Burke’s Dramatic Pentad: Seeing New Ratios by Taking Responsibility

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In A Grammar of Motives, Burke introduces the pentad of motives using dramatism: Act, Scene, Agent, Agency and Purpose. Although I’ve been exposed to these terms before, I did not realize what the purpose behind “dividing” the characteristics of motives in this way. As Burke describes, the pentad allows for a starting place in analyzing the overwhelming amount of information involved in understanding motives. But it also allows for the inevitable complexity of motives. He describes how depending on how you look at it, one particular part of a motive can become nearly any one of the five fingers of the pentad; allowing for transformation.

This was a wake up call for me, because I reflected upon how I thought about how I attribute my motives in my life, and how I often attribute too much power to Scene, and not enough to myself as an Agent. For instance, I can think of an experience from high school where I was listening to music with my headphones, waiting for a ride after basketball practice. An older member of the junior varsity team asked me a question. I didn’t hear her, so she repeated the question louder in a slightly exasperated tone. Feeling embarrassed and angry in response to her tone, I snapped back to her in a rather violent way. She responded assertively to my reaction; saying something about how the way I was acting was inappropriate (and also something about “not having to be such a snot”).

GuiltFor about a week afterwards, I kept ruminating about what had happened. It felt uncomfortable to think that the way I had acted toward her was out of line, and to take responsibility for my actions and feelings. So instead I kept telling myself that my motives in acting violently toward her were justified because the basketball player (co-agent) was rude and would naturally evoke such a response, or because the situation (scene) caused me to startle and therefore react. Not until the end of that week, did I start to feel guilty. I felt guilty because I was not taking responsibility for my feelings or actions, and as a result was continuing to act violently (by not apologizing and by continuing to think violent thoughts about the basketball player). After I came to this realization, I apologized and felt better. But not before playing all kinds of mind games and diverting responsibility.



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Popular Clique with CaptionReflecting further on this experience, I thought about the idea of identification and division, and how this might have contributed to my actions. My general perception of the world was narrow. I saw myself as an outsider – the only girl on the team that was not part of a popular clique. I saw the girl from the junior varsity team as one from the clique, and therefore an enemy that was out to get me. There is no doubt in my mind that this division that I had created fueled my choice to evade responsibility. However, as Burke describes in A Rhetoric of Motives, the line between identification and division is as ambiguous, fluid and transformational as the pentad. Indeed, my choice to let go of my identification as an outsider (and my identification of her as a member of a hostile clique) allowed me to transgress either of these identifications. I instead identified the player and myself as members of a team (and as members of the human race) who could be respectful of one another’s feelings. The result was very transformational. After I apologized to her, she acted very kindly, again challenging my classification of her as a member of a hostile clique. This basically created a non-vicious cycle.

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Thinking about the pentad made me aware of how important it is, ethically, to engage in the ongoing process of questioning and analyzing our own motives. While my personal experience created a small amount of violence, which some might not even call “violence”, Burke demonstrates in A Rhetoric of Motives, the enormous consequences of avoiding this self-reflective process. He described the “division of labor” for scientists: a scientist attempts to fulfill his role as a scientist the best that he can, and fulfills his moral requirements separately, as a citizen. Yet, Burke states, “science takes on the moral qualities of the political and social movements with which it becomes identified” (1331). I believe this implies that scientists have a moral responsibility to not only acknowledge the sociocultural and political context that they are situated in, but become constantly critical of this context. They not only have the responsibility of being conscious of what their organization is doing (e.g. animal testing), but they have the responsibility of being self-aware and critical of their individual actions within that organization.

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So clearly, this is often not the case. In addition to the examples given in A Rhetoric of Motives, I thought of the studies that sought to prove that Africans were genetically less evolved than Whites. There were also the studies that sought to prove that Africans were genetically evolved to run faster; thus attributing their superior athletic performance to genetics (talk about not being aware of biased motives…and completely false science). I also thought of where humans tend to put the locus of control: how many Nazis thought that they were just doing their job, as evidenced by the Nuremburg trials? There was also the Milgram experiment that showed that many people would naturally tend to follow orders from superiors, even when it goes against their code of ethics. It made me wonder, what makes us abandon our own agency and put the locus of control outside of our hands?

A large contributing factor, I believe, is the power of emotion to warp our perceptions. When we are under stress or are experiencing large amounts of emotion, the brain naturally tends to look outside of itself. The most common example given to explain this phenomenon is the person being chased by a tiger. The brain has evolved to become very narrow focused and to only see what is external – because what the person needs to do is run and not get eaten! It is not a good time to be self-reflective and ponder, now what am I feeling, and is the tiger really out to get me? With emotions, too, it always seems easier to look externally rather than reflecting on our own emotions and actions. If we are looking externally, we don’t have to feel the suffering that comes from simply feeling our own emotions or guilt.