Moodle Post on David Blakesly's The Elements of Dramatism

The following is a recap of a class discussion for David Stacey's English 612 class at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. This originally appeared on the "Moodle" site for English 612


Our group discussed pp. 7-14 of Blakesley’s The Elements of Dramatism. This section dealt with a brief overview of dramatism, rhetoric, and the pentad as they pertain to Burkean theory. In this section Blakesley discusses the value of dramatism as a means of interpreting one’s interpretations, as he puts it, “As the Study of language’s role in shaping and determining motives, dramatism encourages us to revise our interpretations, to find new orientations, when there are signs that previous ones no longer work or cause more problems than they alleviate.” The last clause of this above sentence leads into the discussion questions our group used to focus our discussion of this section—“when there are signs that previous ones (interpretations) no longer work or cause more problems than they alleviate,” that is imperative to understanding the need for critical thinking, that is, for interpreting our interpretations.

 The following responses come from the group discussion, guided by prompts on pp. 13-14 of David Blakesley’s The Elements of Dramatism.

1) Describe one historical event when you think people fought over “abstractions” that were mistaken for realities.

Stephanie brought up the example of the “War on Terror” so I will leave that for her to summarize here. (Un)fortunately, history offers us no shortage of examples of people mistaking abstractions (interpretations) for realities. Instances that came to mind include the current undeclared “War on Immigration”, as well as the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII and the Holocaust. The blind hatred and human ugliness in all of these instances segues naturally into the next question.

2) Why does Burke think it is so important for us to interpret our interpretations? What can happen when we don’t? 

Just as the trout that learns to distinguish between food and bait, or the chicken that comes to meals at the ring of a bell, knee jerk, conditioned reactions to stimuli (another way of saying “our un-interpreted interpretations) can lead us to react to things based on prior experience that does not take into account the dynamic nature reality nor the contingency of signs on context. In other words, just as the chicken that once received a meal when it came to the sound of a bell suddenly receives death instead, if we fail to think critically--to intentionally perform meta-interpretive acts--then we are likely to respond to symbolic abstractions of reality in precisely the way that those with skill and resources to manipulate those symbols (e.g. Fox News) want us to.

3) Describe what happened the last time you experienced a surprise, something genuinely unexpected but that in hindsight, you should have expected. What happened? How did it happen?

I’m leaving this one alone for now (since we didn’t get too in depth on this question in our classs discussion), except to briefly discuss the relevance of this question to the subject matter. I think what Blakesley is getting at here is that when we come to expect things to go a certain way we tend to stop interpreting our interpretations. We get lazy and we assume that our prior interpretations of a situation, symbol, what have you will hold true because it has done so historically in our experience. When our expectations are upset, the value of critical thinking, of interpreting our interpretations is made clear. Perhaps Stephanie or Erin would like to chime in on this with a concrete example.

4) Being conscious of our blindness may be easier said than done. What attitudes seem to be necessary? If you have a strong suspicion that things may be other than they appear, what do you do?

I take this question as another call for the importance of critical thinking. It is all too easy to accept things as they seem, to give in to complacency and relative comfort, especially for those of us in the middle or upper-middle class of a developed country. The necessary attitude to combat this complacency is one of unwavering intent to understand the world from as many perspectives as possible, to remember that things are seldom as they seem, and to free ourselves as best we can from culturally conditioned racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, and anthropocentrism.