When Actions Collide: Motive Constructions Spanning Different Acts

Clarke Rountree, University of Alabama in Huntsville


While Burke examined the relationships among the terms of the pentad within a single pentadic set (i.e., a single "act"), a few rhetorical critics using pentadic criticism have noted grammatical relationships that cross between pentadic sets (multiple acts). Yet no one has theorized about those multipentadic relationships. This paper provides a basic explanation of how such multipentadic relationships work in strategic constructions, using many illustrations from public discourse.

EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED TO EVERYTHING ELSE, AS THE TRUISM GOES. This idea is reflected in concepts such as "the butterfly effect" which describes how the most minor changes in a situation (e.g., a butterfly dying) can have unforeseen consequences in the future (given the connection of everything to everything else, in one way or another). The same concept of web-like relations appears in games like "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon," which plays on the philosophical concept of "six degrees of separation," suggesting that people have connections through other people (either to Kevin Bacon's films or interpersonally to everyone else on the planet). That web of interconnectedness has at least two distinct dimensions: the causal connections that scientists focus upon and the human relations which cannot be reduced to mere causal relations. Of course scientists have tried to reduce human action to mere motion; however, as Kenneth Burke has noted, any such reduction loses what is unique about human action which, he insists, cannot be reduced to motion.

When we try to explain something in the world, we necessarily carve out some segment of that web in the explanation. For example, if I provide a causal explanation of how I sunk the eight ball in the side pocket in a game of pool, I don't start with the origins of the materials that make up the billiard balls, cue sticks, and table; or the construction and placement of the table in my house, or what I had for breakfast that gave me the energy to hit the cue ball. I say something like: "I kissed the side of the eight ball with my shot, nudging it into the corner pocket." Exactly what counts as relevant and proximate in such explanations is subject to debate, of course; but the whole idea of explaining circumscribes what is expected.

When it comes to parsing webs of human relationships, Kenneth Burke has given us a conceptual framework. He suggests we distinguish particular acts and their corresponding agents, agencies, purposes, scenes, and, when useful, attitudes (on this last term, see Burke, Grammar, 443). That is, he tells us to look for what is done, who did it, how she or he did it, why, when, where, and in what manner. The pentadic terms and the questions they represent are grammatically connected to one another so that a pentadic set, or pentadic "root" (Birdsell), is formed that circumscribes relevant elements. For example, if I say, "Jill drove John to the movies," I cannot say that the act of driving is something that John did, because Jill is the agent of that action in this construction. But if I am describing the action, I have the option of characterizing elements in a way that reduces Jill's agent role, such as saying, "Jill, a student driver, drove her watchful father John to the movies."

Burke was interested in the inventional resources available to rhetors in the construction of such actions. His A Grammar of Motives describes those resources and undergirds our understanding of the rhetoric of motives, where rhetors get to choose how to answer the pentadic questions with respect to a given construction of motives, stressing scene or agent or purpose or another term as dominant in accounting for motives in a given case. The relationships among the terms are considered in pairs, or ratios, to show how one element transforms our understanding of another. Thus, a scene may be shown to contain an act, an agency may be adapted to a purpose, a particular kind of agent may be said to be responsible for a corresponding kind of action (heroic, foolish, selfish, etc.), and so forth.

While this Burkean account of action and its corresponding approach to rhetorical criticism is well known, I wish to build on Burke's theory and method to account for a common but much more complex rhetorical phenomenon: the construction and strategic connection of multiple pentadic sets. Because, as I have noted, everything is somehow connected to everything else (including different actions), it is unsurprising that rhetors often construct more than one act and place those distinct acts in relation to one another. To take a simple but fateful example: President George W. Bush said that President Saddam Hussein of Iraq was constructing weapons of mass destruction (Act 1, undertaken by Hussein), he announced that the United States was going to war to stop him (Act 2, undertaken by Bush), and he claimed that Act 1 created a dangerous scene that necessitated Act 2.

To distinguish these different acts, I will use the term "pentadic sets," rather than Birdsell's "pentadic roots," because, theoretically, the same act could be constructed by different rhetors who feature different roots. For example, the "Do-Nothing" Congress dominated by Republicans in President Obama's second term might construct legislation he is proposing by emphasizing who is proposing it (agent), while a supporter might emphasize what it tries to accomplish (purpose). Each side highlights a different root. A pentadic set, by contrast, emphasizes that particular grammatical constructions serve to distinguish unique acts that have their own grammatically-related terms covering scene, agent, agency, purpose, and attitude.

Of course, as this paper will show, some of the terms of one pentadic set may be shared with different pentadic sets; however, no two pentadic sets will ever share all elements. Even the factory worker who makes the same widget day after day can be said to engage in different acts owing to the fact that, on different days, she will find herself in a different scene (a day later), a different agent (a day older, married between working days, changing party affiliations), and may have a different attitude (one day happy another sad) or may use a slightly different agency (a new wrench), etc.

Although rhetorical scholars have examined particular inter-pentadic constructions before, they have said very little about the practice in general. This essay theorizes such constructions with respect to actions that are connected for rhetorical purposes. It illustrates the forms that connections between acts may take and explains why they are rhetorically powerful. And it considers the need for rhetorical critics to take notice of this form of motive construction.

Grammars of Motives

Burke only hints at connections across different pentadic sets in A Grammar of Motives. For example, in discussing Eugene O'Neill's play, Mourning Becomes Electra, he notes: "When Lavinia instructs Seth to nail fast the shutters and throw out the flowers, by her command (an act) she brings it about that the scene corresponds to her state of mind. But as soon as these scenic changes have taken place, they in turn become the motivating principle of her subsequent conduct [i.e., additional acts]" (9-10). Burke's focus in the Grammar on providing a basic explanation of the pentadic terms and their connection in discourses about action (including much of the Western canon!) did not lead him to examine more generally how such acts may be related to another.

Rhetorical critics employing Burke's pentad have occasionally considered the relationships that prevail among different acts described by rhetors. For example, in his classic analysis of Senator Edward Kennedy's tragic accident at Chappaquiddick and its aftermath, David Ling describes two pentadic sets connected by Kennedy. The first involves the accident and Kennedy's subsequent actions, where a narrow, poorly lit bridge over cold, rushing water is blamed for the accident, for Kennedy's inability to save his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, and for Kennedy's disorientation, which, he urged, led to a failure to report the accident for eight hours. As Ling notes, Kennedy invokes the scene as controlling his actions. But, after recounting this construction, Kennedy puts his future into the hands of the people of Massachusetts, asking them to decide (in this second act) whether his actions warranted a decision that he remain in office representing them. Kennedy's constituents, in other words, were asked to act in a new scene in which their senator might be viewed in a different light. To the extent that he constructed his disoriented action as beyond his control, perhaps he could be forgiven and allowed to continue to serve the State of Massachusetts. (It also did not hurt that the agency of supporting or rejecting Kennedy was weak, involving sending letters of support or rejection to the Senator or, perhaps, to the local newspaper; and he was the ultimate judge of whether the State had "spoken" and what they "said.")

Colleen E. Kelley also conducted a study of a politician in trouble which looked at multiple pentadic sets. Congressman George Hansen of Idaho was constructed by the media as a crook after he was charged and convicted for filing false financial reports. But he managed to use that conviction as evidence of a federal conspiracy against him to win reelection. Kelley does not explicitly discuss the connections between the two other than indicating how the media's construction of Hansen required him to respond to a scene within which he was viewed by many as corrupt. She does show that he did so by actually using his conviction as a campaign point to demonstrate that the government wanted to get rid of him because he was crusading against it.

David S. Birdsell looked at two different acts constructed by Ronald Reagan following the deadly suicide bombing of over two hundred U.S. Marines in Beirut, Lebanon and his subsequent decision to invade the tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada. Birdsell notes that the two acts were framed differently, but were reconciled by Reagan "in the context of his elliptical remarks on foreign policy at the end of the speech" (267-68). Birdsell's analysis of Reagan's constructions was "complex and 'layered,' featuring a different pentadic 'root' for each portion of the speech."

My own work has featured some of the most complex constructions of multiple, related pentadic sets. In my analysis of the U.S. Supreme Court's Japanese internment case, Korematsu v. United States, I argued that "[t]he chief rhetorical work of the judicial opinion…is to embody and characterize actions" (Rountree, "Instantiating 'the Law'" 3-4). Among the most important of the characterized actions are constitutions (enactments of their founders), laws (acts of legislatures), precedents (acts of former courts), acts of litigants (such as the crimes they are alleged to have committed), and the acts of the government (e.g., law enforcement officers, prosecutors, regulators, etc.). Embodied actions, I argued, are those of judges handing down opinions. They must appear judge-like, speaking to the law, to justice, and (for appellate courts) to future interpreters of law (who may cite them). I extended my discussion of judicial constructions of action in a book on the Bush v. Gore decision, which ended the recount of presidential ballots in the 2000 election, awarding the presidency to George W. Bush (Rountree, Judging the Supreme Court). I showed how majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions connected a wide array of actions (by the Founding Fathers, the Florida Legislature, the Florida Supreme Court, the U.S. Congress, and others) to construct their disparate views of what law, justice, and good precedent requires.

None of this work, including my own, has grappled more generally with what is involved when distinct pentadic sets are constructed by rhetors and connected. This paper seeks to remedy that.

Constructions of Relationships between Acts

The most common way relationships are constructed between different acts is through a terministic bridge connecting two acts. That is, the first act constructs an element that becomes a scene, agent, agency, purpose, or attitude in a second act. Such terministic connections across pentadic sets may be very complex and rhetorically sophisticated. I will illustrate the terministic possibilities for each of the pentad's "bridging" terms.

Constructing Scenes

One of the most common inter-pentadic constructions involves a first act that creates a scene to which a second act must respond. American foreign policy is built around the idea that we only engage in defensive wars—wars ironically pursued in the name of peace. I have noted the example of President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq before, where he constructed Iraq's actions as threatening and the U.S. response as defensive and reasonable. Another example comes from President Bill Clinton's decision to launch air strikes against the same country in 1998. Clinton's scenic justification was crucial because he was embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal at the time and critics saw the strikes as an attempt to distract the country from his problems. In a nationally-televised address on December 16, 1998, Clinton showed how actions by Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, created a scene that required action:

Six weeks ago, Saddam Hussein announced that he would no longer cooperate with the United Nations weapons inspectors, called UNSCOM. They're highly professional experts from dozens of countries. Their job is to oversee the elimination of Iraq's capability to retain, create, and use weapons of mass destruction, and to verify that Iraq does not attempt to rebuild that capability. The inspectors undertook this mission, first, seven and a half years ago, at the end of the Gulf War, when Iraq agreed to declare and destroy its arsenal as a condition of the cease-fire.

Clinton noted that Hussein had used WMD before, on his own people, "not once but repeatedly, unleashing chemical weapons against Iranian troops during a decade-long war, not only against soldiers, but against civilians." Given Hussein's actions and his past history, the world was faced with a dangerous scene, Clinton urged:

This situation presents a clear and present danger to the stability of the Persian Gulf and the safety of people everywhere. The international community gave Saddam one last chance to resume cooperation with the weapons inspectors. Saddam has failed to seize the chance. And so we had to act, and act now.

That action, he explained, involved "a strong, sustained series of air strikes against Iraq. They are designed to degrade Saddam's capacity to develop and deliver weapons of mass destruction, and to degrade his ability to threaten his neighbors." Thus, Hussein's earlier actions created a scene that contained Clinton's act of ordering air strikes to change that dangerous scene.

Another act frequently citing as changing the scene for future actions was the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Those attacks came several months after the most contested presidential election in U.S. history in which a bloc of the five most conservative justices on the United States Supreme Court ordered that the state of Florida stop recounting ballots that might have given Vice President Al Gore a victory in the 2000 presidential election. George W. Bush's inauguration was so controversial that for the first time in history the Secret Service declared the ceremony a "National Special Security Event," which required anyone attending the inauguration to have permission from the government (Greenfield, 298). Bush entered the White House as an agent whose presidential legitimacy was in question.

However, after the attacks of 9/11, his agent status changed. As Mark Miller, writing for the National Review, noted:

[A]ll questions of legitimacy suddenly vanished. In an instant, the controversy over hanging chads came to seem remote and inconsequential. The warnings about the stability of the American constitutional order were rendered utterly beside the point as the country absorbed far greater blows and survived with its constitutional integrity intact.

Thus, Miller argues, the terrorists' acts changed the scene; that scene altered our understanding of agent Bush from one of questionable legitimacy to a well-supported commander-in-chief who was then able to wield his authority boldly in subsequent acts of retribution against our attackers and those who harbored them.

Constructing Agents

As Burke has pointed out, agents and acts are related through a status-actus relationship, whereby who one is determines what one will do. Thus, a hero does heroic acts. Of course the reverse is true as well: acts establish who someone is. Thus, an otherwise nondescript pilot, Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, became a "hero" in January 2009 after making a successful emergency landing on the Hudson River when his U.S. Airways jet was hobbled by geese sucked into the jet's engines. Subsequent to this heroic deed, Sullenberger was chosen to be the Grand Marshall of the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California in 2010. In that act of serving as Grand Marshall, Sullenberg appears as the hero leading the parade (rather than as an ordinary United Airways pilot)—an appropriately prominent figure to lead off this annual event.

Prior actions can cut both ways, however. When President Bill Clinton was accused of having an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, constructions of his prior alleged infidelities (with Gennifer Flowers, Kathleen Willey, and Paula Jones) characterized him as a "womanizer," making his alleged affair with Lewinsky seem more probable (through an agent-act relationship).

Patrick J. Buchanan, who failed to win the Republican nomination for president in 1992 after running against a sitting Republican president, nonetheless spoke at his party nomination convention. And he used a contrast of past acts of Republican George H. W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton to explain what kind of agents they are and, thereby, what kind of presidents they would be. He argued:

An American President has many roles. He is our first diplomat, the architect of American foreign policy. And which of these two men is more qualified for that great role? George Bush has been U.N. Ambassador, Director of the CIA, envoy to China. As Vice President, George Bush co-authored and cosigned the policies that won the Cold War. As President, George Bush presided over the liberation of Eastern Europe and the termination of the Warsaw Pact. And what about Mr. Clinton? Well, Bill Clinton—Bill Clinton couldn't find 150 words to discuss foreign policy in an acceptance speech that lasted almost an hour. You know, as was said—as was said of another Democratic candidate, Bill Clinton's foreign policy experience is pretty much confined to having had breakfast once at the International House of Pancakes.

Buchanan's description of Bush's past acts (many of them being something, serving in a role) suggested that Bush would be better on foreign policy (a future act).

Constructing Agencies

Agencies may be technologies, methods, policies, laws, rules of thumb, ethical codes, protocols, how-to manuals, or other types of means for doing things. In the case of technologies, their creation is an act that provides a physical means for undertaking action. For example, Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone was an act making possible subsequent acts of talking on the telephone. However, it is rare that a rhetor would want to refer back to that act (except perhaps on the anniversary of the telephone's invention). But such references are not as rare as you might imagine. Consider David Pogue's review of Apple Corporation's new iPad in the New York Times:

At least Apple had the decency to give the iPad a really fast processor. Things open fast, scroll fast, load fast. Surfing the Web is a heck of a lot better than on the tiny iPhone screen—first, because it's so fast, and second, because you don't have to do nearly as much zooming and panning.

But as any Slashdot.org reader can tell you, the iPad can't play Flash video. Apple has this thing against Flash, the Web's most popular video format; says it's buggy, it's not secure and depletes the battery. Well, fine, but meanwhile, thousands of Web sites show up with empty white squares on the iPad—places where videos or animations are supposed to play.

Here Pogue speaks of what Apple did in building the iPad (it "had the decency to give the iPad a really fast processor") then turns to what iPad users subsequently do in using the iPad (surfing the web fast; seeing empty white squares on Flash websites). Their inventional act yielded an agency that is a means for subsequent user actions—in Pogue's view, an unnecessarily compromised one.

In the case of symbolic agencies, such as codes, laws, protocols, and the like, rhetorical constructions may suggest that their development, rationale, or purposes require them to be used as guides to present action in a particular way. For example, Abraham Lincoln's "Cooper Union Address" spoke of what the Founding Fathers believed in the past about the control of slavery in territories in order to suggest that the U.S. Constitution was a legal instrument that permitted the federal government to regulate slavery in the territories. For example, he notes:

In 1787, still before the Constitution, but while the Convention was in session framing it, and while the Northwestern Territory still was the only territory owned by the United States, the same question of prohibiting slavery in the territory again came before the Congress of the Confederation; and two more of the "thirty-nine" who afterward signed the Constitution, were in that Congress, and voted on the question. They were William Blount and William Few; and they both voted for the prohibition—thus showing that, in their understanding, no line dividing local from federal authority, nor anything else, properly forbids the Federal Government to control as to slavery in Federal territory. This time the prohibition became a law, being part of what is now well known as the Ordinance of '87.

From this and similar evidence of what the Founding Father's intended, Lincoln draws an agency for present legislative action, insisting:

I do not mean to say we are bound to follow implicitly in whatever our fathers did. To do so, would be to discard all the lights of current experience—to reject all progress—all improvement. What I do say is, that if we would supplant the opinions and policy of our fathers in any case, we should do so upon evidence so conclusive, and argument so clear, that even their great authority, fairly considered and weighed, cannot stand; and most surely not in a case whereof we ourselves declare they understood the question better than we.

As I noted previously, judicial opinions are replete with references to precedents, whose "holdings" are agencies that they claim to follow (another court's means becoming its own means of action). But, anywhere rules, holdings, codes, and the like are invoked, we tether together two acts through an agency bridge.

Constructing Purposes

Purposes may be derived from religious texts, planning documents, corporate charters, lists of personal goals, or other ends-related sources. Thus, the Christian who proclaims she will join Doctors without Borders to help victims of the Syrian civil war, for "God's purposes," may construct religious texts, a "calling" she felt, an admonition from a spiritual leader, or another source to explain that this is where her purpose of helping the downtrodden originated. CEOs of Wall Street firms that took incredible risks with exotic financial instruments that led to the Great Recession may point to stockholder meetings where they received a demand to increase profits.

Susan B. Anthony invoked constitutional purposes in defending her present right to vote in an election in Rochester, New York. In defending herself from the charge of having illegally registered to vote, she noted:

The preamble of the Federal Constitution says:

"We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

She interpreted what these words meant in noting:

It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people—women as well as men.

Having established that "we" meant everyone, males and females, and that the central purpose of the constitution was to secure the "blessings of liberty," she builds on that established purpose to infer a means adapted to that end for present-day women such as her, insisting: "And it is a downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democratic-republican government—the ballot."

Richard Nixon used others to construct his purposes in his 1952 bid to become Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice president. He had been accused of misusing $18,000 in political contributions. He retorted: "Not one cent of the 18,000 dollars or any other money of that type ever went to me for my personal use. Every penny of it was used to pay for political expenses that I did not think should be charged to the taxpayers of the United States." He cited an independent audit by the accounting firm Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher, reading their statement:

It is our conclusion that Senator Nixon did not obtain any financial gain from the collection and disbursement of the fund by Dana Smith; that Senator Nixon did not violate any federal or state law by reason of the operation of the fund; and that neither the portion of the fund paid by Dana Smith directly to third persons, nor the portion paid to Senator Nixon, to reimburse him for designated office expenses, constituted income to the Senator which was either reportable or taxable as income under applicable tax laws.

Here, an act of auditing constructs a purpose for Nixon: using campaign contributions for things other than personal expenditures. Nixon constructs the audit as objective and credible. The audit yielded a purpose for Nixon's use of the money (or at least rejected a questionable purpose); that purpose, in turn, becomes the centerpiece of Nixon's construction of his own actions in taking and using those political contributions.

Constructing Attitudes

Prior acts may create attitudes that can bleed over into constructions of subsequent acts, shaping them. For example, unfair or tyrannical actions by a manager may lead to low morale on the part of his employees; that negative attitude may spill over into subsequent actions by those employees. On an individual level, an act may lead an agent to love, hate, envy, or have some other significant attitude towards another person; that, in turn, may be said to shape subsequent actions towards that person.

Like many sharp-tongued political speakers, Texas Governor Ann Richards sought to shape attitudes towards her party's opponent. Vice President George H. W. Bush was running against Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Richards skewered him at the Democratic National Convention. She argued:

[F]or eight straight years George Bush hasn't displayed the slightest interest in anything we care about.

And now that he's after a job that he can't get appointed to, he's like Columbus discovering America. He's found child care. He's found education.

Poor George. He can't help it—he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.

Richards constructs Bush as disinterested in voter's needs, spoiled, and a poor speaker. She creates attitudes of disdain and, sarcastically, pity (with "Poor George"). The attitudes towards a presidential candidate are generally incompatible with supporting that agent's candidacy.

Constructing Acts

Even the hub of action—act itself—can be said to connect to a previous act. For acts that are constructed as emulating or following previous acts, this may involve some kind of precedent. This is most obvious in the law, where prior cases lay down a pattern for subsequent cases. This connection might be limited to an agency link, where a prior case's "holding" becomes the legal means for resolving the subsequent case, as I suggested in the discussion of agency above. But, it is not always this simple. Often, the agents, scenes, purposes, and even attitudes of a previous act are invoked, so that a complex matching of one act to the other is a more accurate description. Consider Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's dissent in Kelo v. City of New London, an infamous case in which eminent domain was invoked to take the modest homes of residents along a river and give them to a development corporation to help the city's economic fortunes. The majority claimed that prior cases allowed economic development as a justification for such takings. O'Connor distinguished two key precedents, insisting:

The Court's holdings in Berman and Midkiff were true to the principle underlying the Public Use Clause [of the Fifth Amendment]. In both those cases, the extraordinary, precondemnation use of the targeted property inflicted affirmative harm on society—in Berman through blight resulting from extreme poverty and in Midkiff through oligopoly resulting from extreme wealth. And in both cases, the relevant legislative body had found that eliminating the existing property use was necessary to remedy the harm. (464-65)
Thus, O'Connor invokes scene (harmful), agency (eliminating property), purpose (remedying a harm), and agent (legislature) in constructing what it meant to "follow" those precedents. Here a well-fleshed-out first act informs what the court should do in its subsequent act.

Other acts are invoked because they provide comparisons for critics or analysts of other acts. For example, past state of the union addresses might be compared to a current one (e.g., Barack Obama versus his predecessor, George W. Bush), past sports records may compared to current ones (Barry Bonds versus Roger Maris on the number of homeruns hit in a season), past acts of government action versus current actions (George W. Bush on Hurricane Katrina versus Barack Obama on the Gulf oil spill), and so forth. During political campaigns, comparisons of candidates' records to their opponents are common, stressing the contrast. As I have noted previously, hypothetical acts may be constructed by rhetors (Rountree, "Judicial Invention" 59-60) providing opportunities for comparing two competing proposed actions (e.g., taxing carbon emissions versus creating a cap and trade system for carbon credit), comparing an existing action with a proposed action (e.g., existing financial regulations versus proposed regulations), or a past action with a proposed action (e.g., putting a moratorium on capital punishment in the past and perhaps in the future). Rhetors may even compare fictional, mythical, or historical accounts of actions to present or future actions (such as when Christian children are told to treat others as "the Good Samaritan" did).

These are but a few of the ways in which acts can be connected. Stokely Carmichael provides a completely different approach in his speech, "Black Power," from October 1966. He references recent killings of three "Freedom Riders" in Mississippi:

On a more immediate scene, the officials and the population—the white population—in Neshoba County, Mississippi—that's where Philadelphia is—could not—could not condemn [Sheriff] Rainey, his deputies, and the other fourteen men that killed three human beings. They could not because they elected Mr. Rainey to do precisely what he did; and that for them to condemn him will be for them to condemn themselves.

How does he explain the failure of whites in Neshoba Country to condemn the killings of the civil rights activists? Through their earlier act of voting in a sheriff for the purpose of maintaining Jim Crow through any means necessary. That earlier action (with its racist purpose) shapes present action (or inaction) so that "for them to condemn [the sheriff] will be for them to condemn themselves." What they did in the past is connected to what they will not do in the present (a hypothetical act that one might expect to follow from the murders).

Rhetorical Advantages of Constructing Multiple Acts

To understand the advantages to rhetors of constructing multiple acts we must begin by considering the advantages of constructing any act. Generally, we see the construction of an act as an effort to portray the act in a particular way. For example, if I am a politician I show that my acts are good and noble and beneficial, while the acts of my opponents are bad and selfish and harmful. If I am a defense attorney I show that the acts of my client were innocent, while the prosecutor shows that they are guilty. If I am a critic I show that the acts of those I would praise are praiseworthy and those I would censure are blameworthy.

Rhetors also construct acts to shape our understanding of those acts, their agents, their scenes, their agencies, their purposes, or their attitudes. A politician may tell the story of a brutal murder to convince voters that they live in a dangerous world. If he emphasizes that the murder was committed by an illegal immigrant, he may be suggesting that immigration policies (an agency of government action) are not working. If he stresses the easily-obtained handgun that was used in the murder, perhaps he is suggesting that our gun laws are flawed. If he emphasizes where the murder took place, perhaps he is segmenting a city into "good" and "bad" neighborhoods. If he emphasizes the brutality of the murder, perhaps he is warning about a new attitude of reckless disregard for human life in our culture.

As Burke has shown, rhetorical constructions of motives work within the grammar of motives, drawing upon the power of act, scene, agent, agency, purpose, and attitude. Because of the grammatical relationships between each term, the characterization of one term will affect our understanding of them all; thus, there are limits to what a rhetor can do in constructing motives, since pulling a construction one way limits how far the other terms can be pulled in another direction. So, for example, as Ling has shown, Senator Edward Kennedy relied on scene to explain his failure to report the deadly accident at Chappaquiddick in a timely manner. But, having constructed himself as an agent victimized by a scene where a narrow, unlit bridge over cold, swiftly moving water led to an accident and the near drowning of the junior senator from Massachusetts, Kennedy could not promise voters that he was a heroic figure capable of overcoming all obstacles (since he obviously had succumbed to one in a moment of crisis). Kennedy sacrificed a better agent construction to explain his action, hurting his image as a candidate in subsequent presidential races, where Chappaquiddick was regularly invoked to question his presidential timbre.

When rhetors construct more than one act, they increase their inventional opportunities. Consider the Iraq War example from above: Bush could play within the grammar of motives of his "Saddam Hussein is developing weapons of mass destruction" pentadic set (playing up agency, such as the report that Iraq had bought yellowcake from Africa), then use that to bolster his "The U.S. needs to invade Iraq" pentadic set. The Bill Clinton critic could draw on the most credible acts of alleged infidelity by the former Arkansas governor, then use that construction of Clinton as a "womanizer" to conclude, "Of course he had an affair with Monica Lewinsky!"

Judges are among the most sophisticated rhetors constructing multiple acts. In the Kelo case cited earlier, the Supreme Court's majority opinion constructed the Berman and Midkiff precedents cited by Justice O'Connor (Acts A and B) to support their construction of the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment "Takings" clause (Act C, undertaken by the founding fathers) and applied that construction their own act of allowing New London, Connecticut to seize the property of home owners (Act D). They also noted that such takings were permitted by Connecticut law (Act E, by the state's legislature). It was obviously useful for the court to construct the Constitution, federal statutes, and state statutes as supporting their own action in deciding this controversial case. Such constructions build a web of inter-pentadic relationships around judges, entangling their decision strategically to "force" their hand in acting. Once the groundwork is done, they can simply proclaim: "I was following the law in handing down this decision."

Another advantage of rhetoric that draws upon the power of the grammar of motives is that it can be indirect, subtle, and sophisticated. The woman who wants to get her sister to stop dating some guy doesn't have to come right out and say, "He's a womanizer"; instead, she can say, "I think I saw Joe's car when I passed the strip club last night." This scenic reference does the rhetorical work of constructing the agent as a womanizer by (grammatical) implication.

Given grammatical relationships between different acts, such rhetorical strategies can be quite sophisticated, deployed the way a chess master sets up the board several moves ahead to prepare the way to spring a trap. As I have argued elsewhere, the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund deployed a sophisticated, long-term strategy to put in place the elements for overturning the "separate but equal" doctrine laid down in Plessy v. Ferguson (Rountree, "Setting the Stage"). They worked for forty years to develop litigants, litigators, receptive courts, and precedents. They strategically focused on cases where African-American applicants to state graduate schools had been rejected solely because of their race. That allowed them to sidestep problems in public K-12 schools, where states could argue that, indeed, black schools were equal to white schools. There were no graduate schools for blacks in segregated states, so "separate" could not be "equal." A 1914 precedent established that states could not simply argue that too few black students wanted graduate degrees making it economically unfeasible, because the High Court found, equal accommodations is an individual right (McCabe v. Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe R. Co.). When states began to throw together graduate programs for a handful of black students, it was easy to show that these extremely limited programs (limited in faculty, resources, course offerings, etc.) were not equal to those of hundred-year-old, esteemed programs such as that at the University of Texas Law School (Sweatt v. Painter). Constructions of state acts of not providing graduate education, of providing poorer education to African Americans, and of showing racial animus in these efforts, were easy to develop by the LDF's lawyers, setting the stage for a reversal of Plessy's doctrine for all public schools in Brown v. Board of Education.

This last example adds an interesting twist to the construction of multiple acts: that rhetors may actually become involved in creating the acts, scenes, agents, agencies, purposes, and attitudes they later construct, doing things that materially change conditions that they later would invoke symbolically. As I have noted elsewhere, Burke accounts for such nonsymbolic strategies coupled with the symbolic in his discussion of Machievelli's "administrative rhetoric" in A Rhetoric of Motives, noting: "[t]he persuasion cannot be confined to the strictly verbal; it is a mixture of symbolism and definite empirical operations" (158). I illustrated this form of rhetoric with President George H. W. Bush's rhetorical strategy to move the United States to war against Iraq's occupation of Kuwait in 1990-1991 (Rountree, "Building up to War").

Bush already had sent 100,000 troops to Saudi Arabia to prevent Iraq from moving its invasion into the territory of this oil-rich U.S. ally. But Congress was balking at Bush's plans to move from a defensive force to an offensive force and place American troops into combat. Senator Sam Nunn, the Democrat from Georgia who chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee, favored giving time for sanctions to work. Bush's strategic move was to wait for Congress to recess and then to order a doubling of the troops in case an offensive force was needed. Grammatically, Bush's actions changed the scene dramatically: members of Congress heard complaints as National Guardsmen were called up to service for an unknown period. News stories of mothers in the Guard separated from their young children played up the sacrifices, placing pressure on Congress to do something. But Bush's actions had upped the ante in the war and made backing down nearly impossible. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told "This Week with David Brinkley": "Once 200,000 troops were sent there, we could not withdraw these troops without achieving our objectives without a collapse of our entire position in the Islamic world and the high probability of a much more damaging war."

By the time Bush addressed Congress in January 1991 to ask for their approval to engage in war with Iraq, the table had been set. He could describe a scene he himself had created as one requiring action.

Developing scenes that one later invokes is one possibility. Rhetors also can create agencies, such as weapons to be used later or precedents to be invoked; they can create purposes, as JFK did in calling for a mission to the moon; they can establish agents, such as appointing people to positions where they are poised for action; they can help create attitudes, as Reagan did over years in calling "big government" our biggest problem; and they can engage in, or encourage others to engage in, acts that may be invoked as precedents, examples, counter-examples, and so forth. Bringing such administrative rhetoric into the mix opens to the door to some complex and often long-term strategies of persuasion.


I have argued in this journal previously that Burke's pentad offers a literal description of how humans think about action, insisting: "No recognizably human society ever existed that was not able to draw the distinctions we draw in answering the questions Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why. In other words, these questions and the answers they call for are universal in human societies" (Rountree, "Revisiting the Controversy"). If I am correct, then how we think and talk about action necessarily works within the grammar of motives described by Burke. Thus, if rhetorical critics want to understand the logic undergirding the strategic constructions of motives that pervade human discourse, such analyses should yield an understanding of the inventional possibilities of the rhetoric of motives.

Even if we set aside my position that Burke's grammar of motives is universal, we at least should concede its heuristic value in framing analyses of particular constructions of action. Whether our use of Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why is implicit in the very idea of action or not, these questions undeniably pervade and usefully frame our discussions of action, as this essay has illustrated through a variety of texts.

Of course identifying the grammar invoked by a particular discourse alone is only a starting point for rhetorical analysis. What Anderson and Prelli call "pentadic mapping" reveals the structures of meaning in talk about action, showing that some discourses are privileged while others are marginalized. It is for the critic to explain why it matters that it is easier to talk and interpret some ways than others, whether that involves ideological hegemonies, muted voices and groups, preferred ontologies, favored constructions of knowledge, or something else. Pentadic mapping may ferret out more than strategic constructions of motives, getting at language practices that think for their users, leading them "logologically" through the verbal telos of a terministic screen of which they may scarcely be aware.

For those of us who are interested in strategic rhetoric, pentadic analysis reveals inventional choices and the constraints placed upon those who would lead us to view particular actions in particular ways. As I have suggested here, those choices and constraints become much more complex when more than one pentadic set is constructed. But, again, to identify those choices and constraints is the starting point for rhetorical analysis, rather than the end of it. So, for example, I show above (and in much of my research) that appellate courts strategically construct lots of acts in their judicial opinions; the rhetorical benefit, as I note above, is that constructions of such acts (including laws, constitutions, lower-court decisions, precedents, etc.) serve to constrain the appellate court's decision making, "forcing" their decision to "follow the law" rather than their own personal predilections (which unelected judges are supposed to avoid). That is, judges forge legal manacles for themselves, allowing them to claim that they are chained to the law and, as a result, that their conclusions are inevitable. Other rhetors also fashion "outside" acts to detract responsibility for their actions, such as in the war examples I note above where the (constructed) scene is said to constrain presidential action.

The examples I use in this paper of the ways in which rhetors strategically connect different acts stress their efforts to limit the ways their audiences are likely to interpret actions. That is not to say that their efforts will succeed, since language is normally flexible enough to yield different meanings. However, effective constructions suggest a preferred reading, closing the "universe of discourse" as Anderson and Prelli might say. Some preferred readings are quite closed, as I noted in the opening example of Jill driving John to the movies, where it becomes difficult to say that Jill is not the agent of the "driving" action.

On the other hand, as I pointed out in my essay "Coming to Terms with Kenneth Burke's Pentad," differences in interpretation are to be expected in light of cultural differences in audiences (and, I would add now, in personal and other differences as well). In particular, my essay distinguished those differences as reflecting general and specific dimensions of pentadic relations, noting: "General dimensions are described and amply illustrated by Burke in his Grammar of Motives: The scene 'contains' the act; means (agencies) are adapted to ends (purposes); agents are the 'authors' of their actions; and so forth." In contrast,

Specific dimensions of terministic relations are normative, established by a discourse community's shared beliefs about "what goes with what" at a given point in time, underlying expectations that one will or should find certain types of agents engaging in certain types of actions, using certain agencies, within certain scenes, for certain purposes, evincing certain attitudes.
For example, in the United States of the early 19th century, women were not thought of as public speakers. As Karlyn Kohrs Campbell notes: "Quite simply, in nineteenth-century America, femininity and rhetorical action were seen as mutually exclusive. No 'true woman' could be a public persuader" (9-10). Yet, as I write this in 2016, Hillary Rodham Clinton is crisscrossing the country in her bid for President of the United States. The interpretation of which agents can do what has changed. While there is some lingering anti-woman sentiment in the electorate, the shock and novelty that abolitionist Angelina Grimké confronted on the public stage in the 1830s is gone. Culture matters to the construction of motives, whether those cultural differences derive from changing times or divergent audiences.

Beyond such specific terministic relations, words themselves can be vague, ambiguous, or freighted, leading audiences to interpret motive constructions differently than a rhetor intends. And, of course, there is the problem of the world itself threatening to impinge on a rhetor's constructions—Burke's recalcitrance. For example, 2016 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed that he never supported the Iraq War that began in 2003. A recording of him with talk show host Howard Stern in September 2002 shows that he did support the invasion, rather unenthusiastically. What many fact checkers have called a lie has apparently been dismissed or ignored by many of Trump's supporters who do not care about the lie or who take his own construction at face value (Caroll and Greenberg).

Constructions of motives, like other rhetorical discourses, always are shaped and understood in view of the communication situations where they are deployed. While analyses of the grammar of motives in particular statements about action can be quite rigorous—explaining general and specific dimensions of the relationships among pentadic terms and revealing rhetorical opportunities and constraints—the rhetorical work those motive constructions perform in a given case take the critic's analysis beyond the comforts of the speech transcript or the written appellate court opinion. Indeed, if we assume that visual images can be part of a text, as Blankenship and her colleagues did in studying Ronald Reagan's television image as one element of the construction of motives, the analysis can get quite messy. Going one step further, as I have suggested, to scrutinize changes in the material condition strategically wrought by far-seeing rhetors opens a whole new context-as-text to the rhetorical critic. Small wonder that rhetorical critics using the pentad have typically focused on words on a page in a relatively contained rhetorical act, such as a single speech.

Certainly there are justifications, beyond a critic's comfort, for such a focus. In my own work on U.S. Supreme Court opinions, the words of their written opinions carry the greatest rhetorical impact in most cases, telling litigants, lower courts, their own bench's future membership, and the public at large what the law is and why they think it is what they say it is. But facing up to the challenges of rhetorical analysis should remind critics—including those using what otherwise seems a straightforward and simple pentadic method—that teasing out what is interesting in rhetorical discourse is hard work. As this essay has argued, even analyzing a contained text can be complicated when multiple acts are constructed.

Of course not all rhetors engage in inter-pentadic constructions of motives. And even if they do, they do not always open up a prior pentadic set for significant grammatical construction. They may simply select a prior act as an example, counter-example, illustration, and so forth, without deploying the power of the grammar to construe it this way or that. However, when rhetors do take advantage of the connections between everything, they have the opportunity to work within more than one grammatical relationship to yield a relationship between acts that is sometimes easy and obvious but occasionally cunning and stealthy. Indeed, they may even engage in material actions that set the stage for those later constructions, either felicitously or strategically. Rhetorical critics ought to take note of such inter-pentadic constructions to better account for the rhetoric of motives. And rhetorical theorists might take this essay as a prolegomena to the study of the forms such inter-pentadic relations may take and the functions they serve.

* An earlier version of this essay was presented to the Eighth Triennial Kenneth Burke Conference in Clemson, South Carolina in May, 2011.

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