Re -examining Kenneth Burke on “identification” in the “new” rhetoric

Zachary M White, Purdue University


The purpose of the present study was to investigate Kenneth Burke's “key” concept for the “new” rhetoric: “identification.” This concept has attained preeminence in rhetorical theory and criticism because it is the term by which Burke's “new” rhetoric is to be distinguished from the “old.” Despite the acknowledged importance of “identification,” however, current understandings have oftentimes conceived of this “key” term through the restricted lens of the “old” rhetoric. Therefore, this study traced the evolution of Burke's thinking on the subject of identity from his first major work of non-fiction, Counter-Statement (1931) and through the more mature discussion of identification and division culminating in A Rhetoric of Motives (1950) and “Rhetoric—Old and New” (1967), to better understand the expanded role of these concepts in the “new” rhetoric. The central lesson that we can draw from this project is that the “key” term of the “new” rhetoric is not an abstract and unchanging concept. Specifically, Burke's preoccupation with “health” and “sickness” served as a blueprint for the development of his hyper-critical attitude necessary for the artist as citizen keeping watch over the “health” of his/her interpretations and participation in a “diseased” culture. When applied beyond the context of literature, Burke's concept of “identification” and “division” provide a prescriptive social vocabulary concerned with the “health” of our interpretations as evidenced in our relationships with others. Thus, the goal of identification and division in the “new” rhetoric cannot be reduced to matters of expediency, but to the proper governance of the self acting in society.




Whedbee, Purdue University.

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