In chapter 2 of Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness, Krista Ratcliffe complicates Kenneth Burke’s notion of identification in some really interesting ways. For this week’s weblog post, I will explore this chapter more and attempt to highlight some of the significance of what she refers to as “identification” and how she extends this idea to address inequities in power and cross-cultural communication for critical action in classroom pedagogy.

Near the opening of the chapter, Ratcliffe is quick to mention the importance of Burke’s theory of identification and consubstantiality in relation to rhetoric and composition scholarship. But just as quickly, she writes, “As a place for rhetorical listening, however, Burke’s concept of identification is limited” (47). Upon first reading, I was a little defensive and irked, wanting to question her critique of Burke.  But after diving into the chapter, I started to see that Ratcliff’s point here is less a critique of identification and more of an interesting expansion of the theory to provide ways of seeing the “coercive force of common ground” and “uneven power dynamics” (47).

In class, we were able to provide some illustrations as a way of grounding our understanding of Ratcliffe’s chapter. I found this particularly helpful, and I thought I would use my illustration to elaborate on Ratcliffe’s ideas.  In traditional Aristotelian rhetoric, persuasion is the goal.  This poses a very one-to-one dynamic, where the speaker persuades an audience.

In Burke’s re-evaluation of Aristotelian rhetoric, he presents a theory of identification that complicates this simple one-to-one dynamic, highlighting the symbolic and non-symbolic forms of communication based in identifications (which precedes persuasion).  In this way, the identification that exists between the speaker and the audience creates (in an idealized sense) a symbolic realm of shared space (aka “consubstantiality”):

In Ratcliffe’s attempt to extend Burke’s work here, she highlights how “identifications,” in this scheme of understanding communication, allows a person to spot, what she terms as “disidentifications” and “nonidentifications.” In this way, in conjunction with rhetorical listening, a person is able to discern “troubled identifications” (48) that instill, reinforce, and perpetuate power inequities.

I thought that this was an intriguing approach into studying issues of power, hegemony, marginalization, and gender inequality. Early in my Masters program, I attended a conference at the University of San Francisco for the National Association for Humanities Education. At this conference, the guest speaker was Robert Scholes, a modernist who teaches at Brown ( During his speech, he presented a technique for looking at old 1950s advertisements as a way of unearthing old values, beliefs, and assumptions.  I thought of this speech as I was reading back through this chapter and considering Ratcliffe’s extension of Burke’s theory of identification.  Looking at what is “identified” (disidentified or non-identified), whether today or the past, allows a person to critically evaluate the assumptions, bias, and beliefs present in context of the work.

By the end of the chapter, Ratcliff poses some interesting ethical questions about how to move forward with this theoretical perspective. She emphasizes both ethical possibilities and risks (77).  She goes on to write, “Given these possibilities and given these risks, perhaps the most ethical action is to acknowledge the risks and to act anyway, for as Rich claims, ‘[W]e can’t wait to [act] until we are perfectly clear and righteous’” (77).  I like this idea. It is the musical equivalent of Rage Against The Machine: “It has to start some place. / It has to start sometime. / What better place than here? / What better time than now.”