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William Nowling

COM7250 / Jakes
Essay 4
December 3, 2015

Yesterday I received in the mail an identification card from AARP, which was formerly
called the American Association of Retired Persons. My name was printed on the card along
with a note asking me to activate my membership. AARPs website states the group is a
nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that helps people 50 and older improve the quality of their
lives.1 Colloquially, it is commonly accepted that the card signifies a person has reached a
certain age in their life to be considered old. Turning fifty in a few weeks, as I will, I am
keenly aware what the card signifies to me, and how it defines me to others: the ribbing has
already begun. As I held the card in my hand, I did not feel older or look different, or display
any mannerism the differentiated me from the person I was before I opened the envelope that
contained it. Clearly, it is a discursive text of some sort; it holds too much commonly accepted
meaning to be otherwise. But does it impart identity? Does it say something about me now that
did exist, lets say, yesterday? And, if it does, how is such an identity created? Does the AARP
card draw me in to something that already exists or is a thing new to me constituted by my
acceptance and use of it? With a half century of experience and learning, such questions should
occupy the thoughts of every rhetorician similarly situated. They are the questions of this essay.
In this essay I examine whether constitutive rhetorical discourses, as identified by Kelly
Jakes and Maurice Charland, impart identity without derivation. I contend that such discourses
imply intent of the one employing them. I also raise the question whether, since intentionality is

Frequently Asked Questions, AARP, accessed on December 3, 2015.


http://www.aarp.org/help/?_ga=1.6356210.1113338725.1449154735
1

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at work, such identity exists permanently or ends when the action of the intent has stopped. I
believe it to be transitory, consistent with the action that created it but in need of another identity
that is less ephemeral. I dont abandon the efficacy of constitutive rhetoric but see it an example
of how the intent of the rhetor still holds a place in our field of criticism.
In writing about the French resistance fighters and the songs they sung to vilify the
Vichys rapprochement government with the Third Reich, Jakes sees an identifying principle at
work in their music and popular tunes.2 She argues that these songs created a legitimizing
discourse that allowed them to imagine themselves and to be imagined by their fellow citizens as
the true arbiters of French culture and values.3 The composing and singing of these songs are a
constitutive mode of action.4 If this identity is contingent upon action of the individual, it
would seem to imply that such action is intentional on that individuals part. One does not
happen on a song parodying Marchal Ptain, for example; there is a certain volition involved.
Such a person would, presumably, write or sing a song that forwards her cause, emboldens her
comrades, or provides a voice to protest under suppression. The intent of the action also seems
to require, or at least seeks, a specific effect: to differentiate the resistance as inheritors of
authentic French identity.
It is by choosing to place oneself in a particular moment or event that drives the type of
constitutive identity of which Jakes writes. In this sense, one chooses to be in this discourse and
also chooses the object or audience of that discourse, in this case the Vichy government. There
can be no question that an identity exists, and I do not do so here. I think, however, there a

Kelly Jakes, La France en Chantant: The Rhetorical Construction of French Identity in Songs
of the resistance Movement, Quarterly Journal of Speech 99, no. 3 (2013): 317-340.
3
Jakes, La France, 322.
4
Ibid.
2

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transitory quality to this identity. Rather than coming into being and existing once the
constitutive action ends, this identity becomes attributive of something else exiting before it. For
the members of the resistance, the essence of a transhistorical community of French heroes5 is
something existing before they hum a single bar. Their songs and singing are but avenues into
this identity existing in a particular moment. The identity that flows from the resistance singers
is more derivative of a different kind of identity that preexists their particular action. They
intend to join the litany of true French patriots through their discourse and they exert control over
their identity as such.
Charland pushes his idea of constitutive rhetoric to the extreme, farther than Jakes, to
make the discourse more than just power, or action. For Charland, ideology is material,
existing not in the realm of ideas, but in that of material practices.6 Here, he seeks an ideology
that is passive, something part of the discursive background of social life.7 A thing that which
is always present. With the publishing of The White Paper calling for the establishment of a
sovereign Qubec Charland sees an identity that is preexisting. There is no intent involved.
Being Qubcois is no more dependent on a French Canadians volition than is the rising of the
sun. Yet I read Charlands constitutive rhetoric as conflating immutable identity with that
brought on by action. I require no action to be a human being; I am simply one. However, I can
chose to be a French-man, or a musician, or even a rhetorician. All of those identities are
predicated on something else that is passive and always existing. Constitutive discourse, it
would seem, can go only as far as action and intent will take it.

Jakes, La France 318.


Maurice Charland, Constitutive Rhetoric: The Case of the Peuple Qubcois, Quarterly
Journal of Speech 73, no. 2 (1987): 143.
7
Ibid.
6

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All of this, of course, brings us back around to my original question about whether my
new AARP card confers identity. There is an identity of being old attached to it but is not the
constitutive identity of Charland; there was a time when I was not old and will be a time when I
cease being old, or anything at all. This identity follows a similar path as do Jakes resistance
singers. Like them, my attibutative identity requires action on my part to, as the card states,
activate it. I step into the rhetorical situation of being old: I am now identified as an AARP
person and take on the all the discursive meaning the card implies. My identity is that of an old
person, not because the AARP card arrived in yesterdays mail, but because I choose to embrace
the meaning of identity that card carries.
Both Jakes and Charland both plough fresh soil in their exploration of constitutive
rhetoric, offering a view and understanding of new identities and personas. And both see
identity flowing from discursive action. Charlands furrows cut too deeply, I think, removing or
limiting personal agency and thereby also eliminating intent. The resistance singers, as Jakes
research points out, retain control and self-determination. They intend for their songs to have a
particular meaning and uncover a specific identity. For rhetoriciansold or notthe lesson here
is that intentionality of the rhetor and object of her discourse sill matter. Instead of the
universalities that Charland seeks, Jakes constitutive rhetoric shows restraint by preserving the
rhetor and audiences while allowing for new and additional identities to follow.