Our worlds of words

I’ve come across a terrific infographic on academia.edu, posted by Nathaniel A. Rivers (Thinker/Thought, 2015), and I figured that a blog post would be a good way to share it.

Here’s the link to the graphic: thinker_thought_burke_definition

The infographic distills some of the thinking of the late Kenneth Burke, America’s most famous rhetorical critic (and my favorite as well). I turn to Burke’s writings often (as I’ve done just now) in the course of my exploration of the rhetoric of human space flight.

Rhetoric, in Burke’s view, is “an essential function of language…the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to

symbols” (A Rhetoric of Motives, 1969). For Burke, the symbolic action of communication is the way that people make meaning, the means of creating and maintaining subjective social reality, “the dancing of an attitude” toward that reality (The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, 1973). For traditional rhetorical scholars, the goal of rhetoric is persuasion. For Burke, the goal of rhetoric is identification. Burke advocated against rhetorical frames of rejection – for example, debunking or polemic, so popular in public discourse these days – and advocated for rhetorical frames of acceptance, ways of finding common ground. “Identification is compensatory to division,” according to Burke.

Burke was, of course, great with words – take “rotten with perfection,” for example called out in the infographic. My favorite Burkeanism is “war is a disease of peace” (or, war is a perversion of peace; or, war is a disease of cooperation).

I am guided by this advice from Burke: “A critic eager to define [her] position should explain…what to look for, and why; [and] how, and when and where” (Philosophy of Literary Form). What I look for is rhetorical evidence of ideological inclinations – an engagement with, or the embrace of, particular belief systems. Beliefs generate motives, words represent motives, and motives drive acts. I take this approach because ideological inclinations are so often unacknowledged, sometimes even denied.

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