Inside/Out: Debra Hawhee, Performance, and the Burkean Body

Review of Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edges of Language
by Debra Hawhee
2009; University of South Carolina Press

Freddie Harris Ramsby, University of Utah

Enculturation :
(Published: November 8, 2012)

Figure 1

At the core of Debra Hawhee’s Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edges of Language is her claim that, for Burke, the mind and body are not locked in Platonic opposition. Writing about rhetoric has tended to privilege reason over “worldly encumbrances”; the body, with its occasional penchant to succumb to desires unsanctioned by the status quo, has been the object of suspicion for the rhetorically minded for centuries.

Yet for Burke, rhetoric depends on “the warm blood of live bodies” (Hawhee 146). The holistic body—blood, flesh, mind, and reason—is rhetorical; rhetoric is life. Thus, his definition of rhetoric—“the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (41)—cannot be reduced to persuasion merely guided by reason but is a definition of what it means to be human, warts and all. In fact, as Hawhee argues, for Burke, it is the body that serves as ideological and rhetorical barometer, a revelatory vessel from which we learn about the relationship between language, knowledge and meaning. In Moving Bodies, then, Hawhee makes the pioneering claim that it was Burke’s lifelong interest in the body that influenced his most famous conception of rhetoric.

Hawhee offers an impressive examination of “where—and how—the question of bodies has taken one thinker” in terms of the “transformational capacity of bodies” (9). Indeed, Hawhee demonstrates Burke’s trans-disciplinary fascination with the body’s rhetoricity (9). She uncovers this transformational capacity—the capacity to move bodies and be moved by bodies (in the way one is moved by music, for instance)—through a mind-boggling variety of disciplinary texts. Hawhee collects, synthesizes, and theorizes—at times in absorbing biographical detail—Burke’s writings on and about the body, from his early fiction and criticism to his preoccupation with “the repulsive underbelly of humanity” (10) that emerged in his later work, while his own ailing body succumbed to age. The result is that the body is posed, across disciplines, as central to our meaning making processes—in the arts and sciences, through leisure and work, and death. The body is central to how we perform our existence.

Thus, Moving Bodies opens up a space for discussion to those who are interested in the intersections at which Rhetorical Studies meets Performances Studies. As Stephen Olbys Gencarella and Phaedra C. Pezzullo suggest in their recent publication Rhetoric and Performance, Performance Studies takes “doing,”—the performing body—as a site of inquiry (4-5). Consequently, Hawhee’s contribution to these two disciplines' existing investment in Burke further validates the active/acting body as a rhetorical site of meaning. Like Burke, the dialogue between Rhetoric and Performance invites the body back to the scholarly party—certainly not soon enough, after Cartesian bouncers have kicked it out.

The chiasmus at which Rhetorical Studies and Performance Studies meet re-fuses the Aristotelian division between rhetoric and poetics, and the Burke of Moving Bodies emphasizes this. Of course, since Counter-Statement, we have been aware of Burke’s insistence that aesthetics are rhetorical, that art is transformative. Hawhee, however, walks us through Burke’s repeated insistence that rhetoric is the “stuff of life” (11, my emphasis). There are no divisions. That is, moving bodies “do” rhetorically, performing and interrupting the relationship between meaning and language, not just in the artistic realm, not just in the law courts or on the political stage, but in all physical ways of knowledge production and interpretation.

In chapters 1 and 2 Hawhee explicitly engages the Burkean rhetorical body with aesthetics—first by examining Burke’s early fiction, his music criticism and music’s affect on “live and lively bodies” (13), and the mystically inspired dance movements of G.I. Gurdjieff, which prompt bodily reflectivity. In these sections, Hawhee argues that Burke’s interest in materiality, as meaning-making and meaning-affecting, ultimately leads to something of a Counter-Statement prequel (14). That is, his focus on bodies as “generators of belief” through aesthetic media predicts a less dramatic Burkean turn from aesthetics to rhetoric than scholars have previously considered (20). For instance, in Counter-Statement, Burke says “society might well be benefited by the corrective of a disintegrating art” (qtd. in Hawhee 20). Yet, Hawhee reveals this “disintegrating art” through the bodily performances in Burke’s earlier short fiction. Indeed, in “David Wassermann” and “Mrs. Maecenas,” it is the sick and unhealthy intellectual that challenges the vigorous dogma of status quo doings, interrupting “mundane routinized rhythms” via their deteriorating materiality (21). “Ailing bodies,” says Hawhee, “are exalted for their clarity and their surprising capacities” (19).

The performances of ailing bodies, or unintelligible bodies, or un-readable bodies are of great interest to scholars in Rhetorical Studies and Performance Studies. As Gencarella and Pezzullo put it, Rhetoric and Performance studies “are [both] committed to better understanding of aesthetic expression or how something is communicated especially in terms of political experience" (2). Moreover, Gencarella and Pezzullo continue, as these shared interests are of the body, Rhetoric and Performance scholars are concerned with how political ideology is mapped onto the body (3). The implications are significant for bodies that are silenced, for instance, due to doxic constraints—those unspoken cultural norms that render some bodies more meaningful than others. White, healthy, hetero-normative bodies, for example.

Hawhee’s vital contribution to this aspect of Rhetoric and Performance’s shared interests become apparent as she unearths in Burke’s early fiction on the rhetoricity of unusual and sickly bodies in Chapter 1. On the bodies of suffering artists and intellectuals, Burke inscribes the capacity to interrupt the status quo. Moreover, Hawhee infers that although Burke denies these bodies “utopian critical agency,” he prefigures the sort of bodily performances that perform within the Butlerian notion of performativity—that is, bodies that resignify their reiteration in normative discourses. Thus, Burke’s early fiction, one might suggest given Hawhee’s critique, portends the critical agency of the AIDS activist die-ins, or the protesters of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—unusual bodies that expose much about our cultural reception of bodies and how they must "be."

The rhetorical potential of the Burkean body extends beyond the aesthetic capacity for critique, however. In Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6, Hawhee traces Burke’s career through a range of scientific and pseudo scientific realms: from his studies of the body on drugs to endocrinology; from constitutional medicine to “ a peculiar theory of language called gesture-speech” (10). Indeed, in the late 1920s, Burke embarked on several years as a researcher for the Bureau of Social Hygiene (BSH). Consequently, as scientific reason held a place of privilege—performed with regulatory prowess by Burke’s boss, Colonel Woods—Burke’s preoccupation with bodies and the status quo deepened. Certainly, embedded in Burke’s research for the BSH, his interest in endocrinology and psychological deviance, as well as his fascination with Sir Richard Paget’s gesture-speech theory, Hawhee finds consistent evidence of Burke’s emphasis on “the role of bodies and affect in shaping perspective” (103). In short, in the domain of science, bodies are still rhetorical; even insides shape attitude, and therefore, our production and exchange of knowledge.

Rhetoric and Performance Studies also extend their interpretations of bodily performances beyond overtly creative bodily acts to the ways bodies are interpellated by science and institutions. Thus scholars of Rhetoric and Performance are intrigued by how bodies act within those interpellating discourses. As Gencarella and Pezzullo put it, “the body serves as a site of symbolic (social identity) and physical cultural order, raising questions about which practices or people are considered taboo, undesirable, and/or marginal, as well as the rituals we practice to maintain and transform these conditions” (4). These practices are largely shaped by dominant institutional values and as Hawhee claims, in “Burke on Drugs,” during the late 1920s/early 1930s, the dominant value in Burke’s thinking was efficiency. She writes, “In Burke’s vision, the value of efficiency aligns with science prosperity and ‘progress’ and is thus mechanistic, industrial, and self-proliferating” (57). Consequently, Burke’s time as a drug researcher at the BHS exposed what he termed as “the virtue racket” (61)—a criminal construction of drug addiction that constructed bodily acts only within the limits of legal and police discourse (63). For Burke, this moralizing language on drug addiction overlooked the “complicated ways that drugs link with bodies, minds, and education” (63).

Subsequently, in reference to Dangerous Drugs: The World Fight Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotics, the book that Burke ghost wrote for the BHS, Hawhee notes the extraordinary conglomeration of voices that inhabit the book. These voices seem at odds with one another about drug use, its effects on the body, and how the bodies of drug users are read culturally from an ethical perspective. On the one hand Colonel Woods—the personification of “efficiency”—constructs drug users as evil derelicts. However, in the chapters that Hawhee claims are more obviously written by Burke, he “departs noticeably from the moralizing generalities found in the introduction, opting instead for a more scholarly, inquisitive tone that borders on fascination with drugs, their histories and their psychological effects” (64). In short, these contributions unpack and resist the narrow identity that Woods maps onto bodies, focusing instead on the transformative effects of drugs on the body and a “general interest in bodily mannerisms and affect” (62).

Hawhee’s subsequent chapters, 4, 5, and 6, take a similar approach to “Burke on Drugs” but center on specific disciplines in the social and physical sciences. Through the labyrinths of endocrinology and psychological deviance, Hawhee locates these influences on Burke’s approach to the body’s capacity as a meaning-transforming and making entity, if we would only broaden our perspectives (as “Burke on Drugs” demonstrates). Nevertheless, Burke’s refusal to undermine the body in favour of language is perhaps no more apparent than in Hawhee’s chapter on Paget’s gesture speech theory—a theory that locates gesture at the forefront of symbolic action, which, she claims, influenced Burkean dramatism (127).

However, nowhere does the troubled body feature so persuasively than in Hawhee’s penultimate chapter "Welcome to the Beauty Clinic.” In it, Hawhee articulates Burke’s bodily thinking through his own deteriorating body and extends the body to very edges of language in theorizing that which few of us want to acknowledge. Hawhee states (seemingly relishing the opportunity given her wry sense of humour) “In the 1950’s Kenneth Burke turned his attention to shit” (125)—an uncomfortable site of bodily meaning making. Noting how many scholars have ignored this period in Burke’s thinking ("It is difficult," she writes, “to type when holding one’s nose” [126]), Hawhee recognizes a grand scholarly effort to exorcise Burke’s bodily theory from his later writing. In fact, William Rueckurt blames Burke’s bodily preoccupations for the unfinished “Symbolic of Motives” (126). Hawhee, on the other hand, has no such qualms about dealing with such delicate sites of meaning (a particularly refreshing quality that pervades the book).

Perhaps most crucial here for those who are interested in both Rhetoric and Performance is that Burke’s writing during this period highlights that the symbolic “becomes lifeless” if we extract it from “warm and breathing bodies,” however painful these bodies are (129). During this period, Burke’s own pain-wracked body enhanced his theories of the non-symbolic motion/symbolic action pair, which are locked in an eternal dance of a “heightened awareness” of the body’s role in “writing, speaking, breathing, and thinking” (129). Or rather, to connect the Burkean mind/body fusion more substantively to this period, it is not that Burke could let go of this fusion, but that “the connection would not let go of Burke” (130). What we get then is a bodily performance of theory, a theory that emerges through what Burke termed the “gulpo-gaggo-gaspo” sessions that heralded his severe respiratory troubles. The following, I think, illustrates this performance quite succinctly. In a letter to Malcolm Cowley, Burke, after theorizing the symbolic, performs his pain in its language:

All this has been written, while I squirm and gasp, nearly below the surface of the mud, at one moment my legs heavy; at another, pains in my left arm: again and again and again, my lungs only half as ample as they should be and then, lo! Ecstatically, a full breath incipit vita nova. O, on the edge of the abyss. O, by the seashore at night, the waves ripping. (I think of me in the south, like a sin, when I should be in the North, in winter.) O, jukebox tunes, made cosmic, by being heard thus, at the jumping-off place. (qtd. in Hawhee 132).

Although Moving Bodies assumes that readers will have ample knowledge of Burke’s work, Hawhee’s engaging prose does much to make up for less-than-comprehensive descriptions of his theory. Moreover, the book goes where few bodies have been, by way of largely un-navigated Burkean texts: letters, footnotes, and Burke’s incursion into writing about drugs. Its biographical detail offers a very material way into Burkean theory, breathing new life and insight into the more heavily traversed texts. But most importantly, for those interested in the intersection of Rhetoric and Performance, it reminds us why we are there: Hawhee’s focus on Burke’s trans-disciplinarity resembles Rhetoric and Performance’s foray into all walks of social life that places acting and “doing” bodies at the forefront of the conversation about the transformative capacity of bodies in art, technology, science, and even in sickness and dying. In that way, Hawhee pulls Burke out of theory land and to a place where so many of us might employ his theories in very material ways.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkley: UC Press, 1969. Print.

Olbrys Gencarella, Stephen and Phaedra C. Pezzullo, Eds. Readings on Rhetoric and Performance. Pennsylvania: Strata Publishing, 2010. Print.