Pragmatisms by Incongruity: ‘Equipment for Living’ from Kenneth Burke to Gilles Deleuze

Abram Anders, University of Minnesota Duluth


Kenneth Burke’s sociological criticism of literature as “equipment for living” situates the work of art as a response to a situation that is essentially social; literature serves a therapeutic role insofar as it diagnoses and dissolves maladaptive social categories and orientations. Burke’s complementary notion of “perspective by incongruity” describes the way in which artists push a system of belief or interpretive scheme to its limits by deliberating creating effects which escape its means of formalization. In the work of Gilles Deleuze, we encounter similarly the artist of literature and discourse who assumes the role of a physician of culture and seeks to produce new possibilities for life by multiplying available perspectives for action. In judging whether the rhetorical appeals and interpretive schemes they offer are medicine or poison, our criteria shall be whether they constrain, narrow, or otherwise limit life (gridlock), or whether they provide new possibilities, experiences, and configurations of knowledge for living (counter-gridlock). Through the incongruous imbrications of Burke and Deleuze, we discover a resonant pragmatism in which art, literature, and ethics become something more than tools for refining the ways in which we currently experience the world. Rather, they offer means for a way out of the orientations which configure and constrain our capacity to actualize potentials for a better tomorrow.

So I should propose an initial working distinction between “strategies” and “situations,” whereby we think of poetry (I here use the term to include any work of critical or imaginative cast) as the adopting of various strategies for the encompassing of situations (1). – Kenneth Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living”
Moreover, the writer as such is not a patient but rather a physician, the physician of himself and of the world. The world is the set of symptoms whose illness merges with man. Literature then appears as an enterprise of health … (3). – Gilles Deleuze, Essays: Critical and Clinical

MANY SCHOLARS STUDYING KENNETH BURKE’S work have focused on resituating his work in the context of the problems that he wrote to solve.  After all, this historical approach is entirely in keeping with Burke’s own theory of dramatism and understanding of the critical or imaginative process; his works should be recognized as responses to specific situations.  As Clayton Lewis argues, Burke should be seen as responding to an overemphasis or privileging of “scene” in the explanation of motivational factors.  That is, against the scientific or technocractic tendencies of his era, Burke sought to reintroduce the individual, the personal, and the poetic as factors worthy of consideration (368).  However, as Carol Blair has countered, such readings tend to “settle Burke down” and have “transformed him into our kind of humanist, our source of precept … Burke has much more to say than we have allowed him to say” (Qtd. in Hawhee 130).  Perhaps, it could be said that we have been too pious in our readings of Burke; that is, too beholden to a particular orientation or view of “what goes with what” in dealing with his work.

Certainly, the present study will be an exercise in impiety as far as traditional readings of Burke have gone.  Yet, following his early work Permanence and Change, such impiety is entirely in keeping with his championing of “perspective by incongruity.”  In attempting to open up our understanding of Burke’s work and his value for today, I want to focus on this early work in conjunction with two other thinkers, William James and Gilles Deleuze.  All three were pragmatists of one sort or another: James seeks to understand individual psychology philosophically and develops an anti-foundationalist approach to truth he describes as a radical empiricism; Burke builds on pragmatist influences and provides a novel turn in situating the problem of interpretations of reality as a matter of rhetoric—of an agon of appeals that can only be adjudicated on the basis of ethical and pragmatic grounds; finally, Deleuze offers a version of radical empiricism that is surprisingly complementary  to both thinkers—his  writings in literature in particular can be seen as a poststructuralist explication of Burke’s perspective by incongruity.

The immediate reason that it makes sense to put Burke and Deleuze in conversation is that they both approach literature from a perspective immanent to life.  Burke’s sociological criticism of literature as “equipment for living” focuses on the poet as responding to a situation that is essentially social.  Thus, the literary work is an attempt to encompass a particular problem.  In this approach, Burke offers an approach that “would derive its relevance from the fact that it should apply to both works of art and to social situations outside of art” (Philosophy 303).  Deleuze, for his part, also seeks to undermine the categories by which literature is normally analyzed and understood in order to emphasize the artist as one who explores possibilities of life.

Important work has yet to be attempted exploring these two thinkers as heirs to different branches of a similar intellectual line.  Both are heavily influenced by Bergson and Nietzsche; however, the main emphasis for the current project and the main connection I will explore between them lies in the pragmatic aspects of their thought.  As Armin Frank argues, “in keeping with Burke’s essentially pragmatist outlook, he postulates a continuity between artistic and non-artistic intellectual activities” (Frank 95).  Deleuze, for his part, approaches literature through the categories of the clinical and the critical. 

Against the clinicization of literature (i.e., treating it as an example to be diagnosed and analyzed psychoanalytically or otherwise), Deleuze focuses on the writer as a critic, or in Nietzschean fashion, as a physician of culture.  Thus, rather than a “symptom” of culture, the writer should be understood as someone who engages it in a critical and creative fashion.  In attempting to influence the approach or attitude of interpretation of literature, Deleuze seeks to alter the conditions of its enunciation:

This practice corresponds to a fundamental axiom in Deleuze’s philosophy, often described as ‘radical empiricism’ or even ‘pragmatism’; that is, the condition of a statement on literature is at the same a condition of literary enunciation itself, and the criteria by which literature appears as an object of real experience are at the same time the conditions of each particular expression or enunciation (Lambert 140).

In Burkean terms, such an emphasis points out the way that interpretations not only guide our experience of the world or of an object (such as literature), but in turn configure our possibilities for action.  As we shall see, this fundamental aspect of Burke’s thought is best understood through an investigation of its pragmatist context.  This will be the aim of the first section of my essay.

However, the primary goal of such an introduction is to clarify the way in which orientation as a condition of experience is implicated as an important ground of ethical contestation for Burke.  In his analysis of social change (and by extension, the role of literature and the poet), Burke offers perspective by incongruity as a primary means of opening up possibility.  It is a tool for challenging and reshaping the orientations through which we experience the world.  As Ross Wolin argues, “Perspective by incongruity, in simple terms, pushes to the limit our ability to generate meaning and make sense of the world through rational, pragmatic means. Perspective by incongruity is a violation of piety for the sake of more firmly asserting the pious” (76). As I will argue, the “pushing of limits” is the essential feature of Burke’s perspective by incongruity; the expansion of boundaries becomes “the pious.” In other words, through an engagement with pragmatism and the work of Deleuze it will be shown that Burke’s perspective by incongruity and approach to literature as equipment for life ultimately locates the highest ethical value in the pursuit of new possibilities for life.

Perspective by incongruity is not, as a casual read might have it, a tool for refining the way in which we currently experience the world or a critical method for better comprehending reality.  Rather it is the pursuit of an interval, a slender space of possibility, discovered once we understand language as force.  In his most direct engagement with the force of language, The Rhetoric of Religion, Burke describes this space in the following fashion: “But once the successiveness of time (and its similarly indivisible partner, space) introduces the possibility of an interval between the command and the obedience, by the same toke there is the possibility of disobedience” (278). As Barbara Biesecker argues, it is Burke’s concern for the conditions of human possibility that has proven most prescient and relevant to the problems confronting us today; and, it is perhaps the most useful aspect of his thought for helping us encompass a host of contemporary problems often associated with life in postmodernity:

What Burke intimates [in the previous quote] is that situated within the “interval” is the possibility for a future that is not simply a future-present, but a radically other future whose conditions of realization are given over to us as a promise but whose actualization rests solely upon us (102).

It is my contention that perspective by congruity can be read profitably as a tool for producing such futures; and, furthermore, that Burke’s approach to literature is one that respects the poet as a figure fully invested in the same project.  Ultimately, the value of linking Burke and Deleuze together is that it amplifies this shared commitment and attitude toward literature and its powers of ethical, social transformation.  Burke and Deleuze radicalize traditional, Romantic notions of the value of literature and art, insisting that great literary artists not only inspire, reflect, or influence society, but also exercise profound forces for discovering and shaping our collective futures.

Of course, my goal is not so much to offer a simple synthesis or explanation of the correspondences of these thinkers.  After all, such an approach would merely flatten out what is unique to each.  Rather, I am seeking to trace a strain of radical empiricism or pragmatism that runs through each of them, in order to modify and fashion it, to creatively imagine it for our contemporary situation.  This is itself a pragmatist approach. It seeks not to establish its truth in a foundation or lineage (history of ideas), or solely by its systemic coherency (idealism), but rather to evaluate it on the basis of its use for today:

Deleuze’s own image for a concept is not a brick, but a “tool box.”  He calls his kind of philosophy “pragmatics” because its goal is the invention of concepts that do not add up to a system of belief or an architecture of propositions that you either enter or you don’t, but instead pack a potential in the way a crowbar in a willing hand envelops the energy of prying (Massumi xv).

By placing Burke at the center and working forwards and backwards through James and Deleuze, I will seek to contextualize his thought in a way that brings fresh insight to the fore—that unleashes, in a new way, the energy for “prying” it provides.  In the pragmatist tradition and following Deleuze’s exhortation, I am interested in discovering a set of approaches or interpretations that have value for encompassing the problems we face today—theory as a tool box to be judged by its pragmatic value. 


Undoubtedly, part of William James’s lasting appeal is that he straddles or mediates the opposed philosophical temperaments that he characterizes as the “tough-minded” versus the “tender-minded.”  James’s radical empiricism or version of pragmatism was an attempt to walk a slender line between the rational idealists and the scientific empiricists of his day.  Against the tender minded rationalists, James held that as empiricists we “give up the doctrine of objective certitude,” though “we do not thereby give up the quest or hope of truth itself” (Pragmatism 17).  For pragmatists including James, John Dewey, and Charles Peirce, truth is something that “happens to an idea” (92).  As anti-foundationalists, they set themselves against any philosophy that would maintain an ideal realm that can be discerned through rational thought and is seen to support or exist behind “reality.”  Rather, truth is merely “whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons” (James, “The Will to Believe” 37). Such a view denies Platonic ideality—the possibility of universal or certain truth.

Truth is for pragmatists primarily a matter of ethical or pragmatic value. It is a tool for engaging the world and better managing experience. Yet, this practical emphasis also cuts against the scientific empiricism of the day by pointing out that “the trail of the human serpent is … over everything” (Pragmatism 33).  Burke clarifies this point in his explanation of Dewey, “a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing” (Permanence and Change 49). As Burke explains, when looking at criminality, for example, we may focus on individual responsibility and the psychological development of the criminal; however, this would blind us to the structural social factors that produce criminality in society.  At the same time, focusing on the latter would blind us to the former and incline to us to read criminality as purely determined by social forces foreclosing the possibility of individual agency.

For Burke and James, there are neither pure ideas nor pure facts that exist outside of human, social, and historical modes of experience and thought. It would seem that as tool users, all we have are tools that achieve certain results. There is no pure, unmediated experience, ideal or material.  James characterizes the general approach this way: “The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences.  What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true?” (Pragmatism 26). Rather than depending on an a priori foundation for truth, pragmatists look to the effects or value of an idea or theory.  To return to the previous example, the two approaches to criminality—emphasizing individual responsibility or social determination, respectively—cannot be adjudicated on the basis of their “rightness” or correspondence with reality.  It is a chimera to think such a judgment is possible.  Rather, these ways of engaging the social experience of criminality must be decided on the basis of their pragmatic value and/or ethical appeal.

James argues truth is simply the body of tools, ideas, and theories that have proven useful, accreting through history, comprising our body of “common sense.”  Beliefs and habits are levels of socialized knowledge that are adapted and modified over time through experience both in society and the individual.  Habits are shortcuts for repetitive action, while beliefs characterize the basis for means selecting in undertaking action. A belief is a bet on the future developed with reference to an interpretation of the past.  This idea is a link between the thought of James, Dewey, and Burke.  As John McGowan characterizes Jamesian belief, it is something that changes, but not by individual volition:

Beliefs, then, appear as fundamental commitments that play a crucial role in laying out just what world it is that I find myself in.  Maybe “commitments” is the wrong word, since I don’t choose them.  “Orientation” might be better. My beliefs locate me; they are the coordinates of my positioning in a world (126).

Thus, our beliefs are inherited through the processes of socialization and to a degree they pre-configure the lens through which we will view the world and the frame the ways in which we will act. In this way, the experiences which form the basis for the continued development of truth are already mediated by our beliefs or rather experienced through our orientation (as a body of beliefs or general understanding of the world). 

Furthermore, as James explains, new beliefs gain acceptance on two levels. First, the degree to which they provide novel and pragmatically useful ways of engaging experience; yet, primarily, by the degree to which they can be incorporated into the prior body of belief and system of common sense through which we experience the world. Thus, belief tends to self-perpetuating; new beliefs are often read as true (corresponding to reality) because they correspond to beliefs we already hold and accurately engage the ways we already experience the world. For James and Burke, such a recognition presents a problem for discovering possibilities of thought and action that are not completely determined or configured by the frameworks and orientations of language, belief, and habit.  As James put it:

between the coercions of the sensible order and those of the ideal order, our mind is thus wedged tightly. Our ideas must agree with realities, be such realities concrete or abstract, be they facts or be they principles, under penalty of endless inconsistency and frustration (Pragmatism 96). 

As I will attempt to show, for James, Burke, and Deleuze, the primary motivation in all of their works can be seen as an attempt to create a space for possibility and for human agency in a field of experience that appears socially configured through and through. 

However, it is important to keep in mind that for pragmatists recognizing the “trail of the human serpent” cuts against two kinds of absolute determination: on one hand, it undermines an idealist or rationalist account of a priori foundations, teleological ends, or transcendental design; on the other hand, it unsettles the mechanical causation logic of materialist accounts of reality. As Burke argues, “this point of view does not, by any means, vow us to personal or historical subjectivism.  The situations are real; the strategies for handling them have public content; and in so far as situations overlap form individual to individual, or from one historical period to another, the strategies possess universal relevance” (Philosophy 1). This pragmatist approach to truth, belief, and social action carves out a space of experience that is conditioned, yet contingent and never fully determined either ideally or materially. This is the slender space in which our minds are wedged tightly.

Before moving on to discuss the strategies for producing possibility, it will be helpful to illustrate the ways in which this pragmatist legacy or radical empiricism operates in Burke’s work and more fully sketch out his theory of orientation. In keeping with the pragmatist emphasis on last things (uses and effects) over first things (a priori foundations), James and Dewey especially are often wont to describe belief and truth as a “bet” on the future.1 As Dewey notes, we often think of experience as what is “given.” However, in its “vital form,” it is “experimental” and “characterized by projection, by reaching forward into the unknown; connexion with a future is its salient trait” (7). A primary target of pragmatist critique is the way in which ethical and pragmatic claims for the value of a particular approach to experience are presented as descriptions of “how things are.” Thus, in the attempt to influence belief and therefore action (especially in scientific discourse), a common strategy is to offer such arguments as a value free description of what “is.” As I discussed before, this is also a primary feature of the tenacity of particular orientations or belief systems in general: the correspondence of a theory with what has been “given” or inherited is often taken as correspondence with reality.  If we understand reality as something human beings produce, then this is a very different claim than that forwarded by foundational theories that claim access to some stable, universal, a priori reality.

Of course, emphasizing this aspect of pragmatist thought leads us directly to Burke. As many scholars have noted, a primary feature of Burke’s work is his attempt to understand interpretation as a matter of appeal—a thoroughly ethical, rhetorical affair. In his attempt to do so, Burke utilizes techniques and adapts arguments that bear a clear influence of pragmatism.  In his conception of orientation, for example, Burke makes the classic pragmatist move of focusing on belief as a “bet” on the future:

It forms the basis of expectancy—for character telescopes the past, present, and future. A sign, which is here now, may have got a significance out of the past that make it a promise of the future. Orientation is thus a bundle of judgments as to how thing were, how they are, and how they might be (Permanence and Change 14).

For Burke, attempts to shift the way we understand how things “were” and “are” should be recognized as attempts to influence how they might be.  In engaging such attempts to shift orientation, we must take care to understand the way they make their “appeal” and can only evaluate them on the basis of their pragmatic and ethical value for the future.  As Wolin argues, in Permanence and Change, Burke seeks to write:

[a] book of ethics, if ethics refers to the general governance of action, covering all that affects the decision to take a course of action (chiefly attitudes, values, and procedures). Burke subsumes traditional concerns about good and bad, making orientation, interpretative methods, and means selection the very center of ethics (77).

However, following this pragmatist trajectory, we might rather say that Burke is making an argument about truth or “knowing,” itself; that is, he subsumes truth into the “very center of ethics.” Or, to put it more radically, Burke makes of truth an essentially ethical and rhetorical enterprise. Of course, these are rather broad claims. In order to more closely investigate these pragmatist influences and the development of Burke’s theory of orientation, I would like to examine an example of a pragmatist tactic taken up and revolutionized by Burke. 

A common object of pragmatist critique is the fallacy of “substance” in rationalist or idealist philosophies. As James points out: “Truth ante rem means only verifiability, then; or else it is a case of the stock rationalist trick of treating the name of a concrete phenomenal reality as an independent prior entity, and placing it behind the reality as its explanation” (Pragmatism 99). Originating in Charles Peirce’s work, “How to Make our Ideas Clear,” this critique points out the way in which the Platonic idea is an abstraction from experience that is made to stand in as the explanation of it. James offers the following illustration:

Climate is really only the name for a certain group of days, but it is treated as if it lay behind the day, and in general we place the name, as if it were a being, behind the facts it is the name of … The fact of the bare cohesion itself is all that the notion of substance signifies. Behind that fact is nothing (Pragmatism 43-4).

Of course, in such examples the fallacy of the idealist approach is readily apparent. Across a variety of milieus and examples, Peirce and James regularly and readily diagnose this idealist error of positing the abstract description of an experience as the cause of the experience itself.

Burke, however, provides a novel twist on this pragmatic critique by applying to the question of human motivation. In his discussion of motivation, Burke points out that a description of a motivation is merely a short hand for the situation in which it is encountered. Thus, an individual may react to a particular situation comprised of “danger-signs,” “reassurance-signs,” and “social-signs”:

By his word “suspicion” he was referring to the situation itself—and he would invariably pronounce himself motivated by suspicion whenever a similar pattern of stimuli recurred. Incidentally, since we characterize a situation with reference to our general scheme of meanings, it is clear how motives, as shorthand words for situations, are assigned with reference to our orientation in general (Permanence and Change 31).

In a manner similar to the pragmatists, Burke points out that we often abstract our typical “reaction” to a situation and place it as the cause behind the situation.  However, such an abstraction has the matter backwards.  Furthermore, this move to abstract motivation from the situation covers over the role of orientation or belief in the matter:

Stimuli do not possess an absolute meaning … Any given situation derives its character from the entire framework of interpretation by which we judge it.  And differences in our ways of sizing up an objective situation are expressed subjectively as differences in our assignment of motive (35). 

The degree to which we correctly grasp the motivation of an individual is really the degree to which we diagnose his/her situation through the framework of a shared orientation.  Thus, for Burke, as for James, the way we experience reality and the way in which we act is largely determined by the orientation or interpretive scheme that we “believe” in. 

Expressed this way, the room for “possibility” becomes rather narrow. However, insofar as in any given age and society there exist competing orientations, socialization is not a completely determining force, and, even in a particular orientation, a particular interpretation of a situation, there can be further room for maneuvering. We might consider Burke’s discussion of complementary proverbs that agree on the situation but diverge in their attitude (i.e., glass half-full, glass half-empty). However, the key point here is the way in which interpretation governs human action through the presentation of a limited choice or frame for action. 

Ultimately, for Burke, it is in the competition of schemes of interpretation that true possibility exists; and, it is in this arena of competition that rhetoric and social struggle make their entrance into our exploration of pragmatisms: “Any explanation is an attempt at socialization, and socialization is a strategy; hence, in science as in introspection, the assigning of motives is a matter of appeal” (24-5).  If belief configures experience and is produced through socialization, then the rhetorical analysis of explanations is an important matter indeed.   Burke’s innovation is to recognize that if belief or orientation is a matter of socialization, then we must consider language as a force that has an impact on the way we experience and act in the world.2 As Paul Jay writes:

Burke’s intervention in the contest of interpretive theories is essentially pragmatic and ethical: he rejects any notion that such theories can be grounded in a transcendental way, insisting instead that the legitimacy or validity of such a system must be grounded in the nature of its ethical and pragmatic claims (541).

In Burke’s thought, situations and motives are thoroughly constructed and largely configured by the interpretive schema, systems of belief, or orientations that ground our experience.  Thus, the true arena of human possibility is in the contestation and judgment of orientations and the question of interpretation as rhetorical appeal.

As Wolin interprets this stage of Burke’s thought, it marks a shift from an earlier concern for “how an individual constructs symbols to deal with social and political structures”:

in Permanence, he is more interested in how our culture constructs social and political institutions (which operate to a great extent through symbols) to deal with what are principally symbolic structures.  As Burke said, in Permanence he “now stressed independent, social, or collective aspects of meaning, in contrast with the individualistic emphasis of his earlier Aestheticist period” (85).

I would argue this shift entails a corresponding emphasis on a Jamesian understanding of belief as inherited orientation. For Burke, human beings are not simply critics of experience; all living things are critics in this sense.3 As we encounter the world, we do not deal with unmediated stimuli to which we respond and adapt. As Burke notes, “stimuli do not possess an absolute meaning” (Permanence and Change 35). Rather, our experience in the world, our role of critics, is often as critics of criticism. In Permanence and Change, Burke pushes a Jamesian conception of belief to its logical conclusion by emphasizing interpretation—the attempt to shift our orientation—as the primary focus in the pursuit of possibility. This entails a focus on the social and collective aspects of meaning as a battleground for ethical (truth) claims. The following section will be to explore such attempts to shift perspective in light of these pragmatist insights.

Perspective by Incongruity

According to Burke, both Marx and Freud have produced “terminologies of motive,” ways of talking about a reality which the talking itself creates. His point about them is a double one: while neither is more than an interpretation or a perspective, this does not mean they are simply at play, since they are purposeful and instrumental, aimed at change (or cure) (Jay 541).

Two important interpretive schemes that sought to shift perspectives on social phenomena in Burke’s day were Marxism and psychoanalysis.  As Jay points out, Burke was interested in learning from the powerful influence these discourses were able to effect in society, but at the same time he sought to recognize their role as perspectives amongst possible others.  Debra Hawhee situates this emphasis as owing to the influence of Nietzsche:

Nietzschean perspectivalism, as Burke saw it, described not only the multiplicity of interpretive frameworks available to and deployed by humans, but also—and more importantly—the transformative power of the slightest shifts in what Burke would call orientation (133-4).

For Burke, discourses such as Marxism and psychoanalysis attempt to reinterpret our experience on the basis of an appeal that they can improve our orientation to experience; that is, they offer new outlooks meant to give a better grip on life and a sounder basis for action and to resolve the dilemmas that outmoded orientations have left us in. 

As Burke argues, trained incapacity or occupational psychosis (concepts he adapted from Thorstein Veblen and Dewey respectively) is descriptive of orientations that have proved maladaptive in changing circumstances. Marxism and psychoanalysis each provide strategies meant to address the symptoms of such outmoded orientations and resolve the problem by a new interpretive scheme of the situation.  Of course, a new interpretation and understanding is also a new terminology of motive.  That is, insofar as motives are shorthand for situations, redefining the situation implies a different motivation and consequently a different program of action.

While such broad social discourses may have the great reach and power of socialization, the phenomena of resolving a problematic situation by a new schema of interpretation is everywhere on the human map.  To illustrate this point, Burke offers the relatively mundane example of proverbs: “The point of view might be phrased this way: Proverbs are strategies for dealing with situations.  In so far as situations are typical and recurrent in a given social structure, people develop names for them and strategies for handling them” (Philosophy 296-7).  Thus, in keeping with his emphasis on the rhetorical nature of such interpretive schemes, in his later essay, Burke recharacterizes them as “strategies” for encompassing situations.  Poetry and literature, then, share in a similar effort to discover new ways of understanding experience and situations that implies new programs of action.

Keeping in mind the pragmatist foundation Burke is working from, the shift in perspective or interpretive schema can have profound effects: “altering what one can perceive and, thus, act upon, is transforming reality itself … Literature is equipment for living because it is direct, effective action upon the terms and the relations in which they stand to one another” (McGowan 142).  The point is thoroughly pragmatist.  However, again it is necessary to emphasize Burke’s key innovation respective to pragmatism: namely, if truth is always instrumental—an interested, useful enterprise—attempts to provide new interpretations are never disinterested or simply attempting to better describe reality. “A better description for what purpose and to what end?” Burke might ask. 

As Jay points out, Burke appreciated that “… Marxism contributes to the critique of ideology and helps demystify political rhetoric, while it is itself both a rhetoric and an ideology” (544). To cite Burke himself on this point:

Class-consciousness is a social therapeutic because it is reclassification-consciousness. It is a new perspective that realigns something so profoundly ethical as our categories of allegiance … The new classification thus has implicit in it a new set of ideas as to what action is, and in these ideas are implicit a new criteria for deciding what means-selection would be adequate (Permanence and Change 113).

In summary, interpretive schemes or perspectives are properly strategies for encompassing specific situations.  Often new schemes arise to resolve some problem encountered as the incapacity of a prior orientation; thus, they are therapeutic in aim. These new schemes are necessarily interested in seeking to frame a new motivation as a program for action.  Thus, Marxism and psychoanalysis provide interpretations that critique the old orientation, but are rhetorical insofar as they seek to supplant it and imply a new relation to experience.  Yet, from a pragmatist perspective there is no recourse to correspondence with objective reality to judge these new interpretive schemes. Rather, they must be considered on ethical and pragmatic grounds.  Whether Marxist, psychoanalyst, or literary figure, “the poet is, indeed, a ‘medicine man.’”  Regardless of the medium, “the situations for which he offers his stylistic medicine may be very real ones” (Philosophy 65).

For a more extended treatment of perspective by incongruity as therapeutic, Burke turns to psychoanalysis. As Burke characterizes it, the essential strategy of psychoanalysis is that “it effects its cures by providing a new perspective that dissolves the system of pieties lying at the roots of the patient’s sorrows or bewilderments. It is an impious rationalization, offering a fresh terminology of motives to replace the patient’s painful terminology of motives” (Permanence and Change 125). Through a renaming of the situation, the psychoanalyst seeks to dissolve the “psychosis” that arose from the old orientation. Thus, “it changes the entire nature of his problem, rephrasing it in a form for which there is a solution” (125). The radical aspect of Burke’s description is that the diagnosis is itself the solution. 

To be more specific, the patient suffers from a problem wrapped up in his orientation or interpretive scheme of his situation. Psychoanalysis in the act of diagnosis supplants this interpretation with a new one which, when successful in its appeal, dissolves the problem along with the situation. Hence, Burke’s curious suggestion that such therapy operates by “misnaming” the problem: “The notion of perspective by incongruity would suggest that one casts out devils by misnaming them … One casts out demons by a vocabulary of conversion, by an incongruous naming, by calling them the very thing in all the world they are not” (Permanence and Change 133). Such a reading would sit at odds with a reading of Burke that would describe the symbolic action of poetry and literature as a thinking through of alternatives or as a preparation or practice for “real” action. Rather, the strategy for encompassing a situation often presents itself as a diagnosis of the problem—a diagnosis that dissolves old categories and offers new ones that provide a means of escape from the distressing situation.  Read this way, Burke anticipates a rather Deleuzian formulation of the poet or writer as a physician who diagnoses illness as an enterprise of health.

However, lest shifts in perspective appear as too easily achieved and possibility too readily attained, Burke also cautions that orientations can be rather persistent and self-sustaining though vulnerable after a particular fashion:

An orientation is largely a self-perpetuating system, in which each part tends to corroborate the other parts … However, for all the self-perpetuating qualities of an orientation, it contains the germs of its dissolution … The ultimate result is the need of a reorientation, a direct attempt to force the critical structure by shifts of perspective (Permanence and Change 169).

It here that Burke’s Nietzschean debt comes to the fore. Insofar as Deleuze is similarly indebted, this is a key hinge shared in their thought.  Following Nietzsche, both consider language as invested by force. Insofar as interpretive schemes structure experience, the rhetorical contestation of perspective is a form of critique that takes its aim at the seed of dissolution in an unhealthy orientation: “It would seem to me that a system so self-sustaining could be attacked only from without” (61). This space of the “outside” occupies an important place in work of many post Nietzschean thinkers including Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze;4 Deleuze argues that the outside of an orientation, of language, or a system is encountered as its limit. 

Burke, for example, argues that orientations find the seed of their own destruction in inexorably carrying out their logic to absurdist extremes.5 The limit of an interpretive scheme is that sooner or later it produces effects that escape its own self-logic; that is, it inevitably encounter its “outside.” Deleuze’s favorite example is the way that in modern writers, “language seems to be seized by a delirium, which forces it out of its usual furrows.” In seeking a new perspective, the writer pursues a “foreign language … hollowed out in one language [which cannot occur] without language as a whole in turn being toppled or pushed to limit, to an outside or reverse side that consists of Vision and Auditions that no longer belong to any language” (Essays 5). These visions or auditions are effects that escape their own formalization; that is, they are effects that cannot be reconciled or captured by the system that they escape.  For Deleuze, modern literature in most radical manifestations strains the limits of meaning; it makes language “stutter” and strains our ability to “understand” it. In doing so, it eludes the orientations that would seek to contain it through interpretation. In this way, literature creates possibility by offering a possibility that is not yet “formalized” or actualized in meaning; this is the essence of its possibility and creativity.

For his part, Burke cites approvingly the decomposition of language by literary figures such as James Joyce. These stylistic attacks on an orientation from its limit are precisely examples of the most radical kind of perspective by incongruity that Burke describes:

Were we to summarize the totality of its effects, advocating as an exhortation what has already spontaneously occurred, we might say that planned incongruity should be deliberately cultivated for the purpose of experimentally wrenching apart all those molecular combinations of adjective and noun, substantive and verb, which still remain with us (Permanence and Change 119).

Amidst these grotesque gargoyles of language, the proliferating incongruities of the modern age, Burke asks: “Out of all this overlapping conflicting and supplementing of interpretive frames, what arises as a totality? The only thing that all this seems to make for is a reinforcement of the interpretive attitude itself” (118). Though Burke begins with a rather mild invocation of perspective by incongruity as a tool for overcoming trained incapacity, he ultimately reaches a Nietzschean apotheosis in which perspectivalism as tool for creating possibility becomes a good in and of itself.

Hawhee argues the perspectivalism of Nietzsche which Burke takes up is not only a way of considering the claims of any individual interpretation but a means of reflecting on the “consequences or effects produced by perspectivalism,” itself (134). As she goes on to cite Deleuze, perspectivalism reinforces this interpretive attitude as a means of creating new possibilities for life, as an enterprise of health:

As Gilles Deleuze puts it, “Nietzsche demands an aesthetics of creation” … Insofar as all language forces an encounter with the world, art transforms even as it produces knowledge.  Deleuze writes, “In Nietzsche, ‘we the artists’ = ‘we the seekers after knowledge or truth’ = ‘we the inventors of new possibilities of life’” (138).

It is in this sense that perspectivism becomes something more than a tool for refining the ways in which we currently experience the world.  Rather, it becomes a method for discovering a way out of the orientations which configure experience. 

In the Jamesian idiom, perspective by incongruity acquires its “cash value” by virtue of offering a greater space for human possibility.  Insofar as it proliferates the possibilities of experience, of knowing, of acting, and of being in the world, Burke deems it a welcome relief from metaphysical claims that so often tend to rationalist or materialist determinism: “Rather than a ‘three-dimensional … organic experience,’ Burke favors an ‘x-dimensional … theoretical experience,’ hence allowing for differences, contingent valuations, multiple possibilities. Thus, he writes, ‘the more we can avoid the metaphysical the better’” (Hawhee 132). The revolutionary potential of Burke’s x-dimensional, theoretical experience is that it seeks to coordinate its many incongruous perspectives without sublimating their energies and possibilities to pre-ordained orientations or determinist ends.


Remember, the big traffic jam in New York when the subways stopped?  That’s when I learned the word gridlock.  Gridlock means you can’t go any way. The traffic is so jammed, it can’t go forward, backwards, or sideways. What I had was counter-gridlock. I went every which way (Burke, Qtd. in Hawhee 139).

For Burke, as for James before him, the difficulty of clearing a space for human action in a world that seems increasingly confusing and constraining was a primary concern. In James, this challenge took the figure of being wedged tightly between sensible and ideal orders and the concomitant necessity of discovering new opportunities heretofore unrevealed in the accumulated “truths” of history which configure our experiences of reality. Burke further sharpens our sense of this difficulty and identifies the pressing and essential task of a “criticism of criticism,” a need to unwind the tangled field of our interpretation (Permanence and Change 6). While on one hand there is a need to overcome the priests of culture who “devote their efforts to maintaining the vestigial structure” (179), in works like “Counter-Gridlock” Burke seems equally concerned by the rapid pace and proliferation of new contexts and socialization processes of his era’s emerging mass communication culture.  Experiencing the quickening pace and amplifications of modernity, Burke felt acutely the danger that the incapacities of our training may outpace our ability to diagnose and discover adaptive perspectives for them.

Hence, the importance he placed on poetry and literature, for “poetry, broadly defined, is a locus of perspective by incongruity, a place where incongruous metaphors can be pushed together to create new ways of viewing the world—a counter-gridlock.” (Hawhee 139). In fact, Burke names this task as the explicit aim of literature and poetry: “So I should propose an initial working distinction between ‘strategie’ and ‘situations,’ whereby we think of poetry (I here use the term to include any work of critical or imaginative cast) as the adopting of various strategies for the encompassing of situations” (Philosophy 1). If we experience reality through the categories of our orientations, then any attempt to resolve the “problems” produced by these situations are necessarily attempts to think and explicate their “outside.” That is, the orientation itself is the problem to be encompassed.  As Greg Lambert points out, this is precisely the value literature offers for Deleuze:

In a diagnostic and critical vein, certain literary works can be understood to produce a kind of ‘symptomatology’ that may prove to be more effective than political or ideological critique in discerning the signs that correspond to the new arrangements of ‘language, labour, and life’ to employ Foucault’s abbreviated formula for the grand institutions of instinct and habit (135).

Thus, in the war of medicine men, of priests and prophets who strive, respectively, to constrain or open up possibilities of life, literature is a powerful ally for the latter. In judging whether the rhetorical appeals or interpretations they offer are medicine or poison, our criteria shall be whether they constrain, narrow, or otherwise limit life, or whether they provide new possibilities, experiences, and configurations of knowledge for living; or, to put it after a Nietzschean fashion, the question is whether they imply modes of action and existence that are sickly (gridlock) or healthy (counter-gridlock).

Echoing the pluralism of James, Burke describes a universe that is essentially plastic to human “knowing”—a universe open to a multiplicity of interpretations and implicated becomings:

When a philosopher invents a new approach to reality, he finds that his predecessors saw something as a unit which he can subdivide, or that they accepted distinctions which his system can name as unities. The universe would appear to be something like cheese; it can be sliced in an infinite number of ways—and when one has chosen his own pattern of slicing, he finds that other men’s cuts fall at the wrong places (Permanence and Change 103).

In Deleuze’s idiom the attempt of literature to encompass a problem or situation and define a strategy takes the form of a diagnosis: “The doctor certainly does not “invent” the disease, but rather is said to “isolate” it: he or she distinguishes cases that had hitherto been confused by dissociating symptoms that were previously grouped together, and by juxtaposing symptoms that were previously dissociated” (Smith xvi). It is in this particular sense that writers are Nietzschean physicians of culture; and, it is by the means of diagnosis that writers seek to develop programs of action for responding to situations as problems.

However, such an insight is one that Burke himself makes, though in his own idiom: “the poem is a sudden fusion, a falling together of many things formerly apart—and the very force of this fusion leads one to seek further experiences of the same quality” (Permanence and Change 158).  As Hawhee explains,

considered figuratively, this statement can apply to almost any act: the carving of the veins, for example becomes through the act of materially fusing razor and flesh.  Poetry, then, produces effects, effects that, at times, may in turn produce unexpected results, thus creating more and sometimes endless opportunities for becoming (138).

In his analysis of psychoanalysis, Burke argues that psychoanalytic therapies work primarily as a form of interpretive appeal. As we previously noted, in the secular conversion that psychoanalysis attempts, the diagnosis is itself a solution for the problem insofar as it reconfigures the situation in a way that dissolves the prior orientation and motivation. 

It is precisely this figure of secular conversion and this type of rhetorical, interpretive appeal that Deleuze sees as the most powerful capacity of literature: “There is no literature without fabulation, but as Bergson was able to see, fabulation—the fabulating function—does not consist in imagining or projecting the ego.  Rather, it attains these visions, it raises itself to these becomings and powers” (Essays 3). In its most elementary sense, fabulation as a fable is akin to Burke’s discussion of the proverb. It is an attempt to encompass a particular situation and formulate an attitude (a program of action) towards it. 

Fabulation posits an attitude or interpretation of situation that is a rhetorical appeal for action which seeks to unleash a revolutionary force. However, what distinguishes it from the proverb is its reliance on a retelling of history that is properly a prophecy—both a vision of the future and a lesson for its achievement. Thus, fabulation derives transformative possibility, in its latent or virtual state, from the situation itself.  As a reinterpretation of reality, it is an appeal that seeks to transform society. As Burke would put it, insofar as it is an explanation that would shift or transform our orientation, and consequently how we experience the world, it is an “attempt at socialization”; that is, it is an attempt at “conversion.”

Consequently, fabulation, insofar as it is a means of socialization, seeks to create a people.  It should be seen as active, transformative ethical vision rather than as positing an ideal world to be attained.  As Lambert explains, fabulation is a type of appeal that turns the incongruities of an individual writer into a socializing force in language:

What is the power unleashed in revolution but the ideal game deployed within what is essentially a fiction; that is, the power to select and re-order the objects, artifacts and meaning that belong to a previous world?  Utopia, then, rather than designating a static representation of the ideal place, or topos, is rather the power of the ‘ideal’ itself, which can bifurcate time and create possible worlds (148).

In this sense, fabulation echoes the Jamesian “will to believe.” This ethical vision is not derived from any first principle and cannot properly be a system of rules, dogmatism, or moralisms.  Rather, it is a revolutionary force for life.  To return to Burke, we might note the way in which he characterizes the incantatory mode of literature in which an artist like Joyce sets the task of “externalizing the internal” (Philosophy 112). In this incantatory mode, literature “functions as a device for inviting us to “make ourselves over in the image of the imagery” (116). This is the socializing aspect of the writer’s vision; literature is always an appeal to shift our interpretation of the world.

Deleuze argues that the modern writer seeks to raise a personal vision to the level of a language, a language meant for a “people who are missing”: “The ultimate aim of literature is to set free, in the delirium, this creation of a health of this invention of a people, that is, a possibility of life. To write for this people who are missing … (‘for’ means less ‘in the place of’ than ‘for the benefit of’)” (Essays 4).  Thus, the writer seeks not his own diagnosis and healing, his own strategy for encompassing a situation, but to launch a rhetorical appeal for a new orientation that carries with it a program of action, a way of being:

For Deleuze, every literary work implies a way of living, a form of life, and must be evaluated not only critically but also clinically.  “Style, in a great writer, is always a style of life too, not anything at all personal, but inventing a possibility of life, a way of existing” (Smith xv).

It is in this sense that Deleuze can declare that “Literature is a passage of life that traverses outside the lived and liveable” (Essays 1). Out of an engagement with problems of the “lived” the writer seeks a diagnosis that is properly a perspective by incongruity. It is a reformulation of orientation through a new interpretation.  It is rhetorical, pragmatic, ethical and an enterprise of health. This is finally the pragmatist thread that unites James, Burke, and Deleuze:

The agonistic space of literature allows the conflict of various attitudes without any avowal that there is a correct, final, or totalizing attitude … Literature dramatizes possibility—recalling the Jamesian insight that only the existence of options and the capacity, but not the necessity, to exercise some but not all of those options render action thinkable and desirable (McGowan 133).

The point is not that literature can simply “dissolve” our problems. However, literature’s dramatic role is not separate from life itself; rather, it can diagnose particular configurations of “gridlock” and map the lines of flight and effect a “counter-gridlock” through its diagnosis and marshalling of the strategies of perspective by incongruity. For Burke, literature is equipment for life; for Deleuze it is an enterprise of health; for all of us, it a means of creating possibilities that make “action thinkable and desirable.”

The ethical and pragmatic value of literature for life is that it embraces and pursues an attitude towards truth and ethics and valorizes possibility as such. As Wolin avers, “Burke’s genius as an ethical theorist lies in his refusal to supplant traditional ethics with another system equally fixed.  He offers instead a basic position toward ethics, a flexible attitude or approach” (77). As Hawhee argued of perspectivalism, the value in such an ethics is not only in its recognition of all ethical systems as contingent and pragmatic, but that it provides a grounds for reflecting on the “consequences or effects produced by” a “flexible attitude or approach,” itself. 

Thus, Burke’s genius is not only to frame an ethical attitude as opposed to a code, but to also to argue and even demonstrate through the prolific inventiveness of his career that this attitude is itself a highly adaptive strategy for pursuing the “good life.”  Ultimately, both Burke and Deleuze in their pragmatist approaches to literature and life heed the Nietzschean insistence that the “good life” is the pursuit of “an overflowing and ascending form of existence, a mode of life that is able to transform itself depending on the forces it encounters, always increasing the power to live, always opening up new possibilities of life” (Smith xv).  However, like the Jamesian “will to believe,” these ethics only emerge from a profound confrontation with the ‘slender space’ of human possibility: wedged between the socializing forces of language and the necessities of our historical circumstance, the pursuit of possibility and ethical action is a highly situated affair.  In the most difficult and compromising of circumstances and in the face of the most systemic and intractable problems, the space can be narrow indeed.

Our heightened contemporary sense of these challenges is one of the reasons that Burke is important as a resource. As Biesecker argues, one of most relevant aspects of Burke’s thought for today lies in his attempt to theorize human possibility while taking seriously the coercive force of language as it operates through socialization:

[Burke offers a] retheorization of the relation between subject and structure and, hence, of social change that discerns in the symbolic or discursive practices of the present the opening for a future that is something other than a repetition or projection of the self-same (88).

In the pursuit of tools for grasping and capitalizing on this opening for the future, Burke’s perspective by incongruity and his formulation of literature as equipment for life are of extreme value: they are possible means of “prying” open the traffic jam of postmodernity and countering our contemporary forms of “gridlock.”

*Abram Anders is an Assistant Professor of Business Communications at the University of Minnesota Duluth.  His research interests include ethics, new media, professional communications, rhetorical theory, and technology.  He can be contacted at

AUTHOR NOTE: This article was invaluably improved thanks to the assistance and advice of these readers at Pennsylvania State University: Richard Doyle, Jeffrey Nealon, Jack Selzer, Xiaoye You, and Robert Yarber.


1. For James, pragmatism is primarily a method of focusing on the value, use, and aim of “truth” rather than its foundation: “The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts” (Pragmatism 29).

2. But the question of motive brings us to the subject of communication, since motives are distinctly linguistic products.  We discern situational patterns by means of the particular vocabulary of the cultural group into which we are born.  Our minds, as linguistic products, are composed of concepts (verbally molded) which select certain relationships as meaningful.  Other groups may select other relationships as meaningful.  These relationships are not realities, they are interpretations of reality—hence different frameworks of interpretation will lead to different conclusions as to what reality is” (Permanence and Change 35).

3. For example, consider Burke’s opening discussion of the fish who encounters “jaw-ripping food.”  In characterizing a change in behavior towards similar “food,” Burke describes criticism as a process of revising behavior: “I mean simply that in his altered response, for a greater or lesser period following the hook-episode, he manifests the changed behavior that goes with a new meaning, he has a more educated way of reading signs.  It does not matter how conscious or unconscious one chooses to imagine this critical step—we need only note here the outward manifestation of a revised judgment” (Permanence and Change 5).

4. For more on this point, consider Massumi (xiii) and Lambert (139).

5. I call both of these “heresies” because I do not take a heresy to be a flat opposition to an orthodoxy … I take heresy rather to be the isolation of one strand in an orthodoxy, and its following-through with-rational-efficiency to the point here ‘logical conclusion’ cannot be distinguished from ‘reductio ad absurdum’” (Philosophy 113).

Works Cited

Biesecker, Barbara A.  Addressing Postmodernity: Kenneth Burke, Rhetoric, and a Theory of Social Change.  Tuscaloosa:  University of Alabama Press, 1997.

Buchanan, Ian and John Marks, Ed.  Deleuze and Literature.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000.

Burke, Kenneth.  “Literature as Equipment for Living.”  Philosophy of the Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action.  3rd Edition.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.  293-304.

---.  Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose.  1954.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

---.  Philosophy of the Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action.  3rd Edition.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

---.  The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. 1961.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari.  a thousand plateaus:  capitalism and schizophrenia.  Trans. by Brian Massumi.  1987.  Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

---.  Essays: Critical and Clinical.  Trans. by Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

---.  “The Need for A Recovery of Philosophy.”  Creative Intelligence: Essays in the Pragmatic Attitude.  New York: Holt, 1917: 3-69.

Frank, Armin Paul.  Kenneth Burke.  New York: Twayne Publishers, 1969.

Hawhee, Debra.  “Burke and Nietzsche.”  Quarterly Journal of Speech.  85 (1999): 129-145.

James, William.  Pragmatism.  Edited by Bruce Kuklick.  1907.  Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1981.

---.  The Will to Believe: and other essays in popular philosophy.  New York: Dover Publications, 1956.

Jay, Paul.  “Kenneth Burke and the Motives of Rhetoric.”  American Literary History.  1.3 (1989): 535-553.

Lambert, Gregg.  “On the Uses and Abuses of Literature for Life.”  Deleuze and Literature.  Edited by Ian Buchanan and John Marks.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000: 135-166.

Lewis, Clayton W.  “Burke’s Act in A Rhetoric of Motives.”  College English.  46.4 (1984): 368-376.

Massumi, Brian.  “Translator’s Foreword: Pleasures of Philosophy.”  a thousand plateaus:  capitalism and schizophrenia.  Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.  1987.  Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 2003: ix-xv.

McGowan, John.  “Literature as Equipment for Living: A Pragmatist Project.”  Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal.  (2003): 119-148.

Peirce, Charles S.  “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.”  Popular Science Monthly.  12 (January 1878): 286-302.

Smith, Daniel.  “‘A Life of Pure Immanence’: Deleuze’s ‘Critique et Clinique’ Project.”  Essays: Critical and Clinical.  Gilles Deleuze.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997: xi-liii.

Wolin, Ross.  The Rhetorical Imagination of Kenneth Burke.  Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.

"Pragmatisms by Incongruity: ‘Equipment for Living’ from Kenneth Burke to Gilles Deleuze; by Abram Anders is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at