President Clinton’s Pentad
University of Colorado at Boulder
Throughout time, many theorists have studied modes of persuasion. The ancient Greeks focused on persuasive discourse in the public arena which allowed a democracy to function properly. However, more recently Kenneth Burke, a literary critic and philosopher, has also evaluated how our language influences social action. Yet unlike the ancient philosophers, Burke was interested in how not just public messages but all symbolic activity leads to persuasion of others. From this belief, Burke developed the theory of Dramatism which he defined as, "The study of human relation and motives by means of a methodical inquiry into cycles or clusters of terms and their function" (Hauser, 1998, October 30). He viewed life as a drama which contained a series of accounts with interacting parts that create meaning and persuasion (Gusfield, 1989). Burke coined many terms unique to his theory that he could apply to any situation involving persuasive communication. Therefore, Burke’s theory of Dramatism can be clearly illustrated by identifying his key terms and applying these to an instance of persuasive communication; however, this theory does not easily apply to other forms of communication.
To begin, it is important to understand Burke’s main themes and the terms involved in each. Burke has three main themes in his theory: the necessary elements for a foundation which leads to persuasion, the tools needed to evaluate a persuasive situation, and the involvement of guilt in the outcome of the persuasive situation. A sequence of these three themes appear within persuasive communication.
First, Burke focused his work on the use of persuasion in the social realm. Furthermore, in accordance with what was stated before, Burke evaluated how humans use all forms of symbolic activity to persuade one another. From this notion, Burke defined a series of terms necessary for the process of persuasion in his view. One, he defined man as "the symbol-using inventor of the negative, separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own-making, goaded by a spirit of hierarchy and rotten with perfection" (Hauser, 1986, p.123). Man attempts to persuade others by engaging in rhetoric, which Burke defined as "the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols" (Hauser, 1998, October 30). However, Burke also claimed that rhetoric is dependent on man’s ability to identify with the audience he wishes to persuade. Therefore, identification refers to the condition where individuals or groups see themselves as alike in some essential aspect (Hauser, 1998, November 2). Individuals identify with others by substance, or in other words the essential characteristics of a person as described by self or others (Craig, 1998, November 9). Finally, this identification of substance leads to consubstantiation where individuals or the group become one (Hauser, 1998, November 2). Now, a situation has developed with all the proper elements Burke deemed necessary for persuasion.
Next, Burke creates a set of terms within his theme of evaluation of a persuasive situation. Here, Burke creates his dramatistic pentad containing the terms agent, agency, scene, act, and purpose. Although, each of these elements can be applied differently regarding the same situation depending on the viewpoint being evaluated, their definitions remain constant. Agent is who performed the act. Agency is through what means the act was done. The scene entails the whole context of where and when the act was committed. The act is what was done. Lastly, the purpose is for what end or why was the act performed (Gusfield, 1989, p. 139). Clearly, this is synonymous to evaluating a situation through the who, what, when, where, why, and how technique (Griffin, 1997, p. 315). Burke claims that it is important to evaluate persuasive situations in order to identify motives. He defined motives as shorthand terms for situations (Hauser, 1986, p.129). Furthermore, Burke’s favorite motive of study was guilt which is central to the third theme.
Therefore, Burke’s last theme he coined terms for involved his notion of how man is consistently attempting to purge guilt. Burke claimed that the plot of human drama is the necessity for man to relieve himself of guilt. Guilt represents the varieties of divisiveness in a social body; i.e., the motives of failure, fear, frustration, resent, competitiveness, ambition, etc. all fit within this category (Desilet, 1972, pp. 50-52). Therefore, since man attempts to identify with others, the opposite of divisiveness, man is constantly trying to overcome guilt through victimage and mortification. Victimage is the process of purging guilt by blaming another. On the other hand, mortification is the process of purging guilt through self-blame (Craig, 1998, November 9). The end result of this whole process is redemption, where man feels free of his guilt. However, since ‘life is a drama,’ a new account will arise that can be applied to each of the terms outlined above; and thus, the endless cycle of guilt redemption will continue.
Since Burke’s theory of Dramatism is clearly illustrated through the definitions of his terms, this theory can be applied to a recent situation requiring rhetorical communication. President Clinton’s address to the nation in August 1998 regarding his relationship with Monica Lewinsky can be easily evaluated through Burke’s theory of Dramatism. The media has portrayed a situation with their own biases and is also mainly illustrated through Monica Lewinsky’s allegations. She claims that as an intern, President Clinton took advantage of his position of power when he engaged in sexual relations with her. The allegations led to a report by a Special Prosecutor and eventually led to a Grand Jury Hearing. After this, President Clinton addressed the nation regarding this issue. Within this address, the President attempted to identify with the audience as: a man who loves his family; a man who has done something wrong that could harm his family; a man who values the importance of family; and a man who has made a mistake. He appealed to the substance of the audience through themes of commonality of family and prevalence of wrong-doing by all persons. Through his talent as a persuasive speaker, President Clinton attempted to put himself on the same level the American public, thus creating consubstantiation. Because President Clinton established this basis with his audience, Burke’s terms clearly are able to evaluate the situation and its underlying motives.
Within this rhetorical situation, two dramatistic pentads arise for evaluation. However, these two pentads do not represent the two sides of the issue. Unfortunately in this situation, a pentad based on a viewpoint can only be constructed from the perspective the media has portrayed. Therefore, this pentad is the media’s view, and perhaps partially Monica Lewinsky’s view, of the situation. The viewpoint of President Clinton is classified information at which each citizen can only guess. So, the two pentads focus on the relationship and the controversy surrounding the relationship separately. The first pentad in this case is applied to the existence of President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. First, the scene was in the White House. The time and date of the scene is not a fixed point. So, the overarching scene contains a married man of power engaging in sexual relations with a younger, single woman. The agent and co-agent of the act are President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Also, the agency contains many components. The relationship was created though the means of a business association. Moreover, the actual sexual relations were able to be performed with the cooperation of federal agents and their following of orders. All these means were performed in secret; and thus, the agency may contain many more elements. The act itself was the performance of sexual relations between the two agents in addition to the cover-up of those acts. Lastly, the purpose can only be hypothesized at since President Clinton has never expressly stated his reasons for the relationship. This pentad lays the foundation for the rhetorical pentad created by President Clinton’s address to the nation.
Therefore, the dramatisic pentad most applicable to Burke’s theory focuses on the actual address of President Clinton to the nation. The scene is still physically in the White House. Yet, the audience sees through the media a homely setting with a fallen man sitting in a chair, needing to purge his guilt. However, this physical scene also includes the state of the nation with its disapproval of the relationship and its uncertainty of the extent of their willingness to forgive these actions. The scene thus takes the entire context into account necessary for the act. The agent for this pentad is only President Clinton. The agency President Clinton uses is a public address. He is performing his address through the means of television and other forms of media. The act is his speech that is marked by characteristics of his speaking style which add persuasiveness to the content of his message. Lastly, the President’s purpose is to purge the guilt he created by the first pentad and to regain the support of the nation. The underlying motive is forgiveness since the President must feel shame for his actions. The first pentad and this pentad are clearly associated. The first is not, however, a strong example of Burke’s theory because it does not clearly involve persuasive communication. Nonetheless, the evaluation of the situation requires both pentads in order to understand the President’s need for redemption.
Consequently, President Clinton’s address obviously illustrates Burke’s notion of guilt redemption. First, by applying Burke’s definition of man, clearly the President was ‘goaded by a spirit of hierarchy’ which led to his election as our nation’s leader. However, he also must attempt to be ‘rotten with perfection’ because the public desires this from all of their leaders. Burke also addresses the need to uphold the Ten Commandments with his notion of perfection, which President Clinton has violated (Griffin, 1997). For these reasons, he, as a typical man according to Burke’s definition, must seek to purge his guilt. President Clinton utilizes both of Burke’s strategies for purging guilt in his national address. He engages in mortification by saying he hurt his family, which was wrong, and claiming that he takes full responsibility for his actions. However, he instantly changes the subject, thereby attempting to justify his actions in other ways. President Clinton uses victimage by attacking his accuser and by attempting to shift a large portion of the blame off himself. Clinton achieves this by creating a new lens for the situation through which he wants the audience to look. Even though the audience desired a straight mortification, most person accepted his attempt for redemption as valid. Burke would probably claim that President Clinton’s address was not fully adequate to purge his guilt because Burke was a strong advocate of strict mortification (Griffin, 1997, p. 318). Altogether, President Clinton’s address to the nation therefore illustrates most of Burke’s concepts within his theory of Dramatism.
Thus, the entire rhetorical situation regarding President Clinton’s address highlights many strong points as well as weakness of Burke’s theory. It clearly show how ‘life is a drama,’ full of accounts that can be evaluated in terms of human relation and motives. Additionally, this theory’s humanistic qualities are clearly shown. The theory especially creates a new understanding of people and clarification of values through the process of identification; and moreover illustrates reform of society through the outcome of Burke’s Guilt Redemption Cycle. Also, a persuasive situation must follow Burke’s sequence of terms in order to reach completion. This situation specifically shows the whole process of how a rhetorical situation must often result in guilt redemption. Overall, this situation with President Clinton applies Burke’s theory to everyday life. Obviously, this is a strong theory when evaluating symbolic activity as a means of producing cooperation from the audience or influence on the audience. On the other hand, this theory is weak because it does not attempt to confine its use of symbolic activity to which this theory applies most. Without doubt, all symbolic activity is not persuasive in nature. Moreover, if the nature of some communication is not persuasive for example, identification and evaluation of motives are almost obsolete in this situation because they would not be necessary. Therefore, Burke is only capable of predicting the future in limited circumstances. The situation involving President Clinton discussed earlier shows how a dramatic pentad can be applied to any situation whether it is persuasive or not. Additionally, when a dramatisic pentad can be applied accurately, both views on an issue may not always be available to the audience because one side may want their motives hidden. The allowance for this large inconsistency within Burke’s theory weakens it greatly. Overall, I believe this theory provides a clear understanding of rhetoric and its effects, but does not apply to all communication scenarios. Therefore, Burke’s theory of Dramatism is strong within a limited scope, but weak as an overarching theory of all communication.
Craig, R. (1998, November 9). Lecture in Boulder at the University of Colorado.
Desilet, G. (1972). Kenneth Burke’s Dramatism in Perspective. Santa Barbara.
Griffin, E. (1997). A First Look at Communication Theory. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
Gusfield, J. (1989). On Symbols and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hauser, G. (1986). Introduction to Rhetorical Theory. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, Inc.
Hauser, G. (1998, November 2). Lecture in Boulder at the University of Colorado.
Hauser, G. (1998, October 30). Lecture in Boulder at the University of Colorado.