U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Identifying Burke

The following guest post, by Bill Fine, continues Burke week at the blog.

In reading Burke’s Attitudes Toward History and talking about it at the conference, I was struck by what seemed his strongly sociological treatment of individual identity, and attention to “corporate identity.” I have no reason to dispute Jonathan Arac’s statement that Burke was perhaps “the first English-language critic to make extended use of the terms ‘identity’ and ‘identification.’” [1] It’s apparent that Burke would be important, were intellectual historians to address themselves to the much neglected history of identity.

Here I want to problematize Arac’s conjunction and the difference it implies, ask about the prevailing — though not universal — tendency to feature the Freudian background of identification [2], and suggest that some thinkers in the ‘50s and ‘60s saw themselves taking identity discourse in a non- or even anti-Freudian direction.  

Doing this sort of thing is always difficult, but with Burke it’s especially tricky to figure out what he’s saying, identify and untangle the sources of his thought, and track its impacts — this thinker who sees discourse as metaphorical all the way down, and is so [to me] delightfully and obtrusively cognizant of the play of alternate vocabularies of thought and motive. [3]

In any case, a lot of Burke scholarship considers “identification,” but I’ve found little that addresses “identity” as such, or that considers them together as tensed facets of a single conceptual formation. I’m not sure whether addressing the distinction would capture much of a difference, what it might be, or how it could point to discrete but interwoven “Stories,” as Burke might have put it. We might for instance ask whether instances of the use of “identification” point to some Freudian presence in the text [and in Burke’s mind when he wrote the passages?!] that we’d judge absent when he speaks of “identity.”

This large philological project might seem a waste even of computer time, except [!] that numerous recent discussions have made quite a point of elaborating conceptual distinctions around the two terms. [Of course this too can be critically historicized, though in the end it’s probably our fate to anachronize currently fashionable differences.]   In these, “identification” is thought helpful in avoiding the tendency to take identity as given, essential or static, a matter of being; rather than as fluid, processual, multiple and intersectional, a matter of practice. A good example is the widely cited “Beyond Identity” by Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper, which articulated the scholarly reaction against essentialist or realist understandings of individual and collective identity, often associated with “identity politics.” [4] This may have figured in the broader project of making such politics safe for liberalism, as in the work of Seyla Benhabib and others, and seems related to post-structuralist thinking about identity. I don’t know whether any of this impacted Burke scholarship, but some have read him as a sort of precursor of the post.

I’m far from settling this for myself, but I wonder whether the common Freudian read of “identification” could shape or somehow skew interpretation of Burke and his legacies. At the very least, we might hesitate before adopting Philip Gleason’s influential account in “Identifying Identity,” 1983, which sees two strands of identity discourse in the ‘50s and ‘60s, one associated with the Freudian background and the other with sociology, especially symbolic interactionism. Unfortunately, Gleason didn’t consider Burke in his narrative, though it’s probably still the best account of the topic.

In Attitudes, at least so far, I haven’t found Burke treating “identification” and “identity” as distinct concepts. He uses both terms throughout the book, but especially noteworthy is a part of the “Dictionary” entitled, sans conjunction, “Identity, Identification.” [263-273; italics removed] The section begins with his claim that “all the issues with which we have been concerned come to a head in the problem of identity,” and is followed immediately by a statement that many have quoted. [5]

Bourgeois naturalism in its most naïve manifestation made a blunt distinction between “individual” and” environment,” hence leading automatically to the notion that an individual’s “identity” is something private, peculiar to himself. And when bourgeois psychologists began to discover the falsity of this notion they still believed in it so thoroughly that they considered all collective aspects of identity under the head of pathology and illusion. That is: they discovered accurately enough that identity is not individual, that a man “identifies himself” with all sorts of manifestations beyond himself, and they set about trying to “cure” him of this tendency. It can’t be “cured,” for the simple reason that it is normal. [263]

I don’t have the space here to defend my reading of this striking passage, but it appears to claim an anthropological “sociality” and imply a social realism that prioritizes collective over individual identity.

This is not to say that most of the social theorists who expressed some debt to Burke in the ‘50s and ‘60s had a realist view of the social; indeed, most were associated with interactionist, phenomenological, dramaturgical or culturalist approaches. [6]

To illustrate, I’ll conclude with a quotation from Nelson Foote’s 1951 article, “Identification as the Basis for a Theory of Motivation,” which was cited by a number of these social theorists. His definition of “identification” seems very Burkean, and is explicitly anti-Freudian –

We mean by identification appropriation of and commitment to a particular identity or series of identities. As a process, it proceeds by naming; its products are evolving self-conceptions — with the emphasis on the con-, that is, upon ratification by significant others….Being more psychologist than sociologist, Freud tends to ignore the functions of language; for all his discussion of identification, he never speaks of identity or common identity. [H]is concept of identification is inadequate as a basis for a situational theory of motivation. Neither is it the missing link of social psychology — a description of the specific tie which unites individuals with their fellows. Yet expansion and reinterpretation in interactional terms of his concept of identification provides both. [7]

Notes –

[1] – Jonathan Arac, “Toward a Critical Genealogy of US Discourse of Identity: Invisible Man After Fifty Years,” boundary 2 2003, 202.

[2] – Quite a few Burke scholars seem to feature the Freudian background of “identification,” but some others do as well, including Arac, 2003, 197; Robert Genter, Late Modernism. Art, Culture, and Politics in Cold War America, 2010, who follows his discussion of Freud’s views on identification by saying they “set the framework for how modernists of all persuasions understood subject formation.” [283]. Philip Gleason, “Identifying Identity: A Semantic History” JAH 69, 4, March, 1983, says the term was seldom used outside psychology until the ‘50s. [915-916].

In “Rhetoric — Old and New,” The Journal of General Education 5, 1951, Burke wrote that the “key term for the old rhetoric was ‘persuasion’ and its stress was upon deliberate design. The key term for the ‘new’ rhetoric would be ‘identification,’ which can include a partially ‘unconscious’ factor in appeal.” [203] This was quoted by Dennis Day, in “Persuasion and the Concept of Identification,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 46, 3, October 1960, who nonetheless stressed the continuity between new and traditional thinking on rhetoric and public speaking; while Genter, 282, quotes the same statement but stresses the Freudian ambient.

It seems clear there’s much more to this history. A helpful review of Burke’s use of “identification” is in Jay Jordan, “Dell Hymes, Kenneth Burke’s ‘Identification,’ and the Birth of Sociolinguistics,” Rhetoric Review 24, 3, 2005.

Also, George Cheney and Phillip K. Tompkins, “Coming to Terms with Organizational Identification and Commitment,” Central States Speech Journal 38, 1, Spring 1987, emphasize Harold Lasswell’s importance for Burke’s thinking on identification. One thinks here of Hofstadter, who drew on Lasswell along with Joseph Gusfield, a sociologist much influenced by Burke, in laying out some of his ideas about symbolic politics in The Paranoid Style, viii-ix.

Genter devotes little attention to Erik Erikson, and nowhere mentions a connection with Burke. In a quick look at indexes, I found no references to Burke in his books.

[3] – Along these lines, Roy Ambrester, “Identification Within: Kenneth Burke’s View of the Unconscious.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 7, 4 (1974), says that Burke can be seen “controverting the Freudian terminology through transposition to the realm of the symbolic.” [205]. Genter, Late Modernism, expresses the common interpretive theme that Burke used psychoanalysis as a heuristic, a source of ideas and metaphors. In Attitudes, Burke speaks of “metaphorical psychoanalysis,” [59], and in Permanence and Change, of “poetic psychology” [266].

[4] – Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper, “Beyond Identity,” Theory and Society 29, 2000, 1-47. Some agreed that the term should be avoided, others thought its meaning just needed to be clarified, perhaps by the use of “identification,” as the authors suggested.   Barbara J. Fields, “Of Rogues and Geldings,” AHR Forum 108, 3, Dec 2003, 1401n.17, said the article “pours a needed bucket of cold water on the ubiquitous concept of ‘identity,’” while Charles Tilly, in “Political Identities in Changing Polities,” Social Research 70,2, Summer 2003, 607, argued the concept could be repaired. Amy Gutmann, Identity in Democracy, 2003, 13n.20, cited the article but said the term was no more ambiguous than many others in the social sciences. David Hollinger, “Authority, Solidarity, and the Political Economy of Identity: The Case of the United States,” Diacritics 29, 4, Winter 1999, 124n.4, referred to their “excellent analysis of the difficulties created for social scientists, humanists, and political actors by the unresolved tensions that now reside within the concept of ‘identity’” [italics removed].

Also see Ainhoa de Federico de la Rúa, “Networks and Identifications A Relational Approach to Social Identities,” International Sociology, 2007; and Martin J.B. Matustik, “Contribution to a New Critical Theory of Multiculturalism,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 28, 4, 2002.

[5] – For example, Genter, 2010, 282; Arac, 2003, 203. Ann Branaman, “Reconsidering Kenneth Burke: His Contributions to the Identity Controversy,” The Sociological Quarterly 35, 3, 1994, quotes the passage, defends Burke’s view of identity as “critical and transformative,” and disputes Jameson’s suggestion that Burke reflects more than he criticizes bourgeois individualism [445-446]. Farther back, the passage is quoted by Helen Merrell Lynd, in “Clues to Identity,” in Hendrik Ruitenbeek, ed, Varieties of Modern Social Theory, 1963, 54n.89.

[6] – In addition to Goffman and Mills, linked to Burke in Genter’s account, one thinks of Hugh Duncan, Joseph Gusfield, Anselm Strauss, Gregory Stone, Stanford Lyman, Murray Edelman, Philip Rieff, Clifford Geertz, Ernest Becker, and others. In Dennis Brissett and Charles Edgley, eds, Life as Theater: A Dramaturgical Sourcebook, l975, there are over thirty references to Burke, and two selections from his writings on dramatism. Some of the sociological background is explored by Robert Wade Kenny, in “The Glamour of Motives: Applications of Kenneth Burke Within the Sociological Field,” KB Journal 4, 2, Spring 2008, and Bryan Crable, “Rhetoric, Anxiety, and Character Armor: Burke’s Interactional Rhetoric of Identity,” Western Journal of Communication 70, 1, Jan 2006.

Attention should also be given to contemporary work that critically historicized psychoanalysis, such as Peter Berger’s “Towards a Sociological Understanding of Psychoanalysis,” Social Research 32, l965, and “Identity as a Problem in the Sociology of Knowledge,” European Journal of Sociology 7, l966. In addition to Philip Rieff’s well-known books of this period, his “History, Psychoanalysis, and the Social Sciences,” Ethics 63, 2, Jan 1953, is worth a look. Rieff begins with a Burkean analysis of the reliance of psychoanalysis on the literary device of analogy, in particular its habit of reading the group as individual psychology writ large. Richard King comments on the prevalence of this thinking and Rieff’s importance in “The Return of the Self,” History and Theory 47, Oct 2008.

[7] – Nelson Foote, “Identification as the Basis for a Theory of Motivation,” ASR 16,1, Feb l951, 17. Foote refers to Burke several times, and cites C. Wright Mills, “Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motives,” ASR, 5, l940, following him closely in saying that “predispositional theories, being oblivious to the function of language in motivated behavior, ascribe metaphysical reality to what are actually on the verbal categories whereby human beings regularize their doings.” [21]

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Bill, when I read that definition of identity I was thinking that it was another way for Burke to justify his belief that some form of socialism or communism was going to inevitably replace liberal capitalism. In the state of nature identity is collective, therefore individuality is contrary to human nature. This might be supported by his use of the term “bourgeois” for those who misunderstand the true nature of identity as collective.
    But I will admit that sometimes Burke is so clear and direct and other times opaque and convoluted that I begin to wonder if that parts that seemed clear to me only do so because I am missing something.

  2. Bryn –

    You’re probably right that his characterization of “bourgeois naturalism,” if that’s what you’re referring to, included the meaning you suggest in the immediate context in which he wrote it. I guess one could say I was trying to extend or deepen the range of possible meaning-contexts by focusing on his use of the terms identity and identification; not denying the sense to which you call attention.

    Thanks. My experience of reading Burke seems similar to yours.

  3. One of the fascinating things about Burke is how his use of words is seemingly always overlapping and dialectical, acceptance confers rejection and error informs truth etc.
    This is preamble to wondering about his meaning of the word corporate in “corporate identity”? Is corporate just another synonym for collective or is he intentionally suggesting an economic collaboration? Given his predilection for careful terminology I would think the use of corporate here implies a condensing of the broader meaning of collective and in perhaps a Burkean way I connected corporate to capitalist and capitalist to liberalism all of which have stand-alone meanings but none can be conceived of without reference to the other. Corporate also suggests organization and the Burkean fascination with “bureaucratization”.

  4. Paul – Thanks for the comment.
    In using Burke’s term “corporate identity,” I should have indicated that he seems to use it in a very broad sense, similar to what’s sometimes called “collective identity” – individuals’ attachment to and shared sense of membership, affiliation, or solidarity with almost any sort of group and/or collective cultural principle, by no means limited to corporations per se – though he uses them for examples of group phenomena. Burke is careful in his use of terms, and/but he thrives on metaphors and analogies.

    In the section of the Dictionary I referred to, he uses “corporate identity” and related terms many times, repeating and elaborating on core themes of the quotation on “bourgeois naturalism.”

    – Following the passage I cited, emphasizing the anthropological normality of identification, Burke says “the man who dies in battles, as the result of a faulty identification, is better off than a man who can identify himself with no corporate trend at all.” Then he suggests that the psychoanalytic cure occurs as the patient divests himself of former attachments and “identifies himself with the ‘corporate body of psychoanalytical science.’” The unfortunate Stoics were “enfeebled” by their efforts to avoid any collective principle, but soon along came the Christians, and later the czar, the Catholic Church and Marxism, to provide new forms of “corporate identity.” [263-264] [Elsewhere he refers to “vast corporate, latently political organization” of the Church in medieval thought. 271.]

    – He speaks of identification with business corporations, but notes the possibility of an “alternative corporation…’one big union,’” which may be what he has in mind a bit later, suggesting “analogies” from Bolingbroke’s shift from Hereford to Lancaster. [265-266] [The corporation, a legal entity formed from an analogy.]

    – “Corporate identity” is used in the context of discussing something like role conflict, as a clash of multiple identifications, which he expresses as conflict of “corporate we’s.” [264] Along these lines, he mentions the “conflicting corporate identities [of] love and duty,” just before reiterating that “’identification’ is hardly other than a name for the function of sociality.” [266]

    – Multiplicity and conflict on the individual and social levels are linked to change, which gets to core philosophical conundra of identity, of the one and the many, and continuity and change, which he combines in a single example – “since the twice born begins as one man and becomes another, he is at once a continuum and a duality.” [269. The fascinating footnote on that page shows Burke is as sensitive to these logical “paradoxes of identity,” as he calls them, as he was later in discussing “substance” in Grammar.]

    – In the section on “Transcendence” in the Dictionary, individual changes of identity are seen to involve successive transitions and initiation rituals as one passes from one “corporate grouping” to another. [337]

    – In the section on “Imagery,” he reiterates his critique of analysis thru the lens of individual psychology, which, again, pathologizes collective identity – “once you define identity in purely individualistic terms, ‘corporate identity’ becomes a slip in rationality, a self-deception.” The simple truth of life is that each person “must build his symbolic bridges [to] the social pattern” of the world in which he is born – “he forms and implements his individual role by utilizing the bureaucratic body of his society…. [each] must ‘die’ and be ‘reborn’” into the social “communion.” [289-290]

    – He includes a thumbnail grand narrative of historical forms of social organization and collective identity extending from “totemistic identification” of the tribe, through the family, church and king, to the modern, and looking ahead to “universalizing opportunities…a methodology of latitudinarianism.” [271-272]

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