From David Blakesley’s Elements of Dramatism, pp. 14-16.


Identification and


It will help you to see the linkage between dramatism and rhetoric more

clearly if you know that throughout its history, the term rhetoric has

been used to name either (1) the use of persuasive resources (rhetorica

utens), or (2) the study of the use of persuasive resources (rhetorica

docens). We are more accustomed to thinking of rhetoric as the performance

itself, the use of language to persuade others to act or change

their minds, as in number 1. But rhetoric also refers to the philosophy

that would study how and why people use persuasion in the first place,

as in number 2. Thus it shares with dramatism an interest in the strategic

use of words to perform and induce action.


In A· Rhetoric of Motives, written shortly after the end of World

War II, Burke focuses our attention on what he calls "the Wrangle of the

Market Place, the flurries and flare-ups of the Human Barnyard" (23).

These flurries and flare-ups result from our inevitable and frequent failures

to interpret the signs around us with the complexity they deserve.

The elements of dramatism, consisting in large measure of the traditional

principles of rhetoric, provide us with the analytical tools and the

attitude necessary for examining not only our differences, but the reasons

for our unity. Dramatism and rhetoric are both conceptual frameworks

for understanding ways that human relations are formed through



For Burke, the primary aim of rhetoric is identification, which he

describes as an alignment of interests or motives and that he is careful

to distinguish from persuasion. Unlike persuasion, which is normally

thought to involve explicit appeals and manipulation, identification

allows for an unconscious factor as well. We may identify with someone

(or some cause) and thus come to share belief because we imagine

or desire to be one with another, or to feel energized or uplifted by

our association. Burke believes that in any rhetorical situation there is

always a dialectical struggle between the forces of identification and

division. People can never be identical or divided in the absolute

sense. We have bodies and experiences and a common language, each

of which can help us identify with each other. Yet we also have unique

experiences that we may interpret differently from others, keeping us



For Burke, our passion is the desire for what he calls consubstantiality

or "shared substance" and represents an unconscious desire to

identify with others. Consubstantiality can be achieved by different

means, including the devices of form, which Burke calls a type of

rhetorical appeal, the arousal and gratification of desire. We imagine

that we share substance even when exactly what we share is ambiguous

or the product of some unconscious desire. Here is how Burke puts it:

Ais not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are

joined,Ais identified with B. Or he may identify himselfwith Beven

when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is

persuaded to believe so.


Here are ambiguities of substance. In being identified with B,Ais

"substantially one" with a person other than himself. Yet at the same

time, he remains unique, an individual locus of motives. Thus he is

both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and

consubstantial with another. (A Rhetoric ofMotives, 20-21)

Consubstantiality may be necessary for any way of life, Burke says. And

thus rhetoric, as he sees it, potentially builds community. It can tear it

down as well. In the end, rhetoric relies on an unconscious desire for

acting-together, for taking a "sub-stance" together. "In the old philosophies;'

Burke writes, "substance was an act; and a way of life is an acting together;

and in acting together, [people] have common sensations, concepts,

images, ideas, attitudes that make them; consubstantial" (21).

Oddly enough, and as we will discuss in Chapter 5, the term substance

itself induces a kind of acting-together. You can see that happen in arguments

over quality when people say some "thing" lacks "substance."

Such a claim often induces nods of agreement even though if put to the

test, no one would likely agree on just what that substance might actually

be. Substance becomes purely an acting-together with the term itself

referring to nothing in particular. Burke will suggest that the term

serves as an occasion or invitation to agree about "you know not whae'

To Burke, it doesn't matter whether the term has any reference because

its rhetorical function as the basis for identification, for "stance-taking;'

is fundamental to our way of life together.


Identification and Transformation

The problem we face everyday is that we cannot be consubstantial. We

cannot identify with one another in an absolute sense, except by way of

fantasy, since we are distinct bodies animated in our own ways even as

we share some common sensations and experiences. The desire is still

there, however. For we are also never wholly divided. As Burke says,

"[P]ut identification and division ambiguously together, so that you

cannot know for certain just where one ends and the other begins, and

you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric" (A Rhetoric of

Motives, 25). As the central aim of rhetoric, identification also brings

with it suggestions of transformation, the changing of something, with

identification being necessary before and after. In Burke's view, transformation,

and thus identification, are forms of symbolic violence: "the

imagery of slaying is a special case of transformation, and transformation

involves the ideas and imagery of identification. That is: the killing

of something is the changing of it, and the statement of the thing's nature

before and after the change is an identifying of it" (20). Put yet another

way, Burke notes that "the so-called 'desire to kill' a certain person

is much more properly analyzable as a desire to transform the principle

which that person represents" (13). We will examine that insight more

closely in Chapter 4 when we discuss Thomas Harris's now infamous

character, Hannibal Lecter.


At this juncture, it is important to remember that dramatism is an

analytical method for describing, as Burke says, what is involved when

we say what people are doing and why they are doing it. It may sound

odd, even heartless, to hear that something as awful as murder can be

thought of merely as the transformation of a principle. Why would

Burke want to direct our attention to the principles inherent in the imagery

of killing? And how does he explain its relevance to dramatism

and rhetoric?