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When Kenneth Burke conceived his celebrated “Motivorum” project in the 1940s and 1950s, he envisioned it in three parts. Whereas the third part, A Symbolic of Motives, was never finished, A Grammar of Motives (1945) and A Rhetoric of Motives (1950) have become canonical theoretical documents.
A Rhetoric of Motives was originally intended to be a two-part book. Here, at last, is the second volume, the until-now unpublished War of Words, where Burke brilliantly exposes the rhetorical devices that sponsor war in the name of peace. Discouraging militarism during the Cold War even as it catalogues belligerent persuasive strategies and tactics that remain in use today, The War of Words reveals how popular news media outlets can, wittingly or not, foment international tensions and armaments during tumultuous political periods. This authoritative edition includes an introduction from the editors explaining the compositional history and cultural contexts of both The War of Words and A Rhetoric of Motives. The War of Words illuminates the study of modern rhetoric even as it deepens our understanding of post–World War II politics.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520298101
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/13/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Anthony Burke is Associate Professor Emeritus of Astronomy at the University of Victoria and the son of Kenneth Burke. Burke worked with his father to organize and catalog Kenneth Burke’s papers. He now contributes to maintaining the archives associated with Kenneth Burke’s cultural legacy.
Kyle Jensen is Associate Professor of English at the University of North Texas. He is the author of Reimagining Process and the coeditor of Abducting Writing Studies.

Jack Selzer is Paterno Family Liberal Arts Professor at Pennsylvania State University. He has authored, coauthored, edited, and coedited many books and articles on Kenneth Burke, including Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village and Kenneth Burke in the 1930s.

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The Devices


In this section, we hope to deal with many sorts of examples, as though they were all on an equal footing. That is, for our purposes, relations between a man and his dog, or a bully and a toady, or a big imperialist country and a small overwhelmed one, might be treated as alike. Hence, if we illustrated a device by using examples chosen from all three orders of subject matter, we should be abiding wholly by our rules.

The political example might stir up passions which the other two did not. Or even worse, it might seem more "timely" than the others, hence more ephemeral. But by bringing out the formal element in a political maneuver, however a matter of the passing moment that maneuver was, do we not isolate the universal ingredient in it? The particulars change from day to day, but the principle they embody recurs constantly, in other particulars. For this reason, we consider a passing phase of politics, such as a typical pronouncement of the Truman administration, to be as permanent as fleas.

The aspect of the Scramble will change with changing conditions. These conditions themselves can be better or worse. But the human relations expressed through the Scramble will, mutatis mutandis, prevail under all historical conditions. "Human nature changes," in the sense that the means of livelihood, the quest for advantage, and the idea of order change. But "human nature cannot change," in the sense that we can abstract from various situations an essence common to the lot, transcending all details. Yesterday's sneeze is gone forever? The "principles" of that sneeze are eternal.

The Bland Strategy

In The Idiot, Ippolit accuses Mishkin of learning how to "make use of his illness." Mishkin, he says, has managed to offer friendship and money "in such an ingenious way that now it's impossible to accept under any circumstances." Mishkin's behavior has been "either too innocent or too clever." Ippolit is here in effect giving the formula for blandness.

Irony, in its simplest form, says one thing to imply the opposite (exclaiming "Splendid!" when meaning "Abominable!"). Blandness is a practical application of this principle. It is irony for use. Irony that never quite shows its hand; hence there is always the possibility that the surface meaning is the true one.

Warlike gestures made in the name of peace are bland, as when a "trouble spot" receives a "goodwill" visit by the fleet of a foreign power. Or would one nation call attention to the fact that she is moving troops near another as a threat? She can do so blandly by announcing the troop movements along with the statement that the troops are not intended as a threat. Or troop movements can be given significant pointing by special announcement of their dispatch, along with assurances that they are merely a "routine action."

A friend said: "I once had an uncle who was gentle enough, but enjoyed watching fistfights among children. Each Saturday he would get a dollar of his pay changed into pennies; and calling the children of the neighborhood, he would toss the pennies one by one, while saying unctuously: 'Just scramble for the pennies, and each of you can keep as many as he gets. But no pushing, no shoving, boys — and above all, no fighting.' While thus setting up the conditions of the Scramble that almost automatically made for a fight, he could blandly call for peace, confident that war would come before he had tossed a dozen pennies."

One can blandly "forget," as when Miss Prone was recalling vividly a memorable visit at Miss Preen's. Feeling warm at the memory of that past happy occasion, Miss Prone told of it in detail. Seeing an opponent thus off guard, Miss Preen enthusiastically praised Miss Prone's memory, "confessing" that she herself could not remember the occasion at all. The implication was, blandly, that Miss Prone's life must have been a starved one, in comparison with Miss Preen's, if Miss Prone thus cherished as a rich memory an occasion that Miss Preen had quite forgot.

A slightly deaf dowager was victimized by the blandness of the Misses Preen and Prone, thus: She burned with curiosity, wanting not to miss a single syllable and often humiliating people by making them repeat pointedly in a loud voice remarks that were worth only a low, diffident mutter. As a result, those who lived with her gradually began to conceal from her things that they would not mind telling to anyone, if only their remarks were not followed with avidity. She put such a high value on even casual gossip that the gossiper came to cherish his remarks for their value as rarities. The Misses Preen and Prone had lived with this situation long enough to become demons at it. As they conversed, while the dowager was ostentatiously reading a book, one of them reassured her obligingly: "We'll speak in a low voice, so as not to disturb you." And a little later, "We're not talking too loudly, are we?" Speaking low, so as not to disturb the deaf.

It is somewhat like the blandness of an overeagerness to please, as with Miss Preen's constant expression of concern for the health of Miss Prone, from whom she had detached an admirer. Miss Preen's solicitousness was meant to announce that she had scored. Miss Prone might be counter-bland, in thanking Miss Preen warmly for her generosity.

Or there was the case of Joseph who, without funds, had married a rich Josephine. At first, in all simplicity, he paid for his keep by being assiduously attentive. Then slowly over the years, a perverse, and even morbid blandness emerged in his treatment of her, unbeknownst to them both. Joseph began to plague Josephine with his worries for her welfare. He did not let her live a moment without the feel of a doctor's hand on her pulse. He was so attentive that no one could fail to comment on his devotion. And in her unexpressed and inexpressible desire to poison him, she felt so guilty that each day she became more sickly. Here was a situation worthy of the André Gide who wrote The Immoralist. Blandness could go no farther.

Japanese officialdom exploited a blandness of this sort. Soon after the surrender, when the U.S. army of occupation moved in, the local bureaucrats confounded the victors by being painfully meticulous in the desire to cooperate. They never tired of asking for "clarifications" of military orders, so that they might obey to the last letter. They were even "scrupulous" in reporting their own violations and misunderstandings of any order. They were so anxious to please, the very thoroughness of their compliance led our newsmen to fear a ruse. It was a ruse, and a particularly complex one. First, it allowed the imperial bureaucracy to bide its time. In this respect it was experimental maneuvering for a good position from which to feel out the enemy, without necessarily having any definite plan of future action in mind. Eventually, it could hope for the state of affairs that later developed, when the capitalists would again begin building up the very interests they were now tearing down. Meanwhile, the officials could take bland satisfaction in making the conqueror sick of his own regulations. For instead of attacking these regulations, they tirelessly thought up bothersome questions supposedly intended to "help put the regulations into effect."

An ironically bland kind of "cooperation" is said to have taken place during the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. The Nazis had been sending spies among the Czechs. These spies would spot anti-Nazi patriots by going to Czech cafés and talking "confidentially" against Hitler. Soon the Czechs learned of the ruse. Hence, next act: Nazi spy comes to café where Czech patriots are gathered. In the role of agent provocateur, he talks against Hitler. Whereupon the Czechs virtuously pummel him "for saying such things against the Führer."

There is a common variant that works well in charges of political corruption. It runs: Our opponents should invite this investigation of them, for if they are innocent, the investigation will prove it.

Bland irony also permits insult by hospitality. Thus, Prone comes to visit Preen. Preen promptly invites him to the corner saloon for a drink. Nothing more hospitable than being invited to have a drink on your host. But you are in effect being asked out. After the drink, Preen begs earnestly to be excused, hurrying away "to another engagement." The blandness is in the fact that this insulting sequence can also be enacted in all simplicity and goodwill.

A housewife provided the deftest instance we ever found of blandness that unmistakably made its meaning clear and attained its purpose, yet did not show its hand. Mrs. Prone and Mrs. Preen were next-door neighbors. Though their husbands earned about the same income, Mrs. Prone used much better tea than Mrs. Preen. This fact became clear when Mrs. Preen once came to borrow tea, which she later repaid in kind, with her own inferior brand. So she began to borrow tea quite regularly, always repaying in the same quantities of inferior quality. Though Mrs. Prone soon recognized the pattern, she made no protest. She merely kept some of Mrs. Preen's tea in a separate canister, and gave it back to her the next time Mrs. Preen came to borrow. Neighborly relations were strained for a few days, then, thanks to the blandness, a new modus vivendi was established, and without further traffic in tea.

In one variant of blandness at a meeting of the U.N. Security Council during the Iranian controversy, the American chairman sat silent while the Iranian ambassador was allowed too much latitude in presenting his case against the Soviet Union, and then severely called him to order after he had used his opportunities. Or recall the occasion when our navy "inadvertently" let out the information that the Russians had been inefficient, non-cooperative, and repressive while supposedly helping us establish bases for meteorological observations in Siberia "in accordance with the Potsdam conference agreement." The implication was that they were thus blocking the normal progress of science. But at the end of the story one learned that the disruption came at a time when our military forces were conducting "cold weather combat testing operations" jointly with Canadian units, and when the navy was sending its giant carrier Midway on an expedition to the Arctic. So, in the name of international science, we had been blandly asking the Russians to help us assemble meteorological data for possible use against them if conditions worsened. And there was doubtless a counter-blandness in the Russians' ineptitudes and interferences.

When our Ambassador to Poland was inaugurating a tour of the United States, to work up feeling against the new Leftist government in Poland, he resigned his office, according to the story in the New York Times, "for the purpose of letting the American people know more of conditions than was proper for the State Department to reveal through publication of his official records." He then gave an interview where "it was insisted that the former Ambassador was speaking personally." But though now a private citizen, and stressing the fact that he had no differences with the White House or the State Department, he held his interview in the reception room of the Secretary of State, the room where the Secretary of State holds news conferences. And "officials of the press relations office of the State Department were present and from time to time prompted him on points as they arose in the course of his observations." Technically, we'd call this arrangement bland, since the official stamp was being presented in terms of the unofficial, without sacrificing of the official significance. But the Department did make certain that it wouldn't be too bland. In keeping with the genius of the Truman administration, this diplomacy had the subtlety of a blackjack. Recall the old saw of the father winding the clock as a hint that the daughter's admirer was staying too late. Truman diplomacy would amend the device delicately by having the father add, "This isn't meant as a hint," while he next went to put out the cat.

Blandness is sometimes close to hypocrisy; yet we would not call Tartuffe bland. One can even be so bland that he need not be sure just where the line between simplicity and cunning is to be drawn, in judging his own motives. To praise the valor of those you vanquished can be downright "noble," though its blandness, as a roundabout way of paying tribute to oneself, is revealed when, after a game of tennis, a gratified but embarrassed victor burlesques his enthusiasm about the "insuperable playing" of the opponent he has just beaten.

It was out-and-out hypocrisy when a host, to discourage a prospective guest, told him of the forbiddingly bad conditions into which he would be plunged. But what of the guest? Did he suspect that the circumstances were misrepresented, so that they might act as deterrents? He answered, saying: Where things were in such a deplorable condition, there he should be. And so he arrived, with the zeal of a missionary. And after arriving, he expressed his surprise at finding that, though he had anticipated a very bad state of affairs, to his great relief things were quite calm. Where are we? He really was sacrificial-minded. He really would take on problems. At the same time, he sensed a certain overdoing of the report. So he was bland in his way of announcing that he would come, and bland in announcing his surprise. This was not Tartuffism; it was true blandishment.

We go farther afield, though still remaining within the outer confines of the bland, with the formula, "our hands are tied," whereby a mighty nation can supposedly be deterred by "solemn pledges" its statesmen have at some time given to some petty chieftain or other. Thus the British were "prevented" from agreeing to the return of certain colonies to Italy because of promises made to the tribe of Senussi in North Africa. The tied-hands device under such conditions is particularly convenient because it need not tie the hands except when so desired. For obviously, when the hands of a large nation are tied by some very small one, the mere granting of minor favors, or the threat of withholding such favors, would be enough to get agreement for the revision of a pact. For a cartoon, one can imagine a diplomat crying, "Our hands are tied," while kicking away a kindly wayfarer who naively offered to untie them.

Or, you can go a step further, and tie your own hands, if there is no one to help you. It was thus with the Truman administration's policy in first killing the distribution of European relief through the United Nations and then bypassing the organization on the grounds that it was unable to deal with such problems. The first step "tied our hands" in making UNRRA unworkable, so that we could not work with it. The same diagnosis, but without reference to rhetorical devices, is in a report from Lake Success by Thomas J. Hamilton (NYT, 3/19/47): "As the United States also prevented the United Nations from establishing an agency to continue supplying food to war-devastated countries, it is felt here that Washington is responsible for the fact that unilateral action is necessary."

Blandness is par excellence the menace of a friend. Given blandness enough, one person might "cooperate" another off the map. Where lion and lamb are in the same "co-prosperity sphere," each will have its kinds of foxiness. Here we impinge upon such devices as popularly go by names like "Trojan horse policy" and "boring from within."

Shrewd Simplicity

Question III, Article VII of the Summa Theologica explains that God is "altogether simple" (omnino simplex). All that exists divisively in the multiplicity of nature (divisim et multipliciter) preexists in God's unity and simplicity (unite et simpliciter). Here is the Grammatical ground for those paradoxes whereby the devout man was asked to make himself "a fool for Christ" (as in Chapter XVII of Thomas à Kempis on The Imitation of Christ), or of those transformations whereby a pagan clown could become Parsifal of the Holy Graal. Here is the Grammatical ground for Rhetorical devices that equate the simpleton with the lovable, the stupid with the wholesome.

Obviously, we are still on the subject of Blandness. But usually there is more of a "front" about Blandness than marks many instances of Shrewd Simplicity. "Blandness" refers to the looks from the outside; "shrewd simplicity" names from within. The line readily becomes obscured because we are considering the reality behind appearances. So, if you prefer, think of this section simply as "Blandness — continued."

But our present term seems more direct for describing the "place," for instance, which Al Smith exploited for invective when in a St. Patrick's Day talk (1939) he called the Nazis "just plain stupid," and "original boneheads who will never get to first base." But the Communists were "cunning," there were "smart babies ... past masters of the art of roping them in." Sum total of Smith's equations: Don't worry about Fascism; it has the harmlessness of the comedian (hence furtively also something of the comedian's lovableness?); keep your attention focused on Communism. We could hardly say that Smith was being "bland." But he was certainly shrewdly exploiting the resources of simplicity.


Excerpted from "The War of Words"
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Copyright © 2018 The Kenneth Burke Literary Trust.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Editors’ Introduction



1. The Devices

Of the Devices in General
The Bland Strategy
Shrewd Simplicity
Undo by Overdoing
Yielding Aggressively
Say the Opposite
Spiritualization (the Nostrum)
Making the Connection
Say Anything
Theory of the Devices

2. Scientific Rhetoric

I. ”Facts” Are Interpretations
II. Headline-Thinking
III. Selectivity
IV. Reduction (“Gist”)
V. Tithing by Tonality
VI. News as Drama
VII. Polls, Forums, Accountancy

3. [Notes toward] The Rhetoric of Bureaucracy
4. [Notes toward] The Rhetorical Situation

Appendix 1. Facsimile of the Outline of ”The Rhetorical Situation”
Appendix 2. Foreword (to end on)
Appendix 3. Facsimile of “Foreword (to end on)”

List of Textual Emendations and Explanatory Notes

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