Kenneth Burke’s Theory of Attention: Homo Symbolicus’ Experiential Poetics

David Landes, Duke University

11 November 2023


In light of cross-disciplinary interest in rethinking the conceptions of attention and attention economy, this paper conducts an archeology of Kenneth Burke’s concepts in order to construct a theory of attention implicit in his work.  First, I overview key parts of rhetorical studies calling for rethinking the idea of attention.  Then, I read Burke’s concepts for their implicit attentional aspects and implications. These findings are collected, listed into a glossary, and extrapolated into an account of Burkean attention, which I call “symbol-formed attention” to complement the reigning empirical theories of attention problematically borrowed from the sciences.  I conclude by suggesting how Burke provides a rhetorical idea of “attention” as a terministic screen adaptively reconfigurable to situation and strategy.

What would it mean to conceive “attention” rhetorically?  Terms considered “psychological” have been reinterpreted to recover their elided rhetorical processes: Oakley’s rhetorical conception of cognition (Oakley) , Goffman’s rhetorically performed self (Goffman) , Gross’s rhetorical publicness of emotion (Gross) , Billig’s rhetorical argumentation that constitutes psychology (Billig) , and rhetorical studies’ formulation of public memory (Phillips et al.; Dickinson et al.) .  Such projects “rhetoricize” the psychological by explicating implicit rhetoricalities and by reframing concepts of mechanistic motion into socialized action.  In their rhetorical interpretation, these terms—cognition, self, emotion, social psychology, and memory—are terministic screens attuned to discursive purposes.  Rhetoricizing scientized terms is one of dramatism’s imperatives.  Dramatism provisions our vigilance to round out reductive terms, animate action in motion, and de-mechanize accounts of human motive in the face of homo symbolicus’ catastrophic inclinations.

The salience of “attention” as a crisis term and as an inherency to communication necessitates its recuperation from over-scientization.  Increasingly, there are political and scholarly calls to rethink our ideas of attention across its diverse functions.  James Williams captures attention’s breadth of stakes, arguing that “The liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time.  Its success is prerequisite for the success of virtually all other struggles.  We therefore have an obligation to rewire this system of intelligent, adversarial persuasion before it rewires us.  Doing so requires hacking together new ways of talking and thinking about the problem…” (Williams xii) .  Humanities scholars often unknowingly import their idea of attention from the sciences by assuming its self-evident meaning and inadvertently blunting its hermeneutic and actional richness down to a stub of sensory transmission and behavioral measurement.  The need to remedy attention’s reductions grows as social discord, technological imposition, and societal change rapidly outpace our language to understand attentional practices.  Attention has only begun to be reapproached through a rhetorical conception as remedy to widespread uncritical uptake of the scientized notion of attention (Lanham, The Electronic Word; Lanham, The Economics of Attention; Oakley; Pfister) .

To help build a robust rhetorical conception of attention, Burke provides promising starting points.  Dramatism reveals assumptions, issues, resources, and possibilities about attention that are latent in rhetorical studies and in accounts of any “attention.”  His work also contains generative, heuristic approaches readily useable in rhetorical scholarship and production.  A Rhetoric of Motives notes how much of his work, including the topic of attention, understands itself to “have been trying to indicate what kinds of subject matter not traditionally labeled ‘rhetoric’ should… fall under this head” (Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives 46) .

This article constructs Burke’s idea of attention implicit throughout his works and argues how this idea of attention is quintessentially rhetorical.  First, I overview attention as a multifaceted concern in rhetorical theory and discuss three recent calls for renewed understandings of attention needed for different uses in the field.  Then, to begin fulfilling these three calls, I secondly conduct an archeology of Burke’s most attention-related concepts, reading them to exhume their entailments, implications, and contributions to formulating what attention is within dramatism.  From this, I thirdly reframe nine Burkean concepts into a glossary of attentional terms and synthesize them into an integrated conception, which I call symbol-formed attention to contrast and complement attention’s predominating scientistic conceptions.  The reigning tendency of treating attention as a scientific matter of bodily measurement promotes a concept of attention through a methodology that is positivistic, assessed behaviorally, mechanistic, individual, transferative, unified, unevolving, deterministic/probabilistic, and apprehending of what is present.  My argument here is that symbol-formed attention provides a vocabulary for the rhetorical aspects of attention through a contrastive methodology that is interpretivist, assessed symbolically, dramatistic, situational, poetic, pluralistic, dialectical, non-deterministic/tendential, and invoking of what is absent.  Concluding remarks suggest how the rhetoricality of symbol-formed attention is useful to rhetorical studies, across the humanities, and as equipment for living through change.

The liberatory potential of rhetorical attention lies in agentifying the dialectic between our words and our ways.  The sciences and humanities recognize that attention “is different in different situations,” “one person's interpretation of the term ‘attention’ can be entirely at odds with the next person’s,” “no one knows what attention is,” “there may even not be an ‘it’ there to be known about…,” and attention’s “problems and their proposed solutions are consequences of the logic of the metaphors that are at work” (Styles; Stigchel; Hommel et al.; Pashler; Fernandez-Duque and Johnson) .  Without a stable center, the range and diversity of meanings imputed to “attention” makes it a site of socio-symbolic activity territorialized by reified metaphor (e.g., attention as selection, suppression, watchfulness, engagement, interpretation, care, etc.).

Thus, the question of attention—what it is, what the word means, what one can do with it—is not a binary matter of correct/incorrect or better/worse definition.  Nor is it a polemic against particular methods.  Rather, the question of attention concerns varied pregnant uses of the word “attention” and their corresponding experiential counterparts.  This question of rhetorical genealogy interrogates types of attentions, the means to their constitution, and why they formed one way rather than another.  Each instance of attention consists of variable components, commitments, entailments, diffusions, ambiguities, unravelings, remakings, and possibilities. 

Burke is well suited to illuminate these symbolic dynamics and proliferate sites of attentional agency in contrast to scientistic ideas of attention, which tend toward conclusions of human deficiency.  Dramatism reveals a logology of what each “attention” is, does, and can be.  Attention is inherent to symbolicity, emerging from configurational aspects of symbols that Burke conceptualizes.  Attention is also methodological to dramatism, giving Burke’s idea of attention a special role among terms.  I argue that in Burke and most everywhere, the idea of attention is a terministic screen: a symbolic placeholder facilitating experiential phenomena to be assembled and rendered rhetorically.  Attention is not one thing or approach, but a malleability performing diverse functions. 

Burkeanism traces out these configurations to provide inroads to an idea of rhetorical attention, which rehabilitates homo symbolicus’ worldmaking capacity in the face of evolving attentional technologies, techniques, and control.  Symbol-formed attention renders the makings and potential remakings of each given attention.  Conceiving attention as symbolic action agentifies our participation in attention’s experiential poetics and homo symbolicus’ self-reconstitution.  This kind of Burkean meta-attention equips us for important work today and forward: to continually remake our words of attention in dialectic with our ways of attention.

Rhetoric’s Attentionality & Attention’s Rhetoricality

Attention has long been addressed as important to rhetoric and rhetorical theory, and has been conceived variously for different roles.  Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric names attention as its characteristic feature, however somewhat implicitly.  Rhetoric is a capacity to observe (dynamis, facility; theoresai, to see) (Aristotle).  Rhetoric involves attending to the potentially persuasive in each particular situation.  Henry Johnstone differently puts attention into the very center of rhetoric’s definition, writing that “Rhetoric, as I conceive it, is the art of calling attention to a situation for which objectivity is claimed” (Johnstone 333).  In this account, “rhetoric is the evocation and maintenance of consciousness” achieved through the particular ways in which rhetors construct “an interface between the object and the person” (Johnstone 337).  The rhetor, in this sense, “drives a wedge into the consciousness of his [sic] audience” by instigating a speech act and through language that configures the rhetorical situation through asserting stasis, topoi, and dynamics for responding (Johnstone 336).  Herbert Spencer’s Philosophy of Style, his “first chapter of the philosophy of rhetoric,” posits attention as the predominant axiom for understanding style, arrangement, and audience experience.  Here, “the causes of force in language” depend on the audience’s “economy of mental energies and mental sensibilities,” such that the effort exerted during comprehension diminishes the immediacy of rhetorical effects (Spencer 41).  The discourse of attention here provides the “secret” “general principle” for a “general theory of expression” illuminating the links between words and their mental effects (Spencer 12).  Kenneth Burke invites rhetorical theory to study attention within the modern proliferation of rhetorical forums that require rhetors to secure attention diversely through myriad new situations: “Aristotle and Cicero consider audiences purely as something given.  The extreme heterogeneity of modern life… brings up… the systematic attempt to carve out an audience, ...[which] in any case here too would be a consideration of audience; hence even by the test of the classic tradition it would fall under the head of rhetoric, though it necessarily extended the range of the term to cover a situation essentially new” (Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives 64).  His discussion of postal agencies, marketers, income-differentiated content, and “the commercial rhetorician” concludes an adaptive relationship to rhetorical history: “the ‘carving out’ of audiences is new to the extent that there are new mediums of communication, but there is nothing here essentially outside the traditional concerns of rhetoric” (Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives 64). 

These illustrative inroads through Aristotle, Johnstone, Spencer, and Burke exemplify the breadth of ways in which attention has been figured into crucial aspects of rhetorical practice with varying degrees of implicitness.  For Aristotle, attention is definitional to rhetoric, largely concerning a speaker’s operability, while the treatise reads as a training schematic of attention to assist rhetors and analysts.  For Johnstone, attention names collective phenomena maintained for communal understanding, which is the object and aim for rhetors to intercede.  For Spencer, attention is an individual’s cognitive mechanism, which imposes fixed parameters upon comprehension and doubles as a criterion for rhetorical judgment.  For Burke, attention is a space of inquiry that must accompany emerging situations and accompany the adaptation of the rhetorical tradition.  Each of these theorists represents other works which locate attention likewise: as a speaker’s tool, as an audience dynamic, as a scientific parameter, and as a space of continual inquiry, respectively.  Rhetorical theory continues to foreground attention as needing re-theorization to cope with contemporary changes in communicative conditions.

Three recent works have started this work of articulating an updated, distinctly rhetorical approach to attention.  Richard Lanham redefines the entire Western rhetorical tradition from the Sophists onward as the study of “how human attention is created and allocated” (Lanham, The Electronic Word 227).  Especially in the digital age’s information abundance, rhetoric can be productively equated to “the economics of attention” (Lanham, The Economics of Attention xii).  Anyone is an “economist of attention” when they act to allocate the scarce resource of attention in ways that produce a particular understanding, approach, or experience.  “Attention strategies” emerge and mix into the logic of rhetorical strategies, as evidenced by Lanham’s analyses of performance art, digital typography, the loss-leader business ruse, management procedures, etc.).  Attention here is conceived as a bodily mechanism of “the human biogrammar,” which has a hermeneutic dimension that rhetoric exploits: “the kitchen that cooks the raw data into useful ‘information’ is human attention” (Lanham, The Economics of Attention 7).  Rhetoric is thus positioned as the quintessential art of attention because “Rhetoric has been the central repository of wisdom on how we make sense of and use information… [it] does not tell us all we need to know about the economics of attention but it does at least provide a place to start” (Lanham, The Economics of Attention xiii).  Lanham’s groundwork to reframe rhetoric as fundamentally attentional calls scholars to heed the potential of this approach, asking “What, finally, considered in this new light, does the traditional theory of formal rhetoric look like?” (Lanham, The Economics of Attention 21), and how far can this approach be fruitfully taken since “The arts and letters are wholly occupied with creating attention structures”? (Lanham, The Economics of Attention 21).  Despite these calls for continued work on attentional rhetoric and rhetorical attention, Lanham doesn’t detail much about what exactly attention is, its constituent processes, and its troublesome elusiveness.  Developing a rhetorical account of attention’s processes, particularly via Burke, enhances our ability to receive Lanham’s work and develops our capacity to observe the means of attention in any situation. 

Todd Oakley builds on Lanham’s thesis, continuing it with a cognitivist approach.  Here, attention is a set of mental faculties (distributed across the signal, selection, and interpersonal systems) that work together and constitute attention as a behavior that is “a mode of signifying by mental writing into perceptual space; the result, cognition, is conceptualized as some sort of ‘writing with the eyes’ by looking upon something. The attentive gaze is a pen” (Oakley 11).  Attention composes experience by switching between the worlds of actuality and potentiality, which create attention’s “forms and its ‘grammar’” underlying all structures of meaning in rhetorical thought and action (Oakley 11).  Oakley’s empirical theory bridges the psychology and hermeneutics of communication, focusing on how attention constitutes a semiotic phenomenology of meaning where meaning is understood as a shared, communal mode of attention.  This approach frames communication as a process of attentional intersubjectivity, a stream of attentional exchanges in mutual adjustment.  It posits that understanding attention’s dynamics and structures provide access “to the aspect of human consciousness that constitutes our semiotic being” (Oakley 15) and the overlooked basis of many additional rhetorical phenomena.

Damien Pfister’s work on rhetoric in public deliberation and networked technologies builds upon Lanham and Oakley to articulate the most advanced posing of the problem of attention in rhetorical theory.  He writes, “If Lanham is right that the attention demands of the networked public sphere set the stage for a revaluation of rhetoric, then we need a richer account of how, exactly, new digitally networked intermediaries shape attention patterns through public argument.  Classical theories of rhetoric, alone, do not suffice to make sense of contemporary public deliberation.  Rhetoric operates in conjunction with two other cultural technologies of publicity, the public sphere and digital communication networks, to establish the enabling conditions of the networked public sphere” (Pfister 32).  If we are to understand networked public sphere rhetoric, says Pfister, we need a dynamic vocabulary for attention that addresses the cross-relations between argumentation, digital technologies, and their conditions as public sphere. 

Toward this end, Pfister differentiates two ways of conceiving attention: thinly and thickly.  Thinly-conceived attention concerns “capturing people’s senses so as to subject them to a message” (30), which is a model of attention that comports with a narrow “traditional (informationist) vision of rhetoric as ornamented speech” (Pfister 30).  However, thickly-conceived attention recognizes attention as a constituter of communication phenomena.  For example, some communication phenomena would be clarified when illuminating attention’s role in forming the what and how of communication, attention’s role in the inducement into “one way of perception, thinking, and feeling” at the exclusion of another, and attention’s role in shaping how we engage with “phenomena through the valences, emphases, and weighting involved in signification” (Pfister 31).  Thus, “To say that attention is constitutive, then, is to recognize that how we perceive the world, how we understand our identities and relationships, how we engage in meaning making, and how we transform conventions all derive from attention processes” (Pfister 31).  With the abundance of thinly-conceived attentions unable to illuminate our rhetorical ecologies and their dynamic conditions, Pfister articulates rhetorical theory’s need for a thick conception of attention, which can be sought by more thoroughly examining thick attention’s enabling processes and constituting outputs.

Lanham’s, Oakley’s, and Pfister’s works pose three ways of approaching the attention processes inhering in contemporary rhetoric.  They have different accounts what of attention is, does, and can mean within rhetorical theory.  Each theorist presents us with their dominant schema for attention in rhetoric, which leads to different implications and insights about how attention operates rhetorically.  For Lanham, style manages information abundance, inflecting audience experience and construal of meaning.  Rhetoric engages attention oscillating between looking at/through the expressive medium.  For Oakley, discourse orients toward fulfilling cognitive functions of rhetors and audiences.  Rhetoric blends actual and potential mental spaces to serve “the attention system’s” 8 parts: alerting and orienting (the signal system); detecting, sustaining, and controlling (the selection system); sharing, harmonizing, and directing (the interpersonal system).  For Pfister, attention is an active constitutor of meaning, relations, and action.  Rhetoric enacts thin and thick conceptions of attention, when rendered reflexive, altering the processes they describe.  Taken together, these forays into attention and rhetoric comprise a distinctly rhetorical approach to attention in its various conceptions and roles.

Today, the sites of inquiry have proliferated in rhetoric, in media, and across the disciplines.  Lanham, Oakley, and Pfister articulate needs for rethinking attention rhetorically to gain insights into changing practices, varied conceptions of attention, and more productively refined language.  How we pose the issue of attention, as Burke notes, will create a nomenclature containing observations implicit in its terms.  We must caution against overdetermining our subject matter.  Attention is infamously ill-defined and scientists are proclaiming “there is no such thing as attention” beyond reification of presumptions that do not amount to a defensible theory (Anderson 1; Pashler 1; Styles 1).  The subject of attention requires terminological care and vigilance against the very follies that Burke identifies as “the upbuilding of a fallacious equipment” (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form 164).  Prematurely pronouncing the finality about attention diminishes the heuristic value of rhetorical theory to seize upon what is opportune, appropriate, and possible about attention.  A rhetorical account of attention gives the idea of attention a rhetorical sensibility and studies the means by which attention occurs.  As the means of attention rapidly change, a rhetorical account of attention observes the means of attention in any given situation through continual revision.  It is in this approach that this excursus of attention in Burke proceeds.

This rhetorical approach to attention in Burke, as a theory within dramatism, functions as a broad and instrumental philosophy of attention valuable for many other scholarly projects.  While Lanham, Oakley, and Pfister each call for more work in attentional rhetoric, related fields also seek renewed understandings of attention.  For example, Bernard Stiegler writes of cognitive capitalism’s “systemic control of attention” that canalizes attention to the point of saturation and destroys attention as a capacity of agency.  This instrumental aspect of increasing industrialization “proletarianizes the senses” by a loss of productive skill (savoir-faire) and a loss of refined sociality (savoir-vivre).  Stiegler stakes the viability of human society upon the “re-capacitation” of attentional abilities that underlie “all types of capabilities, that is, of all forms of knowledge (savoir-faire, savoir-vivre, theoretical knowledge)” (Stiegler 23–26).  Yves Citton critiques the ubiquitous economic approach to the matter of attention, arguing that it is a dangerous metaphor based on “deceptive individualist methodology,” “instrumental reason,” and a naivety that individuals “preexist the relations that constitute them” (Citton 21–22).  Attention, for Citton, is “Far from belonging to a purely technical expertise (as the prevailing economic discourse would have us believe)” (Citton 22).  Rather, “the activity of paying attention belongs to a genuine environmental wisdom – an ecosophy – in which the orientation of ends is inseparable from the calculations of efficiency” (Citton 22).  David Landes has pursued a media ecological account of attention relevant to rhetorical theory.  Attention is understood as an ecologically-formed capacity, where attention’s form and dynamics share technical characteristics with attention’s medium (Landes).  Attention being environmentally constituted erodes the notion of attention being a historically fixed, unchanging characteristic of the individual.  The attention we speak of in rhetoric, then, would not be the same attention across history, but rather a more complex localization of the attentions operating in a given case.

Far from comprehensive, this review of literature overviews attention’s conceptions, roles, and stakes.  Changes in technology, society, and social experience have spurred interest in attention, which has surged across topics and fields, and confronted the limitations of reigning ideas about attention.  Lanham, Oakley, and Pfister represent three calls for rhetorical studies to rethink attention itself and formulate updated notions about what it is, how it operates, and why previous accounts no longer service contemporary contexts.  Turning to Burke provides a bridge from past ideas latent in the field, and extrapolating his implicit idea of attention extends that bridge futureward so that we may build further.  His distinctly rhetorical approach to attention—one that is not fixed, but situationally adaptive—offers a promising resource for continually refreshing our notions of attention at pace with societal changes.

Burke’s Implicitly Attentional Concepts

Most of Burke’s key concepts involve attention implicitly and describe a process constituent of attention’s formation through symbols.  This section discusses Burke’s key terms of terministic screens, dramatism, recalcitrance, orientation, symbol, perspective, language, form, and motives.  Because these terms are familiar to Burkeans and rhetoricians, each will be briefly explained for their relevant attentional aspects.  Together, they comprise an archeology of fragments that can coalesce into a mosaic depicting Burke’s dramatistic idea of attention.

Burke’s most overtly attentional concept is the terministic screen, a broad all-encompassing analytic for assorted processes by which symbols affect attention.  It names the effect of a terminology to cohere and configure a perspectival “way of seeing” and simultaneously “a way of not seeing.”  How this effect occurs is variable and distributed across Burke’s other conceptual terms, making terministic screens less of a formulaic constancy and more of an index to symbols’ attentionally-configuring aspects.  Metaphorizing symbols as “screens” operates in the dual sense of screening-as-showing (film screen) and screening-as-excluding (screening out).  Burke’s essay Terministic Screens discusses how symbols’ double function to display-and-exclude operates like a camera lens, which captures what gets screened and screened out of immediate view.  Terministic screens, in their obvious sense, name how “the nature of our terms affect the nature of our observations” because “any nomenclature necessarily directs the attention into some channels rather than others.”  This is an inevitable property of symbols; “We must use terministic screens, since we can’t say anything without the use of terms; whatever terms we use, they necessarily constitute the corresponding kind of screen.”

Beyond selecting what is included and excluded, each symbol’s “lens” also characterizes its subject matter with qualitative differences, akin to how three color filters of the same “factual” photograph “revealed notable distinctions in texture, and even in form, depending upon which color filter was used for the documentary description of the event being recorded” (Burke, Language As Symbolic Action 45).  Language renders its subject quite variably, for example, when interpreting the same dream through three dream-analysis schemata (e.g., Freudian, Jungian, Adlerian).  For all matters factual or otherwise, “All terminologies must implicitly or explicitly embody choices” as verbal lenses and symbolic construal.  As a result, “‘observations’ are but implications of the particular terminology in terms of which the observations are made.  In brief, much that we take as observations about ‘reality’ may be but the spinning out of possibilities implicit in our particular choice of terms” (Burke, Language As Symbolic Action 46).  For Burke, observation is symbol-laden; symbolization is observation-shaping.

Thus the terministic screen does not name one particular function of symbols nor one particular configuration of attention.  Rather, it names the attentional dynamics, which emerge from particular complexes of symbolic processes.  Terministic screens operate subtly by principles Burke urges us to trace out, two of which being inclusion/exclusion and continuity/discontinuity.  Terministic screens are further understood through Burke’s other concepts such as scope, circumference, representative anecdote, motivic placement in the pentad, frames of acceptance/rejection, identification, and so on.  Thus the terministic screen is Burke’s inaugural investigative heuristic for monitoring an attentional dynamic awaiting analysis.  The terministic screen concept is advisory and cautionary, encouraging vigilance to terministic screens, vigilance to “which specialized terministic screen [is] being stretched to cover not just its own special field but a more comprehensive area,” and vigilance to “try to correct the excesses of one terminology” (Burke, Language As Symbolic Action 52).  Burke even spiritualizes our duty for vigilance with his Dialectician’s Hymn that ritualizes readjusting terministic screens with the changing environment and logos:

. . . Cooperating in this competition
Until our naming
Gives voice correctly,
And how things are
And how we say things are
Are one.

The essence of terministic screens, expressed here programmatically as a daily devotional, is analysis for terministic adjustment.  The goal is correct naming and thus correct attending, which is sought in continual mutualization between our words and our ways, ever seeking oneness between them.

The idea of the terministic screen makes no pretense to empirical audience experience or to visual phenomenology.  Rather, it guides analysis toward an account of symbols’ anatomy and their manner of construal.  In dramatism, a symbol’s anatomy is forged in relation with other symbolic material that is not immanently legible in the symbol.  Recasting a symbol as a “terministic screen” places it on an examining board like a specimen for laboratory investigation, asking, how is this symbol cut, contoured, and connected in contiguity to its related terminology?  What are a symbol’s accompanying rendering structures whose designs give it its character, entailments, appeals, callings, sanctions, and dramatic baggage—all traceable within the symbol?  Terministic screens, like lenses, illuminate attention’s structuring through the symbol.

Burke’s example of the word “animal” illustrates how terministic screens locate attention structures within a symbol’s configuration in its enhousing terminology (Burke, Language As Symbolic Action 50).  If an animal is “A living organism which feeds on organic matter, typically having specialized sense organs and a nervous system and able to respond rapidly to stimuli” (OED), then some attention structures may be identified through determination of what is included/excluded and what is continuous/discontinuous.  How a terminology relates “god” and “human” to “animal” will establish attention structures emanating around a definition of whether “human” is an animal, is not an animal, is a special kind of animal, is an exception to the animal, is both animal and god, is neither animal nor god but instead an image of both, and so on ad infinitum.  Definitions and terministic relations map some of the structures that “animal” directs attention through, each of which gives “animal” its place, function, character, and implications within a terminology.  Attention is configured differently in the “animal” of Darwin, St. Paul, George Orwell, and Burke himself.  Thus terministic screens analyze the anatomy of a symbol with reference to its physiology within its terminology. 

Beyond mapping attentional forms inscribed by the structural relations of a terminology, the terministic screen also posits the symbol as a container for assorted other attentional effects.  The terministic screen highlights the symbol’s ability to host numerous attentional patterns that would not be stabilized and repeated in absence of the symbol.  For example, the phrase “the ideal citizen” is implicated in many attentional predilections: a perceived “citizen” and its associated imagery, a conspiracy of idealizations, the singular archetypal citizen who models being “the ideal citizen” rather than “an ideal citizen,” suasory invocations to act as such, a civic context and its own forms of action, a mood and affect, a motive toward hierarchical ascension, and other symbolic linkages with that of the Burkean vocabulary.  Taken together, these aspects “direct the attention into some channels rather than others” but they also constitute kinds of attention—such as idealization, generalization, determinate singularization, and nationalization—made possible through symbolic resources. 

Beyond a symbol’s structure, the context of usage also adds attentional structures that the Burkean vocabulary identifies.  Attention is configured between orders of symbolic layers in terms, terminology, context, use, audience, etc.  For example, “the ideal citizen” brings assorted symbolic provocations into a dynamic with its use, which inclines attention differently in contexts of conformity vs. reform vs. revolution, contexts of a particular moral lesson, contexts of an impossibility, or of global/national/local scope, and so forth.  Many elements of attention are induced, each provoked in different programs of meaning.  This occurs neither formally in the symbol nor purely in the subjectivity of each person’s phenomenology.  Rather, it occurs across the shared experience of a symbol that is rhetorically positioned between public meaning and private attention. 

Terministic screens provide windows into how symbols channelize attention and also into attention’s poetics expressed through symbols.  Symbols intimately co-operate with attention, action, and poetics, enabling them to be heuristically probed for their structural features.  Terministic screens conceptualize symbols as evidence of attentional forms, with Burke arguing that symbols are the best window into the human relations of attention (Burke, Kenneth).  In this light, symbols are fossilized attentions, recorded, and preserved in the symbol.  At the same time, symbols constitute their object and ways of seeing them, thereby making symbols a necessary means to attention’s enactments as tacit accessories to broader actions (e.g., idealizing, hierarchicalizing, etc.).  Thus, terministic screens designate a means to attention’s public renderings, which also facilitate ways of seeing.  Symbols and attention dialectically co-develop, acquiring shared properties materialized between the two.  In many ways and for assorted effects, terministic screens organize the cacophony of attentions by contriving stable coherence through symbols.

In these ways both constitutive and indexical to attention, terministic screens designate Burke’s master term for naming the totality of attentional effects reflected, created, and maintained by a particular symbol and its instance of positioned use.  Beyond tracing attention through terminological channels, terministic screens epitomize how symbolicity is constitutive of attention itself.  Arguably all modes of attention are permeable with symbolically-endowed processes and are susceptible to symbolic remakings.  What instance of attention is not influenced by symbols?  All things (e.g., objects, ideas, events, experiences, etc.) and all relations are constituted through symbols, as are symbolic actions (e.g., negation, identification, persuasion).  Can there ever be attention fortified from symbols mediating it?  Can we see or hear “purely,” voided of symbols’ influence?  Burke argues no and suggests parity between symbolicity and attention, as each mutually constitutes and conditions the other dialectically.  Symbolicity directly forms aspects of attention not otherwise devisable without symbols.  Terministic screens name the inextricable aspects of attention that are necessarily constituted via symbols, which transform attention via symbolicity.  Stob elegantly expresses this parity, writing that “Burke insists that the quality and character of our experience are an extension of the quality and character of our symbol systems” (Stob 137).  Such a perspective is useful, as the concept of terministic screens has been uptaken widely and extended into additional realms, for example, into film (Blakesley) and data visualization (Bowie and Reyburn; Butler).  The terministic screen master term inaugurates a Burkean-style attention analysis through the symbol and facilitates tracing points for how symbols orchestrate attention via Burke’s other analytical concepts.  The next largest concept for attention analysis is dramatism, which introduces principles of symbolic action alongside terministic screens’ structuring of inclusion/exclusion and continuity/discontinuity.

Dramatism is Burke’s dominant terministic screen for his theories, making it the principal characterizing “lens” to his theory of attention.  Burke writes, “Dramatism is a method of analysis and a corresponding critique of terminology designed to show that the most direct route to the study of human relations and human motives is via a methodical inquiry into cycles or clusters of terms and their functions” (Burke, Kenneth).  The method approaches “language as a species of action… rather than of definition” (Burke, Kenneth), asking “What is involved, when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it?” (Burke, A Grammar of Motives xv).  This actional approach interprets language as a form of doing, whose analysis articulates the actions a symbol’s use enacts and the implications accompanying an account of saying someone acted.  This is illustrated by, though not limited to, “the modes of behavior made possible by the acquiring of the conventional, arbitrary symbol system” (Burke, “(Nonsymbolic) Motion/(Symbolic) Action” 809).  Burke explains this foundation of dramatism with self-reference to his own terministic screen: The term “act” embodies the dramatistic approach and “is thus a terministic center from which many related considerations can be shown to ‘radiate,’ as though it were a ‘god-term’ from which a whole universe of terms is derived” (Burke, Kenneth).  To position “act” as dramatism’s god-term is to preconceive language as action and thus to ask: what is involved when we say what people are doing regarding attention and why they are doing it?  What is involved when we say how people heed something through a terminology and why they heed that way?

Dramatism identifies attention as a ubiquitous, systemic feature of symbolic action in two ways.  Firstly, terministic screens enact “directing the attention,” and dramatism illuminates attentional action endemic to symbol usage.  Secondly, dramatism renders our accounts of “attention” as symbolic acts used for moving through situations.  Such accounts entail constructing forms of symbolic doing involved when saying a person is attending and how/why they are doing it.  Burke’s example that “a man informs us that he ‘glanced back in suspicion’” posits that “suspicion was his motivation” and “suspicion is a word for designating a complex set of signs, meanings or stimuli not wholly in consonance with one another” (Burke, Permanence and Change 46).  Here, dramatism provides an analytic vocabulary for tracing out what an account of action, and its attentional counterparts, are doing within their symbolic order (in the account) and within their sociology of symbols (context to the account).  This “glance back” constructs an account of attentional experience comprising “danger-signs… reassurance signs… social-signs… the situation itself… motivated by suspicion… a situation with reference to our general scheme of meanings… [and] motives… assigned with reference to our orientation in general” (Burke, Permanence and Change 46).  As this instance’s kind of attention involves much more than empirically looking backward, dramatism helps enumerate the impelling symbolic dramas in the motivational structure, program of action, and situationally-particular character.  The resources of dramatism (discussed below) explicate attention’s meaning, quality, social character, and directed course through a situation.  Dramatism shows how our terms for “attention” represent navigations through the dramas from envelopment within symbolic presences, absences, and schemes of expectation, which together constitute distinctive moments pre-conditioning perception, decision, and action.  Full accounts of action incorporate the dramas of managing the symbolic environment, reading situational demands, and their combining effects, such as intertextual disharmony, emotional salience, regimes of behavior and evaluation, and emergent idiosyncrasies.

Dramatism helps us see aspects of attention related to such symbolic phenomena that cause, accompany, and retrospect our perspectival experience.  In this regard, dramatism is hermeneutic to the symbolic-situatedness of attention.  It provides interpretive grammar to symbolic action.  This grammar becomes a rhetoric of symbolic action when how we variably talk about attention affects how we do the attending.  What we think attention is shapes our performance of it and our ability to symbolically self-recognize aspects of experience and reshape them.  As the symbol-using animal subject to self-reformation, dramatism highlights how our representations of attention share dialectical enjoinments with associated forms of doing.  This basic principle is evident through familiar examples whose names denote varieties of attention: focus, watched for, scanned, imagined, daydreamed, mused, discerned, ignored, fixated, etc. Symbolizing various experiences as particular attentions is a way of speaking of and speaking to their enactment, just as a teacher may direct students to scour, skim, or scan a textual passage.  Each contains components concocted from the Burkean vocabulary.  Dramatism traces symbolic acts of translating a mode of engagement into symbolic preservation and recreation.  A symbol preserves a given act of attention as recipe of concocted features.

Dramatism reads symbolic actions occurring in singular terms for attention and also occurring via terminologies that frame singular terms.  Any term for attention can operate in a terminology variously, for example, as a terministic screen, as an uncritical term, as a crude importation from science, as a reification of an ideological percept, as a normative for perceptual values, as a vague placeholder for something evaded, a negation, a scapegoat, or any symbolic function.  Cognitive scientists acknowledge “there is no such thing as attention” (Anderson) while still using the term as an operative heuristic for measurable behaviors (Pashler 1; Styles 1).  Communication scholars often use “attention” vaguely in reference to general forms of reception (a quantitation of attention), receptivity (a qualitization of attention), or hermeneutics (Landes 454).  Popular usage invokes dominant values into a “proper” or “fuller” attention of mindfulness.  In each case, the range of what the term “attention” does as symbolic action is variable enough that dramatism is needed to illuminate their different species of symbol, action, and implication.  “Attention” is a terministic screen; dramatism illuminates the actions it performs.

Burke’s concept of recalcitrance names various processes exerting pressure upon symbols to have “revisions made necessary by the nature of the world itself” (Burke, Permanence and Change 257).  The “world itself” involves the natural and socialized environment, the permanencies of human biology and neurology, enduring “social relationships, political exigencies, economic procedures,” and extant bodies of related symbols (facts, competing perspectives, terministic screens, etc.) (Burke, Permanence and Change 258).  The infinite play of symbols reckons with its public intelligibility and integration, thus “transferring it from the private architecture of a poem into the public architecture of a social order” (Burke, Permanence and Change 258). 

Forms of recalcitrance come from many realms: the political, economic, social, cultural, epochal, technological, corporeal, cosmological, and so on.  For example, the accusation, “he is not American,” illustrates many converging orders of symbolic recalcitrance drawn from legal, political, genealogical, and cultural architectures, each urging different kinds of revisions, formations, and pressures.  In this sense, “the universe ‘yields’ to our point of view by disclosing the different orders of recalcitrance which arise when the universe is considered from this point of view” (Burke, Permanence and Change 257).  Rhetorical use of symbols requires adjusting “the private architecture” of symbolic action in strategy with “the public architecture of a social order” (Burke, Permanence and Change 332).  Recalcitrance names various calcifying tendencies pervading symbol use and which constitute a materiality to symbols that symbolic action is made from.

While individuals have the agency to attend to anything in terms of anything else, recalcitrance names the dynamics that limit and direct symbolicity through public architectures.  Much of attention is formed by such communalized ways of seeing via symbols.  By identifying such symbolic calcifications, we can identify calcified symbolic structures that limit, pressure, and direct attentional acts.  Attention’s dynamism emerges between recalcitrance and de-calcitrance—the poetic interplay with the public architecture of the symbolic environment (e.g., seeing potential poeticizings such as “Americant” or “Americancer”).

The chief recalcitrance that affects attention is orientation.  Burke defines orientation as “a sense of relationships, developed by the contingencies of experience,” which “largely involves matters of expectancy and [also] affects our choice of means with reference to the future” (Burke, Permanence and Change 18).  One brings their orientation into contact with a situation, attending by their cache of symbols.  Burke’s case of a trout biting a hook exemplifies its orientation being revised when it escapes from a fishhook with a torn jaw and develops a reappraised sense of relationships: between food and non-food enters painful jaw-hurting food.  Burke’s simple naturalistic example represents complex symbolic environments that exhibit the same principle of a developed sense of contingent relations of “what to watch for and what to watch out for” (Burke, Permanence and Change) and of generally “reading the signs” (Burke, Permanence and Change 12).  As exposure to environmental and symbolic patterns yield perceptual differentiation, orientation names its accrual within an agent and its traceable influence on sensing, judging, feeling, behaving, and other such attention-constituting elements.

Orientation pre-structures our ways of attending by its dual role as a storehouse of intelligible forms and as a live mediator between text, context, and response.  Burke writes that “we can only say that a given objective event derives its character for us from past experiences having to do with like or related events… It takes on character, meaning, significance in accordance with the contexts in which we experience it” (Burke, Permanence and Change 7).  Burke accounts how attention results from communal language’s ways of seeing:

Situations are discerned by means of the mediating vocabulary that selects certain relationships as meaningful.  These relationships are not realities, they are interpretations of reality, and hence different frameworks of interpretation will lead to different conclusions as to what reality is.  All schemes of interpretation differ in their ways of dividing up three categories: some things happen in spite of others, some because of others, and some regardless of others.  Shifts of interpretation result from the different ways in which orientation sets the because of, in spite of, and regardless of relationships.  Such shifts of interpretation make for totally different pictures of reality, since they focus the attention upon different orders of relationship. We learn to single out certain relationships in accordance with the particular linguistic texture into which we are born, though we may privately manipulate this linguistic texture to formulate still other relationships. When we do so, we invent new terms, or apply our old vocabulary in new ways, attempting to socialize our position by so manipulating the linguistic equipment of our group that our particular additions or alterations can be shown to fit into the old texture. We try to point out new relationships as meaningful—we interpret situations differently—in the subjective sphere, we invent new accounts of motive. (52–53)

Orientation is the result of internalizing the symbolic environment, which constructs ways of seeing, delineates relationships, comports attention through frameworks of interpretation, and naturalizes a vision of what reality is.  Different environments bestow their corresponding orientational capacities that pre-condition individual acts of attention.  By these interpretive frameworks, orientation structures processes of sensing and thinking.  But orientation, structured through linguistic textures of reality, can be altered, reconfigured, and repurposed.  We see out of circumstances what we bring into them and bring out of circumstances what we see into them.  Thoughts are “socialized,” and new thoughts are made to fit into a group’s “linguistic equipment.” 

Thus, orientation regards the historical, durational, ecological, and embodied aspects of attention.  It highlights attention as an ecologically-configured emergence within agents who comport to their linguistic mediations of the environment, and who revise these mediations piecemeal.  Attention, conditioned by orientation, is undivorceable from history, ecology, and individuals’ development.  Attention, via symbols, is oriented between the material and the symbolic, which is socially rooted and instrumental to servicing the environment.  A natural dialectic undergirds attention as “all living things are critics” adjusting to changing environments, finding their way between situations, interpretations, and their mediating vocabulary.  Attention occurs by means of continual orientational and re-orientational processes, which constitute a quiet background of interactions to our ways of seeing.  Symbols orient/de-orient/re-orient us amidst change and recalcitrance, reconstituting homo symbolicus dialectically between our words and our ways.

The symbol is Burke’s main analytical unit of oriented representation and for representation writ large.  The symbol is “the verbal parallel to a pattern of experience,” and “the artist, through experiencing intensively or extensively a certain pattern, becomes as it were an expert, a specialist, in this pattern (Burke, Counter-Statement 152).  Each symbol stands to show how “The magical decree is implicit in all language; for the mere act of naming an object or situation decrees that it is to be singled out as such-and-such rather than as something other” (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form 4).  Decreeing something as another anneals a symbol to an oriented experience pattern.  The symbol can “parallel processes which characterize his [sic] experiences outside of art” while the symbol itself also “re-embodies the formal principles in a different subject-matter” (Burke, Counter-Statement 143).  Externalizing orientation, the symbol itself “is a way of experiencing” (Burke, Counter-Statement 143) embodied in each symbol and imposable upon any object.  Each symbol’s ways of seeing is crafted as “a strategy for encompassing a situation” (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form 109) and as “preparations” and “petitions” for action (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form 167).

Burke’s idea of perspectivizing names this power of symbols to be a means of seeing.  Symbols and language perspectivize:“to consider A from the point of view of B is, of course, to use B as a perspective upon A” (Burke, A Grammar of Motives 504) and “every perspective requires a metaphor, implicit or explicit, for its organizational base… and [any perspective] cannot skirt this necessity” (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form 152).  Since there are no “pure” symbols in nature, then “the seeing of something in terms of something else involves the ‘carrying-over’ of a term from one realm into another, a process that necessarily involves varying degrees of incongruity in that the two realms are never identical” (Burke, A Grammar of Motives 504).  The tie-ups between symbols, experiencing, and seeing (considering terministic screens and orientation) show how symbols create perspectival attentions.  Each perspective is a kind of attention taken onto something, never nakedly seeing it, but always seeing it in terms of and thus seeing it as.  Symbolizing what you are reading right now as “text,” “hieroglyphics,” “thoughts,” “ink,” or “ashes” perspectivizes attention to what it is, why, and what to do with it.

Language, for Burke, involves systematic uses of symbols via linguistic action.  Language comprises doings (acts) occurring in things (symbols) rather than things for doing.  Language, seen dramatistically, is actional, hortatory, attitudinal, based on the negative, ethical, and moralizing (Burke, “Poetics in Particular, Language in General”; Burke, “A Dramatistic View of the Origins of Language”; Burke, “The Philosophy of Literary Form”; Burke, “Semantic and Poetic Meaning”; Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living”).  Each quality identifies a form of linguistic action and corresponding mode of attention.  The six dramatistic actions and their attentions can be exemplified in the example sentence, “I don’t care anymore.”  As action, it declares termination to care-related acts.  As exhortation, it punctuates time, urges a change, and incites a response.  As attitude, it eulogizes in a mood and triangulates speaker, audience, and subject.  As negation, it opposes something while also avoiding espousing something else.  As ethicizing, it feeds an ethos of the speaker against the context of the statement.  As moralizing, it hints at what should be done by others.  Each of these six dramatistic enactments in this four-word verbal gesture induces matching forms of attention to the logic, performance, and response of action, exhortation, attitude, negation, ethicizing, and moralizing.  We possess the oriented symbolic equipment to heed the meaning of the four-word gesture but also heed these six dramatistic valences that it enacts.  Attention is comprised of symbols for seeing things, but also for seeing actions.  Such dramatistic actions are symbolically constituted, social, coded, layered, and exchanged by para-linguistic logics not contained in semantic meanings.  Without the means of attending dramatistically, we wouldn’t understand the gestures in the four words.  With the means, one may participate in and respond to the gesture’s layers of poetic action.  Burke provides an enframing scaffold to these para-linguistic logics in his concept of form, the guiding framework for participating in exchanges of symbolic actions.

Burke’s definition of form is the arousal and fulfillment of expectations (Burke, Counter-Statement 130, 204, 217).  Contrastive to Plato, Aristotle, and many theorists, form concerns the sequenced experience of the audience, especially as it results from their symbolically-induced states.  Burke writes that “A work has form in so far as one part of it leads a reader to anticipate another part, to be gratified by the sequence” (Burke, Counter-Statement 124).  This anticipation is variably structured for different attentions, affects, and effects, as exemplified by Burke’s delineating five types of form in literature and referencing other types of form in theater and music (Burke, Counter-Statement 123).  For example, “If, in a work of art, the poet says something, let us say, about a meeting, writes in such a way that we desire to observe that meeting, and then, if he places that meeting before us--that is form” (Burke, Counter-Statement 29).  Here, “…the value lies in the fact that his [sic] words are shaping the future of the audience's desires… This is the psychology of form as distinguished from the psychology of information” (Burke, Counter-Statement 33).  

Forms associated with words, for example in the verbal gesture, “I don’t care anymore,” are created between their contextual constellation of anticipations within their respective logic: expectation can follow structures of repetition, progression, syllogism, custom, “metaphor, paradox, disclosure, reversal, contraction, expansion, bathos, apostrophe, series, chiasmus--which can be discussed as formal events in themselves.  Their effect partially depends upon their function in the whole…” (Burke, Counter-Statement 127).  Such forms structure attention along pathways to their completion.  Along the way, the rise and fall, tension and release, waxing and waning of expectation also occur via assorted means, namely, via the six dramatistic valences, narrative, grammars of symbolic logics and actions, and by poetic play, any of which create attentional paths and urgings constitutive of dramatistic reasoning. 

Thus, form conceptualizes the lines along which attention follows a syntax of symbolic events through time, which proceed along lines of expectancy, tension, and resolution.  Form helps us recognize ways in which attention has duration (e.g., suspension in unfulfilled expectation), syntax (an ordering tendency to how and where attention goes), punctuated units (of expectancy/fulfillment episodes), layered temporaries (as attention operates between orders of expectations variously aroused/fulfilled at different speeds), emotionality (to the quality and effects of expectations’ fulfillments), and partiality (to the degree of expectations’ fulfillments).  Attention’s duration, syntax, punctuated units, layered temporalities, emotionality, and partiality show how a discrete moment of attention contains diachronic dynamics.  What attention is doing at any moment involves where it came from and where it is going.

Burke’s definition of motives is the imputation of a “why” to any stated act, made possible by symbols.  The “what” of an act is tied to the “why” of the act, so inextricably that “motives are shorthand for situations” and can be linguistically “placed” within any of five sources: act, agent, scene, agency, purpose. Burke’s pentadic ways of attributing distributed motives suffice to illustrate another attentionally-configurational dimension to symbols.  Attention is motivated action.  To say someone attended also involves, implicitly or explicitly, in what manner, for what purpose, to what effect—all of which is rooted in the imputed “why” of attention.  Motivic analysis applies to our talk about attention, enabling rhetorical placings of acts of attention to be characterized by the logics of different motivational structures.  To root attention in the motivation of agency, for example the agency of a gun, yields a host of attentions: one may attend by the gun, because of the gun, through the gun, like a gun, counter to the gun, and so on in ways that derive their character, form, and “why” from the sole source of a tool.  Agent-motivated attention would involve emphasis on inner-originating actions characteristic of the doer, and so too for act, purpose, and scene.  Motivic ratios and the whole of the Grammar of Motives elaborate on the many ways that attention is a motivated activity tied up with our talk about attention and its ways of configuring the motivations to attention. 

Explicating the why to attention, aided through Burke’s pentad, reveals attention’s drama-responsive character, which is erased by the discourses of attention as a generalized universal cognitive mechanism.  Attention differs by its motivation.  Dramatism and motivic analysis elaborate structures that direct attention through symbols’ whats (e.g., terministic screens, recalcitrance) and their whys.  Burke’s example of “looking over one’s shoulder suspiciously” exemplifies a narratival solicitation to interpret attention’s motives.  Instances of attention are motivated and decodable through a hermeneutics of attention’s locally-motivated, situated, particularized socializations.  Each instance of attending is dramatic (drama-participating) and dramatistic (drama-interpreting).  Attention’s dually dramatic/dramatistic acts themselves signify communicatively and require interpretation: what does it mean to say why someone attended in that manner at that time?  And how do responses communicate back to that why?

An Attentional Glossary of Burkean Concepts

The above-discussed nine terms in Burke’s works, far from comprehensive, illustrate the many tie-ups between symbols and attention.  These terms—terministic screens, dramatism, recalcitrance, orientation, symbol, perspectivizing, language, form, and motives—conceptualize junctures of phenomena within symbols.  Based on this archeology, we can surmise Burke’s theory of attention that is present but uncollected throughout his work. 

Attention is a diachronic and dialectical feature of symbols’ architecture.  The present moment’s forms of attention are bequeathed via symbols oriented to past situations and uses.  This past is nearsighted, with a close horizon limiting our vision to see where our terms came from.  The bequeathed symbols’ ways of seeing and relations to environments constellate around each communicative encounter.  They constitute and configure our ways of attending, propagated as ambience built from symbolic acts recalcified into people and their environment.  The present moment teeters at the forefront of these symbolic dialectics, where we hinge between reproducing or poeticizing our inheritance.  Located between permanence and change in our situations and symbols, “attention” expresses the logological act of seeing via symbols which themselves can be changed.  Burke furnishes a vocabulary for re-configuring our pre-configured attentions.  These Burkean terms, here with their attentional facets fronted, coalesce a mosaic depicting a dramatistic conception of attention.  Listed in condensed glossary form:

Terministic screens: a conceptualization of things as attention-forming machines differentiated by their attentional effects.  Epitomize symbolicity constituting attention itself.  A master term for the totality of attentional dynamics of a particular symbol, its associated terminology, and its instance of context-positioned use.  Like prisms that were re-shaped by the light that passes through them, terministic screens organize the cacophony of attentions into a coordinated harmony.  They preserve castings of their past uses, fossilized records of attentional ways.  Terms facilitate configured ways of seeing and not seeing, reifying private acts of attending into symbolic renders for shared intelligibility and participation.

Dramatism: a method of analyzing attention as symbolic action.  Reveals attention’s tie-ups with human relations and motives via a methodical inquiry into clusters of terms and their functions.  Language is action.  Attention is native to symbolicity in two ways.  1) Symbols in general constitute attention through their terministic properties and directed experiences.  2) Particular attentionally-named symbols concoct attentions only possible from symbolic resources and composite them into loose, fluid placeholders (e.g., “read” “think” “attend to” “see”).  Analysis (beyond semantics, usage, or intent) shows this coalesced symbolic material in a symbol’s socialized, dramatized, situated choreography, together creates what “attention” really is.  Dramatism is admonitionary: we must monitor and refresh what we mean when we say that “someone attends,” as dramatism generally “helps us discover what the implications of the terms ‘act’ and ‘person’ really are” (Burke, Kenneth). 

Recalcitrance: conservative forces counter-pressuring infinite attentional play.  Calcifies symbol-formed attentions.  Monitoring recalcitrance exposes attention’s dynamism between its related fixities and possibilities propagated between recalcitrance and de-calcitrance—the poetic interplay with the public architecture of the symbolic environment.

Orientation: the development of an accrued, exposure-trained repertoire of attentions.  Structures ways of seeing by dual roles: a storehouse of intelligible forms and a live mediator between text, context, and response.  Orientation helps answer, “where do our forms of attention come from?”  Renders visible the historical, durational, environmental, and embodied aspects of attention.  Highlights attention as an ecologically-configured emergence within co-developing agents.  Attentional acts are oriented.  Re-orienting occurs between material/symbolic dialectics that are socially-rooted and serviceable to the environment.  Attention is coterminous with our orientation, de-orientation, re-orientation.

Symbol: attention’s most elemental unit of immaterial configuration.  Representational, decrees a thing as another, annealing a sign to an experience pattern, especially from experts in a pattern of experience.  Symbols externalize orientation into manifest forms (e.g., words, images, sounds, gestures) that capture, stabilize, transpose, and preserve experience in communicable, mobile form.  Embodies a way of seeing.  An imposable lens upon any object, act, or event.  Malleable for infinite modification and poetic reuse.  Definitional to what homo symbolicus is and does.

Perspectivizing: the necessarily metaphoric nature of symbol-influenced attention, which “involves the ‘carrying-over’ of a term from one realm into another, a process that necessarily involves varying degrees of incongruity in that the two realms are never identical” (Burke, A Grammar of Motives 504).  Symbols and language perspectivize attention, creating perspectival attentions.  Inversely, each perspective entails a kind of attention that heeds in terms of and thus heeds as.

Language: the enactment of symbols.  Versatile attention modifiers.  The most direct window into attention’s socialization.  Constitutes attention’s symbolic actions, chiefly: negation, exhortation, attitude, ethicizing, and moralizing.  Provides modes of deploying the symbol, where each form of linguistic action creates a corresponding mode of attention, recognition, enactment, and reasoning: 1) symbols thing-ify processes, endowing attentional modes via things (e.g., “critique” endows “critical attention”), 2) language performs symbols, engendering performative attentional modes (e.g., negation endows negative attention).  Linguistic modes of symbol usage suffuse attentional acts with para-linguistic logics and dramatistic valences.

Form: attention’s syntax.  Discrete synchronic moments of attention contain diachronic dynamics: what attention does now is bound within encompassing programs of where attention has been and is going.  Attention follows patterned sequences along lines of expectancy, tension, and resolution, together organized by symbolic events (e.g., inspecting, judging, comparing, etc.). Form is longitudinal, involving attention’s duration, sequential ordering, punctuated episodes, layered temporaries, emotionality, and partiality.

Motives: the imputed “whys” to acts of attention.  Attention is a motivated activity.  Purpose conditions attentions, shaping their manner and effect.  Attention contours to drama and to how we talk about it.  Differing motives make differing attentions, which are readable through pentadic hermeneutics to attention’s motivic placement.  Each instance of attending is dramatic (drama-participating) and dramatistic (drama-interpreting).  Attentional acts signify: what does it mean to say why someone attended in that manner at that time?  And how do responses address that particular why?

This attentional glossary catalogs key dramatistic topoi of attention.  Among symbolists who delineate similar representation-centered theories, the distinctly Burkean contribution extrapolates symbolic dialectics with environmental processes and with the symbolically constituted animal.  Attention names our directed experience formed at noisy, fluid junctures where the dialectics of symbol/environment (e.g., recalcitrance) traffic with the dialectics of symbol/self (e.g., orientation).  Attention names distributed emergences across symbol, environment, and self.  These three loci—the force of symbols, the material-symbolic environment, and individuals’ agencies for intervention—each originate attentional processes that merge with that of the others.  The relations between symbol, environment, and self together define what is involved when we say one attends, how, and why.  In this framing, attention expresses para-symbolic processes that are immanent to symbolicity.  Many of these emergent relations are not self-disclosing into awareness.  We may study the symbol for its links, traces, evidence, and possibilities of what happens when amalgamated with situations and selves.  Between these loci, our terms for attention are dialectical with our changing selves and our ways through changing situations, forming an experiential poetics inherent to terminologies.

Symbol-Formed Attention’s Methodology and Rhetoricality

To fulfill calls in rhetorical studies seeking to develop more robust theories of attention that service contemporary issues, this archeology produces a glossary of attentional phenomena overlooked in current discourses and which is readily useful with roots in the discipline.  Dramatism’s method of analyzing attention assists us in creating rich, dynamic accounts of its constituting phenomena.  I designate dramatism’s implicit theory of attention as “symbol-formed attention” in order to locate dramatism’s idea of attention among other attentional theories and to christen it for easy uptake multidisciplinarily. 

Attentional theories differ by their starting assumptions, methodology, and purpose.  Symbol-formed attention starts with symbols, is analyzable via dramatistic methodology, and seeks the purpose of steering word/act/self dialectics.  Some contrasting approaches, for instance, start with material technologies, are drawn through media ecology’s methodology, and seek the purpose of recovering sense capacities (Landes).  Another approach starts with experience, elaborates through phenomenology’s methodology, and seeks purposes of grounding epistemology in a stable foundation (Schrag 17; Merleau-Ponty xii; xviii).  Histories of the idea of attention provide additional varieties (Crary; Rogers; Mc Mahon).  Calling dramatism’s attention “symbol-formed attention” aims for a welcoming, accessible, user-friendly inroad to multidisciplinary investigation.  With no discipline comprehensive to the unwieldy idea of attention, all conceptions must come to terms with what “attention” means, how to study it, and why one operational definition is preferred over others. 

Symbol-formed attention conceives “attention” as a terministic screen for the directed experience entwined within dialectics of symbolic environments and homo symbolicus.  Symbols poeticize devised regimes of directing experience and are our best windows into the socialization of attention.  Epiphenomenal to symbols’ tie-ups with situated bodies, symbol-formed attention traces the configurational processes occurring through us and comporting contrivances naturalistically.  Symbol-formed attention is a para-symbolicity to “our prowess in the ways of symbolicity” (Burke, Language As Symbolic Action viii) .  Many things, especially social intangibles, are unattendable without symbols, and without their encompassing symbolic environment inflecting meaning and attention with dramatistic valences.  Some key tenets of symbol-formed attention:

  • Attention is perspectival.  There is no neutral seeing without seeing in terms of (via an associated terminology) and thus without seeing as (from terminology’s metaphorizing of sense).
  • Terminology multiformly influences acts of attention and accounts of attention. 
  • Attention is situational and orientational, evolving with systemic changes outside the symbol.
  • Altering a symbol, its terminology, or context changes the means of attention.
  • Symbols and attention form symbiotically and can operate independently (e.g., seeing with camera-attention without a camera, reading a non-polemic with polemic-attention).
  • Attending is a dramatistic symbolic act, formed, motivated, sequenced, and addressed within social drama
  • The elusiveness, misrecognition, and invisibility of symbol-formed attention occurs endemically to symbols.  Attentions operate with little self-disclosure, each one occurring with a degree of self-awareness and kind of self-awareness.
  • There is no generalized, universal, transhistorical mode of symbol-formed attention.  Each occurs within particular situated instances and emerges across symbol, environment, and oriented agents.
  • Dramatism reveals and re-engineers symbol-formed attention.  Other vocabularies do too.  For example, materialist, phenomenological, psychoanalytic, and somatic theories of symbols delineate relations of symbol-formed attentions.

Methodologically, symbol-formed attention facilitates interpretivist analyses complementary to positivist analyses.  Its hermeneutic, poetic, malleable features contrast to that of the empirical sciences.  Symbol-formed attention’s interpretivist methodology is a reflexive anthropology “from within,” regarding meanings, readings, and doings of real-stakes social action.  This attentional interpretivism concerns the readerly and authorly agencies within each individual, which are constituted dialectically between the social/personal, material/immaterial, and agent/agency.  Nine descriptive pairs define these methodological differences antithetically from the reigning concept of attention in popular discourses borrowed from the empirical sciences.

Empirical Concept of Attention

Assessed Behaviorally
Apprehends what is present

Burkean Symbol-Formed Attention

Assessed Symbolically
Invokes what is absent

Symbol-formed attention’s interpretivism also highlights attention’s rhetorical aspects, which are invisibilized in predominating scientistic discourses.  Burke writes that “rhetoric seeks to impact action and attitude, which would permit the application of rhetorical terms to purely poetic structures; the study of lyrical device might be classed under the head of rhetoric, when these devices are considered for their power to induce or communicate states of mind to readers…” (Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives 50).  In this way, rhetoric maps and monitors the symbolic orientation of attentional motion and action.  Rhetoric creates languages that refresh attention’s re-orientation to stave off “the upbuilding of fallacious equipment” (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form 164) .  The Burkean ideal would have our terms of attention be well oriented rather than misoriented or disoriented, be dramatistically full rather than shallow, and prepare us to attend orientedly.

Some rhetoricalities come from symbol-formed attention being:

  • A reality-altering agency mediating thought and action
  • Variable and strategic toward goals
  • Communicatively induced from a rhetor to an audience
  • Constituted through traditional rhetorical elements (e.g., ethos, pathos, logos, kairos)
  • Logological and doxastic, constituted through language and opinion
  • Contingent to social drama, technologies, exigence, appeals, and addressivity
  • Cultivational to the ability to observe the available means of persuasion
  • A condition for persuasion
  • Thematic of classical concerns between lex/logos and res/verba distinctions, suggesting we maintain care to how ideas of attention influence their effects, logics, and relationships.

Rhetorical studies can use symbol-formed attention adaptively within the native discourses of calls for needed attention-related scholarship.  Lanham’s, Oakley’s, and Pfister’s three calls for attention scholarship have different accounts of what attention is, does, and can mean within rhetorical theory.  A broad paradigm of symbol-formed attention is instrumental to meeting these calls.  Specifically, for Lanham’s concern with communication in digital space’s attention-scare ecology, rhetoric is an adjustment wisdom to style/substance strategies through changing media.  This requires carefully developing what we mean by “attention” as a mass-interpretation behavior within rapidly shifting technologies and unstable information ecologies.  For Oakley’s concern with discourse fulfilling cognitive functions, rhetoric is the integration of actual and potential mental spaces.  This requires carefully developing “attention” as individuals’ ways of binding together linguistic, cognitive, and mental spaces.  For Pfister’s concern with digital social action, rhetoric creates constitutive effects for forming publics, adherence, and sustained collective attention.  This requires carefully developing “thick” rather than “thin” accounts of how attentional processes constitute meaning and relations in the networked ecologies.  Symbol-formed attention’s paradigm helps enable scholars to ask questions and investigate disparate attention-associated phenomena that would otherwise be obscured.

Conclusion: Symbol-Formed Attention as Equipment for Living

Attention needs to be re-languaged in order to address its succession of imposed forms and its possible reformations.  Contemporary crises of attention pose the idea of attention in simplistic, fixed terms, which have prompted disciplinary challenges and calls to remedy undertheorized notions of attention.  Responding to calls to theorize attention within shifting communication conditions, this reading of Burke’s implicit concept of attention yields an account of “symbol-formed attention” for use in rhetorical studies and related disciplines.  Distinct among other conceptions of attention (whether implicit or explicit), symbol-formed attention renders visible its social hermeneutics, giving access to its analysis, re-engineering, and controlled use.  This analytic vantage point traces out how the “attention” addressed via brain scans or via surveys names conglomerations of acts different from the “attention” addressed by humanists or experienced directly.  Each attention is an act of symbol-choreographed experience, whose name veneers its dramatistic architecture.  Whereas other conceptions of attention service behavioral measurement or disciplined training, symbol-formed attention services communication, rhetorical strategizing, and creativity.

Dramatism warns against reductive neutralizing vocabularies, the scientizing of (attentional) motive, and the diminishment of human agencies from symbols.  Burke issues us a grave task as rhetorical and literary critics to monitor our language and revise key terms.  We need vocabularies that clarify and orient attentional acts within their symbolic milieus.  Attention’s dramatistic features cloak between names and functions.  As the word “attention” itself illustrates, the language that references it differs from the language that constitutes it.  This difference, ever-changing, propagates attentional dis-orientation and re-orientation.

Explicating the idea of symbol-formed attention from dramatism provides remedy for un-reducing reductions and de-neutralizing neutralities in our vocabularies for investigating what is involved when we say someone attended and what those words really mean.  In this methodology, “attention” is a terministic screen of dialectical emergences between homo symbolicus’ words, ways, and whereabouts.  Attention is not one thing but is a placeholder orchestrating para-symbolicities that accompany symbolicity: orientation, recalcitrance, scope, circumference, representative anecdote, attitude, motive, form, and act.  Dramatism’s vocabulary for what symbols are doing denudes the myth of attention as an a-historical fixity and redresses attention’s psycho-social kairotics.  Dramatistic analysis reveals each attention’s constituents, programs of action, situatedness, and possibilities.  The dramatistic theory of attention elaborates the perspectivity resulting from how we always attend in terms of and attend something as another.  Symbol-formed attention mediates homo symbolicus by a process of experiential poetics.  Omnipresent terminology is ambiently rhetorical in shaping attentional acts, which can be altered in articulation.

Well-oriented attention, like literature, is equipment for living and is sought through poetic, rather than semantic, vocabularies.  Burke writes, “the poetic vocabulary, when complete, will take us into-and-out-of (the complete play with its exhilaration at the close).  When incomplete, it will take us into, and seek to leave us there…  While the semantic vocabulary would, I think, unintentionally cheat us, by keeping us without, providing a kind of quietus in advance, never even giving the dramatic opposition a chance…” (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form 166–67).  Semantic—scientized, neutralized, instrumental—language reduces attention to an impossible singularity.  Semantic vocabulary may be useful in specialized matters, but risks generalizing misleadingly.  It is “when [a semantic vocabulary] is considered as an ideal in itself, rather than as a preparation for new and more accurate weighting, that one need turn against it” (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form 167).  The Burkean ideals of multi-perspectivity and well-oriented dramatistic fullness are sought through continual terminological upgrade “from an old poetic vocabulary whose weightings are all askew to a new poetic vocabulary whose weightings will be better fitted to the situations it would encompass” (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form 167).  To this end, Burke’s inventory contains many more resources to re-poeticize mis-oriented attentions: poetic correctives, comedic correctives, irony tropes, an ethics of multi-perspectivity, ethical dimensions of symbols, poetic play epitomized in the paradox of substance, perspective by incongruity’s method of “gauging situations by verbal ‘atom cracking’” (Burke, Attitudes Toward History 308) , resymbolization and reorientation through pentadic re-placement, and other such conceptual tools for attention’s terminological reconfiguration.

The ideal word for attention, then, is sought locally, kairotically, toward the aims of each instance, distinguishing this attention from other attentions—a critical importance to rhetorical studies.  Thus, “true knowledge [of ‘attention’] can only be attained through the battle, stressing the role of the participant, who in the course of his [sic] participation, it is hoped, will define situations with sufficient realistic accuracy to prepare an image for action” (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form 150).  Our searches for symbols place our words for attention in dialectic with our ways of attention, cunningly devising an experiential poetics through what impends.  Our predicament for attention in rhetoric and the humanities, then, is an ongoing set of tensions among change.  Homo symbolicus attends by what s/he is, and becomes, in part, what s/he attends.  Symbols do much of the seeing.  But our seeing exceeds our terms, which obsolesce and need updating.  Analyses of attention exhume fossilized experience.  We can change our symbols individually, but only piecemeal, methodically, and socially through their public architecture.  Between these tensions, we proceed, building cultures by huddling together, nervously attentive, at the edge of an abyss.

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