The representative anecdote and heuristics

Ross Winterowd’s “Dramatism in Themes and Poems” provided an “aha” moment for me about why dramatism is so named—it’s about actors (agents), scenes, acts, purposes, agency: basically, all the elements of great drama (and any story) apply to rhetoric as well. It is this perspective of rhetoric as drama that provides what I think is a promising approach to infusing composition with life.

Winterowd points out that Burke’s technical definition of drama is “representative anecdote,” which can be defined in two ways, either “appropriate examples/support” or “conceptual pivot” (enthymeme, thesis, topic sentence, theme). And it is following from this point, Winterowd asserts, that Burke started a “revolution” (582), although be it one that has gone largely unnoticed (584).  Aristotle, of course, elevated the enthymeme as the “most effective among various forms of persuasion” (584), and it has reigned as the quintessence of logic throughout Western history. Burke, on the other hand, took the other course, developing the dramatistic conception of synecdoche (representative anecdote) as conceptual pivot (583).

This development—argument through synecdoche—is not an either/or proposition: “Burke is telling us that we progress not only via enthymemes (logical proposition), but also, importantly, via synecdoches (representative anecdotes)….Humans live not by enthymemes (theses, topic sentences) alone” (582, emphasis mine). Aristotle is not negated, merely supplemented.

Aristotle did address both the deductive argument (based on the enthymeme) and the inductive argument (based on the example), Winterowd reminds us, but Burke’s conception of argument by example differs significantly from Aristotle’s. An example in Aristotle’s paradigm is one of two samples that are classified under a particular genus. For Burke, dramatism as representative anecdote involves synecdoches, i.e., reasoning from part to whole, which Aristotle specifically rejected (587).

Both Aristotelian and Burkean arguments point to an overarching idea or point—the deductive to the enthymeme and the representative anecdote to “the terminological structure that is evolved in conformity with it.” Thankfully Winterowd provides his reader with a translation: this can also be called the “paradigm” or “prototype” (587). Winterowd provides research that demonstrates that readers seek enthymematic generalities (Kintsch and van Dijk, 584), which would seem to disadvantage Burke’s dramatism, but as Winterowd quips, “The great disadvantage of the representative anecdote is that it does not lead readily to the closure of an enthymeme. Its great advantage is that is does not force such closure” (588).

Winterowd suggests four implications for this understanding of appositional style, a term borrowed from hemispheric specialization research by Joseph Bogen (586). I’ll briefly discuss two. He suggests that high school and college writing teachers should respect the appositional styles of the students who prefer this means of expression, which, while a laudatory pedagogical goal, as Ron pointed out, may be more practical in the humanities than in technical disciplines. His second implication, though, I felt was of use to students in many disciplines—Winterowd says that the representative anecdote “is marvelously heuristic,” a way to “build an understanding of the world.” Whether the final product is presented in an enthematic or dramatistic manner, using the representative anecdote could provide students with an effective means of generating content, and one that uses a way of thinking that some students may find more natural.