Kenneth Burke on Rhetoric & Economics


Kenneth Burke wrote an essay in 1973 essay on “The Rhetorical Situation” affecting the United States at that time in history. What he says about the Gross National Product, inflation, and taxation enlighten us about the power of rhetoric in the hands of economists, legislators, accountants, and lawyers.

The term “Gross National Product” identifies our whole economic structure in sheerly monetary terms. Probably, in the next few years, you will see many indications that here, too, is an essential aspect of the Rhetorical Situation in which we find ourselves. The very profusion of sheerly monetary transactions will force us to realize the ways in which the identifying of an economy in monetary terms can be illusory. (The most obvious example is the fact that mere inflation shows up as a corresponding increase in the G.N.P.)

In the meantime, among the most influential rhetoricians of our world today are surely our experts in the manipulation of monetary terms.

Thus, accountants can show things at their worst, if it’s taxes you would avoid. Or they can show things at their best, if you would promote stock sales on the basis of reports listing profits present and prospective.

High among such masters of unsung eloquence are those legalists who, on behalf of their clients, deliberately add loopholes to tax laws, a form of inducement so quietly persuasive that invention of this sort is totally alien to the stylistic excesses of what was once caused Asiatic oratory. Indeed, it is couched in language as severe as a medical diagnosis or a laundry list; yet when the address is over, lo! an individual or even a corporation with earnings up into the millions need pay less taxes (if any!) than the lowliest of wage-earners.

But hold! Once we started to track down the foibles of legal corporations in their roles as “persons,” we’d find a whole new set of persuasive marvels opening up. So I desist.

Thus we see that an entire economic structure can be collapsed into an intellectual synechdoche and logical fallacy; that quiet yet powerful persuasion may inhere in tax laws devoid of stylistic excess; that legal corporations employ the language of personhood in ways that are not merely metaphorical. Clients and governments convince themselves of what is financially bad or good, better or worse, based on economic professionals’ selective use of data.

Thus over time and use of this rhetoric a society builds up forms of persuasion and intellectual shortcuts and facades. The situation expects or even encourages such rhetoric from its professional class.

The fact that such communication is now formulaic or obvious does not mean it lacks rhetorical intent, function, meaning and power. On the contrary, it has become even more powerful because of its invisibility and normalcy.

Advertisements

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 https://flic.kr/p/MWPKH3

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.

References

Eloquence and Wisdom: Cicero’s preface to De Inventione, 1745


Cicero-wisdom2Is “eloquence” harmful, or beneficial, to states and individuals?

This was the question debated in the “preface” to Cicero’s work, De Inventione (On Invention) translated into English in 1745.

I’ve provided the 1745 translation in full, below, including the original spelling and grammar (with minor corrections).

» » » It has been a subject that I have often and much thought upon, whether eloquence in its highest perfection, has been the source of more good or mischief to men and to states.

» » » For when I consider our own misfortunes, and recollect the calamities of old in the greatest republicks, I am convinced that no small inconveniences have been introduced by men of the first eloquence.

­» » » But on the other hand, when history supplies my thoughts with transactions, which time has removed still farther from our memory; I find that many cities have been

[11]

constituted, many wars put an end to, and the firmest alliances and strictest friendships cemented, not only by reason and good sense, but more easily by eloquence.

» » » My own reason at last leads me to this determination, that wisdom without eloquence can be of little use to states; but eloquence without wisdom may frequently hurt them, and can never be of service to them.

 

Cicero-Blanton-158474312_19846343c7_o

Cicero: Blanton Art Museum, Austin TX. Posted to Flickr by Julian, May 12, 2006 and shared with Creative Commons license

 

» » » Wherefore if any one, regardless of the most upright and generous studies of reason and his duty, shall waste all his abilities in the practice of speaking; I call that man useless to himself, and pernicious to his community. 

» » » But he who arms himself with eloquence, with a view never to oppose his country’s good, but to be able to make a stand for it; seems to me to be a man most conducive to his own and the publick welfare, and a true friend to his country.

» » » For if we were to consider the source of what we call Eloquence, whether it be a study,

[13]

or an art, the effect of practice, or the gift of nature; we shall find, that it owes its original to the most exalted principles, and its improvement to the most rational pursuits.

» » » For there was a time when men, after the manner of the brute-kind, wandered at large about the fields, and sustained their lives by theiri prey upon wild beasts.

» » » The rational faculties had then no share in their actions, but the strength of the body chiefly administered to their wants.

» » » The duties of religion and humanity were not yet cultivated: none knew the happiness of lawful marriage: no father could look upon his children as his own; nor had yet experienced the advantages that proceed from equitable laws.

» » » Thus through error and ignorance, the will, (that blind and headstrong tyrant of the mind) abused the powers of the body (pernicious ministers!) to its own gratification.

» » » At which time some truly great and wise man discovered what materials and

[15]

qualifications, and how great, were latently planted in the mind of man for the noblest ends, if they could be struck out into light, and improved by precept.

» » » His superior genius collected them into one place, from their wandering way of life, and their wild habitations in the woods; and prompting them to whatever was useful and honourable, though at first refractory for want of use, yet soon charmed with still attention by his wisdom and eloquence, he broke their brutal fierceness into gentleness and humanity.

» » » And indeed to me it seems, that silent and speechless wisdom, could never have had the influence to make such a sudden reformation in mankind from their bad habits, and gain them over to the various duties of a rational life.

» » » But farther, after the constitution of cities, how could it be brought about, that men should cultivate the virtues of justice and truth, inure themselves to pay a willing obedience to others, so as not only to endure toils, but even death itself, for the publick good:

[17]
I say, how could all this be brought about, without the aid of persuasive eloquence to inculcate the discoveries of reason?

» » » None surely; who by his strength could do mighty things; unless won by solid and sweet persuasion, would, without the interposition of force, have subjected himself to the restraint of laws: put himself upon a level with those to whom his strength made him superior, and willingly forsaken his beloved passions, to which habit had almost given the force of nature.

» » » This was the rise, this the progress of eloquence, which afterwards had much to do in the conduct of the greatest affairs, to the singular advantage of mankind.

Cicero-Knavery» » » But when a sort of self-interest, under the mask of virtue, without any regard to what was right, attained the power of eloquence; then did knavery, supported by wit, begin to overturn cities, and corrupt the manners of mankind.

» » » Let us likewise explain the source of this mischievous effect, as we did of the other good one.

[19]

» » » It seems to be very probable, that there was a time when minors and men of low genius were not admitted to the publick affairs; nor did great and eloquent men interfere in private causes.

» » » But whilst the most important matters were conducted by the greatest men; others who did not want cunning, apply’d themselves to minuter controversies of private persons.

» » » In which controversies, falshood often prevailing against truth, the continual practice of speaking gave growth to impudence; so those great men were necessarily obliged, by the injuries of their fellow citizens, to resist these daring fellows, and every of them to take his respective friends into his protection.

» » » When therefore he, who regardless of wisdom made eloquence his only study, was often equal in speaking, sometimes superior, it happened, that in the opinion of the many, and his own conceit, he seemed a person worthy to govern the common-wealth.

[21]

» » » Hence it was, and not without reason, that when rash and audacious men were intrusted with the helm of government, great and miserable shipwreck ensued.

» » » By this means eloquence contracted so much hatred and envy, that the most ingenious men, made their retreat from this seditious and tumultuous way of life, to some quiet study, as it were out of a turbulent storm into a quiet haven.

» » » Whence afterwards, as I presume, other virtuous and generous arts being cultivated by great men in their retirements, shone forth; and eloquence being deserted by most, grew out of fashion, at a time when it ought to have been more strenuously retained, and more industriously improved.

» » » For by how much the more the rashness and boldness of fools and profligates, shamefully trampled upon this most honourable and virtuous art, to the great hurt of the community; so much the more strenuous, should have been the resistance and struggle for the publick-weal.

[23]

» » » Of which our own Cato was not insensible, nor Laelius, nor Africanus, who was indeed their disciple, nor the Gracchi, the grandsons of Africanus; men distinguished by the noblest virtues, and a dignity enlarged by the noblest virtues, with eloquence to adorn these advantages, and defend their country.

Cicero-study» » » Wherefore, in my opinion, it ought to be no discouragement to the study of eloquence, because it is perversely abused both in publick and private life; but rather a stronger inducement to the more vigorous prosecution of it, lest ill men should have it in their power to run their full lengths, to the great annoyance of the good, and the common ruin of all.

» » » Especially as this is the only art that concerns every part of life, both publick and private; by this life is render’d safe, by this honourable, by this illustrious, by this likewise it becomes pleasant.

» » » Hence, if wisdom the pilot of all events, be at hand to stear it, many advantages redound to the whole republick: To the

[25]

orators themselves, applause, honour, dignity; to their friends a sure and safe patronage and protection.

» » » To me it seems, that though mankind are inferior and more defective than brutes in many respects; yet their chief pre-eminence is, that they have the power of speech.

» » » Wherefore, I esteem it a most honourable attainment, to excell the rest of mankind in that, wherein mankind excell brutes.

Source:

Cicero, M. T. (1745). The oration of Marcus Tullius Cicero, for Marcus Marcellus, address’d to Caius Julius Cæsar, dictator, and the Roman Senate; being a specimen of a translation of Tully’s select orations. To which is prefix’d Cicero’s preface to his first book of invention, translated into English. Being a Dissertaion on the Rise, Progress, and Decay of Eloquence. London: printed for R. Dodsley, and sold by M. Cooper at the Globe in Pater-Noster-Row.

Note: Page numbering reflects the fact that the text was presented with alternate pages in Latin, then English. The English pages were numbered 9, 11, 13, etc.
Cicero'sPreface-1745

The Rhetoric of Research Ethics


As I begin teaching another new service-learning course (Coms 463: Advanced Professional and Technical Communication) at the University of Calgary, Canada, in which my students will conduct interviews, I must once again apply for course-based research ethics approval from my faculty’s ethics subcommittee.

ResearchEthics clip Frame1

Click the image to see all 3 frames. Created via Cartoon Playground.

Within this application I am required to describe such factors as

  • the context in which the students will be researching
  • how I educate them about research ethics,
  • whom they are recruiting and how they avoid coercion
  • methods of research (survey, interview, etc.)
  • and the means of obtaining proof of informed consent, secure data retention, and ethical data dissemination as agreed between researchers and participants.

This post describes the rhetorical audiences, purposes, skills, and impacts of the research ethics application process.  Continue reading

Isocrates and Organizational Leadership


from "Demosthenes Practicing" by Lecomte du Nouy, Wikipedia Commons

from "Demosthenes Practicing" by Lecomte du Nouy, Wikipedia Commons

While teaching an independent study course on Organizational Culture, I realized how relevant the ancient rhetorician Isocrates was. Isocrates theorized rhetorical education and discussed political rhetoric. But the analogy between political community and organizational community is productive. Thinking of similarities across the political/organizational divide provides a wider perspective on ethics and a holistic view of the internal and external political and social context of businesses.

Continue reading