Pluto's discovery, renaming, and flyby is a story of excitement and imagination, human ingenuity, inspiration, wonder, dismay, sadness, betrayal, victimization, and vindictiveness. There's a "wrangle in the marketplace," a "war of words," a scramble—all the ingredients of the rhetorical situation in "the state of Babel after the Fall" (Burke, A RHETORIC OF MOTIVES, 23).
This story of Pluto’s rise and fall and rise again is what Burke calls a “representative anecdote.” A representative anecdote is a story, definition, or analogy that functions as a form from which one can generate a vocabulary or terministic screen that adequately conveys the complexity of the subject. Burke views drama, for instance, as a representative anecdote for the study of human relations because it can account for the nature of the word as an act. The Pluto story helps us elaborate a terministic screen for conveying the complexity of rhetoric, and it’s in that direction that I want to move.
In my working title for this presentation, "Identifying (Killing) Pluto," I meant to capture the feeling that somehow Pluto had been murdered, that renaming and transforming it was an act of symbolic violence. (How dare they! Those astronomers are MEEEAN!) But then I had second thoughts, thinking that might be too harsh a motive to attribute to the International Astronomical Union. But then I remembered this book, written by the astronomer who discovered another Kuiper Belt Object larger and further away from Pluto subsequently. The discovery of Eris, and the likelihood that there could be many more like it, meant that Pluto's planetary status had become ambiguous. How far could we stretch the meaning of PLANET?
Mike Brown's discovery of ERIS, a Kuiper Belt Object possibly larger and further away than Pluto, forced the transformation of Pluto from "Planet" to "Dwarf Planet"
The debates about Pluto’s planetary entitlement reveal more than simply disagreements about what a “planet” is or should be. In identifying Pluto, we confront not only the problems of definition and the wrangling they create but also a central function of rhetoric as identification or division. As the central (but not necessary or essential) ideal of rhetoric, identification also suggests transformation, the changing of something, with identification being necessary before and after. Rhetoric is an act of transformation, a transitional moment between the known and the unknown, the self and the Other, identification and division, Pluto and non-Pluto. The movement across this divide, transformation, is an act of symbolic violence. But it's also a familiar function of rhetoric.
The imagery of slaying is a special case of transformation, and transformation involves the ideas and imagery of identification. That is: the killing of something is the changing of it, and the statement of the thing's nature before and after the change is an identifying of it" (Burke, RM, 20).
Burke extends the principle even further, arguing that "the so-called 'desire to kill' something, such as a person (or a planet), is much more properly analyzable as a desire to transform the principle which that person represents (RM 13).