Crable, Bryan. “Symbolizing Motion: Burke’s Dialectic and Rhetoric of the Body.” Rhetoric Review 22.2 (2003):121-37.


This piece is an extended discussion of Kenneth Burke’s theory of embodiment. Responding to other scholars who collapse Burke’s early terminology for talking about the relationship between language and the body (metabiology) with his later terminology (the action/motion dyad), Crable argues that the latter set of terms offers a distinct theory of embodiment which, when acknowledged in its specificity, can bring about a new understanding of the relationship between rhetoric and the body. In his early work, Burke employed the term “metabiology” to talk about the relationship between the body and the symbolic. In this relationship, we are embodied and have bodily needs that must be met–needs which spur the development of the symbolic, which ultimately expands to exceed nature. Crable argues that Burke ultimately finds this description of the relationship between language and the body inadequate, and instead embraces the language of the motion/action dyad. He speaks of action as being within the symbolic, personal, and willed while motion represents that which has not entered into the symbolic, impersonal, and determined. Crable argues that this particular pair of terms reminds us of a fundamental tension: all attempts to characterize the natural/nonsymbolic always happens within symbolic. In other words, all attempts to talk about what might fall within the realm of nonsymbolic “motion” always already represent symbolic “action.” For Burke, Crable argues, the point of the action/motion dyad is not about the division between the symbolic and the nonsymbolic, but rather the precesses through which we try to separate them.

After explicating the action/motion dyad, Crable moves to discuss the distinction Burke draws between rhetoric and dialectic. Rhetoric, Burke argues, is characterized by a reliance on a partial or misunderstood dialectic. Thus, speaking as though we can know motion from outside the symbolic falls within the realm of the rhetorical. According to Crable, Burke acknowledges that “such a truncation [of dialectic] is endemic to human symbol-systems” (130). The danger, however, emerges when we rely on terminological pairs that ignore their symbolicity (e.g. mind/body), resulting in a kind of unconscious rhetoric in which we are serving some kind of cause or system through the use of that terminology without recognizing it as such. If we allow symbolic action to cover over our characterization of nonsymbolic motion, we naturalize both social difference and our priveleged position within the economy of those differences.