Friday, April 13, 2012

The Rhetorical Wrangle

The “rhetorical wrangle” is a phrase that only briefly appears in Kenneth Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives, but as a concept (one that I wish to push to the fullest extent) it represents the ambiguity that Burke saw in what makes persuasion possible – i.e., identification.  On the one hand identification refers to unification, a wholeness or completeness. To be identified is to have definition as someone or something. However, on the other hand, as Burke makes extremely clear, this unification can only take place because “identification is compensatory to division” (21). In this way, identification is a consubstantial process, both joining while keeping separate. Including division as a major aspect of identification, though, allows Burke to create an oscillating binary (identification/division); but not without some ambiguity. For example, perhaps we have all had that friend who never seems to be satisfied with his job. And each time he accepts a new position, he seems to merge who he is with the job he is doing, at times self-identifying as a barista, a waiter, or a telecommunications consultant. However, there is always a point during each of these professions where division creeps in, and that friend starts to complain about feeling exploited as a worker. It is precisely at this point of uneasiness (or the hesitation between belonging and exploitation) that for Burke, “you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric” (25). And, as if to head our questioning off at the pass, moments later Burke clarifies such an invitation, arguing that even if you believe to be working out of the purest of motives, the ambiguities of identification lead to argument. So that, no matter how “‘pure’ one’s motives may be actually, the impurities of identification lurking about the edges of such situations introduce a typical Rhetorical wrangle of the sort that can never be settled once and for all…” (26). In this way, rhetoric, for Burke, only becomes possible through the push and pull of the wrangle as an effect of identification.

Building on the ambiguities of identification and the rhetorical wrangle, Diane Davis in her book Inessential Solidarity, reminds us that for Burke, identification is settled symbolically:
According to Burke, there is no essential identity; what goes for your individual “substance” is not an essence but the incalculable totality of your complex and contradictory identifications, through which you variously (and vicariously) become able to say “I.” Like the “official” Freudian version on which it’s based, “rhetorical identification” depends on symbolic representation, on the production and intervention of meaningful figures, which Burke says are already persuasive: “whenever there is ‘meaning,’ there is ‘persuasion’” (21)
However, as Davis points out, if the self is constructed through multiple identifications, not only must we be foreign to ourselves – much in the same way our unemployable friend appears to always be playing a new role with a new identity. But, paradoxically, if identification is to only come about through shared meaning, we must also know ourselves “as and through [our] representations” in relation to an other (21). Yet it is the first split that troubles Davis. Before the rhetorical wrangle of identification ever takes place, Burke has set up a prior division (and possible identification) between self and other. For Burke, Davis argues, “the division between self and other is the ‘state of nature’ that is identification’s motivating force: identification’s job is to transcend this natural state of division, and rhetoric’s job is identification” (22). Here, identification (and by default rhetoric, as well) becomes mixed up with desire. As a separate organism, the human for Burke, is individuated. Yet, as a symbol using animal, the human becomes, in Burke’s words, “homo dialecticus.”

Homo dialecticus is a split subject, both self and other, desiring to belong. For Davis, “Essentially enclosed and alienated, [Burke’s] homo dialecticus already desires to transcend this state of nature—‘[b]iologically, it is of the essence of man to desire”—and is ontologically equipped to do so via the inborn powers of his or her imagination” (23). So while Burke maintains individuality among human persons, he immediately places these already desiring individuals into a complex network of identifications and rhetorical wrangle of shared meanings. What Burke implies but avoids ever saying, as Davis sees it, is that “identification can no longer be understood as an identification of one with another, at least not at first, since it would necessarily precede the very distinction between self and other” (26). And this prior identification lends itself to a rhetoricity or “affectability or persuadability that is at work prior to and in excess of any shared meaning” (26). Does this mean, then, that there is a possibility for a nonsybmolic action?

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