- Identity's Strategy: Rhetorical Selves in Conversion
Anderson's central purpose is to revitalize the concept of identity as a rhetorical tool for the assessment of personal narration. This book works to move past postmodernist dismissals of identity as "essentialist" or otherwise theoretically naive, and instead underscores the self-making and audience-directing strategies evidenced by personal narratives in general and conversion narratives in particular. In Chapter One, Anderson grants that terms such as "identity" and "the self"—signifiers that purport to reference actual persons—have occasioned a rich and well-merited interrogation within academic discourse; in this chapter as elsewhere in the book, his treatment of theoretical challenges to identity concepts is never glib or dismissive. He demonstrates, almost always in accessible prose, a respectful and highly respectable familiarity with a vast body of theoretical skepticism that has taken aim at facile universals about subjectivity. This conscientious attentiveness to potentially resistant readers greatly enhances Anderson's alternative claims about identity.
This book seeks a way to both relinquish essentialism and yet advance the investigation of identity as a persuasive instrument. Accordingly, Anderson suggests that focusing rhetorically on autobiographical narration entails examining what identity does rather than what it is in an ontological sense. He contends that theoretical interrogations of identity and selfhood do not undermine the felt reality these concepts enjoy within everyday parlance. Outside academic discourse, Anderson reminds readers, the commonsense quality of "identity" and "selfhood" has accrued to these terms the cultural status of doxa, which is to say, of "ideas we think with rather than think about" (8). This doxical feature of selfhood is in fact integral to the directives embedded within personal narratives, he maintains, since effective rhetoric founds itself upon shared values whose credibility is presumed beyond contention. "Selfhood" and "identity" as givens are crucial to conversion narratives, whose plots hinge upon fundamental—and implicitly exemplary—personal transformations. Thus, while debates confined to adjudicating what selfhood is or is not might be philosophically compelling, they also pose an impasse when the goal is to better understand how self-writing in general—and conversion narratives in particular—operate within culture as arguments.
Anderson's second and third chapters perform several deeply related functions. The author anchors his own insights about identity rhetoric within Kenneth Burke's published body of writing, and also in implications between the lines which did not come to fruition during the theorist's lifetime. Anderson posits that Burke's "complex appraisal of identity and symbolic action is largely uncharted territory" (21). These chapters propose "a Burkean way of looking at [End Page 278] identity," establishing that Burke's ideas on constitutions laid the groundwork for a comprehensive theory of identity-construction at the personal level (21).
Within a constitution, according to Burke's framework, several purposes may be discerned. Among these purposes are the impulses to address a specific scene or context, to give shape to a current state of affairs, to specify future developments, to describe principles of conduct that unify the constitution's subscribers, to outline ultimate value terms, and to designate postures rejected or excluded by subscribers as a feature of their collective self-definition. Discrete persons, too, "constitute" themselves in a manner analogous to the motives Burke outlines for collectivities. Shaping an autobiographical self means also addressing a specific scene or context, describing current states of experience, specifying desired future developments (for narrators themselves and their audiences), designating principles of conduct (whose occasional conflict requires constitutional re-drafting and boundary adjustments), and proscribing or rejecting certain options or behaviors as a feature of self-definition. In short, Burke establishes selfhood as a matter of framing and naming, rather than as an ontological condition of personhood: individuals, like nations, are proposed or "constituted" and given substance or "substantiated" not by some innate feature of subjectivity but precisely by their self-defining declarations. These chapters offer a guided tour through Burke's ideas on identification and identity—an introduction for readers who are not familiar with Burke and...