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Why Kenneth Burke is worth reading

February 25, 2013

A Twitter colleague put out a call for help recently:

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I know how he feels – I had to clear my diary for at least a week to read The Rhetoric of Motives **. It took a long period of entry, and then re-entry back to normal life. But it turned me into a fan of this quietly influential philosopher, of the ‘why-didn’t-I-know-about-it-years-ago’ type.

In response to the call, I had offered to provide a potted summary of Burke’s ideas, so here is a hard-won distillation. It is taken from a work-in-progress of my own about editing (a PhD thesis, and later a book with the working title: The Hidden Art) so in the unlikely case that anyone wants to use it, the usual caveats apply about referencing (him and me, as appropriate). Let me know if there’s anything that needs more explanation.

* * *

The Rhetoric of Motives is distinctive in developing the subject far beyond its traditional boundaries, towards a philosophy of rhetoric. It does so by exploring the ‘intermediate area of expression that is not wholly deliberate, yet not wholly unconscious’ (Burke, 1950: xiii) and charting a spectrum of persuasion, from the ‘bluntest quest of advantage’ to a pure form ‘that delights in the process of appeal for itself alone, without ulterior purpose’ (ibid: xiv).

In doing so, Burke helps to show ‘how a rhetorical motive is often present where it is not usually recognised, or thought to belong’. (xiii) As he elaborates, rhetoric has power not only over action but also over attitudes, when freedom to act is constrained for any reason. This ‘permits the application of rhetorical terms to purely poetic structures; the study of lyrical devices might be classed under the head of rhetoric, when these devices are considered for their power to induce or communicate states of mind to readers, even though the kinds of assent evoked have no overt, practical outcome.’ (50)

The work makes the case for the study of language in itself, as an example of ‘the autonomy of fields’; it is valuable methodologically ‘because it gives clear insight into some particular set of principles’, and is ‘helpful as a reaction against the excesses of extreme historicism’ (28). In Burke’s day, the two main competing frameworks from which autonomy was being declared were a reductionist pro-market ‘scientism’ on one hand, and reductionist historical materialism or Marxism on the other. But a similar declaration of independence can be made now from other frames of reference, for example the more totalising versions of post-modern constructivism, or from biological determinism.

Burke is giving permission to focus on language as a thing in itself, rather than focusing on its contextual aspects. But reflecting on his ideas, one sees that ‘context’ does not disappear – it is relocated inside the rhetorical process. Persuasion depends on motive, and motive within language is in no way obvious – context is vital to its meaning. As in a joke, the same words can have very different meanings, with or without animus, depending on how the tone and context are understood. (6) Burke writes:

A motive introduced in one work, where the context greatly modifies it and keeps it from being drastically itself, may lack such important modifications in the context of another work. The proportions of these modifications themselves are essential in defining the total motivation, which cannot, without misinterpretation, be reduced merely to the one ‘gist’, with all the rest viewed as mere concealment or ‘rationalization’ of it. (6)

Context includes the order of the thing being communicated; for example, the motive of a narrative can be indicated by the storyteller’s choice of ending, since ‘a history’s end is a formal way of proclaiming its essence or nature’. (13) It also includes a relationship between transient and permanent factors of appeal – the dimension of time – because ‘topical shifts make certain images more persuasive in one situation than another’.

Just as Walter Ong later underlines that the marks made in writing are not a representation of a thing itself, but the representation of an utterance about a thing (Ong, 1997), Burke identifies the ‘reflexive pattern’ of language, which is ‘not merely speech about things […] but speech about speech.’ (178)

Writing is not the product of thought but its dramatisation; it is an act of thought in itself. Symbols are not just reflections of the things being symbolised, or signs for them: ‘They are to a degree a transcending of the things symbolized. So, to say that man is a symbol-using animal is by the same token to say that he is a “transcending animal.” Thus, there is in language itself a motive force calling man to transcend the “state of nature” (that is, the order of motives that would prevail in a world without language).’ (192).

Another way of putting this is that although the world contains nonverbal actions, these actions also persuade by reason of their symbolic character:

Paper need not know the meaning of fire in order to burn. But in the ‘idea’ of fire there is a persuasive ingredient. By this route something of the rhetorical motive comes to lurk in every ‘meaning’, however purely scientific its pretensions. Wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric. And wherever there is ‘meaning,’ there is ‘persuasion’. (172)

The link between persuasion and rhetoric is clear. But what of the connection between persuasion and meaning? According to Burke, the link comes via identification. Persuasion is a kind of communication, and communication is by definition between distinct, different beings: ‘But difference is not felt merely as between this entity and that entity. Rather, it is felt realistically, as between this kind of entity and that kind of entity’ (177). [SG: my emphasis]

The motives for linguistic persuasion emerge out of this generic divisiveness, a formal sense of classification within humans that exists prior to any specific social, economic or gender divisions.

Such divisiveness allows for a process of identification, in both a positive and negative sense: ‘Partition provides terms; thereby it allows the parts to comment upon one another. But this “loving” relation allows also for the “fall” into terms antagonistic in their partiality, until dialectically resolved by reduction to “higher” terms.’ (140) It is not merely the differences between individuals and groups that drive them apart, it is also the elements they share, ‘since the same motives are capable of both eulogistic and dyslogistic naming’ (141).

Communication between kinds amounts to an abstract form of ‘courtship’, a communion of estranged entities that depends on the mystery of strangeness. Even if the communion is snapped by hatred, ‘it can be socially organized only by the building of a counter-continuity; hence the mystery of persuasion is not categorically abolished, it is transformed.’ (177)

For the speaker to ‘court’ the spoken-to continually, distance is necessary: ‘For if union is complete, what incentive can there be for appeal? Theoretically, there can be courtship only insofar as there is division.’ (271) Distance is created through the rhetorical technique of ‘interference’ or standoffishness, which has the sacrificial quality of denying or postponing union.

At one level identification depends on knowing the audience in a literal fashion. But there are also purely formal patterns in a text that ‘readily awaken an attitude of collaborative expectancy in us’, and therefore a more participatory role for the reader in the interpretation of meaning. Identification takes place when the listener has been persuaded to participate by formal means, based on a universal appeal. Commenting on classical texts about rhetorical techniques, Burke notes a reference…

…to that kind of elation wherein the audience feels as though it were not merely receiving, but were itself creatively participating in the poet’s or speaker’s assertion. Could we not say that, in such cases, the audience is exalted by the assertion because it has the feel of collaborating in the assertion? (58)

Burke goes further to draw parallels between the persuasion of an external audience (the preoccupation of traditional rhetoric) and a more internal, psychological process of identification: ‘You become your own audience when you become involved in subterfuges for presenting your own case to yourself in sympathetic terms.’ (39).

He acknowledges the multiplicity of potential meanings, especially those arising from historical traces. Since only the ‘ideas’ survive in relics of the past, there must be uncertainty about how a text can be interpreted and ‘the people who used it may have been quite aware of many other meanings subsumed in it, but not explicitly proclaimed […] because it was so obvious to them that it did not need mention.’ (110-11)

This raises problems for interpretive frameworks that depend on a concept of ‘unmasking’ the latent meanings lying behind images and symbols. If the human mind depends on the use of symbols, then ‘every aspect of his “reality” is likely to be seen through a fog of symbols. And not even the hard reality of basic economic facts is sufficient to pierce this symbolic veil’ (136).

This emphasis on symbols is suggestive of post-structuralism and the literary critic Wayne Booth, in a 2001 collection of essays* about Burke, says that in some sense he can be understood as ‘the first full-fledged deconstructionist’.

But there are important differences: ‘Burke was distressed by any thinker who reduced all reality to language’ and expressed annoyance about deconstructionists ‘who, in Burke’s reading deny the plain fact, the hard substantive reality, that a child learns to distinguish real tastes before he or she learns any words for distinguishing tastes.’ (Booth, 2001: 198)

** Burke, Kenneth (1950) A Rhetoric of Motives, Berkeley: U Cal Press (republished 1969)

* Booth, Wayne C. (2001) “The Many Voices of Kenneth Burke, Theologian and Prophet, as Revealed in His Letters to Me” in Henderson, Greig and David Cratis Williams, eds, Unending Conversations: new writings by and about Kenneth Burke, Carbondale ILL: Southern Illinois University Press, , pp 179 to 201

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