Barry Brummett (University of Texas at Austin - USA)

A Burkean Framework for Rhetoric in the Digital Age

Photo of Barry BrummettIn a key passage, Kenneth Burke argues that new rhetoric today creates an audience rather than appeals to a preexisting one. This paper takes that observation as a starting point to develop a general perspective on rhetoric in a digital age. The arguments connect to several of Burke’s observations and ideas along the way.

Working at a metaphorical level, the paper claims that people today may be understood as terminals. Our consciousness is formed of the images grounded in the material pixels of the screen, yet the images are not physically real. These images must be cognitively integrated and assembled following culturally shared forms. The paper develops the ramifications of such a starting point, addressing issues of where the individual stands in connection to cultural discourses and others if the individual is a terminal. How are the “programs” on the terminal apprehended and controlled?

In doing so the paper connects its argument to some key ideas of Burke’s as it goes along. The idea of recalcitrance, a sticky issue in Burke’s work, is explained by the perspective. The paper argues that Burke’s ideas of form assume great importance from this perspective. What consubstantiality looks like from the perspective of a world of digital communication is explored. Other Burkean ideas are touched upon as the argument develops.


Barry Brummett (Ph.D., University of Minnesota, 1978) is the Chair of the department and Charles Sapp Centennial Professor in Communication. Brummett's research interests turned early to the theories of Kenneth Burke and to epistemology and rhetoric. In those studies Brummett laid the foundation for a research program that investigates the functions and manifestations of new rhetoric. One line of research took him into the study of apocalyptic rhetoric. Brummett's most recent, ongoing interests are in the rhetoric of popular culture. He has developed a general theoretical basis for understanding this rhetoric based largely on symbolic forms. Brummett has published a textbook, Techniques of Close Reading, and a third edition of his popular textbook, Rhetoric in Popular Culture. Brummett is the author of the scholarly book monographs A Rhetoric of Style, Rhetorical Dimensions Of Popular Culture, Contemporary Apocalyptic Rhetoric, Rhetoric of Machine Aesthetics, The World and How We Describe It, and Rhetorical Homologies. He has edited Landmark Essays: Kenneth Burke, Uncovering Hidden Rhetorics, Sporting Rhetorics, Reading Rhetorical Theory, and The Politics of Style and the Style of Politics. He is now at work on an edited anthology called The Rhetoric of Steampunk to be published in 2014. Brummett is the author or coauthor of numerous scholarly essays and chapters.