My notion of identity has varied from a psychological construct that is formed over time (Maslow, Hoffer) to an interactive neural network of agents (Minsky) to a stage in an interactive rhetorical process (Kenneth Burke). This latter process of identification is currently of most interest to me. Burke’s categories of identification can be described as follows:

Intelligent beings have a symbolic understanding of themselves and of each other, and share knowledge through positively aligning their personal symbol-systems with the symbol-systems of others. Kenneth Burke calls the process of creating agreement based on meaning consubstantiation.

Another way that individuals can identify with one another is through agreement of purpose, such as in the process of anti-thesis, or “…the creation of identification among opposing entities on the basis of a common enemy” (192).

A final type of identification involves the intentional but indirect application of sympathetic symbols in order to favorably predispose the audience to the rhetor, and thus to the otherwise unrelated symbols presented along with the sympathetic ones.

Burkean Rhetoric


2 thoughts on “Identification

  1. This is very interesting! I don’t know Burke (yet) but I should certainly agree about the shared symbols – it’s my own model of education, conveying common sets of associations (schemata) for the symbols of the culture that is to be shared (starting with words, which are symbols).

    So the identity/affinity part can be understood as a Gestalt thing, i.e. setting up a symbol-pattern that the audience latches on to and completes for themselves (law of Praegnanz, tension impels completion of the task).

    Put thus it is value-free and emotion-free. Regarding these two I do like Maslow, or at least what I got about him from some teacher training I did.

    Anyway, I’d better leave off this ill-informed pontificating, but I’ll certainly look up Burke.

  2. Most students of Kenneth Burke would say that The Philosophy of Literary Form is his most accessible book, although The Rhetoric of Hitler’s “Battle” is perhaps the best known essay. I haven’t engaged with other Burkeans in several years, so I’m a little rusty on his terminology; but I can recall that his notion of identification strongly influenced me.

    I should add that The Meaning of Persons (Paul Tournier) and Class (Paul Fussell) were also helpful for me in conceptualizing identity. As a Brit, you would likely find Class to be very funny in its description of American social identity.

    Here is an upcoming Burke conference, if you happen to be in Belgium next year:

Instigate some pointless rambling

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