The social myth as structurational rhetoric: A model for analyzing the rhetorical texts of the Heaven's Gate cult

Merry Eleanor George

Abstract

This dissertation combines methodologies of hermeneutic analysis and rhetorical criticism to examine the rhetorical documents left behind by the Heaven's Gate cult prior to the group's suicide on March 27, 1997. To facilitate analysis, a model was developed that consolidates rhetorical theories of Kenneth Burke (1966, 1969a, 1969b, 1970) and Waldo Braden (1975); structurational theory of Anthony Giddens (1976, 1984); and Theodor Gaster's (1984) elaboration of the Mythic Idea. The model facilitates analysis and interpretation of cult-like groups in order to provide evidence of the social myth, described by Braden (1975) as a lived rhetoric. The model depicts the social myth as a recursively organized structurational rhetoric that moves from mystery, through hierarchy, toward perfection, and back to mystery. The multidimensional rhetorical base utilizes the rhetorical traditions of poetics, dialectics, and persuasion/influence in order to connect the ideal world of the sacred myth with the actual world of social practices.