Rhetorical Landscapes in America, by Gregory Clark

Clark, Gregory. Rhetorical Landscapes in America: Variations on a Theme from Kenneth Burke. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004. 181 + xvi pp. $34.95 (cloth).

Reviewed by Mark Garrett Longaker, University of Texas at Austin
KB Journal 1.2 (Spring 2005)

Burke-in-conversation has become a dominant leitmotif in scholarship—and reasonably so. Not only is "conversation" an important touchphrase in Burke’s rhetorical theory, but finding a place for Burke in conversations (both those that he entered and those that we can only imagine him entering) helps us to understand his terminological apparati in the contexts of various—perhaps familiar—equipments for living as well. The more conversations he enters, the more useful his work becomes.

While Burke-in-conversation should remain a dominant topos in present discussions, there is another possibility for expanding the appliance of his theoretic engine: Burke-in-application. This is what Gregory Clark’s most recent book offers us: a view of Burke’s theory, selectively read in dialogue not with another thinker but with a social phenomenon in the interest of learning what each can teach about the other. In the spirit of Burke’s rhetorical dialecticism, Clark looks carefully at a theory and a human institution (American tourism) in order to understand what happens to Burke when he takes a road trip and also to understand what happens to the road trip when Kenneth Burke tags along. The result is an insightful, though selective, understanding of both. Applying Burke to American tourism reveals a method, a theory, and an analysis that all travel well. Clark brings these contributions, Kenneth Burke, and us along on a guided tour of disciplinary landscapes like rhetorical studies, American studies, American history, sociology, and cultural studies. He demonstrates that Burke-in-application gets good mileage on any disciplinary road.

Clark’s tour begins with two theoretically heavy chapters tracing a theme from both general rhetorical theory and Kenneth Burke’s specific contributions thereto: rhetoric and identity formation. His specific interest, as he explains in the introductory chapter, is the "scenic" work of constructing American identity, the practice of touring landscapes that people imagine as commonly owned, occupied, and appreciated. For Clark, Burke’s signature contribution to rhetorical theory is the development of a "constitutive" rhetoric of identification, a rhetoric practiced everywhere in American tourism. Clark says, "for Americans, their nation has always been a ‘scene’ in this dramatistic sense of that term as a symbolic setting where they can enact both individual and collective identity" (3). This quote provides a key insight into Clark’s manner of proceeding. The introductory chapters, though the book’s most theoretically dense, insist upon bringing theory into contact with history in the interest of learning about both. Clark explicates key terms in Burke’s lexicon, terms like "scene," "representative anecdote," and especially "identification," by closely analyzing Burke’s prose and by discussing American travel experiences. This theoretical-historical dialectic reveals interesting things about both Burke’s theory and American culture.

Clark’s method is best illustrated in his discussion of Burke’s belief that identity is formed in successive experiences that serially enfold the individual into communal life (18-25). After explaining that identity gets formed in the common encounter of sequential episodes, Clark brings Burke into dialogue with a routine, though rarely interrogated, rhetorical artifact, the travel itinerary. The itinerary not only illustrates but also enriches Burke’s theory by showing that the successive encounters which form communal identity involve more than just prose narrative or the rhetorical presentation of historical events (as Burke had initially intended in Attitudes Towards History). A rhetorical enactment can be a serial encounter with a verbal narrative or the embodied experience of following a scripted path through a common geography. Clark’s application of Burkean theory to the travel itinerary demonstrates the theory’s versatility while also encouraging a critical-rhetorical understanding of a naturalized event. He extends this application by reading Timothy Dwight’s Travels in New England and New York (1821) as a serial enactment of a traveled identity that advances a particularly Puritan American character. Dwight’s Travels become a "sustained epideictic display of the New England ideal, in the form of a succession of its symbolic images, as a representative anecdote for America" (23).

In these seven pages, Clark performs the methodological contribution that his book repeats in every chapter. Thereafter, he discusses: early 19th-century schoolbook presentations of New York as the quintessential American city (ch. 2); late 19th-century travel narratives about distinctly un-American Shaker villages (ch. 3); 19th- and 20th-century encounters with America’s transcendent Yellowstone park, where all difference dissolves into national unity (ch. 4); early 20th-century travel narratives about the Lincoln highway (ch. 5); and isolationist visions of American grandeur as presented in tourist guides to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (ch. 6). Each of these arguments brings some aspect of Burkean rhetorical theory into dialogue with a new kind of experience, labeling that experience rhetorical and reading an event as an effort at "constitutive" rhetoric. Whether he is discussing Burke’s notion of rhetorical transcendence and the "American wonderland" of Yellowstone Park or Burke’s notion of Whitmanesque idealization and Bert Phillips’s narratives about visiting a Shaker village, Clark provides a rich understanding of history and theory. Burke-in-application shows the versatility of his theory, the remarkably innovative rhetorical work done throughout American history, and the methodological value of putting both in conversation with one another.

Clark’s method, in short, allows him to develop a distinctively Burkean theory of tourism as rhetoric. While Clark revels in the capacity for common identification in travel, he also warns of its rhetorical dangers, and he encourages his reader to heed Burke’s pedagogy of rhetorical critique, not only in the classroom but also out on the road. He warns that rhetorical constitution is often identification against an excluded other, such as the quaint and fading Shaker people encapsulated in their living museum (64). He counsels us that a powerful rhetorical process requires of its participant-citizens "contextualization…responding primarily to the social functions of a statement rather than to its content or even its intention" (76). Clark not only develops a rhetorical theory of tourism, but he also offers a rhetorical pedagogy for the critical vagabond. He hopes that this identificatory rhetoric coupled with a critical pedagogy of commonality will help students to deal with one another, to negotiate their differences without violence. Constitutive rhetorical theory, therefore, contributes to a project of overcoming conflict through community and critique:

Rather than providing knowledge and skills that promise individual success in a competitive society, Burke’s education is "admonitory": it provides students with knowledge and skills—and, as Burke would say, with "attitudes"—that undermine the potential for violence inherent in their inevitable competition by enabling them all to attend critically to the collective consequences of their individuated actions. (77)

As Clark’s analyses accumulate, the reader finds more in praise of community and less criticizing its potential dangers. The book ends with a reiteration of this theoretical focus, saying again that Burke principally advocated the virtues of community and its "ultimate perfection" in "communication" (162).

Clark’s theoretic focus on community extends a theme that he has pursued in his work on language-arts education, on ethics and rhetorical criticism, and even on the rhetorical implications of jazz performance. If Clark’s opus has a god term, it is community, and it sits in the sky of his most recent book’s cosmos. He has been accused in the past of advancing commonality over difference, and even of promoting dominant ideologies and subjectivities to the exclusion and detriment of marginal peoples and manners. Throughout these debates, Clark has always been deferential and gracious. While never abandoning his hope for the possibilities of communitarian rhetoric, he certainly notices its dark side, the cruel exclusion of Shaker people from the American vision, the danger of Yellowstone’s transcendent nationalism or the Panama-Pacific International Exposition’s isolationalism in a post-9-11 world. This study exhibits appropriate anxieties about identificatory rhetoric. Clark acknowledges the dangerous potential here, although his critics might find the moments of concession and concern overwhelmed by more copious instances of celebration.

Clark’s interest in identification and his desire to advance a carefully qualified communitarian rhetoric also color his version of Kenneth Burke’s theory. This is not an effort to explicate Burke’s opus in all its complexity. It is a selective reading, or "variations on a theme in Kenneth Burke." One can easily imagine another study performing similar work but drawing on different Burkean themes. Division (also a component part of rhetorical identification) could be read thematically through the rhetoric of American nationalism, and scapegoating is often a function of tourism. Take, for instance, a tourist stop in Lucas, Kansas where people frequent J.P. Dinsmoor’s populist sculpture garden, "The Garden of Eden." Sculptures that once denounced robber barons and U.S. military interference in Latin America are now part of a reactionary representative anecdote. The present tour guide has created an itinerary that encourages identification against all things related to the Democratic Party. An octopus sculpture representing America with tentacles stretching into Panama once criticized American imperialism. On the present itinerary, it becomes a denunciation of Jimmy Carter’s "treasonous" allowance of the Panama Canal to its rightful owners, the Panamanians. In Mullinville KS, another tourist stop showcases M. T. Liggett’s sculpture garden where discarded farm equipment is shaped into a "femi-Nazi" Hillary Clinton (Frank 83-4). Scapegoating and division, not identification, are the rhetorical hallmarks of this travel itinerary, and its representative anecdotes embody the dangers of communitarian rhetoric more strikingly than the artifacts examined in Rhetorical Landscapes. A rhetorically unified Kansas has not overcome the violence of war in its constitutive landscapes. Rather, these landscapes enact a violence whose viciousness, cruelty, and stark simplicity can occur only in times of war, civil or otherwise. In light of these travel narratives, one wonders if Burke’s "purification of war" might mean not the eradication but rather the intensification of violence.

The above reservations aside, Clark’s book is a valuable iteration and exploration of one theme in Burke’s theory. Whatever objections it might illicit, Clark’s book provides us with a qualified and responsible argument for Burke’s rhetoric of identification. His method is also useful for those wanting to extend Burke beyond the conversations among theorists and philosophers.

In the end, perhaps the most valuable contribution of Rhetorical Landscapes is its ability to create analyses of materials typically not associated with rhetoric’s canon. Showing that tourism enriches Burkean rhetorical theory and vice-versa helps those interested in various disciplines to find common ground. Clark’s analyses are valuable because, by putting Burke-in-application, they extend the realm of Burkean studies, and they open the gates to allow others into the Burkean kingdom. What results, in this case, is a delightful conversation among rhetorical studies, American studies, and American history. Others interested in Burke’s application can learn from this method of analysis. If Burke-in-application becomes a common topos in scholarship, soon we will find Burke everywhere, and we will find that Burkean theory grows and changes as it engages, criticizes, and learns from encounters with the many citizens in rhetoric’s vast realm. In effect and to his credit, Clark has put Burke on the road, and he has invited us along for the ride.

Works Cited

Frank, Thomas. What Happened to Kansas. New York: Metropolitan, 2004.

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