A Rapprochement Between Dramatism and Argument

James F. Klumpp

Published in Argumentation and Advocacy 29 (Spring 1993): 148-63. Please cite appropriately.

Nearly all the rhetorical theories that mark the history of human thought snugly fit argumentation (or at least a recognizable reasoning) into a comfortable place within their account of rhetorical practice. Viewed against that background of history, modern study of rhetoric reveals an enigma: the two most vital strains of contemporary rhetorical study -- dramatism and argumentation -- proceed with energetic progress and with no apparent influence on each other. Kenneth Burke's dramatistic theory revitalized contemporary American theories of rhetoric into new understandings of the ongoing rhetorical processes of societal construction, yet argument receives scant attention in Burke's work. Argumentation study has been reinvigorated in this century with new frameworks from informal logicians, students of naturally occurring argument, narrative argument, and followers of Perelman, Toulmin and Habermas; yet only narrative among these approaches shows an awareness of dramatism.

With a deep interest in both of these twentieth century movements -- the turn toward a social rhetoric and the revitalization of argumentation -- I began to find the separation of the two becoming my own schizophrenia. I found that when working in the Burkean tradition, I tended to leave my theoretical work in argument (although not, of course, my skills as an arguer) behind. Similarly, when I worked in argumentation theory I found myself having to forget the lessons of dramatistic theory. In search of the coherence in my own work, and believing that relating the two movements could aid both, a number of years ago I embarked on a project to integrate argumentation theory and dramatism, and the search for the rapprochement began.

The project turned out to be extremely difficult. There were some preliminary attempts in my own work and in the work of colleagues (Klumpp, "Dramatistic" and "Pentad"; Kneupper; Madsen, "Alternatives" and "Dramatistic"). I began by attempting to find a definition of "argument" consistent with both traditions. I bracketed assumption after assumption of dramatism and traditional argumentation theory but could never get back to the common concept. Finally, I gave up on this approach and took another -- familiar to those in similar quandaries -- I abandoned the project.

But it would not stay abandoned. In studying critical pluralism, and particularly the work of Stephen Pepper, I began to identify Burke's work with the intellectual movement broadly known as contextualism, and with the intellectual movement that Pepper calls organicism. Note 1 I had begun with a belief that Burke's lack of attention to argument was merely a result of his coming to the study of rhetoric from a different disciplinary home, and that a rapprochement would evolve from an extension of dramatism into the merely ignored theory of argument. But as I understood more about the roots of Burke's work in the broad intellectual movements of our time -- contextualism and organicism -- I began to believe that the unachieved rapprochement would take me toward adapting argumentation rather than dramatism. I decided to approach my search for rapprochement by developing a contextualist perspective on argument and then returning to the rapprochement project.

With that work advanced, Note 2 I am now prepared to return to the original project and seek the rapprochement. Note 3 After considering Burke's treatment of argument, I will consider the requisites for contextualist approaches to argument and the characteristics of dramatism which would shape argumentation to its service, ending by illustrating a dramatistic approach to argument.

Kenneth Burke on Formal Argument

Burke began his work in rhetorical theory in the 1920s and 1930s. His approach to argumentation grew naturally from the traditional argumentation theory that dominated that era and remains influential today. Traditional argumentation theory is built on analytic and formal procedures. Analytically, traditional theory works by dividing individual arguments into parts -- premises and conclusions; evidence and forms; or data, warrant, and claim Note 4 -- and then analyzing each part through a scheme of types. More generally, traditional argumentation theory seeks ideal forms which an arguer can master. With these forms, the arguer can generate sound arguments and can, in turn, critique argument to find fallacies or lines of refutation. The task of theory is the identification and refinement of these forms, the task of pedagogy to teach these forms. Note 5

Dramatism has not been kind to this formal theory of argument. Many reasons explain this estrangement. The "new" logics of the time when the formative works of dramatism were being formulated were symbolic logics, the thrust of which was to develop abstract representational forms devoid of content. Burke's initial attack on this formalism appears in his earliest book of critical theory, Counterstatement. Burke defines "form" as "the arousing and fulfillment of desires." This definition stresses a realistic rather than an idealistic basis for form. Consider, for example, Burke's translation he calls "syllogistic progression": the power of form rests in the "mind of the auditor" not in the quality of the form (124). Burke enters the den of the central character in idealistic logic -- the classical syllogism -- and displaces its central power.

Sometime after Burke's initial attack on formalism, argumentation theory made a similar move from idealism towards realism: tempering commitment to formalism with a skepticism about formalism's idealistic method. Influenced by the growing social science of communication, argumentation theorists insisted on experimental verification of effective forms of argument. On a much broader front, a search for effective strategies replaced the commitment to the presentation of correct arguments. The result was not always consistent, a theory which mixed formal and mechanistic commitments. Even to our own times, argumentation textbooks often mix chapters taking a formal approach to "correct" inference with chapters taking a social scientific approach to effective presentation of evidence.

Because the thrust of Burke's second book, Permanence and Change, was an attack on the evolving extension of science into social analysis, it preempted the changes that were taking place in argumentation and presented an attack that stuck to the assumptions which argumentation theorists had not altered in their evolving understanding. Burke's attack is three fold.

First, he attacks a theory of reasoning derived from formal patterns, even when supplemented with verification by social scientific experiment:

The laboratory method of applied science should not blind us to the fact that most of our significant concerns with basic cultural matters lie in a territory where working models cannot possibly be made. The testing is as vague as with any medieval system of symbolic correspondence. People go on praising the objectivity of science despite the many significant rival analyses in any given branch of science. We usually tend to ignore this Babel of assertions, and to speak of science as though it were one thing rather than an assemblage of widely disagreeing scientists. And the success of science in some categories where analogy can be tested by working models has been permitted by analogical extension to carry over its prestige to categories where its analogies are open to the vaguest kind of testing. (Permanence 101)
Burke is willing to grant the success of the logic of form and method in some areas, but he objects that the great problems of the day do not lend themselves to such procedure. In an argument which presages Thomas Kuhn's distinctions of a later decade, Burke argues that even science must obscure fundamental conflicts to focus its faith on the successes of formal logic. Burke argues that a logic which alienates the arguer and his/her specific interests from the issues which give rise to argument cannot be a universal logic.

The emphasis on the conflicts of interest in argument become more concrete in his second objection: to the reductionist thrust of formal logic. Argumentative analysis tends to prefer reducing propositions to empirically -- materially -- testable premises. Thus, for example, argumentation theory reduces policy propositions to material cause and measurable quantification as quickly as it can. This establishes the quality of argumentative forms in the predictive power of material relationships. Note 6 In the four moves of argumentative analysis, the first move reduces a complex of motives and values to material referents, the second reduces the material content to its abstract expression as form, the third uses the formal patterns to produce inferences which, in the fourth move, can be taken back to material experience as proof. This modus operandi depends on a separation of discourse from referent. Following the Port Royalist separation of dialectic from rhetoric, logic lies in the domain of non-linguistic referent. Argumentation is the study of bringing the logic of the non-linguistic domain to the discourse domain.

Burke's reinvention of rhetoric is essentially an objection to this referentialism which he calls "information psychology" (Counterstatement 32-33). This logic, Burke argues, authorizes the reduction to method rather than substance: reducing the complexities of social order to forms manageable by a logic of method.

Even in those areas where the tests of success are made possible by experiment, it is only by a deliberate limitation of interests that we can establish such a test. Is the success of nitro-glycerine adequately tested, for instance, when a charge of it blows up an experimental rock, or when it has been distributed throughout the explosive social structure of the world? Are Pasteur's experiments proven "successful" by the prevention of one disease, or by the ultimate pollution of the bloodstream through all mankind which could result from the systematic extension of his methods? How many people today are rotting in either useless toil or in dismal worklessness because of certain technological successes? We do not here aim to discredit the accomplishments of science, which are mainly converted into menaces by the inadequacies of present political institutions. We desire simply to indicate that the region where testing is of vital importance, where the tests of success are in turn to be tested, is a region of Weltanschauung, of cultural, moral, political emphases, of ambition, concepts of the good life, notions of ultimate human purpose, where our opportunities to test the justice of our analogical extensions by reference to working models are not much better than at any other period in history. (Permanence 101-102; emphasis in original)
The tendency of argumentation toward stasis and modes of proof as an analytic framework for material testing of argument must lead to the encountering of limits of logic when those complications we call "assumptions" are reached. Reaching that point is destined in a reduction of reasoning to material logic.

The material logic also leads to the third attack: on the linear sequencing of logic from material knowledge to action. This, Burke says, results in a logic of inference inappropriate to human action.

When a writer gives us a sequence of logical propositions framed to show why he got to his conclusions, he is almost reversing the actual processes of his thought. He presents data which supposedly lead to a conclusion -- whereas the conclusion had led to the selection and arrangement of the data. The demonstration is derived from the demonstrandum. Euclid's proofs are ramifications of his original thesis, or point of view. From what we want to arrive at, we deduce our ways of getting there, although the conventions of logical exposition usually present things the other way round. The debater suggests that his "facts" lead to his "resolved," but we know that his position was assigned to him, and that he selects his "facts" accordingly. (Permanence 98; emphasis in original)
Because we can reduce reasons to matter, conclusions entailed in form are themselves matter which a logic of method then allows us to reflexively check. In the process, the conflicts of "human interest" are reduced to material facts. The implication that makes this logic work can only be a demand that "the very universe must be bungling and misguided unless it proceeds in accordance with the barrister's plea." Implied in Burke's argument is a belief that the logic of form and method is not the logic that founds action on the rock bed of the material world, but a logic which does so by leaving the inevitable nonmaterial content of human motives to non-logical (read illogical) processes.

Burke has little to say about argument through the rest of his work. He does address formalism again, in Rhetoric of Motives, with specific reference to rhetorical theory. Part I of this book describes a drastically broadened perspective on rhetoric. Burke's rhetoric retains its character as addressed, but transforms its character as persuasive into the verities of identification and division. Then, Burke turns to what he labels as the more restricted traditional approaches to rhetorical theory and accounts for them as special cases of his broader theory: "We would now consider varying views of rhetoric that have already prevailed; and we would try to 'generate' them from the same basic terms of our discussion" (Rhetoric 46). In Part II of the book he moves through various rhetorical theories and translates them into dramatistic terms. Among these theories is a discussion of rhetorical form. In laying out rhetorical form Burke does not directly address argumentation theory but he does list the many labellings of fallacies and argument types by medieval scholastic monks that are the predecessors of the type charts of modern formal and informal approaches to argument. Nor does Burke directly attack formalism in rhetoric at this point. His task is rather to restate the precepts of formalism in dramatistic terms. To do so, however, he overtly attacks the place of "reason" as an "ideal" basis of formalism suggesting substitution of "imagination" in a poetic framework (Rhetoric 86). Thus, Burke himself turns away from the rapprochement which I seek, and argument drops out of his vocabulary.

In a world dominated by the success of science, Burke's critique is easily read as an attack on the argumentation theory that seeks to expand that success into human action. Note 7 Although argumentation theory has advanced since Burke first lodged these attacks, the dominant questions of argumentation -- What inferential patterns are most reliable? What characteristics are key to abstraction and classification from language form into argumentative form? What assumptions mark the limits of argument? -- remain subject to his attack. These questions are not central questions of dramatism. Even the latest innovations in argumentation often move toward Burke's view of the place of language, but fall short of escaping his attack on the assumptions of the study of argument. Note 8

A strong theme runs through Burke's attack on inference by method. He rejects the disembodied movement from the concrete reality of complex situations to the more simplified abstractions of logic. It is not that Burke eschews terminology to describe commonalities across discourse. He has a theory too. But listen to the difference between a traditional theory of argumentation and a statement of dramatism:

Proof is the process of securing belief in one statement by relating it to another statement already believed. A unit of proof has six elements, three of which, evidence, warrant and claim, are absolutely indispensable. (Ehninger and Brockriede 99; emphasis in original)
Here there is a separateness which controls. The two "statements" are separate and then related to seek belief. A "unit" of proof has "indispensable" parts which are sorted out. Their relationship is in their distinctive character as different. Argument is a machine in which parts mesh to produce a product -- belief.

Compare this to Burke:

Distinctions, we might say, arise out of a great central moltenness, where all is merged. They have been thrown from a liquid center to the surface, where they have congealed. Let one of these crusted distinctions return to its source, and in this alchemic center it may be remade, again becoming molten liquid, and may enter into new combinations, whereat it may be again thrown forth as a new crust, a different distinction. So that A may become non-A. But not merely by a leap from one state to the other. Rather, we must take A back into the ground of its existence, the logical substance that is its causal ancestor, and on to a point where it is consubstantial with non-A; then we may return, this time emerging with non-A instead. (Grammar xix)
Burke uses a material metaphor too. But this metaphor works quite the opposite. Distinctions inhere in the substance of the content not in the abstract form. This vocabulary works by melding the distinctions together and then letting the distinctions reemerge from the molten core. This is not an ongoing operating machine, but an "alchemic moment." The difference sensed in these passages is a difference that emerges from contextualism.

Contextualism and Rhetorical Studies

Contextualism is a general pattern for understanding, built upon experiential encounters with the world. More precisely, the contextualist understands the human power of interpretation to be a central creative element in human action. To a contextualist, understanding is organized from the encounters of text with context, and the dialectic logic expressed in the text-context relationship is central. A text wills its context into significance, a selection of phenomena into a textured account of experience. The nomena are, of course, available to the interpreter but meaning emerges only with the creation of the context in the textual act. Stephen Pepper calls the historical event the root metaphor of the contextualist (232). By this he means that the intellectual force of contextualism lies in the interpreter's ability to construct accounts which organize the meaning of events from their relationship to other events -- the historian's skill.

The contextualist deemphasizes generalization (the present not the universal is the key to knowledge), the ideal (ideals and formal structures may be human inventions that can become part of the contexts, but nothing more), and the ultimate telos of change (change makes each successive moment contingent on the transformation of context into text anyway). The contextualist's truth lies in the power of a textual account of context to inform understanding. Understandings are enriched by other legitimate accounts which we may also call, as appropriate, true.

It is natural that theories of language, particularly theories of rhetoric, should be contextualist. The power of the text to organize the world elevates the status of rhetoric. Epistemological operations founded in concepts such as generalization, ideals, forms, and telos become rhetorical -- i.e., methodological -- strategies which contextualize in particular ways. Burke's dramatism has led the American move toward contextualist rhetorical theories. In the tradition of the American pragmatists, Burke characterizes the power of language as the symbolic framing of action. His Grammar of Motives generates a vocabulary for textualizing accounts of experience and argues the linkage between the facility for various interpretational strategies and identifiable philosophies. The entire body of his work traces the linkages between the interpretational strategies of language and cultural or social order.

One other characteristic of contextualism clarifies a distinctiveness of Burke's work central to our project -- its attitude toward "theory." Argumentation theorists have traditionally thought of theory as a generalized structure -- a set of concepts (phenomena established as significant by their place in the theory) and generalized statements about the relationship among concepts -- that can form a framework for accounting for argument. Theory has thus served as the stable structure within which the concrete instance can be reduced to its shared form. With contextualism's shift in the status of generalization and form, theory changes similarly: theory becomes a strategy for connecting the interpretive moment with contextual understandings. Consistent with the contextualist's stress on dialectic logic, theory is treated in the dialectic pair theory-praxis. Theory and praxis are unified in moments of action. Interpretations -- texts -- frame these moments into relationships which define context. These interpretations thus create action by melding the asserted significance of a context with the asserted unique character of the moment. Theory is thus what Pepper calls "the spread" of the interpretation, the providing of dimension to the moment which knits it from context into the fused moment (239-41).

The simplest explanation for this notion of theory may be the common phrase "I have a theory that . . ." This assertion fixes an interpretation to lift it from perishability so that it can be examined and given the stability of connection which can be questioned and supported. There is no assertion of universality, nor even of compliance with form, in the use of the term. The assertion merely contributes a stability that allows debate to ensue about the quality of the interpretation. Furthermore, the stability of the assertion is limited by the spread it achieves for that moment. In other words, its power of explanation extends beyond the moment which gives it life as "a theory that . . ." only to the extent that it constructs the context, the character of the spread always begins in the text. As a result, theory tends to be pluralistic. Different interpretations construct spread differently, accounts will invoke different theories.

Of course, contextualism's replacement of the familiar theory/practice relationship with a theory-praxis dialectic changes the purposes of theoretical work. Instead of writing toward applicable principles of argument available for reapplication, the purpose of studies of argument becomes the intensification of the experience of the argument. Theorizing "puts the argument together" a different way to re-interpret it in a way that alters its impact. In re-textualizing the argument, context is altered and with context changed the argument's significance is changed. Theory thus tends to merge into criticism, but the process of criticism is not merely application of theory, nor the product of criticism a view of how argument works. Rather the cross of theory and criticism is a merger in which the character of the ongoing conversation of human action proceeds.

The difficult adjustment to the different terms for the merger of theory and criticism is familiar to Burkeans. Who among them has not experienced that strange sense that Burkean "theory" is so intertwined with criticism that it is "not very good theory"? Who has not read the theorists in many disciplines who would transform Burke's work into a set of propositions that would define a traditional theory of behavior -- a non-contextualist notion of theory -- and shuddered at the results? Somehow others using the pentad seem to fall short of Burke using the same; a similar feeling emerges from reading others using the iron law of history, or other vocabularies from Burke's work. The reason is that such elaborations destroy the contextualist assumptions of theory as simple interpretive stability.

To track this difference in "theory" another way, begin with Burke's theorizing rather than with the abstract definition of contextualism. Burke does offer coherent vocabularies to describe particular complexes of action. Act, agent, agency, purpose, and scene are offered as a stable vocabulary useful in characterizing -- interpreting -- the text's construction of context. Vocabularies such as the pentad are so vital because they facilitate symbolic action. We might call them "meta-vocabularies" because they are the vocabularies with which interpretation is interpreted. They empower Burke to contextualize particular rhetorical action among other rhetorical action. In doing so, they provide stability as the dialectical counterpart to the change willed by the rhetoric. It is this quality we hear when we hear Burke reveal the tradition in radical statements: the energy of interpretation is the tension between the novelty of the moment and the continuity of human action. In this dialectical tension, the novelty undercuts the stability of vocabulary even as the stability undercuts the sheer disconnectedness of the novel. This is the dialectic Burke labels with "permanence and change." Burke's stable vocabularies such as the pentad perform the dialectical work in his interpretation. They do so recognizing that their stability is inherently perishable. Each interpretive moment demands the destruction of the stable vocabulary into the novelty of the rhetorical act. The pentad and vocabularies like it become residue of the dialectical tension inherent in language acts. Thus, terms such as those which cohere in the pentad do not name discrete referents manipulated by the operation of the theory, but merely provide the element of stability necessary for the language act of interpretation. They provide a vocabulary through which Burke's interpretation of language's power to contextualize proceeds.

The intellectual movement -- contextualism -- thus contributes two primary forces which must shape the terms of rapprochement. To approach argumentation contextually, the rapprochement will work with a dialectical tension to provide a perishable but stable vocabulary which facilitates interpretation of the argument encountered in the ongoing moments that we recognize as argument.

Dramatistic Approaches to Argument

Having embarked on a characterization of the rapprochement decreed by the contextualist roots of dramatism, I am not yet ready to launch boldly into a suitable vocabulary. Instead, I want to follow the momentum gathered by reconsidering some of the basic moves of argumentation study that a dramatistic approach to argumentation will alter. In doing so, I will generate some additional forces to bring to bear on interpretation of argument. Together they will sensitize the different approach.

Interpret argument synthetically rather than analyzing it. We have traditionally worked in argumentation theory by separating argument into component parts which we then work into named types. Dramatism treats distinctions differently. The fundamental move must be to transform distinctions which give resolution to content as they are forced together in the moment of text. This is the difference we sensed when we contrasted Ehninger and Brockriede's vocabulary to Burke's. In Ehninger and Brockriede's treatment of warrant-types, the force of the argument emerges from the character of the warrant-type and the "well-formed" argument according to our understanding of that type (Ehninger and Brockriede, ch. 10). In Burke's discussion of the pentad, the force emerges from the transformation of pentadic ratios in the text (Grammar xix). Distinctions in dramatism are always viewed as entailed in synthetic fusion. Forms in traditional formal logic are viewed as combinations of distinct categories. A synthetic argumentative study must use its vocabulary to map the ways in which context is synthesized in text to yield transformations of interpretation which have appeal.

Trace argument toward action (motive) rather than knowledge. Burke expresses this difference in an essay where he discusses the difference between knowledge and action. "Human conduct, being in the realm of action and end . . . is most directly discussable in dramatistic terms. By 'dramatistic' terms are meant those that begin in theories of action rather than theories of knowledge" (Permanence 274). We have come to view the providing of reasons as identifying things that are known from which inference may be generated to a novel claim. This is a knowledge theory: knowledge, action, and reason have their independent status apart from the argument, and argument is built by calling upon knowledge to construct reasons for action. Note 9 Theories of action work more from the relationship between context and text, the power of text to select and form, from context, the elements of "a well-rounded statement about motives" (Grammar xv). These elements are not merely selected, attitudes are built into the textualizing of them which become inextricable from their character -- context is defined by text -- their character is entailed in the act of textualization. Instead of belief and attitude about context being transferred to the text, it is transformed by the text. Synthetic argument transforms the total complex of elements merged in the interpretation.

Work toward critical rather than formal theory. Traditionally argumentation theory has developed accounts of argumentative form to enable subsequent invention when forms are applied to other material referents. Even mechanistic theories of argument have merely facilitated the selection of forms by applying the criterion of effectiveness as a method of selection. The traditional ideal is an arguer who can translate an understanding based in the non-rhetorical skills of material and value analysis into arguments by employing the appropriate argumentative forms.

It is, of course, this division of analysis from argumentative form that Burke rejects. Dramatism rejects the philosophical separation which is characteristic of a mediated rhetoric. Note 10 The fundamental distinction between motion and action on which Burke rests dramatism is that humans are motivated symbolically which means that meaning entails the resources of language. Strategies of language do not follow analysis and express its results in the forms of argument. Rather, strategies of language penetrate analysis and meaning emerges from the interpenetration. The power of form is the power to transform meaning.

The result is that the power of an argumentative study consistent with dramatism becomes the power to generate critique of the transformation of meaning. Traditional argumentation theory, at least since Whately, has been a homeostatic theory of change. The arguer analyzes the status quo ante to discover the material and attitudinal disposition prior to argument. The argument itself is aimed at disrupting the stability by creating change: change of position in the target audience's beliefs and attitudes which then stimulates actions to change the structures of the material referents. Dramatism, by contrast, posits a fluid context, always changing, and trades on the power of interpretation (text) to transform the change. A theory of critique, therefore, is aware of the reflexivity of interpretation. The arguer's text is a textualizing of previous text. The arguer's interpretation is an interpretation of previous interpretations. Raymie McKerrow's treatment of critical rhetoric elaborates the commitments implied in a substitution of a critical for a formal rhetoric. Perhaps the best summary would be that, in this principle more than any other, the basis of argument shifts from metaphysics to metainterpretation.

Frame argument from dialectical rather than geometric assumptions. Burke builds a philosophy of rhetoric grounded in a dialectic of language. This is neither the ideal dialectic of Hegel, nor the dialectical materialism of Marx, but a linguistic dialectic. Hegel posits the dialectic of opposites in the ideational movement toward resolution. Dialectical materialism rests on the copresence of opposite character in matter. Burke develops his dialectic of human action from language's resource of the negative ("Dramatistic"; "Postscripts").

"There is no negative in nature," Burke is fond of saying. So the negative comes into the world with language. The negative of language, however, is the resource with which humans create action within nature. Human language defines in terms of what something is not (Grammar 24-26). This is a basic statement of contextualism. The text declares by contrasting with con-text, what it is not. In the process it constructs context. Thus language acts transform understanding by transforming context. Since humans act within the context thus defined, the power of text is the power to transform human action in its relationship to the context which it defines. Most particularly this becomes a part of argument through the hortatory negative -- thou shalt nots. The power of positive terms -- terms for the materially dimensional -- and ultimate terms -- terms of value and hierarchy -- are transformed into the dialectical terms of what Burke calls "the human barnyard."

Burke elaborates a full philosophy designed to operate in this linguistic dialectic. Many of the precepts of the Hegelian dialectic are retained: the paradox of substance expresses the tendency of materiality to transform toward its opposite, the upward way expresses the resolution of thesis and antithesis. But the dialectic is itself transformed as it is framed in the character of language. Through text human argument attains an active place in the dialectical history of action.

So, with a focus on the power of the text-context dialectic and redefined notions of theory; with commitments to synthesis, motive, criticism, and dialectical tension, we are ready to turn to an argument to see if we have a basis for rapprochement between dramatism and argument.

A Moment for Argument and Drama

Clarence Thomas was nominated to become Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Hearings were held that investigated Thomas' views on issues of judicial reasoning such as natural law and issues of judicial position such as abortion. The hearings began with Thomas presenting a narrative of his life -- a drama of social advancement against cultural odds, of American promise delivered by mentors dedicated to equal opportunity. The hearings concluded, the Senate debated, and prepared to vote. At this point the nomination and the debate were politically significant, but relatively confined to the political process.

Then, the issue exploded. The charge of sexual harassment against Thomas by Anita Hill transformed the debate over a Supreme Court nominee into a complex cultural struggle which ultimately engulfed relationships between men and women, the politics of the office, the stereotypes of black males and black females in American lore, the United States Senate as a bastion of patriarchy, the contrast of legal and moral judgement, and perhaps a thousand other significant frameworks. Note 11 The Senate floor, the shopping malls, the living rooms, probably even the bedrooms of America filled with words which framed these events.

That there is drama here is obvious. The most obvious of many are: The chief law enforcement officer of the United States charged with quelling sexual harassment seeks a social relationship with his adviser, and pursues it with unwelcomed, lurid, even pornographic advances. Interest groups exploit a black woman to drum up accusations against a Supreme Court nominee based in stereotypes of black men. These two dramas just serve as a kind of central point, however, for much more complex dramatic structure. The former, for example, stretches into every workplace in America, into relationships of power between women and men in other venues, into our patriarchal society. The other stretches into our history, to the pitting of slave overseer against slave fieldhand in our guilt-infested memory of slavery.

Equally obviously, there is argument here. Some of the most vitriolic argument2 I have seen in some time is evident all around us. In addition, however, there is a lot of behavior that we easily identify as argument1. Participants marshall what they call "facts." There are many declarations of what might be called "truths." While the incident might challenge many of our traditional definitions of argument, still something that looks like argument rages.

Must we bring these two strains that a critic might trace -- drama and argument -- together or might we simply say "You can view it as argument or view it dramatistically"? On that question rests the viability of a project at rapprochement.

A Dramatistic Vocabulary of Argument

Our perspective plays against a background of ongoing critique. "The public process in which a society socializes experience and coordinates action is natural." A theory of argument need not assume the responsibility for making it happen. "It is as irrepressible as communication itself. Nor is critique any more remarkable. Communication definitionally contains a quality to transform experience into something it is not. Critique turns the experience toward a new context that accomplishes the transformation. The vocabulary we develop should merely facilitate critique." Note 12

There are many dimensions which join in argument within critique. Certainly, when people argue, a material context is created. Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas both assert material fact. So do their defenders and detractors who construct elaborate scenarios of conspiracy. So do the many women who every day claim sexual harassment across the culture. But sexual harassment profoundly involves more than mere material fact; at the core is a definition which goes beyond the material facts to involve a political relationship in which power is asserted directly or by creating a situation with differentiated power. Framing the issue as sexual harassment provides the moral quality of condemnation which energizes the hearings and the other discussions of the issue. This morality is relatively new historically, but well established by now in the text of the law. At issue in this debate, and invoked rhetorically within it, are questions about the social ethics of a society which values equality of opportunity over gender role. Historically, the movement toward this social moral choice frames the debate.

These are the dimensions of the argument which merge to fill the Hill-Thomas drama with caustic argument. Working more closely with these dimensions, we can find our way through the twists and turns of this argument from the Senators who ask "Who is telling the truth?" to the intense arguments about sexual harassment in thousands of venues. Examining the relationships among the dimensions more closely opens up this argument to reveal the wellsprings of the energy in the debate and the forces which merge the public and the private to release social change.

A major strategy of Thomas' defenders is to reduce the argument to the strictly material question: Did Clarence Thomas behave this way? The power of material fact as a frame for the Thomas hearings arises from the institutional, ideological, and theoretical support our theories of democratic argument provide for the experience. Our governmental system -- judicial, legislative, and executive -- is constituted by rituals which turn questions of justice, wise action, and administrative efficiency on issues of material fact. It is natural, therefore, that members of the United States Senate construct the hearings as fact-finding: "Who is telling the truth?" Their construction of "one of these two people is lying" takes full advantage of the adversarial system for their individual political purposes -- Should Thomas be confirmed? -- and for the guiding purposes of their government -- In our systen, Truth will out! Defining the dispute in terms of argumentative stasis, and legal or quasi-legal stasis, reinforces the authority of the rituals, the institutions of governmental power, and those who conduct themselves according to the defined procedures of those comfortable rituals. At the same time, however, defining the dispute in these terms places those same rituals at risk. If the Senate debate cannot be contained within the material question of fact, a strategy to narrow the issue has the opposite affect -- the debate explodes in significance. In Burke's terms, the "embarrassment" of the Senate would produce its own need for catharsis beyond the catharsis on the Thomas nomination.

So the Senate hearings had a patina of search for the facts. Hill is questioned about what precisely Thomas said and did. Hill complies with concrete description of Thomas' behavior. Others offer their own set of facts to the service of the dispute: John Doggett relates Anita Hill's behavior at a party, framing it in terms of the common cultural hustling that anyone with his attractiveness can expect from women on the make. But these uses of facts -- Hill charging Thomas with obscene remarks or Doggett charging Hill with seduction -- are private or interpretive, failing to yield to the rules of verification of our argumentative rituals.

Seeking to enhance the comfortable feeling of material factuality with something that resembles physical evidence, the Republican staff of the committee produces a pornographic novel which contains scenarios and even dialogue which seems to echo in Hill's account. The material fact of this book, however -- starkly real for all to see as the Senator reads it with a leer enhanced by half-frame reading glasses -- is meaningless, not truly evidence, until transformed into the framework of a drama. Furthermore, the drama could place the book into an attack on Thomas modeled on a common charge against pornography -- Thomas was acting out his fantasies acquired in his pornographic reading habits -- or the drama could place the book into an attack on Hill -- the vivid detail of her story comes directly from her reading the fiction to prepare her testimony. The latter fits the political needs of this argument, and in the larger drama of confirmation, the Senator adopts this strategy. But the fanciful character of the novel that can never be placed in Anita Hill's hands seems to underline that something besides material fact is at stake in the dispute.

In the end, the ritual, the questions of the Senators, and the testimony of so many lawyers could not contain the debate. In fact, rhetorical framing shows through the patina nearly immediately. Two forces invade the hearings to destroy their manageability. The first force is the rhetorical power of history. Clarence Thomas chose not to confront his tormentor on mere material fact. He transforms the charges into a pattern -- "high-tech lynching" -- based in morally repugnant historical events and in a stereotype -- oversexed black men -- which has historically marked the rhetoric of white American culture. Thomas' defenders pick up this charge to attack Hill. But others counter with an alternative stereotype -- the castrating black female. Committee Chair Joseph Biden picks up this theme to reframe Thomas' attack and thus defend Hill. The strength of race in American conscience provides the rhetorical power to these arguments, but also overwhelms the effort to contain the issues to material facts.

The other major force which overwhelms the containment inheres in the character of sexual harassment. In its less extreme forms, and the form charged here, sexual harassment involves inappropriate and unwanted advances. In this form, the intricate language of courtship play with which the sexual harassment is performed contrasts with the stern demands for proof which mark arguments of material fact. But any charge of harassment attains significance by transforming the relevant material fact into power relationships. An overly prosecutorial Senator Specter reminds all who would forget of what happens when the essentially political charge of sexual harassment hits the material fact fan. The common sense experience of sexual harassment, lived in innumerable venues culture-wide, gives lie to the promise of fair and impartial judgement on which the authority of the Senate hearing rests. So, the requisite agreement on the terms for the debate which guides the choice of argument1 and marshalls the destructive energy of argument2 is destroyed.

The failure to contain the argument on material grounds and the subsequent transforming of the issue into the exercise of illicit power laid bare the power relationships of the ritualistic institutions of American society. Additional material facts entered as the ripples spread from the Senate chamber. The all-male Senate panel posturing themselves in judgement of the female accuser presents a televised depiction of the power relationship that is at issue -- the gendered power relationship writ large. By negating the sublimation of the power dimension that is the essence of ritual in governmental institutions, the ritual not only loses its ability to contain the scope of the argument, but also loses its ability to diffuse the heat of the argument.

The intensity of this argument emerges when the linguistic resources of the sexual harassment charge confront the institutional authority of the ritualized argument. The charge carries a moral power grounded in an experience -- the society's commitment to equality of opportunity shadowing the political relationship between men and women within the workplace. This argument in the Senate occasions women a forum to discuss that relationship. Suddenly, this woman sitting before the all-male Senate committee is many women, and fears and innuendo in multiple venues move in on the argument. So, the debate in the Senate acquires a synecdochic quality, and the argument spreads culturewide. Those in thousands of venues who wish to debate their own concrete situation or to debate the generalized abstraction of sexual harassment have the opportunity to turn the argument on their televisions and in their newspapers into common visible experience -- the hearings become material fact which all can transform into their own private or public debate of similar intensity. Sexual harassment is an adaptive motive. Clarence Thomas' chosen metaphor -- the lynching -- may be a societally powerful metaphor doing the moral and historical work necessary, but it still plays metaphorically in experience; Hill's charges play in starkly real workplaces where the arguments are reproduced. In many cases, the public rhetoric provides the distance to give a voice to private pain and private guilt.

Hill and Thomas are thus symbols in a social drama that marks dilemmas of our lives: questions of the rules when the subtle motives of traditional courtship meet the bureaucratic motive of the workplace; questions of the viability of our society's institutions in difficult problems of cultural adjustment; questions of the newly discovered pervasiveness of power and methods of control exerted far beyond the places we traditionally think of as places of power. All of these come to attention in the many arguments of the hearings.

The arguments of the hearings spread like a tsunami to reveal the structural weaknesses in the architecture of our lives. This structural lesson is learned, however, with personal pain because people live in these vulnerable houses. Suddenly we see the connections between our private pain or guilt and the failed institutions which open up a gulf between our professed virtue and our social practice. Argument provides the energy which constructs this intense moment and reverberates into the future. A year later, the society recelebrates the Hill-Thomas debate. Political action stimulated by the debate sweeps some from power and rushes others to the threshold of power. Private workplaces have changed for better or worse. But still the debate goes on. The irresistible power of the argumentative force merges with the unending conversation about a situation of modern life to forge new motives.

Of course, I have constructed the argument a particular way. Others could construct it as a drama of political power in which the character of the Supreme Court is at stake. Others could view it in terms of the continued racial burden of American culture. Each of these arguments constructs the drama differently arraying a different mix of argumentative resources. Constructing such accounts of the drama would illuminate argument as well as my own, but with different critical value. Each would contribute some different insight into how we might array argumentative resources, so each would contribute to another experience of argument at another time when a new contextualization is demanded.


A colleague's critique of my effort at rapprochement is "Why bother? Doesn't rhetorical analysis without reference to argument accomplish as much." Perhaps. But I believe that there is greater sensitivity from the rapprochement which merges dramatism and argumentation. The study of argument has always stressed what Burke calls the "ratios" among concepts. Indeed, the etymological root of "ratios" and "reason" are the same. Our rhetorical theory has embraced contextualism but without full exploration of many of its implications including its dialectical character. This is a domain of logic and a place where argumentation theory can transform dramatism's commitments to synthetic, critical, analysis of motivation. If argumentation theory can bring that sense for the complex melding of context to critical rhetoric, our venture into dramatism will be worthwhile.

At the same time, the phrase "a rhetorical logic" has become increasingly meaningful. Through Wallace, and Toulmin, and Perelman, and Fisher, and Scott, and others, we have treatments of argument that seek to return to the root of "logic" in "logos," in the linguistic power of humans. The resources of dramatism with its commitment to a dialectical working of text and context, permanence and change, identity and identification, and dozens of other tensions resolved in linguistic acts may point argumentation more clearly to the constructive appeal of argument.

But alas, this "one contributes to the other and vice versa" viewpoint hides the real power of the rapprochement. Both dramatism and argument point us to the intensity of rhetorical life. All cold, analytical schemes must ultimately chill out the intensity, and when they do so our tools for meaningful participation in rhetorical praxis are diminished. When the resources of the rapprochement -- the power of the text-context dialectic and redefined notions of theory, with commitments to synthesis, motive, criticism, and dialectical tension -- are brought into our account, new dimensions of both dramatism and argument open to view.

Go to Jim Klumpp's home page

Works Cited


1. Pepper's definition of contextualism is an excellent characterization of the broad intellectual movement. His definition of organicism is more problematic. Burke's root metaphor is clearly not Pepper's "the organism" but language instead. At the heart of Pepper's characterization of the intellectual movement he calls organism is dialectical logic. This characteristic -- which I believe is a more accurate portrayal of the synthetic, non-dispersive intellectual tradition -- is clearly present in Burke's thought.

Return to text

2. "Unconsummated." The essay "A Critical Reason" was presented at the International Communication Association conference in Dublin, Ireland, in June 1990, and is currently under revision for publication.

Return to text

3. The circuitous route is actually a common strategy in contextualist work. Kenneth Burke tells us that he began to write his Rhetoric of Motives, but he soon discovered that he had some things he needed to say first. The result was the over seven hundred pages of the Grammar. In a sense my journey has been the same. Now that I have explored the dimensions of argument in contextualism I am prepared to once again approach traditional argumentation theory.

Return to text

4. The categories of "premise" and "conclusion" are characteristic of many rhetorical theories, most notably Aristotle's account of the enthymeme. These are built on the familiar formal approaches to inferential logic. The categories "evidence," "forms," and "conclusions" are characteristic of many argumentation textbooks prior to the triumph of the Toulmin model, and theoretically the framework for Chaim Perelman's work. "Data," "warrant," and "claim," enhanced by "qualifier," "backing," and "rebuttal" are the categories named by Stephen Toulmin. Toulmin arrays his categories non-geometrically, but the process of analytical division and typing is still characteristic of the approach. Following Ehninger and Brockriede, most treatments in argumentation textbooks have modified the categories names to a degree, and have dwelt far more than Toulmin's original work on the process of typing forms of argument, thus reducing some of the complexity of the earlier Toulmin to a more formal system. Among these treatments are Toulmin, Rieke and Janik.

Return to text

5. Informal logic, while rejecting the implied intellectual map of a geometric logic, still uses the identification of discrete characteristic form and the mastery of the power of that form as its way of developing argument.

Return to text

6. Perhaps the most explicit statement of this characteristic of argumentation theory is in Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca's treatment of "Arguments Using the Structure of Reality" and "Arguments Establishing the Structure of Reality."

Return to text

7. This argument is an early version of Habermas' later argument that technical rationality tends to invade the domain of the lifeworld. Our argumentation theory has tended to be a technical rationality. Habermas believes far more in saving argumentation for its task in the lifeworld than does Burke. I believe that a dramatistic theory of argument probably has a better chance than Habermas' ideal speech theory simply because it is more consistent with the characteristics of the lifeworld that Habermas sets up. See my essay "The Unconsummated Flirtation."

Return to text

8. For specific elaboration of this argument see "The Unconsummated Flirtation."

Return to text

9. The concept of the rhetoric of good reasons (Wallace), and the narrative theories (Fisher) which follow from that innovation come the closest to treating argument within motive. For an analysis of the shortcomings of this innovation see "Unconsummated."

Return to text

10. The clearest statement of this mediated characteristic of rhetoric is in Lloyd Bitzer's. Bitzer argues that rhetoric is not directly responsible for change. Rather, rhetoric merely persuades people who then effect change. Thus, Bitzer says, all rhetoric is mediated (4).

Return to text

11. The following comments on the Hill-Thomas controversy draw upon a full expanse of rhetoric both public and private. At the vortex are the hearings themselves. The transcript of the hearings has not yet been published by the Senate a year after the hearings. A transcript is available through NewsBank/Readex in CD-ROM format ("The Clarence Thomas Hearings"). My references were accumulated through the PBS television coverage.

National television news, news magazine, and newspaper coverage was voluminous. These contained comments by many of the participants in the drama. Among these treatments are Berger; "Moment"; "Stereotypes"; and "Ugly."

In tracing the argument beyond these published sources, no sources have been attributed. In general, my goal here is not to point to any specific statements, but to the character of the debate experienced in public and private discourse.

Return to text

12. "A Critical Reason" 12. This vocabulary is also contained in my essay "Taking Argument Seriously."

Return to text