Saturday, 26 November 2011

The Daily and the Divine

In a world with a highly individualistic population a leader has to be able to lead by attracting a crowd and forming a community with common goals. The world of modern communication technology brings people together in organic network structures, but that does not automatically create a community.

In “Search for the Great Community” John Dewey notes that “associated or joint activity is a condition of the creation of a community” (151), but though association may be physical and organic, “communal life is moral, that is emotionally, intellectually, consciously sustained” (151). In other words, though human networks may form spontaneously, a community can only be created and sustained through conscious effort. As he goes on to say, “’we’ and ‘our’ exist only when the consequences of combined action are perceived and become an object of desire and effort” (151). The individual must be able to envision positive consequences from a community which he cannot achieve as an individual, and then work consistently towards those consequences. A leader must therefore be able to develop a vision, or help articulate consequences which many individuals would see as desirable, and then identify the processes and values which will lead to those consequences.

In order for these ‘consequences of combined action’ to be a vivid and sustainable motivation for all involved, it must have a quality which transcends the differences of individual experience. They must be able to see the menial chores involved in any endeavour as more than useless labour. This can be done through what Kenneth Burke refers to as ‘dialectical transcendence’. As Burke writes in “I, Eye, Ay: Emerson’s Early Essay on ‘Nature’: Thoughts on the Machinery of Transcendence,” transcending is “the building of a terministic bridge whereby one realm is transcended by being viewed in terms of a realm ‘beyond’ it” (877), and “insofar as things here and now are treated in terms of a ‘beyond’, they thereby become infused or inspirited by the addition of a new or further dimension” (880). This can be done by ascending from “particular to general” (881). For example, ‘sweeping the floor’ can be generalized to ‘menial chores’ which again (depending on the context) can be generalized to ‘blood, sweat, and tears’ which are particular manifestations of ‘diligence’, ‘unfailing dedication to the cause’, or ‘service to God’. Burke claims, “When we arrive at this stage, the over-all term-of-terms or title-of-titles is so comprehensive it is simultaneously nowhere and everywhere” (881). If we see ‘service to God’ as this term-of-terms, all the lower levels of ‘blood, sweat, and tears’, ‘menial chores’, and ‘sweeping the floor’ are suddenly inspirited with the a divine touch. This may not change the nature of the physical act itself, but it changes the meaning of the act. This Upward and Downward way form what Kenneth Burke called “dialectical pyramids” (“Rhetoric – Old and New” 204). Such transcendence can serve as a powerful centripetal force for the community to keep the ambitions, desires, and efforts of the individuals centred in a common purpose.
Observe for example how Gandalf helps Pippin transcend the fear of death by seeing it in terms of the White Shores of Valinor beyond.

Journeys of dialectical transcendence can be found almost anywhere in human communication. In “Rhetoric – Old and New” Kenneth Burke claims that “we are continually encountering fragmentary variants of them” (204). This is because “the machinery of language is so made that things are necessarily placed in terms of a range broader than the terms for those things themselves. And thereby, even in the toughest or tiniest of terminologies . . . we consider things in terms of a broader scope than the terms for those particular things themselves” (“Transcendence” 895). Either the human mind or the instruments for communication are so constructed that they seek for meaning beyond the simple term. It is Burke’s claim that “wherever there are traces of that process, there are the makings of Transcendence” (“Transcendence” 895). This means that even if the leader does not help the group develop the desired vision whereby individual actions are endowed with communal meaning, some form of dialectical transcendence will develop. However, the individualistic inclinations in the group may construct a ‘dialectical pyramid’ which is subversive to the unity of the group and works as a centrifugal force driving people away from the centre. Instead of ‘service of God’ the tasks may be seen in the light of ‘capitalist exploitation’ or ‘slavery’. A chronically depressed person may see every aspect of her life as evidence that ‘God hates me’. These different perspectives will not only affect the communal meaning of individual efforts. Eventually it will affect performance, and may threaten the very existence of a group. Without a strong transcendent vision the centrifugal forces of individualism may very easily tear the community apart.

For the leader then, it is essential to 1) be aware of the mechanisms of dialectical transcendence, and 2) lead by establishing a powerful vision or narrative which unites individual efforts in a common purpose towards a desired outcome. In A Rhetoric of Motives Kenneth Burke describes rhetoric as “the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (43). Dialectical transcendence is a way to use language to induce cooperation. A study of rhetoric leads a student through theories regarding human motivation and how language can be used to motivate humans to act in a certain way. It also provides students with opportunities to practice using diverse mechanisms of language to induce cooperation on a practical level. As such the study of rhetoric can help prepare a student to become a leader in a modern interconnected world. Although ‘fragments’ of dialectical pyramids can be found in all language usage it can be honed and perfected by practice, and that makes a difference. As Burke writes in “Rhetoric – Old and New”, “a rhetorical structure is most persuasive when it possesses full dialectical symmetry – or, otherwise put, dialectical symmetry is at once the perfecting and transcending of rhetoric” (204).