Position Paper

Thomas R. Flynn

Newsweek (1992, 14) characterized the 1992 Presidential election as the "Year of the voter," arguing that, at long last, the public had "dragged the polls, the pros and the press into the election they really wanted. Gallup Polls reported record numbers paying close attention to this campaign compared to past recent elections. The 1992 Presidential election failed, however, to reverse the public disenchantment with politics that has grown over the past three decades. Our political processes continue to be marked by public alienation from both political parties, distrust and cynicism toward political elite, and a skepticism toward the government's ability to have a positive influence on our daily lives. American political campaigns, are perceived by the public to be "increasingly abstract, a spectator sport barely worth watching," in that these campaigns are seen as having little or no relationship to the activities of governing governing the nation (Dionne, 1991, 9-16). Henry (1994, 92) concludes that eventually, " the public came to view with equal disdain both the process of political communication, . . . and the content of public discourse." Over the past three decades, the American public has grown increasingly alienated as the collective belief in a government controlled by and responsive to the voting public has declined.

Political alienation represents a significant contemporary communication phenomenon, the examination of which provides insight into whether our political processes, as reflected in current practice, remain effective in the cultural reproduction of a democratic society. While the potential implications of this phenomenon are widespread, communication scholars have failed to comment on its significance to any great extent; such questions have been perceived to be outside the traditional "voter persuasion paradigm" that directs much of political communication research (1990, 7-47). The majority of communication scholars' attention has remained focused on what Edelman (1988, 120) refers to as the "factual political scene," focusing on the rhetorical strategies and styles of particular politicians, and on traditional modes of political speech, such as debates and advertising. We have failed, largely, to examine the relationship between political discourse, the public, and the reproduction of American political culture.

I have been examining the phenomenon of political alienation in terms of Burke's concept of Identification. Because sociopolitical reality is constructed through language, the critical examination of political alienation from a Burkeian perspective focuses on the meaning imposed on political reality by those who experience that reality. Language usage, according to Burke, is strategic in that our definitions of situations determine our attitude and affects all subsequent action. It is the fundamental property of language that it asserts the values, beliefs, and biases of those who use it. All of our symbolic actions are rhetorical in the sense that they are interpretations of experience based on our beliefs, rather than on unmediated observation. By employing pentadic analysis to examine the language used by focus group participants to describe political activity and their relationship to the political process, we are able to identify those rhetorical patterns inherent to their descriptions, providing insight into the rhetorics of political identification and alienation.

The Cultural Function of Political Discourse

All societies produce ideologies, which in turn act to facilitate cultural reproduction by serving as templates for the organization of society. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973, 220) characterizes ideologies as "maps of problematic social reality and matrices for the creation of social conscience," indicating that it is through the construction of ideologies that man makes himself a political animal" (218). According to Burke (1989, 20) ideologies are systems of justification and persuasion which act to construct a vision of reality through a particular terminology. In Burkeian terms, ideologies function as "terministic screens," a "cognitive framework that shields us from a multiplicity of possibilities by directing attention to certain concepts and deflecting it from others" (26). Ideologies, therefore, act not only to interpret and reflect social reality, but to construct a preferred vision of that reality (Berger and Luckman, 1966, 122-124). Clearly, in that different people interpret their social worlds differently, there always exists a multiplicity of ideological formations within society; however, social order is established and maintained when a particular set of values and beliefs becomes dominant. This ideological dominance, or hegemony (Gramsci, 1971, 12-13, 80) is established when a particular social group has been successful in persuading others of the validity of its particular worldview. A variety of social institutions act to construct, disseminate and transmit this shared vision of the world through a varied and dynamic body of ideas and practices (Althusser 1971, 142-147; Williams, 1982, 29; Duncan, 1969, 412).

As such, political discourse is necessarily more than a strategic instrument, concerned only with how to deal with various problems, crises, and challenges in the context of an election campaign. Political discourse functions as a rhetoric of courtship to gain and retain the public's commitment to those principles which create and sustain social order. Political processes constitute social dramas of hierarchy "in which superiors, inferiors, and equals communicate by symbols which they believe will create and sustain social order," which represent greater social moments, for they are the stages we pass through to create what we call the social bond" (Duncan, 1969b, 355). It is through political language, therefore, that we receive and internalize our sense of nations' history, our cultural and political traditions. National political identity is constituted when a given system of signs is invested with meaning and used to develop a collective consciousness.

Society emerges and continues to exist through the communication of meaningful symbols, creating and transmitting the social bond and emotional disposition on which its survival depends. To do so, this group identity must be objectified, the myths and ideologies must be embodied in concrete symbols and rituals such as flags and elections (355). A nation's political consciousness presents a stable, yet shifting framework of traditions. As such, this past consciousness is ideologically important because it shapes that nation's ethos and sense of identity (Kammen, 1991, 13). This historical consciousness and sense of national identity constitutes "a consensus through time" which acts to reproduce a sequential social structure. Political processes, therefore, are symbolic acts, which function to establish and maintain a strong pervasive belief by a people, in an ordered community, the nature of which is created in the coming together of individuals through the process of identification.

Democratic political systems legitimize the exercise of power quantitatively. The individual's actual or vicarious participation in the political campaign is a ritual act that allows the sense of involvement, draws attention to communal ties, and underscores the importance and reasonableness of national policy. Campaigns and elections seek to engender the sense of personal efficacy. According to Edelman, elections could not serve their function " . . . if the common belief in direct control over governmental policy through elections were to be widely questioned (Edelman, 1964, 3). Most importantly, such political processes act to create the illusion of a sequential social structure through "narrative repetition" which establishes human action in memory. Ricoeur (1981, 179) argues that narrative repetition establishes a sense of memory that moves back through actions and events, " brings us back to the almost motionless constellation of potentialities that narrative retrieves" (182). Providing a national sense of memory, the symbolic political processes links the present with the past, creating the "fiction that the will of the people today is consubstantial with the will of the Founding Fathers. Those who established the Constitution are co-agents with those who perpetuate it" (Burke, 1945, 175).

Conversely, crises of political legitimacy may arise from the perception of a growing gulf between symbolic political practices and the normative political beliefs that form the foundation of the cultural system. To maintain legitimacy in a democratic political culture, there must be a rough parallel between democratic ideals and conventional political practice. If the perceived gap between democratic ideal and political practice becomes wide, those political processes, rooted in cultural myth and symbols, become broadly perceived as increasingly hollow, meaningless, and irrelevant to the daily lives of the governed. The result is political alienation, a growing sense of social estrangement (Burke, 1972, 27-28; 1950, 209-212) that emerges from a recognition that "the principles and directives of prevailing society are radically askew" (1984, 332).

Political Identification

Burke's concept of identification provides means to examine the relationship between the dynamics of social order and the function of symbolic political processes. Burke refers to identification as "the function of sociality," a social process that spans the individual's development of identity through the formation of associations to the constitution of social collectives through great social drama (Burke, 1984, 266-267) .

Burke argues that this process is necessary to "one's participation in a collective social role" (264). In that we are unique and autonomous, we remain an individual locus of motives. Through identification, however, we are "at once a distinct substance and consubstantial" with external social entities (Burke, 1950, 20-21). Sociality begins as the individual comes to anticipate others attitudes toward her/him, thus becoming aware of oneself. This occurs through language, which enables a community to transmit traditions and to make useful those traditions through modification (Duncan, 1969, 256). Further, language employed through social drama maintains and transmits "social bonds from one generation to another" creating and sustaining the emotional bond necessary to a community's existence (350). Social order is established through a society's commitment to a "hierarchical principle" that acts to order or sequence competing ideologies (Burke, 1950, 138-141, 187). The social system is organized by this culminating ideal which gives form to the hierarchy of beliefs and values, arranging and giving meaning to the symbolic forms employed by the system.

Critical Perspective

The instantiation of Burke's theories into the field of speech communication resulted in sweeping changes in the field's conception of the purpose and scope of rhetoric. Most significantly, the social power of rhetoric came to be seen as residing in the motivational power of symbolic form. Rhetorical critics came to realize that the forms that organize culture are not expressed in language, but rather, "social order is performed in language" (Klumpp and Hollihan, 1989, 88-91) and that to recognize the "social significance of a work" the critic should focus "with all possible emphasis" on how a text "acts" (Lentricchia, 1983, 9). Motives are definitions of situations that express attitudes about reality, and serve as justifications for actions. Language, therefore, provides the means by which social life is organized.

Because society and beliefs are constructed through language, Burkeian criticism focuses on the way language induces the cooperation of an audience through the distorting or mystifying properties of language, which Burke refers to as the "resources of ambiguity." By doing so, criticism operates as a process of demystification, seeking to expose the mysteries and ambiguities contained within a particular discourse's terministic screen. Taking the inherent ambiguity of language as a starting point, Burkeian analysis engages in the systematic analysis of clusters or cycles of terms that are used again and again. Looking for terms that demonstrate a coherent pattern, access is gained to an inherent body of attitudes, values, and behavior that serves to structure or inform that symbol usage. Based on this insight, language is made less ambiguous through the construction of an archetype of the symbolic reality contained within discourse. Applied to sociopolitical discourse, Burkeian analysis demonstrates the manner in which systems of belief establish premises that structure a statement on social reality. By identifying these language structures, we gain insight into the vision of society implied by that language. The attractiveness of this approach to criticism resides in the attention that it focuses on the rhetorical functioning of language.

Works Cited

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