Neha Patil (Editor)

Identification in rhetoric

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Contemporary Rhetoric focuses on cultural contexts and general structures of rhetoric structures. Kenneth Burke is believed to be the most influential of U.S. rhetorical theorists. Burke’s work and thought is so deep and immense while his influence is so universal and essential. Many people who study his work note the difficulty in finding out what he actually means. One of his most foundational ideas is as follows, “rhetoric makes human unity possible, that language use is symbolic action, and that rhetoric is symbolic inducement” (Burke, as cited in Herrick, 2009, p. 225). Branching from this, Herrick states that identification in rhetoric is crucial to persuasion, and thus to cooperation, consensus, compromise, and action (p. 10). Burke believed that the most serious human problem was to be alienated or separated, and rhetoric was to be that problem’s only solution. Much of his work was based on bringing people back together. “Identification is affirmed with earnestness precisely because there is division. Identification is compensatory to division” (Burke, as cited in Herrick, 2009, p. 225-226). Rhetoric’s goal, in regards to identification, is to bring people together of whom have been separated by estrangement or opposition (Herrick, 2009).



Kenneth Burke plays an important part in learning and understanding the core values of rhetorical theory in identification. He introduces the notion by taking the Aristotelian approach into a ‘world of particulars’. Burke states that Aristotle treated rhetoric as purely verbal. But there are also areas of overlap. The flexibility of identification that Burke has created expands into elements beyond language (Gibson, 2006). Burke wrote that “identification ranges from the politician who, addressing an audience of farmers, says, ‘I was a farm boy myself,’ through the mysteries of social status, to the mystic’s devout identification with the source of all being”. This symbolic interaction is possible because it recognizes the hidden sources of identification among human beings as symbol users (Herrick, 2009). From this, Burke understands symbols as something that is around constantly, and that choosing to accept and learning to read them accurately is what needs to be understood (Rutten, 2014).


Burke’s rhetorical concept of identification is seen being discussed throughout an article based upon the movie Black Swan. The main character is dangerously obsessed with becoming the perfect swan for her performance. Through her struggle with identification, this leads to obsessive and harmful thoughts and decisions. The main character transitions identities throughout the movie, often triggered by deep desires or feelings of isolation. This would be explained by Burke’s idea that “the visible tangible material embodies the spirit that infuses them in the medium of words. And in this, things become the signs of the genius that resides in words”. This is merely a case of identification. The imagery of the transitions and dying is a special case of transformation, and transformation involves the ideas and imagery of identification (Oktay, 2014).


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