Kenneth Burke at the Nexus of Argument and Trope
Birdsell, David S., Argumentation and Advocacy
On the first page of The New Rhetoric, Chaim Perelman and Lucy Olbrechts-Tyteca caution us that "the domain of argumentation is that of the credible, the plausible, the probable, to the degree that the latter eludes the certainty of calculations" (1). This is a vast domain in which to apply the varieties of "everything" that Burke gives us to "use." It is, however, only appropriate to think in broad terms when applying a mind as eclectic as Burke's to any enterprise, perhaps particularly to a discipline so intent on precise meanings and nature of assessment as argumentation studies. It is in that spirit then that I invoke Richard McKeon at the outset, not as a guide to Burke, but as a commentator on interpretive practice:
The purpose which I set myself ... |is~ not to present and develop a "thesis"--the thesis of |Burke~ or of any other philosopher or even a thesis of my own--but to follow the evolution of "themes" in which these theses influence and transform each other. The advantage of considering the themes within which |philosophic terms~ acquire a variety of meanings is that interpretation is not limited to one aspect of discourse, and alternative uses of "argument" which do not fit one's thesis are not marked off automatically as erroneous or defective. (x)
Burke's approach to language, at once supremely generous and intensely rigorous--that is, able to take a given piece of discourse on its own terms but insisting on the importance to an interpreter of formal structures as well as the less certain associations a text invites--offers a unique perspective on the nexus of poetic and argumentative uses of language. In this essay, I will narrow that nexus to an examination of the relationship(s) between trope and argument, or more precisely, the ways in which tropes can argue, and arguments can become tropes.
I make several assumptions at the outset. First, there is no necessary reason always to distinguish between argumentative and poetic uses of language. The linkages between the two categories insisted upon in The New Rhetoric have given way to formulations of argument theory and criticism problematizing the two categories as companions and extensions of one another (e.g., Kauffman; Kauffman and Parson). Other studies have suggested the fundamental interpenetration of narrative and argumentative ways of knowing (Lucaites and Condit; Rowland; Warnick). I am not so much interested in establishing that a relationship exists, but rather in exploring ways in which the nature of that relationship can be made more useful for the practice of criticism. Second, the relationship will emerge most richly over time, as arguments are offered, modified, truncated and recalled, or as stories pass from the realm of illustration to a kind of received wisdom from which conclusions might be inferred. That the progression could work in either direction and is not the point here; I am calling attention instead to the layered meanings that can inhere in tropes, arguments and their constituent parts over time.
Take, for example, the introduction of specifically black male sexuality into the second round of hearings on the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Anita Hill's charges of sexual harassment tapped into social archae that account in part for the hearings' fascination and the difficulty of coming to clear conclusions on the facts in the case. Civil rights activists and scholars have written for years about the mythology of black male sexuality and the damage that it does to black men, not only at the end of a rope but in everyday social interaction as well (Chrisman and Allen; Morrison; Phelps and Winternitz; Simon). As social reality, the construction of and response to black men in this regard enters the realm of hard argumentation with direct consequences for personal conviction and public response. It is also a fertile narrative field for victim and victimizer alike.
It was this body of thought--the stories, the arguments and the historical record--that Clarence Thomas was able to tap when he characterized the hearings as a "high-tech lynching." Frankly metaphoric, the phrase is simultaneously more and less than a more traditional argument. It is chilling, compelling, and frightening in ways that "standard" arguments rarely are. It is also reductive, diversionary, over-heated and under-specified. It entails some rather powerful propositions, but only the trope itself is offered as a directly refutable claim: the occasion either is or is not a "high-tech lynching."
We could deal with the "lynching" remark as an argument, in which case we would find it deficient in the above ways and others. We could deal with it as a trope, in which case we might blind ourselves to the role it plays in shaping "reasoned" opinion. Alternatively, we could treat it as a trope that argues, or as an argument compressed into tropological form, a kind of super-enthymeme that works precisely because it is not advanced as a traditional proposition. For many observers, Thomas' guilt or innocence hinged on what they "knew" about such situations and the people in them. Anita Hill's credibility was won or lost on constructions of the role of women, of subordinate employees, of professionals and other applicable identity markers that are surely in some way relevant to character assessments--but how? The tropes invoke too much conflict to argue with at less than book length but the arguments do not speak to the cultural problems the case entails.
This is the point at which I want to bring Burke into the discussion. Burke's work is a capacious challenge to the notion that we should choose the trope or the argument without seeing how they might work together. Speaking not of tropes in particular, but of critical sensibility in general, he wondered,
Might not the salient genius of antithesis sometimes lead us unnecessarily into flat distinctions such as "logical" vs. "illogical," or "rational" vs. "irrational"? And to counter such trends should we not simply say that a poem, like the orderly processes of a healthy body, is neither "rational" nor "irrational," but "methodical"? (LSA, 487)
There are three implications of relating Burke to tropes and argumentation. First, tropes can condense arguments, which are then subject to recall in much the same manner as an enthymeme. Second, attending to arguments as tropes and tropes as arguments allows us to examine possibilities for audience response that are methodical, but not strictly argumentative. Finally, while the particular trope in which a given argument is inscribed may well shape response, identification of the trope alone does not provide a critic with all that he or she might want to know. In keeping with the notion articulated above that these relationships are most usefully explored over a fairly long period of time, I will illustrate each point with a recurrent trope in the rhetoric of Carrie Chapman Catt: her identification of anti-suffrage politics with conspiracy, corruption and dissipation. One of the leading feminists of her day and President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) at the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Catt spoke and published widely. Most of the speeches referred to below were delivered on many occasions in various versions; some were printed in NAWSA magazines and newsletters (Campbell, 164-171).
Carrie Chapman Catt began making the case for corruption and malign influence in some of her earliest suffrage speeches in the 1890s. In "The American Sovereign," she said that, "The political boss has come to be the great autocrat in America. By means of his well disciplined armies of hired and controlled voters, he holds unchallenged sway over the greatest of nations" (69). Catt located the bosses' success in the unformed opinions of new immigrants. "Political bossism," she alleged, "is possible because of the cheapness of the American ballot. The gates of our Nationality are opened wide and through them into every port there comes marching an army thousands strong" (73). This army was for Catt doubly suspect, for not only was it a mercenary group, it also came from those areas "where poverty is greatest and intelligence is least" (74).
Catt offered woman suffrage as the solution, promising that women would offer simultaneously the numbers and the personal qualities essential for an "American" electorate.
|I~t is only by the introduction into each political party of enough intelligence and patriotism to outvote this slum influence--an element whose vote and influence must be bid for in platforms and at the polls, exactly as today parties bid for this controlled vote--an element that shall have in its heart the purification of American politics and the perpetuity of the Republic. Where shall we find it? In American women. (86-87)
She understood this argument as an argument, a reasoned position drawn from available evidence. In a passage following closely on the quotation above, she insisted that, "This is not a mere theory. It is a fact which can be demonstrated in all its parts from the figures of the U.S. Census" (88).
Catt buttressed her position with purportedly representative vignettes of immigrant life, first-hand accounts of drinking and vote-buying at ballot boxes, and extensive citations from the Census of 1890.(1) My point is not that these were sound characterizations of immigrant groups--far from it--nor even that the broad position was well reasoned. The point is very simply that this material was offered as an argument and that most critics would be willing to recognize it as such. It advances a broad claim, illustrates that broad claim with particular examples, and then adduces more general proof from recognized sources of statistical information. The logical character of these arguments is in keeping with argumentative standards of the day and Catt's own reputation (Clevenger; Fowler; Peck; Van Voris).
But the link between malign political forces, boozy dissipates and immigration did not remain so carefully argumentative throughout Catt's career. Bossist control became a commonplace for Catt, a trope of corruption. In many of her speeches, from the 1890s through the National Amendment Campaign in 1920, she invoked drunkenness, conspiracy, or the immigrant influence to identify challenges, characterize the "enemy" and explain defeats. In a speech delivered in Pennsylvania in 1916, Catt told the story of an anti-suffragist newspaper editor who came to realize the error of his ways when he compiled a list of his supporters.
He said that when he honestly contemplated the list he was ashamed. They were an attorney for a private gas company which sandbags the city, an attorney for a stock yards company which steals unfair tribute from farm shipments, an attorney for a brewing corporation which own many saloons, |the~ president of a great factory where child labor laws are disregarded, etc., etc. (12)
The argument is unelaborated. There is no claim more explicit than the indictment by association offered in the passage. She used a similar approach to characterization-by-association in her summary of the failure of New York's 1914 suffrage referendum.
How did this happen? All the unscrupulous men of our State worked and voted against woman suffrage and they were aided and abetted by the weak-minded and the illiterate, for both are permitted to vote in New York. In Rochester the male inmates of the Alms House and Rescue Home were taken out to vote against our amendment. Men too drunken to sign their own names voted all over the State, for drunkards are enfranchised in New York. (5)
In these examples, the nature of Catt's argument is quite different from the rationalized nativism of "The American Sovereign." Instead of providing evidence for a claim, she uses a readily accessible popular image--the corporate conspirator, the idiot, the drunk--and associates that image with the opposition. The examples are unspecific, but evocative. There is no effort to include anything so patently neutral as Census statistics.
Listeners familiar with twenty years worth of Catt's public speaking might have viewed these associations as references to early bodies of work, and in that sense, highly synoptic arguments. However, those listening to Catt for the first time could have understood her position equipped with nothing more than a vague awareness of prominent social issues in turn-of-the-century America. The argument about malign influences on the anti-suffrage vote has been troped in a way that provides some prospect for argumentative recall and yet allows for a less specifically contextualized, more narratively engaged reception as well.
From this example, I would like to illustrate the three implications listed above. The first is that tropes can condense argument. By "condense," I mean only "render compactly," but this "rendering" poses interesting problems for the critic of argument. A tropal reference is an elaborate sort of index, engaging the process of selection, deflection and reflection more assiduously than a simpler means of pointing. Consider Catt's association of anti-suffragism with drink, both the business of drink and the fact of drunkenness. Through the emphasis on drink, anti-suffragism is linked not merely with self-interest, but with dark, chemically induced unreason. Those who know what they do--the saloon keepers and their attorneys--are manipulators of madness. They extend the image of the political boss, about whom these allegations were first raised, from dangerous political opportunist to social scourge, preying on the abject and profiting from social dislocation. In other words, the trope not only recalls but respecifies the argument, elaborating characterological elements with fresh narrative elements and invoking the whole "rational" passage in which the original formulations were offered.
In this way, we might treat the argument-as-trope as a special case of the enthymeme. The figure invites the application of absent argument that an audience is free to provide in order to complete the "rationality" of the statement. We tend to think of enthymematic completion as an outgrowth of traditionally argumentative modes of thinking, but, following Burke, we might want to look more into the empirical and the methodical as well as the frankly syllogistic (P & C, 234). That is to say, omitted passages may indeed be filled in with the arguments necessary to establish coherence, but then again, they could just as easily be filled in with the next most probable narrative element, a motif from a formal progression, or a listener's own experience.
Speaking in part to the unpredictable character of specific substitutions or representational schemes, Burke admonishes us to look for associations. In the essay, "Freud and Analysis of Poetry" (PLF, 258-92), he speaks of set symbolic meanings, as per certain psychological theories about the functions of given symbols, and the more investigative exploration of symbolic meanings through association. "One can never know what a crossing means, in a specific book," he says, "until he has studied its tie-up with other imagery in that particular book" (267). I would suggest that we can never know the nature of a tie-up until we look at the relationships in a particular text. Sometimes these tie-ups begin and end in predominantly logical territory. In other cases, they may pull logic into narrative realms and narrative into the service of logic.
In the case of Catt's characterizations of her opponents, we have seen the careful articulation of a bossist conspiracy and the quick, associative condemnation through the actions of social reprobates. As the latter references invoke the former, troping the argument, so too do the latter references become available for recombination with the argument. In other words, the characterological elements, once established, can be worked into projections of probable future action. In this fashion, the trope both truncates an argument, and then, through the associations it brings to the unit of discourse, can be used to extend the argument in new directions.
Catt's direct arguments about bossist conspiracy and associative storytelling about suffrage and drink served her purposes neatly. Catt was always careful to keep her suffrage agitation focused on suffrage per se. Women were organized throughout the nation in opposition to drink through organizations such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and though Catt herself was a tee-totaller and an opponent of legal liquor, she thought that a direct temperance appeal in the rhetoric of the NAWSA would damage her case with the men who would ultimately have to approve suffrage legislation (Peck, Fowler, 21). The associative character arguments, constantly linking anti-suffragism with the opponents of more "traditional" women's issues, allowed her to tap the social force of the temperance movement without making the arguments herself. Those disposed to think poorly of drinkers--there were more than a few on the eve of the Volstead Act--could make the necessary enthymematic extensions to voting.
Here I am extending the notion of enthymematic completion to describe not only argumentative recall, in the syllogistic sense, but to involve other formal elements as well. This is a means of combining argumentative concepts with Burke's own interest in the various methods by which people express themselves. We can rely on the associative empiricism suggested in The Philosophy of Literary Form, or look into the four types of form that join the syllogistic in "Lexicon Rhetoricae" (CS, 124-28). Argumentative completions are but one possibility for audience response. By paying attention to a variety of forms, we can extend the use of enthymematic concepts as well as the notion of embedded substance.
I would also relate this material to argumentative responses to Walter Fisher's narrative paradigm, particularly Rowland's, Warnick's and Lucaites' and Condit's work on the argumentative considerations that infuse narrative fidelity. Character assessments in particular are approachable through the combination of construction and association through trope. To the extent that character concerns are relevant to a given discussion--as Catt surely thought they were in the suffrage battle and as many politicians would maintain today--the use of trope to recall the narrative placement of identity (dyslogistically in the case of Catt's bosses, but as easily turned toward more positive purposes should needs warrant) illustrates the importance of argument in shaping the probabilistic structures of narrative.
Any discussion of the enthymeme must prompt some attention to audiences, which leads to my second observation, that a joint understanding of trope and argument can provide means of framing methodical responses to arguments. Traditionally, the enthymeme is understood in argumentative terms; any information provided by the audience is understood, by definition, as an adequate or inadequate completion of the argumentative construct. However, as the above analysis and the list of options in the "Lexicon Rhetoricae" suggests, to limit an audience to the element of syllogistic reason that would complete a particular step in the argumentative process is to artificially restrict the scope of predicted possible audience reactions from the other four available alternatives. Such a limitation might be in keeping with Aristotle, who insisted that "a system arranged according to the rules of art is only concerned with proofs; that proof is a sort of demonstration, ... |and~ that rhetorical demonstration is an enthymeme" (9), but quite out of keeping with Burke, who insists with equal intensity on extending the Aristotelian sense of rhetorical form.
The practical value of the observation can, once again, be understood through an example from Catt's rhetoric. The enthymematic work involved in reconstructing a "rational" argumentative claim from the brief passages characterizing the enemies of suffrage is towering indeed. To work in that way, from this material, the passages would need to function more like labels than active enthymemes. That is, the audience would have to recognize not a generalized indictment of a set of evils (liquor, bossism, etc.), but a rather specific set of allegations that had been established persuasively in a particular way. On the other hand, it takes little work to make the relevant characterological associations, which are then available for combination with less precise dyslogistic imputations about the nature, role and function of the enemy. That these associations are not strictly argumentative does not mean that they are entirely random. They can be followed as a narrative extension of the argument, where they can sit on their own or be folded back into the discursive stream.
I want to make clear that I am not making an empirical point here. That is to say, nothing I advance here should be taken to suggest that this or that formulation of a case will necessarily produce an "argumentative" reading or a (following Burke) "poetic" reading. The point is simply that we can more completely characterize the available interpretations by considering more than the strictly argumentative formulations. Further, such readings, even those we might count as "errors" were our students to offer them in response to a text, may serve argumentative roles in later formulations that rely on narrative extensions of arguments. Character assessments seem particularly apt for this sort of reasoning, no less so today than when Carrie Catt was pillorying her anti-suffrage opposition.
An approach to audience that takes into account more than the appropriate argumentative options for completion would bring theories of public argumentation closer to the literary theories speaking to some of the same issues gathered under the banner of reader-response criticism (Tompkins). At its most radical, reader-response would deny the existence of an author, reconstituting meaning solely in readers (Fish). One need not banish the author, however, to look for a flexible way to understand audience participation in the reconstruction of an argument; a flexibility that grows ever more important with variant standards of schooling and an ever more diverse population. If my first point held implications for the way that critics treat texts at the nexus of trope and argument, this second point emphasizes the importance of treating audiences differently as well.
The third and final point is that identification of the type of trope involved in a given passage is not an end point for criticism, but a beginning. I offer this observation principally as a clarification; I do not mean to be understood as suggesting that the character of a trope determines a single structure for an argument. While some tropes are clearly one sort of figure or another, others are less clear, and all are subject to different interpretations. Burke notes with respect to discovering the role that the master tropes play in discovering and describing, "the truth" that,
It is an evanescent moment that we shall deal with--for not only does the dividing line between the figurative and literal usages shift, but also the four tropes shade into one another. Give a man but one of them, tell him to exploit its possibilities, and if he is thorough in doing so, he will come upon the other three. (GM, 503)
I read this remark to suggest, among other things, that the determination of a tropal "grounding" is in many ways dependent on 1) the critical sensibilities brought to bear on an individual text, and 2) on the scale and context of the discourse under study. For example, in "The American Sovereign," Catt developed a metaphoric vision of the boss as autocrat, a totalitarian ruler at the head of a literally foreign army. Later, after long development, the bossist elements were allowed to become subsumed under the metonymic association with drunkenness and instability. The characters are essentially the same, but the emphasis has shifted. The metaphor serves to introduce the notion of an alien threat and then collapses to suggest contamination.
Either figure could have been teased from the words at either stage, but in context, the shift from one grounding to another seems more aptly to characterize the figuration. The identification of a tropal arrangement then, is a starting point, not an ending point. As long as the other three master tropes lurk behind the fourth, critics will have to look for the moments of transformation, when the tropal moorings become unfastened and the convergence of text and audience suggests new possibilities. This is itself nothing more than Burke's interest in points of transformation, where critics are advised to look not for unitary identities, but motives that "ambiguously contain" multiple possibilities (RM, 10). This is not to gainsay the value of Hayden White's tropal histories or other efforts in a similar vein, but to circumscribe the value of tropal identifications in single texts. Following out the implications of a tropal arrangement as per Burke's substitutions is, nonetheless, fascinating, but not properly the subject of this essay.
My purpose in this essay has been to "apply" Burke to argumentation theory at the nexus of argumentation and poetics, particularly, to explore some of the ways in which tropes and arguments intersect. The nature of Burke's challenge to argumentation theory, writ large, is to expand our standards of argumentation to include not only traditional argument, but other methodical forms of reasoning as well. Tropes provide a particularly fruitful area to press that study because they both resonate with the clarity of form and snare the complexities of experience.
1 Catt also emphasized her hostility to drunkenness and indolence rather than to immigrants, but these were comparatively small elements of a broadly nativist argument at this point in her career. Her nativism moderated substantially after she began her international suffrage work after she began her international suffrage work after the turn of the century. As the founding President of the League of Women Voters, she emphasized broad based citizen education to counter ignorance and apathy in all segments of the electorate.
David S. Birdsell is an Associate Professor of Communication at Baruch College. This paper is a revision of a paper presented at the Speech Communication Association Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, 1991.
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Publication information: Article title: Kenneth Burke at the Nexus of Argument and Trope. Contributors: Birdsell, David S. - Author. Journal title: Argumentation and Advocacy. Volume: 29. Issue: 4 Publication date: Spring 1993. Page number: 178+. © 2008 American Forensic Association. COPYRIGHT 1993 Gale Group.
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