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The Power of NO

posted: 4.11.13 by Andrea Lunsford

On my recent visit to Beihang University in Beijing, I gave a series of lectures on rhetoric (even though I detest lecturing and am convinced that it is not pedagogically effective in terms of learning—but more about that some other time), and I introduced one of them by saying, “I’m looking forward to talking about one of my favorite rhetoricians ever, Kenneth Burke.”  As I imagined, the audience was not at all familiar with Burke and his work, and I had a great time introducing some of his key concepts, including identification and consubstantiality, terministic screens, and the constitutive power of language or symbol systems.

I have been deeply influenced by Burke’s argument that language is a form of action—symbolic action, he calls it.  In his view, words do things; they take action in the world.  Far from agreeing with the old rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” Burke shows exactly how words can hurt (and inspire and help) us.  So his is a very social theory of communication:  we are all “wordlings,” he says, who are absolutely built to do things with and to one another with words.  I think of Burke often when my students tell me they want to write so they can “make something happen in the world.”  That’s language as symbolic action at work.

I also loved sharing Burke’s whimsical definition of human beings.  We are, he says,

  • The symbol-using, symbol-misusing animal;
  • inventor of the negative;
  • separated from our natural condition by instruments of our own making;
  • goaded by a spirit of hierarchy;
  • and rotten with perfection.

I always find that students love teasing out the meaning and implications of Burke’s definition, and this was no exception.  The Chinese students gave examples of how they use symbols all the time, of how they are “separated from natural conditions” by all matter of technologies; of the way hierarchy seems to lurk behind almost everything we do.  They were stumped by “rotten with perfection,” however, until I glossed this most playful part of the definition as Burke’s sense that humans strive toward goals, of getting as “perfect” as we can.  But the clause that generated the most discussion, as it usually does in my experience, is “inventor of the negative.”  Burke argues that there are no negatives in nature; that it is uniquely human to conceive of negation.  During the discussion, I asked if there were any parents in the room.  There were—a number of them. And they immediately began talking about when their children had acquired the negative, when they began to have the power of “no.”  This power to negate is one that children cherish, and apparently in many languages and cultures, just as Burke said.  That sense of power is what helps us differentiate ourselves from one another, to know that I am I and not, say, you.  Thus it helps us establish boundaries that help shape who we are and who we will become.

The day after this lecture, one of the parents sought me out to show me a book her son, who just turned 6, had made.  It had a handsome cover with a self-portrait of the artist/writer, Xinghe.  And it was all about NO.



















When Xinghe’s mom first saw this “book,” it had only pictures in it. Intrigued, she asked him what the story was about—at which point he wrote in the words, in English (which he’s been studying assiduously, in addition to Chinese). Seeing the words with the pictures, his mom asked him to tell her more about when and where she says NO to him as well as when and where he wants to say NO. It sounded like they had had a long and quite interesting—and sophisticated—conversation about language and about power and about how to use it wisely and well. And of course I fell in love with Xinghe and his work.

Since then, I’ve been thinking seriously about how the power of NO and YES work in my teaching.  I’m not sure I have been using these powerful words to their best advantage in guiding my students and in inspiring them to reach beyond themselves to become stronger writers and readers.  I plan to ask about that soon.

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