Reorienting Rhetoric: The Dialectic of List and Story, by John D. O'Banion

Reorienting Rhetoric: The Dialectic of List and Story by John D. O'Banion. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992; pp. xvii + 294; cloth $35.00

Reviewed by David Blakesley, Purdue University

Kenneth Burke Society Newsletter, X, June 1995

In March of 1923 Malcolm Cowley wrote to Kenneth Burke: "You believe that a critic should judge a book, according to aesthetic laws which he formulates. In effect, you believe in using the book as a text for an essay on Form. More modest, I believe in defining a book" (Jay 140). Ten days later Burke answers that "[t]he judgment of a book involves formulating the principles by which the book should be judged. In a critical age, the emphasis switches from these formulations as means to these formulations as ends" (Jay 140-41). Cowley's commentary of the purpose of Burke's reviews was fair; Burke didn't deny that his reviews went beyond defining a book to formulating principles from it to help him refine his own critical theory. The book reviewer's dilemma–simply put, whether to "define" a book or to "use it"–brings to the fore problems of orientation, of which Burke had this to say in Permanence and Change: "(a) There is a sense of relationships, developed by the contingencies of experience; (b) this sense of relationships is our orientation; (c) our orientation largely involves matters of expectancy, and affects our choice of means with reference to the future" (18). In reviewing John D. O'Banion's Reorienting Rhetoric, I both "define" and "use," mindful that my orientation has been developed at least partly by my contingent experience of reading the book and that this orientation results both from my expectations in general of a book whose primary influence is Burke and from those O'Banion creates for his readers. I hope I have chosen my means prudently.

As suggested by the first part of O'Banion's title, Reorienting Rhetoric re-tells the story of rhetoric, from Plato to Burke and beyond, emphasizing how our conception of its history has been filtered through the lens of logic and list. The second part of the title–The Dialectic of List and Story–refers to O'Banion's thesis: "The major tasks facing contemporary rhetoric are the recovery of the art of thinking narratively and the reinstatement of that art of knowing alongside logic" (19). Throughout its history, rhetoric has been conceptualized and judged primarily under the rubric of logic. Consequently, says O'Banion, "To a large extent, the future of rhetoric--whether viewed as a reclamation of classical rhetoric or as a formulation of a 'new' rhetoric--depends on the ability of rhetoricians to understand that logic decontextualizes what narration contextualizes and that logic treats as 'congruent' what narration understands as 'continuous'" (102). Hence, in Reorienting Rhetoric, O'Banion seeks to contextualize the continuous dialectic of list (logic) and story (narrative), both being fundamentally rhetorical ways of knowing. Burke figures prominently in the book as the rhetorician who has understood best the complimentary epistemological orientations of list and story. (The two Burkeian insights that O'Banion returns to again and again are dramatism, which he says is primarily narratival, and logology, which he says is Burke's fusion of narratival and logical thought.) As O'Banion points out, however, the "book is not intended as a full-fledged interpretation of Burke" (xiii). Reorienting Rhetoric joins Robert L. Heath's Realism and Relativism: A Perspective on Kenneth Burke and Greig E. Henderson's Kenneth Burke: Language and Literature as Symbolic Action as yet another book demonstrating the wide range of Burkeian critical theory.

Readers will expect a book arguing on behalf of "narratival knowing" to demonstrate the art it explains, and thus O'Banion tries to write his book "in the form it discusses" (Jacket), claiming that it is "strongly narratival, both in substance and in form" (4). The book is structured in three parts, or "three bundles of judgments" that provide "narratival guidance" (18). In line with Burke's statement in Permanence and Change that "orientation" (or understanding) is "a bundle of judgments as to how things were, how they are, and how they may be" (PC 14; qtd. in O'Banion 18), O'Banion devotes his first four chapters to "The Twin Modes of Classical Understanding" (how things were) as discussed and exemplified in Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian. Chapters 5-11 describe "The Demise of Narration" and focus on the numerous rhetoricians and philosophers after Quintilian who assigned the art of narration inferior epistemological status and thus shaped current conceptions of rhetoric (how things are). A short final chapter argues that Burke's pentad might be the holistic perspective for "understanding the demise of rhetoric, as well as the work still needed for its reclamation" (268). Throughout each of these sections, O'Banion assembles an impressive array of characters who speak eloquently on the importance of narration or the consequences of its diminished role in rhetorical "knowing," including–in addition to Burke–Cicero, Quintilian, Vico, Jack Goody, Richard Rorty, Alasdair MacIntyre, Hayden White, Ernesto Grassi, George Steiner, Donald Verene, Alfred Schutz, Stephen Pepper, Walter Fisher, Walter Ong, Erich Fromm, Jim Corder, and Thomas Sloane, among others. Also present in O'Banion's story are those characters who have contributed to narration's demise, including Aristotle, Augustine, Gutenberg (indirectly), Ramus, Descartes, Hume, and Blair.

O'Banion's long, complex story begins with his understanding of the list-story dialectic, and before I discuss his representation of a few of the characters in the drama (Aristotle, Cicero, and Burke), the two terms of the dialectic need brief explanation. In Reorienting Rhetoric, list is the form of discourse utilized by logic or systematic thought; story is the form utilized by narratival thought (14). As such, list and story encourage or presume two ways of thinking, which O'Banion identifies as List and Story (15). In their application, "List records scientific truth, with logic providing tests of a List's accuracy and universality. Story embodies aesthetic 'truth' (meaning), with narration providing guidance in revealing and discovering such situationally bound meaning" (15). As O'Banion sees it (siding with Goody), List has come to be the primary agency of Western logic, science, technology, and "rationality" (11). Story has persisted, but its relevance to the process of understanding (in rhetoric and Western philosophy in general) was virtually ignored after Quintilian, who called it the "heart of rhetorical thought" (O'Banion 76). Burke reintegrates list and story in his demonstrations and discussions of rhetorical inquiry.

In O'Banion's story of classical rhetoric, Aristotle is the antagonist; Cicero and Quintilian, the protagonists. "In Aristotle's hands," O'Banion writes, "all thought, including thought about rhetoric, became subservient to the demands of logical systematicity" (42). Commentators have for quite some time believed that Aristotle's Rhetoric should be read as a handbook for producing persuasive speech, often finding his descriptions of the composing process "functional and practical" (Randall 286) or worse, "reductive and mechanistic" (Arrington 325), because of his "resolute turn toward logic" (O'Banion 19). O'Banion argues that Aristotle's rhetoric is flawed because he was convinced that logic was "the major means of effecting agreement" (52). And even more consequential for the history of rhetoric, "Aristotle's intense allegiance to logic continues to be shared by most Westerners, including most contemporary rhetorical scholars" (42). The ease with which Aristotle's understanding of rhetoric is both identified as logical and dismissed as overly instrumental is troubling because as William A. Covino has demonstrated, Aristotle's Rhetoric is hardly as "logical" as it seems. If we ignore his peremptory tone and the apparent conclusiveness of his pronouncements, we can read the Rhetoric as a "'dramatistic' tissue of open philosophical inquiry that, of itself, represents the activity of rhetoric. . . . Aristotle tends to ambiguate the content of his most decisive pronouncements, pronouncements neatly schematized by those who savor utilitarian rhetoric" (Covino 32). O'Banion rejects utilitarian rhetoric, but in reducing Aristotle's theory of rhetoric to logical epistemology, he misses the chance to tell the story of how the form of the Rhetoric demonstrates logic's insufficiency.

O'Banion finds in Cicero's dialogue, De Oratore, a revaluation of narration's role in the process of rhetorical thought: "Elevated to the mode of thinking that makes oratory possible, narration was for Cicero the 'fountainhead' of wisdom, the 'river' on which the oration flowed, and–to extend Cicero's metaphors–the port toward which the orator navigated" (61). To substantiate this claim, O'Banion quotes extensively from the dialogue. Yet while he acknowledges that "the use of dialogue is itself more obviously narratival than the essay format" (58), he attributes these quotations exclusively to Cicero, never mentioning that the lines are spoken by characters often at odds with one another, such as Crassus, Antonius, and Caesar. In his efforts to support his thesis, O'Banion neglects the aspect of Cicero's text which demonstrates narratival thinking, the dialogue dramatizing conflicting views on the nature of rhetoric. Later in his text, O'Banion maintains with Burke "that the highly systematic and logical task of seeking 'equations' blinds interpreters to the role narrative plays in texts, both in their creation and in their interpretation" (77). In seeking his own equation, O'Banion misses the opportunity to discuss how the form of De Oratore illustrates the narratival principles he values so much.

Burke plays two roles in Reorienting Rhetoric. Many of his concepts provide O'Banion with the critical machinery for narrating the history of rhetoric and commenting upon it. More provocative, however, is O'Banion's perceptive reading of the dialectic of list and story in Burke's own work and explanation of why many of Burke's critics find his work enigmatic, if not muddled. O'Banion concludes that "praise or blame for his work turns on attitudes toward logical coherence and narratival unity" (256). Those who reject his work believe that knowledge results from rational logic and that narrational thought is unsystematic. Burke's mixed reception, says O'Banion, is "the result of extreme prejudices in favor of science, logic, mathematics, and forms of demonstrable proof and of equally extreme biases against traditional ways of understanding, such as are available in rhetoric, poetry, and history" (261). O'Banion argues persuasively throughout the book that Burke's aim is to unite list and story dialectically, a point driven home by Burke's description of logology as a method: "Formally, the investigation heads in an attempt to study the point at which narrative forms and logical forms merge (or begin to diverge!), the exquisite point of differentiation between purely temporal and purely logical principles of 'priority'" (Rhetoric of Religion 3-4).

Implicit in Reorienting Rhetoric is a reconceptualization of rhetorical invention, not simply as the "invention of arguments" but as the multiplication of perspectives and the elaboration of ambiguity. O'Banion's insight that "[f]or lists to make sense, they require a story" (164) suggests to me that rhetorical inquiry begins by identifying the "lists" that shape and guide human relations, then dramatizes the contexts which lead to them and make them meaningful. To illustrate, in Permanence and Change Burke explains that Henri Bergson's "system" of "planned incongruity" posits reality as a unity, a synthesis. Language "approaches" this reality by cultivating the use of contradictory concepts. Citing Karin Stephen's explanation of Bergson's idea, Burke writes, "The events of actual life are continuous, any isolated aspect of reality really merging into all the rest. As a practical convenience, we do make distinctions between various parts of reality. . . . We find our way through this everchanging universe by certain blunt schemes of generalization, conceptualization, or verbalization" (92). Logic and lists are "blunt schemes" for stating recurrent patterns in this unity and should not be mistaken for reality itself. What we want, Burke argues, is a method that dramatizes these logical formulations by narrating the temporal essence from which they emerged (what Burke calls "the great central moltenness" (xix) in A Grammar of Motives). Lists are congealed distinctions that require narrators and narratives. If the history of rhetoric is the ambiguous "synthesis" we hope to represent, we need to be especially rigorous in narrating as thoroughly as possible the scene-act ratio, which enlivens these distinctions and makes their transformation possible.

O'Banion's story of the List-Story dialectic is highly suggestive for Burke studies and for revisionist histories of rhetoric. The stridency with which he tells the story, however, may be Reorienting Rhetoric's achilles heel. He admits early in the book that it includes "many more block quotations than contemporary taste allows" (xii). The hundreds of quotations may offend taste, but they also reveal the strategic problem he faced: whether to tell a story or prove a point. I think it is safe to say that O'Banion opts for pamphleteering rather than inquiry; he makes his point, but in doing so he sidesteps the complicated and difficult task of showing that the logical formulations of rhetoric throughout history are inseparable from the narrative that precedes or contains such distinctions. Nevertheless, Reorienting Rhetoric does enable others to begin their stories in medias res. O'Banion has set the stage.

Works Cited

Arrington, Phillip K. "Tropes of the Composing Process." College English 48 (April 1986): 325-38.

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

---. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. 1935. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.

---. The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. 1961. Berkeley: U of California P, 1970.

Covino, William A. The Art of Wondering: A Revisionist Return to the History of Rhetoric. Boynton/Cook: Portsmouth, NH, 1988.

Heath, Robert L. Realism and Relativism: A Perspective on Kenneth Burke. Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 1986.

Henderson, Greig E. Kenneth Burke: Language and Literature as Symbolic Action. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 1988.

Jay, Paul, ed. The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1981. New York: Viking, 1988.

Randall, J. H. Aristotle. New York: Columbia UP, 1960.