Kenneth Burke at the Nexus of Argument and Trope

By Birdsell, David S. | Argumentation and Advocacy, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

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. …

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