Odds & Ends: Kenneth Burke and the Pentad

Today begins a series of occasional posts that discuss elements of our reading that we may or may not have time to work with in class–but still could be useful for you as future teachers of writing. While they might just provide some historical or theoretical context for a quick allusion in the reading, they might also give you some links to heuristics, activities, exercises, or other pedagogical elements of rhetoric. Enjoy.

Kenneth Burke, Dramatism, and Pentad Analysis

As described at Wikipedia, that invaluable resource, the goal of dramatism is to help us understand, in KB’s words, “what is involved when we say what people are doing and how they are doing it?”

Dramatism recommends the use of a metalinguistic approach to stories about human action that investigates the roles and uses of five rhetorical elements common to all narratives, each of which is related to a question. These five rhetorical elements form the “dramatistic pentad.” Burke argues that an evaluation of the relative emphasis that is given to each of the five elements by a human drama enables a determination of the motive for the behaviour of its characters. A character’s stress on one element over the others suggests their world view.

Burke’s question above–about “what is involved” when we say something–forms a way of talking about rhetoric that places emphasis on motives–in other words the rhetorical goals that writers set for themselves and how those purposes align with certain worldviews, ways of thinking. David Blakesley, in the reading for today, goes further:

Dramatism is a philosophy of language, with stress upon the original meaning of philosophy [philo = life + sophos = knowledge], the study of language as a way of living and knowing. In the broadest sense, dramatism is life, life lived in a world populated by people acting through language to build societies, establish and maintain social relations, adjust to their social situation, and come to terms with their existence in time and space. Dramatism analyzes language and thought as modes of action rather than as means of conveying information. Thus, for dramatism, language is a form of symbolic action. The dramatistic view of the world holds that language is not simply a tool to be used by people (actors), but the basis for human beings acting together and thus, of all human relations.

Here’s more detail on how to get started using the pentad to do rhetorical analysis. Check it out!

Here are the basic terms and some questions to get you thinking about them:

  • Act: Names what took place, in thought or deed. What was done?
  • Scene: The background of the act, the situation in which it occurred.Where and when was the act performed?
  • Agent: Names what person or kind of person or people performed the act. Who did it?
  • Agency: Names what means or instruments the agent used. Howand with what was the act performed?
  • Purpose: Suggests why the agent performed the act. What motivated the act?
  • Attitude: Names the state of mind that predisposes the agent to act or that substitutes for an act. What is the agent’s attitude toward the act?

What’s important at this stage is that people make different language choices to describe ideas, topics, issues, or texts about which there is any ambiguity or debate, and that those differences are often a function of their motives or worldviews.

For example, let’s name a subject (anything, really!) and write a sentence.

  1. First, write a sentence focused on (or including) one term. So about the subject or issue but with an ACT, SCENE, AGENT, AGENCY, or PURPOSE in it.
  2. Now, write another sentence focused on (or including) a different term. So about the subject or issue but with an ACT, SCENE, AGENT, AGENCY, or PURPOSE in it.
  3. What differences do you see? What would Burke say here?
  4. Now write a sentence with two pentad elements in it. (In fact, take a look at your first or second sentence: doesn’t it have another term in it, somewhere? Perhaps it was difficult to write a sentence with only one?)
  5. Now let’s try some particular combinations: like a sentence with an ACT and a SCENE, or an AGENT and a SCENE, or an AGENT and a PURPOSE.

Do these sentences all describe the same issue or subject? How do they differ in their rhetoric?

Not only that! Burkean analysis suggests that we understand people’s “motives” when we can isolate the “titular” element of the pentad–that one element in the pentad is the highlighted or “titular” term, with others falling in line behind it. But there are any number other ways to describe each element of the pentad, and working out different pentads is one step toward understanding people’s motives for argument. And part of Burke’s belief in the ubiquity of symbolic action is that we use language in order to be human, but we also interpret others’ language in order as a form of human action. Blakesley again:

One purpose of the pentad is to reveal the implicit assumptions people make when they say what people are doing and why they are doing it. As Burke sees it, dramatism enables us to see not only the grounds of these interpretations, but to enable alternative ones by forcing categorical expectations to shift and thus generate new ways of seeing.

Thinking about “pentadic ratios,” or the relationship of one pentadic term to another, follows from this emphasis. As part of the interpretive process it often seems that two elements of the pentad against each other are really the backbone of a perspective, argument, or way of seeing the world. Pentadic ratios like scene-act or act-agent just name the emphasis speakers or writers make in discourse:

How does the _______________ influence the ________________ ?
agent-agency agency-purpose agent-purpose act-scene act-agent act-agency act-purpose scene-agent scene-agency scene-purpose

Wikipedia again: Thus any two dramatistic elements can be analyzed in relation to each other, creating a ratio, and can produce individual, yet separate meanings which are equally valid. However, the rhetor’s selection of elements to compose a ratio should be scrutinized, as it can deflect attention away from or direct attention towards aspects of the rhetor’s desire.[9] The analysis of a situation as a multi-faceted occurrence is central to Burke’s concept of ratios. Likewise, the substitution of a dramatistic element with another can change an interpretation of the motive, allowing the analyst to modify the ratio in order to highlight the importance of a specific factor. 

We’ll do some more to get a hold on this by working with a few “texts,” working through all possible elements of the pentad and some ratios as well.

Now we’ll look at an image and wonder how we could interpret it differently. This one is of flood victims standing around an abandoned Walgreens, some entering it, after Hurricane Katrina:

Image result for picture of looting during Katrina

Finally we’ll work with a paragraph and try some interpretations there, with an emphasis on ratios. Here it is, from President Hutchinson’s decision to go ahead with student fee increases:

For the last few days, I have reflected deeply on the sentiments students shared about how the fees would both benefit them and pose significant financial challenges. I searched for alternatives and viable options, and found none. I thoroughly examined the financial needs of the programs that are served by these fees, and I have considered the impact on students now and in the future if these programs receive no additional funding. These increases would sustain the three programs for the next five years to enhance our abilities to meet the educational, physical, and mental health needs of our students—services that are vital as we strive for student success and prepare students for their future. And yet, I am compassionate to the financial burden any increases impose upon our students, many of whom are already struggling with current costs.

Should we try to rewrite it using a different ratio?

Pentads and Ratios

If one’s things clear so far, it’s that Burke’s emphasis on language as symbolic action and on identification instead of persuasion carries some far-reaching implications.

First, it hooks us into a definition of us, of humanity, that makes how we use, misuse, and are used by symbols something not just to acknowledge but even embrace. The majority of our work in the world, then, is to figure out how and for what purposes this symbolic action takes place. Second, if the goal is identification rather than persuasion, we can’t rest an analysis on claims that rhetoric is effective or not. We should think specifically about what a text did and what that tells us about the writer’s motive–and how that motive brings us closer to identification with him/it, perhaps finally reaching “consubstantiality.” (In reaching consubstantiality, we no longer need communication!)

First, notice the time Burke took in “Definition of Man” with the idea of rhetoric’s moves? Here they are again:

“[Humanity] is

  1. the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal
  2. inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative)
  3. separated from [their] natural condition by instruments of [their] own making
  4. goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order)
  5. and rotten with perfection.”

In “Definition of Man” Burke listed all kinds of things language did, the first and perhaps most important one being that of SEPARATION. Notice the prelapsarian argument he makes in saying that through the invention of words for things we separate ourselves from those things: “In being a link between us and the non-verbal, words are by the same token a screen separating us from the non-verbal.”

  • Forms of “condensation and displacement” like substitution and abbreviation
  • Forms of negation that give us a working language and metaphors and that help us define by incongruity and scapegoating
  • Definitions and differentiations that help us establish social hierarchies, resulting in God-terms and Devil-terms

Notice how this works in a practical sense. Here’s an example I found at a website on Burke:

Let’s imagine a neighborhood that has a lot of graffiti. Young people are painting slogans, gang signs, four-letter words, and other messages on buildings, bridges, billboards, and even garage doors. Homeowners and businesses are upset about it. The people doing this are agents. Painting the graffiti is an act. What motivates this act?

In this example, some people in the community argue that the young people have no respect for the property of others, so they commit this vandalism. Burke would call that an agent→act ratio. Bad people commit bad acts. The solution to the problem, defined by this combination, might be to punish or re-educate the agents.

However, others argue that the bad neighborhood creates bad people who do this. That would be a scene→agent ratio (We could actually think of this as a three term combination, scene→agent→act.) Here the solution might be to improve the neighborhood through addressing root causes, such as poverty or homelessness. On the other hand, perhaps young people see all of the graffiti in the neighborhood and want to imitate the behavior. That would be a scene→act ratio which might imply a graffiti removal campaign to clean up the city.

Finally, someone else might argue that the graffiti is legitimate political or artistic expression. That would be a purpose→act ratio. In that case, the solution might be to engage with the community and address the issues that the perpetrators are talking about.

Each of these ratios defines the problem in a different way and implies a different kind of solution. Each implies different kinds of arguments. It is not clear that any one of these perspectives is “correct,” but they are all possible positions. The pentad has opened up a lot of possibilities for discussing the situation.

Burke’s extended argument is that we don’t just make assertions about the world we live in, we attempt to use language to make the world fit our discourse: the rules, conventions, or mechanisms we think are important. In short, we use language to reveal aspects of how we think the world works:

  • If the act is featured in the pentad, Burke suggested, the philosophy that corresponds is realism, the doctrine that universal principles are more real than objects as sensed. This philosophical position is opposite that of nominalism, the doctrine that abstract concepts, general terms, or universals have no objective reference but exist only as names. We call people “realists” when they go around naming and describing the acts all around them.
  • If the scene is featured, the philosophy that corresponds is materialism, the system that regards all facts and reality as explainable in terms of matter and motion or physical laws. Think of the term “dialectal materialism,” the set of philosophical principles usually associated with socialism and Marxism. Materialists consider structures of institutions or cultures as forces to be reckoned with, as in “the system is rigged.”
  • If the agent is featured, the corresponding philosophy is idealism, the system that views the mind or spirit as each person experiences it as fundamentally real, and the totality of the universe is believed to be mind or spirit in its essence. People who are idealists often think that if they just work harder, they alone can change the world. Being idealistic often means people think they can go it alone, that they are the agents of their own destiny.
  • If the means or agency is featured, the pragmatic philosophy corresponds. Pragmatism is the means necessary to the attainment of a goal-instrumentalism or concern with consequences, function, and what something is “good for.” In this doctrine, the meaning of a proposition or course of action lies in its observable consequences, and the sum of these consequences constitutes its meaning. As we’ll see in one of our readings after spring break, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign was all about how to get things done, making her rhetoric pragmatic.
  • If the purpose is featured, the corresponding philosophy is mysticism. In mysticism, the element of unity is emphasized to the point that individuality disappears. Identification often becomes so strong that the individual is unified with some cosmic or universal purpose. Having a purpose, as in “the purpose-driven life,” often means thinking about life in terms of higher powers or mystical/religious beliefs. People who rationalize action in terms of these beliefs are mystics to Burke.

After talking about today’s reading, I’ll be looking for us once again to try pentad criticism and finding “the dominant term.” Like this one:

We’ll do the same thing we did last time: Get into groups and do the things recommended in our chapter: 1) label the five terms, 2) identify the dominant term, and 3) figure out the ratio the piece uses, in the form of X –> Y or “X influences the Y.” I’ll ask each group to share out and then we’ll discuss what this tells us about motive in this piece.

(As a response, you might consider this piece here, by Mikkel Frantzen at LARB:

“HOW DO YOU throw a brick through the window of a bank if you can’t get out of bed?” This question, formulated by Johanna Hedva in “Sick Woman Theory,” has been with me for quite some time now. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Why? Because it points to a situation familiar to too many of us (but who is that “us”?): a situation characterized by despair and depression. A situation in which you really can’t get out of bed. This situation is also, in most cases, saturated by politics and by the economy. Contrary to mainstream psychological and psychiatric discourse the reason why you can’t get out of bed is not because you have a bad attitude, a negative mindset, or because you have somehow chosen your own unhappiness. Nor is it merely a matter of chemistry and biology, an imbalance in the brain, an unlucky genetic disposition, or low levels of serotonin. More often than not it is a matter of the world you live in, the work that you hate, or the job that you just lost, the debt that haunts your present from the future, or the fact that the planet’s future is going still faster and further down the drain.

[ . . .]

However, to understand depression through political frames does not mean that the problem of depression can be immediately solved by political means. There is a horror to depression that cannot and must not be translated too quickly into the sphere of politics, regardless of our critical and revolutionary aspirations. As anyone who has been depressed — or been around someone who has — knows, it is literally hell on earth. The physical pain is unbearable, your body is inert and feels too heavy, your mind is not functioning, and you cannot escape the feeling of being stuck, stagnated, that the race is run and that the present — which is hell — is all there is and all that can ever be imagined to be. It would be an offense to say, well, it’s just politics. By the same token there is absolutely no need to romanticize what has become known as depressive realism, since that “realism” only runs in tandem with and supports the realism of capitalism: that there are no alternatives, that there really is nothing to be done about the current state of affairs. This is another thing to take away from this. Let’s also not forget that depression is the major contributor to suicide deaths, which number close to 800,000 per year according to a recent report from WHO.

So how might we respond, once we’ve diagnosed the pentadic ratio in this piece? One thing might be to rewrite the video we see above: to think of a different ratio and write a few sentences employing it. Something like Scene–>agent? Use this page to think of another pentadic ratio and write a few sentences based on it! Remember the baseline question we ask is:

How does the _______________ influence the ________________ ?

agent-agency / agency-purpose / agent-purpose / act-scene / act-agent / act-agency / act-purpose / scene-agent / scene-agency / scene-purpose

I’ll also lead a discussion on the kinds of things we might ask about ideology here: cui bono? Who or what benefits from this argument? Who or what is left out? And why–what clues might Burke give us?

About Chris

Hey! I'm a professor of Rhetoric and Writing in the English dept. at Chico State. Also disc golf player, indie music listener, and vanilla Marxist.
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