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Politics, Burke, and Identification

With the 2012 election only days away, I found myself again interested in the Burke’s idea of identification and how that might be used as an explanatory lens through which to view the strength of party alliance that is often demonstrated during election time, which seems to hold (in many cases) despite counter-evidence, completing views, or new information. As the counter to this adherence to a particular view or party with which one identifies, is the opposite, i.e. the side that one rejects and views as Other. In this line of thinking, Burke writes:

Identification is affirmed with earnestness precisely because there is division. Identification is compensatory to division. If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity (1326).

The idea of identification as being a particularly strong form of persuasion is compelling in that it highlights one of the sites of rhetoric that resides within the human psyche where the forces of the social intersect with the personal sense of identity. It at once implies unity and division, though the latter is a necessary component for the arisal of the former. In a sense, identification exploits the human desire for connection, unity, and belonging by rhetorically creating or highlighting a division and then providing sites for reunification and joining, though as a fragmented unity outside of the overall wholeness of humanity. This method of identification explains how those who internalize particular rhetorical categories and put them on over or in place of “the self” can be easily led through the manipulation of those sites of identity, which can be externally constructed and controlled.

This concept is also reminiscent of Althusser’s idea of interpolation, where the individual is always already indoctrinated into a particular ideology so that he/she believes that the constructed nature of that ready-made identity is “the self” with which he/she identifies. One is “hailed” or called forth to say “yes, this is me” to any number of preconstructed identity markers. Burke’s conception of identification is very similar to this, in that these places of identification are taken in and “identified” as properties of the self, where “‘belonging’ in this sense is rhetorical” (1329). Once one identifies with a rhetorical category, identity, or set of values, these ideologies can become very deeply imbedded in the personhood of the subject, making him/her cling to these identifications as necessary constituents of the self. To let go of these identifications is to let go of the self, a process that can enact various, sometimes dramatic or violent, survival responses.

It is not a far stretch, then, to see how insidious the manipulation of identification might be within the power structure of a society. By using words/concepts with which people identify, it is possible to construct a means of persuasion that is stronger than logic or ethics, and is instead rooted wholly in the emotional response to the promise of belonging versus the threat of disconnection. For humans, as social animals reliant upon other humans for physical survival, the continuity of group cohesion is of integral importance, thus these site of identification can become the rhetorical promises of safety, security, and survival that are affiliated with social belonging. All threats to those identifications may be viewed as threats to survival, as potential places for infiltration, change, and disruption of the status quo, causing stronger identification and cohesion amongst those who likewise similarly identify.

This also explains why persuasive tactics are not effective within party politics, as those in one party identify with the rhetoric of their party and will not hear the “threatening” rhetoric of another, harkening back to George Campbell’s warning that “of all the prepossessions in the minds of the hearers which tend to impede or counteract the design of the speaker, party spirit, where it happens to prevail, is the most pernicious, being at once that most inflexible and the most unjust” (938).  Because of the process of identification, those from one “side” must, by nature of the ideology that corrals them there, reject and resist any efforts to persuade them to another way of thinking that might threaten their identities within a particular group. This resistance is part of the identification which they have taken into themselves and constitutes the appropriate response to protect the site of that identification and the group cohesion it implies.

The initial infiltration for these rhetorical identifications does not have to arise from sophisticated strategies and highly effective oratory, but rather, in Burke’s view, is conditioned through repetition. These overlapping categories of identity are constructed “not in terms of some one particular address, but as a general body of identifications that owe their convincingness much more to trivial repetition and dull daily reenforcement [sic] than to exceptional rhetorical skill”(1329). Media repetition, institutional dissemination, and social practices all condition and reinforce these sites of identification. Again, recalling Althusser, these identifications can be viewed as acting in accordance with various forms of the Ideological State Apparatus to inscribe identification upon the subjects of a society so that they will automatically take into themselves these rhetorical identifications as constituting the self.

What is of interest in this discussion is the relative heterogeneity that actually plays out in these identifications. Though it can be argued that the hegemonic forces of power might wish to instill a particular set of identifications to which people would steadfastly adhere, there are, at any given time, a multiplicity of voices and sites of various rhetorical identifications, and any individual may simultaneously take up many of these in order to create what he/she conceives of as “identity” or “self.” These identifications may also be viewed as existing on a continuum of conflict with one another, where some identifications are easily congruent with some other types, but seemingly antithetical to others. These categories of identifications might likewise comprise larger bodies of identification markers which may thus be exploited, manipulated, challenged, or resisted.

It is also interesting to note that identification is contingent upon fragmentation and division — until there is division, no identification can occur. Utilizing a similar pattern as demonstrated above, this set of identity constituents exists on a continuum where “identification and division [are put] ambiguously together, so that you cannot know for certain where one ends and the other begins, and you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric” (1328). Conversely, in their unadulterated forms, there would be no conflict since “in pure identification there would be no strife. Likewise, there would be no strife in absolute separateness, since opponents can join battle only through a mediatory ground that makes this communication possible” (1328). Thus, it is only in a fluid, continuum state between wholeness and fragmentation in the overlapping spaces of multiple identifications where the possibility for rhetoric, and thus change, arises.

The relationship between division and identification is striking in that it highlights the basic human need for belonging that may be exploited in order to instill particularly motivated forms of identification. Likewise, the more that division is emphasized, the more pressing the need for identification in order to ease the social survival needs generally found amongst human beings in their long-standing reliance upon social structures for maintaining physical continuity. I wonder about the threat of division/strength of identification ratio and how this might be manipulated in order to gain strong group compliance through these rhetorical sites of belonging. For that threat to be maintained, it needs simply be repeated, combined with the repetition of the markers of identification to which the individual might cling in order to have his/her needs for belonging, safety, and security met.  This explains a lot of modern (and historical) rhetorical practices that seek to persuade through means of strong identification with particular ideologies, words, concepts, motivations, emotions, lifestyles, or other rhetorical constructs. It also helps explain why “party sentiment” is often as unyielding and immune to logic as it seems, as it potentially promises to provide services of safety and inclusion to those who adhere to its identifications, even (or especially) in the face of other potentially persuasive rhetorics. From this view, these “outside forces” do not offer the possibility of enrichment and expansion, but rather threaten the very nature of security and belonging provided by the concepts with which the individual identifies.

I am curious about this notion of division as a rhetorical strategy, as the construction and emphasis of separation in Western society and identity is of particular interest to me. The paradigm of individuated ego identity is so ubiquitous in the West that it is often inconceivable to those from within this paradigm that it is even possible for the site of identity to be elsewhere. This assumed disconnection is further exploited in order for the social forces of power to conduct its process of regulation, so that identification as Burke proposes it serves a powerful purpose in the creation of identity by offering a means to self-identify with a concept that is larger and more interconnected than the individuated ego identity. These identifications are social in nature and provide a site for mutual coalitions to form around these rhetorical categories, thus replacing a sense of wholeness or connection that is lost in a paradigm that assumes separation as an a priori given. The Western worldview itself creates this assumption of severance and separation, and then dispenses ample rhetorical identifications to fill the spaces created by this duality. To me, this dynamic is intricately tied to the Western binary system of self and other that it assumes exists “in reality” rather than as a discursive construct. It is additionally tied to the belief in the same paradigm that no thought exists outside of language and that identity begins and ends with the confines of discursivity. All of these assumptions work together to create a state of existential aloneness and isolation that defines Western ideology and gives rise to the exploitative features of its practices. Without an already existing state of division, it would not be necessary to construct categories of identification, nor would it be possible to easily manipulate people by providing a remedy to the sense of alienation, fear, and insecurity that are always already instilled as a seemingly inescapable part of Western ideology. In their identifications, Western subjects achieve a contingent sense of belonging, but that belonging is, by its nature, rooted in separateness and holds that as a precondition. There are spaces and perspectives outside of this paradigm, and until those are realized in the West, these types of manipulations and exploitations will be largely inevitable. However, as the mechanisms are further and further deconstructed and recognized for the constructs that they are (a precondition for their deconstructing) holes in the paradigm are slowly opened and allow for the potential for an expanded view of identification not reliant upon divisiveness, but on a totality not easily explained by conventional language developed from within a paradigm that does not acknowledge an outside of itself.


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