Thoughts on Burke's "Four Master Tropes"

Today I took a 2-hour no-books, no-notes midterm exam in my rhetorical theory class. I answered this question:

Below are two quite different ways of thinking
about figures of speech.

“’Ornament’ is what goes beyond Lucidity and
Acceptability. Its first two stages [lucidity and
acceptability] consists in conceiving and carrying
out your intention; the third is the stage that puts
the polish on and may properly be called
‘finish’”(Quintilian, Institutes 8.3.62)

“The important is that in metaphor, metonymy, and
synecdoche alike language provides us with a
direction that thought itself might take in its effort
to provide meaning to areas of experience not
already regarded as being cognitively secured by
either common sense, tradition, or science”
(Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse, 73).

In his essay, “The Four Master Tropes,” does
Burke embrace one, reject the other; embrace
both; offer a third view: what? Explain.

Below is my attempt:

Quintilian’s view of figures represents the "Old Rhetoric" view: Figures of speech are ornaments the rhetor integrates into his or her speech after he or she has chosen a topic, line of argument, and organizational strategy, and done an analysis of the audience’s view on the topic. They can give the audience pleasure, and they are significant in practices of oratory, but other than that, they do not serve a deep cognitive or social purpose. Hayden White’s statement on figures is heavily influenced by Burkean thought; he suggests that the significance of figures is to “provide meaning” to experience outside the realm of “common sense, tradition, or science.” I would argue that Burke’s view of figures is more nuanced than White’s. To Burke, all thought, including common sense, tradition, and science, is shaped by figures. The implications of these thought patterns we see in figures are important if we are to arrive at a richer understanding of the connection between language and science, politics, and social norms. It is this idea—the idea that figures are integral not only to thought processes but to social practice—that I wish to explore in the essay that follows. Using the ideas in “Four Master Tropes,” I will attempt to explain how Burke claims that metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony work and articulate the significance of the figures as Burke understands them.

Burke claims that all language and interpretation is metaphor: taking something and putting it in terms of something else, usually taking a concept from the incorporeal, intangible realm and putting it into corporeal, tangible, material terms. Metaphor brings out “the thisness of a that, the thatness of a this,” and Burke offers “perspective” as a counterpart to metaphor. For example, putting one’s unspoken experience into words is to engage in metaphor-construction. Feminist consciousness-raising groups coined such metaphorical terms as “date rape,” “sexual harassment,” and “marital rape.” These terms turn “this thing that happened to me when I was out with this guy” or “this thing that happened in the office” or “this thing that my husband did when I was sleeping” into “rape” and “harassment.” It brings out the rape-ness of a “this thing that happened.” Of course, some would argue that this is a reduction, that the “thing that happened” was complicated and ambiguous, and that calling it “rape” is not telling the whole story. Burke claims at the beginning of “Four Master Tropes” that the four terms overlap, and that exploring one will lead the person considering the terms into the other three. With that, I shall go into Burke’s view of metonymy.

Metonymy is, I would argue, the most socially significant of the figures Burke discusses. That is to say, it has the most far-reaching social implications, which I will explicate shortly. The term Burke pairs with metonymy is “reduction”; he points out that metonymy is a representation, like synecdoche, but it always involves a reduction. Burke makes a distinction between two kinds of reduction that can take place in metonymic formation. The first is influenced by “scientific realism”; it is the norm in science to reduce human actions, motivations, and practices to quantifiable, physical scientific causes. A scientific metonymic construction reduces quality to quantity and phenomena to simple correlations of cause and effect. It would look something like: “Andrea Yates drowned her five children because she had postpartum psychosis, a chemical imbalance in her brain brought on by pregnancy and birth.” The second kind of reduction Burke points out is that of “poetic realism.” Poets use concepts from the intangible, incorporeal realm, which are already embodied in words from the corporeal realm but whose origins in the corporeal realm are forgotten. They then take these abstract concepts and use terms from the corporeal realm to produce an image that the reader will associate with the abstract concept. For example, Margaret Atwood, in the poem “Spelling,” uses the image of a little girl learning how to spell words using “red, blue, and hard yellow” blocks with letters engraved in them juxtaposed with the image of a woman captured during wartime “with her thighs tied together so that she could not give birth” to communicate the ominous entrance of girls into the world of gender, language, normativity, power, and male domination. The words “gender, language, normativity, power, and male domination” are, presumably, words from the corporeal that stand for incorporeal, not-yet-spoken ideas but that we now associate with the concept only. Atwood engages in a reduction—a taking of terms from the incorporeal (not the not-yet-effable incorporeal, but the once-corporeal, now incorporeal) and puts it in terms that we interpret as indisputably corporeal.

Atwood engages in an act of metonymy, but the product is synecdoche, which Burke pairs with “representation.” In other words, we can interpret Atwood’s juxtaposition of images as a representation of the entry into language, gender, and power, but we can also interpret language, gender, and power as this juxtaposition of images. A representation can be a reduction, in which case we see the overlap of metonymy and synecdoche, but a representation is not always reductive. With metonymy, some, if not most, of the meaning is lost, and the resulting representation is a caricature. With synecdoche, the meaning of the thing, concept, person, or group of people being represented is not lost. For example, Keats in “To Autumn” uses the images of gourds swelling and ripening, flowers blooming, and bees buzzing as a representation of pregnancy, birth, and new life, and he uses a cloudy sky, setting sun, and the chirping of crickets to represent the experience of slowly dying. The representation provided by Keats is different from a reductive representation, for example, the representations of African American men as “Sambo” and “street thug” reduces the full range of experiences and complexities of African American men to racist stereotypes. Likewise, “Geisha” and “dragon lady” reduce Asian women and “hairy man-haters” reduces feminist women. I would argue that Burke anticipated what we now call “the politics of representation” and that Burke understood the role of figures in such social practices.

Burke associates irony, the last in his list of four master tropes, with dialectic. He distinguishes it from a relativist viewpoint, one that sees a situation from one character’s perspective only. In irony, one must be able to see the full drama. For example, if one saw the events in Romeo and Juliet from only Juliet’s perspective, the play would look very different. Only when we see the interaction among perspectives—Juliet’s, Romeo’s, Tybalt’s, Mercutio’s, Lord Capulet’s, Lord Montague’s, the nurse’s, the friar’s, the apothecary’s, can we comprehend the tragic irony that both Romeo and Juliet had to die in order to, first, be together, and second, to produce the outcome of peace between the two families (and peace in Verona in general). The main characters, Romeo and Juliet, have what Burke calls an adjectival role in that they embody one of the values communicated in the play, that of true love and intimacy between two virtuous people, and they have a larger role in the outcome of the play, peace in Verona. Burke’s most striking contribution to thinking about the significance of irony, I think, is that human history itself can be understood using this figure of thought. Burke claims that we could understand history as a situation, for example, in which all the economic perspectives are always present: feudalism, capitalism, global capitalism, communism, socialism. At any given time, however, one will be salient over the others.

In a view of rhetoric that takes as its primary term “identification,” the canon of “style” and the attendant understanding of figures changes. Whereas in the “Old Rhetoric” style was considered to be ornamental, in Burkean rhetoric, style takes on a new meaning. Figures are deeply implicated in the way a rhetor goes about getting an audience to identify with him or her. Having gotten the German people to identify with him, for example, Hitler was able to use metonymy in an invidious manner to create a reductive representation of the Jewish people, thereby turning them into a scapegoat. This is an example of how deeply into human motivation and society figures of speech go, and how powerful and damaging they can be. This complex and socially significant view of figures is what Burke is communicating.