Rhetoric and Identification Course Description


Identification is affirmed with earnestness precisely because there is division. Identification is compensatory to division. If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity.
–Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives

Identification is known to psycho-analysis as the earliest expression of an emotional tie with another person. It behaves like a derivative of the first, oral phase of the organization of the libido, in which the object that we long for and prize is assimilated by eating and is in that way annihilated as such.
–Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego

In A Rhetoric of Motives, Kenneth Burke agrees with Aristotle that rhetoric’s “basic function” is persuasive. He also argues, however, that persuasion’s very condition of possibility is identification—indeed, that any persuasive act is first of all an identifying act: “You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his” (55). According to Burke, the primary aim of rhetoric is not to win an argument but to make a connection, shifting the imagery of the persuasive encounter from a duel to a “courtship.” Identification, or what Burke also calls “con-substantiation,” is both the mode by which individual existents establish a sense of identity and the mode by which they establish a relation to one another. As he puts it in Attitudes Toward History, identification “is hardly other than a name for the function of sociality” (267); it operates as a “mediatory ground” between non-unifiable existents.

Nonetheless, many have argued that identification, as a mode of relating to the other, is ethically suspect; it involves appropriating (even annihilating, as Freud suggests above) the other with which or whom one identifies. Though Burke apparently based his own rhetoric of identification on Freud’s, Burke’s identification tells you “what” you are (you are your representations) while Freud’s asks you “who” you are (who in you thinks, who dreams, who writes, who fantasizes, etc.)–and we will take a close look at the enormous significance of this distinction. We will also examine certain (post)Freudian theories of identification in the works of Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, Judith Butler, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Avital Ronell, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and Jean-Luc Nancy. (There are many more we could have read together, but we will stick with these.)

Our exigency: if identification is truly rhetoric’s most fundamental aim, as Burke suggests that it is, then we-rhetoricians would be wise to examine it carefully, even beyond the limits Burke himself set for its inquiry. In this course, therefore, we will work at the wildly trafficked intersection of rhetoric and identification, always with an eye to questions of identity and sociality.

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