Reading On Symbols and Society, ed. Joseph Gusfield

On Symbols and Society, an edited collection compiled by Joseph Gusfield, a sociologist, includes excerpts from several books by rhetorician Kenneth Burke. 

I am going to post my notes from that book on this blog. 

I will partition these notes into 22 different sections, and each section will be based on an excerpt from On Symbols and Society. The sections are in the same order as the chapters, though I cite Burke’s original works and not Gusfield’s book.

While I have read most of the works cited in this book before (several of them multiple times), I am using Gusfield’s book instead of the original texts because that book is listed as required on the PhD preliminary exam in Rhetoric and Scientific and Technical Communication in the Department of Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota, which exam I plan to take in October. 

As I work on this, I start to see why Gusfield put things in the order he puts them in. He’s trying to help readers understand Burke the way he understands Burke. His method does make a certain kind of sense, based on dramatism, which is how many understand Burke. (Though I can’t here help but wish that Burke’s definition of and discussion of form in his “Lexicon Rhetoricae” in Counter-Statement had been included, especially since Burke himself believed that his definition of form was from where one should begin to understand him.)

Below, I have scanned in a document that helped me read the original sources Gusfield cites in On Symbols and Society. On page 2, you can see, below a few personal notes to myself, what the abbreviations and acronyms mean. 

In the notes I will post later, I cite the original texts and not Gusfield’s book, and this is the piece of paper that helps me to do that.




Finally, please note that Burke often uses the word man to refer to people in general, a convention of the time period in which he lived. He also dropped out of college (and never graduated), but I personally don’t believe he means to exclude anyone by using the term in the way he does, though by today’s standards it may seem so.

Laura (Riding) Jackson’s Project for a Whole Human Discourse: A Brief Summary

This post is a brief summary of A Brief Summary of Chapter 13 in Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women in the Rhetorical Tradition. The chapter was written by James Oldham and is called “The Telling: Laura (Riding) Jackson’s Project for a Whole Human Discourse.” 

In the essay, Oldham argues that Jackson’s The Telling offers a theory of epideictic rhetoric as the grounding of human discourse.

He begins by stating that all human beings are dependent on language, an axiom for Jackson, who began writing poetry to express the human experience: “A poem,” she wrote, “is an uncovering of truth of so fundamental and general a kind that no other name besides poetry is adequate except truth” (qtd. in Oldman 248). Later, however, Jackson abandoned poetry because it tended to focus more on the individual and not enough on the common ground between individuals, common ground that she believed was important that we not forget in our quest for individuality and understanding.

Her long essay, The Telling, corresponds with modern theories of language and rhetoric, though she never called it rhetoric because of her pejorative understanding of the term. The Tellingpromotes the idea that language is central to all that human beings do and are, and that human beings are therefore “both able and obligated to use language honestly and well” (249). We must therefore use good judgment and “exercise self-discipline in our use of language” (249). In other words, The Telling might be called an Isocratic approach to rhetoric because it is more about exercising good judgment in using language than it is about cataloging all means of persuasion. In addition to language as being central to human experience, The Telling also discusses major problems that rhetorics in general deal with, such as the problem of a speaker’s method and character, and the relationship between the one and the many. All of these things deal with Jackson’s “vision of a world in which women and men are collaborators in the project of telling” (250).

So what is language for Jackson? She believes language is a gift. It is immanent, it has a purpose and therefore a proper use, which is the advancement of Being, including human being, and it should be appreciated by all of us. Each of us ultimately comes from the same source, Being, which is synonymous with the universe, “whose animating spirit is manifest in the human mind” (qtd. in Oldman 251). When we find ourselves in the universe, it’s our responsibility to Tell, and our uses of language in these acts of telling should be true. On short, as human beings, we experience truth and then reflect that truth, through language, to each other. The standards for this act of telling are, needless to say, very high, but people often tell a version of their self that is not wholly true, and distorted. There is unfortunately a selfish kind of self which greedily attempts to get gain, prestige, and fame through the use of words. But this is not the true self, which is really concerned with its “common identity with other selves” (252).

When we over-emphasize our differences, we begin to desire the triumph of our wills over the wills of others. And that’s a dangerous position. For Jackson, this is what many disciplines, such as science and history do—they can’t explain us because they doesn’t tell us who we are, where we came from, and where we will go—even though she admits that they have done much for us (traditional religious stories, for example, do remind people that they are lost without remembering their origin in Being). But individual disciplines tend to only have parts or pieces of the whole, and are even known to be “more loyal to themselves than they are to the whole” (257). In short, “all of them fail to recognize that they depend, radically and ultimately, on the human capacity to produce, understand, and care about discourse” (257).

So speakers should be true to their real self, not a distorted version of it. Telling is not about ambition, and it is not about gaining fame at the expense of the audience. Individual people should genuinely search for truth and not impose what they discover onto everybody else. Oldham writes that for Jackson, “Discourses that lose sight of our essential commonality will always be false to the community on which they depend for their existence” (259).

So how does one perform an act of telling? Oldham writes, “The teller’s method must also help her to recover and represent her memory of original Being, and it should help her to avoid competing with others to tell better than they do” (253). A teller seeks to tell, by way of memory, imagination, and reason, the origin of human beings within the origin of Being—as well of our ongoing existence. Reminiscent of the Phaedrus, Jackson invites us to remember “the Before,” which is a time “back beyond one’s physical ancestors, and beyond the entire material ancestry of our bodies” (qtd. in Oldham 253). “By recovering this origin, . . . we will be able to overcome false stories of our Being” (253). Each individual person has his or her own “individual vestige of this original identity, but before we can tell it, we must recover it through memory” (253).

Telling seems to mean the sincere use of language to describe an individual’s search for truth and relate it to others without imposing one’s individual beliefs on others.
But this whole discussion of a search for common ground is precisely what epideictic discourse does. Hence, The Telling is epideictic discourse because it asks us to seek common ground: “to remember our common origin, common being, and common destiny” (254). So, Oldham comments, “our ultimate motivation should be the happiness of the Whole, a happiness we can achieve only through bringing our attention to Being, the only source of the Good. We can bring our attention to Being only by telling” and thus “epideictic [should] be adopted universally as the foundation of all discourse” (255). From this perspective, telling becomes a healing act whereby we realize that both women and men need one another.

Telling thus enables us to “overcome the habit of insisting on the triumph of our differences. If we do not believe that we are, at our core, one kind of being, one Being together, then we have only selfish reasons for survival, and no reason to be concerned for one another’s existence. If we do believe that we are one people, and that our common good is the only good we can know, then we have a rational basis for discourse that confirms that universal value, rather than enslaving and silencing one another” (260-261).

In conclusion, Oldham writes, “Jackson reminds us that there is some general Good in our being, in our existence here together, and that it is up to all of us to tell the story of our commonality and to hear one another’s telling. No one of us alone can tell the story completely, and there is neither competition for doing it better nor punishment for doing it worse” (261).

Communicating without Words?

Last week, two of my favorite people were married to one another. Here’s what the 3 of us looked like at one point:

About halfway through the reception, Ryan and Ju left for a minute. They returned, having changed into traditional Korean wedding robes. Awesome.

Two chairs were then brought in, and Grandpa and Grandma sat down. Ryan stood in front of Grandpa and Ju in front of Grandma. And then, in unison, Ryan and Ju knelt down in front of Grandpa and Grandma and bowed to them three times. The four of them then stood and embraced one another.

Then Mom and Dad sat in the chairs.

Again, Ryan and Ju knelt down and bowed their heads to the floor. They stood, and so did Mom and Dad. Then all four embraced.

Finally, Ju’s mother sat in a chair and her uncle sat in the other chair (on this occasion, her uncle took the place of her father). Again, Ju and Ryan knelt and then bowed. And at the same time Ryan and Ju were bowing, Ju’s mother and uncle bowed their heads. All 4 bowed in unison. Then all arose and embraced.

Ryan then presented Ju’s mother with a gift bag. In Korea, if the mother of the bride receives a wooden goose from the groom’s family it means that her daughter will be well-taken care of. Well, Ryan handed Ju’s mother a gift bag, and she opened it. Inside was a wooden goose that our mother had painted.

I can’t describe the expression on Ju’s mom’s face. It was one of gratitude, surprise, and joy, and when she saw it she let out an audible gasp. She began to weep, and Mom ran over and embraced her.

Several people that were watching were a bit confused because they didn’t understand the symbolism of the gift. But all who watched understood that there was something being communicated between two families that did not speak the same languages.

Human beings can only communicate insofar as a margin of overlap exists between person A’s experiences and person B’s experiences. But that margin of overlap always exists, even if we do not speak the same language, because we are all human beings. We are all embodied spirits. It seems to me that, no matter where a person is from, tears are universal. Love is universal.

We’re all human beings here. And we don’t have to completely understand one another in order to treat one another with kindness, respect, and love. Our traditions, though they are different, are good. And human beings have an innate capacity for love and kindness.