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The rhetorical - theatrical sensibility as equipment for living.


The linkage between rhetoric and theater is a preexisting one. As mediums of communication, both are addressed, embodied, and performative. Both constitute and appeal to an audience, which is there to exercise judgment. Both produce and reproduce the culture in a public venue. Both are supposed to effect a fusion between ethics and esthetics, virtue and virtuosity, doing so by giving presence to a "seeming to be." As lenses of interpretation, each can be borrowed to shed light on the other. Every theatrical performance has its rhetorical thrust. Every rhetorical performance is an act in the drama of human relations, and as such, is subject to comprehension in dramatistic terms. A theatrical vocabulary not only sheds light on speech but also on writing because the latter can also have a staged quality to it. Written discourse makes a theater in its own way. As worldviews, rhetoric and theater have always informed and animated each other. As academic disciplines, the two often end up sharing the same institutional home. As communicative events, the two frequently share the same physical space, inviting the audience to see them both as epideictic displays and to see the one in terms of the other.

Although Aristotle, the great system builder and cataloguer, treats rhetoric and theater separately--the one in Rhetoric and the other in Poetics--good rhetoricians like Kenneth Burke know to bring them back together to illuminate symbolic action, which is seldom purely one way (suasive) or the other (as symbolic action for its own sake). Burke's "both ... and" approach has culminated in the invention of the root metaphor of dramatism, which transforms our understanding of communication and social life. The dramatistic sensibility is also found in George Herbert Mead, Erving Goffman Victor Turner, Richard Lanham, and Mark Backman, among others.

The purpose of this essay is to explore the overlapping semantic fields of rhetoric and theater, affirmatively critique the dramatistic, or rhetorical theatrical, worldview, and articulate the mature social efficacy that comes with it in this age of sophistication and tele-presence. The argument is that the rhetorical theatrical sensibility enhances our awareness of man as a social, political actor with mixed motives and reality as contingent verisimilitudes staged through communication. The essay claims that in the face of such a reality, scientism and literalism are crippling while the rhetorical theatrical sensibility is life enhancing since it enables us to comprehend the world more correctly and operate in it more effectively.

The Practical Inseparability of Rhetoric and Theater

The drama frame encompasses not just theatrical drama and rhetoric (enacted ritual drama) but also what Turner calls "social drama." (1) There are profound connections and parallels among them. A thoroughgoing theatrical sensibility would challenge the demarcation line between them. The title of Turner's book From Ritual to Theater: The Human Seriousness of Play is simply a stroke of genius, which not only captures all three senses at once but also gestures toward productive lines of inquiry. (2)

What theatrical drama puts on display are conflicts among fallible humans. Being human and fallible, we feel emotionally implicated and invested. As the conflicts evolve, so do the curves of our emotions. As the hero comes to a tragic end, we are relieved of pent-up emotional energy. The more we identify with the hero, the more thorough our sense of purgation and catharsis. The Medusa myth is perhaps the best myth we have to explain the mechanism behind catharsis. Theatrical drama as an art form is like the shield in the Medusa myth, which allows us to face our psychological problems ('Medusa") indirectly, so we can deal with them without being crushed by them (without being petrified).

A similar mechanism is found in rhetoric. In entelechial terms, rhetoric concerns itself with the drama of human congregation and segregation or the negotiation of consubstantiality and division. (3) Humans use rhetoric to enact the ritual drama of identification and Othering and get a sense of purification through Othering. Burke calls the drama of Othering rituals of victimage. (4) Othering coincides with identification. It is a means of enhancing identification. Like theatrical drama, ritual drama relies on the performers' pious fraud and the spectators complicity for its authenticity and efficacy. Social reality is a staged reality collaboratively sustained by ritual performer and spectator. All communication has a ritual aspect, as James Carey explains. (5)

Turner calls the drama of human congregation and segregation "social drama," which goes through recognizable phases: breach, crisis, redressive action, reintegration, or schism.(6) Rhetoric and rhetorically significant social acts are the symbolic and material means through which social drama is rehearsed, enacted, and punctuated. Here, "enact" has the double sense of "give presence to and "execute." Backman has the former sense in mind when he makes the following point: "the orator did not simply speak to an assembly of citizens according to the rules of art. He enacted before them the drama of their lives as it was constituted in the challenges they confronted as a community." (7) There are real stakes in this drama, making it different from mere child's play. In social life, rhetoric and drama--as means of staging social reality and as frames of interpretation through which social reality is comprehended--are fundamentally indivisible.

At a textual level, a rhetorical text is necessarily a dramatic text-one that uses "a dramatic vocabulary, with weighting and counter-weighting," instead of a neutral vocabulary. (8) It is "an attenuated play," with terms being the equivalents of "characters" in the play. (9) Put otherwise, a page is a stage. That is to say, a rhetorical discourse is a theater, where conceptual vectors relate to and act upon each other, where human relations are mapped out symbolically, in the same way they are mapped out on the theatrical stage through embodied characters. A character in a theatrical drama is oftentimes the image of a unique social dialect or sociolinguistic consciousness in the same way terms in a rhetorical text are the equivalents of social, cultural forces. In a way, theater is rhetoric fully "animated," and rhetorical texts are drama played out by verbal means. Both thrive on, enact, negotiate, and symbolically manage tensions in human affairs. We simply need to be aware of the convertibility and be sensitive to the conditions of conversion.

As a root metaphor, theatrical drama has informed the work of seminal rhetoricians. Burke's pentad, made up of act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose, gives us a well-rounded vocabulary to take account of why people do what they do or say what they say. (10) In his formidable corpus, he teaches us repeatedly that between dramatism and scientism, the former is enabling and enhances our humanness while the latter is crippling and dehumanizing. (11) Drarnatism also significantly extends the range of rhetoric, which now encompasses administrative rhetoric (a joint military exercise in the public seas as a rhetorical act in the drama of international relations, for example), sartorial rhetoric (e.g., dressing as a means of one-upmanship or as a resource for performing courtship), architectural rhetoric (a rhetorically motivated manipulation of the "scene" of human association), and so on.

The term "dramatism" is also how Clifford Geertz characterizes the Balinese culture, although he uses the term in a slightly different (but related) sense than Burke does.(12) The "moral" Geertz shares with us is the primacy and the regulatory function of the mask in Balinese social life (and elsewhere, too). This wisdom applies equally to oratorical performance, where the economy of speech (who gets to say what, in what manner, what is better left unsaid, and the like) is never a matter of romantic self-expression. Rather, it is a matter of decorum, the rules of which are over-determined by the mask or the hat the orator wears.

We are tempted to read the Geertz essay "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight" as an example of his notion of "thick description," if not as a bad joke. (13) We could read it more "profitably" as an allegory for political theatrics. The latter reading strategy is a more adequate way of activating the notion of "deep play." Simply by thinking about the division of communicative labor, we reach a moment of alas. For, allegorically, what is the cockfight if not a political drama? There are real stakes. The gamblers are deeply invested in the unfolding of the drama. The non-gambling spectators are there to witness the enactment of the culture and, through their mere presence, are complicit to the perpetuation of the culture. Don't we thus get a way of reading the unfolding political drama between the two dominant political parties in the US? Don't we also get a handle on the political drama between the "Leftists" and the "Liberals" in present-day China, a drama which not only involves Chinese leftists, liberals, and moderates alike, but also major players in the global medias-cape? The Economist, for example, seems to have acted more like a participant than an observer in this political drama, as indicated by the way it titles its news stories (e.g., "Boundlessly Loyal to the Great Monster"). (14) What is the drama anyway if not a rhetorical contestation?

If rhetorical action lends itself to comprehension in dramatistic terms, theater also lends itself to comprehension in terms of the rhetorical triad of logos, ethos, and pathos. That does not mean theater is reducible to this triad since it has its own unique "languages"--gestures, postures, action sequences, tonalities, "breath words" or "language without articulation" bearing Antonin Artaud's artistic signature, and the like. (15) Theater at once invokes and refashions the hidden ethical ground of a people in the same way rhetoric enthymematically uses some unstated truth of the culture as its major premise but also explicitly reformulates that truth when the time is ripe. As far as pathos is concerned, Paul Virilio points out in an interview entitled "War on the Cities": "A community of passions is fundamentally theatrical. A theater is a place of shared emotions. ..." (16) Although in the same context Virilio seems to associate pathos with theater and logos ("speech and the word," or rational discourse) with rhetoric, such a distinction cannot be upheld without compromising the full sense of either art.

Lanham, an unmitigated rhetorician, seems to suggest that the rhetorical worldview is centered in the theatrical drama metaphor. He sees a rhetorical sensibility in Mead and Goffman. For Mead, man is "essentially a rhetorical role-player whose central self [is] established by increasingly complex and self-conscious dramatic reenactment." (17) Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life offers a good elaboration of this rhetorical definition of man. (18) Walter Ong, a well-respected rhetorician, shares this sensibility as well. For him, the self is "fundamentally social., an actor's self; social reality [is] an improvisational public drama; argument often [aims] just to sustain the shared public drama." (19) Unlike a logician's world, a rhetorician's world is characterized by an emergent quality. Reality and identity cannot but be performatively realized on a contingent basis. "The search for self is essentially the quest of the (dramatic) artist played out in the context of society." (20) Lewis Mumford has a very similar idea. As he puts it: "By becoming human, man exchanges the stable natural self, native to each biological species, for a countless multitude of possible selves, molded for the working out of a special drama and plot he himself helps to create." (21)

On the other hand, theater is rhetorical at every turn. Historical drama always rhetoricizes history and helps invent a usable tradition, in the same way epideictic rhetoric (such as Isocrates's speeches) does. Each performance is always an occasion that brings history into dialogue with the present, that brings yesteryear to bear on the hie et nune--the here and now. As such, theater intervenes in the present moment in an interested, addressed, or simply rhetorical way. Like rhetoric, theatrical drama compels the audience's attention not by information but by form. Oftentimes the plot adopted by the dramatist is known in advance, in the same way the cultural mores and the collective ethos the orator invokes are already shared knowledge. To be efficacious, to move and transport the audience, theater and rhetoric both rely on eloquence, on good form--namely, the arousing, temporary frustration, and ultimate fulfilling of expectations in the audience. (22) Like political actors in real life who are held accountable for the decorum of their speech and action, the protagonist on stage is there first and foremost to model a sense of human propriety, poise, and taste proper to his character and the multidimensional situation.

While a drama taken as a whole typically has a rhetorical message, "rhetoric" (in the narrower sense of oratory) can also be organically embedded within a drama. Once in a while, we find characters such as Hamlet directly addressing the audience the way an orator addresses an assembly of citizens, who are there to exercise judgment and to act upon the message.

Both rhetoric and theater have a "ground" (as distinguished from "figure") orientation. For one thing, neither is logocentric. Quite the contrary is the case--both tap deeply into but also re-fashion the collective ethos and pathos. To be more precise, both rhetoric and theater have the larger "ground" (especially the audience) as their formal cause. This statement is meaningful in at least two senses. In a narrower sense, as Burke points out, "The drama ... must never lose sight of its audience." (23) Read in context, this Burke line means that the form of the drama--its dispositio and elocutio (two rhetorical canons meaning "arrangement" and "style," respectively)--has to be a function of the psychology of the audience. (24) This applies to rhetoric as well.

In a broader sense, the dramatic or rhetorical artifact is necessarily an outcome of the covert ethical orientation of a specific audience. The following Burke line captures this understanding quite well: "If a writer's audience believes that it is wrong to murder a friend, the poet can 'cash in on' this belief, as Shakespeare did with great subtlety in depicting the relations between Brutus and Caesar." (25) "The poet" here refers to the dramatist. In his essay entitled "Rhetoric and Poetics," Burke precisely has tragic drama ("theater") in mind where he talks about "poetics," the working definition of which is the study of "symbolic action for its own sake." (26) By contrast, rhetoric (or rhetorica utens, to be specific) is about "the use of language for purposes of cooperation and competition." (27) Burke keeps rhetoric and poetics (whose primary concern is theater) separate mainly for the sake of discussion. As he quickly points out in the essay: "The two fields readily become confused, because there is a large area which they share in common " (28) Any given tragedy always has both a cathartic (poetic) and a hortatory (rhetorical) side to it. The cathartic side works like pure art, which makes us acquiescent, whereas the hortatory side works like propaganda, which seeks to move us to action. (29)

The same is true with rhetoric, which is always an oscillation between and a fusion of "purpose" (the rhetorical thrust) on the one hand and "play and game," on the other, to use Lanham's vocabulary. (30) A good synonym for "play" in this context would be "vacuum behavior," namely, saying something for the hell of it or simply "symbolic action undertaken in and for itself," which, again, is the province of poetics. (31) The entailment is that the poetic motive is intrinsic to rhetorical action. On the other hand, poetic action more often than not is infused with a rhetorical motive. A symbolic action that is purely poetic (and absolutely non-rhetorical) is hard to come by. As Burke suggests, "a 'poetic' aim ... could itself be called 'rhetorical' in the same way aestheticism (namely, art for art's sake) cannot but be an ideology, which manifests itself as a rhetorical stance. (32) As Mikhail Bakhtin points out, "even an aesthete, working on a novel, becomes in this genre an ideologue who must defend and try out his ideological positions, who must become both a polemicist and an apologist." (33)

As a quick aside, the heart-twisting movie entitled The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is more or less a contemporary variation on Shakespeare's tragedy about Brutus and Caesar. The implication is that the line "it is wrong to murder a friend" not only characterized the cultural ground that brought into being (and gave shape to) Shakespeare's work but also captures some truth about our own cultural ground. Shakespeare, by the way, went to a grammar school and was trained in rhetoric--the liberal education for many centuries before its rightful position was usurped by scientism, which is no more than a deviance in the long river of human history.

To sum it up, rhetoric and theater interpenetrate and interanimate one another in a profound way. "Pragmatic affinity" is too light a term to characterize the connection 'between the two. It should be highly warrantable to hyphenate the two terms. A hyphen, after all, while joining the two terms together, also keeps them apart.

The Democratic Significance of the Rhetorical-Theatrical Paideia

It's no coincidence that both rhetoric and theater came into their own in democratic Greece. Each, in its own way, prepares the demos for democracy. To the imperceptive mind, however, their function as democratic pedagogy is easily overshadowed by their practical utility or entertainment value.

Despite Plato's harsh criticism, sophistic (i.e., rhetoric at its very best, although the term is often maligned) is what made democracy work in ancient Greece. Democracy is never a given. It needs to be actualized moment by moment through rhetorical contestation. In agonism, lies the spirit of the democratic way of life. Without such agonism, there would not be the at once cacophonous and resonant voice of the demos in public life. Rhetoric is the medium of democracy, so to speak.

The connection between democracy and theater, however, is not all that obvious. People tend to think of theater as entertainment pure and simple. This is an unwarrantable, unacceptable understanding. A line by Virilio is in order here:
 ... I find tragedy in the anonymous murmuring chorus passing judgment
 on what's happening onstage between the heroes, Antigone, etc.,
 commenting the action for the audience; all that I find truly
 wonderful. The ancient Chorus is the beginning of democracy. (34)

Indeed, theater makes a good model for the democratic way of life, which unfolds on a stage called the public sphere, where social forces both co-operate and contest with each other. The chorus stands for the voice of public opinion or folk criticism. Ultimate judgment is made by the demos (a collectivity of spectators), not the elite. This understanding is well supported by a point made by W. B. Yeats about the chorus in Greek drama. According to Yeats, "The Greek drama has got the emotion of multitude from its chorus, which called up famous sorrows, even all the gods and all heroes, to witness, as it were, some well-ordered fable, some action separated but for this from all but itself" (emphasis added). (35) That is to say, the chorus is there to make sure the Greek drama is grounded in the sentiment of the demos. Similarly, good rhetoric should be a matter of collective enunciation. The orator should be no more or less than a "medium" for the collective voice of the demos.

The Present (Pun intended) Serviceability of the Rhetorical-Theatrical Sensibility

The rhetorical-theatrical sensibility is a sophistic, aesthetic sensibility, which is indispensable for the good life in our sophisticated age. Simply put, the demos need a sophistic sensibility to cope with a sophistic reality. If, "[like] the Greeks, we have cast our lot with the vagaries, temptations, promises and hopes of man-made reality," then the rhetorical theatrical sensibility equips us to see the artificial world around us for what it is and to effectively participate in its making and remaking. (36) Put otherwise, this sensibility predisposes us to see that the human world is a world made up of observable surfaces, and that any depth attributable to us lies exactly in this profound depthlessness. Perhaps Oscar Wilde says it the best: "It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible." (37)

In an age plagued with the dissonance between a sophistic reality staged by politicians and corporate powers. in tandem with the media on the one hand and a scientistic, realist mentality on the part of the populace on the other, the above realization is profoundly liberatory, especially for those on the consumption end of reality. Thanks to this realization, we are less inclined to either dismiss "the spectacle" as pure simulacra or take it at face value. Instead, we give ourselves an opportunity to see how it rules our life and orders our world. We are more likely to develop our ethical gyroscope and successfully navigate the social and symbolic worlds, which are, after all, made up of what Backman calls "contingent verisimilitudes," "operational realities," in the same way who we are is a matter of "transient incarnations." (38)

The rhetorical-theatrical sensibility addresses a present-day exigency: the atrophy of embodied engagement in a technologically mediated life world. There is a world of difference between embodied action and what Virilio calls "tele-action. (39) Agency comes with and is proportional to vulnerability. The embodied, rhetorical-theatrical mode of action subjects the actor to immediate risks. Such risk taking gives a feel of "deep play" to the action to borrow Geertz's terminology. Arguably, only deep play., only what is perceived as "the real thing"--implicates people, sublimates people, and produces a dramatic ritual effect in the proper sense of the term. Between embodied action and spectral "tele-presence," there is no comparison. (40) What is missing in the latter is the sense of experiential depth that makes the former authentic. Tele-presence reduces fully acted out rhetoric into mere rhetoricity, easily dismissible in an era when people are information-weary and image-numb. The capacity to see this distinction is precisely the kind of rhetorical literacy that matters in our hyper-mediated world. That is to say, presence itself has become a salient and significant rhetorical gesture in an era of ghostly tele-presence.

Lastly, as Hannah Arendt points out, "A life without speech and without action ... is literally dead to the world; it has ceased to be a human life because it is no longer lived among men." (41) The rhetorical-theatrical sensibility coaches being present to the world, rather than tele-present. It is about action, rather than tele-action.


(1.) Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974), 37-42.

(2.) Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theater: The Human Seriousness of Play (New York: PAJ Publications, 1982).

(3.) Kenneth Burke, "The Rhetorical Situation," in Lee Thayer, ed., Communication: Ethical and Moral Issues (London: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1973), 263-275.

(4.) Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1961), 236.

(5.) James W. Carey, "A Cultural Approach to Communication," in Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society (Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 13-36.

(6.) Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors, 37-42.

(7.) Mark Backman, Sophistication: Rhetoric and the Rise of Self-Consciousness (Woodbridge, CT: Ox Bow Press, 1991), 79.

(8.) Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History, Second Edition (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1961), 311.

(9.) Ibid., 312.

(10.) Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1945), xv.

(11.) Kenneth Burke, "Psychology and Form," in Stanley Edgar Hyman, ed., Perspectives by Incongruity (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1964), 20-33.

(12.) Clifford Geertz, 'From the Native's Point of View': On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding," in Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 55-70.

(13.) Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

(14.) "Boundlessly Loyal to the Great Monster," in The Economist (May 28, 2011), 45-46

(15.) Gilles Deleuze, "Literature and Life," Critical Inquiry Vol. 23 (1997): 225-230; Gilles Deleuze, "Literature and Life," in Constantin V. Boundas, ed., The Logic of Sense, trans. by Mark Lester & Charles Stivale (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 89.

(16.) Paul Virilio & Sylvere Lotringer, Pure War: Twenty-Five Years Later, trans. by Mark Polizzotti (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2008), 213.

(17.) Richard Lanham, "The Rhetorical Paideia: The Curriculum as a Work of Art," College English Vol. 48 (1986): 132 141.

(18.) Frying Coffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Lift (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959).

(19.) Lanham, "The Rhetorical Paideia," 135.

(20.) Backman, Sophistication, 157.

(21.) Lewis Mumford, The Transformations of Man (New York: Collier Books, 1962), 25.

(22.) Burke, Psychology and Form, 21-22.

(23.) Burke, Psychology and Form, 27.

(24.) Burke, Psychology and Form, 27.

(25.) Burke, Attitudes toward History, 93.

(26.) Kenneth Burke, "Rhetoric and Poetics," in Language as Symbolic Action (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), 297.

(27.) Burke, Rhetoric and Poetics, 296.

(28.) Burke, Rhetoric and Poetics, 301.

(29.) Kenneth Burke, "The Nature of Art under Capitalism," in The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, Second Edition (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1967), 314-322.

(30.) Richard A. Lanham, "The Domain of Style," in Analyzing Prose, Second Edition (New York, Continuum 2003), 1-10.

(31.) Burke, Rhetoric and Poetics, 295.

(32.) Burke, Rhetoric and Poetics, 303.

(33.) M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emeison & Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 333.

(34.) Virilio and Lotringer, Pure War, 214.

(35.) W. B. Yeats, Essays and Introductions (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1961), 211-216 36. Backman, Sophistication, 160.

(37.) Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Anchor, 1966), 3.

(38.) Backman, Sophistication, 143-160.

(39.) Paul Virilio, The Art of the Motor, trans. by Julie Rose (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), 138.

(40.) Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb, trans. by Chris Turner (London: Verso, 2000), 66.

(41.) Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 176.


An earlier version of this essay was presented at a panel put together by Professor Darren C. Goins at the 2010 Convention of the National Communication Association in San Francisco. Dr. Peter Zhang is assistant professor of Communication Studies at Grand Valley State University ( He thanks Professor Robert L. 'vie and Professor Richard Bauman for initiating him into rhetoric and performance studies, respectively. He also thanks Professor Oscar Giner and Professor Alex Kuskis for their suggestions and encouragement. His special thanks go to Professor Yi Zhao and Xi Yang, his coauthors, without whose contributions the essay would not have taken its (current shape). Dr. Yi Zhao is assistant professor of Political Science at Grand Valley State University (zhaoy( Xi Yang ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), from the CN PC Tubular Goods Research Institute, is one who lives by the rhetorical-theatrical sensibility.
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Author:Zhang, Peter; Z, Yi; Yang, Xi
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Apr 1, 2012
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