CCR 631: Contemporary Rhetorics · Rhetoric · Uncategorized

Burke: Identification & Consubstantiality

Imagine it: a coffee shop, brightly painted walls, mismatched furniture, laptops crowding an already too-small table. I’m talking with Lindsey. She tells me that she’s started using my finger-wag when she’s sassing. She then says, “I often wonder if I’m my own person or a sponge because I pick up other people’s catchphrases and mannerisms.” Pause.

Wasn’t I just reading something about that? Wasn’t it Burke?

I finally had an opportunity to read Burke—something that had to happen sooner or later. And now I can finally nod in understanding (rather than bewilderment) when I hear someone mention identification or consubstantiality—the terms I hear most commonly associated with Burke. Here’s his introductory explanation of identification:

A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself with B even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded to believe so. (20)

Pretty straightforward. I am identified by people with similar interests (perhaps evidenced by the very similar thinking patterns in my friend group) and I identify with people whose interests I perceive as similar to my own—or when someone persuades me that they’re similar.

Now, consubstantiality:

In being identified with B, A is “substantially one” with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time he remains unique, an individual locus of motives. Thus he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another. (21)

Two things jump out at me here. First, Burke notes that substances (common images, ideas, attitudes) create acts—specifically, a process of acting-together (21). So this adds an element of action. The mere process of identification does not necessarily imply consubstantiality or some sort of action between the two people (which will be useful for thinking about how a rhetor attempts to identify with an audience).

Second, introduced here is the idea of division, a simultaneous being of substantiality with self and with other. This is something Burke comes back to again and again, referencing Aristotle’s claim that rhetoric “proves opposites” (25). Rhetoric addresses opposing sides or groups that are in some way “at odds with one another” (22). This is important because, as one peer said in class a few weeks ago, without any sort of opposition rhetoric isn’t rhetoric; it’s simply preaching to the choir. So the process of identification must necessarily begin from division. Then the rhetor attempts to “proclaim [the] unity” of these opposing groups and audiences (22).

This is pretty straightforward. We attempt to create unity from division. Without unity, we’re unable to come to any sort of space of common understanding or agreement, and without division, we have no use for rhetoric. Burke also relies on a fairly straightforward (Aristotelian) definition of rhetoric: “Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, or a study of the means of persuasion available for any given situation” (46). And this definition introduces another key principle of his argument and of rhetoric: audience.

Burke argues that traditional understandings of rhetoric emphasize the role of addressing an external audience. That is, the rhetor seeks to identify with an audience using a variety of appeals in order to identify with the audience in order to persuade them.

Perhaps this is the clearest example of both identification (a rhetor trying to identify with an audience) and of audience (an external group). I’m drawn to Burke’s discussion of the internal audience, too, and its relation to socialization. He writes, “The individual person, striving to form himself in accordance with the communicative norms that match the cooperative ways of his society, is by the same token concerned with the rhetoric of identification” (39). That is, the individual must act upon himself.

I find this productive for thinking about the process by which we internalize particular (dominant) ideas and thus identify with those ideas.

The issue with teaching a class about disability, or making someone understand or appreciate the value of learning about disability, is a matter of identification. Often, students don’t feel like they can identify with disability or disability experience unless they 1) have a disability or 2) know someone with a disability.

Even before teaching about disability, this lack or (even resistance to) identification has always stumped me. How can you not know at least one person with a disability? How can you not see the connections between disability and other (marginalized) identity groups? Why is disability so much different that we can’t even approach that process of identification?

Because disability is constructed as so radically different from human existence and because disability—even as a subject—is so stigmatized, we identify with and internalize particular (dominant) cultural understandings of disability as something different, dangerous, or bad.

When we don’t identify with those dominant understandings, we create division. Sometimes, I feel like I’m talking across a canyon when I’m talking to someone about why disability is important as a human experience, as a subject of inquiry, as a methodology. I frequently hear excited yet frustrating responses: “Yes! I knew someone with a disability who was awesome and everyone loved him.” And while there’s a lot that I could say about this, most of it would be a tangent—so suffice it to say that this is a patronizing and misguided intention (similar to the “I can’t be racist; I have a black friend!” argument). Of course, if I said that, there would be absolutely no way I could persuade that person to side with me. Instead, I (as the rhetor) have to find some way to establish rapport between myself and this person I disagree with but whom I desperately want to understand my perspective.

This is where I think Burke comes in handy:

You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your way with his. Persuasion by flattery is but a special case of persuasion in general. But flattery can safely serve as our paradigm if we systematically widen its meaning, to see behind it in the conditions of identification or consubstantiality in general. And you give the “signs” of such consubstantiality by deference to an audience’s “opinions.” (55)

You shut down productive conversation if you tell someone she’s wrong and aren’t willing to budge. The key is identifying your position with hers—striking a balance between these different opinions—because, as Burke says, “rhetoric is properly said to be grounded in opinion” (54).

When we talk about charity and cure in my classes, I like to share this Autism Speaks video that very quickly (and visually) creates a fear-based rhetoric that autism is this dangerous thing that is quickly spreading and affecting us all. Autism Speaks is an organization that, among other things, seeks to find a cure for autism. Problematic (my opinion).

One of my students this semester, however, wrote a very engaging response to Laura Hershey’s article about charity organizations and the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. My student used Autism Speaks as an example to argue that charities are ill-intentioned when they don’t focus on the needs of the people they’re “serving,” but that Autism Speaks is valuable because they offer (educational) resources to families. Positive (her opinion).

This was also an important rhetorical moment. She (as rhetor) appealed to me (as audience) by identifying with my opinion (acknowledging that many charities do have problematic intentions) while also very respectfully arguing her opinion. It’s a great moment of consubstantiality because even though I still have my own (admittedly strong) opinions about cure-oriented charities in general and Autism Speaks specifically, I can also side with my student’s perspective. That is, I am “both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another” (21).


Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.


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