Advantageous Incapacities: Reading the Margins with Kenneth Burke

Open Access
Coles, Gregory Joshua
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
September 05, 2018
Committee Members:
  • Cheryl Glenn, Dissertation Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • Cheryl Glenn, Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • Debra Hawhee, Committee Member
  • John "Jack" Selzer, Committee Member
  • Stephen Browne, Outside Member
  • rhetorical theory
  • Kenneth Burke
  • semiotics
  • nondominant discourse
  • identity construction
When Kenneth Burke writes about “trained incapacity”—the dynamic by which potentially advantageous forms of training can also function as incapacitating—in his book Permanence and Change, he does not generate the phrase ex nihilo. Rather, Burke invokes the work of economist Thorstein Veblen, who was in turn a student of Charles Sanders Peirce, often considered the founder of semiotics. By reading Burke among these contemporaries, and using Burke’s own ideas to historiographically inform our reading of the Burkean corpus, rhetorical scholarship can recognize what I call Burke’s fluid semiosis: the notion that the correspondence between words and their referents can never remain static, that multiple terminologies must always coexist as both capacities and incapacities. Fluid semiosis illuminates a paradoxical challenge faced in many nondominant discourses of identity construction: the tension between—on the one hand—using collective language that casts a net broad enough to enable corporate salience and—on the other hand—recognizing the particularity of individuals and the irreducibility of group members to one another. In this tension between collectivity and particularity, Burke’s fluid semiosis offers one strategy for navigating an ambivalent and ever-shifting rhetorical terrain. In three disparate case studies, the dynamics of nondominant discourses come into clearer relief once assumptions of static semiosis are set aside. Feminist reclamation efforts for the derogatory terms “bitch” and “pussy” leverage fluidity by performing language in a permanent state of transition, offering multiple simultaneous critiques of linguistic patriarchy. The Indonesian novel Laskar Pelangi constructs multiple textual identities for itself in order to acquiesce to the seemingly contradictory demands of its discursive context. The alt-right—a predominantly internet-based extremist group ambiguously defined by both rhetorical and ideological components—blurs the lines between the rhetorical alt-right and the ideological alt-right, making it possible for alt-right adherents to assume membership in the rhetorical alt-right long before they feel ready to assume ethical responsibility for the claims of the ideological alt-right. In each case, fluid semiosis locates the deep-seated congruity underlying the multiplicity of particular discursive moments. These linguistic identity constructions thus function as simultaneously incapacitating and advantageous.