Identification: honest rhetoric
The “identification” this paper seeks to reflect on is the identification that is associated with the study and application of rhetoric.
In his book, ‘A Rhetoric of Motives’ (1969), Kenneth Burke chooses “identification” as the key word to distinguish his rhetorical perspective from the traditional and common term known as “persuasion.”
However, Burke does not reject persuasion but rather views identification and persuasion as accomplices to traditional rhetoric and uses both terms in the way he does rhetoric.
The argument that the contemporary world we live is in some way more complicated, such that persuasion may not function alone in applications of modern rhetoric. Thus, Burke came up with identification and spells out identification as a process that is essential to being human and to communication.
The need to identify arises out of the fact that humans are born and exist as biologically separate individuals, thus they seek to identify, through communication, in order to overcome separateness. Other than the biological separation, there also exist other types of separation built on social class or position.
Humans experience the ambiguity of being separate and yet being identified with others at the same time. Thus according to Burke, humans are “both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another.”
Furthermore humans do not only experience separateness, but also feel guilty about the differences between those who occupy different positions in society. The differences imply that there are divisions in society and it is through identification that the divisions are offset.
To overcome the division and guilt, humans look for ways in which interests, attitudes, values, experiences, perceptions, and material properties are shared with others, or could appear to be shared. These instances of connections make humans to be “consubstantial” with others.
Humans continually seek to be associated with certain individuals or groups and in some way it relieves them of the guilt they bear, thus social cohesion is built but through the use of language.
Burke understands language as symbolic action and flowing from that considers human beings as actors. Humans act by using language that is purposeful and that conveys our attitudes.
It is from this understanding that Burke draws his definition of rhetoric as “the use of words by human agents to form attitudes or induce actions in other human agents.”
Within this perspective, identification involves at least three types of processes namely: 1) the process of naming something or someone – according to specific properties; 2) the process of associating with and disassociating from others-suggesting that persons/ideas/ things share, or do not share, important qualities in common; and 3) the product or end result of identifying-the state of being consubstantial with others.
It is through the second associating process, that individuals persuade others, or themselves, as well as share important qualities in common.
There are a number of sources of identification, which include material identification, idealistic identification, formal identification and identification through mystery.
Firstly, material identification results from people owning similar possessions, objects that can be physically touched; for instance, cars, clothes and watches. Thus the biological separateness is minimised by sharing common qualities through material things.
Those who drive the VW Amarok identify with each other because of the commonality of the same brand of car existing amongst them, the same with those who drive the Ford Ranger, the Fortuner, or Golf GTI.
All those who wear Nike sports shoes identify with each other, because of the common brand name associated with the sportshoes they choose to wear. The same with clothes, watches even furniture, they bring people together and close the gap of separateness.
Secondly, idealistic identification is the source of identification that results from shared beliefs, interest, values, feelings and attitudes. In this case, a good example could be drawn from the different churches we have here in Namibia.
Belonging to a certain sect implies that one identifies with the other church members who also attend the same church. The beliefs and teachings of the church draw members together and close the biological separateness.
The same with people who have the same interests in any human endeavours identify with each other, because of the common interests they share.
Thirdly, formal identification results from being involved in similar events or organisations, where all parties involved participate. An example could be drawn from meetings held at workplaces, conferences and/or seminars.
The biological separateness is reduced, as people come together and mix because of common goals.
Lastly, is identification through mystery, which is a phenomenon in which people from the lower classes identify with people from the higher class, regardless of the dramatic differences and divisions between them.
An a example could be that of an ordinary person from the lower class identifying with the president, or with people ranked highly in society, or with popular celebrities, such as musicians, models, footballers, etcetera. In such situations individuals perceive an embodiment or epitome or standard of the perfection towards which they as individuals strive.
Concluding his 1969 paper, Burke generated yet another critical perspective on rhetoric. Identification, he argues, is in existence only that we are not aware of its presence probably out of ignorance and actually perceive it in our everyday life obliviously.
Coletta Kandemiri is a Master of Arts in English Studies student at the University of Namibia. firstname.lastname@example.org