Thursday, December 6, 2007

Burke and “Things” as the “Signs of Words”

In saying “things are the signs of words,” Burke means that words act as a go-between in the realms of the “social” and that of a “nonverbal nature” and in doing so, “communicate to things the spirit that the society imposes upon [them].” As words have a particular “spirit” that is unique in their nature as words, through the use of language, things exist as “the manifestation of this spirit in visible tangible bodies.” They exist to use only through a “fog of symbol-ridden social structures.”

This claim calls our understanding of reality into question as well as our ability as humans to know a universal truth. Is there one pure and universal reality composed of ideal forms as Plato would suggest and if so, is it within our means to arrive at these “truths”? Burke would suggest that although a universal tangible universe may exist, our very nature as human would prevent us from ever knowing it as such. We are unable to know processes and things as they actually are, but instead see them as they ought to or are supposed to be as decided by that “spirit” within terminology which controls our perceptions. “Reality is what things will to do us and for us.” There is no neutral terminology with which to talk about the universe and even that which is of the seemingly most straight-forward, scholarly, scientific, and “factual” are unavoidably rhetorical, its claims ambiguous.

This changes the study of rhetoric quite a bit. For one, rhetoric is no longer seen as merely a tool as a means to an end, but rather as an end in itself. It isn’t something that we choose to do but what we unavoidably do at all times through both verbal language and action. Rhetoric is no longer limited to an oral and literary sphere but is rather interdisciplinary, its role also recognized in fields such as sociology, psychology, biology, and economics. By turning attention to the manners in which we create our realities through language, we may be able to acknowledge how our cultures, desires, histories, expectations, environments; etc interact with our communication both consciously and unconsciously so as to “mature” our attitudes towards one another and lessen conflict within a local social context as well as a global one. Its claim most importantly however, means that even the study of rhetoric, in itself, is a rhetorical construct.

[fall 2006]

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