Rescuing Rhetoric: Kenneth Burke, René Girard, and Forms of Conversion
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Rescuing Rhetoric:
Kenneth Burke, René Girard, and Forms of Conversion

Language is the surest indicator of the being with.

—René Girard, The Scapegoat

In Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, René Girard insists that contemporary theories of language cannot fully account for mimetic desire, which is rooted far deeper in human anthropology. Girard writes, "the mimetic process, without being foreign to language, is prior to language and goes beyond it in every respect."1 While Bateson's "double bind" might be repur-posed to explain the mimetic problem, the problem itself unfolds independent of any system of communication. This is a striking claim, particularly from a scholar who stumbled upon his key insight through the study of a specific literary genre. Nevertheless, Girard insists that while language may obscure mimetic desire, it does not occasion such desire, which constitutes human beings long before they utter their first words. Language is a glass through which one sees either clearly or darkly. [End Page 139]

This assumption is further revealed in Girard's occasional remarks about rhetoric. Girard does not mention rhetoric often; when he does, he usually characterizes it rather conventionally as a barrier to or distraction from the truth. In Violence and the Sacred, for example, Girard writes, "It has often been observed that the tragic poets cast a glimmering veil of rhetoric over the sordid realities of life."2 Here, rhetoric is nothing more than a seductive disguise that must be stripped away if the truth is to be perceived. In an analysis of Romeo and Juliet, meanwhile, Girard claims that Shakespeare uses "rhetorical legerdemain" to gin up a mimetic crisis in the absence of a true mediator between the lovers. This is Girard's explanation for "the inappropriateness of the rather flamboyant rhetoric" featured in the play.3 Girard has even characterized his own stylistic approach as a-rhetorical. The foreword of Things Hidden announces that the authors "quite deliberately left out all the concessions to the reader which it is customary, and wise, to make in the presentation of so ambitious a thesis. We did so in order to make the texts less heavy."4 Apparently, rhetorical awareness of the readers, even in aid of their understanding, serves only to weigh down an argument.

Whether from ambition—or perhaps from antipathy to what he sees as the excesses of the linguistic turn—Girard has not been very interested in exploring the function that language may play in occasioning mimetic desire. Girard likewise denies any role for rhetoric in arguing for his mimetic thesis. His understanding of conversion, meanwhile, seems to suggest that it is primarily a matter of acquiring knowledge rather than experiencing persuasion.5 But if Girard's insights are to have purchase, they must find expression in language, expression that is inherently rhetorical. One need not accept language as the be-all and end-all of human experience to acknowledge that language is never neutral or transparent; it is always motivating us toward particular attitudes and actions. Thus any understanding of Girardian conversion must make some provision for persuasion.

To make such provision, I will draw on the work of Kenneth Burke, an American rhetorician whose project and conclusions anticipate Girard's. Like Girard, Burke founds his work on a close study of literature and then expands that study into a number of different areas, including sociology, political science, philosophy, and of course rhetoric. And like Girard, Burke observes scapegoating at the center of human relations. Unlike Girard, however, Burke sees scapegoating as a problem of both psychology and form. His great critical contribution is to insist that discourse moves us through form as well as content. If the human person is a symbol-using animal as well as a desiring one, then any insight that convinces that animal does so because of its rhetorical expression. [End Page 140] This claim may seem to run counter to the spirit of Girard's thought. Rhetoric would seem not simply to indulge, but actually to encourage, the worst of humanity's rivalrous habits (which is in part why rhetoric is so often perceived to be nefarious). Nevertheless, rhetoric is like mimetic desire...



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