Addressing Postmodernity: Kenneth Burke, Rhetoric, and a Theory of Social Change / Edition 2

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Biesecker reveals the full range of Kenneth Burke's contribution to the possibility of social change.

In Addressing Postmodernity, Barbara Biesecker examines the relationship between rhetoric and social change and the ways human beings transform social relations through the purposeful use of symbols.  In discerning the conditions of possibility for social transformation and the role of human beings and rhetoric in it, Biesecker turns to the seminal work of Kenneth Burke.

Through a close reading of Burke's major works, A Grammar of Motives, A Rhetoric of Motives, and The Rhetoric of Religion:  Studies in Logology, Biesecker addresses the critical topic of the
fragmentation of the contemporary lifeworld. As Biesecker shows, postmodernity will have a major impact on Burkeian scholarship and on the rhetorical critique of social relations in general.

Biesecker confronts directly the challenges posed by postmodernity to social theorists and critics alike. In juxtaposing the work of Burke and Jurgen Habermas, Biesecker argues that a radicalized rereading of Burke's theory of the negative opens the way toward a resolutely rhetorical theory of social change and human agency.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Addressing Postmodernity is an example of how rhetoric and cultural studies might be combined to develop the kind of social theory that will be necessary to sustain us in the years ahead."
—John Louis Lucaites, Indiana University

"Biesecker reveals Burke's energy and originality and her own talent in bringing understanding and significance to his theories. This volume is also a pragmatic application for postmodern societal fragmentation. . . . An important source for rhetoricians, philosophers, and sociologists, this book will become a classic interpretation of Kenneth Burke's works."

Biesecker reveals Burke's energy and originality and her own talent in bringing understanding and significance to his theories. This volume is also a pragmatic application for postmodern societal fragmentation. . . . An important source for rhetoricians, philosophers, and sociologists, this book will become a classic interpretation of Kenneth Burke's works.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780817310639
  • Publisher: University of Alabama Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2000
  • Series: Studies Rhetoric & Communicati Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 136
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Barbara Biesecker is Associate Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Iowa.

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Read an Excerpt

Addressing Postmodernity

Kenneth Burke, Rhetoric, and a Theory of Social Change

By Barbara A. Biesecker

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1997 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-1063-9


Entering the Fray

As its title suggests, this book aims to offer an answer to the question, What are the conditions of possibility for social change in postmodernity? Hence, this book moves from the assumption that prior theorizations of social relations and their transformation no longer serve, that the peculiarities and particularities of our postmodern condition necessitate a new conceptualization of the relation of structure and subject. This book is, then, resolutely rhetorical in the rather classical or old-fashioned sense of the term: it is an address to theorists and critics that seeks to redress postmodernity or, at least, one particularly salient feature of it—the fragmentation of the contemporary lifeworld.

This book is rhetorical in another sense as well. It insists on, indeed argues strongly on behalf of, the power of persuasive discourse to constitute audiences out of individuals, to transform singularities into collectivities, to fashion a "we" out of a plurality of "I's," and to move them to collective action. It is, of course, no mere irony that the fragmentation of the contemporary lifeworld that has motivated me to raise again the question of social change seems also to mitigate against my positing rhetorical invention and intervention as an answer to it. That is to say, understood as a condition beset by fragmentation, disidentification, and dissensus, postmodernity seems to bear witness to the utter ineffectuality of rhetoric; the proliferation of difference understood as irreducible heterogeneity that is constitutive of our contemporary lifeworld appears to foreclose the very possibility of anything other than an individualistic or atomistic theory of social change.

However, it is not only the tension between the need for a retheorization of collective social change and the real-lived circumstances that at once seem to announce the necessity of this need and register its impossibility that vexes my project from the start. The task of this book is made ever more difficult by its being written in the wake of poststructuralism, a more or less coherent body of thought that has effected a virtual crisis in the human sciences by calling into question the metaphysical underpinnings that had until the late sixties founded modern social theory and practice. Indeed, whether cast in terms of the death of the author, the critique of the metaphysics of presence, or the deconstruction of identity and the self-same, the thoroughgoing poststructuralist interrogation of our inherited conceptions of being, knowing, and doing on the part of Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jacques Derrida, among others, has resolutely transformed our very relation to the question of social change. To state the matter all too summarily perhaps, the demise of foundations, not the least of which was the sovereign rational subject of Enlightenment philosophy that served as a point of departure for a whole host of theories of emancipation, seems to have left us without any conceptual foothold whatsoever from which to begin.

It is not just interesting but crucial to notice that the challenges postmodernity and poststructuralism pose to a retheorization of social change are deeply related. To be sure, as many leftist explanations assert, history was on the side of the poststructuralists. At least in part, the relative failure of student, civil rights, feminist, and other various countercultural movements to produce major political revolutions in western Europe and the United States during the 1960s drove many human scientists to distrust Enlightenment ideals and their philosophical underpinnings. Furthermore, a rising generation of intellectuals trained during the seventies and prodded by the concrete experiences of their age were perhaps less easily persuaded that the problems of their day could be solved within the framework of Enlightenment concepts. Finding themselves caught within a reallived contradiction—between living in a society of abundance that "has not abolished hunger ... while it ha[s] widened the gap between industrial and developing nations, exporting misery and military violence" (Habermas 1970a, 25)#x2014;these students began looking for alternative theorizations of the subject in history and society and began finding them in the probings of leading French poststructuralist philosophers.

If, however, as Perry Anderson has so deftly demonstrated in his seminal work In the Tracks of Historical Materialism, the poststructuralist interrogation of the subject and the concomitant erosion of Enlightenment ideals drew their inspiration from a sociohistorical moment of economic and political malaise, they found their philosophical justification in a whole host of the human sciences' most treasured and canonical works, not the least of which for Anderson were Marx's own. He writes:

[T]he passage from Marxist to structuralist and then post-structuralist dominants in post-war French culture has not involved a complete discontinuity of issues or questions. On the contrary, it is clear that there has been one master-problem around which all contenders have revolved; and it would look as if it was precisely the superiority of–in the first instance–structuralism on the very terrain of Marxism itself that assured it of decisive victory over the latter. What was this problem? Essentially, the nature of the relationships between structure and subject in human history and society. Now, the enigma of the respective status and position of these two was not a marginal or local area of uncertainty in Marxist theory. Indeed, it has always constituted one of the most central and fundamental problems of historical materialism as an account of the development of human civilization. (33–34)

For practitioners committed to Anderson's own project, the operative rhetorical gesture here insinuates itself between two dashes, as a pause: if it is "in the first instance" that structuralism and, later, poststructuralism appear uniquely capable of accounting for the development of civilization, then it is in "the last instance" that historical materialism will provide theoretical and political guidance. Whether or not historical materialism can make good on its promissory note remains to be seen. However, what cannot go unnoticed is that, even as enterprising leftist intellectuals remain firmly committed to and actively engaged in the project of discerning effective strategies for the dislodgment of oppressive social structures, they are now obliged to do so from the other side of difference. That is to say, a significant proportion of leftist intellectuals have conceded, albeit reluctantly, that deliberate and self-proximate subjects of knowledge and action can no longer found the elaboration of a theory of the distinctive dynamics of social development. The problem now, of course, is to articulate the relations of structure and subject otherwise without eclipsing the radical-critical edge of historical materialism.

In the wake of Saussurean and post-Saussurean linguistics, it is with an eye to language that radical theorists have begun to critique, revise, and reformulate their understanding of social relations and the agents who constitute and are constituted by them. It is not without consequence, however, that the heightened sensitivity to language has not been coupled with an increased attention to rhetoric. It is remarkable indeed that rhetoric, understood as the art of persuasion, is rarely even mentioned by those theorists and critics most preoccupied with social transformation. Though much has been made lately of the symbolic or cultural realms and though volume upon volume has been written about strategies, tactics, and discursive practices, embarrassingly few studies are informed by the lessons of a discipline whose central preoccupation has been to come to terms with the persuasive aspects of symbolic forms.

That most radical theorists and critics have taken a decisive linguistic turn but have failed to even nod in the direction of rhetoric may, of course, be explained by the simple fact that they were trained for the most part in literary theory. Within this tradition, Aristotle's Poetics was studied and not his Rhetoric; it was in great prose and poetry and not in deliberative, forensic, or epideictic oratory that the conditions of possibility for social and cultural transformation were thought to have been encoded. Moreover, it may be argued that rhetoric has no place when one begins, as these theorists and critics do, to entertain seriously a notion of ideology as something bigger than individual consciousness and will, particularly within a poststructuralist frame. If the subject can no longer be taken as the origin, center, end, reference, evidence, and arbiter of analysis, theory, and practice, and if ideology is the structure through which alternative forms of subjectivity and sociality are effected, then an Aristotelian or neo-Aristotelian conception of rhetoric as a force capable of reshaping society in accordance with the needs and desires voiced by a given subject on behalf of a particular constituency seems little more than naive optimism. If the speaking subject and the audience are always already, to borrow a rather ostentatious phrase, interpellated by ideology, then the very notion that an individual's deliberate and hortatory use of speech and other symbolic forms can inaugurate collective and counterhegemonic action is itself overdetermined from the start. As Louis Althusser puts it in his now famous essay "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)," "[W]hat thus seems to take place outside ideology (to be precise, in the street), in reality takes place in ideology. What really takes place in ideology seems therefore to take place outside it. That is why those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: ideology never says, T am ideological'" (175). Within the perspective of Althusser's structural functionalism, "ideology is eternal, exactly like the unconscious" (161) and, thus, rhetoric understood as a speech act authored by freely choosing and acting individuals is theoretically and historically implausible.

Because Althusser's totalizing view of ideology appears to liquidate any role for human agency, radical theorists and critics have begun to look elsewhere for a theory of the dynamic relations of structure and subject. In this effort, it is to the work of Antonio Gramsci that a great many leftist intellectuals have turned. Unlike Althusser, the more tradition-bound leftists argue, Gramsci offers an explanatory model that admits the formidable role of material forces in the production and reproduction of subjects without falling into mechanical determinism and without reinstalling the sovereign subject of Enlightenment philosophy. On the one hand, Gramsci affirms human agency by conceiving history as a continuous and contradictory process that proceeds not from "laws of economic development" alone but, instead or at least in part, from "current relations of force." In fact, for Gramsci, as Patrick Brantlinger puts it, ideology is not "a structuralist abstraction somehow separated from human intentions and practices" (95). Human struggle and negotiation are at the very heart of ideological or, more properly, hegemonic practices through which domination is provisionally achieved. On the other hand, even as Gramsci preserves human agency by refusing to grant the social relations of production absolute and distinct priority, he does not restore the sovereign subject of history. To be sure, human beings act within and upon the social. Nevertheless social interactions, like ideology, are not "willed" or "rational" in the old sense of the terms since, as Stuart Hall cogently puts it, they are "connective across different positions, between apparently dissimilar, sometimes contradictory, ideas." Their "'unity' is always in quotation marks and always complex, a suturing together of elements which have no necessary or eternal 'belongingness'" (10).

Without a doubt, the more recent post-Marxism evidences the desire to exploit Gramsci's work for a thoroughly nonessentialist theory of social transformation that recognizes domination as an effect of perpetual contestation rather than as something automatically handed over by the class structure. As I noted above, for Stuart Hall, Stanley Aronowitz, Cornel West, and others who stick closer to the concept of class as developed by Marx, the Gramscian viewpoint is understood to make it possible to acknowledge both the discursive character of the process of formation and the conditions of existence that constrain the process of formation itself. For post- Marxists like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, however, Gramsci provides the theoretical conditions for what A. Belden Fields calls the "'everything social is discourse' approach" (151) in which the irreducibly metaphorical and imperfectly sutured nature of all social practices and identities is not only affirmed but, moreover, posited as the very resource for social change:

Society as a sutured space, as the underlying mechanism that gives reasons for or explains its own partial processes, does not exist, because if it did, meaning would be fixed in a variety of ways. Society is an ultimate impossibility, an impossible object; and it exists only as the attempt to constitute that impossible object or order.... Neither the difference nor the space can be ultimately sutured. We can speak about the logic of the social, but we cannot speak of society as an ultimately rational and intelligible object. And the fact that we cannot speak of society in such a way is why we have to have a concept of hegemonic relations. Hegemonic relations depend upon the fact that the meaning of each element in a social system is not definitely fixed. If it were fixed, it would be impossible to rearticulate it in a different way, and thus rearticulation could only be thought under such categories as false consciousness. (Laclau 1988, 254)

For Laclau and Mouffe social change takes place because each element in the always already open system has a surplus of meaning that cannot be totally absorbed by the system. As they argue in their book, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, the surplus or excess that marks the failure of absolute identity is the potential reserve of social conflict or antagonism that manifests itself as political struggle within a vast textual chain.

Despite the profound differences between the highly controversial post-Marxism of Laclau and Mouffe and the more moderate neo-Gramscian approach, what each side has in common is, as I noted above, a general refusal to theorize the role of rhetoric in the process of social transformation. Upon first glance Laclau and Mouffe, rather than the neo-Gramscians, seem closest to claiming rhetoric as a vital component of any possible emancipatory project. However, in marshalling a particular interpretation of French poststructuralism in order to propose a paradigm of social change that exposes the essentialism inherent in historical materialism, Laclau and Mouffe's work operationalizes a notion of rhetoric-as-figuration that displaces not only the world-historical agent but also the art of persuasion. Here rhetoric is neither more nor less than the name for the unwitting and discursively constituted excess that escapes structure.

Oddly enough, however, it is in work of the neo-Gramscians that the absence and need of a theory of rhetoric are felt the most. Indeed, it is precisely at those moments wherein Hall, for example, seems to be on the verge of addressing the role and status of persuasion in social change that his discourse breaks off. His essay "Gramsci and Us" may serve as one case in point. Having made the argument that Gramsci's work enables us to better understand our contemporary historical conjuncture by obliging us to attend to the specificity and heterogeneity of political practice, he writes, "[Gramsci's notion of a 'historical bloc'] entails a quite different conception of how social forces and movements, in their diversity, can be articulated into a set of strategic alliances. To construct a new cultural order, you need not to reflect an already-formed collective will, but to fashion a new one, to inaugurate a new historic project" (170). Given Hall's proclivity toward and dexterity with theory, it is curious indeed that this two sentence paragraph that all but announces the passage into rhetoric is followed not by its theoretical elaboration but, instead, by a retreat into a scathing critique of the organized left in Britain. Ironically enough it is the Labour leadership's failure to put into practice what Hall himself leaves untheorized that provokes his admonition.


Excerpted from Addressing Postmodernity by Barbara A. Biesecker. Copyright © 1997 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. Entering the Fray,
2. Reading Ontology in A Grammar of Motives,
3. A Rhetoric of Motives, or Toward an Ontology of the Social,
4. Further Speculations on the Dialectic: The Rhetoric of Religion,
5. From Communicative Action to Rhetorical Invention,
Works Cited,

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