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Prufrock’s Pipeline: The Political Rhetorical Battle for Keystone XL

December 3, 2014

On November 18th, the Senate voted against a bill that would have allowed the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. If you are confused about this issue, you are not alone. Congress itself seemed confused, and the final 59 yes votes fell just one short of the 60 required “ayes” needed for approval of the project. The tightness of the race suggests more than a partisan battle on Capitol Hill, but comes with a whole host of other issues including party line-toeing, job creation, constituent satisfaction rates, congressional elections, foreign oil, local oil, and gas, both the natural kind and the kind that blows out of politicians.

If you are looking for a clear-cut answer to the question: how should I feel about Keystone XL? You, my friend, have come to wrong place. There’s a good article here that can help you make that decision (good luck…). In the spirit of the Silver Tongue, this discussion will focus on something else entirely: synecdoche.

A synecdoche is a type of figurative rhetoric in which a part of an object is meant to represent the whole. If your memory is nagging at you that you should know this, it’s probably because you do know it, at least in practice. Some well-meaning teacher likely forced you to read T.S. Elliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” back in high school, whereupon you may have stumbled upon this gem: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

I’m sure you can guess poor Mr. Prufrock was not wishing to simply become a pair of pincers, but was thinking about the crab (and freedom, loneliness, voyeurism, etc.) instead. So why exactly does this synecdoche matter? Well, aside from exonerating your high school educators, it serves as a powerful tool in modern political debates, especially those concerned with the environment.

With 45 Republicans and 14 Democrats voting for the Keystone Xl Pipeline, you can imagine the muddiness of the issue. So how do you convince your fellow congressmen, senators, or constituents that your side is the right side? You let the pipeline serve as a synecdoche for a broader societal issue, or at least one with more clout than a big metal tube.

Those in favor of the pipe link it with broader topics such as jobs and independence. Keystone XL (ragged claws) means that it will bring 40,000 new jobs (lonely crab) to an area that is largely devoid of jobs. Keystone XL also means freedom from America’s dependence on foreign oil to the tune of some 830,000 barrels a day. For those in favor of the pipeline, synecdoche works to link something small (politically, that is, because the thing is supposed to be over 1,200 miles long) to something much larger like freedom. For an example of this in action, see Dr. Ariel Cohen’s pitch in the Wall Street Journal here.

On the other side of the political fence, the counter arguments are numerous: the job creation is temporary as the pipeline, once completed, will only need 40 full-time employees to operate; the reduction on need for foreign oil is a stop-gap solution to a long-term problem; the pipeline cuts through a whole bunch of crud like fields, farms, your dear old auntie’s rose bushes, etc., etc., et al. If none of these seem like a strong example of synecdoche, it’s because you’re not thinking broad enough. If you were attempting to lambast an oil company, what is the safest place to rest your argumentative laurels (aside from far away from open flame)? Yup: climate change. Keystone XL acts as a synecdoche for global climate change because of its carbon-intensive nature, because the extraction process is messy, and because it’s a GIANT PIPE. For a great example of this rhetorical work, see the Sierra Club’s report on Keystone XL here.

This isn’t the first time this tactic has been used, and neither will it be the last. In an excellent article concerning the early 90’s spotted owl controversy (remember that?) and its relation to synecdoche, Mark P. Moore states that “the lesson of the owl synecdoche is not that ecology and economy are incompatible, but that the longer it takes society as a whole to find the political courage to act on the problem, the harder it will be to procure a solution” (271). Here we are, more than 10 years later, and the same synecdochic forms are still in place. Just like Keystone XL, the spotted owl got caught up in figurative rhetoric. Do you know how many spotted owls there are left? Neither do I.

If you want to know more:

  • Here are some good sources that explain the vote, some background info, and the political landscape that surrounds the issue here and here
  • Here is a link to Elliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” because it’s in the public domain and everyone can use a little more poetry in their lives here
  • And finally, some rhetorical meat. Moore’s article, “Constructing Irreconcilable Conflict: The Function of Synecdoche in the Spotted Owl Controversy” from Communication Monographs Vol. 60 Sept. 1993, is a good read, and can be found in the excellent collection Landmark Essays on Rhetoric and Environment (edited by Craig Waddell). In it, Moore discusses the spotted owl crisis in a way that pits environmentalists against loggers, and what spills out is a complex mash-up of rhetorical identification. Specifically, he looks at McGee’s notion of the ideograph and Burke’s notion of synecdoche, and how they both function to create context, meaning, and concrete terminology in a complex debate.

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