Burke, Identification, and Sherlock

I was recently looking at this presentation from a few years ago by my friend and colleague Siobhan O’Flynn on the transmedia aspects of the BBC’s Sherlock, and naturally it made me start thinking about rhetoric. The following are a few fragmented thoughts on the topic.

I’m a fan of the show (or was, at least in its early seasons) and have been a frequenter of some of the web sites that Dr O’Flynn notes, especially Sherlockology, the show’s outstanding fan site. On that site, among other things, one can see detailed descriptions of the various items that the characters carry and wear, along with information (where available) on how to acquire them for oneself. So, if you’d like to own, say, Sherlock’s magnifier or John’s shoes, the site lets you know where you can find them. It’s geared primarily to a UK audience, but some of the information at least would be usable from anywhere.

Out of curiosity, I checked the Amazon.com listing for the magnifier; sure enough, there it was, and beneath it was Amazon’s usual list, “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought.” Not all but several items on the list (when I checked, anyhow) had something to do with the show: DVD/Blu-Ray sets, Sherlock’s multitool, the Union Jack cushion seen in Sherlock and John’s flat, Sherlock’s flashlight, Sherlock’s pen and notebook. It’s not just small-ticket items, either: Sherlock’s coat, which retails at £1350 (that’s over $2000, US and Canadian), came into demand following the show’s initial broadcast, even though the manufacturer had recently taken it out of production. Clearly, people are willing to spend money, sometimes quite a bit of it, to acquire items like those in the show.

Now, Dr O’Flynn’s presentation focuses on the television and internet, i.e. the non-physical transmedia aspects of the show, and does so superbly. Nevertheless, I think (as a raw novice in transmedia thinking) it is interesting to note these material objects, which, in Henry Jenkins’s terms, surely add to that “performative dimension” which “provides a set of roles and goals which readers can assume as they enact aspects of the story through their everyday life.” Unlike, say, action figures based on superheroes, however, and other items created specifically for these performative reasons, the items in question here were pre-existing. Moleskine notebooks, for example, or Leatherman multitools, or Lamy pens, were all popular high-quality utilitarian items before they became Sherlocked. Insofar as they have become part of a transmedia experience, it seems to me, it is through fan repurposing rather than direct creation or marketing.

(This is also, it seems to me, slightly different from the phenomenon of cosplay, in which one dresses up in the costume of a favourite character from comics, video gaming, film, or television. One could, for example, carry around a version of Sherlock’s pen in part because it is Sherlock’s pen, and yet not be imitating Sherlock’s look otherwise. Additionally, the pen is still a useful daily item, whereas most cosplay items are useful only for performance.)

That is where, it seems to me, that Burke and identification may come in to shed some light on the proceedings. In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke famously describes the process of rhetorical identification as an attempt to gain consubstantiality, or, more precisely, to remind oneself of consubstantiality in the face of alienation. In Burke’s terms,

A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself with B even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded to believe so.

Here are the ambiguities of substance. In being identified with B, A is “substantially one” with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time he remains unique, an individual locus of motives. Thus he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another.

In this passage and elsewhere, Burke is primarily concerned with people’s identification to other real people. Yet there is no reason why the same process should not be seen to operate with fictional characters; as we know, it often does. Is not the assembly and repurposing of these items a kind of attempt to identify oneself with Sherlock? More, is this process not also an attempt to redefine the physical world, which after all has such items in it, as a place that might also have Sherlock in it?

(These questions saw some vivid illustration a few years ago, following the last episode of the second series, “The Reichenbach Fall,” in which Sherlock apparently died and the on-line world within the show’s frame became engaged in a fierce debate over his reputation, with some background characters identifying themselves as believing in Sherlock and others vehemently denouncing them.)

Burke imagines human beings as perpetually both together and apart. We are aware of our oneness but unable fully to achieve or act upon it; hence our need for communities, societies, and persuasive communication, at the bottom of which is the rhetorical act of identification. He was imagining this in the wake of the Second World War, during the childhood of modern communications technology and before the innovations that made transmedia possible, specifically the internet.

Of course, the internet is often said to be deeply interconnective; its boosters sometimes seem to proclaim it as the solution to the alienation that Burke was talking about. It’s interesting, and often puzzling, to see how these ideas and phenomena play themselves out in material culture, and in the modern world.