Karen Burke. Invention as a Social Act. Studies in Writing and
Rhetoric Ser. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987.
Invention as a Social Act is a landmark book on rhetorical invention.
Lefevre introduces "a more adequate terminology" for rhetorical invention,
complicating commonplace associations between the "generation of ideas" and the
Platonic view of invention as inside-out, wrought from a transcendent
interiority moving toward pure forms. Lefevre is clear about individualism
having a proper place, but she contends that it is "overdone" and that the
solitary, inspired inventor (rel. to Emersonian self-reliance; seed metaphor;
and invention as private episode) is inadequate for its neglect of environmental
factors constitutive of thought and language.
Lefevre sets up contrastive terms early on: narrow-broad, rhetorical-general,
and reflective-dynamic (5). Reflective invention relates to copy theory;
dynamic invention relates to inquiry and the creation of something new. She
explains why composition studies, in the 19th and 20th centuries, favored the
Platonic view: the influence of literary studies (15), Romantic figure of the
inspired writer (17); and capitalism and individualism (19). In an effort to
complicate the Platonic view, she proposes a continuum running across
four views on
invention (we might consider these as scalar): Platonic perspective, internal
dialogic perspective, collaborative perspective, and social collective
George Herbert Mead on invention as collaboration: gesture,
attribution or interpretation, and response or adjustive reaction (62).
Before the final chapter (implications), Lefevre works through an extended
consideration of the relation between thought and language.
Limitations of the Platonic view:
- "A Platonic view of invention leads us to favor individualistic approaches
to research and to neglect studies of writers in social contexts" (23).
- "A Platonic view depicts invention as a closed, one-way system" (24).
- "A Platonic view abstracts the writer from society" (25).
- "A Platonic view assumes and promotes the concept of the atomistic self as
- "A Platonic view fails to acknowledge that invention is collaborative"
Terms: Bateson on skin and boundedness (29), Tillie Olsen’s "leech-writers"
(30), dialectical process (35), deep temporal structures (41d), Aristotle and
social context (45), Moffett’s categories of discourse (reflection,
conversation, correspondence, publication) (48), systems of invention
(50)*, daimonion (56), idealogue v. dialogue (56), Sullivan’s "supervisory
patterns" (57), tagmemic invention (Young, Becker, Pike) (58), Elbow’s "safe
audience" (61), Lasswell’s resonance and vibration (65), copy theory (95),
Piaget’s "autistic thought" (102), Vygotsky on "knot" (118) and "cloud"
(119), Lasswell "ecology of innovation" (126), Gage on "stasis"
"This study argues that rhetorical invention is better understood as a
social act, in which an individual who is at the same time a social being
interacts in a distinctive way with society and culture to create
"Invention becomes explicitly social when writers involve other people as
collaborators, or as reviewers whose comments aid invention, or as ‘resonators’
who nourish the development of ideas" (2).
"More particularly, composition theory and pedagogy in nineteenth and
twentieth century America have been founded on a Platonic view of invention, one
which assumes that the individual possesses innate knowledge or mental
structures that are the chief source of invention" (11).
"To understand rhetorical invention, it is useful to restore this double
meaning of ‘action’ and think of the act of invention as having two parts: the
initiation of the inventive act and the reception or execution of it" (38).
"[Laswell’s] ‘clustering‘ of creative thinkers has led some to
conclude that creativity is not merely a chance manifestation of biological or
psychological factors, but is subject to environmental influence" (66).
"Applying this continuum to existing inventional theories allows us to see
that composition has favored Platonic and internal dialogic views of invention,
and that while the field has begun to acknowledge some collaborative aspects of
invention, it has neglected others and has virtually ignored a collective view"
- Related sources
- Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine, 1972.
- Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: U of
Chicago P, 1980.
- Lasswell, Harold D. "The Social Setting of Creativity." In Creativity
and Its Cultivation. Ed. Harold H. Anderson, 203-21. New York: Harper &