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