Ecocriticism and Kenneth Burke: An Introduction

Robert Wess, Oregon State University

Abstract: This introductory essay begins with a brief history of ecocriticism and Burke’s place in it, then introduces four modes of Burkean ecocriticism: (1) ecological holism, (2) technological de‑terminism, (3) Rueckert’s ecocriticism, and (4) ecological realism.  These modes may appear in combination with or isolation from one another, as evidenced in the essays in this special issue by Gregory Clark, Joshua Frye and William H. Rueckert.

IN 1970 KENNETH BURKE ENJOYED public recognition of the accuracy of his earlier prediction about ecology when a Fortune magazine article entitled “Our New Awareness of the Great Web” observed,

we may assume that most predictions put forward in 1937, like those of other years, would now be worth recalling only as examples of fallibility. But at least one prediction published in that year has since come to seem exceedingly perspicacious. It appeared in a book by Kenneth Burke, a literary critic. “Among the sciences,” he wrote, “there is one little fellow named Ecology, and in time we shall pay him more attention.” (Bowen 198)1

Later in that decade, in 1978, the dean of Burke studies, William H. Rueckert, published “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism.” It took a few years for the term “ecocriticism” to catch on, but once it did, it took off. By the 1990s, it made its way to the title of an anthology destined to become widely known: The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, where Rueckert’s groundbreaking essay is reprinted. In her introduction to this volume, Cheryll Glotfelty observes that by 1993 ecocriticism “had emerged as a recognizable critical school,” with a new journal, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, and a new organization, ASLE, acronym for Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) (xviii). From its founding in 1992, ASLE has grown to a membership of 1004 (864 domestic and the rest worldwide), with affiliates in Australia, Germany (home of European Association for the Study of Literature, Culture, and Environment), India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. Finally, the year 2001 saw Laurence Coupe complete the circle with his essay “Kenneth Burke: Pioneer of Ecocriticism.” In yet one more area Burke has thus proved to be ahead of his time.

While this new critical movement borrowed Rueckert’s term, it didn’t follow the Burkean direction Rueckert defined, discussed below. Instead, ecocriticism focused initially on nature writing. The direction it followed is evident in the title of perhaps the single most important book the new movement produced in the 1990s, Lawrence Buell’s The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. More recently, however, while nature writing continues to be an important interest, many ecocritics are pursuing new directions, and some such as Dana Phillips are even sharply critical of the nature writing focus. Phillips’s The Truth of Ecology is sometimes overly harsh but often telling in its criticism of just about everything ecocriticism did in its earliest years. Phillips’s targets are many but Buell probably heads the list. Most of his criticisms revolve around early ecocriticism’s indulgence in what Burke sometimes calls a “naïve verbal realism that refuses to realize the full extent of the role played by symbolicity in [human] notions of reality” (Language 5). Early ecocritics, in other words, tended to think it was relatively easy to go directly to nature and bring it back live in one’s writing. Phillips counters that it’s more complicated than that. Burke and Burkeans would agree. But while it is changing, ecocriticism is still a critical movement known more for its subject matter (literature/culture and the environment) than for its theoretical perspectives on this subject matter.

Burke offers ecocriticism a number of theoretical possibilities. Four will be introduced here: (1) ecological holism, (2) technological de-terminism, (3) Rueckert’s ecocriticism, and (4) ecological realism. Further, while these four modes of Burkean ecocriticism will be discussed in isolation from one another, they may be weaved together in varying ways. There may well be other modes as well; it’s difficult to exhaust what Burke has to say on any topic, especially topics, like ecology, that he returned to repeatedly over long periods of time. Discontinuities appear with the continuities in Burke’s preternaturally long career, creating different perspectives and different possible combinations of perspectives. Even the present introduction of these four modes will conclude with reasons for possibly adding a fifth.

But with these four to draw upon, it should be possible to provide broad introductory Burkean contexts for the specific ecocritical concerns in the essays included in this special issue by Rueckert, Joshua Frye, and Gregory Clark. The best context for Frye is ecological holism; for Clark, technological de-terminism and Rueckert’s ecocriticism together; for Rueckert, ecological realism in addition to the section devoted to his ecocriticism.

Ecological Holism

Burke’s ecocritical holism is most evident in his earliest writing on ecology. Marika A. Seigel’s important study of the historical context of Burke’s 1937 prediction shows how his earliest ideas about ecology grew out of discussions of ecological issues in the 1930s, prompted particularly by dust storms seemingly unprecedented in their severity. What gives her study special value beyond the significant value of its historical narrative is that it establishes connections often overlooked between Burke’s ecological thinking in the 1930s and other ideas from this period such as “trained incapacity” and “comic attitude” that are often discussed but usually without any awareness of these connections.

The key to these connections is Burke’s concerns with “efficiency,” which appears in the “Dictionary of Pivotal Terms,” in Attitudes toward History. As Seigel puts it, “Like an orientation, occupational psychosis, or trained incapacity, concepts that Burke developed in Permanence and Change, efficiency stresses one perspective or way of doing things at the expense of others” (394). That Burke’s critique of efficiency is connected to his ecological thinking is evident as soon as one restores his 1937 prediction to its context:

Among the sciences, there is one little fellow named Ecology, and in time we shall pay him more attention. He teaches us that the total economy of this planet cannot be guided by an efficient rationale of exploitation alone, but that the exploiting part must itself eventually suffer if it too greatly disturbs the balance of the whole (as big beasts would starve, if they succeeded in catching all the little beasts that are their prey their very lack of efficiency in the exploitation of their ability as hunters thus acting as efficiency on a higher level, where considerations of balance count for more than consideration of one tracked purposiveness). (Attitudes 150)
To this passage, one can add this one from the entry for “efficiency” in the “Dictionary”:
“Efficiency,” to borrow a trope from the stock exchange, is excellent for those who approach social problems with the mentality of the “in and out” trader. It is far less valuable for those interested in a “long-pull investment.” Otherwise stated: It violates “ecological balance,” stressing some one ingredient rather than maintaining all ingredients by the subtler requirements of “symbiosis.” (250)

In other words, just as a practice may be “training” from one standpoint and “incapacity” from another, it may also be “efficient” from one standpoint and “inefficient” from another. The difference is that with efficiency and inefficiency, Burke is concerned less with the single organism making its way in the world (like the trout at the beginning of Permanence and Change whose “training” may or may not prove to be an “incapacity”) than with relations among parts in the “total economy of this planet.” From this holistic standpoint, one can discern that near term efficiencies may be long term inefficiencies, or that near-term inefficiencies may turn out to be long term efficiencies.

Burke himself connects his concern with “ecological balance” with his comic attitude in a passage from Attitudes toward History that Seigel calls to our attention:

A comic frame of motives . . . [shows] us how an act can “dialectically” contain both transcendental and material ingredients, both imagination and bureaucratic embodiment, both “service” and “spoils.” Or, viewing the matter in terms of ecological balance (as per footnote, page 150), one might say of the comic frame: It also makes us sensitive to the point at which one of these ingredients becomes hypertrophied, with the corresponding atrophy of the other. A well balanced ecology requires the symbiosis of the two. (166-67)2

Seigel also notes how Burke’s “comic frame” links him with Joseph Meeker (400), another of the pioneers of ecocriciticism, whose Comedy of Survival: Literary Ecology and a Play Ethic originally appeared in 1972 and reappeared in a 3rd edition in 1997.

An ecocriticism within this part/whole framework would be less interested in nature apart from social and cultural practices than in tracing effects of such practices in the “total economy of the planet.” It should be added that recent work such as Daniel Botkin’s Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-first Century would question the idea of “ecological balance” that Burke uses. Botkin would argue that there is no such thing if “balance” means that nature at its core is an equilibrium that stays in balance as long as it is left alone, undisturbed by human actions. The choice between change and no change, he argues, is a false choice. The only reality is change so that one must learn to distinguish good change from bad and try to encourage the former and discourage the latter. But one can dispense with “balance” and keep Burke’s main concern. Botkin would agree about the centrality of interrelated parts and the need to cultivate knowledge of how what happens in one part produces effects in other parts, often distant and seemingly unrelated until one looks more closely.

Joshua Frye’s “Burke, Socioecology, and the Example of Cuban Argiculture” exemplifies Burkean ecocritical holism, offering in “socioecology” a term to discuss it. Just as “symbolic action” covers Burke’s concern with the language/body connection, “socioecology” can cover his concern with the social/earth connection. Frye illustrates the term’s meaning with examples from Burke's life and writing, theorizes it with Burke’s help, and applies it. Possibilities for further development of this term are extensive. Frye’s theorization of it draws on Burke’s understudied “ethicizing of the means of support.” Ecocritics are rightly concerned with our present purely “instrumental” use of the earth and typically urge that we reject it absolutely. Burke’s more nuanced approach suggests how the “instrumental” may transform itself into its opposite if the holistic circumstances are right. Frye’s application shows how the current experiment in Cuban agriculture is trying to combine near term and long term efficiencies, thus countering the tendency for efficiencies in one time frame to be inefficiencies in another.

Technological De-Terminism

Appearing in Rhetoric of Religion (294), the term "de-terministic” gives the notion of determinism a linguistic twist. To the best of my knowledge, Burke never coupled “de-terminism” with the adjective “technological,” but it would have been perfectly consistent for him to do so.

“De-Terministic” appears in the dialogue between “TL” and “S” in Burke’s “Prologue in Heaven.” It serves to explain the paradox that the “Word-Animal” is “forced to be free.” Because “yes” and “no” are inherent in words, free choice is “de-termined.” But this paradoxical “forced to be free” seems to cut two ways when transported to the area of “entelechy” or “perfection.” On the positive side:

Intrinsic to symbol-using as such there is the “principle of perfection,” the delight in carrying out terministic possibilities “to their logical conclusion,” in so far as such possibilities are perceived. This “entelechical” motive is the poetic equivalent of what, in the moral realm, is called “justice.” It is equatable with both necessity and freedom in the sense that the consistent rounding out of a terminology is the very opposite of frustration. Necessary movement toward perfect symmetry is thus free. (Language 155)
Sounds good, but Burke immediately adds in a footnote that there is a negative side to such perfection, especially when it emboldens “scientific imaginations to dreams of artificial satellites, the `conquest of outer space,’ and similar `Faustian’ grandiosities, while the humbler promises of applied science as a benefit to mankind are still ludicrously far from being redeemed” (155). Because of this negative side, “perfection” may be “rotten” (Language 16):
Thus, each of our scientific nomenclatures suggests its own special range of possible developments, with specialists vowed to carry out these terministic possibilities to the extent of their personal ability and technical resources. . . . Insofar as any of these terminologies happen also to contain the risks of destroying the world, that’s just too bad. (Language 19)

Reflecting on the power of such technological de-terminism, Burke remarks, “[N]o political system yet devised is adequate to the problem of controlling the great virtues of technology and their troublous side effects” (“Methodological Repression” 412). Quoting himself, he adds that he takes for granted the need to adopt “a kind of `Neo Stoic resignation’ to the needs of industrial expansion” (412; qtg. Grammar 442).3

From the standpoint of Burkean ecological holism, technological de-terminism may be viewed as a hyper-efficiency of a part (technology) at the expense of a hyper inefficiency of the whole (“destroying the world”). Such continuity from one to the other is possible to trace. It may be more profitable, however, to view the technological theme in Burke’s corpus as a strand independent of holism that focuses on a distinguishable if overlapping problem.

Technology first becomes a significant concern in Permanence and Change, first published in 1935, where it appears as the “technological psychosis” (44) that is the main antagonist that the book is designed to displace with a new poetic orientation--“the ultimate metaphor for discussing the universe and man’s relations to it must be the poetic or dramatic metaphor” (263). In the retrospective “Prologue” that Burke wrote for the book’s 2nd edition (1954), he informs us that the book’s original title was “`Treatise on Communication,’ and it is written in that spirit” (xlviii). From the standpoint of communication, the technological psychosis improves the communicative medium on the superficial level of “information giving” (49), but this improvement is purchased at the expense of deadening the medium for the purpose of poetic communication (50-58), which draws not on the superficiality of information but on the full range of ways humans “identify” with one another in becoming “consubstantial,” to borrow terms from the later Rhetoric. “In its simplest manifestation, style is ingratiation” (Permanence 50). Burke’s new poetic orientation would aim to restore poetic communication.

Technology reappears in the third clause of Burke’s definition of humankind as the symbol using animal: “Separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making. . . . This clause is designed to take care of those who would define man as the `tool-using animal’ (homo faber, homo economicus, and such)” (Language 13). It’s this dimension that technological de-terminism theorizes most directly and that attains an ultimate “perfection” in Burke’s satiric Helhaven vision, where a “Culture-Bubble” on the moon contains simulacra reproducing natural wonders that used to be available on earth before technology destroyed them.

Technology’s role in separating humans from their natural conditions is most obvious in Helhaven, where those who get there are separated from the earth that was the natural home for humankind before its destruction. It’s this separation from nature that distinguishes technological de-terminism from ecological holism as an ecocritical theme in Burke, although the two are not mutually exclusive.

One may wish to distinguish the “technological psychosis” in Permanence and Change from the technology in Helhaven, but it’s also possible to join them together as different ways that technology ironically separates humankind from its “natural condition” (ironic because technology seems also to be inherent in humankind’s “nature”). To pursue this possibility, consider the example of a flock of birds that Burke invents in developing his communication theme in Permanence and Change. One can imagine the flock living together “consubstantially” before fragmenting and developing “a great variety in their ways of living”:

Yet suppose that they still considered themselves a homogeneous flock, and still clung discordantly together, attempting to act by the same orientation as they had when living in a homogeneous culture. How would this cultural mongrelism affect them? Their responses would be thrown into a muddle. The startled cry of one member would lose its absolute value as a sign. . . . Their old poetic methods of flapping their wings and crying out would lose prestige among the flock. . . . The most intelligent birds would insist upon the perfection of a strict and unambiguous nomenclature. (55-56)

With the call for “unambiguous nomenclature,” the “technological psychosis” emerges. It’s an intellectual feat and it serves a utilitarian value. But its emergence is also a sign of separation from a “consubstantiality” that allowed for deeper, poetic communication.

For Burke, then, the nature that technology separates us from encompasses both the nature “out there” and the “consubstantiality” that is the natural way for human “flocks” to live with one another. Whether one wants to speak of a “natural” way for humans to live together may be debated. But Burke does repeatedly stress the dependency of the individual on the group. In Permanence and Change, he suggests that the individual’s deepest means of support resides in the communal bond: “By it he is `transcendentally’ fortified. His personal solidity depends upon his allegiance to it” (236). In Attitudes toward History, when he takes up the entry for “Identity, Identification” in his “Dictionary of Pivotal Terms,” he insists that bourgeois psychologists erred in considering “all the collective aspects of identity under the head of pathology and illusion”:

That is: they discovered accurately enough that identity is not individual, that a man “identifies himself” with all sorts of manifestations beyond himself, and they set about trying to “cure” him of this tendency. (263)

In Philosophy of Literary Form, he moves to a more philosophical level, anticipating the later idea of “consubstantiality,” when he contrasts the “realist” conception of individuals as members of a group to the “nominalist” conception of groups as aggregates of individuals (126). “Consubstantiality,” in other words, seems to be for Burke a normative foundation. Whether or not one calls this foundation “natural,” the “technological psychosis” separates humans from it in limiting their connections with one another to the superficial level of information instead of the deeper levels of poetic communication. Computers can exchange information but they don’t ingratiate one another.

Rueckert’s Ecocriticism

In her history of the emergence of ecocriticism as a critical movement, Glotfelty contrasts the prefixes “eco-” and “enviro-”:

in its connotations, enviro- is anthropocentric and dualistic, implying that we humans are at the center, surrounded by everything that is not us, the environment. Eco-, in contrast, implies interdependent communities, integrated systems, and strong connections among constituent parts. (xx)

“Enviro-” encourages the distinction between nature and culture, sometimes even to the extent of making them mutually exclusive so that nature, strictly speaking, exists only when it stands in magisterial independence of human fingerprints of any kind (the premise of Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature); whereas “eco-” encourages seeing both nature and culture as interconnected parts contained by the Earth’s ecology. In taking Rueckert’s term instead of inventing a new term “envirocriticism,” this movement seems to side with “eco-” but it also sides with “enviro-” in the names, mentioned above, of its journal and organization. Perhaps early ecocriticism’s focus on nature writing, which fits readily into the “enviro-” model, has something to do with this terminological ambivalence.

Burke sometimes comes close to the “enviro-” model, as in a passage in “Poetics and Communication”:

It would be better for us, in the long run, if we “identified ourselves” rather with the natural things that we are progressively destroying--our trees, our rivers, our land, even our air, all of which we are a lowly ecological part of. (414)
But as evidenced by “ecological holism” and “technological de-terminism,” Burke is more interested in identifying the things that impede such identifications than in celebrating instances of nature writing in which they occur. Even in the above passage Burke is saying such identifications would be better for us than identifications with technology:
Our spontaneous identification with the powers of technology can lead to quite a range of bluntness. . . . Almost without thinking, we incline to be like the fellow who had delusions of grandeur because, each time he approached the door of a supermarket, it of itself opened to let him pass. (413)

Burke’s ecological focus, in other words, tends to be on what humans do in the ecological web of life. Stirred by destructive human practices, his theoretical bent leads him to theorize the ultimate sources of these practices.

Taking his lead from Burke, Rueckert similarly directs attention to human practices. The originality of his ecocriticism resides in its conceptual location of the practices surrounding literature, ranging from its creation to its reception to its teaching, in the ecological web of life, with special attention to ways that in this area humans can serve a positive function in this web.

In his 1978 article coining the term “ecocriticism,” Rueckert concludes his introductory survey of the scene of literary criticism in the mid-1970s by turning to Burke:

To borrow a splendid phrase from Kenneth Burke, one of our great experimental critics, I am going to experiment with the conceptual and practical possibilities of an apparent perspective by incongruity. Forward then. Perhaps that old pair of antagonists, science and poetry, can be persuaded to lie down together and be generative after all. (107)

These “old antagonists” were especially antagonistic during the heyday of the New Criticism at mid-century, when it was routine (1) to define literature as a distinctive use of language and (2) to define this distinctiveness by contrasting literary language to scientific language. Rueckert turns this routine upside down by using science as a model for the study of literature, not science in general, which is what the New Critics had in mind, but the science of ecology.

The chief ideas he borrows from this science are the principles (1) that “everything is connected” and (2) that energy flows are central to these connections. It’s the combination of such energy flows and literature that generates his chief “perspectives by incongruity.” For example, “[a] poem is stored energy, a formal turbulence, a living thing, a swirl in the flow” (108):

Energy flows from the poet’s language centers and creative imagination into the poem and thence, from the poem (which converts and stores this energy) into the reader. (109-110)
In the web in which “everything is connected,” there may be ways to distinguish energy flows in the biosphere from those centered in literature (109), but Rueckert is making a realistic claim in insisting that literature makes things happen, doing things for those who create it and those who respond to it. Nothing could be more Burkean. In Rueckert’s formulation:
Kenneth Burke was right as usual that drama should be our model or paradigm for literature because a drama, enacted upon the stage, before a live audience, releases its energy into the human community assembled in the theater and raises all the energy levels. Burke did not want us to treat novels and poems as plays; he wanted us to become aware of what they were doing as creative verbal action in the human community. He was one of our first critical ecologists. Coming together in the classroom, in the lecture hall, in the seminar room (anywhere, really) to discuss or read or study literature, is to gather energy centers around a matrix of stored poetic/verbal energy. . . . [T]he flow is along many energy pathways from poem to person, from person to person. . . . [T]here is, ideally, a raising of the energy levels which makes it possible for the highest motives of literature to accomplish themselves. These motives are not pleasure and truth, but creativity and community. (110-11)

In this fashion, then, Rueckert conceives literature’s place in the “everything is connected” that constitutes the ecology of the earth. Within this framework, the job of ecocriticism is to recognize this power of literature to create community and to direct this power to create a community between humankind and the earth. “Culture one of our great achievements wherever we have gone has often fed like a great predator and parasite upon nature and never entered into a reciprocating energy transfer, into a recycling relationship with the biosphere” (119). That is what ecocriticism must work to change.

The power of literature to create community is a central concern in Gregory Clark’s “`Sinkership’ and `Eye-Crossing’: Apprehensive in the American Landscape,” a groundbreaking ecocritical interpretation of two of Burke’s long poems from the 1960s. Clark’s essay, moreover, may be profitably read from the standpoint not only of Rueckert’s ecocritical model but also of Burke’s technological de-terminism. In exemplary fashion, Clark shows how Burke registers the effects of technological de-terminism, not just in technological transformations of essential American landscapes--the West (“Sinkership”), New York (“Eye Crossing”)--but also in the effects of these transformations on the humans inhabiting these landscapes. Environmental degradation circles back onto humans not just on the physical level (bad air, bad water) but also on the level of human relationships. Rueckert’s ecocritical approach appears in the attention Clark gives to how Burke’s poems, in the desolation of this landscape, can energize a new community among those who share the “attitude” they communicate to attentive readers. In the new community or “consubstantiality” formed between Burke and his readers, a step is taken, however small, from apprehension to hope.

Ecological Realism

Between the publication of Rueckert’s ecocritism article in 1978 and its reprinting in The Ecocriticism Reader in 1996, there is one change. Both versions end with a proclamation, made all the more dramatic by being set apart from the main text and italicized:

1978: “Free us from figures of speech.” 1996: “Free us from false figures of speech.”

A response to the 1978 article when he once read it as a lecture convinced Rueckert that this change was needed, so that he made it when later asked to reprint it in 1996.4 But long before, in 1982, he explored the idea of “false figures of speech” in “Metaphor and Reality: A Mediation on Man, Nature, and Words,” which seeks through mediation between man, nature, and words to find ways to distinguish true from false in an area that usually doesn’t involve such considerations. Because a metaphor, by its very nature, doesn’t purport to correspond to reality, one is more likely to use aesthetic criteria in judging it good or bad than criteria of truth and falsity. Rueckert brings considerations of pragmatic truth and falsity to bear on metaphors by considering them as realities productive of real effects, in a manner consistent with rhetorical realism, discussed below. Metaphors can help to form communities and can be judged by the actions of the communities they help to create. Humankind needs to serve the planet, Rueckert argues, by finding metaphors that teach it to see itself as the planet’s awareness.

Rueckert’s concern with “metaphor and reality” registers ecocriticism’s overriding concern with the reality of ecological crisis. It’s a critical movement motivated by issues arising from this reality rather than such things as aesthetics. In its concern with this reality, ecocriticism has tended to march to the beat of a different drummer in the context of a postmodern criticism that for over a generation has preached that reality is gone for good, displaced once and for all by “constructions.” These constructions are adjectivally qualified varyingly as “social,” “cultural,” or “linguistic,” depending on how their formation is theorized. Burke, for example, offers a theory of linguistic constructionism in his well known “Terministic Screens,” where language is conceived as a “selection” so that terminologies are not reproductions of reality but constructions that simultaneously “reflect” and “deflect” reality (Language 45). But above such minor theoretical differences there is the theoretical consensus that we no longer (if we ever did) deal with reality directly. Instead, we live in a world of constructs that we need to be careful not to mistake for reality (a la “naïve verbal realism”). An important issue for ecocriticism, arising from its emergence in this theoretical context is well defined by Randall Roorda in his important essay “KB in Green: Ecology, Critical Theory, and Kenneth Burke”:

An ongoing challenge for ecocritical practice is to get critical theory and ecology to address each other in ways they do not now sufficiently do. To pointedly oversimplify the situation, I’d say that critical theory, in its fixation on the constructed character of representation, neglects ecology; and ecology, in turn, must suffer its embarrassment in employing theory that threatens always to tar it as “foundationalist.” I hope through Burke to suggest some ways that this neglect and embarrassment might be mitigated. (173)

Roorda develops his Burkean argument by contrasting Burke to Richard Rorty. Both Burke and Rorty affirm the power of language to construct realities. But Burke houses this constructive power in bodies biologically embedded in the ecology that sustains life on earth, whereas Rorty, Roorda argues, “does not really believe he is an animal. His every mention of other animals, of biological states, of evolutionary theory, betrays his skepticism on this count” (181). Rorty’s constructionism thus floats free of any connection to the earth, while Burke’s is rooted in a “metabiology” tied to the reality of the earth (175, 181).

Consequently, Burke provides Roorda a theoretical basis whereby ecology’s reality can serve as a corrective that can help humankind “to create and sustain conditions of human well being which, as such, are not peculiar to humans conditions, for instance, that a spotted owl might preside over as well” (181). An important passage for Roorda (177) comes from Burke’s Dramatism and Development:

an anti-Technologistic Humanism would be “animalistic” in the sense that, far from boasting of some privileged human status, it would never disregard our humble, and maybe even humiliating, place in the totality of the natural order. (53-54)

Roorda conceives this ecological reality as a “grounding” rather than a “foundation.” Whereas a “foundation” is a philosophical principle with the permanence of eternity, a “grounding” is the result of a long evolutionary process marked by contingencies, such that with different contingencies a different “grounding” could have resulted. A “grounding” of this sort, Roorda insists, “is not a metaphysical category . . . [rather it’s] durable indeed, in something of the way, for instance, we might think the ancient forests have been and ought to be permanent” (182).5

Arguably the first book-length treatment of Burke as an ecocritic is Coupe’s recent book, Kenneth Burke on Myth: An Introduction. Bringing attention to important dimensions of Burke’s work that have been understudied in the past, it has been justly called a “must read” (Smith).6 It’s true that the book’s focus is myth, with five “Myth and . . .” chapters, but the last of these is “Myth and Ecology,” where one can find reason to think that the earlier chapters should be seen as in some sense culminating in Burke the ecocritic.

How should one characterize Coupe’s Burkean ecocriticism? On the one hand, Coupe repeatedly and emphatically affirms Burke’s realism (54, 138, 156, 159). One of these affirmations is in opposition to Rene Girard’s charge that Burke is a linguistic idealist (138, 156). In these affirmations, Coupe aligns himself with a number of other commentators who treat Burke as a realist, sometimes quoting and affirming long passages from their work. On the other hand, his “Myth and Ecology” chapter features a passage that seems to go beyond the geocentric or earthbound limits of realism to a cosmocentric centering of nature if not humankind:

It is Burke’s contention that the traditional invocation of “Supernature” is a better guarantor of the flourishing of “Nature” than the modern ambition to create an exclusive realm of “Counter Nature.” To honor the natural world as the manifestation of the divine is to grant it more security and status than to assess its merit as grist for technological exploitation. Granted that human beings have intervened in the function of the biosphere at least since the invention of agriculture in the Neolithic era, it is still possible to distinguish between a responsible and an irresponsible attitude to the planet. Burke believes that we are more likely to avoid destroying the earth if we maintain our mythic roots. For in “myths of the Supernatural,” which emphasize “personality” (the figures of the gods), we maintain the possibility of relationship, whereas if our horizon is dominated by technology, we are resigned to mere “instrumentality.” (164)7

It’s the reference to honoring “the natural world as the manifestation of the divine” that would go beyond “ecological realism” to “ecological mythology (or religion),” if it means that Coupe believes that for Burke there is a divinity and that it can be found in nature (a la Emerson8). Maybe the line could be read as calling upon us to honor nature “as if” it were divine, but that’s not altogether clear, and a few pages before this passage Coupe seems to want us to “allow for the supernatural dimension as something more than a linguistic construction” (160).

Determining whether these passages can be squared with Coupe’s affirmations of Burke’s realism would require a detailed analysis of his book that would take us far afield. It may help, though, to clarify the contours of ecological realism further by trying to define how such realism could incorporate Burke’s work on myth without resorting to the premise that Burke assumes that the supernatural really exists. A useful text for this purpose, one that Coupe also quotes, appears in The Philosophy of Literary Form:

A ritual dance for promoting the fertility of crops was absurd enough as “science” (though its absurdity was effectively and realistically corrected in so far as the savage, along with the mummery of the rite, planted the seed; and if you do not abstract the rite as the essence of the event, but instead consider the act of planting as also an important ingredient of the total recipe, you see that the chart of meanings contained a very important accuracy). It should also be noted that the rite, considered as “social science,” had an accuracy lacking in much of our contemporary action, since it was highly collective in its attributes, a group dance in which all shared, hence an incantatory device that kept alive a much stronger sense of the group’s consubstantiality than is stimulated today by the typical acts of private enterprise. (108-09)9

Coupe comments that this passage shows that “it is by paying due attention to the act and its effects that we appreciate the validity of magic, even in the face of science” (79). It’s “the act and its effects” that merit special attention, and for that purpose it will help to use the passage to distinguish three levels. It’s the third level that will be our primary concern.

The first is the positivistic level, where the planting of the seed is the only reality. All the rest is “nonsense,” and not only could be discarded but should be. One can move to the second level with the help of Burke’s argument against the positivists that even “words of nonsense would themselves be real words, involving real tactics, having real demonstrable relationships, and demonstrably affecting relationships” (Grammar 57-58). One might add that the relationships affected by words encompass not only relations among humans but also relations between humankind and the earth. It’s on this level of “the act and its effects that we appreciate the validity of magic,” not because magic works realistically but because words of magic can produce real effects among human beings.

Leaving aside the third level momentarily, it’s necessary to add that it’s at this second level that crucial differences between rhetorical realism and rhetorical idealism begin to emerge. Rhetorical idealism would question Burke’s talk about the reality of words, their connections to the motion of bodies, their place in nature, and so on. To an idealist, all this talk makes Burke himself sound like a “naïve verbal realist.” Idealists prefer to insist that we are “always already” inside constructions that mediate our relation with whatever is beyond them, so that reality is always at one remove away from the language we use to talk about it. No matter which way we turn there is always another mediation that we can never quite get around. But rhetorical realism counters that while there are constructions aplenty, the idealist theorizing of them must at some point pin down exactly how constructions take form and operate, and at that point a reality emerges, the reality of the constructive process that cannot be constructed away.)10 Linguistic constructs come and go, but language abides as long as “bodies that learn language” are around. Like it or not, at some point idealists become realists.

Turning to the third level, one’s focus becomes the “consubstantiality” that Burke highlights as especially important among the real effects of the symbolic action in his hypothetical fertility rite. It’s fair to assume that part of the cause of these effects would be the mythic rationalization of the rite by which the participants see themselves, through the rite, putting themselves into “relationship” with the “figure of the[ir] gods,” the relationship Coupe stresses in making his claim about the importance of our “mythic roots.” Such a myth is the group’s social construction. The gods don’t exist, but the construction produces real effects nonetheless.

Burke’s realist approach to myth appears with special clarity in “`Mythic’ Ground and `Context of Situation,’” where he argues that “no matter how `mythic’ a reference to the `ultimate’ ground may be, it itself arose out of a temporal ground, available to sociological description,” such as that in Malinowski’s “context of situation” (Rhetoric 204 05). The function of mythic references to an “`ultimate’ ground” is to transcend partisan divisions that divide a culture (Rhetoric 207-08).

From the standpoint of an inveterate debunker such references are always charades designed to conceal factional interests; there is only ideology, no myth beyond ideology. Burke, of course, would object to the debunker’s “always.” In the dialectic of identification and division, Burke finds that identifications atop divisions can sometimes effect real transcendence to real consubstantiality. A good deal of A Rhetoric of Motives is designed to combine the debunker’s demystification with the mystery of consubstantiality. As Burke remarks in the Rhetoric’s “Introduction”:

a man who identifies his private ambitions with the good of the community may be partly justified and partly unjustified. He may be using a mere pretext to gain individual advantage at the public expense; yet he may be quite sincere, or even may willingly make sacrifices in behalf of such identification. (xiii-xiv)

Burke, then, often considers myth from a standpoint inside culture and looks to it in theorizing the possibility of identifications atop divisions. Dialectic is a sine qua non of such identifications, but it is not always enough. One needs not only the verbal level of dialectic but also a foundation in the culture’s circumstances on which to base such identifications and thereby give them a substance beyond the dialectical spinning of words (Rhetoric 195).

From this standpoint inside culture, the test of a myth is whether it effects consubstantiality. In other words, can the culture transcend its divisions through a consensus reference to an “`ultimate’ ground”? Ecological concerns pose an additional test for such a reference, one focusing on the relationship it produces between the culture and the natural world. Roorda’s “grounding,” for example, is his “`ultimate’ ground,” identified synecdochically with the durability of an “Ancient Forest” (175, 182). Here is the durability of the evolutionary past that continues in the present in the life, human and non-human, on the earth. The ecological test of this “grounding” would reside in its effects on the relation of humans to the earth they inhabit.

Ecological realism could also adapt the tripartite structure of “individual,” “specific,” and “generic” motives that Burke uses in the Rhetoric to analyze the transcendence at which all humans aim (Rhetoric 195), with the “generic” serving as the mythic or “`ultimate’ ground.” One of Burke’s main examples comes from the Marxist narrative of history: one is “individually” a body, “specifically” a worker, and “generically” the proletariat in a history in which all humans participate. Whether workers achieve transcendence depends on whether their self perception can rise from the “specific” to the “generic” level. Modified, one could stress at the “specific” level many other divisions besides those based on employment, but the main change would be at the generic level, where the stress would be on the sense in which we’re all inhabitants of the earth, equally dependent on the life its ecology makes possible. Again, transcendence would depend on whether self perception can rise to this generic level.11 Many people today seem to have achieved transcendence in precisely this way. Maybe such transcendence, in the context of today’s ecological crisis, can do for people in the 21st century what mythic gods have done in the past. Such transcendence, moreover, has the advantage of being based not on speculations about the heavens above but on the indisputable reality of the earth beneath our feet.

To facilitate such transcendent identification, what’s needed is the best knowledge that can be acquired about the ecological web of life and the place of humankind in it. It’s worth recalling that Burke never denies that science can produce knowledge about the realm of motion that is more than a mere spinning of words (a la rhetorical idealism). He only insists that science cannot operate independently of the action of language using. In Burke’s words,

Men can so arrange it that nature gives clear, though impartial and impersonal, answers to their questions. The dialectical motives behind such methods usually escape our detection, though we get a glimpse of them when Galileo speaks of experimental testing as an “ordeal.” Stated broadly the dialectical (agonistic) approach to knowledge is through the act of assertion, whereby one “suffers” the kind of knowledge that is the reciprocal of his act. (Grammar 38)

The crucial human component is in the determination of the questions put to nature. Science produces knowledge but science is not innocent; the knowledge it produces isn’t forced upon it by nature but results from the answers humans look for to suit their purposes. Instead of putting questions to nature that are “instrumental,” seeking answers to facilitate purely instrumental domination of nature, ecological realism would pose ecological questions to facilitate learning how to live as a responsible inhabitant of the planet.

Ecological realism, then, needs no gods. Coupe’s book may contribute less to ecological realism than to adding a fifth mode of Burkean ecocriticism to the four introduced here. Burke seems content with realism most of the time but not all the time. Particularly significant in this connection may be the varying things he says about mysticism in different places. For example, in the Rhetoric, he suggests that even if “mystic `revelations’” are possible,

we should ask ourselves how much of “divinity” can be explained neurologically, how much linguistically, and how much “socioanagogically.” We should account for as much as possible by these three routes. Then God, genuinely transcendent, would be sought in the direction of whatever was still unaccounted for. (298)

Is there a mystic revelation of the divine? Burke doesn’t say “yes” here, but he doesn’t say “no” either. Coupe suggests, “Without being a mystical thinker himself, Burke is interested in seeing how far myth takes us toward a level of understanding that we associate with mysticism” (186).

And if there is a fifth mode of Burkean ecocriticism, there is no reason to think that the list of modes would stop at five, especially when one considers that the longer the list, the more opportunities there are for combinations to generate still more modes.

In the essays in this issue, Clark, Frye, and Rueckert add valuable work to the valuable Burkean ecocriticism that already exists. But there is much more to be done. Putting Burke and ecocriticism together opens up possibilities for Burke studies that are still largely untapped and that can lead to work that is likely to grow more important as the 21st century unfolds. Things are likely to get a lot worse for the ecology of the planet before they begin to get significantly better.


1. Bowen is quoting from Attitudes toward History, page 150, but gives no indication of the title, prompting Burke, in his comment on Bowen’s article, to lament: “For though the article specified the date when my book was published, it kept the title a secret. So, whereas there had been a Beacon Paperback edition of ATH available since 1961, the pebble caused nary a ripple” (Attitudes 412).

2. In quoting this passage, Seigel indicates that it appears in the 1st ed. The passage does appear there, but without the sentence in which Burke refers parenthetically to page 150, where his prediction about ecology appears. That sentence does not appear until 1959, when Attitudes appears in its 2nd ed.

3. Citing Burke’s pessimism in “Methodological Repression,” Star A. Muir asks, “Where, then, in Burke’s frame of acceptance is hope for the future? What corrective does he offer to counter his seemingly tragic view of technology?” (36). In a searching essay, “Toward an Ecology of Language,” Muir explores the pedagogic implications of Burke’s Neo Stoic posture to find ways to see enough around the corner of our technological de terminism to keep hope alive. He concludes, “An awareness of the juncture of the genius of symbolism and the marvel of organism must ever spring anew, keeping the admonition against the fulfillment of our symbolic perfection alive” (65).

4. This statement is based on personal communications with Rueckert about this change.

5. Roorda might fault Richard Thames for turning “metabiology” into a “metaphysical category” in his essay “Nature’s Physician: The Metabiology of Kenneth Burke.” Thames might counter that Roorda’s “grounding” is metaphysics with a different name, perhaps a metaphysics of becoming rather than unchanging being. Whether to classify Thames as an ecologist realist depends less on such semantic debate than on the issue he himself defines in exploring the Burke/Spinoza connection: is God nature or is nature God. Thames seems to move from ecological realism toward ecological religion when he proposes, “If Spinoza’s pantheism provided the opportunity for science to reduce the concept of nature, Burke’s own pantheism provides the opportunity to expand it again; rather than reduce God to Nature, he seeks to make Nature God” (25).

6. For the record, though, one needs to correct Coupe on a few minor factual points. Coupe says, “In 1993, he [Burke] was also present at the launch of the Kenneth Burke Society, staged at New Harmony, Indiana” (3). Burke was present at the launch of the Kenneth Burke Society, but that occurred in 1984, in Philadelphia, at the Burke conference commemorated in The Legacy of Kenneth Burke. The New Harmony conference was in 1990, not 1993. It’s remembered in Extensions of the Burkeian System. It was the first national conference organized by the Kenneth Burke Society. Also in need of correction is Coupe’s flat statement, “Burke became managing editor of The Dial, an avant garde literary journal, in 1923. . . .” (2). Burke’s time as managing editor was only in an “acting” capacity, and he also held other posts during his years with The Dial (see Selzer 54 for a summary of the varying roles Burke played at The Dial).

7. By contrast to Coupe, Frye’s socioecology suggests how humankind’s relation to the earth can become more than merely “instrumental” by virtue of Burke’s “ethicizing of the means of support.”

8. In the pages immediately preceding this passage, Coupe discusses Burke’s essay on Emerson in Language as Symbolic Action and seems to read it as a straightforward affirmation of Emerson. Burke is concerned in the essay with “transcendence” in Emerson’s essay “Nature,” but he says that he deals with transcendence as “a sheerly symbolic operation” (187). In the essay’s subtitle, Burke speaks of the “Machinery of Transcendence,” and it’s clear from the article that this “machinery” resides in the formalism of dialectic.

9. This is an important passage in Burke’s corpus, coming only two paragraphs before the paragraph defining the “unending conversation” (110-11). Burke uses his hypothetical fertility rite as part of his illustration of the role the group plays in how “the individual forms himself,” then in the next paragraph he adds that the equation of “dramatic” to “dialectic” gives him his perspective on history, and then he turns to the “conversation.”

10. This reality is often overlooked by virtue of failing to distinguish two ways words function in the theorizing of constructionism. In such discussions, (1) words are used to talk about a subject matter and (2) words are the subject matter that is talked about. As the subject matter that is talked about, words are given realist status as theorists analyze how they work (e.g., selection, reflection, deflection) in the formation of constructs that produce real effects in the world. For more on this distinction, see Wess, “Burke’s McKeon Side.”

11. For a more detailed analysis, based on Burke, of such geocentric or earth centered transcendence, see Wess, “Geocentric,” 4-9.

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