I am taking a course this semester entitled “Foundations of Composition and Rhetoric.” As far as I understand things (and I might not since I missed the first class due to Ellie’s early arrival), this course is an examination of some of the intersections between Composition (the act of writing) and Rhetoric (the art of discourse). One of my assignments throughout the semester is to blog weekly about the material I am reading. Rather than creating a separate blog for this project, I have opted to include these required posts in the stream of my normal blogging. In this way, I hope to better fit what I am learning and studying into the kinds of conversations I am already having. And, in actuality, this blog is the perfect space for me to reflect on my readings because I already write frequently about the intersections of faith, the academy, and art.
For this week, I was assigned to read the first half of Kenneth Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives. For those of you who don’t know, Burke was one of the most influential literary and rhetorical theorists of the twentieth-century. I had heard of Burke all through my MA, and was constantly admonished to read him (so much so that my thesis committee excoriated me a bit at my defense for not having read Burke), so I’m glad to finally get the opportunity.
A Rhetoric of Motives is primarily concerned with developing Burke’s idea of identification. For Burke, identification is the means by which rhetoric actually persuades. It is necessary for the audience to identify with the rhetor, and for the rhetor to identify with the audience, for persuasion to take place. He writes, “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” (55). There must be common ground for discourse to make sense.
While Burke spends the part of the book I have read so far setting up his idea of identification and then tracing it through the history of rhetoric, I want to focus on some of the more interesting connections Burke draws between rhetoric/identification and spirituality.
Perhaps the central way that Burke introduces a concern with theology and the sacred into his discussion of identification is through his consideration of mystery. For Burke, “mystery arises at that point where different kinds of beings are in communication. In mystery there must be strangeness; but the estranged must also be thought of as in some capable of communion. . . . And all such ‘mystery’ calls for a corresponding rhetoric . . .” (115). In discourse, then, mystery is indicative of an asymmetry between two rhetors, and the asymmetry is not just one of degree, but of kind.
Burke, of course, is famous for his insistence that humans are, rather than tool using animals, the symbol-using (and mis-using) animals. Specifically, this means that “the logic of symbols must be ‘prior’ to the effects of any ‘productive forces’ in the socioeconomic meaning of that expression” (177). While symbols may very well be products of their socio-historical locations, the logic of symbol-use, a kind of symbolic rationality, is prior to those locations. Symbols, as such, are abstract in that they stand at a distance from what they signify and do not carry the materiality of objects, and the use of such symbols to persuade is “‘spiritual in contrast with the producing of change by purely material agencies” (177). The use of spiritual symbols in the act of persuasion seems to, for Burke, indicate a kind of profound mystification “implicit in the very act of persuasion itself” since the use of abstract symbols seems to create an asymmetry between rhetors (177).
And, indeed, “implicit in persuasion, there is theology, since theology is the ultimate reach of communication between different classes of beings” (178). For Burke, this communication with God mystifies class relations by masking hierarchical relations (and is thus problematic), and yet he considers that there could be “a profounder element here” (179). Specifically, he considers that this mystification “is the last reach of the persuasive principle itself” and thus “the ultimate reaches in the principle of persuasion are present in even the trivial uses of persuasion” (179). The significance, as far as I understand things, is that there is a kind of movement toward mystery inherent in human communication (because of the abstract symbols). This movement toward mystery as the natural and logical outcome of the act of persuasion resists a total materialism; it insists that there is something more than these four walls. Even if Burke gets his wish and “we finally discover that such a development is not inevitable to persuasion,” the pervasiveness of mystery in human communication is at least evidence of a human predisposition toward the unknown and (potentially) unknowable.