[KB] Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, Subjectivity, Postmodernism

Edappel8@cs.com Edappel8 at cs.com
Wed Dec 2 14:07:12 EST 2009

       Since Bob's book  has come up in recent posts, I'll call attention 
to two things in and about it, one in passing, the other for current 
discussion, if anyone's interested.

       In passing, I like this insight Bob offered in his last post:

       "But one of the distinctive things about Burke is that in virtually 
every book he gives you a whole new method of interpretation.  A method of 
interpretation is a complex intellectual structure, and I don't think you 
develop a new one without modifying some basic assumptions."

       True---about the intriguing uniqueness of each of Burke's volumes.  
But I tend to see a bit more coherence across the oeuvre than Bob does.  
Maybe it's the difference between seeing the glass half full or half empty, 
though I don't think so.  We've been down this road before, so I'll let it go 
at that.

       Second, maybe I'm being picky here, but I'd want to temper something 
Bob says on p. 200 of his tome. Quoting from an article by Maurice 
Charland, Wess offers:

       "[In contrast to] the tradition of rhetoric . . . Burke's theory is 
different: 'identifications are rhetorical, for they are discursive effects 
that induce human cooperation.  They are also, however, logically prior to 
persuasion.  Indeed, humans are constituted in these characteristics; they 
are essential to the 'nature' of a subject and form the basis for persuasive 
appeals' (133-34).  In RM, identification is the condition of persuasion: 
[quoting Burke] 'You persuade a man [sic] only insofar as you can talk his 
language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, IDENTIFYING 
your ways with his' (55).  By constituting subjects as participants in a 
distinctive culture, identifications on a sub- or unconscious level make 
possible the activity of persuasion on a conscious level" (emphasis not added).

       If you define "persuasion" as the conscious attempt to alter a 
person's identifications, then this statement is surely currect.  That's 
traditional rhetorical theory at work, I do believe.  However, I see Burke departing 
from tradition here, and I don't think I'm alone in doing so.  Recall his 
description of himself as Froidoid, with, yes, emphasis on the unconscious as 
well as the conscious, leading, I think, to Burke's famous set of linkages:

       "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.'" (RM, p. 172).

       Earlier in RM, Burke says:

       "And often we must think of rhetoric not in terms of some one 
particular address, but as a general BODY OF IDENTIFICATIONS that owe their 
convincingness much more to trivial repetition and dull daily reinforcement than 
to excpetional rhetorical skill" (p. 26, emphasis not added).

       This latter passage fits well with contemporary definitions of 
"ideology" and the quotidian route its inculcation assumes: a system of 
discursive and nondiscursive representations and cultural practices that enable 
persons to see and accept their society's values and hierarchal structure and 
their appointed place in that hierarchal structure, and that argue for such 
acceptance. (CRITICAL TERMS FOR LITERARY STUDY, Eds. Lentricchia and 
McGlaughlin, pp. 306-20).

       This may seem like a quibble, but I do think Burke's philosphy of 
language posits the ubiquity of persuasive power in all symbolic action.  We 
ought not distinguish between rhetoric and persuasion.




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