Charles B. Snoad
Revised July 2013
John Locke Versus Bloggers: Kenneth Burke as “Association” Referee
Words assume or lose certain connotations over time and across cultures. Such is the case with the word “association” as it refers to John Locke’s Enlightenment concept of the association of ideas. While the term meant one thing to Locke’s audience, it carries a new connotation for contemporary audiences, especially those of us familiar with the current practice of blogging. Locke had a very negative view of the phrase “association” while bloggers tend to hold a very positive outlook on it. Using Kenneth Burke’s concept of identification, a middle ground between Locke’s stern pessimism and bloggers’ overinflated optimism regarding the word “association” can be reached.
Chapter thirty-three in the second book of Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is a cornerstone of Enlightenment philosophy. Entitled “Of the Association of Ideas,” the chapter outlines a specific mental process through which all rational minds progress on a daily basis. When a thinker is immersed in the association of ideas, he encounters a real thing in the world, which triggers thoughts that lead him to different ideas about other objects. These secondary ideas often bear a general relation to the prime thought, but such an association, as a train of thought, has significance for the thinker only. As ideas reach their third and fourth generations, however, where the thinker started (his original thought) is far from where he ends up (his associated thoughts).
Locke’s outlining of this abstract process demonstrates his strong interest in psychology, and it shows a philosopher who, like his Enlightenment counterparts, is desperate to access clear thinking. Perspicuity is a common goal during Locke’s time, and the association of ideas, according to Locke, often impedes one’s ability to get at “true knowledge.” It is like the mind has broken from its leash, leading its master on a harrowing chase throughout the mental neighborhood, where various dangerous ideas lurk around every corner. The philosopher describes it this way:
. . . ideas, that in themselves are not all of kin, come to be united in some men’s minds, that it is very hard to separate them; they always keep in company, and the one no sooner at any time comes into the understanding, but its associate appears with it; and if they are more than two, which are thus united, the whole gang, always inseparable, show themselves together. (Locke 420)
Here we see how, to someone so invested in empiricism and the logical analysis of external events, the association of ideas presents a great internal distraction. Thoughts that “are not all of kin” end up conversing with each other and work together to lead the mind astray. “Kin,” of course, may refer to one’s family or anything that relates to something else. Either way, the ideas that eventually “unite” begin as separate entities that Locke believes should stay this way. To make matters worse, the conscious mind often realizes that associations are being formed but has no control over the process. “Ideas in our minds, when they are there, will operate according to their natures and circumstances” (423).
The pejorative sense in which Locke frames the association of ideas is quite evident; a negative connotation permeates the entire chapter. David Simpson’s essay entitled “The Company We Keep: The Functions of Association in the Eighteenth Century” examines the use of the word “association” just before Locke employs it in his famous work. In reference to Locke’s description of how seemingly unrelated ideas reach the mind through various subversive means, Simpson writes, “It is as if the mind is being taken over by a set of ruffians. One ‘associate’ shows up, gets a foot in the door, and in come the rest” (138). Simpson’s analysis contains a mobster-like allusion; we are watching another episode of The Sopranos. Ideas are linked to “bad guys” who pry open the doors of the mind in order to get their “take.”
Indeed, Locke’s use of the word “association” carried a strong social rather than individual meaning during the Enlightenment. Locke was a political philosopher above all and he was highly aware of what, in his opinion, constituted a “good” as opposed to a “bad” political figure. As is often the case today, people who maintained poor associates in Locke’s time would not represent their fellow citizens in the best possible ways. Politics always has been about “whom you know,” and Locke hoped that his ideal politician would surround himself with good, honest people. So Locke, in a rather crafty way, took the external use of the word “association” and applied an equally negative internal connotation to it. The political became the personal. “Association, in other words, has a strongly pejorative political meaning when Locke shifts it over into the now-familiar psychological and philosophical register” (Simpson 138). An Enlightenment audience, Simpson argues, would have picked up on the double use of “association” quite easily. It was a short walk from the external to the internal reference.
Today, however, people have other uses for the word “association.” Of course, rational minds still engage in the association of ideas and politicians continue to have some questionable associates. While these definitions still exist, the Internet has afforded numerous computer-users vast opportunities to “associate” with people all across the globe. Unlike Locke’s analysis, contemporary literature on how and why people associate, both in their own minds and with other people, has maintained a positive and uplifting tone.
In recent years online diaries known as Weblogs, or blogs for short, have proliferated the Internet. People who feel that they “have something to say to the world” start blogs in the hopes of garnering an audience that will not only read their postings but also respond with their own ideas and impressions of the lead bloggers. A community of associated ideas often emerges whereby an original idea from one poster can lead other blog members to formulate their own concepts and assumptions. These ideas often seem unrelated at first but when taken as a whole can form a somewhat coherent conversation. This process mirrors Locke’s description of the association of ideas as it operates in a single mind. Computers facilitate the creation of a collective, hyperlinked mind.
Some blogs are operated by one person; these personal sites often include a digital record of the blogger’s life. Other sites, however, are more like online communities in which one person starts a “thread” (a single posting filled with various ideas on a particular topic related to the site as a whole) to which other members are free to respond. Many sports-related blogs follow this type of format. Fans of the Chicago Cubs, for example, can dissect the day’s game at numerous sites, where people can agree or disagree with a manger’s decisions or chastise an umpire for a questionable call.
Sites like these are very popular and the optimism surrounding blogging has reached some rather lofty proportions in the last few years. Most of this good cheer originates in the power that online diarists seem to feel about their postings. Rather than simply sharing opinions at local bars or among friends outside the stadium, people from the comfort of their own homes can now record every detailed thought online. In a country that values individual expression, blogs serve as an extension of the American ideal of freedom of speech. Instead of waiting for the mainstream media to give its account of the Cubs game, why not allow fans to provide their views as soon as they return from (or even during) the event, the thinking goes.
Biz Stone, author of Who Let the Blogs Out? A Hyperconnected Peek at the World of Weblogs, captures the positive outlook that blogging has generated. Stone is highly aware of the immediacy of blogging when he writes that: “Bloggers tend to give their readers a taste of what they are thinking right now” (40). This being-in-moment that Stone describes is what has fueled the Internet for many years now; people want news updates, the latest stock quotes, up-to-the-minute weather reports, real-time sports scores, and many other truly current events, and the Internet easily provides all of these “needs” for them. Blogs, however, enable the average citizen to make his or her own news and to do so as quickly as the blogger wishes. People who otherwise never would encounter each other can connect digitally and contribute to conversations taking place far beyond a simple face-to-face basis.
If writing blogs is relatively easy, then reading them is just as simple, according to Stone. “Blogs are readable by anyone and offer a loose, casual, network of ideas. The price of entry is low; the threshold is welcoming” (184). People are free to choose the sites to which they belong and many times are members or followers of multiple blogs. Freedom of choice is another vital American value that blogs afford their participants. Readers can come and go as they choose over a variety of sites, responding whenever they feel the need.
One can imagine how Locke would have reacted if blogs had existed during the Enlightenment. Locke was concerned about how the association of ideas hindered one’s abilities to understand external stimuli, and the recent addition of blogs to the cultural sphere certainly has affected how people communicate and comprehend the world. On one hand we see the negative tone that Locke gave to the word “association” while on the other we find the positive connotations surrounding the sharing of ideas on blogs. But which side is more in line with how things really are today: Locke’s pessimistic views or modern bloggers’ optimistic ideas about the association of ideas? This is where the twentieth-century philosopher Kenneth Burke can clear up some of the confusion.
Burke, an immensely abstract and imaginative thinker, believes that human interaction is of great importance. Our sense of self comes from our relationships with other selves, who also are engaging in a unique process of self-discovery. In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke discusses the process by which two or more speakers become, in his words, “consubstantial.” When a speaker addresses another person, he triggers certain responses from his listener, who, if the speech is effective, comes to identify with his associate. Burke outlines the exchange this way: “. . . in acting together, men have common sensations, concepts, images, ideas, attitudes that make them consubstantial” (21). According to Burke, a sense of camaraderie can be developed among two or more individuals as they converse. This feeling of attachment feeds back into each individual, informs one’s self-esteem, and cultivates a sense of belonging for each member.
Identification is a crucial component to Burke’s philosophy and he wants his readers to remain alert to the power that rhetoric possesses. To convey ideas effectively, speakers must remember that “You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his” (Burke 55). Communication, therefore, is not only a way of gathering information about external events but is also a means of relating to people in meaningful ways. We come to know ourselves, Burke argues, only when we are among others and interacting with them.
Where Locke is leery of people forming “bad” associations, both in their minds and in groups of people, Burke takes a more optimistic approach and encourages his readers to find themselves through their interactions with others. Locke is much more of an individualist; we sense that he identifies with the image of a lone scientist engaging in the direct investigation of his environment. Burke clearly falls in line with more contemporary social constructivist theories, which hold that man is formed by society and defines himself in relation to those around him. The association of ideas, therefore, presents less of a problem for Burke. In many ways, Burke might encourage people to embrace their mental associations because they lead people into feelings of identification; if one thinker must contend with wild trains of thought, then other people must have to deal with it, too.
Another positive aspect of this phenomenon exists. Although not always under one’s conscious control, the association of ideas tells a narrative of the mind, connecting the past to the present. In a brief snippet of time, we are reunited with various memories and general impressions of who we used to be, and these ideas can help us learn about where we currently reside. Locke tends to see the negative, illogical side of the association of ideas, but it really is not such a bad mechanism when one considers the often random nature of life. As a means of staying grounded, we all tell ourselves stories about our lives and our places in the world; the association of ideas often facilitates such tales.
The Internet is a very inviting forum for expressing the stories of our lives, but the mechanisms behind online diaries are far from transparent. As has been the case with the Internet since its inception, blogs are not always what they appear to be. In order to participate in the community, moderators often require bloggers to create interesting screen names that in some instances exaggerate and at other times conceal their true identities. The self, when online, is thus splintered, as Madeleine Sorapure describes in “Screening Moments, Scrolling Lives: Diary Writing on the Web.” According to Sorapure, “Representing the self in a database form–creating and coding information about oneself, populating a database that readers subsequently query–develops and reflects a sense of identity as constituted by fragments and segments, each of which is separately meaningful and equally significant” (7-8).
Here Sorapure gets at the heart of the matter as it relates to the fragmentation of the self on the Internet. It is not the self that counts but how one goes about “representing the self in a database form” that matters. There is something about the act of diary-writing and diary-reading on the Web; if people wear various social masks as they conduct their daily lives, then which parts of their “selves” do they decide to display or hide online, and are such decisions always conscious ones? As empowering as blogs may be for certain individuals, questions regarding the current state of self-identity as a technology-transformed subject must continue to be addressed.
In addition to confusing matters related to the self, another troubling aspect of blogging has emerged. People are communicating online, but the question remains: are bloggers really relating? According to Burke’s theory of the consubstantial, blogging does not qualify as true identification. Burke outlines face-to-face communication where social masks are on but people feel free to expose certain parts of their real selves. Blogging involves deceptions and omissions that people who are conversing in the same room cannot help but notice. Much gets “lost in translation,” therefore, on any Web-based communication.
Alan Kirby, in Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure Our Culture, takes things one step further. Kirby argues that because blogs are constantly updated it’s unclear when a “conversation” officially ends. “The blog is in thrall to its current revision and self-renewal; it is the hostage of its capacity to become ever longer, to spread, to add to itself” (112). Having no definite final remark or endpoint makes for a difficult takeaway effect. A discussion considered complete today might resume tomorrow with other bloggers triggering new threads that lead to newer threads.
Identification on blogs, then, is a tricky proposition. Add the issues of “frequent pseudonymity and multiplicity of authorship” (112) and the possibility for meaningful association on the Web becomes even more problematic. Locke would argue that bloggers and blog followers simply create bad associations, linking rubbish to rubbish in a digital format. Burke would laud the attempt at identification while continuing to promote the value of face-to-face communication. Both would be astonished at the sheer number of blogs starting up right now across the globe.
After examining both John Locke’s and bloggers’ use of the word “association,” we can see that both connotations need a dose of Kenneth Burke’s theory of identification. Locke employs the phrase in a highly pejorative sense, both as it relates to internal and external processes. Bloggers use the word positively but often without regard for the many pitfalls of communicating online. Kenneth’s Burke’s theory of identification tempers both sides of the aisle by highlighting the flaws and limitations of each approach. Words do change over time, but the people who use them are not always aware of the flexible nature of meaning. Various contextual forces, of course, play upon such changes. Yet, in many ways, the focus here has stayed the same. How Locke perceived the word “association” changed the ways in which we view the psychology of the mind; how bloggers see the term has changed the ways in which we view the psychology of the self.
Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.
Kirby, Alan. Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure Our Culture. New York: Continuum, 2009. Print.
Locke, John. The Works of John Locke in Nine Volumes. 12th ed. Vol. 1. London, 1824. The Online Library of Liberty. Web. 1 Mar. 2007.
Simpson, David. “The Company We Keep: The Functions of Association in the Eighteenth Century.” Pretexts 8.2 (1999): 137-46. Web. 1 Mar. 2007.
Sorapure, Madeleine. “Screening Moments, Scrolling Lives: Diary Writing on the Web.” Biography 26.1 (2003): 1-23. Web. 1 Mar. 2007.
Stone, Biz. Who Let the Blogs Out? A Hyperconnected Peek at the World of Weblogs. New York: St. Martin’s, 2004. Print.