Kenneth Burke on “identification by innacuracy”

Alterezza (pride, arrogance)

“Alterezza” [or “pride,” by Ripa, Cesare], uploaded by October 20, 2016 by Fondo Antiguo de la Biblioteca de la Universidad. With Creative Commons license at

A passage in Kenneth Burke’s 1973 essay on “The Rhetorical Situation” sheds light on self-persuasion that occurs when we use a tool or technology that gives us the illusion that we have greater power or agency as individuals than we really do. A similar logic operates on an economic and political level:

[….] to walk faster, or run faster, one works harder. Similarly, to drive faster on a bicycle, one works harder. But when I learned to drive a car, I suddenly found myself confronting a quite different realm of motives. For I needed but press down the gas pedal the slightest bit more, and the car would pick up terrific speed, with no more work on my part.

Here was a fantastic coefficient of power. And surely, I thought, here is a fundamental moral problem. It seemed to me that we, as individuals, are easily tempted to mistake these mechanical powers for our very own.

Give a man a few dollars to spend in a supermarket, and he might spontaneously feel superior to some primitive tribesman who could make a living in a wilderness, whereas under such primitive conditions this self-adulating idiot would purely and simply starve to death.

Such thoughts concern man’s identification with his machines in ways whereby he mistakes their powers for his, and loves himself accordingly.

There is also the kind of deceptive identification whereby an individual who may be personally modest and unassuming becomes deceptively aggrandized by thoughts of his citizenship in a powerful nation. [….]

For, only too often, such identification is but the failure to distinguish between one’s country and the decisions of certain politicians who happen to be in a position to get the nation into foreign embarrassments* that are by no means causes for rejoicing. Look more closely, and you see that the embarrassment* is not really the nation’s but that of certain officials whose interests are not necessarily identical with the nation’s interests.

Our identification with these two great unwieldy leviathans–technology and the state–is central to the rhetorical situation as we now confront it.

(pp. 269-270)

Burke’s insight into rhetorical situation shows that a situation is not merely geographical, and not merely based on the target audience’s ideological assumptions, but is also based on technological and economic circumstances that (falsely, illogically) attribute greater power or importance to the audience’s self-identity.

Ultimately a human is not “of one substance with” his or her machine, or money, or the decisions of their country’s head of state.  Yet a common person often identifies themselves with their technology, money, and country in ways that are taken for granted and unexamined.

The existence of these technological, economic, and political premises must be acknowledged as assumptions in many people’s experience. They can be used (or unethically misused) by a rhetor/speaker:  they are part of the “rhetorical situaton” of a speech, an advertisement, a tweet, a conversational statement, or an email.

However, it’s worthwhile to philosophically ponder this premise. How much of our own identity is falsely based on circumstances and technologies that we can’t attribute to our own agency?  To what degree is it rational to attribute to ourselves as individual citizens the historic virtues of an entire nation or the recent decisions of its leader? How often do we judge ourselves or others by the size of a bank account? How much of the amount we earn (i.e. hourly wage), is based on economic factors rather than the inherent social and physical value of our work?

*NOTE: Burke seems to be using the word “embarrass” not merely in the contemporary meaning of “A feeling of self-consciousness, shame, or awkwardness” (Oxford Dictionary, ca. 2017) but in the older, slightly more intellectual meaning of “to perplex; to distress; to entangle” (Embarrass; Embarrassment, 1858). The term often meant a financial entanglement.



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