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“The War of Words,” A Rhetoric of Motives, and Contemporary Rhetorical Theory

Seminar leaders:

Jack Selzer, Penn State University
Kyle Jensen, University of North Texas
Krista Ratcliffe, Marquette University

Kenneth Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives has of course been recognized as a foundational contribution to rhetorical theory ever since its appearance in 1950. Because it expanded our collective sense of “the realm of rhetoric” (so that we now understand science, art, and materiality as falling within the domain of rhetoric) and because it offered the concept of “identification” as a complement to Aristotelian categories of persuasion, A Rhetoric of Motives remains the central text for everyone working out the premises of “the new rhetoric.” And yet as widely read as it is, RM remains imperfectly and incompletely understood: the details of “identification” remain as confounding as they are intriguing, and large sections of RM remain confusing or elusive.

Participants in this seminar, therefore, will work together to comprehend RM and to tease out its implications for the study of contemporary discourse. Toward that end, participants will have a chance to review and discuss a lengthy, intriguing, recently discovered section of RM—called “The War of Words”—that Burke decided to delete from his manuscript at the last minute. Not only will the seminar leaders be sharing the contents of “The War of Words” (an edition of it is now in preparation) but they will also make available other archival materials which bear on RM, including correspondence between Burke and his colleagues and friends J. S. Watson, Malcolm Cowley, and Stanley Edgar Hyman (among others). Careful attention will also be given over to an analysis of “identification” and the terms associated with it in RM.

But guiding daily discussion will be participants’ own research and individual questions. Participants will be encouraged to submit short statements about their own questions and scholarly interests (we seek a mix of graduate students, junior faculty, and more senior scholars), and at least half the time will be given over to participants’ developing projects. If things go as planned, participants will leave with a more mature understanding of RM as well as invigorated individual work, whether it be an article-in-progress, a dissertation or book chapter, or whatever.

Given the contents of RM and “The War of Words,” we anticipate that the seminar will interest, in addition to students of Kenneth Burke, scholars working on post-World War II culture, publics theory, national identity, rhetorical theory, rhetorics of the popular press, and listening rhetorics. Join us!

Questions should be directed to Jack Selzer, jls25@psu.edu


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