IDENTIFYING PLUTO A Representative Anecdote for Rhetoric by David Blakesley

The Discovery of Pluto

Interestingly, Clyde Tombaugh didn't discover Pluto in 1930 by looking through a telescope, as shown here. Instead, he took photographs of a region of space over several nights, then used a "blink comparator" to see if he could spot any changes in successive photographs. He could, and thus Planet X was discovered and subsequently named Pluto, after the Roman god of the underworld.
In 1930, Clyde Tombaugh was credited with the discovery of Pluto, which he found as a faint object in motion on two photographic plates.

Pluto’s discovery by Tombaugh in 1930 captured the public's imagination and was memorialized later in the classic Scholastic book, THE SEARCH FOR PLANET X by Tony Simon.

Pluto’s discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 captured the public's imagination and was memorialized later in the classic Scholastic book, THE SEARCH FOR PLANET X by Tony Simon.

Eighty-six years after the discovery of Pluto, NASA launched the New Horizons spacecraft on January 19, 2006. It would not encounter Pluto until July, 2015.

Artist's rendering of the New Horizons Spacecraft (NASA).
The Solar System in 2005 include nine planets.

Pluto’s Transformation (Demotion)

In August, 2006, just eight months after New Horizons took off for Pluto, the International Astronomical Union reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet. Alan Stern, the New Horizons Project Director, was not pleased.

Among the wider public, the general consensus was that Pluto got a raw deal. The public outcry was loud and clear. How dare anyone strip such a title from this heavenly body! What better example of exorcism by misnomer could there be (cf. Burke, PERMANENCE AND CHANGE)?

The IAU says a planet is a celestial body (PDF) that: 1. Orbits the sun; 2. Is round or nearly round; 3. Has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit. Pluto orbits the sun, and it's round. It got kicked out as a planet because of rule No. 3: The astronomical union said Pluto was too small to knock other space rocks out of its path as it orbits the sun. (Barnett, Amanda. "Is demoted planet Pluto making a comeback?” CNN. January 2, 2015)

IAU’s Resolution: Pluto is a "dwarf planet" by the IAU'S definition and is recognized as the prototype of a new category of Trans-Neptunian or Kuiper Belt Objects.

Pluto disappears from representations of the solar system.

THE ONION seized on this story later that year.

Of course, the public didn’t respond enthusiastically to the IAU’s demotion of Pluto.

Protests spanned the globe and were especially poignant in elementary schools.

Children didn't mince words.

New Horizons arrived at Pluto in July, 2015.

And began to send back stunning images.

Pluto's Horizon

And then came this full-color rendering . . .

One of the first high-resolution images of Pluto revealed Pluto’s heart, much to the chagrin of the IAU!

Naturally, this image prompted a new round of complaints. The outcry grew louder still, fueled by the Pluto flyby of the New Horizons spacecraft and stoked by social media. William Shatner used the occasion to plead on Twitter, “@NASA How about we call Pluto a planet again, thumbing our noses to the IAU, and really put a bang into this day?” Even those who once might have supported Pluto’s reclassification have had a change of heart, planetary scientists like Alan Stern (principal investigator on the New Horizons project), who notes ironically that if it were in Pluto’s vicinity, not even Earth would qualify as a planet. also got in on the act.

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).

Representative Anecdotes

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).

The story of Pluto’s transformation is an act of re-identification that exposes the rift between the ideals of science and cultural practice, as well as the hypocrisy of claims that definitions themselves can erase ambiguity.

So, why kill Pluto?

Mickey Mouse accidentally kills Pluto in "The Moose Hunt" (1931; Walt Disney).

In the introduction to A GRAMMAR OF MOTIVES, Burke writes:

Occasionally, you will encounter a writer who seems to get great exaltation out of proving, with an air of much relentlessness, that some philosophic term or other has been used to cover a variety of meanings, and who would smash and abolish this idol. As a general rule, when a term is singled out for such harsh treatment, if you look closer you will find that it happens to be associated with some cultural or political trend from which the writer would dissociate himself; hence there is a certain notable ambiguity in this very charge of ambiguity, since he presumably feels purged and strengthened by bringing to bear upon this particular term a kind of attack that could, with as much justice, be brought to bear upon any other term (or "title") in philosophy, including of course the alternative term, or "title," that the writer would swear by. (xviii-xix)
“News Item: Pluto is declared to be a Dwarf Planet” © 2006 by Mark Stivers.

For Burke, the problem of naming, of identification, raises open-ended questions regarding motives, with identification implicitly entailing division or difference because the act represents a change from one thing to another, introducing ambiguity, which is the characteristic invitation to rhetoric. Where there is absolute identification (consubstantiality), there is no need for rhetoric, a principle dating back at least to Aristotle. But where there is ambiguity, as we find in situations where terms are contested, things or people named and renamed, we see rhetoric. We see the possibilities of rhetoric as inquiry or as the elaboration of ambiguity. For Burke, that entelechial process is also the basis of dramatism as method for answering the question, "What is involved, when we SAY what people are doing and why they are doing it?" (GM, xv; my emphasis)

Since no two things or acts or situations are exactly alike, you cannot apply the same term to both of them without thereby introducing a certain margin of ambiguity, an ambiguity as great as the difference between the two subjects that are given the identical title. (Burke, GM, xix

Burke makes ambiguity, and the act of identifying and elaborating it, the heart of dramatism.

[I]nstead of considering it our task to "dispose of" any ambiguity by merely disclosing the fact that it is an ambiguity, we rather consider it our task to study and clarify the resources of ambiguity. For in the course of this work, we shall deal with many kinds of transformation‑-and it is in the areas of ambiguity that transformations take place; in fact, without such areas, transformation would be impossible. Distinctions, we might say, arise out of a great central moltenness, where all is merged. They have been thrown from a liquid center to the surface, where they have congealed. Let one of these crusted distinctions return to its source, and in this alchemic center it may be remade, again becoming molten liquid, and may enter into new combinations, whereat it may be again thrown forth as a new crust, a different distinction. So that A may become non‑A. But not merely by a leap from one state to the other. Rather, we must take A back into the ground of its existence, the logical substance that is its causal ancestor, and on to a point where it is consubstantial with non‑A; then we may return, this time emerging with non‑A instead. (GM xix)

And so, we come full circle. The reclassification of Pluto as a "dwarf planet" or "trans-Neptunian object" requires an act of transformation and invokes the imagery of slaying in identifying and re-identifying it. We heard Mike Brown explain "How I Killed Pluto." We saw the response of the wider public who sought to save it. And finally we witnessed Pluto's response when it was encountered by New Horizons. Although exceptional in many regards because of Pluto's popular history, these acts of identification and division are ubiquitous, just as present in everyday speech as more formal and ceremonial declarations. For Burke, it's rhetoric all the way down, identification is not an ideal but a contest in the ambiguous region between identification and division.

Created By
David Blakesley


"Clyde W. Tombaugh at the door of the Pluto discovery telescope, Lowell Observatory, Ariz.” Lowell Observatory Archives. | “Free Hugs.” Fuchskind. @Fuchskind | Pluto Images by New Horizons: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

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