Burke – “Rhetorical Situation”

Burke, Kenneth. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Communication: Ethical and moral issues (1973): 263-75. Print.

In this essay, Kenneth Burke sought to compose a summative definition of rhetorical situation. He asserted that the rhetorical situation is not confined to the resources that help to constitute it. Burke suggested that the rhetorical situation can be better understood through identification and his unofficial subtitle “congregation and segregation.” Burke used the example of a presidential campaign to illustrate his point highlighting that during a campaign the presidential candidates emphasize their differences, but once elected a president then emphasizes unity and identification. Theses emphases fall into categories of competition and cooperation respectively.

With regard to the rhetorical situation, Burke identified three major means of identification: 1- by sympathy, 2- By antithesis, and 3- by inaccuracy/ false assumption/ unawareness (i.e. A person’s mistaken identification with the power of her/ his technologies). Burke claimed that the rhetorical situation hinged on these fluid identifications. He stated that  “… the poignancy of the rhetorical situation attains its fullness in its spontaneously arising identifications whereby, even without deliberate intent upon the part of anyone, we fail to draw the lines at the right places” (271). He concluded that identification can be vague and we don’t know where to draw the line.  Barbara Biesecker would later echo this notion in her theory of rhetorical situation where she argued meaning is found in the fluctuating line of différance and makes the production of identities and social relations possible (Biesecker, “Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation”). This fluidity can also impact individual autonomy as illustrated by Burke’s example of the shepherd from Rhetoric of Motives in which the “protective” shepherd is simultaneously identified as the one leading the sheep to its slaughter.

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