A.30: Refiguring Burkean Rhetoric
Though I don’t pretend to fully comprehend Burke, I consider him one of the most influential people on my thinking about rhetoric and life, and where the two meet (which is everywhere, right?). I begin many of my classes with his “Definition of Man.” Students are always struck by his notion that symbols make up so much of our reality. But I don’t get to hear many people discuss Burke, so I was excited to hear others.
When I finally found the panel on Burke (yes, I got lost), Drew Loewe (Texas Christian University) was reading his paper. I slid into a seat near the back, joining the other eighteen attendees. His paper, “Taking Action in the Face of Annihilation: Burke’s ‘Comic Circle” as a Way Out of the Shared Rhetorical Topoi of Bush and Bin Laden,” introduced me to a Burkean concept with which I was not familiar—the “comic frame.” Loewe seemed to be suggesting that Bush and Bin Laden were in some ways a broken record, saying the same things over and over, and escalating pain in the process. I do know that much of Burke’s drive came from his desire to help people live better lives, and Loewe’s work suggested that Burke’s “comic frame” would help us “recognize [how] human fallibility” can give us “insight into humility.” I appreciated deeply the thrust of this presentation and its challenge to close-minded rhetoric. Timely and trenchant, to say the least.
Michelle Smith (The Pennsylvania State University) spoke next on “The Pentad as Linguistic Ontology: Original Essence or New Development?” She began by questioning whether it was more beneficial that dramatism be thought of as epistemology or as ontology. Her paper argued that if we view the pentad as working on the level of “linguistic ontology,” then we can possibly develop a better sense of what the pentad is about. I was intrigued by her questioning Burke’s question of “What is involved when we say what people are doing?” but I must confess to spending a lot of time feeling stuck in the bramble thicket of my own thoughts, each clamoring for my attention. Each of Smith’s paragraphs seemed fascinating and spun me out in different directions, and worried me that I was missing the point. I think this was more a lack of my understanding of the finer points of Burke than anything else.
Offering insights into the dangers of fundamentalist stances on the efficacy of science, Laura Rutland’s “Kenneth Burke and the End of Faith: Religious Identity and Rhetoric in the Age of Terrorism” complemented Loewe’s paper nicely. In it, she examined Sam Harris’s notion that faith is dangerous, and that we should all abandon it (I’m guessing here, having not read Harris) in favor of scientific knowledge. Harris’ reason? Science is self-critical. Rutland pointed out that both Harris and Burke are into self-critique, but Harris’s rhetoric reveals him not to be nearly as self-critical as his text might suggest. As Burke the comic might put it, Harris is pretty fundamental about his distrust of fundamental religious views. Rutland goes on to point out that the difference between Burke and Harris might be summed up as follows—Burke’s into making accommodations, which can lead to peace, whereas as Harris is interested in being “right,” which can lead to terror(ism). A crafty analysis and pertinent to our current scene.
A lively discussion ensued during Q & A. The bit I found most provocative addressed Burke’s idea that an attitude is an incipient action. An audience member pointed out that attitude plays a mediating role between the motion/action tension (“as moved by/moving”). That was followed by the suggestion that an attitude can also be a way of not acting, because it serves the function of allowing the one holding the attitude to blow off steam without taking action. I left there thinking that Burke’s always good for a conversation, and I’ve learned a bit more.