24-Hour Rhetorical Theory Exam

Assess Burke's view of technology and its relationship to his theory or philosophy of rhetoric. How are Burke's views on both rhetoric and on technology useful to those who seek a theory for assessing the political implication of the new communication technologies and for those interested in finding a critical tool to discuss communication on the internet? (You may limit the type of communication you discuss to one type if you wish.)

In this essay, I will describe Burke’s complex view of technology, which also requires a look at its companions – scientific knowledge, modernism, and capitalism. Burke shows these forces’ effect on knowledge and language, as I will explain, and after discussing Burke’s connection of rhetoric to technology in general, I will review Burke’s response to Marshall McLuhan, an essay in which Burke addresses the rhetoric surrounding communication technologies in particular. Burke argues that McLuhan is not analyzing the phenomenon of communication technologies with the full range of the pentad – Act, Scene, Agent, Agency, and Purpose – instead, too much emphasis is being placed on agency, causing the interpretation of communication technologies to be contradictory and reductive. Using the case of weblog research, I argue that a Dramatistic analysis of communication technologies, an analysis that also takes Burke’s critique of the sociopolitical implications of technology (which is not necessarily related to the method of Dramatism, but relevant, at any rate) seriously, is useful and apt for the study of communication technologies, especially the study of weblogs. Such an analysis would be far more comprehensive than the research on weblogs that has heretofore been undertaken.

Burke’s View of Technology

Before interpreting the analysis of technology Burke has made in his oeuvre, it is necessary to provide a definition of technology. Technology in this case would refer to factories, automobiles, weapons, and other machinery including telephony and household appliances. Over the decades, this would also include other technologies, such as television, radio, and computers. Burke sees these technologies in their political and historical contexts; he cannot, for example, discuss automobiles without discussing post-Industrial Revolution mass production, its accompanying Fordist exploitation of laborers, and the capitalist values the system (and the technology) serves. To Burke, technology and capitalism are closely aligned, so close as to be barely dissociable. In modern capitalist society, money – instead of only acting as an agency, or “means or instruments” (p. xv, GM) – becomes a “rationalizing ground of action” (p. 113, GM), and those who inhabit a capitalist system learn a monetary motive, not in the sense that any motive can be reduced to economic determinism, but in the sense that the monetary motive is one aspect of a spectrum of motives involving the acquisition of power. Burke points out that “monetary power may be compensatory to some other kind of power (physical, sexual, moral, stylistic, intellectual, etc.)” (p. 114, GM).

Technology and money, Burke argues, have each been conceptualized as a ground of motives, a “universal idiom” (p. 115, GM), an “absolute good,” or a “motivational center” (p. 116, GM). In modern capitalist society, people associate money and technology with free markets, and free markets with freedom itself. Burke points out that technology and money constitute and sustain each other; for example, the technology found in factories increases production. Provided there are consumers to pay for the surplus, the owners of the technology make more money, which can then be used to invest in the invention of faster, more efficient technologies, which make production even more, well, productive, widening the gap between economic classes (p. 116, GM). Burke criticizes what he perceives as a lack of forethought about the potential political, cultural, environmental, and economic consequences of technologies. In Language as Symbolic Action, he cautions, “any new power, or mode of control (such as control over the weather) is potentially an instrument of war” (p. 411). In “Definition of Man,” Burke claims that men are “the inventor of the negative” in the act of language and definition (for example, “woman” as conceived to be “not-man”) and the formation of laws and norms with admonishments not to do this or that. He argues that the “positive powers” enabled by technology have “produced a vast new era of negativity” (p. 13, LSA) . Such positive powers would include advances in medical technology, communication technology, and agricultural technology. We can see examples of new negatives that come into play with the production of Internet technologies; the proliferation of texts online combined with the ease of copying and distribution precipitated new, strict revisions to copyright law, and tensions between the market and individuals' privacy brought about new privacy policies (“We will not sell your email address to anyone.”).

Burke is not, however, absolutist in his condemnation of technology; he acknowledges that it can be used to mitigate the effects of natural disasters (cited in Hyman, 1948, p. 58), and he recognizes the entelechial tendency in the career of technology – including, I would argue, communication technologies: Burke states, “’For better or worse, men are set to complete the development of technology’” (cited in Hyman, 1948, p. 57). I have touched upon Burke's mapping out of the connections between technology and culture, but in the next section, I will present the epistemological implications of technology in Burkean terms.

Technology’s Connection to Burke’s Theory of Rhetoric

In Burke's early work, particularly Counter-Statement, he associates the rise of technology with its overproduction and “undigested wealth” with a dearth of aesthetics, culture, and taste (p. 31-32, CS). If humanity focuses its intellectual efforts solely, or primarily, on science and technology, Burke argues, knowledge in other areas will suffer atrophy. Knowledge, to Burke, splinters into narrow specializations with the introduction of technology; this is apparent when we consider such emergent fields of study as Geographic Information Systems, Industrial Hygiene, Cybersecurity, and Biopharmacology. Engineering is a discipline that offers a fine example of technology's influence on knowledge: As technology has advanced, engineering has splintered into Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Civil Engineering, and Geotechnical Engineering, among others.

Not only does scientific and technological epistemological hegemony create a compartmentalization of knowledge, it also affects the dominant perception of language and rhetoric. When science prevails over aesthetics, philosophy, and rhetoric, an effort is made to bring the methods and assumptions of science to these fields of inquiry. Positivism was a hegemonic mode of thought at the time Burke was critiquing technology, and he rightly locates positivism's influence on language in the semantic ideal, a neutral, objective vocabulary, or, as Burke calls it, “a vocabulary that gives the name and address of every event in the universe” (p. 141, PLF). The semantic ideal strives for an undisputed clarity of meaning; only that which can be known through empirical observation can truly have meaning. Concepts encountered in language such as persuasion, eloquence, ambiguity, irony, tone, humor in the form of wordplay and puns, double entendres, and contextual nuances become flattened out and undesirable. The semantic ideal, therefore, is at antipodes with the highly complex ways human beings use language, as it cannot account for poetry, motivated speech, sociopolitical context, speaker-audience relationship, attitude, implication, or moral significance. For example, the utterance “No billionaire left behind” has a very specific meaning for us. To understand that statement fully, we must understand a chain of events that includes the 2000 election of George W. Bush to the office of President of the United States before which one of Bush's campaign promises was a proposed law for education called the “No Child Left Behind” act. We would also have to have a passing familiarity with the September 11 attacks, the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Bush administration's “war on terror,” in which the government commissioned corporations such as Halliburton to build weapons for the military. We would have to know that “No billionaire left behind” is a motivated utterance – invented by those who critique Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy and (what many would argue) failure to improve social conditions for children, both in schools and homes. We would have to recognize that “No billionaire left behind” is a sardonic slogan in 2004 election rhetoric, a response to “No child left behind,” a slogan Bush used repeatedly in television debates and speeches in the 2000 election campaign. Burke characterizes this social significance of meaning as “poetic meaning.” He offers several examples of the difference between semantic meaning and poetic meaning and argues that “[t]he semantic ideal would attempt to get a description by the elimination of attitude. The poetic ideal would attempt to attain a full moral act by attaining a perspective atop all the conflicts of attitude” (p. 147-48).

Burke on Rhetoric of Communication Technologies

In “Medium as ‘Message’: Some Thoughts on Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (and, secondarily, on The Gutenberg Galaxy), Burke directly addresses communication technologies. While I realize Burke is only responding to the work of one scholar of communication technologies, I am using this essay as a representation of Burke's thought on the study of communication technologies in general. I do this because the exuberance Burke highlights in McLuhan's work has actually become a trope in the study of computers and writing over the decades, and I would argue that Burke, had he published more essays about communication technologies, would have continued to be skeptical of the celebratory attitudes (and their roots in modernist thinking) found in the study of new communication technologies. A new technology emerges, and scholars eagerly analyze it and make grand claims as to its potential; in Internet studies, often these claims are related to the emancipatory, democratic potential of the technologies. In Burke's critique of McLuhan, he argues that the rhetoric surrounding communication technology is reductive, placing too much emphasis on agency, rather than the full range of the Dramatistic pentad (which is his main criticism of rhetoric of technology). Rhetoric of technology is too pragmatistic, viewing an accumulation of agencies as scene. He also argues that in McLuhan does not use enough terministic precision, that his use of terms (communication, information, media, form) is not rigorous and critical. Again, I would claim that this is a pattern among studies of new technologies. McLuhan's scholarship, in the 1960s and 1970s, was “pop scholarship” in that it had a catchy slogan -- “the medium is the message” -- and McLuhan promoted his scholarship in what Burke admits is an entertaining, engaging way. Burke points to such entertainment as problematic as well; the rhetoric surrounding technology can be overly celebratory, even euphuistic. One example of this comes from Winkelmann (1995):

This language is heteroglossic and hypertextual, cooperative and conflicted, fused and fragmentary, totally irreverent and thoroughly intertextual. In the spirit of Haraway’s cyborg feminism: it is a language that denies the one perfect code in order to celebrate a multiplicity of codes. This is language in the age of technology.

One can imagine such an enthusiast at a lecture, giving this talk and ending with these two sentences, speaking them breathless with excitement.

Burke also critiques McLuhan's classification of technologies (media) into two groups: the pre-electric age, in which technologies were extensions of body parts (mechanical), and the electric age, in which technology is an extension of the central nervous system (electrical). Such a distinction between electrical and mechanical is false; it’s all mechanical, Burke writes. One need only assemble a computer to know this; the CPU needs to be greased before the heatsink fan is fastened to it; without the mechanical motion of the fan, the CPU will overheat and fail. McLuhan’s sloppy use of analogy leads to faulty interpretation of technologies. A wheel, for example, is analogized to be an extension of human legs and feet – the motion of walking. However, Burke argues, any repeated motion can be called “circular” and analogized to a wheel, and thus the analogies lose meaning.

Burke also reminds us of the connection between technology and the specialization of knowledge. McLuhan claims that technology is about ‘information’ and will “eliminate tendencies toward specialization,” but Burke shows that one needs specialists to produce the data that will go into the machines, and specialists in the knowledge of the machines who will be able to fix them when they break.

The slogan “the medium is the message,” however, gets the most treatment in Burke's essay. “Medium as message” dismisses content, Burke says. He gives the facetious example of an important message that needs to be delivered, and the recipient's saying, “'Please! Let's get down to business. Who cares about the contents of a message? My lad, hasn't McLuhan made it clear to you? The medium is the message. So quick, tell me the really crucial point. I don't care what the news is. What I want to know is: Did it come by telegraph, telephone, wireless, radio, TV, semaphore signals, or word of mouth?'” (p. 414, LSA). Burke doesn't dismiss the importance of medium, though; he stresses that a particular medium does have an influence on the kinds of content produced within it. He claims, “McLuhan could have systematically asked himself just what kind of content is favored by the particular nature of a given medium. Actually, the sheer pressure of his subject matter does impose such a procedure upon McLuhan at many points.” (p. 416, LSA). He adds that the medium can have an effect on the creators of the content as well, as he or she works within what the medium affords:

The point is not that a given medium (in the sense of a directly communicative form) does its full work upon us without the element of ‘content.’ Rather, his study of the difference between painting (or sculpture) and poetry indicates how expert practitioners of a given medium may resort to the kind of contents that the given medium is best equipped to exploit. (p. 416, LSA)

Usefulness of Burkean Framework: Political Implications of Internet Communication

Based on Burkean rhetoric, I make several observations on the state of research on Internet communication technologies (weblogs in particular) and recommendations for scholars who wish to study such technologies.

First, scholars should study technologies in their historical, social, and economic contexts. Many scholars in rhetoric and composition have done this already, including Cynthia Selfe in Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century: The Importance of Paying Attention and Laura Gurak in Cyberliteracy: Navigating the Internet With Awareness. Such research is valuable, but context is not foregrounded enough in most Internet research.

Although academic research on weblogs is still new, dating back only to 2002, weblogs have been analyzed from a feminist perspective (Herring, 2004, Ratliff, 2003), classified into types of weblogs (personal writing, journalistic reporting, filters), examined for their structural features and information about blog authors (Herring, 2003, Miller, 2004), how they’re contributing to an intellectual commons by challenging copyright laws that hinder the sharing of ideas (Ratliff, 2003), and how virtual communities form around weblogs (Blanchard, 2004, Packwood, 2004, Schaap, 2004, Wei, 2004). Miller (2004) does a preliminary analysis of the cultural context of weblogs, showing that 1990s culture involving the desire for publicity (or “publicy,” as McLuhan calls it) and democratization of celebrity in the form of talk shows and reality television laid the groundwork for blogging. However, comprehensive cultural analyses have not yet been done on blogging. As it stands, we are still stuck in a “What is a blog?” and “Why do people blog?” introductory phase of blog research. The questions researchers are asking get at some aspects of the pentad, but I do not believe a comprehensive pentadic analysis of blogging has been done yet. A pentadic analysis would be somewhat similar to what we now know as a cultural studies analysis; in fact, others have made the observation that Burkean thought was in some ways prescient of cultural studies:

Literary scholars who admired Burke's essays on Flaubert or Mann often found his later work bewildering. They complained that his ideas about "symbolic action" could apply just as easily to advertising campaigns as to The Divine Comedy. In other words, Burke may have accidentally created cultural studies. (McLemee, 2001).

In other words, if studying weblogs, Burke would probably ask: What’s being said on weblogs? Whose interests are being served in weblog discourse? What values and prevailing modes of thought are being inculcated on weblogs? What effect is blogging (the communication technology) having on the content? To what extent are bloggers “writing to the medium,” doing that to which the medium lends itself? I would argue that he would be less interested in the specificities of linking practices on weblogs than in the political and epistemological implications of blogging. I don't think this would necessarily be a literal analysis of what we think of as political blogging – for example, every 2004 presidential candidate had a campaign blog, and bloggers were invited to cover the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Much has been made of both these facts, but I think Burke's analysis would be more similar to Roberts-Miller (2004), who uses Habermas to critique the lack of true argumentation and rational-critical discourse on weblogs, noting instead the tendency toward enclaves and “echo chambers.” As an object of study, I am not sure what kind of blog Burke would select; that is to say, he might choose to study several blogs that are considered to be of high quality, such as Crooked Timber, and he might juxtapose those with the most popular blogs, such as InstaPundit or Eschaton, and he might note the pattern among the most widely-read blogs to be link-and-run and rapid-fire in terms of their discourse; often, among blogs that are indeed highly regarded for their incisive critique of the political landscape, one sees fifteen or twenty posts on a given day, most of which consist of a blockquote from an op-ed column in a newspaper, a link to the full text of the column, and a one-liner expressing basic agreement or disagreement with the argument expressed. I believe Burke, if he could have an encounter with weblogs, would analyze them with a skepticism of their history and roots in science and positivism, and he would submit them to the full range of the Dramatistic pentad and its ratios, which would yield a thorough analysis of the rhetoric and cultural context of weblogs and not merely an exploration of one of their characteristics.


Burke, K. (1931). Counter-statement. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Burke, K. (1941). The philosophy of literary form. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Burke, K. (1945). A grammar of motives. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Burke, K. (1966). Language as symbolic action. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Gurak, L., Antonijevic, S., Johnson, L., Ratliff, C., & Reyman, J. (Eds.). Into the blogosphere: Rhetoric, community, and culture of weblogs. Retrieved August 3, 2004, from http://blog.lib.umn.edu/blogosphere

Hyman, S.E. (1948). Kenneth Burke and the criticism of symbolic action. In B. Brummett, (Ed.): Landmark essays on Kenneth Burke. (pp. 19-62.) Davis, CA: Hermagoras Press.

McLemee, S. (2001). A puzzling figure in literary criticism is suddenly central: Did Kenneth Burke, intellectual maverick, accidentally create cultural studies? Retrieved August 3, 2004, from http://chronicle.com/free/v47/i32/32a02601.htm

Winkelmann, C. L. (1995). Electronic literacy, critical pedagogy, and collaboration: A
case for cyborg writing. Computers and the Humanities, 29, 431-48.

Winkelmann, C.L. (1998). Cyborg bodies: Race, class, gender, and communications technology.” In K. Dixon, (Ed.). Outbursts in academe: Multiculturalism and other sources of conflict. (pp. 2-22.) Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.