Chapter 4: The Symbol

A collection of symbols
A collection of symbols. Pixabay.

This chapter covers the concept of the symbol. The first portion of this chapter defines the symbol and presents several philosophies of language developed in the 20th century by Kenneth Burke, George Herbert Mead, and Charles Sanders Peirce. Important concepts from these philosophies/philosophers include identification, the “I” and the “me,” and the icon, index, and symbol. The second part of this chapter addresses Burke’s framework of “Rhetoric as Symbolic Action,” discussing the terministic screen, the dramatistic pentad, and demagoguery.

Please note that some of the written materials (specifically, the section on icon, index, and symbol) presented in this chapter do not appear in the same order as in the official recording for the class. Also included in the textbook below (but not in the recordings) are written descriptions and YouTube videos about early 20th-century American propagandists. This added material is useful context for symbols as 20th-century American propaganda, but it also provides more detail than is presented in the recordings.

Watching the video clips embedded in the chapters may add to the projected “read time” listed in the headers.  Please also note that the audio recording for this chapter covers the same tested content as is presented in the chapter below.

Chapter Recordings

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Part 1: What are Symbols?

The concept of “the symbol” comes from an ancient Greek word, “symbolon,” which is the union of the words “thrown” and “together.” The ancient use of the word “symbol” had an important social function: they were objects that represented a pact, treaty, or agreement between people and the state. Receiving a “symbolon” was more than receiving a gift or a token: they indicated the presence of a specific relationship between an individual and an institution. This chapter continues this line of reasoning by considering the kinds of relationships created by prominent symbols in the 20th century.  This section covers the concept of identification, different 20th-century theories of the symbol, and continues an ongoing discussion about dangerous propaganda from the previous chapter.

Kenneth Burke and Identification through Rhetoric

Between 1939 and 1945, Kenneth Burke’s theories of identification and symbolic action changed the study of rhetoric by bringing new attention to the powerful effects of speech. Rhetoric and rhetoricians adopt a new framework that considers rhetoric to be a mode of symbolic action, in which speech is primarily understood to unify and divide a mass public. Whereas rhetorical scholarship had previously concerned itself with effective persuasion, Burke introduces the idea of identification. As persuasion, rhetoric happens in or as a speech and relies upon the speaker’s conscious choices, their historical circumstances, and the timeliness of the moment. As identification, rhetoric is about influence. It concerns communicating a meaning that reflects something that the audience shares with the speaker and other listeners.

In other words, identification is a way of talking about rhetoric as collectivizing, or as creating the audiences that it addresses. It is about bringing people together using symbols. When we identify with or around a symbol, we may come to share a similar system of values, assessment of social hierarchy, and rules of communication. The symbol is how we make not just any meaning but a shared meaning that we all hold in common. A related concept is consubstantiality, or the creation of sameness or likeness between different members of a group. Identification is not just about persuading with the right words. It encourages us to think about groups coming together around a symbol, how it moves the group, and how this symbol comes to mean something similar for everyone within it.

X Gonzalez’s March 24, 2018 Speech at the “March for Our Lives” Rally. An Example of Identification.

The speech above offers a good example of identification. The silence that spans the majority of the recording symbolizes the school shooting that X Gonzalez experienced for the gathered audience.  The silence in this speech creates shared meaning with which this audience may identify. Identification does not happen all at once, however. Gonzalez begins the speech with the following statement:

Six minutes and about twenty seconds. In a little over six minutes, seventeen of our friends were taken from us,  fifteen were injured and everyone, absolutely everyone in the Douglas community was forever altered. Everyone who was there understands. Everyone who has been touched by the cold grip of gun violence understands. For us, long, tearful, chaotic hours in the scorching afternoon sun were spent not knowing. No one understood the extent of what had happened. No one could believe that there were bodies in that building waiting to be identified for over a day. No one knew that the people who are missing had stopped breathing long before any of us had even known that a code red had been called. No one could comprehend the devastating aftermath or how far this would reach or where this would go.

For those who still can’t comprehend because they refuse to, I’ll tell you where it went, right into the ground, six feet deep. Six minutes and twenty seconds with an AR-15 and my friend Carmen would never complain to me about piano practice. Aaron Feis would never call Kiera Ms. Sunshine. Alex Schachter would never walk into school with his brother Ryan. Scott Beigel would never joke around with Cameron at camp. Helen Ramsey would never hang out after school with Max. Do you know Montalto would never wave to her friend Liam at lunch? Joaquin Oliver would never play basketball with Sam or Dylan. Alaina Petty would never, Carol Lungren would never, Chris Hixon would never, Luke Hoyer would never, Martin Duque Anguiano would never. Peter Wang would never, Alyssa Alahdeff would never, Jamie Guttenberg would never, Meadow Pollick would never.

At that stage in the speech, Gonzalez pauses for the entire length of time that the students at Stoneman Douglas had to remain silent while an active shooter was in the building. Gonzalez’s silence is uncomfortable for some listeners, who cheer and make noise as if encouraging them to speak.

Since the time that I came out here. It has been six minutes and 20 seconds. The shooter has ceased shooting and will soon abandon his rifle, blend in with the students as they escape, and walk free for an hour before arrest. Fight for your lives before it’s someone else’s job.

Identification describes the creation of a shared experience around the symbol. In this case, Gonzalez’s symbol is silence. This silence, which disrupted the expectation that they would speak, represents Gonzalez’s specific traumatic past experience, which also lasted six minutes and twenty seconds. Identification is clear in the discomfort and uncertainty of the audience during this long silence, simulating the disorientation characteristic of the event itself. Audiences – including its distant viewers on YouTube – come to identify with X because they come to understand the relationship between the speech and the scenario that the symbol represents.

Of course, identification does not always work. When this happens, it is called failed identification: when a meaning that a speaker wishes to share with a wider audience does not create the intended effect. During his 2012 US Presidential election campaign, Mitt Romney was widely criticized for using a false accent in his southern speeches. According to some critics, the former Massachusetts governor and US senator’s choice to use a southern accent was an example of unsuccessful pandering:

Mitt Romney’s “Grits” Moment. An Example of Failed Identification.

As Romney’s clip illustrates, disingenuous or inauthentic rhetoric may lead to effects of failed or (dis-)identification. The intent of this kind of speech may be to create an audience that shares the speaker’s understanding and worldview. However, a speaker who chooses symbols that challenge or their existing ethos also risks distancing themselves from their listeners.

In review, rhetoric emerges at the beginning of the 20th century as the study of public address, or as, again, the study of speeches and the systematic way they persuade. But at the same time, there’s also a second notion about rhetoric that is emerging that rhetoric is a mode of identification, that it requires symbols that everyone interpreting the same way.

The Symbol and the Philosophy of Language

There are two early American philosophers of language who independently develop theories of the symbol. The first is George Herbert Mead, who coins the phrase symbolic interactionism. The second is Charles Sanders Peirce, who develops a theory of representation based on the icon, the index, and the symbol.

George Herbert Mead argues for a fundamental difference between “the I” and “the me” to explain how social expectations surrounding symbols are created. The “me” is the self that exists in relationship to a generalized, non-specific other. It is the generic response that I would expect from someone else when I execute a gesture or say a phrase. If “the me” says “how are you doing?” to a stranger on the street, they might expect them to say, “I’m fine, how are you?” or “none of your business!” depending on the customary expected response within that social environment.

The “I” describes individual reactions inflected with freedom and unpredictability. If  “I” wave to someone on the street, I might (as “the me”) expect them to wave back or acknowledge my hello. But the I is all of the actions that could happen: they could run up to me and confront me or suddenly run in the other direction. The sense of freedom that is characteristic of “the I” is, in this case, all of the different ways that this other person interprets my gesture differently or in a way that is opposed to the intention of the symbolic gesture I used to interact with them.

A second mid-20th-century philosopher of language who develops a theory of the symbol is Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced “purse”). Peirce is the inventor of linguistic pragmatism, in which the meaning of an idea may be understood as the totality of possible observations about it. According to Peirce, meaning must have an actual value; it must be taken from empirical observations. This is “value” occurs in one of three registers: “firstness,” “secondness,” and “thirdness.”

Informational Video on Peirce’s Philosophy of Language

Imagine thinking of nothing but the color blue, not thinking about the color or addressing questions about the experience. The idea would be to perceive one thing alone. This is Peirce’s concept of firstness, the contemplation of the essential qualities of something, the color blue. But we cannot purely experienced this before some secondness (the sun, the landscape) a quality distinct from the blueness that you first perceived enters your consciousness. Perhaps something different or distinct from the original phenomenon, in relation to the foreground of background appears as a secondness. Perhaps it could be a sound. It could be another color or it might be an object that appears in the midst of that color. [It could be] something in a contrasting color that makes it distinguishable, that has characteristics, such as a shape. Finally, Perice recognized that what you experience in your mind is thirdness, the mediation of signs that occurs as a mental process of your experiences, thoughts or ideas. He called this an interpretant. An interpretant is a being with the potential to interpret signs [and who occupies the position of thirdness relative to firstness and secondness]

Signifier, Signified, Referent

Peirce employs three-part distinctions like firstness, secondness, and thirdness throughout his philosophy of language. One related framework is the distinction between the signifier, the signified, and the referent.  The signifier is the graphic mark before it comes into contact with a specific meaning. It is also called the ‘shape’ of the word and the sound image. The signified is the meaning of the signifier, or the concept the word invokes. It is the ideational component of the word or the shared and similar thought that a word conjures for a person or people. Finally, the referent is the actual, literal object, which exists in the world.

The White House
“White House South Lawn” by MCS@flickr is licensed under CC BY 2.0

For example, “the White House”: the signifier is the phonemes and sounds that combine to form this phrase. The signified is what this phrase “means,” such as the office of the American presidency that symbolizes the authority of the executive branch. Finally, the referent is the literal building or structure that exists in Washington D.C.

Icon, Index, Symbol

A final three-part distinction related to representation is the icon, the index, and the symbol.

An Icon: Rock Slide Warning Sign
An Icon: Rock Slide Warning Sign

The icon resembles its referent, the literal thing to which it refers. The image of rocks falling is an icon because the thing it warns us against, rocks falling, is represented as a literal depiction of rocks falling.

Forest fire smoke in the distance
An Index: The 2021 Loma Fire outside of Santa Barbara

The index is associated with a referent by cause or inference. When we see an index, we can deduce what it means. An image of smoke in the distance means that there is a fire; reasoning rather than a natural resemblance gives away the meaning of the index.

A Symbol: A Biohazard Sign
A Symbol: A Biohazard Sign

Finally, the symbol is related to the referent by convention. The biohazard symbol means that there is radiation present. However, there is no natural resemblance between a biological hazard (such as radiation) and this symbol; this danger does not “look like” anything we can easily represent. Additionally, we cannot use reasoning or deduction to infer that the biohazard symbol means that radiation is present. The symbol does not, for instance, show what the effects of radiation might be, like the image of smoke. Instead, the symbol means “radiation” through convention, circulation, and use.

visualization of an icon, index, and symbol

Here’s another example, an image of a bicycle, a skull and crossbones, and the infinity symbol. The bicycle is an icon because it literally resembles the object. The skull and crossbones are an index because the audience may infer that consuming the object will lead to death. Finally, the final image, the leviathan cross, is a symbol because it does not refer specifically or reverentially to an object, and an audience cannot easily infer its meaning. Although it symbolizes protection and balance, this meaning is only attached to the symbol through convention and use.

A tree decorated with several Nazar Boncuk ("bon-juk") medallions
A tree decorated with several Nazar Boncuk (“bon-juk”) medallions

The final example of icon, index, and symbol is the Nazar Boncuk. It is an ornament that hangs in many homes to ward off the “evil eye”; many of you may have seen it or own them yourselves. It is an important example because it illustrates how the icon, the index, and the symbol can be part of a single object. It is an icon because the object resembles an eye. It is an index because, most often, when it is placed in a home, it hangs above the doorway as a message for guests: someone is always watching, so behave yourself as if you were being watched. Finally, it also has a symbolic value because its meaning is only learned by convention. When I grew up with this symbol in my home, I only realized that it was there as a symbol of protection because it was part of a story that was communicated to me by my family and which is part of a larger cultural tradition of hanging these symbols in homes. However, just seeing the symbol by itself doesn’t necessarily communicate this shared, well-known meaning.

Symbols and 20th-Century Propagandists

The last bit of historical context about the symbol that I want to provide is political propaganda in the early 20th century. Propaganda is an important feature of the early 20th century that still lingers with us today. This time in the United States created a class of professional persuaders whose job was to create symbols and shared identifications on behalf of corporations and government. Several important figures for the history of propaganda in the United States are George Creel, Edward Bernays, and Walter Lippmann. Edward Bernays is widely regarded as one of the founders of the field of public relations.

(1) George Creel. Seven days after the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Woodrow Wilson created the Committee on Public Information, a propaganda agency acting to release government news, sustain morale in the US, administer voluntary press censorship, and develop propaganda abroad. Creel was named the head of the committee, and he created 37 distinct divisions, most notably the Division of Pictorial Publicity, the Four Minute Men Division, the News Division, and the Censorship Board.

The Division of Pictorial Publicity was staffed by hundreds of the nation’s most talented artists. They created over 1000 designs for paintings, posters, cartoons, and sculptures that instilled patriotism, fear, and interest in the war efforts. Creel himself said that the images were “something that caught even the most indifferent eye.” Between the News Division and Censorship Committee, Creel and the CPI could control the flow of official war information. Creel sought to portray facts without bias, though most pieces of news were “colored by nationalistic assumptions.” Creel’s committee may have produced biased news, but he hoped that the US could avoid rigid censorship during the war, as Creel’s views on censorship were “expression, not repression.” Under Creel’s direction, the CPI sought to repress material that contained “dangerous” or “unfavorable” ideas to avoid demoralizing the population.

(2) Edward Bernays was born in Vienna, Austria. In 1891 Bernays’s family moved to New York City. The nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays often consulted his uncle’s work. He was the first to incorporate psychology and other social sciences into PR, yet where Freud sought to uncover motivations, Bernice sought to mobilize them. Bernie’s clients were companies rather than individuals. In one instance, the American Tobacco Company asked him to expand sales. He responded with a campaign (see below) that marketed cigarettes as “torches of freedom” and sought to associate tobacco consumption with the women’s suffrage movement.

(3) During World War I Walter Lippmann, an American journalist, became an adviser to Woodrow Wilson and assisted in drafting Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech. He sharply criticized George Creel, whom the President appointed to head wartime propaganda efforts at the Committee on Public Information. While he was prepared to curb his liberal instincts because of the war, saying he had “no doctrinaire belief in free speech,” he nonetheless advised Wilson that censorship should “never be entrusted to anyone who is not himself tolerant, nor to anyone who is unacquainted with the long record of folly which is the history of suppression.”

Lippmann examined the coverage of newspapers and saw many inaccuracies and other problems. He and Charles Merz, in a 1920 study entitled A Test of the News, stated that The New York Times’ coverage of the Bolshevik Revolution was biased and inaccurate. In addition to his newspaper column “Today and Tomorrow,” he wrote several books. He was also the first to bring the phrase “cold war” to a common currency in his 1947 book by the same name.

Lippman also argued that people, including journalists, are more apt to believe “the pictures in their heads” than to come to judgment by critical thinking. He wrote that humans condense ideas into symbols, and journalism, a force quickly becoming the mass media, is an ineffective method of educating the public. Even if journalists did better jobs of informing the public about important issues, Lippmann believed “the mass of the reading public is not interested in learning and assimilating the results of accurate investigation.”


Part 2: Rhetoric as Symbolic Action

Symbolic Action describes the construction of social reality through symbols that foster identification. If rhetoric-as-symbolic action is the expressive human use of symbols, then social reality is the reality that we perceive through symbols, as well as the rituals, habits, and practices that use symbols. Additionally, symbolic action must involve identification because symbols allow people to see themselves as a group based on common interests and characteristics. Groups may also be broken apart using symbols, for instance, by claiming that some group members hold on to symbols that threaten the whole group’s identity. Symbolic action also occurs in public, out in the open. It means that symbols are leveraged to move people as a group to do things that they otherwise might not do. Symbols move people because they identify with them — because they see something at stake in protecting symbols and see similarity (or difference) in those who cling to them.

Let’s place some firm definitions on this terminology, starting with Symbolic Action.

  • Symbolic Action describes the making or construction of social reality through symbols that foster identification. It is expressive human action, the rhetorical mobilization of symbols to act in the world.
  • Rhetoric is the use of symbolic action by human beings to share ideas, enabling them to work together to make decisions about matters of common concern and to construct social reality.
  • rhetor is any person, group, or institution that uses symbolic action.
  • symbol is an arbitrary representation of something else, a word, an image, or an artifact representing a thing, concept, or action. Verbal Symbols are symbols found in language, whether spoken or written. Visual Symbols are symbols that include pictures, images, objects, recordings, enactments, demonstrations, and other collective actions.
  • Identification, finally, “is a communicative process through which people are unified into a whole based on common interests or characteristics.” It is how symbolic action allows a rhetor to connect with the audience on a psychological level.

Kenneth Burke’s theory of symbolic action revolves around his “definition of man.” (see the additional readings for this week). Although the word “man” is both a dated and imprecise way to say “human,” Burke’s definition is significant because it defines the human in terms of their capacity to use symbols (“the symbol-using animal”). Burke points out that animals can understand symbols; birds, for example, interact with symbols regularly. Wrens use food as leverage to goad hatchlings to leave the nest. However, humans manipulate symbols to advance their own purposes and create social groups, which sets them apart.

Burke’s “definition” has five parts. The first is that humans are symbol-using (and misusing) animals. As Burke writes,

“What is our reality for today but all of this clutter of symbols about the past combined with whatever things we know mainly through maps, magazines, newspapers, and the like about the present. In school, as they go from class to class, students turn from one idiom (like mathematics or chemistry) to another (like Communication Studies or Rhetoric). The various courses in the curriculum are in effect but so many different terminologies. And however important to us is the tiny sliver of reality each of us has experienced first-hand, the whole over-all ‘picture’ is but a construct of our symbol-systems.”

Humans have the capacity to recognize symbols, but they also have the capacity to put them out into the world. They can use these symbols to destructive ends, and most often, substitute symbols for one another, such that a new symbol may carry on the work of an older one. The other aspects of this definition are important as well:

  • Inventor of the negative refers to how symbols are exclusive; for example, a group of people may gather around a symbol like a religious text or a conspiracy theory while excluding others, making them the “negative” of their symbolization.
  • The idea that humans are separated from their natural conditions by instruments of their own making symbol-use can delude a people; how we may become ‘detached’ from reality based on the stories we elect to read or the news that we choose to watch. It also recalls the famous Clausewitz quotation that “diplomacy is war carried out by other means,” similarly, language allows for a kind of violence that sometimes stands in for acts of physical aggression.
  • Goaded by a spirit of hierarchy refers to the tendency not only to separate other people who are not part of our same symbol system or social group but to think of groups in terms of relative importance or as more and less deserving of recognition or rights. It describes how humans put some principles, ideas, and even people ‘first’ and subordinate others to those in that category.
  • The final part, rotten with perfection, describes how creating these hierarchical and exclusive orders is often the opposite of creating a ‘perfect world.’ The idea of American exceptionalism, for instance, that America is completely or wholly unlike any other country because it is ‘perfect’ in its ideals can be a way to legitimize oppressive laws or violent policing.

That brings us to Martha Solomon’s Article on the “rhetoric of dehumanization,” which discusses the misuse of symbols. Using Burke’s concepts, Solomon argued that the Tuskegee progress reports, printed in major medical journals from 1936 to 1973, functioned as “rhetoric of dehumanization” (p. 231). Specifically, the symbols used in the report show how Black men were treated as less human than the scientists who were conducting the study. The scientists’ “neutral” scientific language normalized inhuman practices of human testing, resulting in the deaths of patients who doctors never told that they were receiving placebos.

What was the Tuskegee Project? (from the CDC’s webpage documenting the Tuskegee Project)  In 1932, the Public Health Service, working with the Tuskegee Institute, began a study to record the natural history of syphilis in hopes of justifying treatment programs for Black Americans … The study initially involved 600 black men – 399 with syphilis, 201 who did not have the disease. The study was conducted without the benefit of patients’ informed consent. Researchers told the men they were being treated for “bad blood,” a local term used to describe several ailments, including syphilis, anemia, and fatigue. In truth, they did not receive the proper treatment needed to cure their illness. In exchange for taking part in the study, the men received free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance. Although originally projected to last 6 months, the study actually went on for 40 years. Now that we’ve established what the article was about and how it is related to the topic of ‘symbolic action,’ we will return to Solomon’s article to show other aspects of symbolic action at work.

The Terministic Screen

The Terministic Screen describes how symbols distort reality or create a partial ‘lens’ to interpret the world. It is connected to the idea from Burke’s “Definition” that symbols create a social reality that may be at odds with the way that other people perceive it. Burke defines the “terministic screen” using the trio of terms “reflection,” “selection,” and “deflection.” In his words,

[Humans] “seek for vocabularies that will be faithful reflections of reality. To this end, they must develop vocabularies that are selections of reality. Any  selection of reality must, in certain circumstances, function as a deflection of reality.”

First, language reflects reality or provides a vocabulary that has scope and breadth to account for things that happen in the world. Language then selects reality, placing a sliver or snapshot of the real world under a microscope and elevates it to the status of the ‘whole thing.’  Finally, language deflects reality. Humans use language to discard what doesn’t fit within the version of reality they have become accustomed to. Burke’s examples include a color filter on a camera and the interpretation of the ‘same’ dream by psychotherapists who come from different traditions of dream interpretation. A color filter deepens the yellows, reds, and blues while also pushing out other wavelengths. A Freudian interpretation of dreams might likely focus on the patient’s parents; a Jungian one on their religion and mythical beliefs.

Ultimately, the terministic screen is a way that symbols are used to filter our reality. One example is the “national security state,” a framework not just for international relations or the FBI but also for how we think of and organize our homes. The national security state is built on the idea of surveillance, or watching — and that we are somehow safer when there is more watching. The national security state is a terministic screen because it has become a part of schools, hospitals, cities, and homes. Even “smart home” technology assumes that intelligence means we can watch everything at once. New parents can take this to new extremes by putting cameras literally everywhere. That idea — that when we’re watching, helicoptering, surveilling, we are somehow more intelligent, more in control — is a terministic screen. Suddenly the national security state isn’t just a way to look at how we pass through airports, but a way to organize our lives.

In “The Rhetoric of Dehumanization?” Solomon connects the terministic screen and “neutral” scientific language. According to Solomon,

[scientific language] is a “way that symbols are used to filter our reality” that “is constituted by terms through which humans perceive the world,” and “that directs attention away from some interpretations and toward others.”

Solomon condemns the dehumanizing characteristics of scientific writing, which often removes the author from the essay with the passive voice. (This is also why I don’t discourage students from writing using “I,” it involves the writer as a participant in the writing process, rather than just as a neutral observer.) Because the Tuskegee reports “avoided emotionally connotative language,” researchers emotionally dissociated from patients and deflected attention from human suffering, racism, and the possibility of intervention (pp. 237-238, 244).

The terministic screen of the Tuskeegee report also displays “four features of scientific investigation that “are accepted almost without question.” These include

  1. The scientific method encourages the perceptions of distinctions and the investigation of their significance.
  2. Objectivity and detachment are [wanted or needed] characteristics of the people who administered the Tuskeegee study,
  3. Science assumes knowledge as a primary value, rather than the wellbeing of the patient, and finally,
  4. The scientific approach is consistent across subject matter areas. These four characteristics were the ‘screen’ that allowed the Tuskeegee patients to be dehumanized.


Dramatism is a theory that describes instances of communication as if they were staged as a play or a fictional human drama. According to Burke, we read and understand the world rhetorically (i.e., as a narrative or theater performance). We process communicative phenomena through a restricted set of categories that Burke likens to a stage-act, consisting of a sceneactors/agents, and agency. Dramatism tells us that we are not just symbol-using animals but story-telling animals who use dramatistic elements in many different ways.

Dramatism makes two assumptions: First, language is primarily a species of action rather than an instrument of definition. (i.e., its primary function is NOT denotation or to establish the literal meaning of things). Second, that the best way to understand human relations and motives is to analyze symbolic action. There are five elements of dramatism that constitute a “pentad.” These include:

  1. The Agent – the person or kind of person who performed the act;
  2. The Act – what took place in thought or deed;
  3. The Agency – how the act was accomplished;
  4. The Scene – the background of the act, the situation in which it occurred;
  5. The Purpose – the justification for the act.

Dramatism is like a detective drama, where the rhetorical critic tries to figure out the motives of the people who perpetrated the symbolic act. What is most important about this framework is NOT ‘finding’ these five elements but understanding their relationship to one another. This relationship is what Burke called the ratio. In a ratio, one is the ‘container,’ and the other is the ‘thing contained’. The meaning of the second term depends on the meaning of the first.

  • The scene/act ratio, for instance, requires some explanation of ‘where’ the act happened to explain ‘what’ happened. The inventor of anesthesia, for instance, discovered ‘oxygen’ but called it “dephlogisticated air.” Unless we know something about the historical “scene,” this “act” of naming would be hard for us to understand.
  • The scene/agent ratio describes how the “who” is over-determined by the “where.” We might be puzzled by the fact that Brittany Spears has withdrawn from public life and developed increasing hostility toward the paparazzi, for instance, until we recognize the larger ‘scene’ in which such actions have been set: the fact that she has for years been able to go out in public without confronting a sea of microphones, and that she and others have been fighting relentlessly to retain conservatorship of her estate. Without that “where,” we lack a clear understanding of the “who.”
  • The act/agent ratio describes how a person’s ethos is over-determined by an act attributed to them. In the courtroom, a plaintiff may be symbolized as a ‘criminal’ by repeatedly drawing attention to the “act.” Alternatively, if you send a friend or colleague a basket of baked goods after hearing that they are having a particularly tough day, this act can configure or reconfigure that person’s impression of you as a person.

In “The Rhetoric of Dehumanization?” Solomon provides several additional examples: the agent/agency and the agent/scene ratio. In the first case, the AGENT (or “who performed the Tuskegee experiments”) explains the rationale for the AGENCY, or how “the experiments were done.” The agents are ‘noble’ doctors pursuing knowledge, and the “means to an end” are the patients. Doctors dehumanized the patients because they were only the “agency” for the doctors (the “agents”) the means of completing the medical experiment.

In the second case, dehumanization occurs because the disease is the AGENT and the patients’ bodies become a SCENE. This choice of language is significant because this ratio erases the fact that the doctors were, in fact, the ones doing harm.


The last part of this recording is devoted to the topic of Demagoguery, which is exactly the kind of symbolic action that Kenneth Burke is concerned about when he talks about the “misuse of symbols.” A demagogue is a dangerous speaker who perpetuates conspiracy theories and acts as a political salesperson. They attract an audience by spreading lies that divide a group of people from another group.

Before World War II, Kenneth Burke was concerned with the rhetoric emerging from Nazi Germany and saw a similar pattern of thinking and speaking emerging in the United States. Disturbed by what he saw in Germany, he applied his framework of symbolic action there. He said he identified several key features that were hallmarks of demagogic speech. These features were used to ‘constitute’ a people using language that is similarly hateful to the speech that was delivered by the staged demagogue in the clip just shown. The demagogue encourages “the division of the attention of a people” by focusing on a convenient but phony scapegoat. He noted specifically the treatment of the Jewish people in Germany. The demagogue also fashioned themselves like a religious pattern, using patterns like rituals, and made themselves into a paternalistic ‘father-like figure who would lead the ‘feminized’ public to salvation. These were above all dangerous characteristics because they are so easily picked up and used elsewhere. When analyzing the dangerous speech itself, Burke also came up with the following characteristic progression of ideas.

  • First, Inborn Dignity. This stresses the “natural born” dignity of a group elevated above all others while other people are described as innately inferior.
  • Then, the Projection Device. This gesture associates the target audience’s problems with a scapegoat. If one can attribute their problems to a “cause” outside the self, they can battle an external enemy instead of an enemy within.
  • Then, Symbolic Rebirth. Rebirth involved a symbolic change of lineage by voting oneself and the members of one’s group as different and less-than.
  • Finally, Commercial use. This provides a macroeconomic interpretation of economic problems, such that depression/recession is due to the actions of a particular social group rather than to larger structural forces.

Demagoguery is still prominent in American culture. Watching this final clip, consider the elements of demagoguery and how they are played out in “Dwight’s Speech” from the popular television show, The Office. In this clip, Dwight is delivering a speech to  North Eastern Salesmen after winning an award. He has been given a speech that strongly resembles and was adapted from one by Benito Mussolini.

In the clip, Dwight quickly runs through Burke’s criteria: inborn dignity, a projection device, symbolic rebirth, and commercial use. He appeals to inborn dignity when he says that North Eastern salesman stand apart from other people, that they are special and unique because of the difficulty of their work. Next, he appeals to a projection device when referring to “door-to-door charlatans” and those who would be nasty to salespeople in principle. He then tells the audience to “unite” in opposition to these ideas, corresponding with “symbolic rebirth.” Finally, he pushes them to the ultimate purpose: more sales, more money, bringing his speech to its commercial use and application.

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Reading Rhetorical Theory Copyright © 2022 by Atilla Hallsby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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