The Pentad Is Not a Checklist

I’m doing a session at the ERWC conferences this year. The northern conference is in Sacramento on June 20, 2023. The southern conference is in Pomona on June 26. I’ll be at both of them. This is the 20th anniversary of ERWC. I haven’t been involved for about five years, so it will be exciting to see all the new developments.

My session will be on applying Kenneth Burke’s pentad—Act, Agent, Scene, Agency, Purpose—using the ratios that appear when the terms are combined. Too often, students trying to use the pentad simply label the elements of the rhetorical situation with the five terms. This is only a first step. Burke’s question, however, is “From whence does motivation flow?” What pentadic element motivates the act? When we use the pentad as a checklist we end up with a static picture and we miss the movement of motivation and the rhetorical possibilities.

The most common ratios are scene→act and agent→act. (Burke doesn’t use the arrows–he just uses a hyphen–but I am trying to emphasize the direction of the flow of motivation.)

Nature Versus Nurture

Let’s take the common argument in psychology about “nature” versus “nurture.” Which is the biggest factor in determining a person’s character? “Nature” is about the factors inherent in the inherited genetic makeup of the individual, or perhaps, from a theological perspective, the “soul.” If we believe that nature is the dominant factor, we are buying into an agent→act ratio. The agent acts according to their inherent nature.

On the other hand, the “nurture” perspective argues that the environment and upbringing have a greater impact. This is a scene→act ratio.

Of course, the reality is that both nature and nurture have effects on individual behavior. Both ratios are valid. This is where rhetoric comes in. We can choose which ratio to emphasize when we talk about specific individuals and specific acts. The ratio we choose to emphasize will have an effect on the persuasiveness of our arguments.

Political Narratives

We can find many examples in the ways that politicians present their life stories. A politician who grew up in poor circumstances, overcame many hardships, but had supportive and hardworking parents, may emphasize how this background built strong character and empathy with the poor. That narrative presents a scene-act or a scene→agent ratio.

On the other hand, a politician who grew up in wealth and privilege may want to de-emphasize that background and argue that their own intelligence, drive, and business acumen made them wealthy, creating an agent→act ratio.

The way to counter the first narrative is to do some research and discover whether the narrative of poverty and hardship is true. In the second case, we can argue that money begets money, and that someone who starts out with wealth and privilege doesn’t necessarily need to be a genius to become even richer.

The Presentation

In my presentation, I will discuss many other examples and ratios. There will also be some group discussion of speeches made in the Tennessee State House when the state legislature voted to expel two young Black members for organizing a protest inside the chamber instead of outside. This case has come to be called, “The Tennessee Three.” I hope to see you there!

Here is a link to the speeches on CSpan.

Here is a transcipt I made.

Here is my slide deck for the presentation in .pdf format.

Previous post on using the ratios.

One thought on “The Pentad Is Not a Checklist

  1. Pingback: The Pentad Is Not a Checklist – at the centers/ at the edges

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