. Obviously, such people would have to reject Burke if his argument was empirical, and if it were about social order. But, in my view, Burke believes that social order is constructed through language. Those constructing, maintaining, and destroying social orders do so by exploiting resources of language. Hierarchic qualities of language are among those resources.

Burke’s line of reasoning does not begin in a survey of human social forms. Rather, it begins in the nature of human language and its influence on social order. Burke argues that human language is based on such notions as selection and attention that elevate some over other. A linguistic utterance refers to something, and in doing so it selects from among all the things it could refer to and directs attention. The result is that something is lifted above something else. Also, Burke says that human speech is inherently moral. Thus, the sense that some things are good and others are bad is a sense of hierarchy inherent in language. Then, we get to the drama of human relations in which humans make their societies with the resources of language. The hierarchical resources of language are there, ready to be called upon in asserting ideals or grading the world around. Now the principle of hierarchy is there to be invoked. But the principle does not dictate a particular hierarchy. Egalitarians, indeed, assert a hierarchy that elevates equality over other values instantiated in social gradations. Thus, the inevitability of hierarchy is not for Burke true because he has looked at all societies, cultures, and communities and never seen one without hierarchy; it is true because hierarchies are established and maintained in linguistic acts that inevitably through selection and evaluation elevate some things over others. What Burke says, in fact, is that the principle of hierarchy is inevitable, not that social hierarchy is so.

King: David Cratis Williams and I debated you and Jim Chesebro at the 1992 Southern and 1993 Burke Conference in Virginia. Do you remember those debates over Burke’s status as a modern or postmodernist thinker. David and I were told it was going to be an informal debate but when we faced you, we discovered that you and Jim had been provided with pieces of evidence. We were lacking in formal evidence and were crushed in 1992 debate. In the 1993 debate in Virginia both sides were steeped to the lips in boiler plate evidence and the result was a bare knuckle affair. David Williams claimed victory of our side but Jim averred that your side won on body blows and knockdowns. Do you remember those debates?

J.K.: I don’t remember that debate that way. You may be confusing me with a much more effective debater. But let me address the question of the debate: Burke’s postmodernism. I earlier addressed Burke’s attitude toward labels. I tend to be on his side. But there can be no doubt that he and whomever you wish to label a “postmodernist” were playing in the same sandbox. I think it has turned out two decades later that the label “postmodern” has not weathered very well. The years have eroded rather than added to its ability to focus our gaze. But the debate at its best sent us to inquiring into underlying intellectual commitments of Burke and others. That was a good thing.

By the way, long after that debate I came across something else that I believe colored Burke’s attitude toward our interest in this question. In a letter to Cowley in 1945, right after A Grammar of Motives had come out and long before the postmodern question was prescient, he wrote the following: “But I suppose, despite the extent of the effort, we can look forward to the usual reception: i.e., my noble colleagues will pilfer bits here and there, and scrupulously give credit to dead Frenchmen or half-dead Harvard professors.” Does that sound like our debate or what? This certainly speaks to your question about systemness. He believed that Grammar was a coherent statement and the process of burking it and associating it with the ideas of others in a kind of “Who is he really?” was offensive. I think that was some of his reaction to our postmodern debate. He just thought it was a labeling exercise that would diminish rather than enhance our understanding the world he saw.

King: On a lighter note, what was your favorite memory of Burke?

J.K.: I have so many. Not so much because when I first met him he was so far advanced in age that you knew each moment was precious, but more because he was a character. He enjoyed life so much. Those eyes did twinkle. And he fully embraced life with intellectual development. He would engage my students with all the energy of Socrates and he would never forego setting me straight. I can answer that question you asked on foundationalism so fully because I was one of those anti-foundationalists that he pounded.

But my favorite memory is a dinner at the Glass Onion in Lincoln, NE, in 1984 when Burke and Richard McKeon attended a conference that Jim Ford and I sponsored at the University of Nebraska. It was their last meal together. McKeon died within the year. It was a combination of remembering their time together on the subway going to Columbia, their time together since including Burke’s time at Chicago at McKeon’s invitation, and a mutual praise society. Here were two of the greatest humanists of the 20th century enjoying their final dance. It was a privilege to buy that dinner.

King: What was your favorite Burke conference and why?

J.K.: With absolutely no hesitation it was New Harmony. I have always thought that New Harmony is the perfect place for a conference about an agro-bohemian. I have thought that going back there every three years would be something akin to visiting Valhalla. But I have lost that argument. It was obviously my favorite first of all because of the place and its appropriateness. But also because Burke was there. We had to budget his time at his advanced age, but he absolutely delighted in the attentions of my graduate students and he reveled at the attention to his work.

The certainness with which I respond is not to disparage the other conferences. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind of the value of our triennial gatherings. They have significantly deepened our understanding of the intellectual content of Burke’s work. This is so because of the generally high quality of our work. My graduate students always say this is where they go to meet their footnotes. And the conferences defy the academy’s organizational caste system by bringing scholars together across disciplinary lines. Finally, they humanize Burke, not only because of the excellent historical work that is part of our research, but because of the participation of Michael Burke, Julie Whitaker, and the Chapins. There are those who charge that the conferences (and even the Burke Society) are a kind of hero worship blinded to intellectual debate. On the contrary. No doubt fond recollections of the human Burke may on the surface appear to be such worship. But those who see this as our activity must have let it keep them away from the conference. The intense critical encounters of the seminars and programs, whether biography or not, makes the conference vital to energizing the faculty of insight that so many have developed from reading Burke. It is this intensification of energy that I have enjoyed and that should bring others to the conferences.

Dr. James Klumpp, a senior Burkean scholar, is a professor at the University of Maryland.

The Meaning of the Motivorum’s Motto: "Ad bellum purificandum" to "Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore"

Richard H. Thames, Duquesne University


Why render the Motivorum’s motto in Latin? Because ad bellum purificandum can be translated “toward the purification of war,” but also “toward the purification of the beautiful [thing],” an alternative Burke himself suggests in his unfinished second draft of the Symbolic. In addition, purificandum (associated with transcendence in dialectic) is a neologism Burke probably constructs from purgandum (associated with catharsis in rhetoric and poetics). Working back and forth between interpreting the motto and interpreting the text, the relationship between rhetoric (whose end is War) and dialectic (whose end is Beauty à la Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus) can be established and the nature of poetic (which weaves the two together) discerned.

This essay follows on "The Gordian Not: Untangling the Motivorum" (KB Journal Spring 2007).

In memory of Michael Leff—admirer of Burke, scholar of Classical rhetoric, and close reader extraordinaire.


AD BELLUM PURIFICANDUMsuch was the epigram or motto of Kenneth Burke’s proposed multi-volume “Motivorum” found on the opening page of A Grammar of Motives, published in 1945. As all Burkeians subsequently noted, the epigram was odd. The typical translation, “Toward the purification of war,” seemed to beg the immediate question, “Why not eradication?” And just as quickly the attempt to answer mired all in a myriad of difficulties. The Grammar started innocently enough, then abruptly dove into the deep end, examining the paradox of substance, then the paradox of purity. The “purification of war” would be no simple matter, nor the books dedicated to that proposition.

But perhaps the first question truly begged is the more obvious but never asked “Why render the epigram in Latin?” when it’s perplexing enough in English. Why complicate the matter further? Because, to echo the Lord’s repeated reproach of Satan in “A Prologue in Heaven,” it is indeed “more complicated than that” (RR 277). A close reading of the Latin reveals a richness the standard rendering fails to convey.

I say this with some trepidation. 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 life.1 Burke sought to understand language as more than a tool, more than a means to innumerable ends; he thought of language in and of itself as motivation. What is required is a representative summation of the system thereafter elaborated, a statement that is simple but not superficial, assuring students and scholars alike that plunging into his work will prove to be not bewildering but bracing and worthwhile.

Such a statement will be offered in conclusion. First, a plunge into paradox.

Burke’s Warrant

The warrant for this reading is Burke’s own discussion from the unpublished second draft of A Symbolic of Motives (left unfinished in 1963)2 in which there is an early section entitled “Preparatory Etymology” with a sub­section on “Beauty and War.” Burke notes the Greek root of the word “artistic” (ar-, the source, he says, of “articulate,” “aristocracy,” and “arithmetic”) is related to the Greek word meaning “to join” and even older Sanskrit forms meaning “to attain” and “to fit.” Thus, he continues, looking in this etymological direction—

We may encounter Socrates’ notion that the dialectician knows how to carve an idea at the joints, and that dialectics itself begins with two kinds of terms, those that generalize and those that specify. The thought suggests that the work of art will be found, on inspection, to have its own peculiar kind of dialectic, an expert interweaving of composition and division. And in accordance with the genius of this route, when analyzing a poem we are admonished to ask how its parts are related to one another and to the whole. (’63 SM ms.32)

Burke further notes that the Greek words for “armament,” “Ares” (the god of war), and “virtue” (arête) share the same root, as do (obviously) the Latin words vir (a man of arms-bearing age) and virtus.3 Contemplating this route, he continues, may suggest reasons for the inclination to consider the tragic cult of the kill as exceptionally “poetic.”4

Turning to “beauty,” Burke observes that

in pre-classical Latin, a word duellum (deriving ultimately from the Indo-European root for “apart” or “two,” and meaning “war between two”) became transformed into bellum, meaning “war.” This was related to a word bonus, meaning “good” (and derived from an older form, duonus, also meaning “good,” and similarly related to the root word for “two”). (SM ms.33)

Etymologically, then, “beauty” is related to both “war” and “good.”

(“Beauty” is from French beauté, that came from an assumed Late Latin word bellitas, built from bellus, itself modulating from benulus to benus to bonus, the word for “good,” and related to bellum, the word for “war.”) By the same token, when on the subject of artistic felicity, we might well recall that the saintly word “beatitude” apparently bridges us back to the same origins. And inasmuch as the whole story apparently leads to the Indo-European root for the notion of things apart, or two (dva-, dvi-; English two, twice, twilight, twig, twist, twin, twine), it might be relevant to recall also that when St. Augustine wrote his no longer extant tracts on beauty and fitness (de pulchro et apto), he apparently constructed his entire theory around a distinction between unity and division . . . (SM ms.33-34)

Obviously Burke knew his Latin (from Peabody High School in Pittsburgh) and was well aware that bellum was ambiguous, that with the epigram“ad bellum purificandum” he was dedicating his magnum opus to the purification of both “war” and “the beautiful [thing]” (bellum being the accusative form of the noun bellus) with suggestions as well of “the good” (the etymologically related bonus).

The word purificandum is likewise suggestive. Unlike with bellum, however, Burke offers no observations concerning its etymology, the term apparently being his own—the post-Augustinian verb purifico having been derived from the earlier, more common purgo and its non-occurring gerun­dive form having been derived by Burke himself, perhaps from purgandum. The choice of the neologism “purifying” over the vernacular “purging” suggests a preference for dialectical processes effecting transcendence over rhetorical processes effecting catharsis through victimage (both real and symbolic); at the same time, the etymology suggests some relation­ship between the two.

Clearly Burke himself warrants closely reading the Latin, though doing so will involve working dialectically back and forth between interpreting the motto and interpreting the text.

Purificandum I

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 dialectical twist and turn to ensnarl in paradox whatever it modifies.

But Burke’s discussion represents more than a mere exercise in dialectical deviltry. There is considerable payoff for those with the patience to follow every twist and turn, every image and example. What can be learned concerns the nature of rhetoric and its ultimate possibilities vis-à-vis the human condition.

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). 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 and wine to be drunk. There are natural limits to consumption, duration, and therefore acquisition—wheat spoils and wine turns sour. 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 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 word-play, an end being not only a goal or purpose but also a completion or 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 (RM 269, 274)—i.e., what is ultimately the case is always the case to some degree.5 Therefore any rhetorical act would comprise a complex of motives, minimally consisting of (1) persuasion itself compounded with (2) pure persuasion to some degree (i.e., some degree of standoffishness or interference). Rhetoric as rhetoric then can never transcend itself. Rhetoric as rhetoric can never be salvic, for all rhetoric is somewhat self-defeating.

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.6 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, 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.

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 love—as in Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus where Beauty is the ultimate object of love (or eros). 

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 on the one hand and eros on the other. 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.


As noted above, the post-Augustinian verb purifico is derived from the earlier, more common purgo, and its non-occurring gerun­d purificandum apparently derived from purgandum by Burke himself. The choice of “purifying” over “purging” suggests his preference for dialectical processes effecting transcendence over rhetorical processes effecting catharsis through victimage (both real and symbolic); at the same time the etymology implies some relation­ship between them. So, what is that relationship?

Burke actually distinguishes between dialectical processes of purification and dramatic (rather than rhetorical) processes of purgation. But drama involves both dialectic in the sense of thoroughly using language for no purpose other than using language and rhetoric in the sense of using language for a particular purpose—e.g. the author’s persuading himself and/or his audience vis-à-vis a particular subject, often problematic. For Burke, drama (indeed all literature) is ceremonial rhetoric addressing the timeless (i.e., speaking to all human beings insofar as they are bodies that have learned language) and the present (the here and now, hic et hunc, of the author’s life and time).

Burke defines human beings as bodies that are genetically endowed with the ability to learn language.7 As such, all humans (though some more than others) take delight in expressing or exercising their being (as in Jerome Kern’s lyric from Showboat, “fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly”), in doing that which distinguishes them from all other animals, in using language for the sake of using language alone (Rueckert, “Language of Poetry” Essays 38). The internally directed use of language for its own sake is dialectical and ontological; the externally directed use of language for the sake of something else is rhetorical and historical,  tied to a particular person and a particular place and time (seeSM ms. 179).  

Both dialectic and drama, says Burke, exemplify competitive cooperation (as opposed to the cooperative competition of rhetoric)—though Burke would appear to be emphasizing the dialectical (rather than rhetorical) aspect of drama insofar as its parts are organically related to the whole. Out of conflicts within a work, “there arises a unitary view transcending the partial views of the participants”—the dialectic of the ideal Platonic dialogue (LSA 188).8

Both transcendence effected by dialectic and catharsis effected by ceremonial rhetoric or drama “involve formal development,” says Burke; therefore both give us “kinds of transformation,” operating in terms of a beyond in dialectic and victimage in rhetoric (or its imitation in drama), though in dialectic there are traces of victimage (i.e., voices left behind), and in drama the cathartic “resolution ‘goes beyond’ the motivational tangle exploited for poetic enjoyment.” Burke even proposes translating Aristotle’s famous formula, “through pity and fear beyonding the catharsis of such emotions,” noting the word normally translated “effecting” or “producing” (perainousa) is etymo­logically from the same root as peran, meaning “opposite shore” (LSA 298-99).9

Transcendence involves building a terministic bridge whereby one realm is transcended by being viewed in terms of a realm beyond (LSA 189, 200),

a kind of “translation” whereby the reader is induced to confront a problem in terms that allow of resolutions not possible to other terms of confrontation. Dialectic, we might say, can even effect a kind of “quashed catharsis,” or “catharsis by fiat,” or “implicit transcendence,” since the terms in which a given problem is presented can so setup the situation that a given problem is “resolved in advance,” if you can speak of a problem as “resolved” when the terms in which it is treated do not even give it a chance to be expressed in all its problematic aspects. (SM ms. 170)

Dialectical purification and dramatic purgation then are both the same and different—the same insofar as the dialectical aspect of drama is emphasized, different insofar as the rhetorical is. And rhetoric and drama are different insofar as the former involves victimage and the latter its imitation (all the difference in the world to the victim), but they are the same insofar as both are ultimately partisan. Economic, political, and social tensions may be purged by sacrifice upon the stage, but the curtains close and the playhouse doors reopen on a world that remains unchanged. “Hence,” says Burke, “tragic purges, twice a year. Such symbolic resolutions must be repeated, since the actual underlying situation is not resolved” (Dramatism and Development 15).

So ultimately we return to the problematic aspects of rhetoric and Burke’s preference for dialectic—though along the way, the idea of dialectic operating in terms of a beyond has emerged. Understanding what Burke means unfortunately involves another plunge.

Purificandum II

The epigram suggests that Burke is prejudiced against rhetorical action, but ultimately Burke is prejudiced against any action other than linguistic action for its own sake. All other action would constitute a means to an external end that would in its purity be transformed into an end in itself, thereby perpetuating itself by never attaining its intended end; all other action would be to some degree undertaken for its own sake, thereby requiring some degree of inter­ference in accom­plishing its external purpose. Thus, all action is problematic, all action somewhat self-defeating, because what is ultimately the case is always the case to some degree.

The only action that is not self-defeating is linguistic action for its own sake, because there is an ultimate end internal to language attained when all that is inherent to language itself has been thoroughly unfolded. Such pure action is dialectic and its inherent end transcendence—the mystic experience of an ultimate, unitary pantheistic ground beyond nonverbal and verbal—NATURE (à la Spinoza).10

Once again, because what is ultimately the case is always the case to some degree, all other action would also involve an ingredient of linguistic action for its own sake. All other action would contain some element of language’s reaching toward its inherent end.  

Normal actions then would comprise a complex of motives consisting of (1) an action undertaken for the sake of its intended external end compound­ed with (2) some degree of that action undertaken for its own sake (i.e, an element of interference in accomplishing its intended external end); (3) linguistic action for the sake of an external end compounded with (4) some degree of lin­guistic action undertaken for its own sake (i.e., an element of language reaching toward its inherent, internal end; an element of dialectic culminating in transcendence) —what Burke refers to as a “fragment” of dialect (RM 175) and its inherent end, transcendence, and therefore a “fragment” of mysticism.11

This complexity of motives can be resolved into a simplicity (banality?) when an act in its purity is transformed from a means into an end in itself. Like pure persuasion, pure actions (other than purely linguistic ones) would be more than fragments of dialectic or mysticism; they would constitute substitutes for mysticism, ersatz­mystiken, as with money, sex, drugs, crime, war—instrumentalities of living transformed into demonic purposes with which one may identify “quite as with mystic communion.” Anyone for whom means are thus transformed has “a god” and, “engrossed, enrapt, entranced,” can become lost in its godhead (RM 331-32).

This perverse internality (eventuating in false mysticism) is counterpart to dialectic’s own internality (eventuating in mysticism proper). Their internality is in turn counterpart to the externality of normal action and linguistic action which con­stitute means to an external end. Pure action and purely linguistic action constitute simple actions that are counterparts to complex normal actions. Normal actions, however, in their confusion of motives are ultimately ineffectual—self-defeating (as somewhat pure) and partial (as fragmentary dialectic), their internal ends (between their poles of purity, false and proper) frustrating attainment of their external ends.

The only action by which true transcendence could be achieved would be by dialectic directed toward the internal end of language, devoid of all rhetoric directed toward an external end and therefore defeated by its purity to some degree. The cooperative competition of voices in rhetoric is transformed into the competitive cooperation of voices in dialectic, says Burke, by the inclusion of one voice that is primus inter pares, the foremost among equals, a role performed in Platonic dialogue by Socrates who functions as the summarizing vessel or synecdochic representative of the end or logic of the development as a whole (GM 526). Such is the role of the mystic fragment of linguistic action for itself alone that points to the mystic experience of a pantheistic ground beyond nonverbal and verbal, body and mind, material and ideal.

Bellus I

Returning to the epigram, bellum suggests Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes, “the war of all against all,” characterizing the rhetorical realm. But as Burke himself suggests, bellum can also be the accusative of the noun bellus, “the beautiful [thing].” The “bellum-bellus” or war-beauty pair suggests Mars/Ares (god of war) and Venus/Aphrodite (goddess of beauty and sexual love or eros) and the rhetoric-dialectic contrast again, but embodied in victimage on the one hand and sexual love on the other. The adjective “bellus” is derived from “benus” and “bonus,” meaning “good,” once more suggesting Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus as well as Castiglione’s Courtier and the dialectical climb to the mystic experience of Beauty, the Good, the One.

So ad bellum purificandum can also be translated “toward purification of the beautiful (or beauty).” Such is the dialectical task Burke sets for himself in the second part of his ‘63 version of the Symbolic at whose conclusion the manuscript breaks off but whose equivalent can be found in the chapter from the ‘58 version on “The Thinking of the Body,” the thorough and thoroughly disgusting “monster” of a chapter that “wrote itself” in 1951 (Williams, Unending Conversations 9 and 24), much to the embarrassment of Burke. That part of that original chapter was published in 1963 and collected with an equally disgusting essay (Somnia Ad Urinandum) in Language as Symbolic Action is testament to a deeply felt need for “expressing or redeeming the fecal motive” that, according to Burke, is required for transcendence to be complete (RM 309). So, in this alternative translation of the motto, we spy the body that learns language—i.e., we uncover the significance of embodiment in Burke.

The mystic, says Burke, “invariably aims to encompass conflicting orders of motivation, not by outlawing any order, however ‘inferior,’ but by finding a place for it in a developmental series.” The mystic, for example, treats the body, not as an antithesis to spirit, but as a way into spirit—“a necessary disciplinary step” for “entry to ultimate communion.” Indeed, says Burke, the mystic in his thoroughness employs body terms for his ultimate experiences (RM 189).

Having made his point, Burke arranges the remainder of the Rhetoric in a pattern climbing through rhetoric, beyond rhetoric in keeping with the pattern in Casti­glione’s “paradigmatic” Book of the Courtier—“a series of formal operations for the dialectical purifying of a rhetorical motive,”climbing through dialogues on the endowments of the perfect courtier, the forms of courtly address, and the code of courtly intercourse between men and women which is Platonically trans­formed in the final dialogue concerning the end of the perfect courtier (i.e., the theme of sexual love dialectically climbing “from woman to beauty in general to transcendent desire for Absolute union” (RM 221)). Burke begins by consider­ing rhetoric as courtship and dialectically climbs to consider­ing mysticism as ultimate identification where rhetoric and the Rhetoric end in a vision of Aristotle’s God (RM 333).

The end of rhetoric would be peace, rest, love—and at the same time the end or cessation of rhetoric, when rhetoric transcends itself in dialectic. Rhetoric in its ideal culminations would be love such as we find in Augustine, whose “God has made us for Himself,” so “our hearts remain restless until they rest in Him”;12 in Spinoza, whose crowning motive was “the intellectual love of God”; in Plato in the Symposium and Phaedrus in the love of Beauty and the Good; and in Aristotle whose God is “the motionless prime mover that moves all else not by being itself moved, but by being loved” (GM 254). And so rhetoric and the Rhetoric end with one of the greatest passages in Burke:

Finally let us observe, all about us, forever goading us, though it be in fragments [emphasis mine], the motive that attains its ultimate identification in the thought, not of the universal holocaust, but in the universal order—as with the rhetorical and dialectic symmetry of the Aristotelian metaphysics, whereby all classes of beings are hierarchically arranged in a chain or ladder or pyramid of mounting worth, each kind striving towards the perfection of its kind, and so towards the kind next above it, while the strivings of the entire series head in God as the beloved [emphasis mine] cynosure and sinecure, the end of all desire. (RM 333)

Purificandum III

Worth noting in the wonder of this concluding passage is the word “mounting,” whose range of meanings Burke has considered only a few pages earlier—the kinesthetic sensation of height, social betterment, ethical ascent, fecal matter such as the dung-pile (which might be associated with pyramids, given that ancient Egyptians held the dung-beetle sacred, and thus for Burke the surmounting of the fecal motive), as well as sexual mounting (RM 301-13).

Burke, in the final pages, claims the mystic state would have its bodily counterpart. Following neurologist Charles Sherrington (oft-quoted by Burke), he explains how movement is made possible by the coordinated flexing and relaxing of opposed muscles. If conflicting impulses expressed themselves simultaneously, if nerves controlling opposed muscles all fired at once, movement would not be possible. Such a neurological condition could be accurately described in terms of total activation (or pure action) and/or total passivity and plausibly would be involved in the pronounced sense of unity to which mystics habitually testify (PC 248; GM 294; RM 330-31), a oneness as thorough as that experienced in the womb (PC 248)—or, dare one suggest, sexual union

Two cautions. First, ideally sexual union would be the consummation, the culmination of courtship; and such would always be the case to some degree. Sexual activity would always involve more for bodies that learn language than it would for other animals. Second, the suggestion is not that sexual union is (always or even sometimes) mystical but that dialectic can lift us to a mystic state which would manifest itself physically in a manner much like sexual union for the body that learns language.

Burke himself hints at sexual union—and such an interpretation would explain the mystic’s recourse to erotic imagery. For Burke continues, if a taste of new “fruit” is knowledge—or, given the sly allusion to “forbidden fruit,” if sexual intercourse is considered (carnal) knowledge—then the experience of a rare and felicitous physical state would be so too. The mystic, reasons Burke, would be convinced his experience was “noetic,” conveying a “truth” beyond the realm of logical contradiction, constituting a report of something from outside the mind, a “communication with an ultimate, unitary ground” (RM 330-31).

Transcendence and catharsis are “rival medicines” (LSA 186-89), says Burke—transcendence being effected in terms of a beyond and catharsis by imitation of victimage. But both are medicines (not metaphor­ically, though perhaps in contrast to “cookery”), similar enough to suggest the embodiment of transcendence is comparable to the more obvious embodiment of catharsis. So, one should not be surprised when Burke observes that despite discord an audience may be brought by means of dramatic devices to a unitary response. He regards “the tearful outbursts of an audience at a tragedy as a surrogate for sexual orgasm” and 18,000 Athenians weeping in unison as a variant of “what was once a primitive promiscuous sexual orgy” such as “the Dionysian rites from which Greek tragedy developed” (Dramatism & Develop­ment 14; LSA 186; GM 229).13

Ideas of pity readily attain natural bodily fulfillment in tears, says Burke; and ideas of mirth lead similarly to laughter as well as tears from riotous laughter. Weeping at tragedy and laughing at comedy are akin to love, but not identical. They operate as substitutes for catharsis through erotic love which has its own kind of bodily release (completion, fulfillment). Surely, says Burke toward the end of the 1958 first version of the Symbolic, the most “cathartic” experience possible would be the ability to love everything, without reservation in such bodily spontaneity as attains its purely verbal counterpart in ejaculations [sic] of thanksgiving and praise (PDC ms. 322).

A final caution—sexual orgasm would be cathartic; sexual union need not be (e.g., the Tantric spiritual practice of sexual yoga and meditation in which orgasm is delayed or withheld). The mystic state would be more like the moment just prior to release—a neurological state, Burke speculates, that could be described in terms of total activation and/or total passivity in which all nervous impulses “attitudinally glowed” at once, “remaining in a halfway stage of incipience” (attitude functioning for Burke as a substitute for action or an incipient action); like, he continues appositively, “the status nascendi” (not the act but the state of being born) of “the pursuit figured on Keats’ Grecian Urn” (RM 330-31)14 (which appropriately for Burke, Keats addresses as “Fair attitude!”—see GM 459).

Bellus II

Burke’s mention of Keats is intriguing but confusing. He mentions Keats earlier to exemplify pure persuasion—“A single need, forever courted, as on Keats’s Grecian Urn, would be made possible by self-interference” (RM 275). Such interference would prevent persuasion’s ever coming to its end. But persuasion—rhetoric—transcends itself in dialectic. Linguistic action for itself alone does come to its end, an end inherent to language itself and a state such as that depicted on the Urn, a state characterized in a manner suggestive of self-interference—with a difference.

Pure persuasion, says Burke, would be “as biologically unfeasible as that moment when the irresistible force meets the immovable body.” It would be psychologically related to “a conflict of opposite impulses” and philosophically suggestive of “Buridan’s extremely rational ass” starving to death between two equally distant, equally succulent bales of hay. It would be “the moment of motionlessness . . . uncomfortably like suspended animation” (RM 294). 

Noting that if, “as neurologists like Sherrington tell us,” the expression of some impulses is contrived by the repression of others, then there is even on the bodily level an “infringement of freedom” within us, a sheerly physiological state of “inner contradiction.” Thus, he continues, “discord would have become the norm.”

However if going beyond [emphasis mine] it, the nervous system could fall [an odd choice of words, but see below] into a state of radical passivity whereby all nervous impulses “attitudinally glowed” at once (remaining in a halfway stage of incipience, the status nascendi of the pursuit figured on Keats’ Grecian Urn) there could be total “activation” without the overt acts that require repressive processes. Hence “contradictory” movements could exist simultaneously. (RM 330-31)

If normal action involves on the bodily level an “infringement of freedom,” the state concerning which Burke speculates, the state to which the purely linguistic act would lift us would be experienced not as “self-interference” but as “freedom.”

And perhaps not as “suspended animation” either, not as time stopped (or interfered with) but as an eternal present (GM 449). In his analysis of Keats’ poem, Burke writes of “suspension in the erotic imagery, defining an eternal prolongation of the state prior to fulfillment—not exactly arrested ecstasy, but rather an arrested pre-ecstasy.” But what he stresses is “the quality of incipience in this imagery.” And he cites G. Wilson Knight’s referring in The Starlit Dome (295) to “that recurring tendency in Keats to image [sic] a poised form, a stillness suggesting motion” (GM 449-50)—as with total passivity caused by total activation. Though Keats addresses the Urn as a “still unravish’d bride of quietness,” Burke points to Keats’ discovering erotic imagery (“maidens loth,” “mad pursuit,” “wild ecstasy,” and more) everywhere in the embroidered scene covering it (i.e., the “brede [breed?] of marble men and maidens overwrought [overly excited?]”), fevered imagery of ravishment frozen on the Urn, imagery sharing the incipience of the Bold Lover who never, never wins the kiss (?) but forever loves.

Burke interprets this incipience as a variant of the identification between sexual love and death typical of 19th century romanticism (e.g., the “musical monument” of Wagner’s Liebestod). “On a purely dialectical basis, to die in love would be to be born to love (the lovers dying as individual identities that they might be transformed into a common identity).” Indeed any imagery of a dying or a falling in common (perhaps why Burke speaks of the nervous system falling into a state of radical passivity—see above) when woven with sexual imagery “signalizes a ‘transcendent’ sexual consummation” (GM 450-51).15

Purificandum IV

But Burke reminds us that “transcendence is not complete until the fecal motive has in some way been expressed and redeemed” (RM 309). Indeed “the entire hierarchic pyramid of dialectical symmetry may be infused with such a spirit” (RM 311). If we would ascend to the vision of Beauty, beauty must be purified—ad bellum purificandum. The mystic—like Keats in the “Ode,” like Burke in the Grammar, Rhetoric, and Symbolic—encompasses conflicting orders of motivation by finding a place for them in a developmental series, treating the body not as an antithesis to but a way into spirit—“a necessary disciplinary step” for “entry to ultimate communion.” In his thoroughness the mystic even employs body terms for his ultimate experiences (RM 189). 

Keats seeks to transcend the body and his own illness16 (“with the peculiar inclinations to erotic imaginings that accompany its fever”), to redeem by a poetic act his bodily suffering (“death, disease, the passions, or bodily ‘corruption’ generally (as with religious horror of the body)” being variants of the fecal), by splitting a distraught state into active and passive aspects, so that the benign (purified spiritual activity) remains, while the malign (tubercular—and sexual—fever) can be abstracted and left behind (RM 317; GM 452-53).

More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoyed.
For ever panting, and for ever young
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

But transcendence is not complete with only a sexual mounting; the urinal and literally fecal must be expressed and left behind as well. Burke claims that sometimes transcendence “may be got by purely tonal transformation” (myriad instances of which can be found in language change and partially codified in Grimm’s Laws). Such transformations “would reduce to a single letter or syllable, the process of catharsis, or ritual purging, that is developed at length in tragedy” (RM 310), enabling us to say something without really saying it—like “shucks” (one word, two expletives). Readers of Burke may remember his Great-Gramma Brodie who forbad his saying “G” or “Heck, Holy Smokes, and Darn it” because she knew what they implied (Collected Poems 242). Nevertheless, he speculates that in the title “urn” may be just such a tonal transformation of “urine” and in the final oracular lines “beauty” a transformation of “body” and “truth” of “turd.” Burke cautions, however, that such “joycing” is heuristic or suggestive “though it may put us in search of corroborative observations” (RM 204, 310; “As I Was Saying” 21, an article in which Burke mounts a full defense of his position 20-24).

Bellus III

According to Burke, the same pattern of transcendence (minus joycing) is evident in Plato’s Phaedrus. Lysias’ reference to a “feast of discourse” on the topic of love functions not merely as a metaphor but a juncture of two levels, the dialogue leading step by step from “feast” on the level of sheerly physical appetite (with an element of sociality introducing a motivation beyond mere hunger) to “discourse” on the level of “purely verbal insemination.” In brief, says Burke, “the dialogue is a ‘way’ from sexual intercourse to the Socratic intercourse of dialectical converse,” an instance of the Socratic erotic—Plato’s cure to rival the playwrights’ which he resisted (GM 424).

Propounded most directly in the Phaedrus and the Symposium (which likewise features discourses concerning love on the occasion of a banquet), the Socratic erotic is defined by Burke as “an ideological technique whereby bodily love would be transformed into love of wisdom, which in turn would be backed by knowledge derived and matured from the coquettish give and take of verbal intercourse” (“Catharsis—Second View” 132; PDC 359); though Burke later observes such coquettish give and take “could be relevantly analyzed as an attenuated variant of the tragic principle (‘learning through suffering’), since the victimage involved one’s methodic ‘suffering’ of one’s opponent, in order that exposure to such counter-action might thus contribute to the mature revising of one’s own position” (Unending Conversations 76; PDC 372); or, characterizing the Socratic erotic more terministically, Burke says “the seeds of merely bodily love are [so] placed in a terministic context” that “doctrinal insemination” becomes the concern (Unending Conversations 71; PDC 362).

Catharsis being associated with drama, Platonic transcendence is in contrast associated with lyric, “the kind of arias-with-dance which drama had necessarily subordinated in the very process of becoming drama,” says Burke, observing that when drama overstresses thought, it dissolves into exposition, homily, or dialectic (“Catharsis—Second View” 121; PDC 342). Burke considers Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” an ideal example of such dialectic adapted to lyric poetry (Unending Conversations 76; PDC 373; “On Catharsis” 362).

The contrast between lyric and drama is not absolute, however. Both comedy and tragedy can be partisan; derisive laughter can be as socially unifying as sacrifice. Both employ victimage to some degree—“the butt of humor at whose expense we jointly laugh” as well as the “scape-goat.” But comedy involves a “comic blotch” (hamartema) rather than a “tragic flaw” (hamartia), a foolish blunder rather than a prideful error of judgment. And Aristophanic comedy would culminate in secularized variants of the “sacred marriage” (the hierogamy) and the “love feast” rather than the “kill” (“On Catharsis” 348, 362).17

Given that Plato’s particular system of cure was based on the Socratic erotic (“Catharsis—Second View” 132; PDC 359), the transformations characteristic of dialectic would be more akin to comedy than tragedy, falling on the side of sex rather than victimage—perhaps the reason for Burke’s approaching Plato roundabout through Nietzsche (which he does) and Aristophanes (which he planned to do) (PDC 359-60, a paragraph added in the PDC to “Catharsis—Second View”).

Purificandun V

Burke’s positions vis-à-vis dialectic and drama are part of a running argument with Nietzsche’s as expressed in the Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche claims that tragedy originates in the struggle between two forces, drives, or principles which he associates with Greek deities—Apollo, embodying the drive toward drawing and respecting boundaries and limits; and Dionysus, the drive toward destroying boundaries and transgressing limits. The purest expression of the Apollonian is Homeric epic poetry and the purest expression of the Dionysian quasi-orgiastic forms is music (especially choral singing and dancing). Applying the one-many alignment, Nietzsche equates the principle of individuation with Apollo and the aristocratic, and “primordial unity” with drunken worshippers of Dionysus and primitive democracy. Tragedy is a merger of aristocratic and popular tendencies (the Chorus “hovering on the edge of riot”), a balance of Apollonian moderation and self-control and Dionysian excess (with the musical, Dionysian element tending to dominate). Tragedy’s decline commences, according to Nietzsche, with the arrival of Socrates, a new force dedicated to creating abstract generalizations and attaining theoretical knowledge (Unending Conversations 74; PDC 369).

Though Burke believes scholarship provides backing for Nietzsche’s view of tragedy as “the marriage of conflicting social motives,” he disputes Nietzsche’s equating the principle of individuation with any one social class, there being democratic as well as aristocratic forms; besides, individuation is not exclusively a social principle. He claims primordial unity is equated with the Dionysian dance when it could be equated with the Apollonian dream as well. And music’s equation with Dionysus (an equation central to Nietzsche’s argument) could be made more justifiably with Apollo— an equation Burke himself implicitly makes, Apollo’s lyre being the instrument accompanying lyric poetry recited or sung at symposia (though flutes were also common). Burke would appear to align his terms differently, associating Dionysus more with drama and Apollo more with non-dramatic lyric and therefore Platonic dialectic. And while Burke believes Plato did offer a cure in direct competition with both the tragic and comic playwrights, he hardly considered his medicine inferior  (Unending Conversations 75-76; PDC 369-72).

But Nietzsche remains more than relevant for Burke’s purposes because, throughout the Birth of Tragedy, there runs “a terascopic [sic] concern” with what Burke calls “the Daedalian motive”—named for the creator of the Labyrinth on Crete in which the Minotaur (part bull, part man) was kept—given Nietzsche’s speaking of trying to find his way through “the labyrinth of the origin of Greek tragedy” (Unending Conversations 75; PDC 371). 

The relation “between articulate form and the inarticulate matter out of which such expression emerges,” says Burke, is “labyrinthine” in two senses—“not only is the inarticulate a tangle (at least, as viewed from the standpoint of the articulate); but also articulation itself is a tangle, since any symbol-system sets up an indeterminate range of ‘implications’ still to be explored.” The Daedalian motive—the desire for articulation—is cathartic in the non-Aristotelian, Crocean sense of expression being cathartic, an experience of relief resulting from converting an “inarticulate muddle into the orderly terms of a symbol-system,” as well as from finding a direction through a maze of implications (from a beginning through a middle to an end) (“On Catharsis” 364). And maintaining his Apollonian alignments, Burke observes, “Regarding dialectical processes in general, any expression or articulation may legitimately be considered as embodying a principle of individuation” (Unending Conversations 75; PDC 370).

Burke identifies three critical points in the process of purgation or purification—the poet being “cleansed” of his “extra-poetic materiality” when he hits upon his theme and starts tracking down its implications; when “he becomes so deeply involved in his symbol-system” that it takes over, and “a new quality or order of motives” emerges; when he reaches his goal and fulfillment is complete (“On Catharsis” 364).18 

Contra-Nietzsche, Burke argues Plato may have formulated his medicine after the great tragic playwrights had concocted theirs, but “dialectical transcendence is logically prior to drama.” Any work translating

the formless tensions of life into an orderly set of systematically inter-related terms (which make possible a treatment of the tension “in principle,” in “entelechial perfection”) by the same token provides a kind of transcendence, through having “translated” us into the formal realm of a symbol-system.  In fact, any orderly terminology “transcends” non-terministic conditions (as a medicology can be said to transcend the diseases it diagnoses and prescribes for, or as any theological, metaphysical, political, historical, etc. theory can be said to transcend the non-symbolic motives to which it imparts form by symbolism).  Man’s first notable step away from the realm of sheer sensation (that is to say, man’s first “transcendence”) is probably best got by the spontaneous symbolizing of sensation in poetic imagery.  (PDC 172-73)

Beyond sheer expression, beyond “turning brute impressions into articulate expressions” (LSA 188), there is the cathartic process of unfolding, of successively actualizing initially vague potentialities (“On Catharsis” 364). The terms in a symbol-system mutually imply one another in a timeless (eternal), cyclical, simultaneity (like notes in a chord), but the terms themselves are future to one another as a thinker proceeds in a temporal, linear sequence from one to the next (like notes in an arpeggio), discovering successively how each in turn is implicit in the others.  The futurity of an implicational cycle of terms still to be made explicit is “a cause of great unrest,” even if the implicational network is built about the cathartic promise of an ultimate rest (“On Catharsis” 364-65).  Insofar as such a cycle of terms is without direction, there would be “cathartic” value in the irreversibility of “narrative or dramatic forms, each with its own unique progression.” Such development “gives the feel of going somewhere, even though, in the last analysis, the same cyclic tangle broods over any self-consistent symbol system” (“On Catharsis” 366).19 

But what Burke contends concerning the articulation of any particular work or network is true of the articulation of language in general, its potentialities still to be made actual causing great unrest, though promising nonetheless ultimate rest at the end of their unfolding. To say the human being is a “symbol-using animal” is by the same token to say the human being is a “transcending animal.” There is in language itself “a motive force” calling us to transcend a world without language (RM 192). And implicit in language as “a means of transcending brute objects” is the idea of God as “the ultimate transcendence”. (RM 276)

Per linguam, praeter linguam

À la Nietzsche, Burke goes on his own hunt for the origins of tragedy. (In fact, the degree to which Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals and Birth of Tragedy inform the Symbolic may be greater than at first appears). Like Nietzsche, he turns to Aeschylus, analyzing the Oresteia almost line by line.

But his search for the origins of tragedy leads to a search for the origins of language and a focus on the negative as the essence of language. Burke moved rapidly through the early sections of the first draft of the Symbolic (“Poetics, Dramatistically Considered”) up through the one on Aeschylus’ trilogy. In summer 1952, he published “Form and Persecution in the Oresteia” in the Sewanee Review, then in fall ’52 and winter ’53 a long four-part essay in the Quarterly Journal of Speech on “A Dramatistic View of the Origins of Language,” which he identified as part of his Ethics years later (1959) in his initial correspondence with William Rueckert—“the damned trilogy” having split along the way into a tetralogy (Letters 3). For the next decade he worked back and forth between the proposed Symbolic and Ethics, publishing parts of each here and there, though the closest he came to publishing either as a complete volume was Language as Symbolic Action and The Rhetoric of Religion.

The Sewanee Review article (collected in LSA 125-38) sits halfway between the section of the 1958 first draft that it summarizes and the QJS articles. There Burke argues the Oresteia (though not reducible to terms so “biologically absolute”) is concerned “with the unresolved conflicts between the verbal and the nonverbal” out of which the verbal arises and in which it is necessarily grounded (LSA 136). The persecuting Furies and Orestes’ mother, Clytemnaestra, are described as the amphisbaena—what Burke takes to be the mythic representation of “the ultimate dreaming worm” (LSA 135) “ever circling back upon itself in enwrapt self-engrossment, the ‘mystic’ dreaming stage of vegetal metabolism in which the taking in and the giving off merge into one another” (LSA 310), “the caterpillar” residing at “the roots of our being” (“Art–and the First Rough Draft of Living” 157), “the sheerly vegetating digestive tract that underlies all human rationality, and out of which emerge the labyrinths of human reason” (LSA 135). Burke takes the “purely social justice” celebrated in the Eumenides’ pageantry at the mythic founding of the Acropolis to be a “dialectical transcending of the basic biological worm” (LSA 135).

In light of the “sheer physicality” of life, writes Burke, the human animal is but a “digestive tract with trimmings” (White Oxen 282), the human organism “simply one more species of alimentary canal with accessories” (“Art–and the First Rough Draft of Living” 157). Somehow, out of this nonverbal tract there emerge linguistic labyrinths in which we lose immediate contact with the sheer materiality of existence. Though the powers of speech may “guide and protect” us in our “tasks of growth, temporary individual survival, and reproduction” (White Oxen 282), they also “cause us to approach the world through a screen of symbolism.” This screen, forcing us to “approach reality at one remove,” distinguishes us from the dreaming worm and makes us the sort of animal human beings typically are (“Art–and the First Rough Draft of Living” 157). 

Thus the body that learns language suffers a kind of “alienation” from nature and its own body (LSA 52). Language establishes a “distance” between us and the nonverbal ground of our verbalizing, a distance not felt by organisms “whose relations to nature are more direct” (LSA 90). The body that learns language exhibits “an unremitting tendency” to make itself over in the image of his distinctive trait, as if aiming to become like “the pure spirit of sheer words, words so essential that they would not need to be spoken” (PC 184). Such a tendency denies our animality even though the action of symbolicity depends upon the resources of physical and biological motion.

Prior to language, we are submerged in nature. However, even then a certain kind of individuality is implicit in the sheer physical centrality of the nervous system whereby food a particular body consumes or pains a particular body suffers belong exclusively to that particular body—a view that Burke considers the logological equivalent of the Thomist view of matter as the principium individualionis (“Catharsis:  Second View” 107). Then come language and the resulting alienation of nonverbal and verbal. Language “strongly punctuates” physical individuality by making us aware of the centrality of the nervous system” (LSA 90). Though we may all “go through the same general set of physiological and psychological processes,” each of us is still isolated within his own body since “universality of that sort by no means removes the individuality intrinsic” to the central nervous system (“Catharsis:  Second View” 107).  Our alienation is exacerbated further as the material reality of the human body in physical association with other bodies, human and non-human, becomes submerged beneath the ideality of socio-political communities saturated with the genius of language (White Oxen 289-90).

The tension created by the vague and vast implications of language yet to be unfolded is released by speech. Thereafter language points down problematic paths, but out of labyrinthine tangles and turns the ultimate course emerges as the thread of language leads up and out in a long climb to its end—by and through language, beyond language, per linguam, praeter linguam (“Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education,” 263; Essays Toward a Symbolic of Motives 266). Such is Plato’s Upward Way, the route of dialectical rather than dramatic cleansing by tears or laughter, purification rather than purgation, transcendence rather than catharsis (Unending Conversations 70; PDC 361)—the way of death and rebirth.

For there is an analogue of dying (and a corresponding rebirth) in the very form of dialectical mounting, the particulars of the senses subjected to progressive transformation whereby their sensuous immediacy and sensory diversity are left further behind with each advance in generalization, the climb complete in the vision of the One—a mortification by means of abstraction, (GM 429; Unending Conversations 74; PDC 367) and death the final slaying of image by idea. “Death then becomes the Neo-Platonists’ One, the completely abstract, which is technically the divine” (“Thanatopsis for Critics" 374). 

In Plato’s analogy of the cave, the imagery is reversed—we leave behind the shadow realm of death; the cave where we have been imprisoned or entombed becomes a womb giving birth to a new world where we are free at last, a new world in which “everything is, as it were, shined on by the same sun, the unitary principle discovered en route, so that entities previously considered disparate can henceforth be seen as partakers of a single substance, through being bathed in a common light” (Unending Conversations 74; PDC 367).

How appropriate then that Keats knew, though there was a lust for life in the brede covering the Grecian Urn, there was an aura of death surrounding it as well.20  An urn after all is a funerary vessel, a chamber pot for life’s remains when life is left behind—although the ashes inside may remain from the conflagration of transcendent sexual union rather than cremation. Sub specie aeternitatis transcendental fever is transformed into transcendental chill, though Burke cautions that as only the fever’s benign aspects remained after consumption’s malign aspects were left behind, so it is on a wholly benign chill that the poem ends (GM 458-59). “Cold Pastoral!” writes Keats, describing an unheard melody with a pastoral theme, or the pastoral last rites rendered by a priest, or the pastoral scene of a transcendental ground (“mortality” left behind for “immortality”) from which the “silent form” issues its epiphany. Then isolation falls away in rapture, and we know . . .

Ordinary knowledge comes via the senses, says Burke, so an extraordinary sensory condition (such as one in which “all nervous impulses ‘attitudinally glowed’ at once” so that we remained “in a halfway stage of incipience, the status nascendi of the pursuit figured on Keat’s Grecian Urn”) would likewise be felt as knowledge. 

The mystic would thus have a strong conviction that his experience was “noetic,” telling him of a “truth” beyond the realm of logical conditions, and accordingly best expressed in terms of the oxymoron.  And indeed, why would it not be “knowledge”?  For if the taste of a new fruit is knowledge, then certainly the experiencing of a rare and felicitous physical condition would be knowledge too, a report of something from outside the mind, communication with an ultimate, unitary ground. (RM 331)

Could not a mystic Plato, Keats, or Burke speak of that which in that moment is revealed

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.


Burke observes in the closing pages of the Grammar that Jowlett, who devoted a great portion of his life to the translating and interpreting of Plato, fully recog­nized the Platonic doctrine of transcendence but never analyzed the dialogues themselves as acts of transcendence. “For not only do they plead for transcendence; they are so formed that the end transcends the beginning” (GM 421). The same might be justly said of the Rhetoric and surmised of the Symbolic.

The Rhetoric’s culminating passage concludes a dialectical climb to a transcendent end. I believe the Symbolic’s culminating passage would have concluded a similar climb.  I believe the steps can be found in the final sections of the ‘58 version (itself unfinished), which examines similarities and differences between dramatic catharsis and dialectical transcendence and in Burke’s great essay on Emerson which does the same (“I, Eye, Aye—Concerning Emerson’s Early Essay on ‘Nature,’ and the Machinery of Transcendence” published in 1966 and collected in Language as Symbolic Action, pp. 186-200).

Burkes writes in “Platonic Transcendence” of

an “Upward Way” moving towards some “higher” principle of unity; once this principle is found, a whole ladder of steps is seen to descend from it; thus, reversing his direction, the dialectician can next take a “Downward Way” that brings him back into the realm . . . where he began; but on reentering, he brings with him the unitary principle he has discovered en route and the hierarchal design he saw implicit in that principle; accordingly, applying the new mode of interpretation to his original problem, he now has the problem “placed” in terms of the transcendent . . .  (Unending Conversations 71; PDC 361-62 )

He continues,

Insofar as reality is non-symbolic and thus outside the realm of the symbol-systems by which we would describe it, to that extent reality is being described in terms of what it is not.  At the point where we have gone from sensory images to ideas that transcend the sensory image, we might next go beyond such ideas in turn by introducing a “mythic” image (an image that is interpreted not literally but ironically, since it states the new position by analogy, and analogies must be “discounted”).  Such use of “myth” as a step in a dialectic may carry the development across a motivational gulf by providing a new ground of assertion at some crucial point where a further advance is not attainable through strictly logical argument.  (Unending Conversations 72; PDC 364)

The image of the Urn as an “object” would be sensory, says Burke; the vision of the Urn as “viaticum” would be mythic (Unending Conversations 73; PDC 366).

Burke’s final step in the Emerson essay is his introduction of such a mythic image (toward which perhaps the whole Symbolic moves) by reference to book six of the Aeneid where early in his 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.

That is the pattern. Whether there is or is not an ultimate shore towards which we, the unburied, would cross, transcendence involves dialectical processes whereby something HERE is interpreted in terms of something THERE, something beyond itself. (LSA 200)21

Does not Burke’s image suggest we suffer life and long for death; that life is imprisonment and death a release? Expelled from and wandering the realms east of Eden, are we not like those wretched shades ourselves, yearning for the life we knew before the Fall, the Life that would be ours if we should truly Die?

Stretching forth his hands each day—enthralled in tracking down and contemplating the interrelationships prevailing among terms of a system (“Poetic Motive” 60), whether another’s or his own; constantly scrutinizing linguistic operations, how they unfold, what they ultimately hold within themselves; aware that wherever the process can be found, even in traces, of considering things “in terms of a broader scope” than terms those particular things themselves allow, “there are the makings of Transcendence” (LSA 200)—stretching forth his hands from the land of life and language to the silent shore beyond in “benign contemplation of death,” Burke is led  and would lead us likewise to live “a dying life” (GM 222-23).

Representative Summations

“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.” 22  The system resulting is basically Aristotelian.

However, though 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; 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).23

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.


1. 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 strait-jacket of academe he might never have become the protean thinker beloved by his admirers. 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). Burke’s never publishing his proposed Symbolic is also supposed as grounds 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.

2. Correspondence, partial publication, and the manuscript itself indicate the bulk of the unfinished second draft of the Symbolic of Motives (hereafter the SM for “Symbolic,” its running header) can reasonably be dated 1961-63, though the history of the complete manuscript is complex going back to the last sections of the first draft (hereafter the PDC for “Poetics, Dramatistically Considered,” the manuscript’s title). In a sense Burke was already revising the first draft before distributing it in 1958. Not only does Burke indicate the first draft is incomplete (PDC ms. p 374); in addition “The Poetic Motive,” the last section of the first draft (PDC ms. pp 375-391) becomes the first section of the second draft (SM ms. pp. 1-17) with virtually no change. The section is published in Hudson Review 11 (Spring 1958): 54-63. Other parts of the PDC published after 1958 with virtually no change (e.g., “Catharsis (Second View),” Centennial Review of Arts and Science 5 (Spring 1961): 107-32) may have been intended like “The Poetic Motive” for the revised SM.

Burke indicates to Malcolm Cowley in a series of letters from 1961 that he is now working hard on revising the Symbolic (see David Williams, “Toward Rounding Out the Motivorum Trilogy,” Unending Conversations, p. 16).  On the other hand 1963 appears to be the date for Burke’s completion of “Part Two” of the second draft covering SM ms. pp. 223-269 (the point at which the manuscript breaks off). “Part Two” is a major revision of “The Thinking of the Body” section from the first draft covering ms. pp. 76-179. The essay “The Thinking of the Body (Comments on the Imagery of Catharsis in Literature),” published in Psychoanalytic Review 50 (Fall 1963) and collected in Language as Symbolic Action (pp. 308-343), is drawn almost entirely from the PDC except for most of the last two sections (LSA pp. 308-30 and 330-43, respectively). There Burke writes (LSA p. 341) that as he works he is living on a Florida key—in fact Englewood, Florida from the end of December 1962 through the middle of March 1963, where he was working on the Symbolic among other things. Burke specifies in the SM (ms. p. 265) exactly what he has cut out of the section from the PDC and indicates he plans to publish the material in a separate monograph (i.e., the above mentioned essay). Burke has probably completed the SM material too, since he receives news on March 4th that William Carlos Williams has died. Thereafter he appears to be caught up in innumerable projects, especially those involving his budding relationship with the University of California Press, and from 1967 until her death in 1969 his wife’s illness.

3. A similar though less thorough discussion can be found in the PDC—e.g., “Embracing such words as ‘arms’ and ‘articulate,’ the root of the word ‘artistic’ is apparently related to a Greek word meaning ‘to join.’ (Further back, in Sanskrit, there were related roots meaning ‘to attain’ and ‘to fit.’)” Summing up the discussion of previous pages Burke says, “the etymological inklings in the word ‘artistic’ point towards dialectic, or articulation, with appropriate modes of generalization and specification—and this trend would come to a head in principles of classification (as with the order of the terms in a Platonic list of classes arranged like the rungs of a ladder)” (4-5).

4. Burke adds parenthetically, “Later in this text, we shall consider Poe’s proposition that ‘the most poetical topic for the ideal lyric is a beautiful woman dead” (SM 32-33)—suggesting the SM will turn ultimately to the consideration of “beauty” (traditionally the end of poetics and aesthetics) and “death” (which Burke associates with perfection and the end of dialectic as well as “rebirth.”)

5. Burke’s exact phrasing is important given the 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.

6. 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.”

7. Burke phrased his definition in precisely this manner during a dinner conversation with Barbara Biesecker and me among others on November 5, 1987 at the SCA Convention in Boston. Burke’s phrasing echoes his 1985 essay “In Haste” (p. 330): “. . . our bodies being physiologically in the realm of nonsymbolic motion, but genetically endowed with the ability to learn a kind of verbal behavior I call symbolic action.” See also his 1978 essay “(Nonsymbolic) Motion/(Symbolic) Action” (pp. 811-12): “ . . . our anthropoid ancestors underwent a momentous mutation.  In their bodies (as physio­logical organisms in the realm of motion) there developed the ability to learn the kind of tribal idiom that is here meant by symbolic action.” And “. . . the mutation that makes speech possible is itself inherited in our nature as physical bodies.” See also his 1981 essay “Variations on ‘Providence’”: “But unlike all other earthly animals (to our knowledge) the human kind is genetically, physiologically, materially endowed with the ability to learn the kind of language which Logology would call ‘symbolic action’” (On Human Nature 274).

8. Burke goes on to observe both dialectic and drama “treat of persons and their characteristic thoughts”—though the dialectic of Platonic dialogue stresses the thoughts held by persons, while drama stresses the persons holding the thoughts. Still, “in both forms the element of personality figures”—though “dialectic can dispense with formal division into cooperatively competing voices.” The thoughts can still be “vibrant with personality,” but they are considered “various aspects of the same but somewhat inconsistent personality, rather than as distinct characters in various degrees of agreement and disagreement” as in Platonic dialogue (LSA 188).

9. See also LSA 125, fn 1.

10. In a critical passage in the Rhetoric (180—the end of “Part II”), Burke distinguishes between the nonverbal (by which he means the “visceral”), the postverbal (“the unutterable complexities to which the implications of words themselves give rise”) and the superverbal (whatever would be the “jumping-off place” if we went “through the verbal to the outer limits of the verbal”)—i.e., the superverbal not as “nature minus speech, but nature as the ground of speech, hence nature as itself containing the principle of speech,” an all-inclusive nature that would be not less-than but more-than-verbal (or NATURE to make the distinction clear and the phrase concise), Burke’s equivalent to Spinoza’s “God or Nature” (though the elements or attributes are reversed).

Unlike Spinoza, however, Burke does not forget the phenomenal character of his starting point. Spinoza describes the finite in terms of the infinite, his metaphysical propositions assuming the character of assertions about external reality; his one infinite divine substance possesses an infinite number of attributes of which we know but two, thought and extension (“God” and “Nature” being the names we respectively give them), mind and body constituting their finite modifications or modes. Burke describes the infinite in terms of the finite, his metabiological propositions being projections of the human; his infinite “nature [equivalent to extension] . . . containing the principle of speech”[equivalent to thought] is an extension of the finite “body genetically endowed with the ability to learn language” [equivalent to mind] —i.e., our phenomenally limited (anthropocentric) view of ultimate being is of human being writ large.

11. Burke does not seem altogether consistent in his use of the term “fragments” in the Rhetoric. Of course one could always argue (as Burke himself undoubtedly would) that however the notion is named, the idea is still inherent in the system. Still it is instructive to examine Burke’s usage.

Burke says, for example, “Empirically, what theologians discuss as the ultimate Oneness of God is equivalent to the ultimate oneness of the linguistic principle.” And from what has been argued, he would seem to suggest here that that principle operates in part or as a “fragment” in all language use.  But he goes on, “Rhetoric is thus made from fragments of dialectic.” His explanation: Expression “as persuasion, seeks to escape from infancy by breaking down the oneness of an intuition into several terms, or voices. It defines by partisanship, by determination. These terms may bring clarifications that are themselves confusions on another level” (RM 175-76). The discussion calls to mind an earlier discussion: “The notion of the Son as bringer of light seems in its essence to suggest that the division of the part from the whole is enlightening, a principle that might be stated dialectically thus: Partition provides terms; thereby it allows the parts to comment upon another. But this ‘loving’ relation allows for the ‘fall’ into terms antagonistic in their partiality, until dialectically resolved by reduction to ‘higher’ terms” (RM 140). In these passages and others, “fragments” suggests pieces divorced from or apart from the whole.

But elsewhere “fragments” suggests pieces that retain some aspect of the whole, that are somewhat or somehow connected to or a part of the whole—in which two cases (RM 331) the term is bracketed in quotation marks. Burke, for example, contrasts mysticism and its “fragments” with “substitutes” for mysticism that involve “the transforming of means into ends”—false mysticisms of money or crime or drugs or war (RM 331-32). 

Overall, the term seems to retain the ambiguity of the rhetoric-dialectic relationship, of voices cooperating in competition versus voices competing in cooperation, of opposition versus apposition.

The ambiguity of mysticism versus false mysticism (and the ambiguity of “fragments” as well) continues to the end of the Rhetoric: “Mysticism [including false mysticism?] is no rare thing. True, the attaining of it in its pure state is rare.” Does Burke mean a “true” or “real” state as opposed to a false one? or some other kind of state such as “pure” versus “impure,” that is, mixed with the ersatz? He continues:  “And its secular analogues [the “secular” contrasted with the “sacred” or “pure”? the “social” contrasted with the “cosmic”?], in grand or gracious symbolism, are rare. But the need for it, the itch, is everywhere [à la Augustine?—see fn. 12 below]. And by hierarchy it is intensified.”  (RM 332-33)

Mysticism (?), says Burke, can exist “under many guises” in hierarchy. Anagogically the conditions of the “divine,” the goadings of “mystery” reside in hierarchy (RM 333). In his “Definition of Man” Burke says that in his Rhetoric he tried to trace the relationship between social hierarchy and mystery. He concedes that should the fourth clause of his definition, “goaded by the spirit of hierarchy,” sound too weighted, he could settle instead for “moved by a sense of order.” He then points to E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India “for its ingenious ways of showing how social mystery can become interwoven with cosmic mystery”; and Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier for nicely bringing out two kinds of “worship,” kneeling on one knee to the sovereign and on both knees to God; and the ancient Roman application of the term pontifex maximus to the Emperor to specifically recognize his “bridging” relationship as the head of the social hierarchy  and as a god (LSA 15-16).

But given that “the mystery [social and cosmic?] of the hierarchic is forever with us,” writes Burke in the final paragraph of the Rhetoric, let us

scrutinize its range of entrancements, both with dismay and in delight. And finally let us observe, all about us, forever goading us, though it be in fragments [meant in all its ambiguity?], the motive that attains its ultimate identification in the thought, not of the universal holocaust, but of the universal order—as with the rhetorical and dialectical symmetry of the Aristotelian metaphysics, whereby all classes of being are hierarchically arranged in a chain or ladder or pyramid of mounting worth, each kind striving towards the perfection of its kind, and so towards the kind next above it, while the strivings of the entire series head in God as the beloved cynosure and sinecure, the end of all desire. (RM 333)

12. Burke’s own system can be profitably considered in regard to Augustine’s famous aphorism and modern theologian Paul Tillich’s rendering of it—God is the end of all our striving, that with which we are ultimately concerned. For Augustine and Tillich the theistic motive (though it may not be recognized as such) inspirits all aspects of our lives, so no account of human motivation is complete without it. The motive might be misdirected toward other ends (wealth, power, glory—other “gods”) but no substitute could fully satisfy. The theistic motive in Augustine and Tillich is apparently secularized as the hierarchic motive in Burke. The end of all striving is not God but a principle (such as money) that infuses all levels of a particular hierarchy and functions as God. Thus sheerly worldly powers take on the attributes of secular divinity and demand our worship. For Burke, though, the hierarchic motive itself is ultimately linguistic. And the linguistic motive is ultimately natural—meaning the natural world would encompass more than the merely material (see RM 180). The end of all linguistic striving then would be that NATURE which gives birth not simply to our bodies but also to language and our minds. Thus the theism of Augustine and Tillich is transformed into the naturalism of Burke in which it is NATURE that has made us symbol-using animals and our hearts are restless until our symbols bring us to rest in IT. See Thames, “The Gordian Not” 29.

13. Burke’s contention is particularly apt given Mircea Eliade’s analysis of the centrality of sex and victimage in his study of the archaic ontology implicit in myth and ritual (Myth of the Eternal Return; see also Richard H. Thames, Mystical Ontology in Kenneth Burke [dss.])

According to Eliade, myths testify to archaic man’s terror of losing contact with being (the eternal and sacred) by allowing himself to be overwhelmed in the process of becoming (the temporal and profane). When archaic man repeats an archetypal gesture (at essential moments such as a New Year, birthday or anniversary; a rite of passage; a founding) his action not only repeats but also coincides with an archetype initiated by the gods ab origine, at the beginning of time. By repeating such a gesture he escapes from becoming and maintains contact with being; he abolishes and projects himself out of profane into primordial or mythic time: he returns and is witness to Creation. Thus his rituals evince a thirst not only for the ontic but also the static. Such repetition enables him to maintain contact with being in all its plenitude; such repetition enables him to live like the mystic in a continual, atemporal present by generating a cyclical structure for time. 

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 ritual sacrifice, victimage, the “kill” (“On Catharsis” 348, 362).

See endnote 14 below.

14. See endnote 13 above. The mystic state would involve annulment of the here and now and absorption into the Absolute which would be formless as opposed to form in time and space and therefore chaotic as the ground of creation, nothing as opposed to all that is, the womb of plenitude out of which the world is born—pure being.

15. Later in his analysis Burke adds in a footnote

In the light of what we have said about the deathiness of immortality, and the relation between the erotic and the thought of a “dying,” perhaps we might be justified in reading the last line of the great “Bright Star!” sonnet as naming states not simply alternative but also synonymous:

And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

This use of the love-death equation is as startlingly paralleled in a letter to Fanny Brawne:

I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death.  O that I could take possession of them both in the same moment.  (GM 456)

16. See Burke’s own piece, “The ‘Anaesthetic Revelation’ of Herone Liddell” (White Oxen 255-310), cited by Burke himself (“Catharsis—Second View” 119-20; PDC 340), in which the protagonist,

a “word-man” recovering from the ill effects of surgery, becomes engrossed in studying the death of Keats, as revealed through Keats’s letters. Here, by critically re-enacting the death of a “perfect” poet, the word-man in effect uses Keats as cathartic victim. But the cathartic principle is broken into other fragments also, as for instance, in shell-gathering, in speculations on the sea as life-giving charnel house, and in the change of scene, itself designed to be curative.

Burke takes the title from William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience from which Burke takes excerpts of excerpts, assembling the “cullings into one consecutive, dithrambic but rambling account, which should give a composite portrait of the experience, [the] mystic state” (RM 328-29).

17. “On Catharsis or Resolution, with a Postscript” (Kenyon Review 21 (Summer 1959): 337-75) is commonly supposed to have been drawn from the PDC section on “Catharsis (First View)” written in 1951 (ms. pp.38-56). Actually parts of the essay are taken verbatim from the first draft, but parts can also be found verbatim in the second! In 1959 Burke indicated in his first exchange with William Rueckert (Letters from Kenneth Burke to William H. Rueckert: 1959-1987, p. 4) that the “Symbolic” was somewhat delayed because unfortunately “some other possibilities turned up—and I couldn’t resist tracing them down.” Still he hoped to complete the Poetics’ “final bits” in the fall of that year—“a section on comic catharsis, for instance, though the general lines [were] already indicated” in his essay “On Catharsis.” He also hoped “to make clearer the relation btw. dramatic catharsis and Platonic (dialectic)/ transcendence” though he thought Rueckert would also agree that he had “already indicated the main lines in that connection,”  again in “On Catharsis” as well as elsewhere (e.g., the final sections of the PDC). Burke appears to have thought the “Symbolic” through to the end and did not anticipate its taking much longer to finish.

Burke adds at the end of “Platonic Transcendence” in the PDC (375):

We may not be able, at this time, to complete our remarks on Comedy. [How ironic that Burke’s remarks are incomplete and Aristotle’s lost, a situation Burke surely found fitting.] But here is, roughly, the sort of things to be treated:

First, by using as [a] model the three comedies of Aristophanes on peace, we shall be able to dwell on the pleasing antics of peace.

We want to consider the relation between wholly cathartic laughter and derision.

We want to ask in particular about the role of “body-thinking” in Aristophanic comedy.

We want to inquire further about laughter, tears, and appetite, as regards the materials of poetic form. (Unending Conversations 77; PDC 374)

Burke’s comment about completing “a section on comic catharsis” coincides with plans from the PDC but his comment about hoping “to make clearer the relation between dramatic catharsis and Platonic (dialectic)/ transcendence” takes things a step further. Clearly then, the essay is of considerable importance, indicating the direction the unfinished second draft may have taken. 

In fact the distribution of the PDC in the Summer of 1958; the publication of  “The Poetic Motive” (the essay  included at the end of the  PDC and moved to the front of the SM) in Spring 1958; the publication of  “On Catharsis” in Summer 1959 and the presence of verbatim sections in the SM; and Burke’s comments in the letter to Rueckert on 8 August 1959 vis-à-vis material in “Beyond Catharsis” and “Platonic Transcendence” as well as comments on what remains to be done on page 375 of the PDC, suggest that pages 362-68 from “On Catharsis” may constitute a sketch for the remainder of “A Symbolic of Motives.” 

Other essays published between 1959 and 1966 may contain additional clues—e.g. “Rhetoric and Poetics” (a talk presented at a Symposium on the History and Significance of Rhetoric under the auspices of the UCLA Classics Department in May 1965 and collected in LSA 295-307) as well as the extensive footnotes in LSA.

18. Burke continues: “Corresponding stages may be ascribed to the reader, or to the work itself, as with the different qualities of beginning, peripety, and end, analyzed without reference to either reader or writer” (“On Catharsis” 364).

19. Such translation of the logical into the temporal is the subject of Burke’s essay on Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition” which he promises to discuss later (SM 129). He does discuss Poe’s essay in his own “The Principle of Composition” (Poetry 99, October 961, 46-53) which he tells Rueckert will be used in some form in the Symbolic (Letters 31-32). See also “Poetics in Particular, Language in General” (LSA 25-43).

20. Burke quotes Bernard Blackstone who in The Consecrated Urn (332) observes that in the original draft the line “And silent as a consecrated urn” read “And silent as a corpse upon a pyre” (see “As I Was Saying” 21).

21. The first reference to this image appears on p. 363 of the essay “On Catharsis”; Burke describes it again in “Rhetoric and Poetics” (LSA 298); and he expands on it in the Emerson essay published in 1966 about the time he would have been returning to the Symbolic after finishing LSA and prior to the diagnosis of his wife’s malady sometime between late 1966 and early 1967.

22. See Thames, “The Gordian Not: Untangling the Motivorum. Part One: Seeking the Symbolic.”  KB Journal (Kenneth Burke Society Journal online at kbjournal.org), Spring 2007.

23. 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 Marxist escatology—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).

Works Cited

Blackstone, Bernard. The Consecrated Urn, An Interpretation of Keats in Terms of Growth and Form. London: Longmans Green, 1959; reprint 1962.

Burke, Kenneth. “The Anaesthetic Revelation of Herone Liddell.” Complete White Oxen: Collected Short Fiction of Kenneth Burke. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. 255-310.

— . “Art—and the First Rough Draft of Living.” Modern Age 8 (1964): 155-65.

— . “Beyond Catharsis.” “Poetics, Dramatistically Considered.” Ms., 1958. 281-320. Also in Unending Conversations: New Writings by and about Kenneth Burke. Eds. Greig Henderson and David Cratis Williams. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001. 52-64.

— . Collected Poems: 1915-1967. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

— . The Complete White Oxen: Collected Short Fiction of Kenneth Burke. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

— . “Catharsis—Second View.” Centennial Review of Arts and Science 5 (1961): 107-132.

— . “Dramatism.” Communication: Concepts and Perspectives. Ed. Lee Thayer. Washington, DC: Spartan Books, 1967. 327-352. Also abridged in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 7. New York: Macmillan and Free Press, 1968. 445-452.

— . “Dramatism and Logology.” Times Literary Supplement. 12 August. 1983: 859.

— . Dramatism and Development. Barre, MA: Clark University Press with Barre Publishers, 1972.

— . A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

— . Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

— . “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education.” Modern Philosophies and Education. Ed. Nelson B. Henry. National Society for the Study of Education Year Book 54. Chicago: National Society for the Study of Education; University of Chicago Press, 1955: 259-303. Also abridged in Essays Toward a Symbolic of Motives, 1950-1955. Ed. William H. Rueckert. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2006. 261-282.

— . “On Catharsis, or Resolution, with a Postscript.” Kenyon Review 20 (1958): 337-375.

— . “The Orestes Trilogy.” Essays Toward a Symbolic of Motives: 1950-1955. Ed. William H. Rueckert. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2006. 103-147.

— . Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. 3d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

— . “The Poetic Motive.” Hudson Review 40 (1958): 54-63.

— . “Poetics, Dramatistically Considered.” Ms., 1958.

— . “The Principle of Composition.” Poetry 99 (1961): 46-53. Also in Terms for Order. Ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman with the assistance of Barbara Karmiller. Bloomington: Indiana University Press (A Midland Book), 1964. 189-98.

— . A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

— . The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

— . “A Symbolic of Motives.” Ms., 1963 (?).

— . “Thanatopsis for Critics: A Brief Thesaurus of Deaths and Dying.” Essays in Criticism 2 (1952): 369-375.

Eliade, Mircea. The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (Bollingen paperback), 1971.

— . The Sacred and the Profane. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World (Harvest Book), 1959.

Henderson, Greig and David Cratis Williams (eds). Unending Conversations: New Writings by and about Kenneth Burke. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001.

Kline, G. L. Spinoza in Soviet Philosophy. London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1952.

Knight, G. Wilson. Starlit Dome: Studies in the Poetry of Vision. London: Methuen, 1941.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs (eds). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Rueckert, William H. (ed). Essays Toward a Symbolic of Motives: 1950-1955. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2006.

— (ed). Letters from Kenneth Burke to William H. Rueckert: 1959-1987. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2002.

Rueckert, William H., and Angelo Bonadonna (eds). On Human Nature: A Gathering Where Everything Flows, 1967-1984. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

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

Thames, Richard. “The Gordian Not.” Kenneth Burke Journal, Spring 2007.

— . “Mystical Ontology in Kenneth Burke: Consequences for His Theory of Rhetoric.” Dissertation. University of Pittsburgh. 1979.

— . “Nature’s Physician: The Metabiology of Kenneth Burke.” Kenneth Burke and the 21st Century. Ed. Bernard L. Brock. SUNY Series in Speech Communication. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. 19-34.

Walker, Jeffrey. Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

An earlier shorter version of this paper was presented at the 2011 Southern States Communication Convention in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Richard Thames is an Associate Professor of Communication & Rhetorical Studies at Duquesne University. A founder of the Kenneth Burke Society, he helped organize the original 1984 conference in Philadelphia and the centennial 1996 conference in Pittsburgh. Thames edited the KBS Newsletter for over a decade and now serves on the editorial board of the Journal. His publications include “The Writings of Kenneth Burke, 1968-1985” and “A Selected Bibliography of Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke, 1968-1985” in The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, edited by Herbert Simons  & Trevor Melia; “Nature’s Physician:  The Metabiology of Kenneth Burke “ in Kenneth Burke and the 21st Century, edited by Bernard Broack; and most recently “The Gordian Knot:  Untangling the Motivorum” in the Spring 2007 KB Journal. Thames is currently editing a critical edition of Burke’s unpublished “Symbolic of Motives,” a copy of which was given  to him by Burke during his visiting professorship at the University of Pittsburgh in 1974.

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Media Coverage of Natural Disasters: Pentadic Cartography and the Case of the 1993 Great Flood of the Mississippi

Kevin R. McClure


This essay employs pentadic cartography in an analysis of media coverage of natural disaster with particular attention to the 1993 Great Flood of the Mississippi.  It begins with a review of pentadic cartography.  Next, the survey reports of the 1993 Great Flood of the Mississippi taken from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) are coupled with a synoptic pentadic analysis informed by scholarship from the disaster research field.  A detailed pentadic analysis of 48 Hours:  Flood Sweat and Tears (CNS 1993) follows.  The critical discussion argues that Flood, Sweat and Tears is representative of media coverage that overstresses physical destruction and human suffering in natural disasters, while constructing a symbolic landscape in which disasters are, implicitly and explicitly, presented as “random acts of nature.”  Through these analytical comparisons, I argue that media coverage of natural disasters functions to “close the universe of discourse,” contributing to a technological vocabulary of motives that tends to screen out the politics of disasters and disaster management policies.

IN THE CULTURE OF CALAMITY (2007), Rozario explains that major natural disasters have long “gripped the public imagination, challenging and transforming ideas of nature, religion, social organization, and public policy, while inspiring intense deliberation about the meaning of America and of life itself” (p. 12).  In his exploration of the symbiotic relationship between the project of modernity and disasters, he details the importance of “disasters to modern thought and activity” and reveals that calamities “generate an extraordinary amount of cultural production” (p. 14).  Disasters disrupt the daily routines and the putative stability of everyday life and call into question our constructions and understandings of reality and our relationships with the social and natural world (Alexander, 2005a, 2005b; and Hewitt, 1995).  In other words, natural disasters create raptures and “ambiguities” in our symbolic universe, challenging the veracity of our terms as “faithful reflections of reality” (Burke, 1969, p. 59).  Moreover, extreme natural disasters are linked to the inner workings of industrial-technological society and the society’s culpability due to factors such as race and class, failure to mitigate, growth and development, capitalism, and perhaps, the limits of modernity itself.1  This essay advances a theoretical and critical rhetorical engagement with elements of this extraordinary cultural production by exploring how the media respond to and construct meanings out of the chaotic events and situations brought about by natural disasters.2

The 1993 Great Flood of the Mississippi was the worst flood in U.S. history, lasting from June to September.  Like the disasters of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami (2011), the Haitian earthquake (2010), and Hurricane Katrina (2005), the 1993 flood had powerful impacts materially, economically, psychologically, politically, and sociologically.3 These extreme events reveal that disasters are exigent issues that provoke complex fields of rhetoric, which ripple across the broad discursive “spaces” of culture, including the institutional domains of civil society, politics, science, technology, media, and religion. While the case of the 1993 flood of the Mississippi, specifically CBS News’ 48 Hours: Flood, Sweat, and Tears that aired on July 14, 1993, serves as the “representative anecdote”4 of this essay, the critical analysis includes media coverage from other notable natural disasters.5  Given the range of rhetorical phenomena associated with the rhetoric of disaster, Anderson and Prelli’s (2001) pentadic cartography is appropriate because of its methodological flexibility for critically engaging discourses at both a macro-level and a micro-level.6 Burke’s pentad, as Anderson and Prelli (2001) explicate, “can be used as a cartographic device for mapping the universe of discourse, charting the terminological network of often implicit assumptions and relationships that serve to close or open discursive interactions” (p. 80). 

I begin with a review of pentadic cartography. Next, the survey reports of the 1993 Great Flood of the Mississippi taken from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) are coupled with a synoptic (or global) pentadic analysis informed by scholarship from the disaster research field that serves as the baseline for the symbolic terrain of the 1993 flood. A detailed pentadic analysisof 48 Hours: Flood, Sweat, and Tears (CBS, 1993) follows.  I conclude with critical discussion, arguing that Flood, Sweat, and Tears is representative of mediacoverage that overstresses the physical destruction and human suffering of disasters, while rhetorically constructing a symbolic landscape in which disasters are, implicitly and explicitly, presented as “random acts of nature.”7 In so doing, media coverage of natural disasters functions to “close the universe of discourse,” contributing to a terminological vocabulary of motives that constrains thoughts and discourses that deflects attention away from the politics of disaster and long term disaster management policies. The main objective is to provide the foundation for further critical engagements with the rhetorics of disaster.

Pentadic Cartography

Anderson and Prelli’s (2001) pentadic cartography extends Burke’s pentad.8 The pentad is Burke’s method of accounting for the rhetorical construction and advocacy of "realities" and for tracking motivations and attitudes in language.9 Pentadic cartography provides a critical methodology that affords both a synoptic perspective for the global mapping of the rhetoric of disaster and a more detailed interpretation of the specific terminological vocabularies via large-scaled mapping10  In their discussion of mapping symbolic terrain, Anderson and Prelli note that “[P]entadic cartographers operate in ways that parallel empirical map makers . . .  and produce pentadic maps, which are symbolic models that give a synoptic perspective from which critics can talk about the many ways that humans have talked about things” (p. 83).  Extending the analogy of empirical mapping, they point out that maps can operate at different scales: “Critics could track the dominate vocabulary of motives within an entire social order and, thus, yield a relatively global, or small scaled, interpretation; or they could map terminological implications within a single speech, or poem, or play, and generate a more detailed, or larger scaled, interpretation” (p. 83). 

Pentadic cartography has all of the advantages of Burke’s formulation of the pentad while emphasizing a critical focus on the verbal and visual rhetorics associated with the inner workings of advanced technological society.  More critically important, then, is that Anderson and Prelli employ Burke’s pentad as a means “for charting the ways that terminologies function to open or close the universe of discourse” by rhetorically mapping the “observable linguistic structures” of verbal terrain and visual messages (p. 74). “The cartographer of motives must locate the featured term that coordinates transformation of one vocabulary into the terms of another at pivotal sites of ambiguity” (p. 80).  The critic’s task, they argue, is to function as an agent of “demystification” to reveal how “‘legitimate’ perspectives are reduced . . . to the terms of a single technological system of thought” and to “reopen that closed system” of thought via the “construction of an alternative vocabulary to those privileged in the technological society” (p. 73).

In their discussion of the universe of discourse, Anderson and Prelli (2001) note that a broad range of social, political, and philosophical thinkers have argued that “advanced industrial society 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” (p. 73).  Informed by Burke’s discussion of terminological psychoses,11 as a “tendency to . . . see everything in terms of . . . a particular recipe of overstressings and understressings peculiar to [an] institutional structure,” and that the “technological psychosis” emerges as “supreme” among these psychoses, Anderson and Prelli’s critical method underscores the ways in which the contemporary closed universe of discourse “reduces all terminologies to the terms of agency or of scene” (p. 81).  Like Burke, Anderson and Prelli argue that in the technological society the “ultimate terms of . . . discourse are associated with scene or agency” (pp. 78-81). 

Every vocabulary is limiting, in that it selects particular terms that provide a way of seeing or thinking. With regard to matter and motion, the terminologies associated with scene instill totally mechanical meanings, lacking spontaneity and purpose.12 “The scene then acts as a ‘container’ for the agent and act. . . .  The industrial-technological scene reduces act, agent, and purpose to external conditions, through its own mechanical terms” (p. 81).  As Burke (1969) explains, scene corresponds with the philosophy of materialism, which “regards all the facts of the universe as explainable in terms of matter and motion” (p. 131).  The discourses of the sciences are the contemporary archetypeof scenic discourse. In contrast, agency corresponds with a philosophy of pragmatism and a vocabulary that reduces “people, actions, places and purposes in terms of, or from the standpoint of, instruments or means” (Anderson and Prelli, p. 81).13 Exemplars of agency are found in the areas of the applied sciences, engineering, and technology (Burke, 1969, p. 286), which reduce “the language of action . . . ultimately to terms of motion” (Anderson and Prelli, p. 81).14  Both the vocabularies of scene and agency are complementary to each other as they reduce the universe of discourse to mechanical terms that narrow “the terms of deliberation to terms of motion” and “circumference of motivations associated with motion [they] are inappropriate for political and social discourse” (p. 81).  Vocabularies of scene and agency mask motivations associated with acts, agents, and purposes.15

The following synoptic pentadic analysis of the survey reports from NOAA and the USACE serves as the baseline for the symbolic terrain of the 1993 flood. 

The Great Flood of 1993: A Synoptic Analysis

According to the reports by the USACE and NOAA, the 1993 flooding of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers resulted in the death of fifty people and caused about $20 billion in damage. The flood was distinctive from other floods in terms of its magnitude, severity, damage, and the season  in which it occurred—all summer. Flooding and water levels above the flood stage continued through the middle of September in many regions along the Mississippi River. At Hannibal, Mo., the Mississippi River remained above flood stage for more than six months, while portions of the Missouri River were above flood stage for several months (USACE, 1993).

At St. Louis, near the convergence of the Missouri, Illinois and Mississippi rivers, all of which were in flood at the same time, the first spring flooding on the Mississippi River began on April 8.  The Mississippi rose above flood stage again on April 11 and stayed above flood stage until May 24.  Then, on June 27, the Mississippi went above flood stage again and did not drop below flood stage until October 7.  The Mississippi River was above the old record flood stage for more than three weeks at St. Louis, from mid-July to mid-August (NOAA, 2003).  During July, Iowa became the focus of attention when flooding overwhelmed Ames and Des Moines. The state of Iowa was declared a disaster area, as  well as portions of eight other states: North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas (NOAA, 2003).  According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “40 of 229 federal levees and 1,043 of 1,347 non-federal levees were over-topped or damaged” (USACE, 2003).  The national disaster survey report of the NOAA (1996) describes the flood of 1993 as “an unprecedented hydro meteorological event since the United States started to provide weather services in the mid-1800s.”16 When floodwaters finally receded in October, the flood had saturated an estimated 20 million acres in nine states.

This description by NOAA and the USACE transforms nature (scene) into a geophysical agent.  The account, then, constructs the natural events as scene-agency, with the disruptions of the Midwest scene explained in terms of the motions of the Mississippi River and the rains that function as natural agencies (scenic-motions).  An important feature of this terminology is that scenic terms dominate as an orientation omitting acts, agents, and purpose. The pivotal terms of this description transform the events into “an unprecedented hydro meteorological event,” and thus, into a random act of nature, with no further explanation.

Hewitt (1995) describes this way of envisioning natural disasters as the technological or physical hazards view.  This conception, he notes, is “the most common vision of disasters, even in the work of social scientists” (p. 319).  Steinberg (2006) argues that this view, “understood by scientists, the media, and technocrats as primarily accidents—unexpected, unpredictable happenings that are the price of doing business on this planet,” constructs disasters as “random acts of nature” (p. xxi).17 A number of scholars in the disaster research field contest the adequacy of the “random act of nature” view and eschew its impact on public policy.18 When natural disasters are “seen as freak events cut off from people’s everyday interactions with the environment,” the events “are positioned outside the moral compass of our culture,” and thus, “no one can be held accountable for them” (p. xxi).  The political import of the “random act of nature” view is that it constrains our understandings of socio-political and socio-economic factors and the interplay of human agents and agency as factors in the production of disaster risks. As Steinberg explains, “natural calamities frequently do not just happen; they are produced through a chain of human choices and natural occurrences” (p. xxi).  

The 1993 flood is distinctive given that the Mississippi River is a product of a long-standing attempt to engineer the river to suit the needs of a contemporary capitalist economy.  In fact, the Mississippi River has been shaped by the industrial-technological agencies of the modern world ever since Congress authorized the Mississippi River Commission in 1879 for the construction of a levee system to prevent the annual flooding along the waterway, which connects the industrial centers and agricultural heartland of the Midwest with the Gulf Coast. In 1927, the levee system famously blocked the river from its floodplains and led to even greater flooding when the levees failed. The 1927 flood was one of the worst disasters in American history and a turning point in the implementation of modern disaster relief after intense media coverage “encouraged the public to invest emotionally in the flood and to demand that politicians do whatever they could to help the victims” (Rozario, p. 146).  Indicative of the technological psychosis, the problem was not seen as a failure in engineering but a defective program. “The levee-only policy had failed” so “the only solution was a new system that included controlled spillways” (Rozario, p. 149). The new system represented an expensive and massive long-term Federal commitment to further re-engineer the river that was accompanied by the commercial development of floodplains, the destruction of wetlands, and the striping of forest cover, ultimately tended to serve entrenched socio-political and socio-economic class interests of the economy.19 When the 1993 flood struck, like Hurricane Katrina, it was the prototype of a disaster where “modern disaster policy . . . was the mother of disaster” (p. 146).

But this is not the lesson to be drawn from the reports of NOAA and USACE. Rather, the terms used to describe the 1993 flood above, map a symbolic terrain that is wide in scope but narrow in circumference. This description decontextualizes the scene as a product of the industrial-technology agencies of modernity and understresses the meaning of these events for agents and public policies insofar as it lacks any significant consideration of socio-economic and socio-political factors that contribute to such events.   Pentadically, this description complements the technical idiom of the “purely” scientific discourses that formulate a scene-agency ratio. The idiom of science is one of pure motion as in the example of hydrologists who explain the 1993 flood in terms of rainfall amounts (agency) and ground saturation models that led to the flooding in the Midwest scene (Changnon, 1996). Scientific discourses can also mask issues of human agency that may play a more direct role in disasters.

The flood that disrupted and shattered the social fabric of people and communities was far more rhetorically complex and ambiguous than the events described in the calculable terms above . Indeed, the people directly affected by this tremendous flood likely found little comfort in knowing that it was an “unprecedented occurrence.” As local and national media covered the story throughout the entire flood, there were, of course, a number of rhetorical responses to the events, including official government statements20 and religious interpretations.21  Prior to Hurricane Katrina, no other natural disaster in U.S. history received so much media coverage or directly touched so many lives for so long as the 1993 flood (USACE, 1993). 

In what terms and terminology, then, did media coverage present the events of this natural disaster? Did these terms also “narrow the circumference” of the public’s understandings of the disaster? And if so, does a narrowing of terms and terminology in the media have an analogue in public policy toward natural disasters?

Flood, Sweat and Tears: A Detailed Pentadic Analysis

Although the description of events above excludes any meaningful consideration of the impacts of the disasters upon individuals, the seemingly “arbitrary” impact of scenic motion upon agents is a primary concern for the media.  For the mainstream visual and print media, natural disasters “are ideal subjects” insofar as the media “seeks the dramatic, emotionally-charged, even the catastrophic to capture audience attention” (Fry, 2004, p. 721).22  This is certainly the case in the July 14th episode of 48 Hours: Flood, Sweat, and Tears (CBS, 1993) that was broadcast live fromDes Moines, Iowa during some of the worst flooding.23  The episode, hosted by Dan Rather, was devoted to the 1993 Mississippi flood and the heat wave that was hitting the South and East. 

The episode opens with a medium shot of the Mississippi River flowing while dramatic music plays in the background.  As the camera shot pulls back to a wider view, it reveals that the river is in complete flood, with houses, roads, and bridges clearly inundated. As the music crescendos, Dan Rather’s voice narrates, “Tonight on 48 hours.” The next shot is footage of people reinforcing a levee with sandbags, with the voiceover of another man: “We got people fighting this thing like you wouldn’t believe.” The shot then turns to a specific house surrounded by sandbags with water rising on one side of the sandbags; Rather continues in voiceover, “fighting a flood.” The shot then turns to Mrs. Kim Camp as she notes, “this is where we started laying up our sandbag, April 16th.” Rather voices, “and standing firm.” 

As the introduction continues, it shifts to a man in an urban location who complains, “the heat, it’s too much.” Rather, in voiceover, comments “It’s hell . . .” A meteorologist in voiceover adds, “It’s a hundred and twenty in the shade.”  The next shot is of a paramedic administering aid to a person in distress, remarking that “his body feels hot.” The shot cuts quickly back to the flooding  Rather, still in voiceover, saying, “and high water.”  As Rather’s voiceover continues, “America’s summer of flood, sweat and tears,” the footage is of medical service workers, children playing in the water from a fire hydrant in an urban setting, and then back to flooding. An unidentified woman comments in voiceover, “We’re going to safe Mom’s house.”

The theme music from 48 Hours begins with its stock opening footage and credits.  This opening signals an important terminological moment of pentadic reversal and crisis, indicating a break or rapture in the putatively stable symbolic terrain of civil society, the container--human agencies like levees and dams--no longer contain or control the scene; dialectical speaking, the ratios shift from agency-scene to scene-agency.

After a commercial break, Dan Rather greets the audience. “Good evening. I’m reporting live from Des Moines, Iowa, a city under siege; a city coping with the crisis literally flooding America’s heartland.”  The shot is medium, from above, with the river in the background below and with scores of people in the immediate background urgently sandbagging a large levee; it is nighttime but large lights from above reveal the chain of human action. As the shot moves into a close-up, Rather states, “An incredibly large part of the Mississippi Basis is involved in this flood crisis. Mark Twain once called the Mississippi River ‘monstrous.’ Now the monster is on the loose. It has swallowed homes, towns and livelihood. The toll rises like the tide, and it’s a long way from over. That’s part of the heartache.”  After commenting on the heat wave in the South and East, he notes that “tonight you will meet men and women facing these twin disasters with courage, resolve, and grit.”  Rather proceeds to inform the audience that the program will begin with Phil Jones in “flood ravaged Illinois,” who will report “on people still clinging to their homes and clinging to hope.” 

The opening sequence of Flood, Sweat, and Tears constructs a symbolic terrain where people are at “war” with nature, in a city “under siege,” “fighting this thing,” this “monster,” that threatens to engulf “mom’s house” and “towns and livelihood.”  In cartographic terms, the extent of the massive flooding is visually reduced in the opening footage. Even the long shot of the river is only a partial view of a few miles of river.  This reduction in the scope of the flooding is further reduced as coverage shifts to a particular impact, the house of Kim and Scott Camp to represent the struggle against the “monster.”  Pentadically, the transformation is a progressive narrowing in scope as it shifts from scene to agents. 

After an interlude of theme music, the next segment opens with footage of a hose pumping water over a sandbagged barrier, then to water coming up from a drain on the side of the house, and then to Kim and Scott Camp at their modest home.  The home is almost entirely surrounded by sandbags.  Jones narrates, “Kim and Scott Camp are desperate.”  The shot shifts to inside the Camp home with Scott and Kim both holding children.  Next, we hear Kim, a young mother with an infant on her hip, exhausted and distraught. “It seems like it never ends, and we just have to keep going. We have to keep trying because it’s still ours.”  Jones says, "The river is about to swallow their house.” Kim continues, “We’re doing the best we can. We’ve got—we both come from big families. We’re religious. And we just pray that it’ll hold out.” 

In the next sequence, Jones and Kim walk around to the back of the house; Jones is now holding one of the Camp’s children. As they approach a high sandbagged wall, the shot is from above, with high water on the other side. Long panning shots of the river follow. One shot is from inside the house through a large side window - a shot that invites the audience to see the flood from the Camp’s living room.  Kim comments that her husband did “all the construction work himself with help of friends and family.” Jones in voiceover, “And they build their dreams.” Kim continues, “Everything is new—walls, floor, carpet—the whole works.” Jones, says in voiceover, “the home is on the lowest ground in Hardin, Illinois.” Then speaking to one of the children, Jones asks, “Does that scare you when you see that water out there?” The young girl in his arms nods yes. The camera then shifts to more footage of the flooding. Jones, again in voiceover, “If it goes to the river, the fear is, the whole town will follow.”  Footage continues to show the sandbagging around the house, while Kim discusses a nightmare in which she forgets to close the window at night and floodwaters keep “coming and coming and coming.” Jones then assures the audience that “Kim and Scott Camp and four-year-old Lacey and one year old Levi—they’re not beaten yet.” As this scene ends, Kim discusses how the sandbags will need to be three feet higher, with footage of the sandbags and high water, followed by Jones in voiceover, “Keep holding on Kim and Scott!” 

With a quick cut to prisoners marching like soldiers, we hear Jones in voiceover, “Hope has just arrived in Hardin. Eighty-nine prisoners . . . are here to gang up on the flood.”  Cartographically, the entire sequence’s terms shift as follows: from scene to agents, then to purpose-act, then a return to scene controlling agents. As the scene shifts to the efforts of the prisoners, the emphasis is again on agents and their noble and redemptive efforts, as the young “convicted felons” in a special corrections “boot camp program” help “save the town.” Without resolution regarding the Camp’s house, this sequence ends.  Moving through the water to a close-up of Jones, he comments, “While old man river and the people of Hardin are staring at each other, down south of here, some of the toughest old birds are giving up and calling for help.”  Cartographically, the most prominent ratios in this sequence are scene-agent, followed by agent-agency, with a return to scene-agent.  Perhaps most obvious is that agents are portrayed as struggling via agency with the purpose of controlling a small aspect of the scene, to save one house and one town.

The next sequence begins with footage of a small Coast Guard boat moving quickly along the river, with trees, cars, and houses clearly flood-out in the immediate background.   Reporter Phil Jones is now with Warrant Officer Terry Adams, who describes that beneath the boat “used to be a neighborhood.” This sequence is a rescue mission for an eighty-seven year old Mrs. Millie Adams and her son. Jones notes in voice over that Officer Adam’s “men go into the most devastated areas to save people who’ve been stranded and kidnapped by the flood.”  Just as the boat arrives at Mrs. Adams’ house, the program shifts back to the Camp’s house. Jones comments, “Back in Hardin, Kim and Scott Camp’s crisis appears to be getting worse,” as they face the “likelihood of losing their home.”

The Camp’s house is flooding from the inside because of backed-up sewer lines. We see the Camps, friends, and family urgently trying, with little success, to do something to save the flooding house—the footage shows them digging a drainage ditch and water rising out of the sewer. Jones continues, “It’s one thing after another. The more they try, the worse it gets.”  The footage then shifts back to the rescue of Mrs. Adams with Jones in voiceover saying, “Back at the Coast Guard operation, there’s a happier result to report.” As the rescue sequence progresses Coast Guard officers help a  frail eighty-seven year old woman with a cane into a small boat. Mrs. Adams comments, “I’ve been through a lot in my life but nothing like this.”   

As the sequence ends, Jones informs the audience that Scott Camp “was hospitalized” and that he was “dehydrated and physically exhausted.” Kim spent the day at his bedside; she appears exhausted and notes that she can’t go back to the house anymore. Jones says, “As for the house, well, it’s still here - but barely. As they say, when it rains, it pours. Dan.”  As the program turns back to Dan Rather live, he asks Jones: “You know, why did the Camps build their dreams on such low land?”  Jones replies:

Because the Camps, like many of the people along the rivers here, are children of the river; their parents lived here, their grandparents lived here. They saw the good life. Many of the—communities along here are small communities and they were raised here as children and they think it’s a good place for them to be. They love it. It’s a dream come true for many of them.

Rather, without comment, thanks Jones and turns to a preview regarding the heat wave “gripping the East and the South.” The theme music begins as the program goes to announcements. 

After the commercial break, we again see Rather in the lighted nighttime foreground, from above, with the river in the background below and scores of people in the immediate background urgently sandbagging a large levee. Rather comments: “Let me show you something here. As part of the desperate defense of Des Moines, these people under the lights and into the night, keep doing the back-breaking, hand blistering work of sandbagging; symbolic of what’s going on throughout the Midwest in the fight against rising water.” The remainder of the program covers the heat wave until the final live sequence with Dan Rather delivering his concluding comments:

If there’s good to be found in this flood, it is found in the faces of the brave people who live up and down the rivers of the heartland, the faces of survivors, hearty Midwesterners who refuse to back down, give up or give in. It is found in their enormous generosity, like the people of these sandbag lines tonight—neighbors helping neighbors with open arms and open hearts. We’ve seen it repeatedly since we’ve been here, friends and strangers sharing food, supplies, clothing, money and that most precious commodity: hope. I’m Dan Rather, and that’s 48 Hours.

From a cartographic perspective, a number of critical transformations in the symbolic landscape are significant. Primarily, these sequences repeat the progression of the prior sequences. Each sequence begins with the prominent ratio of scene-agent, as we witness specific agents controlled, “stranded,” “kidnapped,” and trying to overcome the scene.  As the sequence moves to the rescue operation and the “struggles” of the Camps to save their home, the dominant ratio shifts to agency-agent. In one instance, the agents achieve a modicum of success insofar as they are able to rescue Mrs. Adams. Yet the Camps are unsuccessful in saving the house.  Despite the shift to particular agents, the scene controls agents, whose agencies, in the end, are insufficient to gain control over the situation.

The program is tautological as it moves from scene-agent to agency-agent and back to scene-agent. The concluding moments present a large group of agents engaging in the agency of sandbagging, “refusing to back down, give up or give in.”  These agents are not in control of the scene; they are held hostage by the impersonal material scene, which is marked by its own destructive dynamism that lies uncharted, somewhere beyond the map’s edge.  These agents’ bodies are symbolically transformed into agencies, too,, with an almost instinctive mechanical motion. The episode presents agents that have no choice but to “bravely” engage in further interventions via agency to control the scene. 

Perhaps the most telling part of these sequences is when Rather asks Jones spontaneously, “Why did the Camps built their dreams on such low ground?” It is a perilous question because it risks blaming the victims, who are being transformed into brave survivors, locked in a heroic battle with nature. Here a small portion of the symbolic terrain points toward an agent-act ratio and an opportunity to explore another viewpoint about the situation and the relationship between individuals in society and their choices regarding the natural world.  Investigating the symbolic terrain of other orientations about the scene, however, is beyond the horizon of the program’s terminological landscape. Jones elides the agent-act question raised by Rather by indicating that the Camps had little choice about being there, because they “are children of the river.”  The shift is back to scene-agent; as the episode ends it leaves all other points of view unmapped. 

Lastly, as noted above, this symbolic map is reduced in both scope and circumference as it presents specific people in specific places of the flooding. Despite its limits in circumference and complexity, the symbolic terrain of Flood, Sweat, and Tears provides a relatively accurate representation of the fear, suffering, and hardship of specific individuals and communities impacted by the flood.  The map drawn by 48 Hours presents the events via a scene-agent ratio in contrast to the survey reports drawn by NOAA and the USACE, which present the events as scene-agency. While the reports provide significant scope, but little in the way of typographical complexity in circumference, 48 Hours offers a narrow scope, although similarly lacking circumference with its focus on the scene’s specific agents and communities.  Nevertheless, both maps present a narrow symbolic universe in which scene-agency and scene-agent are the dominant points of orientation, while the flood is implied to be a random act of nature. 

In the critical discussion below, Flood, Sweat, and Tears is considered in context of the media coverage of the 1993 flood and other natural disasters.   

Critical Discussion

From a global pentadic perspective, Flood, Sweat, and Tears is typical of much of the landscape of media coverage of natural disasters.24 Ted Koppel, the host of ABC’s Nightline, at the beginning of a special on the 1993 flooding, recognized that the public was growing weary of the repetitiveness of such coverage, commenting that the images and stories create “a sort of sensory overload” (Bettag, 1993).25  As Fry (2004) notes, television, in particular, with its “penchant for striking visual content,” uses “the camera lens to frame numerous images of drama and chaos” presenting the events “in such a way as to convey hopelessness, presenting them as battles between powerless humans and powerful nature” (pp. 723-724).  Much of this coverage invokes pity, fear, and sympathy from the public as it witnesses the relentless visual spectacles of calamity.26 Also typical of this type of coverage are narratives of individual survival, heroism, and rescue (like the Adams rescue) and stories of resiliency that convey a message of the triumph of the human spirit and ingenuity (agency) over nature.  Flood, Sweat, and Tears’ coverage is also typical because it includes a surveying of the scenes of destruction, with its focus on specific victims and survivors. 

Emblematic of this type of coverage is what could be called the “at war with nature” theme, where communities and individuals struggle against nature to save their lives and property, the pentadic ratio in these instances is scene-agent.  Whereas victims lack agency, survivors are portrayed as heroic agents.  Rozario (2007), commenting on the “media’s preoccupation” and “ubiquitous” focus during calamities upon human suffering and struggle against nature, notes that this helps “to ensure that disaster victims rather than, say, the homeless, the poor, and other victims of economic misfortune,” are “deemed uniquely worthy of attention and support from the government, the public, and philanthropic organizations” (pp. 142-143).

Missing from these preoccupations on human suffering and struggles is any consideration of how or why any specific victims come to be victims in the first place.  As long as natural disasters are viewed as “random acts of nature,” so too are the victims of disasters who are simply unlucky and misfortunate. Like much of the media’s coverage of the 1993 flood, Flood, Sweat, and Tears lacks any meaningful exploration of the relationship between victimhood and issues such as race and class and the acts, purposes, and agencies of the contemporary industrial-technological scene in the production of the flood.

The media’s representation of the victims paid scant attention to the poverty  of the Midwest’s flood plains and the Federally subsidized housing in those areas. In St. Charles County, MO, one of the worst struck counties during the 1993 flood, it was the poor who lived in the most vulnerable areas and were most likely to be dispossessed.27  “Awareness . . . that disaster policy is a product of political choices or the interplay of material interests” is “concealed under a rhetoric that cast rescue and relief as the heroic struggle of ‘man’ against ‘nature’” (Rozario, p. 141).

Consideration of sociological factors in becoming a victim of a natural disaster is typically absent in such media coverage, as Powell, et al (2006) note in their analysis of the media’s initial coverage of Katrina: “the mainstream media  . . . continued to fixate on the destructive force of Katrina’s winds to the exclusion of everything else, including race and racism” (p. 63).   As audiences across the country watched the spectacle of the tragedy, with countless images of blacks crowded on to rooftops, the media relentlessly presented dramatic footage of deaths, property damage, and the suffering of victims with little discussion of race or class as a factor.  When it became impossible to ignore race as an issue, the mainstream media “did not seek to discover how racism contributed to the catastrophe” as a structural issue in modern capitalist society, but rather limited its coverage to individuals (p. 64) such as President Bush.28  Nor was there any discussion of New Orleans’ “middle-class-oriented evacuation plan,” which was “predicated on people leaving in their own vehicles” (p. 65). 

Nevertheless, Katrina was a moment when it became impossible to avoid the relationship among race, class, and poverty and being a victim of Katrina.  The New Republic, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report each reported stories that drew “on the deep wells of sympathy traditionally reserved for disaster victims” and the “travails of the ‘other America’” (Rozario, p. 216).29  But the media did not quite close the circle by linking the coordinates of sociological factors of victimization with the regime of technological control over nature that had made Katrina’s impact possible.30  Rather the coverage, as the New Republic noted, revealed “not only that the poor had been abandoned but that this was symptomatic of a social order that treated the poor in general, and people of color in particular, with contempt” (Scheiber, 2005, September 19, p. 6). Jonathan Adler, writing for Newsweek, reached a similar conclusion, commenting that Katrina had “fixed [the] restless gaze of [Americans] on enduring problems of poverty, race and class that have escaped their attention” (2005, September 19, p. 42). The lesson of Katrina was not as much about the relationship among race, class, and poverty and being a victim of a natural disaster as it was about problems of race, class, and poverty in America. The media missed an opportunity to establish new coordinate lines for the mapping of natural disasters.  The fact that the Bush administration managed the rescue and relief so poorly only helped to further deflect media attention from the coordinates that linked a failed policy of technological mastery over nature with the political, economic, and sociological factors that contribute to being a victim of a natural disaster.31

By the end of July, 1993, it was clear that there were many lessons to be learned from the flood of the Mississippi. But what lessons did the media coverage develop? The July 26 cover of Newsweek, for example,proclaimed, “Deluge: Lessons of a disaster,” with an image of a man wading through water up to his neck. The primary message that Newsweek conveyed to its readers was that “the lesson of the disaster, which is the lesson of most disasters, is to never underestimate nature” (Adler, 1993, July 26, p. 23). USA Today raised more serious concerns over whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s investment of billions of dollars was “worth the cost,” and if development along the banks of the river had contributed to the damage (Taming River, 1993, July 15, p. 11A). On the same page was the USACE response, more than twice the length of the questions, which countered these inquiries by outlining how much damage had been prevented. As Brig. General Genega noted, “In the Midwest, the Federal flood-control structures in place have performed as they were designed and have prevented an estimated $8.2 billion in damages that would have otherwise occurred” (Genega, 1993).  Counter claims about how much money was saved by these structures were not developed.  In fact, “no one actually knows the total cost to the Federal government of the 1993 flood” since “there is no central database that records the expenditures by all Federal responding agencies for specific disasters and governmental units” (Platt, p. 232).  Nor was there any questioning of Gen. Genega’s assertion that flood-control structures “performed as they were designed” in the media’s coverage of the flood, when “environmentalists have long argued” that these structures “actually contributed to the destructiveness of floods” (Steinberg, p. xviii).  These treatments in the media’s “critical coverage” serve to reinforce the impression that the flood was a random and unpredictable act of nature for which no one is accountable.  Here again, the map of media coverage essentially masks the extent of socio-economic, socio-political factors, and human culpability in natural disasters. 

Natural disasters have proven to be difficult challenges for politicians and for rescue and relief by local, state, and federal agencies.32 Unfortunately, the media’s primary critical preoccupation, when considering human culpability in its coverage of disasters, is with the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of governmental agencies during rescue and relief—the failures of administrative agency.  This, too, deflects attention from the coordinates that link technological mastery over nature with the political, economic, and sociological factors that contribute to being a victim of a natural disaster.  Coverage by the media tends to invigorate the public’s expectation that government do everything it can to aid victims and prevent future damge. Ironically, these demands result in further industrial-technological attempts to control nature.  

Is there an analogue to the technological psychosis of the media coverage in public disaster management? A 1994 presidential report on floodplain management by the Galloway Committee made thoughtful and positive proposals for improvement but few recommendations have been carried out.  As the media moves on to new scenes of destruction and human suffering, the public’s horror and sympathy follow, with scant attention to the importance of human agency in the production of disaster risks.  Neither Congress nor the executive branch of government achieved more than a miscarriage of good intentions regarding the implementation of the policy recommendations of the Galloway committee.33  The levees and dams were rebuilt, higher and stronger —as in New Orleans--with little meaningful change in disaster management policy.  In a closed universe of discourse, where natural disasters are ubiquitously viewed as random acts of nature, “disorderly nature—as opposed to social and economic forces—is seen as the problem that technology must solve. But natural disasters are not simply scientific dilemmas in need of a technical solution. They are instead “the product of particular social and political environments” (p. 152). 

In an ironic signal of the supremacy of the technological psychosis, twenty-four hour cable news now transforms all major natural disasters into profitable spectacles of destruction, complete with an endless line of supernumerary victims--“the CNN syndrome”--while screening out the politics of disaster management policy.  Is it too idealistic to hope that the news media will develop a multi-focused approach that includes a wider circumference and scope of voices, representations, and experiences of disasters, one that stresses agents as more than either heroic or tragic victims frozen in a single moment of time and place?

With the pluralized dialectic operationalized through the pentad, Burke sought to displace the totalizing and authoritative privileging of any particular rhetorical construction or version of reality by seeking out “counter-statements”34 and “corrective rationalizations”35 to the dominant orientations of the technological society.  According to this mantra, any complete or well-rounded treatment of a subject needs to include the full panoply of discourses, representations, and orientations detailed in Burke’s discussion of the pentadic ratios because no single perspective is capable of being fully correct.  What, then, might a more well developed or well rounded and, by definition, more accurate symbolic map of natural disasters include? 

Given that the 1993 flood was among the longest lasting and most exhaustively covered disasters in American history, the media clearly had time to develop other aspects of its coverage than it did.  One can only wonder what Kim and Scott Camp and others impacted by the flood would have to say about the flood and flood management policy six months, a year, or five years after the media and the public turned their attention to the next catastrophe.  Perhaps the media could provide greater coverage on the history of flooding along the Mississippi (and other engineered scenes). Media could devote greater critical attention to the nation’s attempts at engineering the river to suit the needs of an advanced capitalistic industrial society and to the relationship of these projects with the entrenched interests served by such policies.  Perhaps the media could be more attentive to the critical discourses of those in the disaster research field, environmentalists, and naturalists, who have long challenged the orientations that have dominated the politics and policies of disaster management.  Perhaps media coverage could be more attentive to the federal, state, and local debates and decisions regarding disaster and flood control management policies, despite the fact that this type of coverage lacks the dramatic elements that typically invoke the interest and sympathy of the public.

Perhaps it is too unrealistic to imagine that the media can resist the technological psychosis of the age and address its pentadic preferences.  The media are, themselves, a form of agency, whose products are made possible by the technologies of advanced industrial capitalistic society--technologies that enable the disasters that become profitable media events.36  Anderson and Prelli, following Burke, suggest, it is “the function of intellectuals, or critics and of artists, to create [a] dialectical process through rehearsal of values and experiences antithetical to those privileged by the dominant scientific-technological orientation of our time” (p. 79) that can function as counterarguments and correctives. It is partially for the purposes of counterargument and corrective that this essay employed critical viewpoints from the disaster research field to fill-in some of the symbolic terrain and to provide greater circumference, scope, and depth of detail than that presented in the media. As noted in the introduction, this essay is limited to how the media respond to and construct meanings out of natural disasters as one aspect of the complex field of rhetorical activity occasioned by natural disasters.  In order for a more complete symbolic map to be drawn of the rhetorics of disaster, it would require greater critical attention by rhetorical scholars to the full panoply of symbolic representations--be they intuitive, visionary, revelatory, critical, or artistic--using a variety of critical methods of analysis.


This essay employed pentadic cartography in the analysis of media coverage of natural disasters with particular attention to the 1993 Great Flood of the Mississippi. I began with a discussion of pentadic analysis followed by a synoptic pentadic analysis of the survey reports from NOAA and the USACE informed by scholarship from the disaster research field that served as the baseline for the symbolic map of the 1993 flood. Next, I employed a detailed pentadic analysis of CBS’ 48 Hours: Flood, Sweat and Tears as an exemplar of media coverage of natural disasters that overstresses destruction and human suffering in which natural disasters are rhetorically constructed as “random acts of nature.”
In the critical discussion, I argued that media coverage ultimately masks motives associated with the inner workings of industrial-technological society, including factors such as: race and class, failures in mitigation, our own culpability in reoccurring disasters because of growth and development, and the political economy of capitalism.  I also argued that the rhetoric of the media functions to close the universe of discourse and contributes to a terminological vocabulary of motives, a technological psychosis, which constructs natural disasters as simply random acts of nature that technology can control.  The coverage by the media tends to reinforce the public’s demand that politicians and the government do everything they can to help the victims and prevent future recurrences without serious consideration of long term disaster management policies.  It is irrevocably hoped that this essay will provide the foundation for further critical engagements with the rhetorics of disaster.


1. See Fleetwood (2006); Hartman and Squires (2006); Hewitt (1995); Kline (2007); Pielke (1996); Perry and Quarantelli (2005); Platt (1999); Quarantelli (1995); Racevskis (1998); and Steinberg (2006).

2. The rhetorical analysis of disasters largely has been limited to specific case studies that typically are not natural disasters but rather political crises and technological accidents. See Bernard-Donals (2001); Courtright and Slaughter (2007); Gross and Walzer (1997); Lindsay (1999); Littlefield and Quenette (2007); Lule, 1990); and Waymer and Heath (2007).  For an interesting analysis of how photo coverage of Hurricane Katrina participated in the creation of a rhetorical situation see Booth and Davisson (2008).

3. For a purely scientific report on the history of the 1993 flood see Changnon (1996).

4. See Burke, (1969), 59-61; Brummett (1984a & 1984b); and Crable (2000).

5. I limit this analysis to coverage of natural disasters as opposed to human induced disasters like the BP oil spill, war, and terrorism.

6. As King (2009) notes “Anderson and Prelli's Pentadic Cartography, the system of rhetorical mapping . . . is now being hailed as one of the most original and generative uses of the pentad. It has been used to decode advertising, to critique politics, to provide a vocabulary for visual rhetorics, and it has unexpected uses. It has even been used . . . to map birth trauma and post traumatic stress in delivery rooms.”

7. See especially Dombrowsky (2005); Cutter (2005a, 2005b); Hartman and Squires (2006); Hewitt (1995); Perry and Quarantelli (2005); Platt (1999); Quarantelli (1995); and Steinberg (2006).

8. There are numerous exemplary critical studies that employ and discuss Burke’s pentad, among these are: Anderson & Prelli (2001); Birdsell (1987); Blankenship, Murphy, & Rossenwasser (1974); Blankenship, Fine, & Davis (1983); Brummett (1979); Conrad (1984); Fergusson (1966); Fisher (1974); Hamlin & Nichols (1973); King (1985); Ling (1970); Overington (1977); Signorile (1989); Tonn, Endress, & Diamond (1993); and Wess (2001).

9. The pentad enables the critic to consider the constitutive functions of symbolic acts to explore the motives and ambiguities that attend various “philosophic idioms” of action and motion by casting terms into materialism (scene), pragmatism (agency), mysticism (purpose), idealism (agent) as the terministic screens of realism (the act).  See Burke (1969, pp. 127-131).

10. Anderson and Prelli’s pentadic cartography has been used for a variety of rhetorical activities including their own analysis of a sixty second commercial and Marcuse’s social criticism; to chart the discourse of faith and politics (DePalma, et al., 2008); to analyze women’s maternity leave (Meisenbach, Remke, Buzzanell & Liu, 2008); to map birth trauma narratives (Beck, 2006); and to study the discourse of physicians and midwives testimony at the criminal trial of a midwife (Ropp, 2002).  For more on critical rhetorical approaches see McKerrow (1989).

11. See Burke (1984), especially pp. 44-49.

12. See Burke’s (1966) discussion on terministic screens, pp. 44-46.

13. Also see Burke (1969), pp. 184-287.

14. Interestingly, and perhaps indicative of the extent of the technological psychosis, is the emergence of post-structural thought wherein the agency of language displaces the agent as the locus of meaning and action (Crusius, 1999, p. 42) and (Oravec, 1989, p. 176).

15. See Burke (1969) especially pp. 127-131 and 286-287.

16. For a more complete explanation of the 1993 flood in hydrological and meteorological terms see Changnon (1996).

17. The cultural transition from viewing disasters as a deliberate “act of God” to a “random act of nature,” corresponds with the shift to modernity (Rozario, pp. 135-143).  In the act of God view disasters are constructed by employing the agent-agency ratio in which the scene is presented as an agency of God who acts purposefully to punish human transgressions.  An example is the Presbyterian Church minister who “compared the Asian tsunami to Noah’s flood and claimed it was an act of God to punish ‘pleasure seekers’ who broke the Sabbath”; the minister argued that “those who explained the disaster ‘simply as a natural phenomenon resulting from a movement in the earth’s crust underneath the ocean floor’ were forgetting that God ‘is in sovereign control of all events’” (English, 2005, February 10).

18. See Cutter (2005a, 2005b); Hartman and Squires (2006); Hewitt (1995); Perry and Quarantelli (2005); Platt (1999); Quarantelli (1995); and Steinberg (2006).

19. For more on the history of the Mississippi River Commission see Rozario (pp. 143-150); Steinberg (pp. 109-113); and Platt (pp. 2-8). For an excellent history of the 1927 flooding of the Mississippi and its political and social import see Barry (1997).

20. During the flooding President Clinton toured flooded areas and engaged in a number of town hall meetings, held a “flood summit” in St. Louis on July 17, held press conferences and exchanges with reporters, and gave three addresses on the flooding (See Clinton, July 4, 1993; July 8, 1993; and August 12, 1993).

21. For an astute discussion on the history of religious interpretations of natural disasters in American history see Rozario (2007). For examples of the types of religious responses to the 1993 flooding see (Merrell, 1993).

22. Also see Berrington and Jemphrey (2003).

23. All of the quotes in this section are from (CBS, 1993).

24. While this analysis focuses on the primary category of this coverage,analysis of all these categories would likely reach similar conclusions; namely, that the media implicitly and explicitly present natural disasters as random acts of nature and thereby narrow the range of political discourse and public policy toward natural disasters.  There are four readily identifiable categories of media coverage of natural disasters that intersect and overlap, these are: (1) the personal and communal struggles that focus on the impact of disasters on particular agents and communities; (2) the continuing coverage and updates of events as they unfold, including reports on weather conditions, the tracking of tornados, hurricanes, aftershocks, rising water levels, etc., (3) the emergency and political responses and relief efforts of local, State, and Federal agencies and officials; and (4) the critical accountability coverage that focuses on the effectiveness of political and institutional agencies in rescue, relief, and recovery.  The categories are drawn from scholarly surveys and overviews of media coverage of natural disasters. See especially Adams (1986); Berrington and Jemphrey (2003); Fry (2003, 2004, and 2006); Piotrowski and Armstrong (1998); Singer and Endreny (2009); Sood, Stockdale, and Rogers (1987); Svenvold (2005); Sturken (2001, 2006); and Walters and Hornig (1993).

25. Nightline shifted the emphasis of its July 13, 1993 episode from the “images of flooding and loss” to “words, the words of people who know and fear and love the Mississippi” (Bettag, 1993).  The shift was to a refreshingly original act-purpose ratio that explored the mystical ambiguities of the Mississippi as an agent.

26. For an overview of these stories see Des Moines Register (1993); Life Magazine (1993, September); U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency (2003).

27. For a fuller discussion of the relationship between Federal flood control policy, class and vulnerability during the 1993 flood see Platt (1999, pp. 215-240).
28. While no one in the media directly called President Bush a racist, rapper Kanye West’s accusation received wide coverage and comment. See Stein (2010, November, 2).

29. See Adler (2005, September 19); Scheiber (2005, September 19); and Zuckerman (2005, September 19).

30. The risk to New Orleans was well known; see Quindlen (2005, September 19).

31. For more on the Bush administration’s mismanagement of Katrina and the media’s coverage see Brinkley, D. (2007); Hartman and Squires (2006); and Horn, J. (2008).

32. For a synoptic history of rescue and relief policy in the U.S. see Platt (1999, pp. 11-46).  For a genre analysis on the history of presidential addresses on natural disasters see (McClure, 2011).  For more on Katrina as a political crisis of the Bush administration see Benoit and Henson (2009); and Bumiller and Nagourney (2005, September 4).

33. For the full Galloway committee’s report see Interagency Floodplain Management Review Committee (1994).

34. See Burke (1968), pp. 107-122.

35. See Burke (1984), p. 65.

36. See especially Fleetwood (2006); Sturken (2006); and Svenvold (2005).


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* Kevin R. McClure (PhD, The Pennsylvania State University, 1992) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at The University of Rhode Island. He can be contacted via email at kmcclure@uri.edu.

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Rhetorical Ingenuity in the New Global Realities: A Case of the Anti-Sweatshop Movement

Robin Patric Clair


The purpose of this project is to conceptualize, theorize and provide a representative anecdote of rhetorical ingenuity as it has surfaced in the contemporary history of the anti-sweatshop movement. Rhetorical ingenuity is a term derived from the work of Kenneth Burke (1969) based on the combination of imagination and inventiveness. The anti-sweatshop movement, part of the new global realities (Ingram, 2002), calls for more imaginative tactics and strategies. Special attention is paid to the proposition of and development of counter-organizations as forms of rhetorical ingenuity. Two parallel situations are compared where a traditional social movement tactic (i.e., the hunger strike) ushers in the example of rhetorical ingenuity through the development of new counter-organizations (i.e., the WRC and later the DSP), occurring in 2000 and the other in 2006. The purpose of rhetorical ingenuity to add to social moment theory is discussed in light of previous contributions. Finally, exploring the success of rhetorical ingenuity in social movements is considered for future research.

Rhetorical Ingenuity in the New Global Realities: A Case of the Anti-Sweatshop Movement

IN AN ERA OF UNPRECEDENTED GLOBALIZATION, the rhetorical methods of mobilization required to counter exploitation and to resist oppression demand new levels of ingenuity and tenacity (Bruner, 2002; Ingram, 2002).1 “Although global phenomena such as mass migration, the spread of disease, conquest, colonialism, and international trade are hardly new, the nature and shape of globalization has taken a new urgency since the 1980s,” and responses to it must keep pace (Ganesh, Zoller, & Cheney, 2005,  p.169-170; Ganesh, 2007). The urgency of which Ganesh et al. are speaking is evident in the tensions that are played out as people protest, sometimes violently, against corporate dominance, sweatshop labor, child labor, environmental exploitation, as well as cultural imperialism and political hegemony.

Mobilizing against the exploitive side of globalization has spawned numerous grassroots movements, the most famous of which may be the anti-sweatshop movement. Activist organizations that oppose sweatshops argue for better working conditions and higher pay as well as transparency of practices and accountability of management and owners. In the new global arrangement, thousands of small operations supply mega-corporations with parts or whole products, sometimes made under questionable conditions. Although advocates for reform are diligent, they face daunting circumstances; oftentimes, exposed sweatshops fold overnight only to reopen elsewhere under a new name. Corporations that buy goods from such factories claim that suppliers, who may be using sweatshop tactics, are not a part of the corporation, suggesting that the corporations are not accountable, thus, making social transformation difficult, at best. Countering this rhetoric requires both inventive and imaginative strategies.

The purpose of this project is to conceptualize, theorize and provide examples of rhetorical ingenuity as it has surfaced in the contemporary history of the anti-sweatshop movement. Special attention will be paid to the proposition of and development of counter-organizations as forms of rhetorical ingenuity. Two parallel situations will be compared where a traditional social movement tactic (i.e., the hunger strike) ushers in the example of rhetorical ingenuity (i.e., the counter-organization), one of which occurred in 2000 and the other in 2006.  The promise of rhetorical ingenuity to act as a viable strategy in social movements as a form of organizational rhetoric is discussed in the conclusion.

New Global Realities

Before exploring rhetorical ingenuity through the representative anecdote of the anti-sweatshop movement, it is important to define what is meant by the expression new global realities. One helpful typology is presented by Ingram (2002), who categorizes the problems of globalization into four main categories: “economic, environmental, socio-cultural, and political antagonisms” (p. 5). Ingram points out that it is difficult, at best, to suggest that these categories do not overlap and intertwine with one another. Nevertheless, his category scheme can be heuristic.

First, Ingram (2002) points out that with respect to “economic terms, globalization threatens the stability of national and local communities,” (p. 5) that rely on “special inducements,” especially in the way of tax exemptions. Corporate tax exemptions draw corporations to specific communities under the promise of creating more jobs for the local residents. However, the outcome rarely meets the expectations. Contemporary evidence of this practice and its devastating outcome came to light in 1998, following a special investigative report by Time magazine reporters which revealed that corporate inducements meant to create and save jobs within local communities never achieved such results. Instead, the practice of providing inducements merely created a system of “corporate welfare” (Special Report: Corporate Welfare, 1998). Ironically, the small community in Mississippi that initiated the inducement scheme was left in poverty as the company packed up and left years later when the inducements ran out (Special Report, 1998).

The practice of pitting communities against each other has now reached the global level with U.S. jobs moving off-shore at unprecedented rates. Off-shore, underdeveloped communities which may be geographically distant are tightly tied to industrialized nations’ economic markets, especially the U.S. market. Giddens (1999/2000; Castells, 2000) suggests that trillions of dollars exchange hands in the global market each day, increasing dependence of localized economies on large, volatile markets, thus creating an increased vulnerability for these small international communities.

Second, Ingram (2002) points out that in addition to economic issues, “environmental issues have become more complex in an increasingly globalized world” (p. 5). Like corporations that seek financial inducement to locate within certain communities, organizations today are seeking locations with low environmental standards. In addition to the point that Ingram makes, Gore’s (2006) award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth asserts the dangers of uncontrolled industrial pollution, mainly due to the increased manufacturing and societies’ gluttonous appetites for electricity, oil, and gas. Furthermore, manufacturing goods in countries with low environmental standards also means increased use of transportation fuels to move these commodities to markets around the world.

Third, socio-cultural concerns related to globalization reshape “nation-states, family structure, and gender roles” (Giddens, 1999/2000, p. 30). Lindsley’s (1999) study of the maquiladoras provides one of the best examples of this phenomenon. She studied U.S. American-owned factories in Mexico and found that the American organizational system eroded Mexican values of stability and trust. The hiring of a primarily female workforce from central Mexico left rural towns with fragmented families and  a gender imbalance. Hiring women instead of hiring men disrupted the gender roles within families. (There is of course a feminist side to this argument as well and will be discussed in the following paragraph.) With more men immigrating to the U.S. and more women moving to the maquiladoras the balance of community care was disrupted as well. In addition, the management style of Americans who continued to live in the U.S. just across the border from Mexico, driving back and forth from their families in the U.S. to their workplaces in Mexico, created an atmosphere of distrust between workers and managers. Workers felt the managers were not truly invested in their Mexican workforce.

Fourth and finally, Ingram (2002) suggests that antagonism between global and local identities may exacerbate isolation and frustration on the part of marginalized groups, but on the other hand, and as Marcuse (1999) points out, globalization may create empowerment. Ingram provides an example: “Global ties can provide valuable resources for challenging abuse, as the work of Amnesty International illustrates (Ingram, 2002, p. 7). Ingram also draws on Ehrenreich’s (2001) work to note that “Demonstrators in Italy were brutally beaten by Italian police trained by the Los Angeles County Sheriffs’ Department” (p. 28 as cited in Ingram, 2002). On the other hand, ripples of empowerment may also be seen as this story further unfolds. The trans-national press coverage of the beatings pressured the Italian Minister to resign, which “allowed for the articulation of resistance to police crackdowns” (Ingram, 2002, p. 7). The same complex coupling of oppression and resistance/empowerment could be noted of workers studied by Lindsley (1999). For example, exploited women workers experienced the ripple of empowerment as they engaged in factory work (Featherstone and United Students Against Sweatshops, 2002) which simultaneously exploited them through low wages while giving them freedom from patriarchal roles of femininity which offered no pay at all.

Thus, the political and cultural situations that arise out of globalization are more complex than meets the eye. In short, there are indeed new global realities which may lead to the possibility of, if not demand for, new forms of rhetorical strategies and tactics for social movements. Thus, the specific purpose of this project is to explore one contemporary, global social movement for evidence of emerging rhetorical ingenuity in light of the new global realities.

Rhetorical Ingenuity

Rhetorical ingenuity is tied to the concepts of invention and imagination. Beginning with invention, it can be noted that the definition has taken different forms over time. “The definition has changed and expanded from the Sophists to the Tagmemicists, from Aristotle to Burke” (Burke Lefevre, 1995, n.p ). Etymologically, the word ‘invention’ or ‘invent’ can be traced to the Latin terms inventio, venire, and vent, meaning come, find, or contrive. For Aristotle, rhetorical invention referred to the means by which arguments were developed and presented. Aristotle was especially attached to the invention of reason, but ethos and pathos played important parts as well. Cicero, having had the benefit of Plato’s Dialogues and Aristotle’s Rhetoric, was able to discuss invention at great length.  In Cicero’s work, De Oratore, invention parallels Aristotle’s in-depth discussion of artistic proofs that depended on logos, ethos and pathos. Whereas during the Enlightenment, scholars such as John Locke pushed forward the notion of a more scientifically oriented form of invention calling for less reliance on ethos and pathos as well as fewer arguments that could easily be dismissed as fallacies. This more scientific and rational model held sway for some time and went unchallenged until Francis Bacon begged for rhetoric to be grounded in reason that stirred the imagination (Bizzell & Herzberg, 2001).

Praising the work of Bacon, Kenneth Burke (1969) argued that the revitalization of the aesthetic side of invention, that is “the concern with ‘imagination’ as a suasive device does not reach full expression until the modern era” (p. 78). Attributing this rebirth of imagination to Bacon, Burke pointed out that Bacon believed that reasoned rhetoric should “fill the imagination.” Burke felt that too often imagination is relegated to the “lyric motive” rather than to the “dramatic motive” (p. 81). Burke provided an etymology of imagination, including a review of Longinus’s thoughts on the subject, and singled out the role of imagination in rhetoric as opposed to poetry:

After citing examples in poetry which “show a strongly mythic exaggeration, far beyond the limits of literal belief,” he [Longinus] says that the “best use of imagination” in rhetoric is to convince the audience of the “reality and truth” of the speaker’s assertions. He also cites passages from Demosthenes where, according to him, imagination persuades by going beyond mere argument. (“When combined with argument, it not only convinces the audience, it positively masters them.”). He ends by equating imagination with genius (megalophrosyne, high-mindedness) and with imitation. . . . . This is probably the highest tribute to “imagination” in all Greek and Roman literature (Burke, 1969, p. 79).

“Imagination,” Burke wrote, “does not require a presence of the thing imagined” (p.78).  This notion “opens another set of possibilities whereby imagination can be thought of as reordering the object of sense” ( p. 78-79).  In short, Burke calls for imagination to be given equal status with reasoned argument and represent and create possibilities.

Responding to this call, Ingram (2002) argues “imagination can open up different perspectives, which is important in a global scene” (p. 18). More recently, Symon (2008) suggests that scholars need to focus on rhetorical invention, especially in light of today’s era of globalization. Burke calls for both imagination and inventiveness and called for a term that addressed both simultaneously.

More specifically, Burke (1969) calls for the creation of a new term that blends and transcends the bifurcation imposed by earlier rhetorical theory, thus creating “a dualism whereby the same person can now subscribe to both poetic estheticism and scientific positivism” (p. 81). A term “whereupon it may also take unto itself the area of overlap between the two terms” (p. 81). Again, Burke calls for this term, but does not provide one. Such a term then should draw from both invention and imagination and express rhetoric that simultaneously exhibits inventiveness and imagination--rhetorical ingenuity is proposed here to meet that challenge.

Burke moved his discussion on the topic of this illusive term to the realm of idea and imagination, and argued “that there should be a term for ideas and images both” (p.86), a term that will bring the “body forth,” (p. 86). For Burke, this strategy that brings the body forth could be found in “identifications” (p. 86). Identification is one example of rhetorical ingenuity, but does not close the door on the possibility of other strategies fitting under this rubric. Indeed, any strategy that simultaneously draws from inventiveness and imagination to body forth what does not exist materially demonstrates rhetorical ingenuity.

Rhetorical ingenuity demonstrates the reasoned arguments advanced from invention as well as the aesthetic elements of imagination. Rhetorical ingenuity makes possible the intangible and attempts to give materiality to the nonobjective. Rhetoricians who conceive of skillful invention as reaching this simultaneous opposite fall short of promoting Burke’s ideas, as do those who linger in the forest of imagination alone;  those rhetorical projects that explore identification provide insight, but may be stopping short of discovering other forms of rhetorical ingenuity.

If we are to learn whether there are other forms of rhetorical ingenuity, beyond identification, then studies must explore instances that are both inventive and imaginative and that call for the materiality of the intangible. Althusser (1971) argued that the “subject . . . is the constitutive category of all ideology” as the “ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ individuals as subjects” (p. 171). McGee (1975) advances this notion from a rhetorical perspective, suggesting that “the people” are “conjured into objective reality, [and] remain so long as the rhetoric which defined them has force” (p. 242). Charland’s (1987) work, based on the rhetoric of interpellation (Althusser, 1971) and the political-mythical construction of the people (McGee, 1975), argued that the ‘people’ of a social movement are constituted in the rhetoric. They are not merely subjects that exist and identify with a discourse, but instead become embodied as a ‘people’ through and with rhetoric. This bodying forth of a ‘people’ is rhetorically ingenious; it systematically and rationally argues a ‘people,’ which did not previously exist, into existence. Strategies of inventiveness coupled with imagination—rhetorical ingenuity—may be able to body forth not only ‘people,’ but also ‘organizations.’

This study explores such strategies in a global social movement—the anti-sweatshop movement. More specifically this study explores the possibility that rhetorical ingenuity can body forth and materialize, not only a ‘people,’ but also ‘organizations.’ Just as Charland (1987) points out, “not all constitutive rhetorics succeed” (p. 141); likewise, not all attempts at organizational development will result in substantiated organizations. However, the success is not in question at this point; instead the possibility of rhetorical ingenuity that Kenneth Burke called for is in question—exploring if and how it exists in global social movements. With this purpose in mind, a history of the contemporary anti-sweatshop movement is provided, first to set the stage and second to provide details of specific strategies. The discussion will eventually compare two parallel moments in the movement that demonstrate the use of a traditional strategy (i.e., the hunger strike) to usher in a more rhetorically ingenious strategy (i.e., the bodying forth of a new organization). Comparing strategies in two different, but parallel, situations during the history of the contemporary anti-sweatshop movement may contribute to understanding the value and shortcomings of rhetorically ingenious strategies.

A Brief History of the Anti-Sweatshop Movement

In 1996, Kathie Lee Gifford, then co-host to Regis Philbin, faced criticism that her brand label clothing, which was being sold at Wal-Mart, had been stitched by the hands of exploited workers under sweatshop conditions (Galestock, 1999). Although the celebrity’s status brought the issue to public attention, Ebeneshade and Bonacich (1999) suggested that sweatshops had been in the country long ago and returned to the U.S. “in the late 1950s, when apparel firms began to run away from the New York area where unions were strong and could insist on decent labor standards” (p. 21). The authors suggest that as the clothing industry moved to the South and then into Mexico, companies found less stringent labor standards. As companies searched for cheaper labor sources, the apparel industry began to move offshore. Concomitantly, clothing imports from Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea increased, further elevating the demand for cheap labor markets. In addition, by the 1980s, the U.S. government encouraged company movement to the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico based on the belief that this would “not only help them to develop, but also to tie them to a capitalist development plan and to prevent revolutionary alternatives from emerging (as in Cuba, Nicaragua, and potentially El Salvador) . . . [such as] socialism” (p. 22). Such plans were supported with policies that took the form of the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). These policies increased the use of cheap labor, and eventually sweatshops existed not only in “Third World” countries, but made their way back to, if indeed they ever left, the United States. Activist Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee exposed Gifford’s sweatshops after years of in-depth research that discovered sweatshops in New York City (Jones, n.d.). An apologetic Gifford teamed with Robert Reich, then Secretary of Labor who had already been campaigning for three years to end these abuses under the slogan of “No Sweat.” Between 1993 and 1996, the government “recovered $7.3 million in wages for more than 25,000 garment workers” (Archived news release, U.S. Department of Labor, 1996), and this was considered the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

In the summer of 1996, the AFL-CIO initiated its summer internship program for college students, providing first hand experience to students who wished to learn about the labor conditions of garment and needle-workers. In the fall of 1996, students and activists “gathered in Madison Wisconsin, for the Youth-in-Action Conference” (Featherstone, 2002, p. 107).

President Clinton responded to public outcry (made more visible due to Kathie Lee Gifford’s public persona) by creating the Apparel Industry Partnership (AIP) “to create workable, enforceable labor standards” (Galestock, 1999, p. 1). In April 1997, the AIP unveiled its Workplace Code of Contact, rules regarding “forced labor, child labor, abuse, harassment, health and safety, nondiscrimination, freedom of association and bargaining, wages and benefits, . . . [rules for] contractors, suppliers, and the companies themselves” ( p. 1-2). The AIP also called for “the formation of the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to oversee the monitoring and evaluation of compliance with the code” (p. 2). The FLA was to be comprised of representatives of manufacturing, human rights and religious organizations, advocate groups, and universities. The establishment of the AIP led to the more refined FLA. These organizations were meant to address the outcry from concerned citizens.

Codes of conduct, written by the AIP, were disseminated to universities, even though many universities already had a code of conduct in place that were intended to regulate the apparel suppliers with respect to human rights. Universities have a particular stake in the apparel industry as they sell their logo items, not only in their own bookstores, but in a variety of other stores, raising money for scholarships and athletic programs. Financial stakes are intertwined with the educational and humanistic mission of universities. Many universities quickly signed the code of conduct agreement, but it failed to save them from reproach.

Critics, including Robert Reich, then Secretary of Labor, concluded that codes of conduct were not enough to keep owners from exploiting workers (Hunter-Gault’s, 1996). Jeff Balinger, Director of Press for Change, agreed with Reich and charged that the situation was more complicated than it appeared on the surface. He suggested that Western investors were not the problem. “Companies that open factories off-shore are, for the most part, paying fair wages; it’s the subcontractors who supply mainland operations, like Nike, that tend to be the problem,” Reich insisted. “For subcontractors,” he claimed, “a code is not enough.” “We want regular inspections by independent organizations that we can put some faith in, and not just a public relations façade” (Hunter-Gault, 1996).

The following year, in 1998, Duke students campaigned for their university to sign a code of conduct as an initial show of good faith. Duke University signed the code of conduct, and several other universities followed suit.  However, issues heated up in Washington D.C. and “several labor unions and religious groups resign[ed] from the FLA, objecting to the excessive influence of its corporate members” (Featherstone, 2002, p. 107). The FLA took the position that their organization could monitor subcontractors, while those who resigned and proposed to start their own monitoring organization (i.e., the Workers Rights Consortium—WRC) charged that industry could not possibly monitor itself any better than the fox could guard the proverbial chicken coup. After all, Nike was on the board of the FLA.

This conflict spawned one more organization, the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), which officially established itself in 1998. Nationwide student protests took place in 1999 at universities as well as at the World Trade Organization in Seattle, Washington. Small groups of USAS students, as well as garment workers around the world, held protests. In the spring of 2000, Purdue University students held their first hunger strike which lasted eleven days and resulted in the formation of the President’s Standing (Advisory) Committee on Marketing, Licensing, and Merchandising, to determine which organization (FLA or WRC) Purdue University should join. The WRC did not exist at this time as an officially documented organization. It existed only in the hearts and minds of the activists who argued on behalf of its right to exist. It was only a possibility voiced in the form of a rhetorical proposition as an alternative to the FLA. As such, it meets the criteria of rhetorical ingenuity—a combination of invention and imagination.

Eventually, the WRC, as a collective of university faculty and staff, union members, students, workers, and NGO members, moved from possibility to actuality and was able to take on the task of monitoring factories overseas. Thus, the WRC is an example of rhetorical ingenuity—it is rhetoric that existed as argument grounded in invention and imagination and culminated in the formation of an organization that brought material changes into existence. Achieving this end was not easy and required serious attention to social movement strategies in the new global era. For example, the membership base was drawn from both other-directed (e.g., students) and self-directed (e.g., workers) (Stewart, 1999), as well as other-directed and self-directed (e.g., union leaders) individuals who crossed national boundaries. Tactics drew from both the more pathos and traditional methods (e.g., hunger strikes), to the more ingenious methods (e.g., creating a counter-organization with a strategic plan) with some success. However, use of these same strategies will meet a very different end when applied six years into the movement. Thus, it is important to take a closer, longer, and more careful look at the anti-sweatshop movement as it unfolds.

Rhetorical Ingenuity in the Anti-Sweatshop Movement: A Case Study

In order to explore rhetorical ingenuity in the case of the anti-sweatshop movement without becoming so encumbered as to lose sight of the focus, I bracketed the movement historically and locally. That is, although the movement has a history that could be traced back to the early labor movement and a geopolitical parameter that could stretch around the world, this project set time and place markers while engaging in participant observation, reflecting on field notes, collecting artifacts, and interviewing participants. The speeches were collected either via public documents that are available on the respective organization’s web sites (i.e., FLA and WRC) or through participant-observation and note taking at public meetings. The public documents used in this study are available at the respective organization’s websites (www.workerrights.org for the WRC and www.fairlabor.org for the FLA). Documents were collected for a seven-year period, from 2000 to 2007. The documents were printed, organized by date of release, and collected into folders. Over 200 documents were collected and read. Of those, 65 documents from January 17, 2006 to December 12, 2006 deal with the topic of the Designated Supplier Program (DSP) and the counter project, the Soccer Project. They were selected for more intensive review because the DSP matches the WRC with respect to rhetorical ingenuity. These documents vary in length from short announcements to 25 page proposals. Although I only attended one public meeting at the national level, I attended nearly thirty local university meetings. The local university meetings are not open to the public; I attended as a Member of the President’s Standing Committee at Purdue University.

I also had access to the public activities of the student activists, as well as some of the behind the scenes activities (e.g., I housed three activists at my home—one worker from the Dominican Republic who had lost her job after rallying for a union and two national members of United Students Against Sweatshops—USAS). I also engaged in discussions with student members of Purdue Organization for Labor Equality—POLE (previously known as PSAS—Purdue Students Against Sweatshops). Using data from the university where I am employed was both opportune and crucially relevant, as certain students at Purdue University have been actively involved in the contemporary anti-sweatshop movement since its inception. Furthermore, the Purdue University students were the first group of anti-sweatshop students to stage a protest that included a hunger strike, and they did so more than once. Moreover, these students were actively engaged in efforts to get the university to join the WRC in 2000 and later the DSP in 2006.

The Anti-Sweatshop Movement: A Representative Anecdote

The Purdue University student hunger strike of 2000 was held in order to persuade the university president to agree to more than signing the code of conduct. It was intended to shake up the previous committee, advance a new committee to advise the president (e.g., the students demanded that female professors be included as members of the committee based on the argument that the issue largely affected women workers), and urge the new committee to recommend endorsing membership in the WRC, which was itself still in its imaginative stage. In addition, the student activists hoped to increase awareness of the issue. While some members of PSAS held the hunger strike, others went to classrooms and gave informative talks to students (one such student activist came to my classroom and gave a presentation on the topic).

The Purdue University student activists’ disagreements with the FLA hinged on two practices: lack of transparency and self-monitoring. Transparency referred to the FLA practice of allowing organizations to keep the names of the factories which supplied leading organizations with apparel from public view and from withholding information, such as salary figures or hours worked. Self-monitoring referred to the practice of organizations selecting and hiring their own private monitoring agency, which Applebaum and Bonacich (2000) explain as problematic because “The Department of Labor found that as many as two-thirds of self-monitored companies remained in violation of basic wage-and-hour laws” (p. B4). Based on this finding, concerned professors, students, and AFL-CIO leaders called for the formation of the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC).  Its founding conference, which moved it from a grassroots movement to a proposed nonprofit monitoring organization, was held April 7, 2000, in New York City. The WRC promoted the concept of raising global labor standards by calling for a living wage and promoting labor negotiations (Applebaum & Bonacich).  Universities were being asked to join the WRC rather than the FLA.

The cost to join either organization had been set at 1% of all revenues brought in by the logo apparel being sold for the university, an amount not to exceed $10,000.00 annually (e.g., Florida State University, “receives approximately $1.7 million in profits annually from university-licensed apparel,” [Fontaine, 2004, p. 1]). By April of 2000, five influential universities had left the FLA and joined the WRC. Only two universities (Brown University and University of Iowa) had joined both the FLA and the WRC, doubling their annual dues. This was not a practical choice for many universities due to the costs that would be incurred. The tension between members of the FLA and the initiators of the WRC increased. The matter appeared simple--The WRC needed members; the FLA feared losing members. Money was crucial for monitoring to take place, and the universities were providing that money through membership.

Bama Athreya (2000), committed human rights advocate and labor sympathizer, argued on behalf of the FLA, invoking ethos as the rhetorical appeal. Athreya’s arguments suggested that the FLA should not be “jettisoned”, as it has a working program that has made many advances, has the support of the government, and has a well-rounded board, including trade union representatives. As suggested, the arguments were grounded in ethos—character and credibility. In addition, Athreya argued against the WRC by pointing out that the WRC is a “fledgling organization” with no plan in place, a point made several times over. This ethos-based argument, intended to de-legitimate the WRC by calling it a fledgling organization, actually reinforced its status as an organization. That is, had the WRC been ignored, perhaps its legitimacy would have taken longer to develop. And had other language been used to describe it, such as a plan rather than an organization, a different image may have been created of the WRC.

Applebaum and Bonocich are members of the advisory council of the WRC; Athryea is Director of Asian programs at the International Labor Rights Fund, which is a Member of the FLA. Thus, in addition to ideological differences, organizational survival lay in the balance for the spokespersons on each side who were making public arguments in the form of scholarly work or as newspaper articles (Applebaum & Bonocich, 2000; Arthryea, 2000). The rhetorical strategy by which the FLA meant to discredit the WRC, ironically, lent credibility to the WRC as an organization. Even though the FLA had been established by the government and held institutional legitimacy, it reacted as if it had been seriously threatened.

Concurrent to the FLA-WRC debates, at Purdue University, President Beering ended the Hunger Strike of 2000 by promising a new committee comprised of two students (one from USAS and one Purdue’s student council), two faculty members, two administrators, and one Chancellor as director of the committee--President’s Standing Committee on Marketing, Licensing, and Merchandising. The president agreed to include one woman from a list generated by the students. Once the committee was formed, the president charged the members with advising him as to whether to join the FLA or the WRC. The committee spent months researching the situation and concluded that the university should join both the FLA and the WRC on the grounds that the WRC, working through NGOs, promised superiority in uncovering human rights abuses in sweatshops, while the FLA, working through government liaisons, promised superiority in the ability to enforce the code of conduct. The advice was sent to the president (One dissenting vote was noted, and a minority report was also provided that argued that the university should join only the FLA).  Purdue’s president promised the students, who in the meantime had changed their group name to POLE (Purdue Organization for Labor Equality), and the members of the advisory committee that he would engage in “dialogue” with both the FLA and WRC before making his final decision. In the end, the president decided to take the advice of the committee--Purdue joined both the FLA and the WRC, making it the third university to join both the FLA and the WRC.

The Hunger Strike of 2000 was quite successful. Students of the hunger strike had set up tents in the quad (the open space between buildings at the center of campus). Thus, they had been highly visible. They consumed nothing but water. They were antagonized by another group of students who didn’t seem to have any agenda or platform except to ridicule the hunger strikers. These antagonists set up grills and began cooking hot dogs and brats in front of the hunger strikers. Indeed, they even ordered pizza and had it delivered to the hunger strikers.

The traditional tactic of a hunger strike was invoked early in the movement, just a year after the first nationwide student protests, and launched the beginning of a long campaign. However, the students had no idea how long the campaign would last. At that time, 2000, the students’ demands were marginally met--the committee was reformulated, one woman was added, and the committee recommended the university join both the FLA and the WRC. The president did just that; although the student activists would have preferred more women on the committee and that the university join only the WRC.

As time passed, it became apparent that the fledgling WRC did indeed have a well-thought out plan and was quite capable of monitoring factories. As more members joined, the WRC obtained enough funds to put a legitimate monitoring practice into effect. Over time, the FLA relaxed its opposition to transparency, making public the names of suppliers and wages paid. Within a few years, the two organizations watched factories in a variety of countries (e.g., Mexico, Philippines, Indonesia,), which were in some cases owned by companies from other countries (e.g., a Korean man owned a factory in Mexico), and reported on abuses to the universities. An uneasy truce prevailed between the FLA and the WRC. However, both organizations discovered that gaining compliance from suppliers was not always easy. Some efforts resulted in fair treatment for workers, while others resulted in the midnight shut down and disappearance of offending sweatshops that would simply move to new locations, reopen and resume sweatshop practices. Nevertheless, the FLA and the WRC worked to keep the apparel industry as free of sweatshops as possible and seemed to be more compliant with each other’s ideological differences, until the WRC announced, in 2005, that monitoring efforts were not working well enough and proposed a new plan of attack—the Designated Supplier Program (DSP).

Rhetorical Ingenuity and the Genesis of the Designated Supplier Program

Simply put, the Designated Supplier Program (DSP) would designate which factories were meeting code. Factories would apply to the DSP by offering documentation of their high quality work standards. Instead of the WRC or the FLA having to chase down and ferret out the abusive factory owners, the factory owners had to apply for membership in the DSP.  This rhetorical strategy to end sweatshop abuse may evidence the highest degree of rhetorical ingenuity to date in the movement. It not only attempted to achieve its goal of ending sweatshop abuse, but it also attempted to usurp authority from the FLA. The strategy, both inventive and imaginative, supplied a well-reasoned argument in the form of a possibility—the DSP.

Instituting the DSP would end the need for monitoring organizations; this threatened the FLA. Of course the members of the WRC were not threatened, as their membership would administer the newly developed DSP. In addition, within a year of their efforts to get the university to sign onto the DSP, another hunger strike would be initiated and both rhetorical strategies would meet a very different end from what happened in 2000.

Details of the Designated Supplier Program

Members of the WRC posited that monitoring had been ineffective. They explained  that thousands of suppliers exist in the form of small factories and garment houses, some of which are more clearly organized than others. Some small operations exist in the shadows, making it difficult to monitor them. In order to truly oversee logo apparel production, the WRC asserted that those shops which were willing to follow the codes of conduct; be monitored; supply a living wage to the workers (living wage was calculated according to the wage necessary in the worker’s home country, and it included provisions for food allotment to feed one woman and two children, pay for basic health needs, rent, education, and bus fare to visit family once a year (“ WRC Sample Living Wage Estimates: Indonesia and El Salvador,” 11 pages at WRC website); allow the workers the right to form unions or other representative employee bodies without resistance from management during their organizing period; and allow workers the right to negotiate for better work conditions, be given a designated label. The DSP would oversee such a project. Universities that would join the DSP would agree to pay slightly higher prices for their merchandise (a proposed approximate increase of five cents per T-shirt/sweatshirt) because these suppliers would not be able to cut wages as had been a past practice. The licensee, therefore, had to commit to purchasing from the designated supplier.  Furthermore, the suppliers needed to make approximately two thirds of their production university logo apparel (a process which would be phased into practice), and  when possible, university orders would be regulated (e.g., a place in the playoffs can produce increased orders for the winning team’s logo apparel, causing management to demand unreasonable overtime from workers, often without overtime pay) (“WRC, The Designated Suppliers Program: An Outline of Operational Structure and the Implementation Process,” 13 page document at WRC website).

Rhetorical Turbulence as a Response to Rhetorical Ingenuity

The development of this program (DSP) as an organization of suppliers who meet certain standards and buyers who promote certain labor conditions and promise to adhere to certain buying practices (e. g, paying more for sweat-free products) is the most novel rhetorical strategy of the campaign to date. It attempts to body forth an organization and this attempt at rhetorical genesis does not go unnoticed. Earlier, the members of each group had hoped for the demise of the other. The WRC had hoped that it would replace the FLA and the FLA did not want any universities to join the WRC. Ironically, the rhetorical strategy led to the development of two monitoring agencies working on the issue. And most notably it was even possible for three universities, including Purdue University, to join both organizations. To the contrary, the FLA recognized the power of the DSP strategy to end its existence entirely, if indeed the universities accepted the counter-organization as the better solution. As such, this rhetorical strategy created a sense of heightened vulnerability that resulted in a flood of rhetorical messages, which I describe as rhetorical turbulence. Rhetorical turbulence is a flurry of rhetoric (questions, concerns, counter-arguments, symbolic actions, etc.) that follows a threatening, symbolic act of rhetorical ingenuity that is attempting to depose or negate one side of the dialectic.

The proposal for this new organization (DSP) from Scott Nova, Director of the WRC, was met with criticism in the form attacks: (1) pointed questions from the director of the FLA and (2) less antagonistic questions from university members of the FLA, university members of the WRC, and corporate managers. By February 2006, the FLA sponsored a teleconference to facilitate a discussion between all interested parties. In short, the FLA planned a defensive attack.

The FLA argued that they had already put into effect a plan for “sustainable improvement,” as they agreed that monitoring alone would not achieve satisfactory workplace conditions. The FLA explained that they were implementing a program in their A and B factories (where general apparel is made, but not necessarily university logo apparel) and hoped to move this plan into their C factories (primarily where university logo apparel is made) in the future. They had not disclosed this plan to the universities until prompted by the announcement of the DSP proposal. Even then, the details of the sustainability plan were not given to universities until later. However, a document entitled “Special Projects” was copyrighted in 2005 (“FLA Special Project: Soccer Project,” two pages at the FLA website) and lays out a general plan for “sustainable compliance.” This plan was to be implemented in either Thailand or China, in the “soccer products sector,” and involved training trainers to teach suppliers how to meet codes of conduct, set a “scorecard” to assess their compliance, set up a website to post results of the pilot project, and organize an “international stakeholder forum in mid-2006 to present a progress report on the project.” The final report on the plan’s progress was indeed made available to the public in August 2006, under the title of “FLA Soccer Project,” (“FLA Soccer Project: Interim Report August 2006,” 25 pages at the FLA website) approximately six months after the DSP program plan had been unveiled.

Uncertainty existed as to whether the WRC knew of the FLA’s intention to “train trainers,” whether it launched the DSP prior to the FLA’s “Sustainability Program,” or whether the FLA launched its program first. To understand why the WRC and the DSP ratcheted up the argument between one another requires understanding the details of the DSP. This plan was launched in October of 2005 by USAS under the slogan of “Sweat-Free Campus Campaign by holding demonstrations at more than 40 universities and colleges” (FLA, October 17, 2005 letter to constituents, p. 1 at the FLA website). At that point, when the details of the proposal were not yet clear, the FLA took immediate steps by releasing a letter commending USAS for its passionate commitment to workers’ rights. The FLA summarized the new plan as having “three issues: the complex nature of association, the wages of garment workers, and the impact that sudden production shifts can have on the structure of garment production and employment” (p. 1). Then the FLA argued that they themselves had already been working on these three issues for several years, specifically citing their “training of labor inspectors,” which began in “the Central American region in 2003;” a forum they sponsored on the practicality of a living wage in October 2003; and a “resolution” adopted by the FLA due to the expiration of the Multi-fiber Arrangement (MFA), which predicted a mass shift of garment suppliers to China within the next few years, in 2004. The FLA letter assured its members that the FLA was dealing with the issues. In short, there was no need to join the DSP, according to the FLA. The letter was signed by “Auret van Heerdon, FLA President and CEO” and discussed at the teleconference.

This letter of assurance relied on a tactic of ethos that had served the FLA well in the past, or at least until the details of the DSP were released. Furthermore, it hinted at the idea that there were no antagonisms to deal with as the FLA has been looking into the three issues of concern. However, of the three issues mentioned (i.e., union organizing, fair pay, and reasonable work hours) the FLA saw the issue of association (i.e., union organizing) as “complex.” Framing a concept like union membership as “complex” is a tactic that arose again when the FLA discussed both child labor and the living wage as “complex issues.” The strategy behind it was three-fold:  it portrayed the WRC as too naïve to understand complex issues; it portrayed the FLA as wiser and more experienced; and it obfuscated clear concerns (e.g., union representation, child labor) into confounded complications. The WRC countered with concerns that the FLA was anti-union.

Van Heerdon’s title is also of interest as a tactical maneuver meant to strengthen the legitimacy and credibility of the FLA. This government association, the Fair Labor Association, suddenly had a Chief Executive Officer. This highlighted the business savvy of the director. Even with these tactics, the teleconference did not end the concerns of university members of the FLA or the WRC. Thus, the two directors, Nova (WRC) and van Heerdon (FLA) exchanged further public dialogue following the teleconference.

First, fearing that it was being portrayed as anti-union, the FLA responded with a statement in February 2006 that included the following: “In summary, good labor relations and the ability of workers to negotiate and determine their own needs are the foundations which underpin sustainable improvements in workplace conditions” and that the FLA abides by “freedom of association.” However, they argued against the living wage, claiming that it “irresponsibly endangers the economic viability of factories” and that “the convergence of market forces and worker empowerment” should guide wage determination (“FLA, February 2006,” Fair Labor Association’s Approach to Sustainable Improvement of Labor Conditions in Factories, 3 pages at FLA website). It released a second document on February 17, 2006, which suggested that “FLA constituents” were raising issues and asking questions. In short, university members wondered if the DSP really could work, which would be a frightening proposition for the FLA. The FLA responded quickly with a rhetorical document. They framed this document in a question and answer format; the questions speak for themselves: 1) Are there anti-trust concerns? (e.g., Why is there no business letter?); 2) If union representation is mandatory won’t this rule out countries like China?; 3) Will having “a single organization” [meaning the WRC / DSP] as arbiter cause problems across the wide variety of countries involved?; 4) “Is the proposed path to achieving a living wage the best?”; 5) Is the proposed supply-chain model economically viable?; 6) “Who is going to pay for the cost increase, and how large will it be?”. Their own answers followed which were aligned with the FLA’s ideological positions, suggesting the DSP would create a monopoly, endangering free market practices (This document is dated February 16, 2006, but Nova describes it in his next document as having been “circulated to universities” on the 17th.).

On March 4, 2006, Scott Nova, President of the WRC responded in turn by writing a letter directed not to constituents, but directly to “Dear Auret,” making the argument more personal and suggesting that the FLA’s previous document had been rife with “inaccuracies,” “misconceptions,” and “misinterpretations” (p. 1). The letter reframed the “questions,” called them six “assertions,” and addressed each in turn in an 11 page attachment (WRC website). Later in March, the FLA released another document entitled, “FLA March 2006, Points for Schools to Consider Regarding the FLA Program and the Designated Supplier Program Proposal.” This document, in essence, was a revised version of the six questions document sent out earlier, with only slight rewording (e.g., Does it [DSP] pass muster under anti-trust law?) (FLA website). It is interesting and important to note that the FLA does not make the same mistake as in the past of granting the DSP organizational status--that is, this document clearly calls the DSP a “proposal.”

Some of the critical questions posed by the FLA, such as “Who will pay for the proposed increase?” and “Are there anti-trust concerns, Why is there no business letter?” were taken to heart by the initiators of the DSP. These WRC members further refined their economic plan and sought a business letter. Ironically, the counter-rhetoric of the FLA inadvertently helped the DSP refine its formation and move it toward materialization as an organization. Indeed, the FLA complained that the business letter  obtained was insufficient and so, in the meantime, the WRC sought a second business review letter and released it.

The assessment of Baker & Miller, PLLC, concluded on March 1, 2006, that universities joining the DSP would be acting in good faith and “To summarize [a number of legal positions] as long as a Licensee simply complies with and implements Program-related requirements included in a license at the insistence of the UL [University Licensor] it faces no significant risk of being found to have violated the U.S. antitrust laws” (WRC website). On March 28, 2006, the FLA increased its attack providing more specifics as to how the “business review letter,” written by Baker, had “critical” errors (“FLA March 28, 2006,” University Antitrust Considerations for WRC Designated Supplier Program, 3 pages at FLA website). On the same day, the FLA issued a letter “to the leadership of USAS,” who had started an “FLA Watch site,” much to the dismay of the FLA. The FLA letter debated USAS’s portrayal of the FLA as the “fox guarding the hen-house” (p. 1) and USAS’s portrayal of the FLA as incompetent and guilty of using cover-ups in its monitoring (FLA website). The next day, March 29, 2006, the FLA issued another attack entitled, “Is it the FLA versus the WRC, or the FLA and the WRC?” The two page flyer claimed that the WRC’s DSP plan shifted from “challenging factories to vouching for them” and, in a turnabout, the FLA claimed that “The FLA, from its inception, took the position that there needs to be a pool of preferred suppliers from which smaller licensees could choose” (p. 1 FLA website). This flurry of rhetoric was often one-sided in the sense that the FLA did not wait for responses from the WRC, but posted continually on its website.

The rhetorical turbulence was so intense that the arguments provided by the FLA lost their coherence over time. For example, the FLA argued against the DSP but by the end of this flurry of rhetoric the FLA suggested that they were the first, from the time of their “inception,” who wanted to create a designated group of suppliers. It is possible that this lack of coherence may actually have been a rhetorical tactic, known as superlative rhetoric (e.g., the first, the most, the best), that relies on ethos by positioning the FLA as the first to think of this possibility. Nevertheless, they had argued against it in previous posts.

At this point, the FLA wrote another document that assessed the debate. This document reframed the history, arguing that the FLA was the only recourse in 2000, at which point they had tried to include labor, but labor had threatened to exit (this exit is presumably due to the inclusion of big business on the FLA board) and so they had to make compromises to their ideal plan. They asserted that detractors criticized them and the detractors eventually developed the WRC. This meta-rhetorical tactic, rhetoric that summarizes and assesses the situation and claims awareness of the whole social movement, purports an omniscient view and asserts superior knowledge of the history. It was meant to bring control back to the FLA. Furthermore, the FLA portrayed itself as the hero and as the victim. It did not end there. They contended that the two organizations, the FLA and the WRC, had been able to collaborate by taking different approaches and that they should return to that arrangement, and perhaps even work on a joint plan. The desperation seemed obvious in the deluge and type of arguments the FLA promoted during this turbulent rhetorical period. The FLA rhetoric was eventually interrupted by the advent of a new “business review letter,” from the WRC. Scott Nova of the WRC secured another legal opinion (12 pages in length) to address the “business review letter” concern posed earlier by the FLA (WRC website). Nova sent this letter to the FLA and posted it on the WRC website.

On March 30, 2006, Auret of the FLA replied in the form of a letter addressed “Dear Scott.” The more personal address was followed with an apology for not getting back to him sooner and a compliment that the DSP language had been adjusted. However, at this point the FLA raised new concerns: the improbability of achieving compliance in a global supply chain and the sustainability of the DSP program. In the letter, Auret van Heerdon used child labor as an example, suggesting that in some countries, child labor is a reality that must be dealt with from various vantages including “the family, the education system, local economic development and the employer” (p. 2), hinting that the DSP could not deal with these issues, but perhaps the FLA could. Van Heerdon ended on a somewhat condescending note that suggested that the DSP demonstrates naiveté and was only “repeating the past mistakes of the 1990s” (FLA website). At this point, the FLA still relied on ethos by questioning the credibility of the WRC and promoting their own knowledge and experience, just as they had when the WRC first challenged the FLA. They also used the tactic of complexity to frame child labor just as they had used it to discuss the right to association (i.e., union organizing) previously. The FLA argued that children’s labor is necessary for the survival of the family in poverty-stricken areas and unions are not feasible in some countries.

These FLA arguments failed to persuade some key constituents and on March 21, 2006, University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Larry Billups, Special Assistant to Chancellor John Wiley, announced that UW-Madison would join the DSP and said, “We’re the first university in the nation to even acknowledge the DSP” (Pelzek, 2006).  Eight other universities quickly followed UW-Madison’s lead and joined the DSP. However, many more universities were still undecided, which led to the announcement of public meetings to be held.

On March 30, 2006, a joint forum was held in Berkeley, California; on March 31, 2006, a joint forum was held in Chicago, which I attended as an official representative of the university. I took copious notes and reported back to the committee. Several POLE students attended. Both Nova and van Heerdon gave eloquent speeches. The audience included representatives from several universities, students groups, suppliers and businesses. The forum addressed the DSP, but the FLA took the opportunity to promote “the FLA program—FLA 3.0” (a.k.a. the Soccer Report mentioned earlier). At this forum, Auret van Heerdon explained the FLA’s program as grounded in “root causes” and “best practices” and argued that this approach could achieve “sustainability.” Nova countered and explained how these “best practices” were not necessarily what was best for the workers.2 Both the FLA and the WRC argued that monitoring was not working and that it required more than a monitoring organization to end abuses. The FLA argued that its own FLA 3.0 Soccer Project was more than a monitoring organization. They planned to teach owners of factories how to be better businesspeople and treat their workers fairly. Therefore, the FLA 3.0 matched the DSP in creating a new program, but not one that could be described as a new consortium or a new organization.

In the meantime, student activists continued their rhetorical engagement. A demonstration with about 70 students was held in March 2006 at Purdue University. The independent campus newspaper questioned whether the students knew what they were doing, as the university already belonged to the WRC, and did not necessarily need another monitoring agency. On April 5, 2006, The Hartford Courant reported that “UConn backs Worker Rights Plan,” joining “about a dozen other universities” who signed onto the DSP as a working group that would help to iron out wrinkles in the DSP and help move it along to end sweatshop labor (Merritt, 2006). Others added their names to the list, while more conservative universities remained tied to the FLA.

Purdue University student pressure to join the DSP increased and conservative members of the Merchandising, Licensing and Marketing Committee felt that signing onto a group working to improve the DSP was tantamount to supporting or joining the DSP, which they were not prepared to do. The idea that the DSP existed only in the hearts and minds of the activists was nearly completely forgotten. Yet, it worked to the disadvantage of the activists this time instead of to their advantage, as it had worked before. In other words, when the WRC was perceived as an organization, it lent it more legitimacy and moved its materialization along, but when the DSP proposal was perceived as an organization it instilled fear into the conservative members of the Purdue University President’s Merchandise, Licensing, and Marketing committee, who expressed concerns about antitrust law suits.

On April 13, 2006, Purdue students protested again in the Memorial Mall and marched into the president’s office to protest the fact that President Jischke had thus far refused to sign onto the DSP.  No response followed. Students complained about the lack of dialogue. Classes let out and the summer passed without incident. However, when classes began in the fall, Purdue University had not yet given the POLE members a definitive answer. Demonstrations were revitalized, but failed to push the issue to a vote in September or October. The advisory committee did not give President Jischke a recommendation until November 15, 2006, at which time the committee did not recommend joining the DSP working group. The vote was 4-2 against the DSP (Press release from Martin C. Jischke, 2006). A minority report was written and submitted. The president made no final determination.

Frustrated by the negative committee vote and the lag in time awaiting the president’s decision, on November 16, 2006, “eleven students chained themselves together [‘with bicycle locks around their necks’] in Purdue President Martin Jischke’s office (Thomas, 2006). Following this event, which ended with the students agreeing to leave, several Purdue University students initiated a hunger strike. This would be the second hunger strike held at Purdue University. They camped out in two university buildings (Hovde and Stewart Center Hall); made signs; gave interviews to the Indianapolis Star, WBAA, Jouranl & Courier, Purdue Exponent, WLFI 18, as well as the Ball State and Purdue-Calumet student campus newspapers (Purdue Hunger Strike Update, 2006); and managed to get their picture and an article in The Nation magazine (Rothberg, 2006). After a short time, they consolidated their strike into the open, high-visibility lobby area of one building, Stewart Center, but the university deemed them a fire hazard and had them moved to a different and low-visibility area of the building. The students drank water, juice and other liquids and took vitamins for sustenance. Nevertheless, as students began to show signs of lethargy, dehydration and weakness, concerned parents called the university and their advisor, Prof. Berenice Carroll, grew more alarmed and worried about their physical health. She contacted me and asked me to accompany her to see the local priest from St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church who took up their cause, noting that the students were young, passionate, and dedicated, if somewhat naive. Shiela Klinker, a State Representative weighed in on the matter on behalf of the students. Letters were written to the local newspaper. Some described the students as having been persuaded by labor unions and argued that the students didn’t understand how sweatshops are good for the economy of under-industrialized nations. Although the students’ credibility was questioned, awareness was heightened. However, unlike the first hunger strike of 2000, which for the most part succeeded, the second hunger strike of 2006 failed to achieve the desired end.  Unlike the WRC, the DSP failed to materialize and instead continued to exist only in the hearts, minds, and rhetoric of its creators.

On December 12, 2006, Purdue University’s President Jischke officially announced that the university would not join the DSP. The following day, the students announced the end of the 27-day hunger strike and broke bread together, but refused to accept defeat, vowing that they would continue to fight in other ways on behalf of worker rights (Marburger, 2007; Hunger Strike Update, 2006). Purdue University remains a member of both the FLA and the WRC. However, the current president has disbanded the advisory committee and reasserted the university’s stand against the DSP.


Conceptualizing rhetorical ingenuity as simultaneously drawing from inventiveness and imagination to body forth what does not exist materially has been the heart of this article. Establishing rhetorical ingenuity as a third term, perhaps an umbrella term, leans heavily on the contributions of previous scholars, but most importantly on the insights of Kenneth Burke (1969), who provided ground-breaking insights into ideology and constructing, defining, and positioning the subject through rhetoric as well as how the subject legitimizes the ideological discourse. For Burke, a keen example of rhetorical ingenuity is found in the strategy of identification as it creates the subject according to discourse. This study has proposed the extension of Burke's insights by combining inventiveness and imagination into rhetorical ingenuity and applying it to the creative development of not only people but also organizations..

This project means only to be one small contribution to the body of knowledge concerning the rhetorical construction of the possible. It hopes to partner with scholars who focus on the construction of the subject by adding a place for organizations to be rhetorically materialized and to provide a term that seems conducive to discussing tactics and strategies, especially for social movements. This project has specifically looked at the rhetorical genesis of two organizations, the WRC and the DSP. As origins are indeterminate or at least ambiguous, I would like to point out that I could have focused on the rhetorical genesis of the FLA. I did not because I wanted to supply a representative anecdote that would offer both a fairly successful as well as relatively ineffective rhetorical genesis.

Clearly the relative success or failure of each deserves future attention. These organizations, the WRC and the DSP, existed as rhetoric and demonstrated inventiveness and imagination--rhetorical ingenuity. The WRC began as imaginative and inventive rhetoric that later materialized into an organization, meaning it had members, goals, duties, projects, active involvement with other organizations, and had an impact on people’s lives. The other, the DSP, failed to materialize in an active manner; it existed in oral and written rhetoric, but never materialized in the sense of carrying out its duties or impacting the lives of workers. Student activists still talk as if the DSP does indeed exist. Months after the President’s negative decision, I asked one student why he felt the university decided not to sign onto the DSP; his answer: “Yet.”

A thorough analysis of why the different tactics (e.g., the hunger strikes) and strategies (e.g., gaining control through the rhetorical genesis of organizations) met such very different ends is a matter for future scholars. I could offer conjecture at this point, but it would be incomplete without a full description of the micro and macro political situation which is so relevant to understanding the success and failure of social movements. Oftentimes, perhaps too often, the rhetorical choices are commended or blamed without taking into account the full rhetorical situation (Bitzer, 1968). For instance, in the case of Purdue University’s involvement with the anti-sweatshop movement, the outgoing president, President Beering, ended the first hunger strike by promising to restructure the advisory committee, including adding a woman, and assigning the members the task to make a decision as to whether to join the WRC or FLA. Outgoing presidents have more leeway with regard to decisions they make. The incoming president, President Jischke, was rescued by the committee’s recommendation to join both the FLA and the WRC. The third president during the period under review, President Córdova, faced a serious quandary.

President Córdova had agreed to and signed the letter of intent to support the DSP while she was at UC-Santa Barbara and before coming to Purdue University. Once she was faced with the same set of circumstances at a different university and completely different political environment, (she suggested that she had dealt with numerous unions in California, and that was the norm, but she found in Indiana, in general, unions are not supported and few exist on campus), she chose not to join the DSP. This example does not even begin to capture the national political picture between 2000 and 2006. Thus, it is important to note that tactics and strategies do not exist in a social movement vacuum. Indeed, like the new global reality, a complex set of circumstances surround the rhetorical enterprise. Thus, it would be premature to attempt to assign specific designation for the relative success or failure of the strategy in this specific case at this time.

The rhetorical genesis of organizations, specifically the WRC and the DSP, stands out as rhetorical ingenuity--both invention and imagination. The WRC and DSP challenged the FLA as well as the organizational structure of the new global corporations. But the DSP in and of itself, much like the WRC at its inception, does not exist in an active manner; it lives only in the imagination of the students, workers, and other activists. It is where imagination meets invention, where the lyric meets the dramatic; it is rhetorical ingenuity. These organizations either did or intended to address the complexities of the new global realties. How these actualized or imagined organizations move into the material realm deserves further investigation, especially if scholars are to assess what strategies and tactics will best alleviate worker exploitation in the global arena.


1. A portion of this article appeared in a related paper that received the Top Paper Award from the rhetoric division of CSSA in 2006. The author would like to thank Charles J. Stewart, Professor Emeritus at Purdue University for comments on an earlier draft. The author would also like to thank Dennis Yan for his help in collating documents and Erin Doss for providing helpful readings. Although this article relies primarily on textual analysis and the insights of Kenneth Burke, a second article based on the ethnographic methods (interviewing, observation, etc.) has recently been published by Cultural Studies <=> Cultural Methodologies. That article does not develop Kenneth Burke’s insights.

2. The FLA’s argument was further strengthened through the tactical use of business jargon – root causes, best practices and sustainability. While sustainability had been laced throughout earlier arguments, root causes and best practices may have sealed the deal for conservatives. The general idea of root causes and best practices are traced to business gurus, Peters and Waterman (1982). Van Heerdon allowed the jargon to surface through success stories. He relayed the story of one organization failing to be in compliance but when they searched for the root cause, they found that the employees had taken their masks and gloves off because they felt that it slowed down their work. Thus, the root cause approach showed that by teaching the employees the necessary safety guidelines and reasons for wearing their masks they could return to compliance. The root cause approach did not attempt to trace the root cause for having to wear the masks to begin with and thus is highly suspect. For example, small cotton processing plants in Africa require workers to wear masks as the cotton fibers can be dangerous to their lungs, but fine particle screens could be placed over the conveyor belt to reduce fiber pollution, possibly a more costly solution, but perhaps more comfortable for workers (See Zachary, 2007 for information on cotton production in Africa and a visual of a cotton gin in Zambia). This type of solution to the root cause is not considered by the FLA. Nevertheless, the business jargon reinforces the credibility of the FLA to deal with business issues. With regard to best practices, van Heerdon told the story of interviewing workers to find out their most serious grievances. A group of men reported that they were not paid enough to cover the costs of a funeral when a family member died. The solution van Heerdon promoted was to take a small portion of every man’s salary and put it into a joint funeral fund so that any man could draw from the fund when such sad circumstances presented themselves. The story ended there. Never did the FLA President and CEO consider raising the salaries of the men.

Counter-arguments by Scott Nova were equally persuasive to those in favor of the WRC/DSP.  He told stories of young Muslim girls who complained that their wages were being paid to their fathers. The WRC saw to it that their wages were paid directly to them. Once given the chance to handle their own finances, the girls flourished. Some even used “the money to return to school to complete their education.” This, Nova claimed, is directly dealing with the problems. He also addressed all of the concerns raised by the FLA and added testimonials concerning the legal decision and antitrust concerns. Nova assured the audience that the DSP would make it even easier to address the concerns workers were facing and at no risk to universities. The rhetoric of a living wage and union representation, although frightening to proponents of laissez-faire capitalism, acted as a similar tactic as the business jargon in that it gave the liberal constituents a comfortable form of talk to support their argument and provided the WRC with credibility during this time of rhetorical turbulence.    


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Peters, T. J., & Waterman, R. H. (1982). In search of excellence. New York: Harper & Row.Press release from Martin C. Jischke (December 12, 2006). Untitled. Available at http://news.uns.purdue.edu/UNS/html3month/2006/061212JischkeDSP.html.

Purdue Hunger Strike Update (November, 2006). Retrieved on September 27, 2010 from http://newsinfoshop.org/article.php?story=20061127153108737

Rothberg, P. (December 2006). Hunger Strike at Purdue. Retrieved September 27, 2010 from http://www.theneation.com/section/DSP

Special report: Corporate welfare (Nov. 9, 1998) Time: The weekly newsmagazine, 152 (19), pp 36-54.

Stewart, C. J. (1999). Championing the rights of others and challenging evil: The ego function in the rhetoric of other-directed social movements. Southern Journal of Communication, 64, 91-105.

Symon, G. (2008). Developing the political perspective on technological change through rhetorical analysis. Management Communication Quarterly,

Thomas, A. (November 17, 2006). “Students occupy Jischke’s office in protest over vote.” The Exponent, Vol. 120, No. 174, p. 1 & 4.

Zachary, G.P. (January 14, 2007). “Out of Africa: Cotton and cash.” New York Times, Section 3,  p. 1 & 7.

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"Rhetorical Ingenuity in the New Global Realities: A Case of the Anti-Sweatshop Movement" by Robin Patric Clair is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

Flash Flooding: A Burkean Analysis of Culture and Community in the Flash Mob

Rebecca Walker, Southern Illinois University


In 2003, writer and cultural critic Bill Wasik stunned the world with his newest experiment, the MOB Project, which flooded the streets of New York City with strange performances quickly labeled “flash mobs” by participants and local media. With the goal of understanding the communicative purpose and function of these new performance events, this project analyzes the eight original flash mobs of 2003 through the use of Kenneth Burke’s Pentad. Specifically, this essay explores the agent, agency, and scene of the flash mob, arguing that the scene was the dominant pentadic feature of Wasik’s act (the Flash Mob). Additionally, this paper examines the specific social, cultural and political influences of the flash mob and its participants with a particular emphasis on technology and the hipster subculture.


Date: Wed, 25 Jun 2003 21:45:21 -0700 (PDT)
From: The Mob Project
To: themobproject@yahoo.com
Subject: MOB #3
(Apologies to those who received an incomplete version before.)
You are invited to take part in MOB, the project that creates an inexplicable mob of people in New York City for ten minutes or less. Please forward this to other people you know who might like to join.
Q. For a mob to be inexplicable, does it need to take place in an otherwise empty space?
A. No.

A Scene

Fred has a nice action shot of MOBsters applauding. Notice the smiles. You couldn’t help smiling; it was gorgeous (Ginger).

The Scene

3 July 2003
I just returned from Flashmob #3. This was called “The Grand Central Mob Ballet,” and was supposed to involve claiming to be waiting for a train, and writing the word “MOB” on a one dollar bill, but none of that came into play. Instead, we got a form saying:

*** MOB #3 ***
Change of Plans
If you are reading this, we have decided to change venues.

By 7:02, walk out to 42nd St. and look for the main entrance to the Grand Hyatt.

Enter and take the escalator up one flight to the main lobby. Loiter until 7:07.

At 7:07, start taking the escalator and elevators up one floor, to the wraparound railing overlooking the lobby. Stand around it, looking down. Fan out to cover as much of the railing as possible. If asked why you are there, point down to the lobby and say, “Look.”

At 7:12, begin applauding. Applaud for fifteen seconds, then disperse in an orderly fashion (Note: the exit on that floor is not a pedestrian exit.).(Danzig)


Figure 1. Man, Myth, Morland. 2 July 2003. Web. 12 July 2010. 

Figure 2. Man, Myth, Morland. 2 July 2003.Web. 12 July 2010. 

Figure 3. Man, Myth, Morland. 2 July 2003. Web. 12 July 2010. 

Figure 4. Satan’s Laundromat. 2 July 2003. Web. 12 July 2010. 


Consider, for a moment, Figures 1 and 3. Figure 1 depicts multiple flashmobbers gathered against the hotel railing, gazing down upon the lobby, as instructed. Many, although not all, appear to be with friends or loved ones, evidenced by arms around shoulders and other close, open body language. In the hallway, a singular individual in a suit walks by, casting what one can only assume to be a bewildered sideways glance at the flashmobbers lining the balcony. Perhaps this individual wonders at what they are all staring. According to Figures 2 and 4, which depict the empty atrium lobby below, they were an audience for nothing. Now look at Figure 3: Two individuals—perhaps friends, perhaps strangers—stare down into the lobby like all the other flashmobbers. However, the angle from which this photo is shot intrigues: the photographer of Figure 3 seems interested in capturing at least two things: first, the similarity of the two individuals in the forefront, whose skin color may differ, but whose clothing and body positions seem to almost mirror one another; and second, the picture of what falls in these individuals’ direct line of sight—other flashmobbers on the opposite side of the balcony, engaged in the exact same activity (staring down into the empty lobby below). In a sense, these flashmobbers at the far opposite end of the atrium balcony serve as another reflection, or mirror, of the two in the forefront. One begins to realize, or merely infer, that this flash mob—maybe even all of flash mob creator Bill Wasik’s original eight mobs—are not simply about the absurdity of the act, but also the communal nature of the action. Wasik himself supports such a claim, in his description of Mob #3, depicted above:

Then, all at once, we rode the elevators and escalators up to the mezzanine and wordlessly lined the banister. The handful of hotel guests were still there, alone again, except now they were confronted with a hundreds-strong armada of hipsters overhead, arrayed shoulder to shoulder, staring silently down. But intimidation was not the point; we were staring down at where we had just been, and also across at one another, two hundred artist-spectators commandeering an atrium on Forty-second Street as a coliseum—style theater of self-regard. After five minutes of staring, the ring erupted into precisely fifteen seconds of tumultuous applause—for itself—after which it scattered back downstairs and out the door, just as the police cruisers were rolling up, flashers on. (58)

Three of Wasik’s comments in this account stand out as strikingly important, and heretofore unexamined. First, Wasik takes care to point out one unifying characteristic of the flashmobbers—their shared status as members of the hipster subculture. Second, Wasik specifically mentions the scenic or spatial element of this particular mob, whose goal was to “commandeer” a space in two different ways. In so doing, he highlights the different nature of this mob from most, if not all, of the other seven, as a non-verbal performance event. Mob #3 was physical in nature—its directive being to move bodies around in a space and have those bodies engage in a shared act, applause, before dispersing out of the space. Finally, Wasik’s use of language points toward the communal or community-building nature of this mob. Wasik’s mob participants look across “at one another” and his mob applauds “itself,” acknowledging the “we” of community created in the act of participation.

As products of the digital age, flash mobs require a certain level of technological advancement to form, namely e-mail and text message technology created in the latter part of the 20th century. Every flash mob begins with an e-mail (often from an anonymous account or organizer using a pseudonym) announcing the date and time of occurrence, along with either a set of instructions for action or the promise of instructions to be delivered on site. Recipients then forward this e-mail to others in cyberspace through computers and cell phones, forming the mob (or at least its virtual potential) with each successive email or text message. Usually, upon arrival, participants are given instructions on fliers detailing what they should do during the flash mob. As a rule, flash mobs tend to last no longer than ten minutes (Wasik 66). Participants arrive at a site, perform their action(s), and then leave, often just before the police arrive. These actions range from shopping en masse for a rug, to pointing at a fast food menu and mooing like cows, to pretending to stand in line for Strokes tickets (Johnson, Wasik). This article uses Burke’s Pentad to examine the scene, agent, and agency of the eight original flash mobs organized by Bill Wasik in 2003, ultimately arguing that the scene served as the dominant factor for determining the agent and agency of Wasik’s act (the flash mob). However, before I begin this examination, a more brief description of these eight mobs, ending with a detailed depiction of Mob #3, offers the reader a shared point of departure.

Bill Wasik, cultural critic and Harper’s Magazine editor, produced eight flash mobs that acted upon the streets of New York City in the summer of 2003. The first, an utter failure, occurred on June 3, 2003, at the site of a Claire’s Accessories store in the East Village’s Astor Place. Mobsters were instructed to gather inside the store and on the street at 7:24 p.m., at which time those outside the store would point at those inside and chant “Acessories!” until the mob dissipated at 7:31 p.m. However, as stated earlier, the mob failed because one of the individuals receiving an e-mail invitation informed the police of its occurrence. When potential members of the flash mob arrived upon the scene, they found six police officers and a police truck blocking their entrance to the store.

Wasik remedied this problem by only disseminating a spot at which to gather and receive further instructions for his subsequent mobs, thereby preventing any potential participants from alerting the police as to their actions or site. Mob #2 occurred a few weeks later on June 17, when a few hundred people gathered in Macy’s rug department to shop for a “love rug” for their supposed commune in Long Island City. After a few minutes of shopping, the mob abruptly left the store. Mob #3, described below, took place in early July at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, where mobbers lined the atrium balcony, stared at each other, and then burst into spontaneous applause before quickly leaving the site.

Wasik’s fourth mob took place on July 16, 2003, at Otto Tootsi Plohound, an expensive shoe store. Participants gathered to pretend they were tourists from Maryland, proceeding to examine and appreciate the store’s expensive footwear as if the shoes were relics from another universe. Mob #5 followed, where participants gathered along a ridge in Central Park West and made a variety of natural and ironic bird calls before leaving. Often the most discussed of Wasik’s eight mobs, Mob #6 occurred at the Toys ‘R Us in Times Square on August 7th, 2003, when participants gathered to cower in false capitulation before the store’s animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex, leaving just as police arrived.

Wasik’s last two mobs took place outdoors, with Mob #7 occurring on the sidewalk outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where participants lined up single file, informing anyone who asked that they were waiting for tickets to a concert by The Strokes, a popular hipster band. Wasik’s final mob took place in an alcove on Forty-Second Street, where mobsters gathered to await instructions from “the performer.” The performer turned out to be a portable radio, or boom box. However, the mob was so large and unruly that they failed to hear the performer’s instruction. When a participant (later discovered to be a local performance artist) opened his briefcase to reveal a neon sign reading “Café Thou Art” and then proceeded to hold up two fingers of his right hand, participants believed this man to be “the performer” and began chanting “Peace!” over and over for about a minute before dispersing.

When viewed within the larger context of all eight mobs, Mob #3 gains added significance as the last of Wasik’s highly self-reflexive first three mobs. Mobs 1–3 focus largely on the mobbers themselves—they are the accessories (Mob 1), they are a commune (Mob 2), they applaud themselves (Mob 3). After Mob #3, Wasik’s mob project turns toward the other, if only in jest. The performers play with tourists (Mob 4), nature (Mob 5), religion (Mob 6), and culture (Mob 7). Wasik’s final mob shifts the game completely by telling his performers, the flashmobbers, to simply serve as an “enthusiastic audience” for a sidewalk performer (Bemis). The move from self to other seems more than coincidence. I believe Wasik used his first three mobs to create a scene, and in so doing, created a community, a powerful “we” whose influence and membership expands to this very day.

Crucial to the creation of Wasik’s scene was the socio-cultural and historic climates of New York City in a post-9/11 era, as well as the spatial layout of the city itself. These material and philosophical realities created the environment, or scene, where Wasik’s acts took place. Drawing upon Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic theory, I argue that the scenic element—more than anything else—allowed for the act (the creation of Wasik’s flash mobs) to occur. In addition, two other heretofore unexamined elements—Wasik’s agents, the hipster subculture, and his primary agency, cellular phone technology—function as tangential, necessary elements in the more dominant scene. I first examine these secondary components and ultimately end with an extensive discussion of scene and its relationship to culture and community in the flash mob.


Noted literary critic, philosopher, and rhetorician Kenneth Burke expanded the fields of contemporary rhetoric and performance studies exponentially through his Pentad, created as a method for divining rhetorical motives out of literary dramas. According to Burke, in order to understand motives, one must begin by identifying and examining the five elements (or questions) of his Pentad: “what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose)” (xv). Contemporary rhetoricians use Burke to examine not only literary dramas, but also those occurring in politics, media, and society. Performance teachers often use Burke in their introductory classes as a way to teach students how to examine and perform literature. Taking cues from both, I expand and apply Burke’s Pentad to the flash mob, a contemporary performance event, to identify the flash mob’s components and examine the relationship between them.

In simplest terms, the agents of the eight original flash mobs in this study are New York City hipsters of 2003. Although one might argue Wasik, as originator of the idea of the flash mob and sender of the invitational e-mails, is the primary agent of the flash mob, he places himself within the larger group of actors by retaining his anonymity and e-mailing his original and subsequent invitations not only to his friends, but also to himself.2 As such, anyone who shows up and takes part in one of these flash mobs becomes an agent of the act. Before examining the particular makeup of the New York hipster of 2003, further elaboration on Burke’s theory of the Pentad is necessary.

Identifying the five elements of the Pentad in regard to a particular act is the first step in determining its motives. The second, and ultimately more important, step examines the relationship between each of the parts. Burke labels this relationship their ratios or “principles of determination” (15). In other words, Burke highlights the intermingling between elements, those points where one part of the Pentad merges with or strongly differentiates itself from another. Within these ratios, Burke locates the dramatic tensions that reveal the motivations behind particular rhetorical strategies. Burke identifies and discusses ten possible ratios arising from his Pentad; I focus on two: scene-agent and scene-agency. These two ratios, unlike the other seven, directly address the subjects of this essay: the scene, agent, and agency of Wasik’s flash mobs, as well as the dominant relationship existing between them.

Burke describes the scene-agent ratio as a “synecdochic relation . . . between person and place” (7) or perhaps more simply as the “container and thing contained” (3). The container referred to here is the scene and the agent the thing contained. Burke provides literary examples for this ratio; however, as I am expanding Burke’s analysis outside of the literary realm into contemporary culture, I suggest a more apt example from the days following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The scene left by Katrina was one of utter devastation and destruction for the residents of both New Orleans and south Louisiana. Although many agents engaged in various acts, the entire nation looked toward one agent in particular—President George W. Bush. The scene of Katrina called for a response of urgency on the part of the President, the expression of concern, perhaps even a disheveled physical appearance as evidence of long nights spent working on solutions to such devastation. As such, the scene controls, or dictates, the requirements of its agent and act. President Bush’s initial act—the flyover of the area days after the hurricane—inspired outrage among residents because it appeared more the act of a curious tourist than that of a concerned President. In other words, the agent did not suit the scene.

I argue that the agents of the original eight flash mobs do suit the scene. Modern hipster subculture emerges out of a distinct and particular socio-cultural and historical scene, which I discuss in the final section of this paper. Furthermore, Wasik states that the entire impetus for flash mobs came out of his and his friends’ own fascination with being a part of “the scene”:
seeing how all culture in New York was demonstrably commingled with scenesterism, the appeal of concerts and plays and readings and gallery shows deriving less from the work itself than from the social opportunities the work might engender, it should theoretically be possible to create an art project consisting of pure scene—meaning the scene would be the entire point of the work, and indeed would itself constitute the work. (58)

In short, the very essence of the modern hipster lies in her association with and participation in the scene. However, before I address the scene-agent ratio in the flash mob fully, let me return to the question of the modern hipster: who is she, and how does she differ from other historical “hipsters”?

The term hip most often connotes youth culture and the materials associated with it (e.g., the new, often wacky clothes, music, and books that the youth of America deem fashionable at any given moment). New York Times reporter John Leland’s recent Hip: The History explains the connection between youth and hip, arguing that “hip is a culture of the young because they have the least investment in the status quo” (22). Hip, then, is often something new or different from the everyday. But where did hip come from? While acknowledging the cultural influences of the European avant-garde, Leland locates hip in the Americas, emanating along with the African slave trade. In his opinion, hip originates out of the exchange of African and European cultures on the plantation, with each group taking bits of the other’s culture and accumulating (and often refashioning) those bits into their own. For Leland, hip originates in America, particularly in the acquisition of African culture, without which he argues, “there is no hip” (18).

Following Leland, one’s hipness appears rooted in their knowledge of African-American culture. The term hip itself is often attributed to be a derivative of the African word hipi, which loosely translates as “to open one’s eyes” (Fletcher).3 Our modern understanding of hip and hipsters, however, arises out of the jazz and art scene of America in the 1930s and ’40s. Jazz, a uniquely American musical blend of African and European styles, produced a unique subculture among its largely black musicians, one which middle-class white youths found fascinating and ultimately sought to emulate. Shortly after World War II, rising young authors such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg sang the praises of the burgeoning hip/jazz scene in their novels and poems, becoming the faces of hipster culture. Norman Mailer, American playwright and novelist, sought to define the movement and its members, famously referring to them in his essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.”

Mailer’s essay extends the notion of hip beyond an adoption of black culture by highlighting the existential nature of the youth within the subculture. According to Mailer, young people strongly affected by both fear of the atomic bomb and loathing of conformity in middle America sought escape (and possibly rebellion) through their association with jazz and black America as well as their idealism of vagabond travelers such as Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty. A similar desire to escape the middle class and associate the self with the other or the unknown is evident in both the hippie and punk subcultures of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

However, the hipsters who chase hip are more than just vanguard thinkers and lovers of difference; they are also trendsetters. Hip perseveres because hip sells itself to the mainstream. In Hip: The History, Leland writes “where religion creates workers, hip creates consumers” (342). Hip is not simply a fascination with the dark other, or a reaction to the time in which one lives; it is a product to be sold. For Wasik’s New York hipsters of 2003, hip certainly involved all three.

Wasik’s hipster, or the modern hipster, is almost always defined by her appearance. Some writers focus on the hipsters’ physical appearance, describing them as “fashion-conscious twentysomethings hanging about and sporting a number of predictable stylistic trademarks: skinny jeans, cotton spandex leggings, fixed-gear bikes, vintage flannel, fake eyeglasses and a keffiyeh” (Haddow). Other journalists focus their depictions on the hipster’s psychological stance, arguing that “everything about them is exactingly constructed to give off the vibe that they just don’t care” (Fletcher). Some take these psychological descriptions a step further creating categories of hipster psychosis: “We know that there are Sweet hipsters, who practice the sort of irony you can take home to meet the parents, and there are those Vicious hipsters, who practice the form of not—quite-passive aggression called snark” (Lorentzen).
Critics often deride the modern hipster’s ironic stance and particular fashion sense as empty trademarks pointing towards a hollow society, or as some say, “the dead end of Western civilization” (Fletcher). Such remarks usually stem from the modern hipster’s fashion sense, one that, according to columnists like Christian Lorentzen, “fetishizes the authentic and regurgitates it with a winking inauthenticity.” In this reiterated fashion, the modern hipster, although a definite product of her time (both historically and capitally), distinguishes herself from her predecessors. Whereas 20th century hipsters borrowed from contemporaneous aspects of the other’s culture—such as jazz—to create their fashion, or simply created their own—as in punk—the 21st century hipster recycles the fashion of their predecessors.

Some of these reclamations appear to serve as acts of identification, others as desperate attempts to collage a new identity out of an older, more established one. An example of the former appropriation is the keffiyeh—a scarf originally worn by Jewish students and Western protestors as a symbol of support for Palestinians—now sold in a variety of colors and patterns to teenagers at the local Target. Douglas Haddow, cultural critic, provides further examples:

The American Apparel v-neck shirt, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and Parliament cigarettes are symbols and icons of working or revolutionary classes that have been appropriated by hipsterdom and drained of meaning. . . . such things have become shameless clichés of individuals that seek to escape their own wealth and privilege by immersing themselves in the aesthetic of the working class. (1)

These appropriations differ from those of early 20th century American teenagers wearing black turtlenecks and berets. The modern hipster revisits the past in search of authenticity, instead of looking around in the present for inventions of new meaning. Although one might argue such scavenging and re-assembling serves as a form of invention, many reporters and cultural critics view this desire to forage the past and assemble some sort of new meaning from its symbols and trends as a cannibalistic act:

Those 18-to-34-year-olds called hipsters have defanged, skinned and consumed the fringe movements of the postwar era—Beat, hippie, punk, even grunge. Hungry for more, and sick with the anxiety of influence, they feed as well from the trough of the uncool, turning white trash chic, and gouging the husks of long-expired subcultures—vaudeville, burlesque, cowboys and pirates. . . . Simlarly, they devour gay style. . . . these aesthetics are assimilated—cannibalized—into a repertoire of meaninglessness, from which the hipster can construct an identity in the manner of a collage, or a shuffled playlist on an iPod. (Lorentzen)

Whether cannibalistic or inventive, the modern hipster sets herself apart as more of a historian and collage artist than an adventurer or explorer.

In 2009, music and entertainment magazine Paste published a two-page photo spread portraying “The Evolution of the Hipster 2000–2009” (Kiefer). Serving as an ironic timeline of the modern hipster’s appearance and perseverance on the cultural scene, Paste’s evolution points out many of the modern hipster’s recycled identifications in the names given to each year’s hipster: The Twee, The Fauxhemian, The Mountain Man, The Vintage Queen, The Meta-Nerd (Kiefer). Paste titles Wasik’s hipster, the hipster of 2003, “The Scenester,” writing “a gaudy tattoo appears on her chest, and she is never spotted without her iPod” (Kiefer). While this iPod is the only description in Paste’s entire evolution that references modern technology of any sort, the title “Scenester” excites me most. This label validates my contention that Wasik’s hipster of 2003 emerged not only as a product of her historical and socio-cultural scene, but also defined herself by participation in the scene of her own hipster subculture. Stated differently, Wasik’s hipster not only wore the proper clothes, acquired the newest gadgets, and cultivated the proper attitude of ironic distance and nonchalance, she desired to be a part of something: to be seen in the scene.

In 2003, Wasik, out of a desire to comment upon the prevalence of scenesterism within his own New York hipster subculture, created the flash mob, and inadvertently produced the newest scene of which to be a part. In the e-mail for Wasik’s first mob, he provides a frequently asked questions section. He answers the first question, “Why would I want to join an inexplicable mob?” with evidence of the scenester nature of the mob, stating, “Tons of other people are doing it” (Wasik 57). While this might explain why participants took part in the first two or three of Wasik’s mobs, it fails to provide an answer for why the mobs became so popular, not only within the New York hipster subculture, but within youth culture at-large. Perhaps the most important question we can ask of the flash mob’s hipster is not why she showed up, but why she kept coming back.

To answer such a question, I turn to the historical hip predecessors mentioned earlier—the beats, the hippies, and the punks. Each of these subcultures united themselves in fashion as well as in artistic taste, much like Wasik’s hipster. However, aside from a love of the same music, the same books, the same clothes, or the same art, something else also united each of these groups—participation in the scene of their particular era, a participation that yielded a feeling of separation from the mainstream, but togetherness with one another, a feeling Victor Turner labeled communitas. The term refers to a feeling of shared togetherness or communal spirit. One might achieve such a feeling by hanging out within the scene of a particular subculture; however, one is much more likely to experience communitas, at least according to Turner, if she engages in communal activities. Beats traveled together, hippies protested en masse, and punks raged as one. Modern hipsters, at least up until Wasik’s flash mob, failed to engage in any sort of communal activity outside of hanging out and traveling within their own scene—attending the same concerts, gallery openings, book signings, etc. What Wasik, unknowingly in my opinion, provided was a communal act—the flash mob.

Turner believed in a dialectic existing between ritualized, highly structured social forms of behavior, such as religious rites and playful, anti-structural forms of behavior, such as festivals and celebrations. Communitas exists within both realms of performative behavior. In other words, one might experience communitas while holding her hand to her heart and singing the national anthem alongside thousands of other fans in a sports stadium as well as begging for beads with fellow Mardi Gras revelers. With the flash mob, Wasik inadvertently provided a feeling of communitas between strangers engaged in a shared activity. If Wasik’s goal was to create an art project that mocked his own community’s lack of substance—the fact that they were “scenesters” appearing at the same spots just to be a part of the scene, not out of a love of the art within it—he probably did not plan on the power of such a “scene”: its ability to bring strangers together through shared physical activity:

You didn’t have to feel like you were cool. . . . It got a lot of people to do something . . . just because they thought it was a clever idea and they wanted to see what would happen. . . . but while a Web page can give you some notion of being part of a group, it’s very different to then find yourself in a physical space with all those people. It’s a virtual community made literal. Again, these weren’t people who knew each other. It wasn’t an established group who decided to put on an action. Whoever got the e-mail would attend, and they represented the interconnectedness of people in a city. (Bemis 4)

Wasik’s particular choices of place for the flash mobs also added to this communal feeling. Wasik purposefully chose small places in which the flash mob—even if it only consisted of a hundred people—appeared large and powerful. Furthermore, the flash mobs contributed to a feeling of hipster communitas by creating a performance in which hipsters highlighted their own “otherness” through showcasing traits such as their ironic humor and technological savvy. In sum, flash mobs were created by hipsters, for hipsters, or as Wasik reasons, “flash mobs were gatherings of insiders, and as such, could hardly communicate to those who did not already belong” (64).

By emphasizing the communal nature of the flash mob, I hope to draw attention towards the mob’s role as an influential performative act, undertaken by agents out of both curiosity and a desire for community. In so doing, I want to provide an alternative narrative of the flash mob, one in which the flash mob exists as more than the fad of a post-hip generation, a narrative which unfortunately tends to prevail among scholars of “hip:”

Urban anthropologists can spot post-hip by its prefixes and quotation marks, a politically incorrect mix of neo-shitkicker, neuvo-blaxploitation, and kimchi kitsch. To the above inventory, add metrosexuality, McSweeney’s, Vicodin, flash mobs, smart mobs, thumb tribes, “extreme” everything, free folk and the return of no wave (Leland 340).

The above definition and others like it relegate the flash mob to the category of trend and the modern hipster to the realm of ironic collage artist, assertions which are both somewhat unfair. Wasik’s flash mobs definitely excited many as the next new thing; however, their spread, continuation, and refashioning into new performance styles over the following nine years speak to their power as more than mere trend. As for the modern hipster, she may indeed be post-hip—fractured, wandering, in search of a center. However, if so, she is only a product of her time, a thing contained by a larger container which she did not make. In sum, she is a product of her scene—shaped by its structure and influenced by its technology.


At present, a decade into the twenty-first century, one easily forgets the truly radical nature of the mobile phone and its offspring: text messaging. Take someone’s mobile phone away for a day, however, and she begins to remember. Recently, I went without my mobile or “cell” phone for two days, and after the first hour of sheer panic, I recalled what life was like before the cell phone. I racked my brain for the phone numbers of my friends and family, all of which were stored in the memory of my phone, and realized I only remembered two. I phoned these two numbers from a family member’s archaic “land” line and realized the need to introduce myself to the person on the other end of the line—something I rarely do these days, as my phone’s caller identification system usually does this for me. Finally, as I spent a whole two days without my cell phone, anxiously wondering who had called and/or texted, I slowly realized the power my cell phone possessed. I wondered what Donna Haraway would think of me—a cyborg, yes, perhaps, yet also a woman relying upon Steve Jobs’ software to act as memory bank and personal identifier in her stead. Losing my mobile phone highlighted how essential a part of me it had become.

Haraway’s theory of the cyborg offers an insightful view into the relationship between humankind and the tools we create. Haraway, a feminist philosopher and biologist, defined the cyborg in her seminal “A Cyborg Manifesto” as “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (149). Haraway used her fictional and ironic cyborg manifesto to comment on both feminist theory and the technophobia she found arising in the latter part of the twentieth century. Her theory provides an understanding of the relationship between human and machine that is neither diametrically opposed nor completely fused, but rather based in an exploration of boundaries and borderlands. As Haraway, herself, reasons:

Cyborg imagery can help express two crucial arguments: . . . first, the production of universal, totalizing theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality; . . .  and second, taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so means embracing the skillful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts. . . . Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia. . . . It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories. (181) 

Haraway’s manifesto allows scholars to shift from an assessment of the power relations between a woman and her machine to an acknowledgement of the assemblage they jointly create. In Wasik’s flash mob, such an assemblage functioned as the primary agency (or means of production) of the act.

When Wasik’s flash mobs first appeared in 2003, most journalists linked their appearance more to the internet than to mobile phones, reporting that flash mobs were “arranged via Web sites and e-mails” or the even more vague description that they “organized anonymously through the internet” (Shmueli, Johnson). While true, to a certain extent, such reports fail to address the mobile nature of Wasik’s communiqué. A year earlier, in 2002, two mobile phones appeared on the market containing a surprising new feature—a full QWERTY keyboard—allowing for the rapid expansion and proliferation of one of the mobile phone companies’ pre-existing technologies: text messaging. One of these phones, the Blackberry 5810 (labeled “Crackberry” by many due to its addictive nature), contained an additional advantage: the combination of Blackberry’s existing e-mail, organizer and keyboard technologies with voice (or cell phone) capabilities. In so doing, Blackberry created the ideal conditions for the advent of Wasik’s flash mobs: mobile mass communication.

Communication scholar Judith Nicholson addresses this change in her article “Flash Mobs in the Age of Mobile Connectivity.” Nicholson argues:

Flash mobbing shaped and was shaped by a worldwide shift in mobile phone use from private communication characterized primarily by mobile phoning in the 1980s and 90s to more collective uses dominated by mobile texting in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This shift was evident in a corresponding change in sentiments and concerns regarding direct one-to-one mobile phone use versus indirect one-to-many mobile phone use. (2)

Nicholson’s quotation acknowledges the symbiotic relationship between the flash mob and the mobile phone, noting that each shaped the other. Mobile phone technologies, such as texting and e-mail, allowed for the rapid forwarding of Wasik’s initial e-mail, as his “inexplicable mob” invitation quickly bounced from one individual’s contact list to another’s. In turn, the advent of Wasik’s flash mob as a pop culture phenomenon spread large around the world showcased the possibilities for mobile mass communication contained in new mobile phone technologies.

As scholars such as Nicholson and Howard Rheingold point out, however, the powerful nature of mobile mass communication appeared on the public’s radar as early as the late 1990s, due to its use in the anti-globalization movement’s protests, most notably those of the World Trade Organization protestors in Seattle in 1999. Rheingold also describes the use of text-messaging and SMS (Short Message Service) technology to organize protests calling for the resignation of President Estrada in the Philippines in 2001. More recently, the world not only bore witness, but also took part in the 2009 Iranian election protests via the so-called “Twitter Revolution” by rapidly re-tweeting the updates of Iranian protestors under attack by the government. The mobile phone’s proliferation, along with its portability and advanced technological capabilities, contributes to its dominance as the preferred medium of one-to-many mass communication—not only for activists and politicians, but also for anyone with a regularly updated Twitter account.

Unlike the Philippine revolution and WTO protests, flash mobs (as an elaborate inside joke enacted upon the city of New York) promote play, and therefore stand out as one of the first cases in which mobile phone technology and one-to-many mass communication were used to stage a public performance without an overt political agenda. The idea of the flash mob is nothing really new. Similarities exist between the flash mob and similar performances created by Dadaists, Surrealists, Situationists, Happenings artists and even the Yippies. However, the speed and ease of the flash mob separates it from its predecessors. I do not want to suggest some inextricable link between the flash mob’s popularity and the rise of mobile mass communication. Rather, like Bill Wasik, I believe the flash mob’s appeal to be rooted more in its creation of community than in its use of technology. As Wasik writes, “I myself believe that the technology played only a minor role. The emails went out a week before each event, after all; one could have passed around flyers on the street, I think, to roughly similar effect” (58). Wasik and his flash mobbers used modern mobile mass communication technologies not so much because they were hip or trendy, but because they were readily available.

Kenneth Burke’s work supports the above. In Grammar of Motives, he writes, “Pragmatist philosophies are generated by the featuring of the term, Agency” (275). In other words, when making a choice between one form of agency and another, agents tend to choose that which is practical. Sending an email appeared more practical to Wasik than passing out fliers. Forwarding that email via their mobile phones seemed more practical for his flashmobbers than relaying the message in person. Consequently, I argue that the agency of the flash mob arose out of the technocultural scene in which it occurred, one which made mobile phones the easiest and most practical method of communication between Wasik and his attendees. Scene dominated and contained the flash mob’s agency, mobile mass communication, as powerfully as it contained its agent, the modern hipster.


On September 11, 2001, two hijacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, one hijacked airplane crashed into the outer barrier of the Pentagon, and a fourth airplane crashed on a field in Pennsylvania, after passengers valiantly fought back against the terrorist hijackers intent on crashing it into the White House. As the first attack on American soil since the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor, the events of 9/11 changed America forever. For the first time in over sixty years, Americans lived in fear of outside invaders, and of an enemy who might strike at any moment. As a response, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act in October of 2002, dramatically reducing the restrictions placed upon law enforcement regarding the surveillance of American citizens deemed to be terrorist suspects, as well as increasing law enforcement officials’ ability to detain and deport suspected terrorist immigrants. A few months earlier, in March of 2002, the Homeland Security Advisory System emerged, as the result of a Presidential directive. The system consisted of a color-coded scale, used to inform Americans of the specific threat level of terrorist attacks: severe (red), high (orange), elevated (yellow), guarded (blue), or low (green). Each day, Americans could turn on their televisions to their morning talk shows, or monitor radio or internet broadcasts, to be advised of the specific threat level of terrorist attacks, which usually lingered between yellow and orange, the elevated or high end of the scale. The Department of Homeland Security, a new government agency designed to combine and focus the attempts of the FBI, CIA, and other intelligence agencies, debuted in November of 2002 as the result of the passage of the Homeland Security Act. Finally, on March 19, 2003, President George W. Bush appeared on television to declare war on Iraq, providing Americans with a visible and known enemy in the heretofore vaguely-worded war on “terror” itself. Two months later, President Bush appeared again, landing in full pilot combat gear on an aircraft carrier full of soldiers, to announce (somewhat prematurely) America’s mission accomplished, and declare an end to major combat in Iraq. One month later, on June 3, 2003, Bill Wasik attempted his first flash mob at a Claire’s accessory store in New York City’s Astor Place, a primary shopping center and hangout spot of the hip, neo-bohemian East Village.

By aligning these events, I do not wish to assert that Wasik’s mobs were a reaction to 9/11. Instead, I argue that Wasik’s mobs are products of their time, reactions to a heightened level of surveillance, a desire for community, and perhaps, even to the President’s admonitions for Americans to get back to normal by going shopping.4 In this section, I seek to address both the historic and sociocultural scene described above, as well as the physical scenes chosen by Wasik for his eight flash mobs. In so doing, I hope to provide an understanding of the flash mob in relation to its context, and draw attention to the fact that the scene, or container, is often more important than the things it contains: acts, agents, and agency.

Nicholson alludes to the effect of context upon the mob when she queries, “Can flash mobbing . . . be considered a response to the social and political conditions of 2003, particularly conditions that existed in New York where the trend was started?” (11). According to Christian Lorentzen, cultural critic and writer for Time Out New York, the answer is yes. In his infamous Why the hipster must die article, Lorentzen points to the loss of menace among the modern hipster subculture, arguing, “[Norman] Mailer, who traced hipster psychosis to the Holocaust and the atom bomb, would likely point to September 11 as the event that left hordes of twentysomethings whispering, ‘We would be safe’” (1). For Lorentzen, the recycling of trends among hipsters and lack of an overt agenda in the flash mob allude to the effects of fear upon the youth of America following the events of 9/11. Others disagree, locating the power of the flash mob within its very existence in a post 9/11, hyper-secure society. In a 2003 article for the Chicago Tribune, reporter Maureen Ryan quotes the words of one particular flash mob participant: “Honestly, it seems like a way to tweak the nose of those responsible for security, since things have gotten so tense since Sept. 11, flash mobber Eric Longman said via e-mail, ‘Remember, the 1st Amendment specifically protects the right of the people to peaceably Assemble’” (1). Whether the flash mob is a safe, sterile event created by the modern hipster out of a desire for safe artistic play/transgression, or the slightly more risky tantrum of a surveillance-weary youth culture, it undoubtedly exists as a product of its historical time, specifically of the events of 9/11. As such, the flash mob sits as a marker of its time, a monument to the effects of 9/11 upon the consciousness of America and its youth.

Douglas Haddow, writing for Adbusters in 2008, ends his article entitled, “Hipster: The Dead End of Civilization” with the following:

We are a lost generation, desperately clinging to anything that feels real, but too afraid to become it ourselves. We are a defeated generation, resigned to the hypocrisy of those before us, who once sang songs of rebellion and now sell them back to us. We are the last generation, a culmination of all previous things, destroyed by the vapidity that surrounds us. The hipster represents the end of Western civilization—a culture so detached and disconnected that it has stopped giving birth to anything new. (1)

Haddow’s rant, while somewhat melodramatic, speaks to the sociocultural scene of the flash mob. At the dawn of a new millennium, the modern hipster finds herself the focal point of a generation trying desperately to find itself. Amidst a terror-stricken and surveillance-laden backdrop, she turns towards conspicuous consumption, as so many youth before her have done. However, even here, she finds no novelty, only recycled artifacts of older generations readily available for ironic display. She frequents those establishments full of like-minded and similarly dressed souls, purchasing communion through participation in the so-called scene. Her rebellion consists of a well-rehearsed posture of ironic distance—an ability to mock the mainstream, as well as her own scene, instead of seeking to change it.

Wasik’s flash mob also mocks the mainstream, as well as the hipster subculture from which it is constructed. However, the physical nature of the mob—its ability to appear and hold dominion over an actual space, if only for a moment—provides the modern hipster with something new: the ability to act out. While full of self-reflexivity and ironic commentary on its own participants, the flash mob also acts as a form of cultural noise: the tantrum of a childish subculture against the authoritarian structure(s) monitoring its every move. When viewed in such a light, one begins to see the flash mob as more than a mere prank. Instead, the flash mob appears as a slightly subversive, and also somewhat safe, playful form of cultural critique.

As a reminder, Wasik chose retail stores as sites for four of his eight mobs: Claire’s Accessories, Macy’s, Otto Tootsi Plohound, Toys “R” Us. These choices might lead the critic to believe Wasik wanted to make some commentary on capitalist culture in America. However, when viewed within the broader historical timeframe, another distinct possibility appears. In his address to the nation on September 21, 2001, President Bush took special care to ask Americans for their “continued participation and confidence in the American economy” (1). Although Bush’s request was rather typical, in light of the fact that the attacks of September 11th as well as the destruction of the World Trade Center created a slump in both the stock market and general economic activity, the media reacted rather strongly to his request. Headlines such as “If in doubt, go shopping” and quotes such as “And for God’s sake keep shopping!” flooded the newspapers and magazines, and even led to critiques by both Barack Obama and John McCain in the 2008 Presidential election (Riddell; Pellegrini). As candidate Obama once quipped, “Instead of a call to service, we were asked to go shopping” (Ferguson). When read in such a light, one might argue Wasik’s flash mobs take on the role of cultural critique. Nicholson, when discussing the sites of Wasik’s eight mobs, suggests “these sites were potentially made even more significant to Americans in light of George Bush’s plea to get back to normal living following the 9/11 attacks by going shopping” (9). Against the backdrop of earlier generations who supported their war efforts through rationing and volunteerism, the directive to conspicuously consume given to the millennial generation may have felt like a slap in the face—a dismissal of their abilities due to their inexperience. After such dismissal, one naturally seeks to act out.

Wasik, however, offers a different perspective on his choice of locations for the mobs. According to him, the scenes of his inexplicable mobs served two purposes: first, to comment on the changing nature of public space in America; and second, to “create an illusion of superior strength” (Wasik 65). Although in most early interviews Wasik denies the existence of any political aim at work in the flash mob, by 2004 he admits to at least one, the liberation of public space. In an interview with LA Weekly, Wasik acknowledges:

The more I did them, the more I realized the mobs actually did have a deeply political value. The nature of public space in America today has changed. Its shopping malls, large chain stores, that kind of thing. The presumption is that you’re going to purchase something, but once you try to express yourself in any other way, suddenly you’re trespassing. New York City is blessed with a bunch of real public spaces, but at this point, if you’re young in America, chances are you have grown up without authentic public space. I discovered it was political to go into one of those stores. (Bemis)

In this sense, one might argue that the sites of the flash mob, at least to some extent, are dictated by the overarching historic and sociocultural scene. These dictates may be obvious and apparent, such as the shift in location from Grand Central Station to the Grand Hyatt Hotel due to increased security threat levels mentioned earlier. Others may be more subtle, such as the use of mass shopping in the Macy’s and Otto Tootsi Plohound mobs to highlight the overarching spread of corporate or retail space and the diminishing of space in which we can freely exercise our right to assemble. I hope to explore whether or not Wasik and his flashmobbers purposefully sought to communicate such sentiments in future research. Regardless of intent, Wasik’s mobs emphasized the changing nature of public space in America, thereby contributing to the production of the larger sociocultural scene while simultaneously existing as one of its productions.

Necessity also contributed to Wasik’s choice of venue. In order to create the feeling of a group of insiders—a community—Wasik needed to make the mob feel powerful. As he takes care to remind the reader, flash mobs “drew their energies not from impressing outsiders or freaking them out but from showing them utter disregard, from using the outside world as merely a terrain for private games” (65). Although often prodded by bloggers and other mob participants to hold mobs in more open spaces, where more than a few employees and passersby could witness their “game,” Wasik sternly refused. In Wasik’s opinion, in order to make the mob feel big, he had to choose venues which were small, and easily overpowered by a few hundred participants. To do otherwise, and set the mob inside a large, open space, would only serve to highlight its frailty—its rather small size of participants. Wasik elucidates on this aspect of the mob in his 2006 coming-out article: “I never held mobs in the open . . . but this was entirely purposeful on my part, for like Colin Powell I hewed to the doctrine of overwhelming force. Only in enclosed spaces could the mob generate the necessary self-awe; to allow the mob to feel small would have been to destroy it” (65). Wasik uses Howard Dean’s rapid rise and decline in popularity during the 2004 election as an example.

Prior to the Iowa caucuses, Dean’s campaign appeared at the forefront, thanks in part to a virtual community of chat rooms, bloggers, and other online web supporters. According to Wasik, before the caucuses, Dean supporters were on the rise, due to the confined communal nature of Dean’s online virtual community, which led supporters to believe they were part of Dean’s faceless, “seemingly numberless throng” (65). However, when a paltry number of Dean volunteers showed up on-site in Iowa to travel door-to-door and wrangle support before the caucus, the Dean campaign allowed itself to feel small and outnumbered, thereby (at least in Wasik’s opinion) destroying its chances at success. For Wasik, small, enclosed venues were imperative to the success of the flash mob, for without such sites participants would not feel part of a powerful, “hip” game, but rather mere participants of a silly and unsuccessful prank. As such, Wasik used the scenes (physical sites) of his flash mobs to create a feeling of scene (in a sociocultural sense) within his flash mob.

Finally, the flash mob managed to create a scene entirely its own by employing carnivalesque tactics to dominate and transform physical space. By employing these tactics and creating a carnival-like atmosphere of fun and frivolity that simultaneously provided participants with an opportunity to blow off steam, flash mobs unknowingly seduced a larger audience, that of the public and world at large. After all, who doesn’t enjoy a little transgression, a little reversion, and a little carnival now and then?

Flash mobs share a number of similarities with aspects of carnival emphasized by Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World. To begin with, the choice of a public forum such as a department store or downtown city street, as opposed to a more traditional theatrical venue, situates the flash mob as “a play without footlights” (235). One of the foundational aspects of Bakhtin’s carnival is that it occurs in the marketplace—the public forum—and thereby erases the usual boundaries between spectators and participants. As anyone who has attended a Mardi Gras festival can tell you, no one simply watches a carnival. Even those who choose not to participate in the throwing and catching of beads and excessive eating and drinking still participate in the carnival. This is primarily because carnival time is a specific sort of time—one which is calendrically regulated and set apart as distinct. Therefore, even the solitary citizen who does nothing during carnival season but sit inside his house and peer out the window at the activities below is a participant, as he is not living life as usual, but as though on vacation from the normative behaviors and structures of society. In much the same manner, the flash mob operates under a distinct set of temporal rules that allow for an inversion of typical structural patterns.

The strictly regulated ten minute time period of the flash mob allows the rapid formation of a likeminded mass or mob out of a throng of distinct, singular identities. During the brief interval in which the mob swarms a specific site, they are able to disrupt its typical operating patterns of behavior. An example of this disruption and inversion can be found in Bill Wasik’s sixth mob in 2003. In Mob #6, Wasik instructed participants to gather in front of a robotic dinosaur in the Times Square Toys “R” Us and—on cue—fall to their knees and cower before the dinosaur for a set time before leaving. This cowering of the participants took the form of individuals sitting on their knees, arms extended above their heads and repetitively bowing to the floor. In the normative, rule-based act of consumption typical of such a corporate, public space, consumers arrive at a site (such as Toys “R” Us), peruse the products for sale, perhaps asking for help, and then carry their chosen purchase to a cash register where they pay for their goods and exit. Consumers are not supposed to fall to the floor and raise their arms in adoration or capitulation to an item on display, such as the robotic dinosaur. When employees of the Toys “R” Us witnessed this behavior, they were unsure of how to respond, and although the mob participants were doing nothing illegal, they quickly called the cops who managed to turn off the dinosaur just as the mob was dispersing. Other spectators—such as out of town tourists shopping in the Toys “R” Us that day—were compelled to stop their normal behaviors (shopping) and engaged in extraordinary behaviors (such as taking pictures of the mobbers). In these small ways, both store employees and random customers were forced to acknowledge an inversion of structure and react to it, thereby becoming participants in the carnival-like atmosphere the mob created.

Although flash mobs portray a number of the characteristics of carnival outlined by Bakhtin—the inversion of hierarchical norms, an emphasis on the marketplace or public square, the formation of a large crowd of like-minded individuals, and the display of silly, somewhat foolish behavior—the flash mob is not a carnival. Rather, the flash mob should be discussed as a carnivalesque form of performance, referring to its carnival-like properties, yet distinguishing between this fractured form of a carnival and the carnivals of the medieval period to which Bakhtin devotes most of his attention. Bahktin explains that despite the efforts of bourgeois culture to stifle carnival and its forms, carnival did not die, rather, “it was merely narrowed down” (“Rabelais” 276). Peter Stallybrass and Allon White detail this narrowing down of carnival as a four-part process in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. According to the authors, institutions of law and order sought to wipe out carnival and festivity from European life between the 17th and 20th centuries. All sorts of ritualistic and carnival behaviors came under attack—feasting, fairs, processions, rowdy spectacles—and were suddenly subject to strategic forms of surveillance and control via the state. However, the rising nation states sought to co-opt carnival for their own purposes, reinventing it as military parades and national holidays.

Other factors, such as the rise of industrialism and the movement of people from rural country areas to large cities, where squares were quickly replaced by business districts, also contributed to the so-called disappearance of carnival. However, as Stallybrass and White remind us, carnival did not disappear. It managed to be both everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The first process involved in the breakup of carnival is fragmentation. Certain elements of carnival began to be separated from others, in an attempt to maintain a more regulated control over the participants’ actions. For example, feasting becomes separated from performance, spectacle from procession, etc. Simultaneously, carnival became marginalized, both in terms of social class and geographical location. Until the 19th century, carnival was something in which all social classes participated, and it was only with the rise of the bourgeois as a class that carnival became seen as part of the culture of the Other—the uneducated, unrefined, improper other of the lower classes. Similarly, carnival, which had historically run rampant throughout entire towns, began to be pushed out of wealthy districts and neighborhoods, and eventually out of the town itself into the countryside or coastal locations.

The third process involved in the narrowing down of carnival is sublimation. Carnival behaviors involving excess and the grotesque become sublimated into the private terrors of the isolated bourgeois individual. In other words, those excessive appetites and grotesque bodily functions celebrated in carnival—feasting, drinking heavily, defecation, and waste—become the very things bourgeois members of society find repulsive and seek to hide from others. Finally, the behavior of the bourgeois body—particularly the female body—and not only its desires become controlled during the fourth part of the process: repression. In carnival, the grotesque body of the people is articulated as both social pleasure and celebration. Literally placed outside and apart from the carnival body, the female bourgeois body which longs to take part in the festivity creates a pathological phobia of being associated with the carnival body, knowing that if she were to give into her desires and join in, her status as different and therefore proper would be lost. This behavior is typical of the entire bourgeois class of the 19th century, who might allow the existence of fragmented, marginalized forms of carnival out of sentimentality for the past, but could never fully engage with it. Rather, they were forced to remain inside and apart, thereby defining their status as other and more proper against it.

Flash mobs, then, are a carnivalesque type of performance born from the fragmentation of carnival. In our post 9/11, terror-filled global society, one does not come across too many manifestations of the carnivalesque. As the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization protests taught us, crowds are often viewed as threatening, even when their actions may be non-violent in nature. Furthermore, a seemingly purposeless gathering of people engaged in silly sorts of actions stands out in our often humorless society. When faced with a performance such as the flash mob, one is forced to question what the purpose or goal of such a carnivalesque form of action might be. An initial answer lies in the realm of laughter, which Bakhtin reminds us is liberating in and of itself. Although fragmented and incomplete, notes written by Bakhtin towards the end of his life seem focused on the unique and powerful potential of laughter:

Irony (and laughter) as a means for transcending a situation, rising above it. Only dogmatic and authoritarian cultures are one-sidedly serious. Violence does not know laughter. . . . The sense of anonymous threat in the tone of an announcer who is transmitting important communications. Seriousness burdens us with hopeless situations, but laughter lifts us above them and delivers us from them. Laughter does not encumber man, it liberates him. (“Speech Genres” 134)

If laughter is liberating, then in the case of the flash mob, from what exactly are both its participants and observers liberated? Clearly further research into the flash mob’s purpose is required to answer such questions.


Flash floods, like the flash mob, distinguish themselves by their rapid appearance, dissemination, and domination/destruction of low-lying areas. They emerge on the scene without warning and within a matter of hours change its familiar appearance and function completely. Usually, after the rain stops falling, the flood disappears or dries up, often disappearing as quickly as it developed. Flash floods, like flash mobs, surprise us because they are unexpected, and as such, tend to leave us at a loss for what to do, other than notify the authorities of their occurrence.

In the introduction to Perform or Else, Jon McKenzie locates and describes performance as the “embodied enactment of cultural forces” (8). Although I disagree with many of McKenzie’s arguments, I find this definition of performance to be of use when considering both the scene as well as the purpose of the flash mob. Like most performances, Wasik’s eight flash mobs, as well as their subsequent offspring, provide their participants with an opportunity for the physical expression of cultural fears, desires, and tensions. Through careful analysis of their various components, we discover the objects of those fears, desires, and tensions: surveillance, community, space, and power.

In this article, I outlined the specific attributes of Wasik’s flash mobs’ agent (the modern hipster), agency (mobile mass communication), and scene (small, enclosed pseudo-public spaces in New York City’s post 9/11 society). I also discussed the dominant nature of the flash mob’s scene as the overarching container of its agent and agency, as well as the possibility for community building and communitas existent in the actions of the flash mob. Keeping these discussions in mind, future investigations of the flash mob’s purpose should focus not simply on why--but rather, why this particular type of performance, at this particular time, in these particular places, through these particular means, and perhaps most importantly, for this particular audience? Such questions, while obvious and mundane, serve as signposts leading to the Burkean scholar’s ultimate goal: discovering what Wasik’s eight original flash mobs communicate.


1. A term taken from ancient Greek theater, a skene is the structure facing the audience forming the background, or scenery, on which performances occur.
2. In a 2004 interview with LA Weekly, Wasik states, “I e-mailed the invitation to myself, then forwarded it from my own account to about 50 people.”
3. Others locate the origin of the term in “hop,” a slang term for opium, placing hip’s origins within both drug and Eastern culture (Fletcher).
4. In his first official address to the nation following the attacks of 9/11, President Bush made a point of encouraging Americans to continue supporting the economy. Media outlets created a number of news stories focusing on this admonishment, which I discuss in detail later in this essay.

Works Cited

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Bakhtin, Mikhail. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin, U of Texas P, 1986. Print.

Bemis, Alec Hanley. “ ‘My Name is Bill . . . ’: A Q&A with the Anonymous Founder of Flash Mobs.” LA Weekly. 5 Aug. 2004.Web. 4 April 2009. 

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. 1945. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.

Bush, George W. “Presidential Address.” Capital Building, Washington, DC 20 Sep. 2001.

Danzig, David. “Flashmob #3.” The Official Record: A Blog by Someone Who Doesn’t Like or Understand Blogs. 3 July 2003. Web. 12 July 2010.

Ferguson, Andrew. “Self-Interest is Bad?” WeeklyStandard.com. 21 July 2008. Web. 13 Aug. 2010. 

Fletcher, Dan. “Hipsters.” Time. 29 July 2009. Web. 28 July 2010.

Ginger. “mob rulz! (revised).” You Listen to Me, Mr. Kick Ass: Ginger’s Follies, Foibles and Fixations. 3 July 2003. Web. 23 Mar. 2009. 

Haddow, Douglas. “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization.” Adbusters 79.29 (July 2008). Web. 28 July 2010. 

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991: 149–181. Print.

Johnson, Mark D. “Good Mob, Bad Mob: The Art of the Flash Mob: an Amusing Concept Easily Ruined.” The Partial Observer. 24 Sept. 2003. Web. 4 Dec. 2005.

Keifer, Kate. “The Evolution of the Hipster 2000–2009.” Paste Magazine.com . 3 Dec 2009. Web. 28 July 2010. 

Leland, John. Hip: The History. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Print.

Lorentzen, Christian. “Kill the Hipster, Why the Hipster must Die: A Modest Proposal to Save New York Cool.” Time Out New York 609 (2007): 1. Print.

Mailer, Norman. “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on theHipster.” Dissent (Summer 1957). Print.

McKenzie, Jon. Perform or Else. New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Nicholson, Judith. “Flash! Mobs in the Age of Mobile Connectivity.” The Fibreculture Journal. 6 (2005). Web. 29 Oct 2009.

Pelligrini, Frank. “The Bush Speech: How to Rally a Nation.” Time. 21 Sep. 2001. Web. 13 Aug. 2010.

Rheingold, Howard. Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2002.

Riddell, Mary. “If in Doubt, Go Shopping.” The Guardian. 30 Sep. 2001. Web. 13 Aug. 2010.

Ryan, Maureen. “All in a Flash: Meet, Mob and Move On.” Chicago Tribune. 11 July 2003. Web. 8 Aug 2010.

Savage, Sean. “Upcoming flash mobs.” cheesebikini?. 26 Jun 2003. Web. 12 July 2010.

Shmueli, Sandra. “ ‘Flash Mob’ Craze Spreads.” CNN.com. 8 August 2003. Web. 12 Nov. 2005.

Stallybrass, Peter, and Allon White. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1986. Print.

Turner, Victor. “Liminality and Communitas.” The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago: Aldine, 1969: 94–113, 125–130. Print.

Wasik, Bill. “My Crowd: Or, Phase 5: A Report from the Inventor of the Flash Mob.” Harper’s Magazine 312.1870 (2006): 56–66. Print.

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"Flash Flooding: A Burkean Analysis of the Scene-Agent and Scene-Agency Ratio in the Flash Mob" by Rebecca Walker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The Story of King/Drew Hospital: Guilt and Deferred Purification

Jim A. Kuypers and Ashley Gellert            


In this study we use a dramatistic perspective to explore the absence of guilt as a determining factor of the continued hierarchical destruction in the Martin Luther King, Jr./Charles R. Drew Medical Center. This public hospital’s history of patient mortality dilemmas was featured in the Pulitzer Prize-winning public service series authored by the Los Angeles Times staff. We examine the hierarchical relationships within the hospital especially in terms of Kenneth Burke’s trio of guilt, purification, and redemption. We found that without recognition of guilt and fitting purification, redemption remained out of reach, and the polluted hierarchy further grew.

THE PULITZER PRIZE IN JOURNALISM is widely recognized as the ultimate award for journalistic excellence.  Among these total awards the prize’s three oldest categories stand out: editorial writing, public service, and reporting. The public service category is of special interest since these series exhibit not only excellence in writing quality, thus making for fine reading, but have frequently served to inspire the public in such a way that societal change is enacted.  Recent winners have included the “exposure of the high death rate among construction workers on the Las Vegas Strip amid lax enforcement of regulations, leading to changes in policy”, the “mistreatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital, evoking a national outcry and producing reforms”, and a “comprehensive probe into backdated stock options for business executives that triggered investigations, the ouster of top officials and widespread change in corporate America.”1 Although not all winners exhibit a series of stories culminating in some type of action or shift in societal thinking, this pattern—excellence in reporting dramatically exposing a societal ill followed by reform—is present in an overwhelming number of articles, particularly those written since the 1970s.

To better understand the rich rhetorical culture the Pulitzer Prize in public service represents, we examine a series of 2004 Los Angeles Times prize-winning articles regarding medical malpractice and patient mortality issues at Martin Luther King, Jr./Charles R. Drew Medical Center in South Los Angeles. Although the articles, if separated, could be viewed as “disconnected bits of discourse,”2 their status as a series unites them and, when combined with their plotlines of hierarchical dilemmas, creates a rhetorical effort ripe for study from a dramatistic point of view.

Of particular note, these articles present a major exception to the pattern of exposure/action found in the majority of public service winners. Instead, the King/Drew articles exhibit all the elements of a major societal drama, but, subsequent to their publication, no real action surrounding King/Drew occurred; far from it, the situation persisted, eventuating with the hospital’s closing in 2007. Intrigued by this, we sought to discover how the authors of the article series could write in such a manner to receive a Pulitzer, yet also write in such a manner that their exposure of a gross societal ill was unable to motivate South Los Angeles’ community members, hospital staff, and supervisors to societal action and redemption.

In order to better understand the relationships among the journalists, the community, King/Drew hospital, and the lack of action regarding the hospital’s history of medical inadequacies, we employ a two-tiered pentadic analysis to explore both the journalists’ motives underpinning the news series and the King/Drew world they create. Few studies have examined news articles from a Burkean perspective. Two examples include Brian L. Ott and Eric Aoki’s framing analysis of Matthew Shephard’s murder3 and Daron Williams and Jim A. Kuypers’ pentadic analysis of NASCAR driver interviews.4 These studies examine journalists’ influence on story content and agents within news coverage, respectively, as separate elements. In this study, however, we unite these two elements to evaluate journalists’ role as agents in writing this news series, then also examine, in terms of story content, how the King/Drew agents function in the scene the journalists construct.

Following a brief discussion of how we use dramatism in this essay, we move to our actual analysis. The first portion of the analysis is external in orientation because it considers the journalists’ role as agent within the overall situation and their use of the news series as a means to provide residents of South Los Angeles with reformed healthcare. The second portion of the analysis is internal in orientation because it considers the hospital’s situation as mediated and constructed through the journalists’ act of writing the news series. Finally, we unite the external analysis of the journalists’ agenda for writing the news series and the internal analysis of the journalists’ constructed situation within the King/Drew hospital. This allows us to explore the dramatistic cycle inherent within the overall situation; we are thus able to explore the journalists’ act of writing the news series and, as a result, see how they created a scenic motive that actually perpetuated the very acts that occasioned the writing of the articles in the first place. We feel that this reconstructed scene hampered efforts of the public and hospital agents to move through the cycle of redemption. Importantly, then, the journalists’ act of writing the series thwarted the dramatistic cycle and the societal action that Pulitzer Prize-winning public service articles aim to achieve.

A Dramatistic Point of Departure

As Burke explains, “Dramatism is a method of analysis and a corresponding critique of terminology designed to show that the most direct route to the study of human relations…is via a methodical inquiry into cycles…and their functions.”5 In this essay, we view dramatism as the study of the hierarchies within society and the subsequent actions of the people within those hierarchies as they build relationships, acquire responsibilities, accept or reject their positions, and strengthen or destroy the structure. This rhetorical perspective explores drama through language, specifically how language becomes a form of action for people within hierarchies. According to Bernard L. Brock, Robert L. Scott, and James W. Chesebro, “hierarchy generates the structure of our dramatic society. In society, the social, economic, and political powers are unevenly divided. Power endows individuals with authority. Authority, in turn, establishes definite relationships among people, reflecting how much power they possess.” 6 Given this power distribution inherent within society, Burke notes that the formation of hierarchies is “inevitable.”7

Just as hierarchies are inevitable within society, so is the struggle over power within them. C. Allen Carter warns that as people within hierarchies “consolidate their…position by asserting themselves over those beneath them…abuse of power is endemic.”8 He continues to remind us that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely those goaded by the hierarchical order” because people are always working to achieve new positions and thus new levels of power and responsibility within a hierarchy.9 This hierarchy, along with its resulting distribution of power, forms a type of societal pyramid with different layers of people in varying positions stacked upon each other with the few most powerful on top and those with less power at the bottom. People have different responsibilities to themselves and others surrounding them depending upon their position within this intricate societal structure. The relationships that people build with others on different hierarchical levels internally cement the structure. Once given a place within the hierarchy, we can choose to accept or reject not just that position but also the relationships and the personal and interpersonal responsibilities that accompany that position.

With acceptance, the structure remains strong and unified,but “when people reject the traditional hierarchy,” write Brock, Scott, and Chesebro, “they ‘fall’ and thereby acquire a feeling of guilt.”10 Be that as it may, Edward C. Appel notes that guilt can also be the result of not working to “improve or at least maintain [the] social and ethical standing” that accompanies one’s position within a given hierarchy.11 With this guilt comes the need to purify through mortification, “self-sacrifice that relieves guilt,” or victimage, “the purging of guilt through a scapegoat that symbolizes society’s guilt.”12 Burke views this dramatic form, in a large sense, with humans “in principle in revolt against the principle of authority. This condition is indigenous to the nature of the idea of Order.”13 Burke sees victimage as a natural response to guilt, where humans act and do not think about how their rejection of the hierarchy led to their guilt.14 He also finds that “the compensatory sacrifice of a ritually perfect victim would be the corresponding ‘norm.’ Hence, insofar as the religious pattern (of ‘original sin’ and sacrificial redeemer) is adequate to the ‘cathartic’ needs of a human hierarchy . . . it would follow that the promoting of social cohesion through victimage is ‘normal’ and ‘natural’.”15

Although the guilty have two purification options, Rise Jane Samra is quick to note that the type and magnitude of purification expressed must fit the magnitude of the rejection. She writes that, “the act of purification must be appropriate to the sin of the guilty for the drama to succeed as an act of redemption.”16 Redemption is achieved when the purification of the guilty matches the magnitude of his or her rejection, and when society’s perception of the actions of the guilty are reset. Burke explains the function of guilt, purification, and redemption in terms of a system, or “perfect mechanism,” of many parts where each piece is integral to the function of the whole.17 This speaks to the complementary nature of rejection and purification, and the crucial need to achieve redemption in order to allow the mechanism to function. If just one element from this system is absent, then the mechanism will stop, or continuously cycle through guilt and attempts at purification until either redemption is achieved or the hierarchy crumbles from within.

Sometimes, critics can help to re-build a hierarchy by exploring what events have weakened it and by concurrently determining what types of relationships and events would strengthen it. Brock writes that critics working to achieve this hierarchical reconstruction “can explore efforts to transform the hierarchy with an eye toward strengthening them and bringing them to full fruition in…relationships that better promote justice.” Additionally, he notes that through such exploration, “motives that perpetuate social inequality can be transformed into motives that perform social justice.” 18 Brock also acknowledges that critics do not always revitalize a hierarchy because new relationships that emerge might not serve to generate social justice for the people who inhabit that hierarchy.  Although Burke writes that hierarchies are “inevitable,” he is quick to note that this does not mean “that any particular hierarchy is inevitable; the crumbling of hierarchies is as true a fact about them as their formation.”19 We believe that the Los Angeles Times journalists who authored the Pulitzer Prize-winning series can be viewed as the critic about whom Brock writes because of their efforts to expose the problems that plagued the King/Drew hierarchy through their news series. Ultimately, the scene and relationships the journalists revealed prevented them, having been agents, from revitalizing the hierarchy from within. Once a hierarchy crumbles, no social action will be able to repair that societal structure.

An External View: The Journalists’ Act and Purpose

Burke believed that drama was everywhere, that people’s lives were “saturated” with dramatic language and action.20 The Martin Luther King, Jr./Charles R. Drew Medical Center situation is just such an example. King/Drew serviced the minority communities in South Los Angeles—once primarily black, now predominantly Latino—many of whom are unemployed with 36% living below the poverty level.21 The hospital was born from the 1965 Watts race riots, where then South ‘Central’ Los Angeles’ residents demanded equality in basic aspects of daily living. A study of the riot’s causes found that the residents saw a great need for quality, accessible healthcare for the local minority population.22 Days after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, ground broke for the medical center; seven years after the Watts riots, King/Drew opened its doors.23 It is named in honor of Dr. King and Dr. Charles R. Drew, who helped develop blood banks in the United States following World War II.24 Despite its residents’ and namesakes’ hope for equality, the dream was eventually deferred by employee negligence, charges of nepotism, graft, medical malpractice, and avoidable patient deaths.

For 32 years, patients died at the hands of nurses and doctors because of careless medical mistakes. Many of these incidents would be buried along with the patients through waivers and the blind eyes of the hospital supervisors. However, these secrets were exhumed in 2004 in a series written by the Los Angeles Times regarding the hospital’s history of dilemmas, patient stories, grief, and loss. Two consistent themes unite the articles within the series: the need for the guilty to take responsibility and redeem themselves in the eyes of the South Los Angeles residents, and the persistent need for quality, affordable healthcare. The latter issue helped to ignite the 1965 riots led by the community’s minority population and, once again, called residents to the picket lines. This time, however, it was to demand support for a hospital that provided them with healthcare services that were both desperately needed and responsible for killing their family members, friends, and neighbors.25

If we look at the Prize winners in the public service category, it is safe to assume that the King/Drew series was meant to serve as a call to action for community members and health officials to finally solve the hospital’s patient care dilemmas. Within this series, the journalists could encourage community members and the hospital’s staff to reform their actions to better support the hospital’s purpose of healing and serving the community, and thus working against its current actions that resulted in gross medical malpractice suits. Yet, because of the conflict between the journalists’ efforts to reconstruct the scene within the hospital to achieve social change and the ultimate role that such scenes played in overwhelming and masking the agents responsible for the hospital’s state, we are inclined to believe that the public and hospital’s agents were never able to respond to the action the series prescribed. In short, our journalist agents’ act was to write the series with the purpose of producing a mechanism of change within the societal hierarchy. Looked at Dramatistically, this externally understood act-purpose ratio dominated the situation and would seem to suggest the potential for a positive response regarding King/Drew. This changes considerably when one examines the scene that the journalists actually created through their stories; that is to say, from an internal point of view.

An Internal View: Voices of Agents Create a Scene

When considered in terms of Burke’s pentad, three clusters of agents arise in the dramatistic world that journalists from the Los Angeles Times created: supervisors, doctors, and nurses. These agents are responsible for caring for the hospital’s patients, providing actions that would reinforce the hospital’s purpose of healing and serving South Los Angeles’ minority community.  Of major concern in the series, however, was the perversion of this purpose—the hierarchical confusion, lack of supervision, and gross medical malpractice. However, the purpose and disordered hierarchy, though accurate and well constructed by the journalists, was rendered impotent through the journalists’ construction of the agents responsible for the King/Drew situation. The stories, viewed collectively as the journalists’ act, constructed agents of the hospital who, in speaking with their own voices, focused not on purpose or redemption, but instead created an overwhelming, chaotic scene. The result of this dramatic world is a scene that reinforces the King/Drew agents’ dangerous actions and prevents the hospital from achieving its purpose in the community.

Supervisors’ Role as Agents

Five supervisors comprise the first cluster of agents in King/Drew: Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Gloria Molina, Zev Yaroslavsky, Michael Antonovich, and Don Knabe. They are responsible for governing the hospital.26 It is their job to remain updated with employee discipline, medical malpractice, and personnel issues, in addition to ensuring that the hospital meets accreditation standards and receives necessary funding. Because of their role as hospital overseers, they have received much of the blame for allowing King/Drew to reach the state of woeful inadequacy in terms of healthcare, employee relations, and mortality rates. Also known as the “little kings,” this group is responsible for establishing and enforcing laws and regulations for, in this case, the King/Drew hospital and its employees. According to one reporter, the supervisors “are both the executive and legislative branches of county government which gives them broad powers with few checks and balances.”27

Such limited regulations create issues for the supervisors, hospital, and employees when the supervisors create rules—including the need for them to be kept current with doctors’ and medical staff’s malpractice issues, the consequences for which are punishments at work and reports to the Department of Health Services—but do not follow through with such consequences. For example, just one doctor in a five-year time span, from 1999-2004, was reported to a disciplinary committee; however, numerous patients died from medical staff negligence within that same time frame.28 This is just one example of the consequences resulting from the hospital’s governing system, but it continued to occur as the hospital had yet to learn from its mistakes.

The supervisors were portrayed as making claims that they were not updated on new medical malpractice, negligence, and disciplinary issues among the hospital’s staff. For example, Burke was quoted as stating that, “We have not had the information that there were these kinds of problems,” problems that Molina deemed “astounding,” after government inspectors accused the hospital of negligent patient care in 2003.29 Yaroslavsky expressed similar surprise, demanding to know why he and his fellow supervisors were not told “that [King/Drew] was going to hell in a handbasket.”30 But the Los Angeles Times reporters reveal that the supervisors were told, for if they were not so informed the hospital would not have been able to settle malpractice suits brought against it and its employees by patients and their families.31 Since King/Drew spent $20.1 million on such suits between 1999 and 2003, we feel there is little merit to the supervisors’ claims, and yet, the supervisors were ultimately portrayed as operating out of a sense of ignorance. 32

Due to the investigations the supervisors finally realized the correlation between inaction with staff disciplinary problems and the accumulation of patient care dilemmas. They had two choices: make serious changes to the hospital in an effort to curb patient fatalities and injuries, or continue to allow the hospital’s doctors to get away with gross malpractice. The supervisors chose the former and, in addition to hiring consultants and health department managers to investigate the hospital’s problems, they decided to close the trauma, radiology, and neonatal care units to afford more time repairing the damage in the hospital’s remaining units.33

Some believed the efforts made were minimal, the easy first steps to achieving a lofty, integral goal. For example, Connie Rice, a Los Angeles civil rights attorney, stated that she does not want King/Drew to “bring in this consultant to do tooth whitening and flossing [when] we need root canals and dental implants.” Rice called for greater enforcement of the new rules the consultants might have suggested and stronger measures that truly ensured patient safety and progress.34 But others, like Fred Leaf, Department of Heath Services Chief Operations Officer, are pleased by King/Drew’s efforts to make the hospital a safe place for patients to receive medical treatment. Leaf acknowledged the situation, stating that, “obviously, something like this is terrible,”  then continued by suggesting a positive aspect to the situation noting that community members “can believe, you can bet, that every time something occurs, safety process doubles. . . . I think we’re doing everything we can to assure there’s a safe environment.”35

Supervisor Burke agrees that “considerable work” has begun on restructuring the hospital to ensure patient safety. Yaroslavsky further considers this work as “a major step…a beginning at MLK.”36 However, with such a long history of negligent patient care, Burke is unsure of how long such a process will take. Furthermore, she admits that she does not “know that you can correct all of the problems from 25 years in three months. It’s going to take awhile because there’s still a lot of people to be removed and there has to be a whole discipline approach—so that when people do something . . . you can hold them accountable. And that has not been done there.”37

Although it is possible that measures were taken to heighten patient safety each time a medical negligence issue arises, as Supervisor Burke suggests, these measures have simply failed to prevent repeated instances from occurring. This is evidenced by the frequency with which patients have died at doctors’ and nurses’ hands for much of the hospital’s lifetime. Regardless, the most recent limited changes have forced the hospital to close several of its units, sending frustrated community members, who are grateful for nearby medical attention, to protest outside the hospital. According to one activist named Mobley, “We have to stand together to fight this battle. . . .” A community member who has fought for the hospital since its first days, Mobley insisted that, “We have to rise every morning under God’s will…to save Martin Luther King.”38 Lee Russell has joined Mobley’s plight to save the hospital. Russell, who was brought to King/Drew after a shooting and stabbing incident, noted that he would have died had the hospital’s trauma unit been closed when we was injured.39

The supervisors seem to share community members’ struggle, for they are conflicted between recognizing the need for a local hospital in South Los Angeles; yet, they strongly suggest that they are frustrated by the inferior care that King/Drew provides. For example, Yaroslavsky stated that, “ If there is one thing that has been certain at King/Drew over the last few years, if not longer, it’s that aberrations happen too often, and that is obviously of great concern and frustration. I’m really at my wit’s end. . . . It doesn’t seem to stop. It doesn’t seem to end.”40 Gloria Molina is similarly disappointed with herself and fellow supervisors at their failing efforts to solve King/Drew’s problems, stating that, “We [the supervisors] should all be embarrassed, all of us collectively because we have failed the community.”41  King/Drew had failed its local community, particularly the minority communities for which it served as a symbol. The supervisors even acknowledge—somewhat—their role in helping to perpetuate the malpractice that prevented the hospital from healing and serving South Los Angeles’ impoverished community.

Importantly, though, their inability to act responsibly and govern the hospital by establishing and enforcing rules as well as disciplining the medical staff—responsibilities given to them through their role as the hospital’s supervisors—was mediated through an ever pervasive sense of scenic domination: “things are so bad” that supervisor actions were never enough. They “did the best” they could “under the circumstances,” but their actions alone could never be enough. Thus, medical malpractice and disciplinary issues went unreported and undetected. The supervisors failed to solve King/Drew’s problems and create and maintain a safe environment for patients seeking quality healthcare; it was simply, though, not their fault. In short, they did act, yet the scene remained so powerful that their actions were impotent.

Doctors as Agents

The  doctors are the second cluster of agents within King/Drew. The supervisors are not solely responsible for allowing doctors to get away with incompetence and malpractice. If not for the doctors’ gross medical mistakes and subsequent malpractice suits, King/Drew’s supervisors would not have had to minimize and hide employee negligence and disciplinary problems. Yes, the supervisors are responsible for governing the hospital, but the doctors are responsible for healing patients and saving their lives, not ignoring patients while their lives and livelihood are taken away. As supervisor Molina stated, “If doctors, nurses, and administrators keep failing us, this hospital is going to sink. . . . That’s my fear.”42 Molina believed that employees need to be held accountable as well, because they currently are not, as is evidenced by the unreported accounts of patient negligence, co-worker assaults, and the hospital’s use of waivers and lies to hide the truth behind patients’ encounters with King/Drew.

The hospital staff failed the community through its acts of staff negligence and disciplinary problems that plagued King/Drew for much of its life. Just after the hospital opened in the early 1970s employees were caught working while inebriated and stealing medication from the pharmacy to sell outside of work. By the end of that decade, King/Drew had earned the nickname, “Killer King,” and was known for its unsanitary conditions, employees who worked under the influence of alcohol or drugs, employee absenteeism, and numerous patient deaths.43

Two doctors exemplify King/Drew’s deadly legacy. The first is Jonathan Heard. Heard, a surgeon at King/Drew, was brought before the supervisory board after he accrued several malpractice suits in 10 years. These charges included administering a police officer a lethal blend of heart medication while treating him for gunshot wounds, perforating a patient’s esophagus during surgery (leading to a serious infection), and billing a man’s insurance company for an appendectomy when in reality Heard had simply stitched through the patient’s intestines leading to an infection that another doctor had to surgically repair.44 According to Heard, these instances are not atypical for doctors. As he declared at one supervisory board meeting, “I want you to find me a surgeon that works in a high-risk field and find one that has not had any type of adverse action against him. . . .”45

The second doctor, Dennis Hooper, was responsible for similar medical malpractice issues during his tenure at King/Drew. A pathologist, Hooper frequently misdiagnosed patients; he often reported that some had cancer when their biopsies were in fact benign, and at other times he failed to identify malignancies. These mistakes led to unnecessary medical procedures and to patient deaths. As one example, Hooper misdiagnosed Johnnie Mae Williams with uterine cancer, which required her to endure an unnecessary radical hysterectomy. Hooper’s colleagues at King/Drew were appalled by his performance. Dr. Timothy Dutra, a fellow pathologist at the hospital, noted Hooper’s disregard for his careless mistakes, stating that, “He would make these casual diagnoses that were wrong and they didn’t seem to bother him.”46

Frustrated by Hooper’s negligence, Dutra and four colleagues wrote to their administrators about Hooper’s fatal errors and malpractice suits. But nothing came of it, perhaps because the administrators say they never received the letter. According to Dutra, “Here you had five pathologists signing a letter listing causes and telling administrators in no uncertain terms that this pathologist has competency problems. . . . And there was no response.”47 So Dutra went above his administrators and began writing first to the hospital’s supervisors and eventually to the South Los Angeles auditors and state medical board. It was county auditors that finally investigated Hooper’s performance at King/Drew, but by the time they recommended disciplinary action, Hooper had already left to work at a San Antonio hospital.48

King/Drew is a teaching hospital affiliated with Charles R. Drew University. As the supervisors failed in their responsibilities to ensure that the hospital fulfills its purpose of healing and serving the community, some doctors associated with the university similarly reject their responsibility to oversee residents, and as such, mistakes have led to patient deaths and injuries.While completing her OB/GYN residency at King/Drew, Dr. Penelope Velasco had three medical malpractice suits brought against her, two of which were related to delivery delays that resulted in physical and mental impairments or death in babies. The third suit was the result of Velasco stitching through a patient’s colon when operating to remove ovarian cysts. The error proved fatal when the patient died 12 days later, after Velasco and her supervising doctors failed to notice the mistake. Like Dr. Heard, Velacso sees such errors as commonplace in her field, stating that, “It’s just the nature of medicine, the nature of life.”49

Additionally, convicted child abusers without the appropriate education have been hired as physicians’ assistants, like Andrew Josiah, who “spent his nights working at King/Drew and his days at the halfway house where he was serving out a sentence for felony child abuse...[after] trying to choke his 12-year-old son.”50 Furthermore, people who failed or dropped out of medical school—and thus did not have medical licenses—were also hired to staff the hospital.51

Nurses as Agents

The hospital’s nurses are the third cluster of agents within King/Drew. Nurses have been known to leave their shifts early, thus abandoning their patients and leaving them without care. They have also been noted to take meals when unauthorized to do so and to turn off patient monitors on their own initiative. In all of these instances, there have been patient deaths. One such instance involved a two-year-old who was on a ventilator. His nurse, without leave, left early for dinner, and the toddler suffered “profound mental retardation” after his breathing tube came loose and none of the other employees checked on him.52 Another case involved a 28-year-old AIDS patient, on whom a nurse was supposed to check. The nurse left before checking in on him that evening at 6 p.m., but falsified his chart to make it seem as though she had visited him at that time; in reality, the patient died at 5 p.m., alone, after his monitors had been turned off earlier.

Furthermore, nurses administered the wrong medicine to patients, including William Watson, who was hospitalized for meningitis. Watson received Gleevec, a chemotherapy drug, when nurses failed to check his chart after a mistake was made in the pharmacy. Watson survived, but his eyes swelled to the size of golf balls over the four days that he was given the drugs. Once nurses discovered the mistake they had the patient sign a waiver, telling him, “We can just forget about it, and squash it like it never happened.” He signed the waiver because he had not known better.53 Other times, nurses failed to provide basic care and assistance to patients. One case is that of Robbie Billbrew, who has hospitalized for her problems in a unit that provided patients with additional nursing attention than regular patients receive. Yet Billbrew received little care from her nurses let alone additional care, leaving her daughters to tend to their mother’s bedsores and clean her breathing tube. “We had to do everything,” recalls Cynthia Millage of the basic care she had to provide her mother.54

As dangerous as the hospital is when its employees are at work, there have been numerous times when doctors and nurses simply fail to show up for their shifts. Entire units—from orthopedic suites to emergency rooms—have temporarily closed as a result and patients are left without medical staff to treat them and are thus forced to travel to another of the county’s hospitals for treatment.55

Considering Failed Redemption

The Los Angeles Times series provides copious evidence to support the hospital staff’s collective inaction regarding these gross accounts of patient deaths, injuries, and staff inadequacies. Yet the journalists’ act of writing the series ultimately created a scene constituted by a disordered hierarchy and confusion regarding responsibility for patients that perpetuated the staff’s medical malpractice. This scene was powerful, so much so that it prevented the social action required to allow the hospital’s agents to act in a way that would support the hospital’s purpose and also create a new healthy scene marked by quality healthcare. Essentially, the journalists’ act of writing solidified the hierarchical break within the King/Drew hospital by enabling those involved to avoid purifying their evident guilt regarding the hospital’s inability to serve the community because of its gross issues with medical malpractice.

Within King/Drew’s hospital hierarchy, members have positions of superiority and domination beginning at the top with supervisors, followed by the hospital’s doctors, nurses and other staff, then the patients and their families. The people who comprise the more powerful positions in the hierarchy—namely, staff—have responsibilities to other members of the hierarchy and themselves depending upon their position within this medical social structure. King/Drew’s staff had a responsibility to heal and serve the community through quality patient care and ensuring such care through regulations within the hospital. When the staff refused to accept these responsibilities—by not enforcing regulations to curb patient deaths and staff negligence and making numerous significant medical errors resulting in patient deaths—they rejected their positions within the hospital’s hierarchy and a polluted hierarchy only reinforced itself.

When we view this through Burke’s notion of Motivation, we can better understand how the series of articles failed to establish a redemptive cycle. We saw that the journalists’ act was the series of public service stories. The purpose of these stories was to shed light on a rather intractable and deadly problem with King/Drew. The way in which the journalists described the situation (our external analysis) could have, in Burkean terms, constructed a motive for action within those reading the articles. By analyzing the manner in which the journalists described the situation, we can then determine how the journalists named “their structure and outstanding ingredients, and name[d] them in a way that contain[ed] an attitude toward them.”56 Within this attitude lies the motive at the heart of the journalists’ act of writing the stories. However, within their act, the journalists created multiple competing agents (supervisors, doctors, and staff), each of which discursively constructed a powerful scene (our internal analysis), one that eclipsed the act and purpose of the journalists.

Put another way, the journalists’ act of writing was done with the purpose (we assume here) of exposing the negligent acts of King/Drew staff. However, in the act of writing about these acts, the journalists instead created (through their reported descriptions given by the supervisors, doctors, and staff) a disordered scene of such proportions that it was no longer just part of the hospital staff’s (agents) description. Instead, the scene created overpowered the described acts. Thus, we begin the award-winning series with an act-purpose ratio and end it with a scene-act ratio.

Viewed externally, the pentadic elements of the situation showed a domination of acts. The journalists set out to show the problems with King/Drew and detailed dozens of negligent acts that had occurred at the hospital throughout the years. In explaining a stress upon acts, Burke writes that “things are more or less real according as they are more or less energeia [activity] (actu, from which our ‘actuality’ is derived). [F]orm is the actus, the attainment, which realizes the matter.”57 Externally, this domination of acts suggests a philosophical realism influences the apprehension of the situation and subsequent discourse. Realism is the belief “in the real existence of matter as the object of perception (natural realism); also, the view that the physical world has independent reality, and is not ultimately reducible to universal mind or spirit.” Such a motivation stresses “the existence of objects in the external world independently of the way they are subjectively experienced.”58 The journalists put forward a narrative that stressed the heavy reality of the situation, the facts that show the pattern of abuse and neglect. As Brock, Scott, and Chesebro note, “the realist grammar begins with a tribal concept and treats the individual as a participant in substance.”59 In this sense, the hospital agents were envisioned to work together to compound the problem; in this way, they would also, we assume in the eyes of the journalists, accept responsibility to mortify or to be scapegoated.

When one moves from viewing this situation externally to internally, from journalists as agents in the act of writing to an internal understanding of the text they created, one finds a noticeably different construction of events. Instead of having the (external) act of writing with the (external) purpose of exposing the hospital’s sins, the writers constructed too detailed a world, one in which the hospital agents came alive and were allowed to create their own scene in their own words. The acts described above are still the acts of the hospital supervisors and staff. However, when one looks at the series of articles as a single text created by the journalists, examining it internally for pentadic elements, one finds not the act taking dominance, but rather a powerful tripartite agent creating a dominating scene. In short, we move from the act as dominant to a scenic domination at the root of the failure to establish a cycle of order.

The scene is a cacophony of negligence, malpractice, and entrenched systemic failure. Since there are three clusters of agents, each points to the others, and each points to a problem (scene) larger than itself. They construct, and are interpolated into, a scene so dominating, that they could do nothing. Even when specific acts of malpractice and negligence are mentioned in the articles, they fail to provide traction for change. This “scenic collection of acts”60 instead functions as a background of sorts, directing attention away from culpable agents and onto instead a hopeless situation. This scenic domination suggests a philosophical materialism operating throughout the collective stories of the hospital agents. Of materialism, Burke wrote “that metaphysical theory which regards all the facts of the universe as sufficiently explained by the assumption of body or matter, conceived as extended, impenetrable, eternally existent, and susceptible of movement or change of relative position.”61 It is “the theory which regards all the facts of the universe as explainable in terms of matter and motion. . . .”62

Burke suggests that this understanding allows us to view action as reduced to motion when scene dominates. According to Jim A. Kuypers:

In this sense, only the material is significant; that which is observable, touchable, and measurable takes precedence over other concerns. The observable, touchable, and measurable are the assumptions of a positivistic science. This materialistic motive also allows pressure to be placed upon those interpellated within the scene. We are a part of that which is occurring, but we are not necessarily able to remove ourselves from it. The previously described acts emerge out of the scene. Although the realism attached to the acts seem to place principle over material objects, by describing the scene as the dominating genesis, [the hospital staff] allowed for the situation to control the acts.63

There is a certain determinism operating here, a domination of the mind by the scene. Viewed another way, one could construe outside elements as pushing or coercing the hospital agents to act in a particular way. Of note, though, is that even with a scenic domination, an agent could be empowered to act, to initiate a redemptive cycle. This obviously did not happen in the King/Drew situation, neither by the journalist agents nor the hospital staff agents. But why not?

Viewing the redemptive cycle as a form of narrative provides us with insight into the failed King/Drew restoration. Edward C. Appel offers insight into viewing the redemptive cycle as a narrative: “the terms of the guilt-redemption cycle can be viewed or can function as both a nontemporal logic (that is, as a dialectic) and a narrative progression (that is, as a drama), not just as a temporal ‘process’ . . . or temporal sequence. . . .”64 The Pulitzer Prize articles were, at their core, constructed as a narrative, a series that worked to tell the story of King/Drew. Appel suggests that there is “an equivalency” among the terms of the pentad and “the terms implied by the idea of order”; in some senses, they are “interconnecting stages, moments, or concepts.”65 Accordingly, when “viewing the terms of the pentad dialectically the ‘features of action’ may take on any combination; when viewed dramatically, however, ‘they progress from disordered scene to sacrificial act to redeemed purposes and agencies.’”66

Recall, though, that the journalists’ act-purpose ratio gave way to the scene-act ratio contained within the narrative itself. If we view all of this externally, we could well see a grammar of interconnected pentadic terms for the situation, something that produces a static view. However, if we look at the situation internally, then we can see the interconnected pentadic terms as a drama, one in which the various elements could be drawn out “into a temporal succession.” 67 From this point of view, a disordered hierarchy is presented as the (1) scene; this scene required (2) agents to offer sacrifice/purification in the form of an act, which, in turn, would lead to a new order with (3) agencies and purposes commensurate to this new order. This dramatistic cycle, however, rises or falls on the willingness or ability of an agent to assume mortification or scapegoating; either way, it necessitates an agent who would offer “redemption through his acts. . . .”68

Such was not the case with King/Drew. The journalists simply failed to provide a way to challenge the powerful scene that they had created. As J. Clarke Rountree, III has written, “relations among grammatical terms function as rhetorical constraints that do not dictate action, but shape the interpretation of action. By extension, these constraints function when one attempts to account for any sort of action, whether undertaken by one's self or another.”69 In a sense, the trouble was institutional, thus no single agent was powerful enough to challenge the problem—one scapegoat or one act of mortification was insufficient. The journalists presented a domination of acts—from the act of writing, the journalists created a series of acts within their text. However, these acts were so well described that they created a scenic oppression; moreover, the acts were allowed to be explained by well described agents (supervisors, doctors, and staff) in such a manner that “act as dominating” gave way to “scene as dominating”: human action was replaced by human motion. The agents (supervisors, doctors, staff) are prisoners of the scene. Because of this, the cycle of redemption simply stalled. No moral agent stepped up to act after the series of articles. No redemption: the agencies and purposes were never truly presented as open to transformation. Instead, there was simply a non-act, the allowing of things to remain the same. Guilt and pollution remained, and the scene continued to dominate. The agents and their purposes continued down the same path.

Viewed in this manner, the staff simply failed to purify at a level appropriate to its guilt. Although they acknowledge disappointment and embarrassment in the current supervisory system, as well as the consequential patient deaths their medical mistakes accrued, they did not purify at a level appropriate to their rejection, guilt, or to the consequences that their inaction has created for the hospital. Simply stating embarrassment and frustration (at the scene) cannot possibly purify the supervisors because these purification attempts are meager mortification compared to the hospital’s accumulating number of patient deaths and medical malpractice fees.

Redemption Deferred

Years after the 2004 LA Times series ran, King/Drew continued to crumble. The hospital lost its accreditation in 2005, and in 2006, the hospital lost $200 million of its total $380 million budget after failing to pass a federal Medicaid and Medicare inspection in 9 of the 23 examined areas.70 With such a devastating loss, the hospital’s supervisory board was left with difficult decisions. How many other units would need to be closed? And should King/Drew’s managerial duties be transferred to a credible hospital, such as one of the UCLA Medical Centers, which would provide South Los Angeles’ residents with the services that King/Drew would no longer have? Despite the dangerous environment and incidents that led to the hospital’s failed inspection and funding cuts, community members were angered at the prospect of once again having limited access to healthcare, despite its inadequacy. Limited care, even very poor, seemed better than no care at all.

One community member angered by this situation was Mollie Bell. Bell, who helped fight to promote the need for quality local healthcare in South Los Angeles during the Watts riots, saw the potential hospital closure as a return to the 1960s, when residents—many of whom did not have personal transportation—had to travel to other communities to seek medical treatment.71 Others, including the Los Angeles County Medical Association’s (LACMA) and California Medical Association’s (CMA) presidents—Dr. Ralph DiLibero and Dr. Michael Sexton, respectively—shared Bell’s distress. Both spoke about the detrimental effect this limited access to medical care would cause South Los Angeles’ residents and made statements supporting the hospital’s supervisory committee in its efforts to salvage the hospital’s services. In a press release issued by the CMA, DiLibero stated that “LACMA thanks the…County Board of Supervisors for their continued reasoned and deliberate positive response to this healthcare delivery crisis…and all the efforts that have been put forth to correct the mistakes of the past and to create an effective, safe, and perpetual healthcare system.”72

We do not feel, however, that the Board of Supervisors was responding appropriately to solve the hospital’s history of patient negligence and redeem its reputation; this is evidenced by the hospital’s failed federal inspection and loss of over half of its budget. This ineffective leadership would continue, despite the hospital’s partnership with Harbor-UCLA Medical Center after the 2006 funding cut. By 2007, still more patients had died from nursing negligence, one of whom collapsed in the emergency room and writhed in pain as employees ignored her. During this same year, the partnered hospital failed yet another federal inspection, forcing it to close in spite of residents’ and hospital leaders’ arguments to keep it open.73

Without purification, there was no redemption, and a broken hierarchy persisted. Instead of guilt, purification, and redemption, denial, obfuscation, and rationalization was allowed to thrive in the scene the reporters crafted. We believe a contributing factor in King/Drew’s demise was the inability of its supervisors and doctors to acknowledge their collective guilt; they simply failed to try to purify in ways that were appropriate to the magnitude of their hierarchical rejection. This lack of fitting purification is why the hospital’s efforts to change its policies and redeem its reputation failed. Without the right form of purification, redemption could not be achieved, thus allowing the dramatic cycle of destruction to continue within the King/Drew hospital. Regardless of how many consultant teams were hired and units were closed, the hospital continued to provide inadequate healthcare and to steal its patients’ lives and livelihood while those at the top of the hospital’s hierarchy failed both to accept their positions and responsibilities and to appropriately purify to achieve redemption and thus end the cycle of destruction.

Undoubtedly, the Pulitzer Prize-winning series on King/Drew makes for heart-wrenching and intense reading; these are very good stories. However, the stories’ scenic focus allowed for those responsible for the chaos to elude responsibility by simply blending into the scene, pointing to the acts of others, and continuing acts of medical malpractice. The reporters created a world in which the hospital’s agents were subordinated to the scene, and in such a state, those in King/Drew need not, or could not, take on the necessary guilt, since the guilt was a systemic problem 32 years in the making. It is possible that purification was unattainable after 32 years of accumulated medical malpractice fees, patient deaths, and staff negligence because the magnitude of purification must match the magnitude of guilt that the agents have acquired. Those decades destroyed the hierarchical relationships that cemented the hospital’s structure. King/Drew had begun to crumble long before the Los Angeles Times published its series, and it is possible that too much time and too many failed attempts at purification prevented the hospital from re-establishing its integrity and strength. Sometimes a building simply cannot be refurbished, and it must be torn down.

Burke believed that drama was everywhere and once wrote that “the drama . . . may be studied as a ‘perfect mechanism’ composed of parts moving in a mutual adjustment to one another like clockwork.”74 But King/Drew was imperfect. The drama only works when all of its parts of guilt, purification, and redemption are present and functioning once a hierarchical rejection has wrenched this mechanism. Without just one of these elements, the drama will continue to cycle until its interior structure crumbles, as was the result of King/Drew.

By first focusing on the journalists’ actions in writing the series and then conducting a similar analysis of the dramatic world that they created within King/Drew, 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.

Because the dramatistic application revealed an integral part to the hospital’s failure after numerous employees’ and supervisors’ rejection of their hierarchical position, it might be useful to apply the same perspective to other Pulitzer Prize-winning public service series to determine if cyclical series of events are perpetuated by the absence of a similar dramatistic element. Or the reverse, one could ask if prize-winning stories which were followed with some form of action allowed for a dramatistic cycle to properly function. Was the transgressed hierarchy identified, guilt assumed, and redemption achieved? However, since only one such series was examined in this case, similar studies would have to be conducted to determine a definite correlation between Pulitzer-winning series and missing dramatistic elements.


1. “Public Service,” Pulitzer.org: http://www.pulitzer.org/bycat/Public-Service (accessed February 8, 2010).

2. “Public Service,” 319.

3. Brian L. Ott and Eric Aoki, “The Politics of Negotiating Public Tragedy: Media Framing of the Matthew Shepard Murder,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 5, no. 3 (2002).

4. Daron Williams and Jim A. Kuypers, “Athlete as Agency: Motive in the Rhetoric of NASCAR,” Kenneth Burke Journal 6, no. 1 (Fall 2009).

5. Kenneth Burke, “Dramatism,” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. III., David L. Sills, ed. (New York, Macmillan/The Free Press, 1968): 445.

6. Bernard Brock, Robert L. Scott, and James Chesebro, “Rhetorical Criticism: A Burkeian Approach Revisited,” Methods of Rhetorical Criticism: A Twentieth-Century Perspective 3rd Ed/ (Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1990): 185.

7. Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1950): 141.

8. C. Allen Carter, Kenneth Burke and the Scapegoat Process, (Norman: OK, University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), 10.

9. Carter, 10.

10. Brock, Scott, and Chesebro, 185.

11. Edward C. Appel, “Implications and Importance of the Negative in Burke’s Dramatistic Philosophy of Language,” Communication Quarterly 41, no. 1 (Winter 1993): 60.

12. Brock, Scott, and Chesebro, 187.

13. Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1970), 231.

14. Burke, “Dramatism,” 450.

15. Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change, 3rd ed. (Berkeley; University of California Press, 1984), 284.

16. Rise Jane Samra, “Guilt, Purification, and Redemption,” The American Communication Journal 1, no. 3 (May 1998): 2, http://acjournal.org/holdings/vol1/iss3/burke/samra.html (accessed October 22, 2009).

17. Burke, “Dramatism,” 449.

18. James F. Klumpp, “Burkean Social Hierarchy and the Ironic Investment of Martin Luther King,” in Kenneth Burke and the 21st Century, Bernard L. Brock, ed. (Albany, State University of New York Press, 1999): 237.

19. Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives, 141.

20. Floyd Douglass Anderson, Andrew King, and Kevin McClure, “Kenneth Burke’s Dramatic Form Criticism,” in Rhetorical Criticism: Perspectives in Action, ed. Jim A. Kuypers (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009),146.

21. Los Angeles Almanac, online version at http://www.laalmanac.com/LA/la11c.htm

22. “Editorial: Fulfilling the Wrong Dream,” Los Angeles Times (December 12, 2004): 1, http://www.pulitzer.org/archives/6951 (accessed October 24, 2009).

23. “Brief History of King/Drew Medical Center,” (July 12, 2004): 1, (accessed November 22, 2009).

24. “Brief History of King/Drew Medical Center,” 2.

25. Mitchell Landsberg, “Why Supervisors Let Deadly Problems Slide (part 1),” Los Angeles Times (December 9, 2004): 1, http://www.pulitzer.org/archives/6948 (accessed October 24, 2009).

26. Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber, “For Days, Potent Drug Given to Wrong King/Drew Patient,” Los Angeles Times (February 26, 2004): 1, http://www.pulitzer.org/archives/6953 (accessed October 24, 2009).

27. Landsberg, “Why Supervisors Let Deadly Problems Slide (part 1),” 2

28. Steve Hymon, Charles Ornstein, and Tracy Weber, “Massive Overhaul of Ailing Hospital Urged,” Los Angeles Times (December 23, 2004): 4, http://www.pulitzer.org/archives/6952 (accessed October 24, 2009).

29. Mitchell Landsberg, “Why Supervisors Let Deadly Problems Slide (part 1),” 2.

30. Landsberg, 2.

31. Landsberg, 2.

32. Mitchell Landsberg, Charles Ornstein, and Tracy Weber, “Deadly Errors and Politics Betray a Hospital’s Promise,” Los Angeles Times (December 5, 2004), 5.

33. Mitchell Landsberg, “Why Supervisors Let Deadly Problems Slide (part 1),” 1.

34. Steve Hymon, Charles Ornstein, and Tracy Weber, “Massive Overhaul of Ailing Hospital Urged,” 2.

35. Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber, “For Days, Potent Drug Given to Wrong King/Drew Patient,” 2.

36. Landsberg, Ornstein, and Weber, 6.

37. Ornstein and Weber, “For Days,” 2.

38. Landsberg, Ornstein, and Weber, 3.

39. Landsberg, Ornstein, and Weber, 4.

40. Charles Ornstein, “Clamp is Left in King/Drew Patient,” Los Angeles Times (July 13, 2004): 1,

http://www.pulitzer.org/archives/6954 (accessed October 24, 2009).

41. Mitchell Landsberg, “Why Supervisors Let Deadly Problems Slide (part 1),” 2.

42. Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber, “For Days, Potent Drug Given to Wrong King/Drew Patient,” 3.

43. Mitchell Landsberg, “Why Supervisors Let Deadly Problems Slide (part 1),” 3.

44. Ornstein and Weber, “Other Doctors Faulted,” 1.

45. Ornstein and Weber, “Other Doctors Faulted,” 1.

46. Tracy Weber and Charles Ornstein, “One Doctor’s Long Trail of Dangerous Mistakes (Part 3),” Los Angeles Times (December 7, 2004): 5, http://www.pulitzer.org/archives/6941 (accessed October 24, 2009).

47. Weber and Ornstein, “One Doctor’s Long Trail,” 2.

48. Weber and Ornstein, “One Doctor’s Long Trail,” 3.

49. Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber, “How Whole Departments Fail a Hospital’s Patients (Part 4),” Los Angeles Times (December 8, 2004): 4, http://www.pulitzer.org/archives/6943 (accessed October 24, 2009).

50. Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber, “How Whole Departments Fail a Hospital’s Patients (Part 4),” 3.

51. Ornstein and Weber, “How Whole Departments,” 3.

52. Steve Hymon, “The Lost and Bereaved: a Damaged Boy,” Los Angeles Times (December 8, 2004): 1, http://www.pulitzer.org/archives/6944 (accessed October 24, 2009).

53. Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber, “For Days, Potent Drug Given to Wrong King/Drew Patient,” 2.

54. Ornstein and Weber, “For Days, Potent Drug,” 6.

55. “Editorial: Perilous Chairs,” Los Angeles Times (December 7, 2004): 1,

http://www.pulitzer.org/archives/6950 (accessed October 24, 2009).

56. Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form, 2nd ed. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967), 1. See pages 6, 298-304, as well. Andrew King provides a detailed discussion of Burke’s notion of motive in, “Motive,” The American Communication Journal 1, no.3 (1998), (http://www.americancomm.org/~aca/acj/acj.html). For additional insight, see, J. Clarke Rountree, III, “Coming to Terms with Kenneth Burke’s Pentad,” The American Communication Journal 1, no.3 (1998), http://www.americancomm.org/~aca/acj/acj.html.

57. Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 1969), 227.

58. “Realism,” Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition (OED2). On-Line version.

59. Bernard L. Brock, Robert L. Scott, and James W. Chesebro, eds., Methods of Rhetorical Criticism: A Twentieth-Century Perspective, 3rd ed. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990), 188.

60. Jim A. Kuypers, “From Science, Moral-Poetics: Dr. James Dobson's Response to the Fetal Tissue Research Initiative,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 86, no. 2 (2000): 154.

61. Burke, Grammar of Motives, 131.

62. Burke, Grammar of Motives, 131.

63. Kuypers, 154-155.

64. Edward C. Appel, “Position Paper: Using Kenneth Burke in Rhetorical Criticism.” Paper presented at the Kenneth Burke Society Conference, New Harmony, Indiana, 1990, p.4.

65. Appel 5.

66. Kuypers, quoting Appel 5.

67. Burke, Grammar of Motives, 264; see also 15-16.

68. Kuypers. For a discussion of the linkage between the pentadic terms and the cycle of order see: Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion,180-189.

69. Rountree.

70. Sonya Geis, “South-Central L.A. Hospital in Critical Condition,” Washington Post, (October 4, 2006): 1, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/03/ (accessed November 23, 2009).

71. Geis, “South-Central L.A. Hospital in Critical Condition,” 1.

72. Rebekah Alperin and Karen Nikos. “LACMA and CMA Statements on King/Drew Medical Center and the Threat to L.A. County Health Care,” California Medical Association, (October 2, 2006): 1, http://www.cmanet.org/publicdoc (accessed November 23, 2009).

73. Garrett Therolf, Mary Engel, and Jean-Paul Renaud, “County Medical Crisis Deepens,” Los Angeles Times (April 11, 2008): 3, http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-chernofresigns (accessed November 23, 2009).

74. Burke, “Dramatism,” 449.

* Dr. Jim A. Kuypers (Ph.D., LSU) Department of Communication at Virginia Polytechnical Institute and State University. Ashley Gellert (M.A. Virginia Polytechnical Institute and State University), Department of Communication. They can be reached at kuypers@vt.edu and ashel87@vt.edu

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"The Story of King/Drew Hospital: Guilt and Deferred Purification" by Jim A. Kuypers and Ashley Gellert is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Introducing Kenneth Burke to Facebook

Tonja Mackey


The following feature draws a parallel between the “Burkean parlor” and the social networking site, Facebook. It also applies the Burkean pentad to the principle of motive behind Facebook users. In addition, it details several different types of Facebook pages and the growth patterns of each regarding purpose.

I am at your mercy. I don’t dare to bore you. But let us not forget that I have a stance of my own. You are for me magic, music, and mystery. But I can magically, musically mystify you too.

—Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (1969)

FACEBOOK WAS FOUNDED IN 2004 TO HELP PEOPLE “communicate more efficiently with their friends, family, and coworkers….in a trusted environment,” (Facebook Factsheet). Currently, there are over 500 million active users on Facebook who create profiles enabling them to construct online identities and post unlimited messages that they want their friends to read. These forums are used for many purposes, and sometimes users’ online identities are contradictory to their real-life identities. Additionally, posts can often include inaccurate information, either intentionally or unintentionally. Both of these instances call into question the ethos of the rhetorical venue, which is not so different from real life. Regarding Kenneth Burke’s philosophy of literary and social analysis, when Facebook users post a ‘status’ on Facebook, they are making a comment about society, or about themselves in relation to society. In actuality, these users are constructing their versions of reality through this online social venue, which can be compared to Kenneth Burke’s argument that language is a creator of and response to what is going on in the world. Likewise, Facebook comments are responses to what is going on in the world of the users. Such users are expressing their opinions, usually embedding one-sided arguments within those messages in order to persuade their “friends.” Users from all walks of life participate in this online community. Burke’s five principles of act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose can be applied to the argument that users are responding to and acting within society, both in the online community and within the real world. Hence, users create identities and alter realities through invented personal narrative. I will argue that the community of Facebook (FB) validates Kenneth Burke’s theories of dramatism, symbolic action, and the concept of language as the key to creating the world as we know it. Weiser explains that “dramatism is an understanding of language as the basis of human interaction with our world…language is more than a conveyer of meaning; language is the maker of meaning” (3). Burke argues that language is symbolic action. We have made, and continue to make, our realities through language. Facebook is a portal through which language (meaning) is spread.

In A Grammar of Motives, Burke defines act as something that takes place “in thought or in deed,” and scene as the site where said action takes place (xv). In comparing Facebook to “[Burke’s] ‘scene,’ setting or background, and ‘act,’ action,” one could say that the forum (portal) is the scene, and the action is the post. “And using ‘agents’ in the sense of actors,” one could say that the actors are those who are doing the posting, or the Facebook users. Therefore, the scene contains the action and the online representation of the agents, but the agents produce the action. Just as it is a “principle of drama that the nature of acts and agents should be consistent with the nature of the scene,” the statements made on Facebook are expected to remain consistent with the nature of the community of ‘friends’ (Burke, Grammar 3). However, the expansive nature of ‘friendship’ on Facebook undermines this expectation and makes one wonder if the environment is really as “safe” as the creators intended.

Never before in history has the average person had the ability to interact socially, politically, educationally, and commercially with such a diverse range of people. Distance transcends the World Wide Web, making the ability to converse with someone halfway around the world a simple task. Social networks such as Facebook not only allow for this ease of interaction, but also expand conversations to include larger groups of people. Conversations occur among users who may or may not know each other; they just have to have a common friend. Facebook allows anyone to interact at any time, hence a unique example of the Burkean parlor:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you what it’s about. In fact, the discussion had long begun before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all of the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (Philosophy 110-111)

Facebook presents a parallel to the Burkean Parlor: You arrive home late from work one evening and log on to FB. You find your wall (messages from friends) full of new posts. Many of your other friends, as well as some of their friends, have made comments on said posts, some emotional (or heated), some not so much. You read and you think for a while before you decide if there is anything you’d like to add to anyone’s comments, or, perhaps, you read something that prompts you to post a hasty response that, later, you wish that you had dwelled on for a while first. You grow tired, so you post a “status” (often a discussion starter) of your own, knowing that you’ll log back on tomorrow to see who has responded to you. And so it continues, day after day. Weiser argues that Burkean “dramatism explores and encourages dialectic (the celebration of differing perspectives) and transcendence (the search for points of merger) in a parliamentary debate…,” (xiv). While FB offers the potential to celebrate differing perspectives and mergers, in reality, most FB users are asserting their own opinions without offering much evidence to engage in persuasive discourse.
In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins speaks of communities “defined through voluntary, temporary, and tactical affiliations, reaffirmed through common intellectual enterprises and emotional investments” (27). Facebook users interact on a voluntary basis within defined communities. There are two types of Facebook profiles: personal and organizational. With personal profiles, users must request to become “friends” of other users before they are allowed to post any type of messages on each other’s profile pages – called “walls.” When users post something on their wall, that message, consequently, posts to the walls of all of their friends. Supposedly, users feel that their posts are important enough that each of their friends will want to read or know the content, and, if not, the users suffer the consequences of either being told so or being ignored completely. Organizational profiles allow FB users to “like” a particular page. Examples of these types of profiles include those of public figures, institutions, and causes. Rather than request a friendship, users who want to be part of a community click on the “like” button and are typically automatically accepted.

Individuals typically create the personal profile. Someone requesting friendship normally knows the person of whom they are requesting, or is at least a friend of a friend. However, these communities can become quite extensive. In looking at one college student’s network, I find 852 “friends.” This nineteen-year-old white male uses his profile to post photos and an occasional “this is what I’m doing” or “this is what I think” type post. Personal FB posts fall into several different categories, though this list cannot be all inclusive: (1) to spread the word about something, (2) to express an emotional response to something (I.E. pleasure or disgust), (3) to seek acceptance or agreement, (4) to post a meme, saying, or other expression, (5) to post a video (personal or otherwise), (6) to post personal photos for friends and family to see, (7) to promote a cause, or (8) to find and correspond with a distant friend or family member.

Organizational profiles reach beyond the local network and allow users with common interests to interact. These profiles typically include fan pages, political pages, advertisements, news, education, and businesses. Colleges and universities typically use these type profiles and post comments that they think will be of interest to their students.  Though it’s impossible to see who maintains it, Jacques Derrida has an organizational FB profile with 29, 321 people who “like” it. On his page, I find posts written in English, French, Spanish, and Chinese, at minimum. Though these users do not know one another, they still interact and converse about a common interest (that is if they speak the same language). On a bit larger scale, current pop culture icon Miley Cyrus has 11,925,278 “likes,” while Michelle O’Bama has 4,165,559.  The First Lady posts frequently, almost daily, concerning her various projects and causes. On March 31st, Mrs. Obama (or her aide who maintains her profile; we can’t tell) posted a link to a YouTube video that shows her interacting with children who are planting the 2011 vegetable garden at the White House. This is done as part of the First Lady’s outreach program, called “Let’s Move,” that targets childhood obesity. This one post has 6967 “likes” and 563 comments. Again, not all of the posts are in English, though the majority of them are. Not surprisingly, there is a mix of favorable and unfavorable comments, some related to the original topic, some not. Though not many could condemn the First Lady for encouraging children to have healthier eating habits, there are obvious political repercussions that simply go along with having a public profile that anyone can respond to. The number of “likes,” or followers, that an organizational (or personal) page gets certainly attests to the popularity of the creator of the page (agent).

In A Rhetoric of Motives Burke speaks of Alice in Wonderland, “communication between the classes,” and “social courtship” (267); likewise, Facebook provides the ability to invent a virtual fantasy, a never-ending hole of noise and news in which members fall through judgment, risk, and the wonder of uninhibited expression. Burke states that “Pure persuasion involves the saying of something, not for an extra-verbal advantage to be got by the saying, but because of a satisfaction intrinsic to the saying…It intuitively says, ‘This is so’ purely and simply because this is so” (Burke, Rhetoric 269). Burke compares this to an “ultimate” motive rather than an “ulterior” one. Users find Facebook a venue through which they can “shout from the rooftop” beliefs that they want the whole world to hear. Not all Facebook posts, however, are without ulterior motive. Some use this forum to express an opinion or make a claim that they would never verbally shout to such a large crowd, sometimes with the intent to provoke. The ability to write something rather than say it to someone directly removes the author from the possibility of face-to-face confrontation, thereby making them feel safer to say what they really want. At present, the user doesn’t have to think about what they will say the next time they have to confront that person (or people). Some users don’t think about how their FB world affects real world circumstances.

Language as the key motive for all actions involves a difference between the verbal (or written) and non-verbal (thought) in that “before man added the verbal to the non-verbal nature, there were no negative acts, states, or commands” (Rueckert 130). The ability to express negative thought essentially creates negative circumstances. Facebook is a great venue through which to communicate, advertise, and connect with others. However, online social networking systems are also used to trick and bully others through the manipulation of self and language. It is incredibly easy to create a fake identity through which to prey on unsuspecting victims. The Megan Meier Foundation (1420 “likes” on Facebook) was established to “bring awareness, education and promote positive change to children, parents and educators in response to the bullying and cyber-bullying in our children’s daily environment” (Megan Meier Foundation Mission Statement). The Foundation is run by Tina Meier, whose daughter, Megan, had an online relationship (on MySpace, another social networking venue) with a fictitious friend, Josh. According to the foundation and reported through various news sources, the parent of an estranged friend of Megan’s created an account using a fictitious name and the photo of a “hot” guy Megan’s age to lure her into talking with him. The two quickly became online friends and thirteen year old Megan rushed home from school each day to communicate with the allegedly homeschooled young man. Eventually, “Josh” began to post mean comments about Megan and she didn’t understand why. She became very emotionally distraught when, in a final post, Josh told Megan that she was a horrible person and that the world would be a better place without her. The next day, Megan’s mother found her unconscious in her bedroom; she died the next day, three weeks before her fourteenth birthday. The Megan Meier Foundation’s Facebook page includes many comments of thanks from kids who attend schools that the foundation has visited with their program. Many are simply thanking them for coming and wishing them the best with their mission; however, many are thanking them because they identify with Megan; they too have been or are being picked on online. These “acts” involved a manipulative “agent” misusing “scene” and “agency” with a misguided “purpose.” While the initial purpose of the act was likely not the outcome, this act is an example of language acting as a key motive or scene for all of man’s acts (Rueckert 130). Language was manipulated; there was no truth in the scene or the acts; language created the negative scene that could not be sustained. Writing a fake reality online altered Megan’s real life, as well as her family’s, in an irreparable way.

Anytime Facebook users click on the profile of another user, they can see how many “friends” he or she has. In a world where social status is so important to school-aged children, students view these numbers as having significant importance. FB has been accused of causing “friendship addiction” and “fueling insecurities in users” (“Facebook to Blame”).  In addition to creating online versions of their true selves, social networking sites enable users to try out virtual identities or misrepresentations of themselves in order to attain more friends. “While some argue that the Internet erases difference…available rhetorical features enable individuals to construct not only a representation of their offline selves but also to experiment with and create new identities” (Leonardi 3). Leonardi continues to argue that this creation of new self can also change the way users, and others, perceive themselves offline. In essence, we create ourselves with language when we write. Hence, there are real life implications to what we post about ourselves online. In writing an online identity, it’s not hard to venture into the genre of fiction. Burke asserts, “You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his” (Burke, Rhetoric 55). This assertion contends that imitation within the “act” of creating an identity through language is probable. In addition, “the linguistic motive eventually involves kinds of persuasion guided not by appeal to any one local audience, but by the logical of appeal in general” – or socialization (Burke, Rhetoric 129).

In A Grammar of Motives, Burke quotes Aristotle: “Men, individually and in common, nearly all have some aim, in the attainment of which they choose or avoid certain things. This aim, briefly stated, is happiness and its component parts” (292). He goes on to list Aristotle’s seven causes [motives] for human actions: “chance, nature, compulsion, habit, reason, anger, and desire” (292). Burke presents a broader umbrella under which to classify these motives: freedom and necessity (74). Necessity, however, is a matter of opinion, and freedom has its boundaries before affecting others. In the Megan Meier’s example above, the mother of the friend who created the fake profile may, in some twisted way, have been trying to attain happiness for her and her daughter, but did not consider (or care about) the cost, or unhappiness, that their actions would create for someone else.

However, happiness, freedom, and necessity came together, for good, in Jeff Kurtz’s Facebook story. In early 2011, thirty-five year old Jeff Kurtz’s kidneys began to fail. His wife, Roxy, posted a Facebook message about his health problems and word began to spread, quickly. Ricky Sisco, from a nearby city in Michigan, responded to Jeff’s need for a kidney transplant by donating one of his own – to a complete stranger. These two men had no prior connection other than friends in common on Facebook. This social network, originally developed to make communication easier, served that purpose for this act/scene/agent/purpose. Without this venue, it is not likely that the two men would have ever connected. It’s not often that one’s plea for a kidney is put in a newspaper.

The following examples are actual posts from Facebook both on national and local levels, personal and corporate. Agent, scene, act, agency, and purpose will be looked at in terms of intent, originality, and effectiveness. The agent (FB user), the scene (the online community of FB), the act (the actual posting or thought processes leading to it), the agency (language, words, pictures, videos, etc.) all combine to achieve various purposes, sometimes undeterminable, but perhaps the most important element of the pentad. Burke argues that there may be disagreement about the purpose of acts or the character of the agents, but motive will always answer questions about “what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose).

The following post has been circulating for about ten years: “Don't buy the patriotic PEPSI CAN coming out with pictures of the Empire State Building and the Pledge of Allegiance on them. Pepsi LEFT OUT two little WORDS on the pledge, ‘UNDER GOD’. Pepsi said they did not want to offend anyone. So, if we don't buy them they won’t be offended when they don't receive our money that has the words ‘In God we Trust’ on it!!! How fast can you re-post this??” (Random post spreading via Facebook) This is a post with an undeterminable original author that is currently (April 2011) spreading by way of FB. It is designed to appeal to the emotions of patriotic and religious, specifically Christian, users. The purpose is to keep users from buying Pepsi products. FB gives those who want to spread the word about this a means through which to do so. It is likely that they would not have the means to advertise this through a television commercial or a highway billboard, but average Joe Smith can start an Internet campaign that has the possibility of reaching a national audience. Could a grassroots campaign like this hurt Pepsi Co.’s business? Of course it could, but not substantially. The quote originally began spreading via email around November 2001 after the terrorist attacks when Dr. Pepper designed a can with the Statue of Liberty with the caption “One Nation…Indivisible” (Snopes.com). The quote, originally aimed at Dr. Pepper, evolved to include Pepsi and Coca-Cola as well. Pepsi has never designed a can with the Statue of Liberty on it. The spreading of Urban Legends has spread to Facebook.

Another campaign currently circulating on FB is political in nature. “Gas is to jump up to $5.00 a gallon by Memorial Day. Obama said ‘get used to it and trade in for an energy efficient car.’ With unemployment above 10% in many states, can you afford a trade in? Re-post if you want Obama to ‘get used’ to being a one-term president! I will gladly re-post to get him out of office!!” (Random quote spreading on Facebook). On Wednesday, April 6, 2011, President Obama participated in a town hall meeting at a factory in Pennsylvania. When questioned about the high prices of oil, Obama suggested that all citizens consider driving more energy efficient vehicles. Obama’s quote was distorted into the above flippant sounding answer that sounds like he wasn’t interested in offering a solution to the oil crisis. He did not say, “Get used to it.” He told the audience that if anyone was driving a vehicle that got eight miles per gallon, they should trade it in. However, the FB post appeals to the unemployed, and there are many. The implication of the post is that unemployment is Obama’s fault, and the purpose is to keep him from winning a second term. In this case, the text has been manipulated to fulfill the author’s purpose.

On April 7, 2011, the Associated Press (AP) reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is replacing the five-level color-coded terrorist warning system, which ranges from low to severe with a simpler, more specific, two-level system of “elevated” and “ imminent.” AP also reported that these alerts may be publicized through Facebook and Twitter, “when appropriate,” but only after federal, state, and local leaders have been notified. By doing this, DHS is acknowledging the scene of Facebook as a valid means through which to alert citizens about the threat of national terrorism. The Department of Homeland Security already has an official Facebook page with 14,464 followers. A recent post includes a blog about the new National Terrorist Advisory System (NTAS) (April 20, 2011): “For Americans, this will mean some visible changes. You won’t hear the old color-code announcements when you go to airports, or see them when you visit a government website. Instead, when a threat arises that could affect you and your family, you will hear about it through an NTAS Alert issued by DHS through official channels, such as the DHS website, the news media, and via social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter.” Fifty-nine followers “liked” the post; however, there were thirty-two comments to the announcement, most of which were negative expressions toward the DHS itself: “Oh, absolutely, we believe everything you say in Washington,” “Lame, harder to follow than a simple color,” “We don’t need your ‘protection’ DHS. We need protection from you.” For the most part, rather than responding to the topic of the DHS’s post, citizens used comments as a forum to express displeasure with the department. Despite consistently negative remarks posted on the page, DHS continues to maintain the page and attempt to educate the public through FB updates.

Another way that FB can be used is to spread a cause established on a local level to the national level. On April 1, 2011, “The Caring Tree Project” had 37 followers, or users who liked their page. By April 23, that number grew to 346. The mission of “The Caring Tree Project” is to “educate consumers about cost-saving opportunities to buy your favorite products and services, including home buying and home-related products” (Caring Tree Project Facebook Profile). The project began a contest in which other FB users could submit photos of a boy or girl-scout in uniform. The owner of the photo with the most votes (in the form of “likes” by members of the FB community) will win an iPod. Naturally, anyone who submitted a photo invited all of their friends to join the community so they could vote for their friend’s picture. The company in Hanover, Maryland has reached Northeast Texas by way of the Girl Scouts of America. By April 30, 2011, the page had 342 followers. The page obviously grew during the contest and had support of those who entered, but when the contest ended, followers dropped off the site.

On the more local level, day-to-day posts by the average user vary in terms of purpose, content, format, and length. Some status posts get no comments, while others initiate the Burkean Parlor-type conversation. Many use the forum for a “this is what I’m doing right now” type post. “Standing in the Wal-mart line…again,” “Heading to Dallas for the weekend,” or “Just got home from a great night out,” are common examples. Users create pages to promote a cause or send invitations to events. A local group formed a team for Race for the Cure and solicited sponsorship from their friends through FB invitations. The local college’s drama department sends invitations to plays through FB announcements. Individuals, as well as teams, can elicit support through FB messages. In addition to global announcements, FB users can send private messages to other users. FB has a calendar to help users keep up with and wish friends “Happy Birthday.” All of these acts are purpose driven by the agent, through the scene by way of the agency. The subject matter and content style are as varied as the personalities of the users. It would be interesting to study if the writing style of the agents affects the perceived validity of their comments. Are FB users judged for their writing style, grammar, and punctuation?

While the acts and agents are various and complex, agency is a bit more limited within the community. The agencies through which FB agents can act are written language, pictures, videos, songs, and links to other content. For example, to wish a friend happy birthday, a user might simply post “Happy Birthday” on a friend’s wall, or may link to a digital birthday card that is sponsored by another link on the web. Either way, the user is using language to perform the act of wishing a friend a “Happy Birthday.” To acknowledge Burke’s theory of symbolic action, we have to ask, do these acts, through agencies, improve or alter reality for the individual? Imagine getting a “wall” full of “Happy Birthday” wishes, but then imagine getting only two or three.

Visual rhetoric is a prevalent means through which FB users express themselves. Users can express themselves through the use of “emoticons”, facial expression icons that visually, or pictorially, express a mood or temperament. Users can add a smiley face to something they have written, an icon that represents a shocked or unbelieving look, or a frown- face that expresses dislike for something. Users can post family vacation photos (they’ll post only the good ones, right?), videos, or simply capture a picture of the web to express a thought or idea. In addition, they can add captions or explanations of when and where, etc. the photo was taken. Proud parents post pictures of children, friends may post videos of activities they have participated in with others, or someone may post pictures after an event. As with comments, friends of the ones who post can “like” photos. As of now, there is no “dislike” button on FB, though someone has created a FB page titled “Create a Dislike Button,” and it features 125,049 followers discussing their desire for one.

In a final analysis, the “Arkansas Severe Weather Watchers” (ASWW) FB page exemplifies just how quickly word can spread through this venue when agents are producing significant, relevant information. During the week of April 25, 2011, virtually the entire state of Arkansas (AR) was under severe thunderstorm or tornado warnings. On Monday evening, Vilonia, AR was hit with a mile-wide tornado that destroyed the small town. On Monday afternoon, ASWW had 4500 followers (likes). By 11:00 Monday night, the page had 8000 followers. The following shows how quickly the page grew in popularity over the next several hours: 6:00 Tuesday morning – 14,000 followers; noon on Tuesday – 18,871 followers. By 10:00 on Tuesday evening, the page had 30,000 followers, and the numbers continued to rise. At noon on Wednesday there were 31,242 followers. The most significant rise in followers was occurring as news channels were predicting “treacherous,” “catastrophic,” weather conditions across Arkansas. As the weather improved, the rise in membership began to slow down.

ASWW was providing an immediately pertinent service of interest to citizens of the state of AR. Updates were frequent and informative; they posted every time they learned of any type of weather warning in AR. They posted so frequently that a small number of users began complaining that they were getting too many posts to their walls. ASWW’s response (as if they had to respond or justify at all) was, “If you don’t like the updates, simply ‘unlike’ our page. You’ll stop getting them.” Those who complained also received negative comments back from other ASWW followers. It is impossible to tell if they “unliked” the page, but the comments ceased. While a page such as this one has the potential to create panic or an alarmist reaction, the honorable purpose of trying to inform the public in advance of when it is necessary to take cover supersedes that risk if lives are saved due to their diligence.

As of today, FB has always been free of charge to users, but occasionally a rumor will surface that the owners are going to start charging a fee. So many people are such frequent users of FB, if they were unable to have access, they would likely suffer withdrawal symptoms. One study proposes that a Facebook addiction should be added as a subcategory of Internet spectrum addiction disorders and possibly added to the next update of the DSM (Karaiskos, et al).  FB is accessible through mobile devices such as iPads and smart phones. Users can receive instant alerts when they receive messages. Instant communication with anyone, anywhere, is available at any time. If this widely-used venue suddenly became inaccessible, the lifestyles of many would significantly be altered, through a feeling of extreme disconnect from friends. The web pages of most organizations that maintain a FB page include a button so that site visitors can instantly “like” them on FB and become a follower. For some, consulting, reading, and writing on Facebook is, or is becoming, a way of life. Users stay connected with each other socially, stay informed about events, and keep others informed about information they find important. Through the scene of Facebook, agents act, or react, with an intended or unintended purpose through accessible agencies. Users create an online world through language.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.

---. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U P, 1941. Print.

---. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. “Facebook to Blame for ‘Friendship Addiction’.” Therapy Today 19.9 (2008): 10. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Apr. 2011.

Facebook Factsheet. Facebook Pressroom, 2011. Web. 28 Apr. 2011. <http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?factsheet>.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York U P, 2006. Print.

Leonardi, Marianne. Narrative as Self-Performance: The Rhetorical Construction of Identities on Facebook Profiles. Diss. U of New Mexico, 2009. Dissertations and Theses: Full-text, Proquest. Web. 13 March 2011.

Rueckert, William H. Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1963. Print.

Weiser, Elizabeth M. Burke, War, Words: Rhetoricizing Drama. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2008. Print.


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"Introducing Kenneth Burke to Facebook" by Tonja Mackey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

A Note on the Writing of A Rhetoric of Motives

Michael Feehan


In a letter of April, 1989, Kenneth Burke suggested that the process of writing A Grammar of Motives contributed significantly to the choice of identification as key term for A Rhetoric of Motives. Burke proposed two representative anecdotes for the study of the composing process of the Rhetoric: The story of the shepherd that appears in the Rhetoric and the story of some children who are born without the capacity to feel pain from the external world. If we follow out these leads, using the methodology of the Grammar to look at the work of writing the Rhetoric, Burke says that we will see how identification emerged as a “positive negative,” a program for negative thinking. We might also learn more about connections between the Grammar and the Rhetoric.

IN A LETTER OF APRIL, 1989, KENNETH BURKE SUGGESTED that the methodology developed in A Grammar of Motives opened the way to the choice of identification as the key term for A Rhetoric of Motives:

First, note the basic difference between the topics in Aristotle’s Rhetoric and my five terms (later hexed), with their ratios and circumferences. His topics  are telling you what to say in what you intend to write. My terms were telling you  what to ask about the form and structure of a work that was already written. You could do some real work in showing how I thus ran into the kind of  questions introduced in terms of “identification.”

Burke repeats the argument he presented in the 1978 article “Questions and Answers about the Pentad” to the effect that the methodology of the Grammar looks to completed discourses, in which the “structure had already implicitly supplied the answers,” allowing the critic to prophesy after the event (332). The methodology of the Grammar was not designed for finding content to fill the blank page, but to dig into the inscribed page, to work backwards to the issues that have already emerged through the composing process.

However we may wince at this argument, we get a glimpse here into Burke’s conception of a comprehensive dramatistic methodology for the study of the imputation of motives. We can only study the imputation of motives if some motive has already been imputed. Were we, on the other hand, to create a metaphysics of motives, we might study motives “in themselves”; indeed, we might even presume, for the sake of argument, that no motives actually exist. However, for a study of the imputation of a motive, we must look at an act of some actual person in some actual place and time through some actual medium for some actual purpose. As Robert Wess says, “In GM itself, circumference is deployed as a grammatical principle to insure that discourses are legitimated as grammatical only if they, in their varying ways, legitimate action” (181). In the methodology of the Grammar—circumference, the (hexed) Pentad, and ratios—Burke intends to analyze actions, what’s already happened.

In his letter, Burke asks us to look at the writing of the Rhetoric as a development out of and through the writing of the Grammar. This suggestion is especially ironic given Burke’s oft repeated narrative of the genesis and development of the Grammar: Burke tells us that the Grammar emerged unexpectedly through his attempts to write a book “On Human Relations.” As he began work on that book, he discovered that he would need two books: A rhetoric for the study of humans in interaction and a symbolic for the study individual humans. As Burke started work on the Rhetoric and the Symbolic, he realized that he needed to introduce the whole project with a representative anecdote (the U.S. Constitution) and that realization led him to the further realization that he needed a pre-pre-introduction to lay out a rock bottom logic of analysis on which the entire project could be built. Thus, A Grammar of Motives (GM 317, 340, CS 217–218, Jay 292).

Now we are to a study how the methodology constructed in the Grammar led Burke toward the key term of the Rhetoric, “identification.” Although the Grammar emerged as an unintended by-product of planning the Rhetoric and Symbolic, once Burke had written the Grammar, that very work of writing gave shape to the focal concern of the Rhetoric.

If we look at Burke’s letters from around the time he was writing the Rhetoric, we see Burke on an emotional merry-go-round. In a letter of October 13, 1945, to Malcolm Cowley, Burke wrote: “The Rhetoric should be the easiest volume of the three to write” (Jay 270). Four days later, Burke wrote to William Carlos Williams that “at the moment I’m lying sluggish sans breeze, not yet having got the new direction going for the next book” (East 82). Burke had outlined a general sense of his new direction in the October 13 letter to Cowley: “to keep the book from disintegrating into particular cases . . . I want it to be a rather philosophizing on rhetoric” (Jay 270). During the writing of the book, Burke told Malcolm Cowley that he was writing the book “from the middle out” (Jay 274). And, as David Blakesley points out, Burke suggested a primary writing problem to Hugh Dalzeil Duncan, the monumental status of Aristotle’s Rhetoric: “‘There goes Aristotle, stealing my thunder again,’ he [Burke] would say. ‘That guy makes me tired’“(Blakesley 2). To philosophize about rhetoric, Burke would have to go beyond, or around, Aristotle.

To allow us to follow the methodology of the Grammar toward the Rhetoric, Burke proposes two representative anecdotes for studying the writing of the Rhetoric, both, though in quite different ways, concerned with questions of property and identification:

On p. 27 in my RM, for instance, note how the principle of identification  serves implicitly as a negative, in identifying the shepherds as guardian of his  sheep, yet while he is also identified with an employer who intends to sell them in  the market for mutton. And as for Mary Baker G. Eddy’s “scientific”  identification of pain with error, recall the anecdote of some children who are  born without the normal sensitivity to pain from external contacts, and who as a  result never learn how to move without calamities. Nothing is more real than the  admonishments of pain.

And, all told, I have ended up with a “positive negative,” with an  appropriate “rationale,” in my summings-up.

Burke’s suggestion that we study anecdotes takes us to the “dramatistic approach to dramatism”: “The informative anecdote, we could say, contains in nuce the terminological structure that is evolved in conformity with it. Such a terminology is a ‘conclusion’ that follows from the selection of given anecdote. Thus the anecdote is in a sense a summation, containing implicitly what the system that is developed from it contains explicitly” (GM 60). In his letter, Burke asks us to use anecdotes as clues to the process that led Burke from the methodology created in the Grammar to the choice of identification as key term for the Rhetoric.
For his first anecdote, Burke directs us to the discussion of the shepherd that appears in the section of A Rhetoric of Motives headed “Identification and the Autonomous.” We should note for future reference that the section on autonomy immediately follows the section headed “The Identifying Nature of Property.”

The shepherd appears to be autonomous, literally alone in the fields with her sheep, yet the shepherd is also connected to the merchant who will sheer and slaughter the shepherd’s sheep—for thirty pieces of silver. Our “view” depends on circumference, the scope of our use of the term “shepherd.” The appearance of autonomy arises from a strategic narrowing of circumference.

“Identification” is a word for the autonomous activity’s place in this wider  context, a place with which the agent may be unconcerned. The shepherd, qua  shepherd, acts for the good of the sheep, to protect them from discomfiture and  harm. But he may be “identified” with a project that is raising the sheep for  market. (RM 27)

Cut the merchant out of the discussion and we see the shepherd as exclusively devoted to the health and wellbeing of the flock. Step back from our focus on the open fields and we see the shepherd as a cog in the wheels of commerce—a mere lackey of the capitalist system. The role of the shepherd in the drama of sheepherding changes as her relation to the overall drama changes. Thus the shepherd may be The Good Shepherd or Judas, depending on the scope or reduction of our perspective.

With the story of the shepherd, we find just the kind of sliding back and forth among categories that Burke intends as the hallmark of his Grammar: The shepherd is Agent to his sheep who are the instruments (Agency) of his goals (Purposes) of care and nurture. Widen the circumference and the shepherd becomes one of the merchant’s instruments (Agency), one functionary in a triad of shepherd-sheering-slaughter for the Purposes of marketing and profit, the sheep merging into Scene as aspects of the world of production and consumption that makes the merchant’s work possible. Ratios change with changes of circumference; values and valuations change with changes of circumference.

For the present discussion, Burke wants us to see how these considerations might lead to the questions implicit in the concept of identification, how ambiguities of circumference and ratio might lead to thoughts about the process of creating consubstantiality. The connection perhaps becomes more clear if we look at the section of the Rhetoric immediately preceding the discussion of the shepherd, “The Identifying Nature of Property,” looking at the linkage of property, shepherd, and identification. The story of the shepherd tells us that considerations of property, when viewed from various circumferences, shows us how the roles we play change depending on scope and reduction, show us how persons can become instruments.

In the surrounding of himself with properties that name his number or establish  his identity, man is ethical . . . But however ethical such an array of identifications  may be when considered in itself, its relation to other entities that are likewise  forming their identify in terms of property can lead to turmoil and discord. Here  is par excellence a topic to be considered in a rhetoric having “identification” as  its key term (RM 24).

Again, circumference comes into play: A person working alone to create a self through connections with various properties—material, emotional, metaphysical—may be seen as ethical, may be treated in isolation, under the sign of symbolic. Yet, place that same person in a shared barnyard with other persons pursuing the same or similar patterns of self-creation and battles over ownership of properties inevitably erupt. At some moment even the most sophisticated of us will cry, “Mine.”

David Blakesley (3) again hits the right note in looking at a letter from Burke to William Carlos Williams, dated February 1, 1947, in which Burke focuses his discussion of rhetoric on the individual’s identifications with property: “My own notion, reduced to its simplest form, would run like this: The individual, to be moral, social, communicative, etc., identifies himself with ‘property.’ Property may be of many sorts. Capitalist property, property in methods of working, property in wife and children, property in convictions, property in one’s job, etc. Such properties lead to conflict, (as one man’s area of integration encroach upon another’s). . . . The Rhetoric, if it turns out as planned, should show the many ramifications of property” (East 111). When the Rhetoric finally emerged, property had been demoted, had become one among the many factors involved in the question of identification.

Questions surrounding property in all its guises allow to us to see what would otherwise be invisible, the process of identity formation through contact with the world. Problematically, a narrow focus on a single individual struggling with naming her number may prevent us from seeing how other people’s motives influence that individual’s developing sense of self. Questions surrounding identification stand at the crossroads between the symbolic and the rhetoric. “In pure identification there would be no strife. . . . But put identification and division ambiguously together, so that you cannot know for certain just where one ends and the other begins, and you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric” (RM 25). By turning from the individual in isolation to a consideration of the variety of individuals in collaboration with that individual, expanding the scope of circumference, we move toward a comprehensive understanding of the range of that individual’s properties. “When two men collaborate in an enterprise to which they contribute different kinds of services and from which they derive different amounts and kinds of profit, who is to say, once and for all, just where ‘cooperation’ ends and one partner’s ‘exploitation’ of the other begins?” (RM 25). No one may say, once and for all, what is the right name for the relationships operating in a given collaborative event, whether cooperation or exploitation or some combination of the two. The issue of naming properties is irreducibly arguable, inherently rhetorical. We will never all always agree on the right name for our properties.

And so, we study the shepherd and the merchant, two actors in complex, ambiguous collaboration regarding a common property. A narrow circumference creates the appearance of autonomy and allows the participants to deny any inherent discord, but put the two together and who’s to say which is the Real Shepherd? The assignment of (hexed) Pentadic terms, a survey of the ratios and an analysis of the functions of Circumference focus our attention on two connected, but often conflicting kinds of identification implicit in the concept of a shepherd.

For his second anecdote, Burke directs us to the story of the child who does not feel pain from external contacts. From Burke’s perspective, “Nothing is more real than the admonishments of pain.” In the Grammar, Burke situates the body as the starting point of dramatistic analysis: “This is contained in our formula: the basic unit of action is the human body in purposive motion. We have here a kind of ‘lowest common denominator’ of action, a minimal requirement that should appear in every act, however many more and greater are the attributes of a complex act” (61).

For Mary Baker G. Eddy, “Matter cannot be sick, and Mind is immortal. The mortal body is only an erroneous mortal belief of mind in matter” (372). Eddy’s rejection of pain is literal and unequivocal: “The effect of mortal mind on health and happiness is seen in this: If one turns away from the body with such absorbed interest as to forget it, the body experiences no pain” (261). We see here the first phase of Eddy’s dialectical process for transcending the realm of the body. By our nature as fallen creatures, we appear to be trapped in mortal bodies with mortal minds. If we can learn to focus our attention in just the right way, even our limited mortal mind can escape the limitations of the body. This first step, achievable by an initial understanding of the interpretive scheme constructed by Eddy in Science and Health, can lead to an entry into Immortal Mind and eventually to an escape from mortality itself.

The dramatistic perspective begins from a stance diametrically opposed to Christian Science. Burke insists on the body as the irreducible sine qua non for both motion and action. Eddy denies the body any legitimacy at all; any bodily claim is error. When we set these two positions side by side, Burke asks us to see the “positive negative.”

The best available discussion of the concept of “positive negative” appears in Richard Coe’s article, “Defining Rhetoric—and Us.” Coe is here discussing the second clause of Burke’s “Definition of Man”: “inventor of the negative”(LSA 9–13).

Still, Burke is right to add this second clause, for many crucial features of  language, culture and humanness fall under the heading of “the power of negative  thinking,” which Burke calls “my positive negative." We are for the  most part logical positivists . . . we believe in the positive  facts of practical realism and can grasp the virtues of negativity only with  difficulty (often only with the aid of Asian spiritualism or Hegelian philosophy).

Burke thinks of the “positive negative” in terms of Greek drama,  especially Oedipus and the Orestia, juxtaposing Aristotle’s Poetics with his  Rhetoric. Antigone is Hegelian, he says. Pain is a “positive negative” as in  catharsis “a message, not an error,” as when it tells us to remove our fingers from  a hot stove (personal communication, 31 August, 1989) (42).

Negative thinking allows us to see the limitations of claims about facts, allows us to see facts from varieties of perspectives, to break out of our occupational psychoses to recognize the values implicit in all claims about facts. (For a connection to Korzybski see Nicotra 345).

Negative thinking creates a positive result, a result which is inherently dialectical: We go to the theater of tragedy knowing that we will be drawn into unwanted, even painful experiences, but we go with an expectation of release (and perhaps enlightenment) that can arise through the pain. Just as physical pain sends messages to the body, symbolically induced pain sends messages to the psyche. In the language of the Grammar: “One of the most common fallacies in the attempt to determine the intrinsic is the equating of the intrinsic with the unique. . . . We cannot define by differentia alone; the differentiated also has significant attributes as members of its class” (48). We must carry dialectical thinking with us as an active tool in everyday life.

Then Burke says in the April, 1989, letter, that “all told, I have ended up with a ‘positive negative,’ with an appropriate ‘rationale,’ in my summings-up.” The concept of identification exhibits the characteristics of a positive negative: First, note the inherent dialectical character in any given identification, then look for ways to use that dialectical term positively in action.

Burke’s identification differs from some psychological theories of identification in rejecting the idea that identification involves a merger so complete that the separate identities dissolve into one. Burke’s identification reaches toward consubstantiality not transubstantiality. “A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself with B even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded to believe so” (RM 20). Burke here shows the pervasive power of “insofar” throughout the Boikwoiks, and centrally for the Rhetoric: “insofar as their interests are joined.” Each participant remains doubly distinct: (1) Bodies never merge; my toothache is always only mine and quintessentially real; (2) Identification among participants occurs only for those motives at risk in the given rhetorical situation. We join in celebrating The Good Shepherd because we focus only on the guardian aspect of the shepherd, ignoring the market. We may all join in opposing the latest war, but we will adjourn to quite different venues after the rally.

Burke’s “positive negative” choice to set identification as key term for the Rhetoric arose through the program for systematic negative thinking he had constructed in the Grammar. Circumferential thinking helped him to see the role of transcendence in judgments about relations between individuals and society. Circumference advances on earlier terms for perspective by incongruity, because circumference is recursive, directing us to see changes in value emerging through a variety of changes in scope. We may learn more about the recursive nature of circumference along lines Robert Wess suggests. “While it is perhaps easiest to think of circumference from the standpoint of scene, as in the range of scenes in which Stephen Dedalus places himself, circumference is not limited to scene. In the chapter on idealist terminologies [see GM 181] for example, Burke marks the shift from Berkeley’s agent to Hume’s as a ‘narrowing of circumference’“ (151). Burke reminds us (GM 316, RM 111) that forgotten aspects of a dialectical process may reappear in cognate terminologies at higher levels of transcendence—treating circumference through the rhetorical concern for hierarchy.

The terms of the (hexed) Pentad and its ratios helped Burke to see how shifting perspectives can change our thinking about people’s roles, even to the point of seeing people as agents from one perspective while from another perspective seeing those same people as agencies. The (hexed) Pentad, adapting Aristotle’s terminology for drama, provides a comprehensive taxonomy (when mood, quo modo, is included—hexed) of dramatistic roles. Ratios among the terms allow us to see the dialectical interchanges among the roles.

From the evidence that Burke was, during the early phases of writing the Rhetoric, thinking of human interaction in terms of property, we may infer that property was insufficiently “positive negative.” Given a society steeped in positivism, nothing is more heavily weighted toward the positive than property. Although Burke speaks a good deal about property as both a term for material possession and for internal aspects of persons, the physicality of properties tends to overwhelm their metaphorical value. Identification starts a step back from the physical, resisting efforts to make identification an exclusively positive tool in rhetorical action.

And, of course, identification resists the purported rationality of property ownership and exchange, reaching into the realm of the nonrational. Although Burke rather disingenuously says in the “Introduction” to the Rhetoric that identification is “but an accessory to the standard lore” (xiv), he argues that identification provides a significant new line of investigation quite different from the traditional concern for rational deliberation, “an intermediate area of expression that is not wholly deliberate, yet not wholly unconscious” (xiii). The term “identification” will allow us to set beside Aristotle’s focus on persuasion, Burke’s own amalgam-on-a-bias of Freud and Marx, the family drama and symbols of authority (PLF 305–313).

No doubt these speculations will be superseded by further revelations from the Burke archives as scholars find more unpublished information about the writing of A Rhetoric of Motives, as Blakesley has already done with Burke’s letters, Zappen with unpublished ancillary documents and Crable with manuscripts. We might set Burke’s “positive negative” beside Crable’s and Zappen’s recent studies of the function of dialectical symmetry in the overall design of the Rhetoric.

We might look closer at the intertwining of concepts between the Rhetoric and the Grammar along lines that Robert Wess suggests: “‘Ultimate’ [as used in the Rhetoric] corresponds to ‘circumference’ and ‘substance’ [as used in the Grammar]” (205). Extension should be possible along the lines of Elizabeth Weiser’s study of the composition of A Grammar of Motives, expanding the circumference of the issues raised in this note from the intertextual impact of the Grammar on the Rhetoric to a view of Burke’s interactions with his friends, the nation, J. Edgar Hoover, et al., as WWII ended and the Atomic Age began. Burke devoted several passages of the Rhetoric to the Cold War (see Wess 195). In his letters to William Carlos Williams, Burke said, that the Rhetoric would “mitigate the imperialist itch [of the United States]” (East 111)

Burke returned to his concern with properties and persons in his last sequence of published work, the Afterwords to Permanence and Change and Attitudes Toward History and the article “In Haste.” There, Burke proposed a dialectical program pairing the personalistic principle with the instrumentalist principle, asking us to look at the ways in which those two principles interact and even interchange. His principle anecdote, analyzed in “In Haste,” is the medieval process of vassalage through which people voluntarily became instruments of the local warlord for purposes of periodic maintenance and improvement of roads (Agents choosing to become Agencies).

Works Cited

Blakesley, David. “William Carlos Williams’s Influence on Kenneth Burke.”  KB Journal. Conference Paper Repository. 1997. Web. 4 April 2012. http://kbjournal.org/blakesley_williams_burke

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. 3rd rev. ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984. Print.

—. Counter-Statement. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968. Print.

—. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.

—. “In Haste.” Pre/Text: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory. 6.3–4 (1985): 329–77 [339- 42]. Print.

—. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley:  U of California P, 1966. Print.

—. Letter, 13 April 1989.

—. “On Persuasion, Identification, and Dialectical Symmetry.” Ed. James Zappen.  Philosophy and Rhetoric. 39.4 (2006): 333–39. Print.

—. Permanence and Change. 3rd rev. ed. Berkeley: U of California P,  1984. Print.

—. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973. Print.

—. “Questions and Answers about the Pentad.” College Composition and  Communication. 29.4 (December 1978): 330–35. Print.

—. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P,  1969. Print.

Richard Coe. “Defining Rhetoric—and Us.” Journal of Advanced Composition 10 (1990): 39–52. Print.

Crable, Bryan. “Distance as Ultimate Motive: A Dialectical Interpretation of A Rhetoric  of Motives.Rhetoric Society Quarterly 39 (2009): 213–39. Print.

East, James, H. The Humane Particulars: The Collected Letters of William Carlos  Williams and Kenneth Burke. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P, 2003. Print.

Eddy, Mary Baker. Science and Health: with Key to the Scriptures. Boston: Christian  Science P. Soc., 1875, 1906. Print.

Jay, Paul. The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley, 1915- 1981. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990. Print.

Nicotra, Jodie. “Dancing Attitudes in Wartime: Kenneth Burke and General Semantics.”  Rhetoric Society Quarterly 39.4 (2009) 331–52. Print.

Weiser, Elizabeth M. Burke, War, Words: Rhetoricizing Dramatism. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P, 2008. Print.

Robert Wess. Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, subjectivity, postmodernism. Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.

Zappen, James P. “Kenneth Burke on Dialectical-Rhetorical Transcendence.”  Philosophy and Rhetoric 24.3 (2009): 279–301. Print.

* Michael Feehan is Staff Attorney for the Bureau of Legislative Research in Arkansas. He can be reached at Michael@blr.arkansas.gov

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Divination and Mysticism as Rhetoric in the Choral Space

Grace Veach


This paper examines the element of rhetoric that dwells outside of the logos, specifically as it is described in Gregory Ulmer’s chora and in Kenneth Burke’s references to the mystical. When Gregory Ulmer introduced divination into Electronic Monuments, his 2005 book advocating the commemoration of the abject, he reintroduced the idea of rhetoric as a link to the unknown. This move actually refers to a long tradition; in fact, Kenneth Burke had laid groundwork for Ulmer, as had Ernesto Grassi. Together, these three theorists lay out possibilities for making a space in rhetoric for the mystical and the divinatory; the demise of modernism may mean that we are once again ready to hesitantly approach the unknown through the equally mysterious medium of language.

GREGORY ULMER AND KENNETH BURKE BOTH POSIT A REALM OF LANGUAGE that connects the City, with its logical, reasoned commercial interactions, with the abyss, the realm into which the human can peer, but not venture. Ulmer uses the term “chora” to describe this intermediary space. In the chora, events are random, not causal, and it is up to the symbol-using animal to make sense of these random events, images, and encounters. The ability to do so productively can be intentionally refined; Burke, Grassi, and Ulmer each approach this technique in ways that demonstrate the power of metaphor and the performative in the rhetoric of mysticism.

Ever since Gorgias, the old Sophist, acquitted Helen by attributing to rhetoric powers comparable to magic, rhetoric has been linked to the mystical, the unknown, and that which is beyond the natural. Yet the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason and science, forced this strand of rhetoric largely underground. When Gregory Ulmer introduced divination into Electronic Monuments,his 2005 book advocating the commemoration of the abject, I had almost forgotten this characterization of the discipline. Although Ulmer’s connection of rhetoric with divination seemed at first to come “out of the blue,” I realized that he was refreshing a long tradition; in fact, Kenneth Burke had done groundwork for Ulmer in several of his works. Together, Burke, Ulmer, and Ernesto Grassi lay out possibilities for making a space in rhetoric for the mystical and the divinatory; the demise of modernism may mean that we are once again ready to hesitantly approach the unknown.

In his 2007 article “Toward the Chōra,” Thomas J. Rickert postulates that the little-used rhetorical term “chōra” might be a rhetorical space where rhetorical work that mingles reason and mystery might take place. Although Plato uses the term interchangeably with “topos,” Rickert teases out the meaning of “the outskirts of a city” for chōra. The repetitive movement between the city proper and its outskirts evokes the original Homeric meaning of chōros, a dancing space (254). In the sense that chōra is non-city, it carries a sense of place not-yet-formed, which Rickert associates with the initial state of invention “in the sense of finding ways to actualize or enact what are initially only ideas, feelings, or intuitions” (257). Ulmer’s choice of the word “chōra” as the site of invention for his electronic monuments, then, deliberately situates the divinatory work of rhetoric outside the site (topos) of rhetorical invention that emphasizes argumentation and logic. Another feature of the chōra, situated as it is surrounding the city, is that it occupies the space between the city and the abyss. The abyss, of course, brings the unknowable, thus the ineffable, to the borders of the known, where, as Kenneth Burke famously writes, humans “build their cultures by huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss” (Permanence 272). The abyss represents that space where foundations fail; the chōra represents the expansive space between certainty, reason (the city), and the unspeakable.

In his book, Electronic Monuments, Gregory Ulmer begins in the chōra, which he claims that Plato interpreted “as a third metaphysical entity, as the space or region in which being and becoming interacted” (Electronic Monuments 6). For Ulmer, chōra leads toward divination early in the book, when he writes that “chōra is about the crossing of chance and necessity” (39). As opposed to topoi, where the rhetor purposefully seeks answers, the chōra is a space of potential; as the querent mindfully dwells within the chōra, the answer to her dilemma may arise by chance. The ability to recognize the kairotic coincidence of need and solution is the skill the rhetor needs in this moment; Ulmer writes, “’Chora’ names the memory or memorial operation of sorting or ordering of that which remains undifferentiated” (125).  Thus chōra names a place of action, of assigning potential meaning to a seemingly random occurrence.  Calling on Aristotle’s distinction between essential and accidental qualities, Ulmer distinguishes literacy from electracy, his term for electronic literacy, by using these same categories. Thus “a topos collects entities into universal homogeneous sets based on shared essences, necessary attributes; chora gathers singular ephemeral sets of heterogeneous items based on associations of accidental details” (120). The accidental quality of the chōra establishes it as the place for non-logical combinations, i.e. divinations.

In moving to the level of the self, Ulmer theorizes that there is a point, the “punctum,” which is the response of the subject to that in an image or a text which disturbs, unsettles, or disperses the audience. The subject’s response results in the construction of a MEmorial, an electronic monument, which maps her attempt to fill in the gap that occurs as a result of the punctum. Ulmer calls this mapping function “choragraphy”; it is not “choreography,” a map of the movements of a dance, but a map that is generated within the organizing space of the chōra. When Ulmer writes, “the challenge is to locate and engage with the hole that necessarily opens onto the outside of every whole” (85), he relates the individual to what he calls the “group subject.” In attending to her own punctum, the mapping egent (i.e. electronic agent) offers her partial solution to the gap she has intuited. Ulmer goes on to remind the reader that “the paradox of modern knowledge circulates around the incompleteness theorem postulating the paradox that no system is able rigorously to account for itself. There is a blind spot at the very core of clarity” (85). The blind spot Ulmer refers to is similar to that which Derrida refers in “The Principle of Reason”; in Derrida’s case, that which is built on reason fails to account for the use of reason as foundation (10), thus creating an abyss. In both situations, that which is foundational cannot be explained with regard to itself and must call upon some radically different principle. For Ulmer, the egent resorts to choragraphy, invention which takes place between chaos (the abyss) and reason (the city).  

The link between the chōra and divination results from several elements characteristic of the chōra.  As the site of mystery, the chōra is the home of the sacred, the metaphorical, the random, and many other communicative acts that employ indirection rather than direction. Ulmer quotes Bataille: “In the sacred place, human existence meets the figure of destiny fixed by the caprice of chance: the determining laws that science defines are the opposite of this play of fantasy constituting life” (125). “Destiny fixed by the caprice of chance” is a fairly accurate definition of divination. Ulmer’s association of the chōra with chance, mysticism, emblem, music, and dance links meaning with that suggestion-which-is-not-quite-meaning, in a way that is somehow both inside and outside of language. Ulmer adds to the literate pair signifier/signified a third element to represent the electrate age; the chōra, the “third space” is represented by the image or emblem. Divination, then, is one possible means of linking the punctum, the perceived hole in the subject, with its destiny as suggested by the invention of the querent within the chōra; this encounter will be mapped through choragraphy.

Once Ulmer actually introduces the concept of divination within Electronic Monuments, he approaches it via “the magic tool,” to Ulmer a dowsing rod in the shape of a Y. He writes, “this transversal of instances constitutes a kind of divination process, shared among all those holding the ends of the virtual wishbone [another Y] . Together we are like those dowsers who wandered over the grounds of certain premises…” (163). Note that the divination to which Ulmer refers is here a collective process; the entire egency (electronic agency) searching together for meaning. He recalls the generation of his juxtaposition of divination with deconsulting (consulting regarding the punctum):

The chief addition to deconsulting … that resulted from the Miami experience was the syncretism of poststructural poetics with the Afro-Caribbean epistemology of divination. The formal operations of divination lent themselves well to choragraphy as sacred space … applied to cognitive mapping. Divination as an interface for consulting makes mystory [the individual’s electronic memoir] intuitively intelligible. A person with an intractable problem consults a diviner, who uses a chance procedure to connect the personal problem with the collective cultural archive. (213)

Ulmer imagines divination acting upon the punctum as one member of the deconsultancy speaks as “querent” and posits a “burning question.” He writes, “the querent…makes the final decision on the answer based on an emotional experience of recognition” (214). Ulmer calls this specialized application of divination “choramancy.” The specific mapping addressed by the choragraphy, which includes divination, is that of a maze or a branched tree (i.e. a rhizome). Ulmer: “The ubiquity of references to Borges’s ‘forking paths’ in hypermedia poetics is not only about linking, but about ethics. In the face of a collective amnesia, the Real presents us with a materialized rebuke: Don’t you see that every action—every click—is a choice?” (254). Completing the circle, Ulmer ends Electronic Monuments by calling on egents to “think at the speed of light,” a process which he terms “flash reason” (262). Flash reason equates to an electrate version of intuition, as Ulmer explains in his blog: “The immediate relevance for us is engagement with dimensions of experience that exceed the reach of language or discourse. The task of flash reason is to develop an image metaphysics that ontologizes this register of experience. Flash reason supports collective epiphany” (“Lord Chandos”).

Although Ulmer refers to divination several times in Electronic Monuments, the sudden introduction of the apparently occult into rhetoric might surprise the reader. While Kenneth Burke does not go so far as Ulmer does in opening the door to explicitly mystical practices, his rhetoric certainly paves the way for—and perhaps explains to some extent—Ulmer’s approach.  In her book Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edge of Language, Debra Hawhee devotes a chapter to Burke’s approach to mysticism. Hawhee believes that Burke’s encounter with mysticism led him to “a critical method that foregrounds the body as a vital, connective, transformational force” (33). This focus on the body may have been a result of Burke witnessing the mystic G. I. Gurdjieff’s 1924 visit to New York. Gurdjieff led a dance troupe that was certainly known to Burke and his circle; the troupe’s “performances aimed to alter existing habits radically, to revitalize bodies, and communicate sacred and vital knowledge through those bodies” (Hawhee 40).  It is no coincidence that dance is involved in mysticism; once again, choreography leads to its near-cognate, choragraphy. Dance, as an embodiment of mysticism, necessarily occupies space in the chōra.

Hawhee cites Burke’s embrace of the mystic P. D. Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum; Burke termed Ouspensky mysticism’s “apologist of distinction” (37). In his book, Ouspensky relates art and divination: “The artist must be a clairvoyant [i.e. a far-seer]: he must see that which others do not see: he must be a magician: must possess the power to make others see that which they do not themselves see, but which he does see” (quoted in Hawhee 37).  Although Ouspensky generalizes here about the artist, his description could as easily portray the rhetorician, who sees and then seeks to share her vision. Burke picks up this metaphor of sight in Permanence and Change. “When traditional ways of seeing and doing (with their accompanying verbalizations) have begun to lose their authority” (223) mysticism will come to the fore.  He apparently felt that he was living in such a time; he describes American culture of the 1920’s and 1930’s as a situation in which “precisely the resources which could make us joyous are allowed to mark the centre of our disasters” (quoted in Hawhee 35).  Ulmer too expresses concern for “the centre of our disasters” (i.e. the punctum); in Ulmer’s vision, however, it is not only the task of the artist, but of any who wish to become egents, to explain the punctum via the Electronic Monument.

Burke does not use “chōra” terminology; it would be up to Derrida to later revive the term. His descriptions of mysticism make frequent use of the choral metaphors we have come to expect, however. In Rhetoric of Motives, for example, he writes “there is a ground, in both agent and scene, beyond the verbal” (324). Assuming that the verbal is represented by the city, the chōra is that which is beyond and surrounding the verbal.  Burke seems to be referring to the abyss when he writes that “there are also sources of mystery beyond rhetoric….found in fears that arise from the sense of limits (so that one says in effect: ‘Another perhaps can go beyond that point, but not I’—or ‘Maybe I can go beyond that point after preparation, but not now’)”(Rhetoric 180). The city (logos) is therefore a place they can visit, but the chōra, with its uncertainty and its proximity to the abyss and its ephemeral boundaries is their true home. In Burke’s overall scheme this makes sense; because humans are the symbol-using animal, the place where body and mind both hold sway would be humankind’s natural dwelling place.

Even though logical argument composes a large field within rhetoric, there has always also been a parallel path for rhetoric in which it is “the speech that acts on the emotions” (Grassi 200). In “Rhetoric and Philosophy,” Ernesto Grassi illustrates the difference between rhetorical speech and philosophical speech through the example of Cassandra and the Chorus in Agamemnon. Cassandra, the prophetess or diviner, “knows nothing of cause and effect,” but “speaks only through images and symbols” (205). The only way that Cassandra and the Chorus can communicate is through metaphor, the special language which connects logic and emotion through intuition, or flash reason.  Burke identifies oxymoron as the characteristic rhetorical figure of the mystical, referring to a “‘truth’ beyond the realm of logical contradictions, and accordingly best expressed in terms of the oxymoron” (Rhetoric 331). The space opened in the oxymoron’s juxtaposition of contradiction is nothing more than the chōra being employed in discourse to extend meaning beyond the effable.

In spite of their seeming agreement to this point, regarding the extra-logical space which is home to both mysticism and rhetoric, Burke and Ulmer do differ significantly regarding the mystical. For Ulmer, divination is a means of invention which can be encountered within the chōra and which the querent (the rhetor) can shape into a pattern that reveals a message relevant to the query. In other words, the motivating force behind divination is ultimately the rhetor herself. For Burke, however, there is always a hint, the merest possibility, that the rhetor is not alone in the mystical activity. So rather than communicating with one’s own unconscious mind, one is communicating with the true unknown. Burke writes, “mystery arises at that point where different kinds of beings are in communication” (Rhetoric 115). Later, he elaborates:

Implicit in persuasion, there is theology, since theology is the ultimate reach of communication between different classes of beings….prayer has its own invitation to the universalizing of class distinction, the pleader being by nature inferior to the pled-with….One cannot without an almost suicidal degree of perfection merely pray. One must pray to something. Hence, the plunge direct to the principle of persuasion, as reduced to its most universal form, leads to the theologian’s attempt to establish an object of such prayer; namely: God….In sum, we are suggesting: The ‘theology’ that Marx detected in ‘ideological mystification’ is the last reach of the persuasive principle itself. (178-79)

Burke, Ulmer, and Grassi have all made a special place for mysticism within rhetoric, but how might this knowledge assist the rhetor in effecting social change? One key is in the power of metaphor. Grassi makes special note of this in the example from Agamemnon described above. In their book on metaphor, Lakoff and Johnson explain that metaphor “unites reason [i.e., philosophy] and imagination [i.e., poetics]” (193). Burke illustrates the rhetorical power of metaphor at the beginning of The Rhetoric of Motives, when he describes how Milton used the biblical story of Samson to rhetorically identify with this blind hero:

In saying, with fervor, that a blind Biblical hero did conquer, the poet is ‘substantially’ saying that he in his blindness will conquer. This is moralistic prophecy, and is thus also a kind of ‘literature for use,’ use at one remove, though of a sort that the technologically-minded would consider the very opposite of use, since it is wholly in the order of ritual and magic (5).

By pairing the rhetorical strength of the metaphor with Burke’s concept of identification, the rhetor employs a powerful appeal to the audience. This is in essence the technique that Gorgias uses in his Encomium of Helen when he compares the power of persuasion to witchcraft (metaphor), and reminds his audience that they themselves have been won over by words (identification):  “So that on most subjects most men take opinion as counselor to their soul, but since opinion is slippery and insecure it casts those employing it into slippery and insecure successes” (11).

The mystical and divinatory are also key in practicing and interpreting the performative in rhetoric. Both mysticism and divination involve physical practices, as does the chōra, with its rootedness in “choreography” and with its connotation of movement to and from the city. For Ulmer, one of the ways to perform divination is to move through a space and take note of recurring themes within that space as they might apply to the query. Burke expresses this more generally by describing mysticism as the way that body opens access to spirit (Rhetoric 189). Performativity can function in ways that do not easily fit into any of the classical rhetorical appeals, yet it remains firmly linked to rhetorical practice. In his book Acts of Enjoyment, Thomas Rickert quotes Žižek to emphasize this: “Leave rational argumentation and submit yourself simply to ideological ritual, stupefy yourself by repeating the meaningless gestures, act as if you already believe, and belief will come by itself” (115).  Here is the opportunity for positive change. C. S. Lewis writes of the power of pretending to transform or to be transformed: “Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already” (161). Burke generalizes this when he writes “action is not merely a means of doing but a way of being” (Grammar 310). How mysticism and divination participate in rhetoric is indeed a mystery in itself. Perhaps allowing openness to the possibility of non-intentional (i.e. mystical, divinatory, intuitive, epiphanic, performative) cues is the first step. By being attentive to these cues, or at the very least to the individual’s interpretation of them, the rhetor can access a new level of possibility for inventing meaning in the world.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. 1945. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.

---. A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.

---. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. New York: New Republic, 1935. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of Its Pupils.” Diacritics 13.3 (1983): 2-20. Print.

Gorgias. “Gorgias' Encomium of Helen.” Web. 17 Nov. 2010.

Grassi, Ernesto. “Rhetoric and Philosophy.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 9.4 (1976): 200-216. Print.

Hawhee, Debra. Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edges of Language. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2009. Print.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003. Print.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1960. Print.

Rickert, Thomas J. “Toward the Chora: Kristeva, Derrida, and Ulmer on Emplaced Invention.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 40.3 (2007): 251-273. Print.

Ulmer, Gregory. Electronic Monuments. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005. Print.

---. “Lord Chandos.” Heuretics: Inventing Electracy 4 July 2010. Web. 27 Nov. 2010.

*Grace Veach is a doctoral student in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of South Florida and Dean of Library Services at Southeastern University at Lakeland, Florida. Her research interests include Kenneth Burke, literacy and St. Augustine. She can be reached at gveach@seu.edu

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"Divination and Mysticism as Rhetoric in the Choral Space" by Grace Veach is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.