Luhmann and Kenneth Burke

At a recent rhetoric conference in England, I started thinking about possible connections between Luhmann and Kenneth Burke. For rhetoricians, Burke’s most important concept is probably consubstantiality–“an acting-together within, and defined by, a common context.” In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke wrote,

A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself with B even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes they are, or is persuaded to believe so. . . In being identified with B, A is ‘substantially one’ with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time, he remains unique, an individual locus of motives. Thus he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another.

From a Luhmannian perspective, two psychic systems (Burke’s A and B above) are distinct but a communication/interaction system may arise from them. The psychic systems are a necessary environmental factor of the communication system, but they are operationally excluded because a psychic system is not communication or a communicative event. In other words, the psychic systems must remain in the environment of the social system. Thus, we can translate Burke’s “individual locus of motives” as psychic system. The goal of rhetorical communication is consubstantiality, as in persuading a voter to identify with a politician or political party. For Burke, the key term in rhetoric is identification.

With respect to social systems, one important case where consubstantiality occurs is in protest movements, which are social systems without explicit membership criteria. People align themselves with protest movements and contribute to the social system’s autopoiesis by speaking in support of it, but there are no members in the sense of organization members–that is to say, people cannot be in a included or excluded by an organizational decision.

Luhmann might have also spoken of collective social identities more broadly, for example, fans of a football team. The difference between this kind of social system and the protest movement is that fans of a sports team do not position themselves in opposition to society, but only in opposition to rival teams or rival fans. Particular fans come and go over the years, but the social system of fans can persist as long as the team exists. The system of fans does not consist of flesh and blood human beings; it is a communication system.

Identity politics is also about consubstantiality and social systems, and, of course, identity politics is closely associated with protest movements.

Of course Luhmann and Burke were not just saying the same thing with different words. Unlike Burkean theory, Luhmannian systems theory is anti-humanist. Two or more psychic systems can never be “substantially one.”

Perhaps a more interesting comparison between Luhmann and Burke relates to attribution of causality. What caused an event to happen? What factors motivated something to happen? For Luhmann, discussions of causality always come back to attribution. What system is doing to attribution? If a crime occurs, for instance, whom do we blame? Do we attribute the crime to social conditions, such as poverty, or to human depravity? This is where Burke’s pentad is illuminating. Do we assign the primary motivation to the scene or the agent? Or was the availability of a weapon (the agency) the deciding factor?

Different psychic systems and different social systems will attribute causes differently. Attributions are communications within particular social systems. If a particular person assigns motivation to an agent, scene, agency, act, or purpose, this attribution must be communicated in order to exist in society.

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