May 18, 2016
Rhetorical Landscapes in America: Variations on a Theme from Kenneth Burke by Gregory Clark
Welcome to Mere rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, terms and movements that shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and if you’ve like to get in touch with me you can email me at mererhetroicpodcast @gmail.com or tweet out atmererhetoricked.
Today on Mere Rhetoric I have the weird experience of doing an episode on someone who isn’t just living, but someone who was my mentor. If you’ve ever had to do a book report on a book your teacher wrote, you understand the feeling. But I really do admire the work of Gregory Clark, especially his seminal work in Burkean Americana. Clark is was been the editor of the Rhetoric Society Quarterly for eight years and recently became the President Elect of the Rhetoric Society in America, which means, among other things, he’s responsible for the RSA conference, like the one I podcasted about earlier this summer. He also wrote a fantastic book called Rhetorical Landscapes inAmerica, that became the foundation for a lot of work that looks that the rhetoricality of things like museums, landscapes and even people.
In the final chapter of Gregory Clark’s Rhetorical Landscapes in America: Variations on a Theme from Kenneth Burke, he poses the question “where are we now?” (147). We’ve certainly been many wonderful places. In Rhetorical Landscapes, Clark has packed up Kenneth Burke’s identification theory of rhetoric and applied it to the national landscapes of America. Clark suggests that our identity as Americans comes, largely, from our experiences with common landmarks. To demonstrate this power of Burke’s concept of identification, Clark has taken us through more than a century of American tourism, from New York City in the early 19th century to Shaker Country to the Lincoln Memorial Highway. We’ve been convinced by Clark of the rhetorical power of these places to create a national identity. We’ve seen how mountains and parks and even people can evoke a feeling of identification. It’s been a long, lovely ramble by the time we get to Clark’s question. Reading his words, one can’t escape the image of a wanderer who, having ambled through one delightful landscape after another finds himself suddenly disoriented as to his current location. Clark himself describes his project as “a ramble” and it is this apt description that encapsulates both the dizzying strengths of the book (147).
Surely one of the most striking strengths of this ramble is the remarkable company we keep. Clark has brought the human and extremely likable specter of Kenneth Burke along for this meander through American tourism. The Burke of this book has not only provided us with the language of identification in our community of travelers to “change the identities that act and interact with common purpose;” he’s consented to come along with us (3). Clark presents Burke as one who was “himself a persistent tourist in America” (5). Burke very charmingly has written about his traveling “’go go going West, the wife and I/.../ “Go West, elderly couple”’” (qtd. Clark 7). When Burke’s theories of national identification are presented to us chapter-by-chapter, we enjoy their application in the presence of a critic who is not cynically immune to the process of identification, only acutely aware of it. Presented as accessibly and understandable, Clark has written us a Burke we can road trip with.
If Clark has presented for us a clear, insightful and accessible version of Burke through this rambleit is because of his own remarkable prowess as a teacher. He is willing to let Burke be a fellow-traveler with us and he is willing, himself, to join us personally in the ramble. We readers are fortunate to have Clark with us, just as much as we are to have his clear explanations of what Burke would say if the deceased were alongside us. Just as Burke is not immune to the seduction of American tourism, Clark gives us ample insight into how the American landscape affected his own identification as an American as a child. In the chapter on Yellowstone, Clark describes how, as a child from “a marginal place in America” he had been taught that “America was in faraway places like New York or Washington, D. C., or Chicago or California” (69). When Clark first went to Yellowstone National Park, he noticed the variety of license plates in the parking lot and could suddenly feel “at home among all those strangers in a new sort of way—at home in America” (69). While Clark gives us every possible reason to respect him as a serious, meticulous scholar of both rhetoric and American tourism history, he never lets us forget that he, like Burke, like us, is also another tourist in awe of the places we define as quintessentially American.
With knowledgeable and accessible teachers like Burke and Clark at our sides, we readers feel comfortable seeing how we, too, fit into this landscape. While the scope of the book covers the extremely formidable years of American nation-making (from the days of “these” United States to when the country is solidly coalesced into “the” United States), the institutions then established are still foremost in the psyche of Americans of all generations. Readers of Rhetorical Landscapes in America will be hard-pressed to read a chapter without immediately applying the Burkean theories to their own individual experiences with these ensigns of American identity. Have you been to NYC? Have you been told that you have to see Yellowstone? All of these places are part of how we structure our American identity.
Where are we going? Working topically, vaguely chronologically, Clark and Burke accompany us through New York City, Shaker country, Yellowstone, The Lincoln Highway, the Panama-Pacific world’s fair and the Grand Canyon. It’s almost like a car game on a long road trip: okay, what do these six things have in common? While each of these locations lead themselves to a deeper understanding of what it means to be a touring American (eg, in the chapter Shaker country we discover how guides to the region have lead to identification “not with the Shakers, but with the other touring Americans who gather to wonder at the spectacle the Shakers create” and thus objectified Shakers), (52). Including a city, a people, a park, a road, an event and a building in a park could arguably be a way to expand the definition of the “landscape.”
Why are we rambling through these American landscapes with Burke and Clark, after all? The argument appears to be, after all, to situate a Big Rhetoric theory of identification into a series of Big Rhetoric artifacts—so big, in fact, that it includes mountains and highways. Those who are resistant to wholeheartedly adopting Burke’s expansion of rhetoric to include not just persuasion, but also identification, will find Clark’s scope of artifacts as unconvincing; those who are frosty towards opening the canon of rhetoric past the spoken word, and past the written word into the very land we travel will bristle at the idea of giving something as Big Rhetoric as a city, a people, a landscape a “meaning.” These two groups of reader are by-and-large impervious to the convincing and meticulous readings that Clark provides of these locations. They’ve already made up their minds and aren’t likely to change them, despite the quality of Clark’s argument.
Clark and Burke are observant, meticulous and personable traveling companions, This is an excellent book, one that opens up rhetoric to more than just written texts, but something that can encompass views and groups of people as well. I love thinking about the implications of place on national identity and I’m not the only one: scholars from Diane Davis to Ekaterina Haskin have taken up the idea of how a tour of places and spaces and people can create an argument for national identity. So when you come back from your summer vacation this year, think about not just what you saw, but who it made you become.