This Special Issue on Ecocriticism, edited by Robert Wess, features new articles by Robert Wess, Gregory Clark, Joshua Frye, and William H. Rueckert. Future KB Journal issues will have essays in a section called "Burke in the Fields.” This issue features the first “Burke in the Fields” essay by Barry Brummett and Anna M. Young, "Some Uses of Burke in Communication Studies." This issue also contains essays by Rebecca Townsend and John Lynch and review essays by Rebecca Townsend, Sarah Meinen Jedd, and David Marado.
We are saddened by the passing of Bernard L. Brock. Bernie was influential in the establishment of the Kenneth Burke Society and this journal, and he was one of our associate editors. James F. Klumpp remembers the late Bernie Brock in this issue.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Botkin, Botkin. Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty first Century. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.
Bowen, William. “Our New Awareness of the Great Web.” Fortune Feb. 1970: 198-99.
Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.
Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes toward History. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1984.
---. Dramatism and Development. Barre, Massachusetts: Clark UP, 1972.
---. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.
---. Language as Symbolic Action. U of California P, 1966.
---. “Methodological Repression and/or Strategies of Containment.” Critical Inquiry 5 (1978): 401-16.
---. Permanence and Change. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.
---. The Philosophy of Literary Form. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California, 1973.
---. “Poetics and Communication.” Perspectives in Education, Religion, and the Arts. Ed. Howard E. Keifer and Milton K. Munitz. Albany: State U of New York P, 1970. 401-18.
---. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.
---. The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. Berkeley: U of California P, 1970.
---. “Towards Helhaven: Three Stages of a Vision, 1971.” On Human Nature: A Gathering While Everything Flows, 1967-1984. Ed. William H. Rueckert and Angelo Bonadonna. Berkeley: U of California P, 2003. 54-65.
Coupe, Laurence. “Kenneth Burke: Pioneer of Ecocriticism.” Journal of American Studies 35 (2001): 413-31.
---. Kenneth Burke on Myth: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Extensions of the Burkeian System. Ed. James W. Chesebro. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1993.
Glotfelty, Cheryll. “Introduction: Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis.” In Glotfelty and Fromm xv-xxxvii.
Glotfelty, Cheryll and Harold Fromm, eds. The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1996.
The Legacy of Kenneth Burke. Ed. Herbert W. Simons and Trevor Melia. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1989.
McKibben, William. The End of Nature. New York: Random House, 1989.
Meeker, Joseph W. The Comedy of Survival: Literary Ecology and a Play Ethic. 3rd ed. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1997.
Muir, Star A. “Toward an Ecology of Language.” Kenneth Burke and the 21st Century. Ed. Bernard L. Brock. Albany: SUNY P, 1999. 35 69.
Phillips, Dana. The Truth of Ecology: Nature, Culture, and Literature in America. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.
Roorda, Randall. “KB in Green: Ecology, Critical Theory, and Kenneth Burke.” The ISLE Reader: Ecocriticism, 1993-2003. Ed. Michael P. Branch and Scott Slovic. 173 87. Originally appeared in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 4.2 (1997): 39-52.
Rueckert, William H. “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism.” Glotfelty and Fromm 105-23. Originally appeared in The Iowa Review 9.1 (1978): 71-86.
Seigel, Marika A. “`One little fellow named Ecology’: Ecological Rhetoric in Kenneth Burke’s Attitudes toward History.” Rhetoric Review 23 (2004): 388-403.
Selzer, Jack. Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village: Conversing with the Moderns 1915-1931. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1996.
Smith, Daniel L. Rev. of Kenneth Burke on Myth: An Introduction, by Laurence Coupe. KB Journal 2.1 (Fall 2005).
Thames, Richard. “Nature’s Physician: The Metabiology of Kenneth Burke.” Kenneth Burke and the 21st Century. Ed. Bernard L. Brock. SUNY Press, 1999. 19-34.
Wess, Robert. “Burke’s McKeon Side: Burke’s Pentad and McKeon’s Quartet.” Kenneth Burke and His Circles. Ed. Jack Selzer and Robert Wess. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press (forthcoming).
---. “Geocentric Ecocriticism.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 10.2 (2003): 1-19.
Gregory Clark, Brigham Young University
Abstract: This essay interprets two long Burke poems from the late 1960's, testing the value of accessing Burke's thought through his poetry rather than his theoretical writing. These poems articulate Burke's apprehension, while spending time in the West (Sinkership) and in New York (Eye 'Crossing'), about technology's effects on nature and human relations. But poetry, unlike theory, enables readers to share this apprehension at an attitudinal level that encompasses all levels of identity. Through these poems, readers can become consubstantial with Burke, and in this new consubstantiality they take a step, however small, from apprehension to hope.
I'M A LITTLE SLOW SOMETIMES. I finally got around to meeting Kenneth Burke when it was almost too late, and after I did finally talk with him I ignored, until recently, the most important thing he told me.
He was 92 when I met him—bent and prone to mumble, but animated by surprising bursts of energy. We talked in his kitchen for a couple of hours on a summer Saturday. I was trying to understand his Grammar and Rhetoric and he responded to my questions by pushing copies of his Complete White Oxen and his Collected Poems across the table to me and saying, “Haven’t you read this?” I hadn’t. And I didn’t for years after that, even though he told me that day that he’d only started writing theory because people weren’t getting his point in his fiction and poetry.
I started this essay still thinking mostly about Burke's theory. But I also started reading in what he had been writing since his better-known theoretical books—his “late” writing, both theoretical and poetic. And that reading brought back the memory of the man I had talked with and walked with in Andover, of what had been on his mind that day in 1989, and of his repeated statement that I could find answers to my theoretical questions in his poetic work. So I decided, finally, to take him at his word.
I write this essay to continue a project begun in my book, Rhetorical Landscapes of America, of understanding implications of the expanded conception of rhetoric that are implicit in Burke’s definition of the rhetorical as an experience of identification. There I used that concept of the rhetorical to examine ways that the environments we live in—specifically, the landscapes we inhabit—shape, if not create, our individual and collective identities.1 Here I want to look again at that rhetorical interaction of landscape and human identity, but this time at the power of our identities—and, specifically, the attitudes that constitute them—to create landscapes that speak back to us of who we are with persistent rhetorical power. I do this in order to make two amends to Kenneth Burke. The first is for writing a book on Burke and landscape that does not deal directly with the concern that dominated his late work: our willful ignorance obsessed as we are with the apparent promise of our imagination and the technology it creates of our absolute dependence on a natural world that technology is displacing and destroying. The second amend is for ignoring his poetic work for so long.
Burke’s concerns about technology appear with special ironic and dramatic clarity in his two essays devoted to Helhaven: “Towards Helhaven: Three Stages of a Vision” (1971) and “Why Satire, with a Plan for Writing One” (1974). Helhaven is a culture bubble on the moon that technologically reproduces simulacra of natural wonders that once existed on earth before their destruction at the hands of technology. One important connection between the Helhaven essays and the two landscape poems I wish to examine is Walt Whitman.
These two poems are both late poems—rhetorical poems that record and respond to the rhetorical power of two quintessential American landscapes. The first, “Tossing on Floodtides of Sinkership: A Diaristic Fragment,” was written in the summer of 1967 and appears in Complete Poems, 1915 1967, published in 1968. This poem—he described it as he was writing it as a “muddle of sensation and ideation”—reads as meditations of a “Wandering Scholar” who is driving across his nation’s continent toward a temporary teaching post in the West (Letters 113).2 Burke is aware as he drives that he is reenacting the archetypal American experience of discovering the possibilities of the future in trajectory of a journey west:
go go going West, the wife and I—
I told the Selph I’d say again
them resonant words of Horace Greeley,
“Go West, elderly couple.” (289)
But the landscape he encounters on this journey is not promising, teeming as it is with technological and commercial development—industrial, agricultural, touristic—and its attendant refuse, and populated by people who live together isolated as he is by their own automobiles and itineraries. The only insight into the future that he can discover along the way is the possibility that he and his nation both are living on “floodtides of sinkership.” The second poem appeared in 1969 with the title “Eye Crossing from Brooklyn to Manhattan” and was later expanded with Burke’s reflections and explanations, appearing with this prose commentary under different titles in 1973, 2003, and 2005.3 Here the poet’s meditations are those of a man who finds himself nearly immobile in his nation’s most famous city—the second essential American landscape. Late in 1968, Burke brought his wife, Libbie, to an apartment hotel in Brooklyn Heights; she had suffered a stroke in September 1968 that made moving to the city “advisable” (Jay 365; Letters 141). In May 1969, Libbie “left in her sleep,” as Burke put it in a note to Malcolm Cowley (Jay 368). During her final months, Burke cared for her day and night in a room with a window allowing “eye crossings” across the East River to lower Manhattan. The landscape he encounters in these crossings seems more ominous than the one he had encountered on the road driving across the continent a few years earlier:
A jumble of towering tombstones
hollowed, not hallowed,
and in the night incandescent
striving ever to outstretch one another
like stalks of weeds dried brittle in the fall. (16)
Both poems assume familiarity with Whitman poems. “Sinkership” re evaluates Whitman’s limitless vision of westering progress articulated in “Song of the Open Road”; “Eye-Crossing,” his confident concept of national community expressed in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”
The Helhaven satire, evidently conceived not long after the writing of these poems, retrospectively articulates an additional Whitmanesque context for them, one that spotlights in particular Burke’s concerns in these poems with environmental destruction. The 2003 version of “Eye Crossing” appears with a brief introduction by William H. Rueckert, who groups it with “Sinkership,” indicating that both poems are “anti Whitmanian and antitechnology and are part of Burke’s sustained attack on the creative genius of hypertechnology during his later years” (Burke, On Human Nature 305). In “Why Satire,” Burke points to Whitman to explain the genesis of his strategy in his Helhaven satire:
the task of the satirist is to set up a fiction whereby our difficulties can be treated in the accents of the promissory. Whitman, in his accents of gladness, had given us the clue:
I know not where they go,
But I know that they go toward the best--toward
Something great. (75)
These lines from Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” (section 13) reappear in “Sinkership,” where Burke quotes the complete verse paragraph in which they appear and adds, “Whitman whistling in the dark” (280). In Burke’s Helhaven vision, Whitman’s whistling satirically celebrates the darkness of our worst fears coming to pass. Burke’s “vision” of Helhaven needed a “visionary,” and Whitman provided Burke the perfect model. “Why Satire” even ends with a few poems modeled on Whitman, in which Burke’s Helhaven visionary speaks. Years before, Burke observed that “much of Whitman’s appeal resides in this poetic alchemy, whereby the dangerous destruction of our natural resources could be exaltedly interpreted as an `advance’” (Philosophy of Literary Form 118). This “alchemy” appears in satiric form in Helhaven.4
I think that Burke wrote “Sinkership” and “Eye-Crossing” to counter what the landscapes we have made for ourselves—land we have made over in the image of what we have imagined ourselves to be (Philosophy of Literary Form 281)—are telling us about our individual and collective identity, about who we are and what we became in the twentieth century. He wrote them perhaps lacking confidence that resistance to that identity can have much effect. Writing in the late twentieth century, Burke couldn’t reaffirm Whitman’s nineteenth-century optimism about America’s future. Still, I think he wrote them in the hope that we might attend to the stories of his experience in those landscapes and come to share with him his wariness and anxiety about the way we have come to live. That hope acknowledges the possibility that we might begin to change the attitudes that we have made material in the landscapes we have built. He tried to persuade his readers to do that in his late theoretical writing, but I believe that these intense, intimate, painful and personal poems have a chance of doing that to greater effect. I now need to rehearse some of his theory to help us understand why this is so.
In the gloss titled “After-Words” that he added to “Eye-Crossing,” Burke wrote, as he has written elsewhere, that “if I were now to write my Grammar over again, I’d turn the pentad into a hexad, the sixth term being attitude” (24). Each element of that hexad can be used to describe the primary rhetorical tool available in each form of poetic literature: act is the rhetorical focus of drama, agent that of the novel, purpose of the epic, and so on. And attitude is what lyric poetry works to communicate. Burke asserts here that this poem, despite its rambling length, is indeed a lyric because, as every lyric does, it most emphatically “strikes an attitude” (25). Specifically, “the lyric attitude implies some kind of situation” and while “a lyric may be, on its face, but a list of descriptive details specifying a scene . . . these images are all manifestations of a single attitude” (26). What a lyric does rhetorically, then, is say to its reader, “‘Come attitudinize with me’” (26). In other words, it invites readers to identify themselves with the poet by adopting as their own the attitude the poem expresses toward circumstances that they share.
Attitude seems to be what links Burke’s grammar and rhetoric of motives. Burke begins his Grammar with the question, “What is involved, when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it?” (xv). His method of using the pentad or hexad to answer that question involves attending carefully to the full context in which people operate, accounting for the full spectrum of experience within which they find themselves motivated. In his Rhetoric Burke notes that this context has rhetorical effects and that these effects are essential elements of any such experience, for “rhetoric seeks to have formative effect on attitude” (50). Moreover, the idea that the rhetorical does the work of “persuasion to attitude”—that what rhetoric does is prompt and shape and invite and provoke particular attitudes—“permits the application of rhetorical terms to purely poetic structures” (50). The term “poetic” here refers to the sort of experiences that we consider aesthetic. As Burke puts it in “Poetics, Dramatistically Considered,” “the word, ‘poetry,’ is essentially an action word, coming from a word meaning ‘to make.’” The “word ‘aesthetic,’” he continues, “comes from a word meaning ‘to perceive’” (“Watchful” 36). What is made is then perceived, and perception is an experience. As he had put it at the beginning of his career in Counter-Statement, when we perceive the aesthetic we engage in an encounter with form, with form as “a way of experiencing” (143). For him, then, from the beginning of his career to the end, the aesthetic is, primarily, an experience—a transformative, rhetorical experience. It is an “arousing and fulfillment of desires” (Counter-Statement 124), an encounter with the “creation and gratification of needs” (138). And when that experience is shared, as the aesthetic is always intended to be, the result is powerfully rhetorical because it renders people conscious of what he called their “consubstantiality” with another (Rhetoric 21).
Identification, then, is experienced as consubstantiality, and people feel consubstantial when they experience a sharing of attitudes. Indeed, as his choice of the term consubstantial suggests, what Burke sees them sharing is nothing less than the same substance. As he defined it in the Grammar, moreover, substance includes “a thing’s context, since that which supports or underlies a thing would be a part of a thing’s context” (23). In another word he used, people who share the same complex of attitudes share the same “placement” as they identify themselves in relation to their common environment in the same way (Grammar 24-28). And it is identity, finally, that wields the rhetorical power to exert, as he put it in his “After-Words” to “Eye Crossing,” a sort of “unifying force” that “`sums up’ the conglomerate of particulars.” Identity pulls the elements of our perceptions and thoughts and feelings together, rendering coherent “the ‘sentiments’ implicit in the ‘sensations,’ and the ‘thoughts’ implicit in the ‘sentiments,’” and, finally, it “express[es] and evok[es] a unified attitude . . .” (25). The rhetorical, then, is always, finally, a matter of identity—of shared identity, and identity is always a matter of shared attitude.
In all of his late writings about ecology, about technology, about the ominous entelechy of our symbolic capacity, Burke’s primary concern seems to be about attitude. He is concerned that as symbolic animals, and particularly as symbolic animals living in America, we share attitudes that exclude from that unified conglomerate of particulars that comprises our shared experience the physical fact of our permanent placement in, and final dependence upon, the natural world. In all his later work, whether poetic or critical or theoretical, his rhetorical project is to change those attitudes and that involves nothing less than changing the individual and collective identity of those Americans to whom he writes. Since attitudes and identity are embedded in experience, Burke is at his most passionate when he tries to render that experience poetically but, practical man that he always was, he also always backs himself up by making the same point in his criticism and theory. Indeed, because early on he focused in his own life-long project of writing not on “self-expression,” a motive he says he abandoned while writing his first book, but on constructive and productive “communication” (“Rhetoric and Poetics,” 305-07), he moves readily back and forth between poetic and theoretical forms in order to convey his message. But the intensity of his concern is most apparent, most immediate, and, I think, best communicated in the intimate imagery and immediate emotion of the painful personal experiences that he voices in his poetry. Though Burke was, to the end, “apprehensive” (“Doing” 119) about whether his communication would or could do any good in the world, he persisted in writing and publishing (in his phrase used to subtitle his Late Poems) his “attitudinizings verse-wise, while fending for one’s selph.”
This is the theoretical context, the rhetorical “placement” of these two poems. They function rhetorically as enactments of his own attitude, one with which he hopes we might identify. More specifically, they are presented as a remedial attitude that is motivated by a corrective intent. They are attempts to correct an identity, a national identity, that he knows is not sustainable. He wrote to correct that identity by changing attitudes toward the American landscapes where he and his readers together must make their home. These poems would do that both poetically and rhetorically—indeed, both at once, as art always does—by bringing others into a mediate experience of sensation, feeling, and thought that would transform their attitudes and, so, their concept of common identity. Burke wrote to all those who share the situation of inhabiting these landscapes to enable them to understand that they can be together there, “substantially one” (Rhetoric 21), and that this identity of people who share a common “placement” (Grammar 28) in this place may be the one, right now, that matters most.
So I turn now to these two poems of American landscape and what they have to teach us about the reach and power of Burke’s rhetoric of identification. I believe they offer us two crucial lessons. The first is that if rhetoric is a matter of identity, of identification, then it is at its most powerful when it works to prompt attitudes (which Burke considers to be “incipient action” [“(Nonsymbolic) Motion” 147]) rather than particular actions. That is because attitudes are the very matter of identity in a way that actions, which are its localized consequence, are not. Attitudes, in a word, possess us. The second lesson is that attitudes are acquired through experience and that is because experiences function rhetorically as attitudes embodied, as enactments of the very substance of identity. 5When experience is rendered aesthetically it is encountered by others as vivid, imagery-laden metaphors that invite in others, and that implicitly assert, an identity of consubstantiality. “Dancing various attitudes” is one of Burke’s descriptions of the work of the rhetorical (“[Nonsymbolic] Motion” 169), and that is precisely what these two late poems of American landscape do. Whether the dance is choreographed as poetry, criticism, theory, or even as image or music, it invites and entices those who witness it to inhabit the attitude that it proposes as ground for a better identity.
In its plot, this is a poem about a rhetorical problem. Burke subtitles it “a diaristic fragment” that recounts his meditations on solving that problem as he drove west across the continent toward the state of Washington where he was to lecture and teach. Here is his statement of the problem:
“Hurrying westward with a message,
soon now we’ll be arriving.
What tell ‘em when we get there?” (281)
Burke’s problem, worked on in the context of a period of great national turmoil (the 1960s), is what he might say at the college, what he might teach the people there. His various false starts at solution are inflected by his experiences of the American landscape that he encountered as he sped along the highway.
What he encounters most immediately is the landscape of that highway itself—the scene of “the Traffic War” with “each driver going somewhere, the whole thing nowhere” (277). It is a place of congested alienation, of isolation in a shared space of intense individual purpose, of physical risk. Inhabiting that landscape at such high velocity prompts him to “untoward thoughts”:
“What if that oncomer veered into our lane?”
“What if a tire blew exactly now,
amidst this racing automotive tangle?”
(at times cars bunch up, moving along together,
like houses clustered in a village)
“What if, for no damned reason,
I gave a twist and sent us pitching
into that cataclysmic chasm,
that psychological gerundive,
that to-be-tumbled-into?” (278)
Maybe, he thinks, that’s what he can tell them at the college—about what cars, and our dependence on them as one of our primary habitations might be doing to us and to our nation, how cars have changed our shared experience, our common attitudes, our identities. Maybe he can talk about that:
How walk faster, except by working harder?
Likewise, how run, or speed up a bike,
except by greater effort? . . .
Ever so lightly press the pedal down a fraction farther
And your massive technological demon
Spurts forward like a fiend.
Tell them that.
Talk of such brutal disproportion
between decision and the consequences.
“Might we not here, my friends,
confront the makings of a madness,
an unacknowledged leap
from This is mine
to By God, This is ME! . . .? (282)
Maybe he can use this representative anecdote of the automobile, and his experiences driving one in the traffic of the continent, to make the problem of a technological identity immediate. He also can talk about how, driving in our cars, identified with them rather than with the others with whom we share the road, and not with the landscape itself that makes our lives possible, we are living at high risk, individually and collectively. Repeatedly in these poems, the technological displacement of nature is accompanied by a distancing of humans from one another.
Or maybe he can talk about that landscape as he sees it from the car, and about the national identity he finds expressed by “the Inroads of Destruction” (278) that he follows in his car:
Ruins and pride of empire
In peaceful coexistence—
ugliness and power
weeds struggling to make an honest living
in slag heaps, among iron skeletons,
machines dead in use or disuse.
This is our gospel for all mankind?
This we will bring to Vietnam? (279)
It’s 1967. Vietnam is on his mind—it is on everyone’s mind. Maybe he can talk about that, about what we are doing to that landscape and the people who inhabit it, about how it repeats the sort of exploitation we visit upon our own, on ourselves, but so grossly and violently magnified:
Cook them with napalm in the name of freedom
tear up their way of life
let their girls get work as whores. . .
then tell yourselves
how you can buy those people off
once you have loaded them with U.S. gadgets,
gifts from our technologic Christmas tree.
I can’t speak for you, my friend,
but if that’s what an invader from halfway around the world
with schemes for my deliverance
did for me and my ways,
I can’t speak for you, my friend,
but with my country torn to pieces
by such expert squandering,
I can’t speak for you, friend,
but I’d just bide my time . . .
Gad! I couldn’t tell them that!
Maybe I can’t say anything . . . (290-91)6
But there is some respite from this rhetorical problem. A notable island in the landscape offers him that and reminds him of other such islands encountered in previous trips across the continent (“eight times” in all ), protected places of retreat and momentary hope. That respite is Glacier National Park he calls it “the glorious Savings” (278) where “you stand in the sign of Conservation” (281), a place that this “speed-drugged driver” (280) experiences as a welcome “mystery maybe / a reflex counterpart of all the plunder / that had been flowing beneath our wheels” (281). And this prompts memories of counterpart landscapes in America:
Snatches of other trips, remembered piecemeal,
Keep crowding in:
. . .
Above the canyon at Yellowstone
after having taken in the sights all day
I plunged all night
. . .
but at Zion, at the bottom of a canyon, looking up—
and all night I heard the deep convulsive intake of the desert
through the gulches. (285-86)
But even in protected places there is always the highway:
In the Big Horns
Around many a squirming, wriggling
Leaving Gila Bend
. . .
The driving was so easy,
though we started late
we came to the Canyon early
got a place but a few yards from a drop-off. (286-87)
There are other places of more marginal respite, but they, more consistently a part of the modern American landscape he is encountering, bring him back to his rhetorical problem. There’s “the motel / where the mountain rose / right out of the back yard,”
or a stretch of beach on the Pacific
with kelp, shells, pebbles, oil slick
and a rusty empty can
of Chicken of the Sea.
. . .
What tell them?
. . .
Only this can I say in full authority:
“To be safe in striking at the powerful
make sure that your blows are powerless.” (288, 292)
That’s a lot of quoting, but immersion in the flow of his words is the way a reader comes to inhabit Burke’s experience of, and so his attitude toward, this landscape. As we inhabit his images we can begin to feel for ourselves his concern about our technology-driven way of life and its seemingly inevitable consequences. That is how these vicarious experiences that he prepared for his readers can do the powerful rhetorical work he described in Counter-Statement when he noted that “we think in universals but we feel particulars (47), and again, much later, in his essay, “Auscultation, Creation, and Revision,” when he wrote that experience, encountered imaginatively as metaphor, “gives substance to our feeling…” (144). Attitudes, finally, are felt. And feeling, finally, is where we live.
This one, too, is a poem about a rhetorical problem, one the poet has trouble finding words to address. Indeed, he has such trouble that he can’t get to the problem, he doesn’t find himself able even to articulate it, until the 13th stanza:
As with an aging literary man who, knowing
that words see but within
yet finding himself impelled to build a poem
that takes for generating core a startling View,
a novel visual Spaciousness
(he asks himself: “Those who have not witnessed it,
how tell them? –and why tell those who have?
Can you do more than say ‘remember’?”) (15-16)
This second poem identifies the second of the two representative American landscapes that Whitman memorialized in “Song of the Open Road” and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” One is the vast continent itself; the other essential landscape is the city—particularly America’s primary city, New York. “Eye-Crossing” is Burke’s poem about this urban landscape, about this “startling View” that he sees and finds he doesn’t know how to express to his compatriots. Whitman wrote about finding himself and an American community in the present and the future while riding the ferry across the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan. But now, as Burke notes, there is no more ferry, there is hardly a community, and the experience of crossing that river is something else entirely. That is how he begins the poem’s ending:
Just as the roads get jammed that lead
each week-day morning from Long Island to Manhattan,
so the roads get jammed that lead that evening
from Manhattan to Long Island.
And many’s the driver that curses crossing. (22)
Burke’s “Sinkership” is about the frantic mobility of the American nation and the alienating experience of inhabiting it: “the ever-changing signature of empire, / proud, with its ruins” that “flows past our wheels” (278). His “Eye-Crossing” poem is about another alienating experience in America, this of the exhausting immobility—“a restlessness unending, back and forth” (7)—of life for so many, especially for him, in the city. Here an aging Burke—now in his seventies—is facing his losses: of friends, of freedom to walk and wander, and the imminent death of his wife. The two poems recount the equally isolating experiences of mobility and immobility in America, expressing his anxiety about both the present and the future. In “Sinkership,” the continent is encountered at high velocity, from behind the windows of a private car. In “Eye-Crossing,” the city is encountered from behind an apartment window by a lonely man about to become more lonely. Even when Burke is able to go out for an errand, or for a late night walk, he is alone and so are the people he encounters: “eight or ten lone wandering shapes, / and all as afraid of me as I of them? / We kept a wholesome distance from one another” (11). For him, for the voice with which his readers are invited to identify, both landscapes afford experiences of alienation and risk.
In this poem the rhetorical problem is not what to say but how to say it. And perhaps even whether to try. In “Sinkership” he needs to decide what to say. Here he knows but doubts the efficacy of saying it. That is part of his immobility. His first attempt to say it breaks down in his preoccupation with risk and fragility—his own, and his wife’s. His second is frozen by “a saddeningly vexing letter / from a dear friend gone sour” (5). His third begins to find a way to say what he needs to say as he describes the landscape of the city directly:
The architectural piles, erections, impositions,
monsters of high-powered real estate promotion—
from a room high on Brooklyn Heights
the gaze is across and UP, to those things’ peak,
When measured by this scale of views from Brooklyn
they are as though deserted. (6)
But then he is stalled again by a brief meditation on the immobility of the Cold War and so, emboldened by “alky,” tries a late night walk but is chased back in by “the teeth of the biting wind" (8).
He starts again with a story of an encounter at a supermarket where he tries to help another manage traffic at the checkout line and finds himself accessory to a confrontation that ends with customers shouting at him and one expelled from the store. Having tried to help, he pays and leaves “feel[ing] all about his head / a glowering anti-glowing counter-halo . . .” (10). Then he starts again by walking again, alone and cold; then again by contemplating the awkward work of the tugs maneuvering freight ships at the dock. Then he starts by stopping at a nearly empty bar. Then walking again, finding himself feared by a passing woman jogging. Then he contemplates strategies for getting a seat on the crowded subway that crosses under the river. Then, back at the window, he starts again:
Problems pile up, like the buildings,
Even as I write, the highest to the left
soars higher day by day.
Now but the skeleton of itself
(these things begin as people end!)
all night its network of naked bulbs keeps flickering
towards us here in Brooklyn . . .
then dying into our dawn . . .
or are our . . . are our what? (15)
That may be a description of the north tower of the World Trade Center, under construction toward its completion in 1970. And then a few lines later (more ominously for us, even, than for him):
Do I foresee that day, while gazing across, as though that realm was alien
Forfend forfending of my prayer
that if and when and as such things should be
those (from here) silent monsters (over there)
will have by then gone crumbled into rubble,
and nothing all abroad
but ancient Egypt’s pyramidal piles of empire-building hierarchal stylized
dung remains. (18)
In the gloss that follows that stanza, Burke notes that he did not intend to offer “prophecy” here—only a projection of the dark promise of entelechy: given the direction we are going showing where we might be heading (18). And we, reading after 9/11/2001, are left wondering if perhaps entelechy does explain some of it.
All in all, he describes here neither problem nor solution. What he does do is show us, with the images of his experience, an attitude. So what is that attitude? In his “After-Words”—where he defines the project of lyric poetry as enacting an attitude—he portrays us, his readers, asking him that. After offering us a set of unsatisfactory answers he has us challenge him with this: “could you at least give us a first rough approximate, by selecting one word or another that at least points vaguely in the right direction (for instance, like pointing with the sweep of the arm rather than with the index finger)?” His answer, somewhat reluctant: “So, for a first rough approximate, I’d propose that the summarizing lyric attitude be called ‘apprehensive’” (26). Burke is apprehensive because he sees around corners, to where the landscapes we have made for ourselves are leading us, a vision enabled by his use of the Aristotelian principle of entelechy. As he put it elsewhere, “by ‘entelechy,’ I refer to such use of symbolic resources that potentialities can be said to attain their perfect fulfillment.” (“Archetype” 123). Further, this “culminative aspect of the entelechial principle . . . can also come to a focus in the symbolizing of an attitude, since attitudes possess a summarizing quality.” And, still further, “an attitude towards a situation can be developed in terms of a narrative that sums up a situation not by discussing the situation as such, but by depicting a thoroughgoing response to it” (“Archetype” 131). This, quite precisely, is what Burke has to say, and how he says it, in his “Eye-Crossing” poem—indeed, in both of these poems of the American landscape. They express, and in doing so identify in us if we are paying attention, the apprehensiveness that follows from powerlessness, from knowing what is happening—to himself, to his wife, to his nation—and being unable to do anything about it but offer the unwieldy wielding of words:
(My own words tangle like our entangled ways,
of hoping to stave off destruction
by piling up magic mountains of destructiveness.) (17)
In his Philosophy of Literary Form, Burke characterized the “Whitmanesque” as a strategy that “focuses attention upon the ‘human’ element in our patterns of sociality, the typical situations of home life, farming, manufacture, etc.” The problem with that sort of appeal is that it can “come to function as little more than a promiscuous flattering of the status quo, in its bad aspects as well as its good ones” (224). Consequently, the Whitmanesque is in perpetual need of correction and critique, and that is a large part of Burke’s project in these two poems about late twentieth century American landscapes. They are Whitmanesque in two senses: in their content as they describe the experiences of daily life in those landscapes, and in their context as explicit responses to particular Whitman poems. For Burke, the landscapes that Whitman found so promising promise only problems for the nation’s future.
Poetry that is Whitmanesque gathers its rhetorical power from the familiarity of its images, from our comfortable residence in the typical situations that it presents. We readily identify with the experiences such poetry recounts—with the places it describes and with the people who populate those places. We know them well. The places are ours and the people are us. By contrast, with Burke’s deliberate effort to be careful about not flattering the status quo in which we are comfortable, we have the opportunity to identify ourselves with the anxiety that follows from Burke’s “apprehensive” attitude. And so our very familiarity with the images, and with our traditional attitude toward those images—the attitude canonized by Whitman’s great poems can provoke a change in us if we identify with Burke’s experience of encountering those images without the filters of our familiarity, and then seeing farther around their corners.
But these two poems suggest that the most powerful instances of a Whitmanesque rhetorical art are our landscapes themselves—the material enactments of our “patterns of sociality” that are our placement, our context for understanding who, individually and collectively, we are. Inhabited in their empirical reality, the landscapes we create claim wordlessly what is and what must be. Burke uses words in these poems to challenge such claims, and words can do that—they can articulate alternative identities for us to imagine. He often wrote such words, quite polemically, such as: “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 but a lowly ecological part of” (“Poetics” 414). But in these poems, facing up against the evidence of everyday experience in the landscape, where Burke finds no opportunity for such identification beyond a few brief passages in “Sinkership,” his words lack that kind of confidence and express instead, and vividly, his grave apprehension.
It’s in identification itself that the distance between Whitmanesque and Burkean landscapes are most marked. Whitman is typically uplifted by virtue of identifying with everyone he encounters and with the encompassing landscape itself. In Burke, it’s just the opposite: the landscape is the product of technological displacement of nature and the humans within it feel isolated from one another. To some extent this difference no doubt results from the contrast between Whitmanesque flattering of the status quo and Burkean realism, but one suspects it is also equally a sign of the difference between Whitman’s century and Burke’s.
With words, it seems, consubstantiality is possible. But when the greatest rhetorical power we encounter takes the irrefutable form of a landscape that we must inhabit in crowded isolation, there seems to be little to hope for. That is what I see in these two late poems of the American landscape, and more so in the later of the two. What both seem most apprehensive about is not only our failure to care for the natural world that enables our existence but also the way this failure seems to go hand-in-hand with our increasing failure to connect with each other, to care for each other, a failure he presents as a product of the landscapes we have created. This, in my reading of these poems, may be the greatest environmental damage we have done.
These poems recount experiences of profound alienation. Certainly, Burke was not the first to complain that cities can be alienating—and his own sense of that experience is intensified by his circumstance of writing “Eye-Crossing” while his wife was dying. But a bracketed anecdote in “Sinkership” tells a tale of how the technological American way of life changes simultaneously both nature and human relations. The anecdote tells the tale of a couple who has put their savings into a motel by the side of highway so they could make their way through trade. The plan works though, of course, it’s no utopia:
True, even the thoughtlessness of customers brings pain.
Things that should be pulled, they twist—
things that should be twisted, they first try abruptly pulling.
So there is a steady drain of minor technologic mayhem
to cut the earnest aging couple’s income over outgo. (284)
These kinds of problems, following from practical and self-interested human relations, are a part of the life that the highway had provided. The exchange of money brings more people into contact while simultaneously rendering human relations more and more superficial and instrumental, leaving us with the irony that
strangers minister to strangers
in self-willed strife with one another
striving to give the best years of their lives
towards answering a motorist’s demands (284)
Furthermore, “progress” can be ruthless in bringing to an end the days when a couple could build or buy a motel by the side of the road and have at least commercial relations with others, face-to-face, voice-to-voice:
A by-pass (aided by infloonce)
cuts through the region at a distance,
leaving the neo-hostelry far from shore,
to be ignored, or found by penny-pinching Wandering
in search of bargains,
though ready to weep in principle
at such victimage. (285)
The technological way of life that brings the modern highway system brings with it new strains in human relations. The farther we get from nature, it seems, the farther we get from one another as well.
So where are we now? I wrote this essay to continue my project of understanding ways that the landscapes we create and inhabit work rhetorically to shape and create our identities. And what I found in Burke’s two long poems of the American landscape as he encountered it late in his life is the suggestion that our landscapes speak back to us, with considerable rhetorical power, to deliver an unsettling message. In the “typical situations” of our landscapes, Whitmanesque identification in “the ‘human’ element in our patterns of sociality” is now displaced by environments of our own making, by ways of life that limit our possibilities for meaningful identification with one another. It is as if Burke’s poems of our landscape leave us inhabiting, with him, a place within it (a car crossing I-90 perhaps, or an apartment in Brooklyn Heights) where we share his “apprehensive” recognition of the end of rhetorical identification around us, both among people and with nature. But in becoming consubstantial with Burke in acknowledging and exploring in the landscape the causes of that apprehension, we might take a step, however small, toward a new identity in which apprehension can give way to hope.
**The author is indebted to Robert Wess whose invitation prompted this essay and whose thorough understanding of Burke and eloquent editorial eye enriched and clarified the work he was able to do here. KB Journal would like to thank the Kenneth Burke Literary Trust for permission to cite extensively from “Tossing on Floodtides of Sinkership: A Diaristic Fragment," which appeared in Burke's Collected Poems in 1968.
1. Landscapes are, by definition, created by the interaction of humans and the land. Landscapes are what we make of the land: they emerge from our perceptions of the land as documented in the landscape art that we use to decorate the walls of our buildings and they emerge from our habitations of the land, from our placement of those buildings, and the other structures we create, on the land.
2. This poem probably describes a trip late in the summer of 1966 west to Ellensburg, Washington, where he taught from September through December of that year at Central Washington State College (Letters 90 91).
3. The version of the poem used here and listed in the “works cited” is the most recent, appearing in 2005 in Late Poems, 1968 1993 under the title “An Eye Poem for the Ear, with Prose Introduction, Glosses, and After Words (`Eye Crossing from Brooklyn to Manhattan’).” As Burke explains in this version, the poem originally appeared in The Nation on June 2, 1969 (3). In this 1969 version, there is no prose, that is, no introduction, glosses, or after words. These prose additions first appear in the version with the title “An Eye-Poem for the Ear (With Prose Introduction, Glosses, and After-Words),” published in Directions in Literary Criticism: Contemporary Approaches to Literature, ed. Stanley Weintraub and Philip Young (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1973), 228 51. Burke described this volume as a festschrift for his friend Henry Sams, chair of English at Penn State, who had used the poem in a graduate course and sent Burke his students’ responses; Burke told William H. Rueckert that he added the prose commentary to the poem published in The Nation to “fit the pattern” of that book (Letters 180; see also 145). This 1973 version reappears in 2003 in Burke, On Human Nature, with the title “Eye Crossing From Brooklyn to Manhattan: An Eye Poem for the Ear (With Prose Introduction, Glosses, and After-Words),” where Rueckert adds a brief introduction (305 07). Late Poems reprints the 1973 version again, with another modified title, and privileges it as the first of the late poems.
4. For an astute discussion of Whitman’s connection to the Helhaven satire in the context of a thorough chronicle of Burke’s varying responses to Whitman from the 1930s to the 1970s, see Rueckert, “Kenneth Burke’s Encounters with Walt Whitman.”
5. Burke doesn’t say exactly that in “Auscultation, Creation, and Revision,” but he says enough to lead me to say it. What he says is this: That in the “new esthetic frame”—one in which the functions of “criticism and poetry” are “merging” and become the “obverse and reverse of the same coin” (145)—the images and metaphors of art “give[s] substance to our feeling of what it might be like to know” the sort of truth about our circumstances that religionists and metaphysicians promise to tell us (144). Indeed, as Bernard Brock argues, the late Burke essentially does the work of “substituting attitudes for substance” (324).
6. Although many in America were saying just such things in 1966 and 1967 as public opposition to the war in Vietnam was intensifying, many of us can remember places and circumstances in which, indeed, you couldn’t “tell them that.” Driving west toward Central Washington State College, Burke might have been remembering a situation at the University of Washington some 15 years before when the English Department tried to offer him a visiting appointment but the administration denied it citing concerns that, given some of his activities of the thirties, he might, as he wrote to Cowley, “be a subversive influence in the classroom” (Jay 308). Burke and his supporters worked to appeal the decision but without success and the episode seems to have cut deep. “I’m a guilt-ridden man,” he wrote to Cowley as it was winding down, “but I do dare feel that I am pious as those reactionary, unregal among the Regents are not . . . I love my country with a fury that farts cannot deny me” (Jay 309; Burke’s ellipsis). For a list of the sources that document this episode see Wess 56, note 3; I am indebted to Wess for suggesting to me that this might explain Burke’s statement in the poem that “Maybe I can’t say anything.”
Brock, Bernard. “The Evolution of Kenneth Burke’s Philosophy of Rhetoric: Dialectic between Epistemology and Ontology.” Chesebro 309-28.
Burke, Kenneth. “Archetype and Entelechy.” Burke, On Human Nature 121-38.
---. “Auscultation, Creation, and Revision.” Chesebro 42-172.
---. Counter-Statement. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968.
---. “Doing and Saying: Thoughts on Myth, Cult, and Archetypes.” Salmagundi 15 (Winter 1971): 100-119.
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Joshua Frye, Purdue University
Abstract: This essay contributes the term 'socioecology' to the lexicon of Burkean ecocriticism, a term that can serve to articulate Burke's concern with ecological holism. The social/earth connection in socioecology may be analogized to the language/body connection in symbolic action. The essay illustrates this term with examples from the Burke corpus, theorizes it with the help of Burke, and applies it, mainly to the example of the Cuba's current experimental organic agriculture system.
IT IS FOR GOOD REASON that Kenneth Burke has been called a “pioneer of ecocriticism” (Coupe, 2001). Burke’s longstanding concerns about the ecology of our planet are widely recognized. Little attention has been given, however, to the possibility of extending use of Burke’s theorizing of interrelations between the symbolic realm of language and the bodily realm of motion to the theorizing of the interrelations between social structures and the earth’s ecology. In other words, one may analogize “symbolic action” (the language/body connection) to “socioecology” (the social/earth connection). It’s arguable, moreover, that the concept of socioecology doesn’t import ideas into the Burke corpus so much as it provides a focal point around which to organize material that is already there, waiting to be used as a framework to help ecocriticism discern ecological implications of social practices. The term “socioecology” is particularly Burkean insofar as it displaces the more familiar “socioeconomic” to focus attention on cooperation, communication, and the earth instead of reducing the earth to mere raw materials for production and human beings to mere cogs in the economic system.
To add “socioecology” to the lexicon of Burkean ecocriticism, the present essay will begin with examples of Burke’s concerns with the social/earth connection in both his writings and his life-style. Then, in its second part it will undertake a theoretical consideration of socioecology, particularly its interrelation of cooperation, communication, and the earth. Finally, after briefly considering a few examples of contemporary sustainable agriculture philosophy and practice, its third part will apply the concept of socioecology to the Cuban example.
However distinct symbolic action and socioecology may be, analysis of one can sometimes coalesce with analysis of the other. A notable example appears in the context of Burke’s conceptualization of symbolic action in the title essay in The Philosophy of Literary Form. This is one of his most extensive discussions of symbolic action, containing among other things his identification of the respects in which a symbolic action is a “chart,” a “prayer,” and a “dream.” It’s in the course of elaborating on the “chart” dimension that this coalescence occurs.
Prior to its occurrence, Burke is stressing, in opposition to what he sometimes calls “naïve verbal realism” (1966, p. 5), that a “chart” is “magical” insofar as it necessarily is to some extent a “decree” rather than an a verbal reproduction of reality:
It may annoy some persons that I take the realistic chart to possess “magical” ingredients. That is, if you size up a situation in the name of regimentation you decree it a different essence than if you sized it up in the name of planned economy. The choice here is not a choice between magic and no magic, but a choice between magics that vary in their degree of approximation to the truth. (1973, p. 6)
“Regimentation” and “planned economy” are shorthand for competing views of economic policy in the wake of the Great Depression of the 1930s (The Philosophy of Literary Form first appeared in 1941). “Regimentation” is the laissez faire argument that planning is equivalent to regimenting, something to avoid. It decrees that planning has a negative essence. “Planned economy” does the opposite, decreeing a positive essence by stressing the need for “planning” to avoid the economic catastrophe of the recent past.
In this context, Burke adds that “regimentation” and “planned economy,” however great their differences, are similar in assuming “that increased industrial production is itself a good” (1973b, p. 6). This similarity prompts Burke to wonder whether what’s needed is an alternative to both, and it’s at this point that the coalescence occurs:
But when we recall that every increase in the consumption of natural resources could with equal relevance be characterized as a corresponding increase in the destruction of natural resources, we can glimpse the opportunity for a totally different magic here, that would size up the situation by a different quality of namings. And when I read recently of an estimate that more soil had been lost through erosion in the last twenty years than in all the rest of human history, I began to ask whether either the “regimentation” magic or the “planned economy” magic is close enough approximate for the naming of the situation in which we now are. (1973, p. 6)
In this passage, Burke’s is continuing his analysis of the “chart” dimension of symbolic action, indicating how different charts or “namings” direct one’s attention differently, leading to different social practices. But in indicating how different “namings” promote different relations with the earth, he becomes an analyst of socioecology as well as symbolic action. From this socioecological standpoint, he can go beyond his demonstration of how the “chart” dimension of symbolic action works to critique the ecological implications of both “regimentation” and “planned economy.”
Socioecology is narrower in scope than symbolic action in the sense that symbolic action occurs in all areas, whereas socioecology concerns itself with only one area and thus surfaces only when Burke turns his attention to this area. But in another sense socioecology is broader in scope in its concern with the “big picture,” the holistic interaction between social structures and the earth that may be conceived as the ultimate container of all symbolic acts, which all involve the social dimension of verbal action and the motion of the body that is embedded in the processes sustaining life on earth.
Burke is most explicitly socioecological in those cases where he concerns himself directly with this “big picture.” Perhaps the best-known example of these is Burke’s famous prediction in Attitudes toward History, first published in 1937:
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. . . . So far, the laws of ecology have begun avenging themselves against restricted human concepts of profit by countering deforestation and deep plowing with floods, droughts, dust storms, and aggravated soil erosion. And in a capitalist economy, these trends will be arrested only insofar as collectivistic ingredients of control are introduced. . . . (1984a, p. 150; Burke’s italics)
Here Burke is socioecological in noting that social structures designed for economic profit can interact with the earth in ways that prove counter productive in the long run. Hawken echoes Burke in arguing that the symbolic logic of the free-market system of commerce is flawed in its incessant externalization of costs that a specific production unit engenders. The loss of top-soil is an example of this. With its heavy machinery, extensive production, intensive irrigation, and high chemical inputs, industrial agribusiness contributed to the onset of the Dust Bowl (Sears, 1935). In her insightful study of the historical context of Burke’s 1937 prediction, Seigel argues that Burke’s ecologically informed thought in Attitudes toward History pivots on systematic criticisms of “technologically infused farming practices” (2004, p. 394).
Seigel also calls attention to the critique of “efficiency” that is evident in Burke’s 1937 prediction and that is spelled out in detail in the entry for “efficiency” in his “Dictionary of Pivotal Terms,” in Attitudes toward History. In this critique, Burke takes as his standpoint the socioecological interrelations among parts in the “total economy of the planet.” From this standpoint, Burke can identify ways that something may be efficient in one way and simultaneously inefficient in another.
But it is not only in his writing that we find Burke critiquing industrial capitalism’s “efficient” exploitation of the earth. Describing himself as “agro bohemian and `Marxoid’” (Burks, 1991, p. 219), Burke extended his critique beyond his writing to a pastoral life style that eschewed the consumerism that came to dominate twentieth century American culture. His refusal of modern conveniences extended even to electricity and plumbing. According to Burks, he liked to call his outhouse and outdoor water pump “Garden of Eden Plumbing” (1991, p. 230). Eventually he yielded but only when his hand was forced. He got electricity in 1949, when he couldn’t get good kerosene any more (Cowley, 1951, pp. 227-28), and he added modern plumbing in the 1960s when Libbie, his wife, had to use a wheelchair because of failing health (Rueckert, 1994, p. 90). Even if it is speculative that these anti-modern choices were in fact emblematic of his agro-bohemian, Marxoid, and artistic-ethical preferences, the fact remains that a life devoid of excessively consumptive behavior allowed for greater concentration on his symbolic work and at the same time left a less intrusive “ecological footprint” (for more on this term, see Chambers, et al.).
Burke once stated in an interview that “the only cure for digging in the dirt is an idea. The cure for any idea is more ideas. The cure for all ideas is digging in the dirt” (2003, pp. 353-354). Burke certainly practiced a balanced, integrative physical and symbolic lifestyle—simple and austere yet complex and celebrative. Burke believed that because of the tendency in human motivation to take something to the end of the line (entelechial motivation), a life devoted to the endless toil of motion in an advanced, industrial capitalist society was driven by the “idiotic baubles that keep millions frantically at work” (1984a, p. 258). He accordingly refused the material amenities of that lifestyle for a simple, pastoral one that he felt was more conducive to symbolic labor. Such a lifestyle resonates with many strands of environmental and back to the land movements. Trainer, for example, called for a society in which frugality was valued and practiced over wastefulness, and where unscrupulous over consumption was replaced with a higher quality of life emanating from alternative sources of satisfaction.
Socioecology, like symbolic action, functions at—and through—a nexus. While symbolic action helps to explain dynamics between the physical body (motion) and language (action), socioecology may be used to analyze the communicative and cooperative dynamics between a given society or sociocultural group and its relation to and impact on the living earth. That is to say, social beliefs, arrangements, and values are intertwined with specific practices and ways of relating to the earth.
Such attention to relations with the earth would analogically extend Burke’s regular attention to the relations of the symbolic to the physical on individual and societal levels. In stating that “an ‘ideology’ is like a spirit taking up its abode in a body: it makes that body hop around in certain ways; and that same body would have hopped around in different ways had a different ideology happened to inhabit it” (1966, p. 6), Burke emphasizes simultaneously both the social and physical levels. A body housing a commitment to organic farming, for example, is sure to “hop around” a farm in a manner significantly different from someone who contracts with Monsanto for seed and pesticide to grow governmentally-subsidized crops. The very design rationale for the human-land relationship is fundamentally disparate in the two cases, and both suggest that the relation of the symbolic to human bodies can easily be extended to the body of the earth. One can similarly broaden the scope of Burke’s term “socioanagogic”:
we have chosen the unwieldy name of the “socioanagogic.” The word is intended to sum up the ways in which things of the senses are secretly emblematic of motives in the social order, so that all visible, tangible entities become an enigma, and materials become a pageantry. . . . (1968, p. xv)
Here, Burke is alluding to sensible, perceivable objects that are part and parcel of a given social order. These objects are empirically observable, but in the context of the social order in which they function, they are emblematic of motives that go beyond the empirical. When participants in the social order see them they see more than meets the empirical eye. For example, a calendar designed by a biodynamic farming group indicates preferred planting dates and times based on variables such as the moon cycle. Both the calendar and the moon are “things of the senses.” Yet both, in the context of this group, are emblematic of social motives that ultimately involve the group’s relation to the earth. (More on biodynamic farming later.)
Theorizing socioecology is achieved through an analysis of the relationships between the term’s constitutive parts. The “socio” in socioecology is comprised of two dimensions: communicative and cooperative; both are necessary and they form a dialectical relationship. That is to say, communication and cooperation co-exist in a sustained dynamic tension. Communicative norms, such as rituals (e.g., The Pledge of Allegiance, interpersonal dialogue in supermarket or bank transactions, The Lord’s Prayer, or soil jeremiads1), can both lead to and be a consequence of cooperation; they are the stuff of social cohesion. There is much textual evidence to assert that for Burke, communication and cooperation are more or less synonymous. In Permanence and Change, Burke treats communication and cooperation as linguistically interchangeable in many places and goes so far as to write: “life, activity, cooperation, communication—they are identical” (1984b, p. 236).
Although communication and cooperation are thus for Burke somewhat identical, there is also reason to believe that he has a more subtle, mysterious, ontological view of the processes and practices that make up the “socio.” There is one way that Burke characterizes communication and cooperation that is particularly useful for the purposes of socioecological criticism. On the level of the individual, Burke claims that activity is crucial as inactivity is equivalent to biologic death; individuals stay active on the social level by communicating, cooperating, participating (1984b, pp. 235-36). He then takes an additional step:
To specifically link up the matter of cooperation with the ethicizing of the means of support: We may glimpse something of the relationship between individual minds and collective enterprise by noting the part which such unifying concepts as totem, godhead, nation, class, or group play in mental integration. The individual’s deepest means of support in the civic texture resides in such a communicative or cooperative bond. By it he is “transcendentally” fortified. His personal solidity depends on his allegiance to it. (1984b, p. 236)
Burke thus conceives an almost ontological bonding between the individual and the collective arising from “the ethicizing of the means of support.” It’s in this mode of “ethicizing” that one can find in Burke ways to expand the “socio” of communication and cooperation to the “socioecological” connection of the social and the earth.
Burke takes up this “ethicizing” in the context of exploring the “egoistic altruistic merger,” by which he means that action for the self (egoistic) inevitably involves action for something outside the self (altruistic). In a section he calls “Ethicizing of the Means of Support” (1984b, pp. 204 07), Burke theorizes this merger. In perhaps Burke’s most extreme example, he imagines how a man, living alone in the woods and dependent on his gun to hunt game for food, might ethicize his relation to his gun (“Gun for Gun’s Sake”), cleaning it regularly and caring for it lovingly, maybe even “risk[ing] his life in trying to save it, as were he to snatch at it when it was falling over a cliff” (p. 206). Maybe yes, maybe no, but it’s surely easy to agree without reservation to Burke’s selection of the most important “means of support” of all:
The most basic of all, the Earth, is perhaps the deepest source of reestablishment for bewildered sophisticates who, having lost all sense of a moral foundtainhead, would restore themselves by contact with the “telluric.” Does not the very word suggest some massive unwieldy kind of solace, which might explain why so many moral systems still retain their agrarian roots. . . . (p. 205)
The dependence of the “socio” on the earth serves as the ontological premise for Burkean socioecological critique. This dependence would seem to be a fact hard to dispute. The difficulty is less recognizing this fact than cultivating social practices that properly “ethicize” humankind’s relationship to the “means of support” on which it depends for survival.
Just as Burke claims the body is where action and motion meet (1984b, p. 309), socioecological theory suggests that the soil can be understood in the same light: as a kind of physical body (organism) that when met by the symbolic activity of human agricultural technology can respond in a variety of ways. Belfour of the Soil Society claims that different humanly invented systems will have different impacts and outcomes on the soil. For example, she suggests, “good soil structure . . . is greatly influenced by the activity of earthworms. The techniques of modern farming tend to destroy good structure in a number of ways” (1997). If this is the case, then the use of agricultural technology should be gauged by its beneficial or detrimental impact on the non-symbolic motion of the soil, both for the inherent value of microbiological activity in the soil as well as for the instrumentalist value of the soil as a critical resource for food production. For instance, the conventional use of agrochemicals such as synthetic NPK fertilizer, when used in industrial portions for large monocultural crop production, has a very different effect on the soil than does the small-scale use of organic fertilizer derived from compost. While the NPK mixture tends to negatively impact the microbiological mycorrhiza that inhabit plant roots and share a symbiotic relationship, compost actually increases the biological activity in the soil. In positing a philosophical biology, Jonas contends:
Scientific biology, by its rules confined to the physical, outward facts, must ignore the dimension of inwardness that belongs to life: in so doing, it submerges the distinction of “animate” and “inanimate.” A new reading of the biological record may recover the inner dimension—that which we know best—for the understanding of things organic and so reclaim for the psycho-physical unity of life that place in the theoretical scheme which it had lost through the divorce of the material and mental since Descartes. (1966, p. ix)
The psycho-physical unity of which Jonas writes applies in his philosophical biology to organic life on a very basic level. Metabolism, he philosophizes, is the fundamental life process that endows biological life—even microbiological organisms and plants—with a degree of selective responsiveness. Burke addresses the activity of life for human beings and social reality; Jonas considers the basic life process of metabolism for biological life; and socioecology is interested in the intersection between these two in ethicizing the means of support found in the earth.
Applying Burke’s definitional rule of “per genus et differentiam” (1969, p. 408), socioecology would be a genus-level or generic term. Socioecology, as a generic term, may have many species level or specific examples. For example, one specific form of socioecology would be agroecology, or the matrix of agricultural beliefs/knowledge, technology, organizational forms, and practices differing societies, cultures, or sub-cultural groups have invented through their bi-directional communicative and cooperative principles and practices. Other specific forms, existing and possible, may be found in contemporary, alternative epistemological approaches to the earth and its systems. These include deep ecology, the philosophy of holism, and the Gaia Hypothesis. Deep ecology stresses cooperativeness, classlessness, and complexity (Naess, 1973). Holism undergirds the science of ecology, but Smuts (1926), drawing theoretical inferences from his observations in both the human and non-human realm, systematically articulated that the nature of relationships is such that there is reciprocity between the parts and the whole and that, moreover, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and is therefore non mechanistic. Lovelock (1979) postulated that the planet Earth, with all its subsystems (i.e., soil, oceans, biosphere, atmosphere) existed as a single organism with its own internal feedback loops designed to facilitate the conditions for life.
Keeping in mind Burke’s view that the ultimate aim of communication is “ideal cooperation” (1968, p. 216; 1973, p. 311), socioecological analysis aims to increase our understanding of social/earth connections, both good and bad, to equip us to move beyond the current ecological crisis to greater cooperation not only among humans but also between humankind and the earth. In the decades ahead, both forms of cooperation may come to depend increasingly on one another.
Permaculture and biodynamic farming offer ways of conceiving the social/earth connection that contrast with the capitalist conception most familiar to us in the United States. “Permaculture” is a neologism, conjoining “permanent” and “agriculture,” invented by Mollison, founder of the Permaculture Institute (1996, p. ix). In the permaculture approach, conceptual, strategic, and material resources are configured to produce a “designscape” in which all life forms can live harmoniously. The biodynamic approach similarly aims for harmony, but it does this by conceiving the social/earth connection in agriculture as a holistic organism in which all the forms of life involved are understood and treated as aspects of this overarching whole (Pfeiffer, 1940). Such examples of ways to conceive the social/earth connection can be studied profitably from the standpoint of socioecology. But the example I wish to consider here is Cuba, both because it is an experiment playing itself out at the present time in a whole country (albeit a small one that lends itself to experimentation that might be more difficult elsewhere), and because it addresses issues that particularly concerned Burke, especially his “Marxoid” side.
Cuba’s recently implemented organic food system has been called revolutionary (Zepeda, 2003). In 1989, Cuba faced a serious threat to its overall well being. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, subsequent collapse of the Soviet Bloc, and the trade embargos imposed by the U.S., Cuba plummeted into a crisis of resource shortages, including its food supply. U.S. economic warfare made things even worse in 1992, when passage of the “Cuban Democracy Act” prohibited food and medical assistance to Cuba. It is startling to think that in this intense period of time, Cuba’s GDP shrank by 25%, oil imports dropped by 50%, fertilizers and pesticide availability fell by 70%, food imports were reduced by 50%, and 30% of per capita caloric intake disappeared (Zepeda, 2003).
During what became the so-called “Special Period,” a radical change took place where new organizational forms and productive structures came into being. Cuban leadership at the time recognized that this sudden crisis provided opportunity as well as constraint. Cuban leadership surveyed the historical situation, and adopted changes that, in retrospect, can be judged as a pragmatic program of change for the better, given the context in which such policies were rendered. The government turned over to the workers roughly 80% of the land that had been in agricultural production controlled by the state following the USSR model of agriculture. USSR agriculture was heavily bureaucratized, utilized large scale machinery, and high chemical input for extensive production. The new system was highly decentralized, with land use divided into small units called Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPCs). The number of these approaches 4,000 (Alvarez, 2002). The state still maintained the legal property-rights of the land itself, but the Cuban workers of the land were granted the use of the land, rent free, in perpetuity, while having the private rights to only some of the yield of the land. Anyone who wished to work the land could. Following their socialist propensities, the government imposed quotas for the production of certain crops with the aim of providing basic sustenance to all Cubans. The decision of what to do with the surplus that remained after the quota was met was left to the discretion of the grower. The transformations of the national food system also involved a reorientation of policy and practices to organic, “agroecological” food production technology, and a farmer-to-farmer training methodology. As a result of these widespread reforms, Cubans’ nutrition is considerably better than other Latin American countries with higher per capita GDP (Zepeda, 2003). Moreover, despite the tremendous economic and cultural hardship it has experienced over the past decade and a half, Cuba scores high on many important quality of life indicators.2 In creatively and resourcefully transforming their agriculture, state peasant relations, land use policies, and inter-organizational cooperation, the Cubans released their artistry “through a total social texture” and “let it take more ‘ecological’ forms” (Burke, 1984a, p. 259). In short, Cuba is pursuing its version of “the good life.”3
Socioecological analysis of this Cuban example can take as its point of departure Burke’s critique of efficiency, discussed earlier. In one of his elaborations of this critique, Burke juxtaposes “efficiency,” as typically understood in market economies, to “ecology” to call attention to the error of an overly reductive focus on a part rather than the interrelations among parts in the whole:
“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.” (1984a, p. 250)
Efficiency, in other words, is one thing from the standpoint of the stock exchange, but a very different thing from the standpoint of ecology. Ecological efficiency prevents long term inefficiencies caused by an undue, exclusive prioritization of the efficiencies of the here and now. Burke speaks socioecologically when he remarks that it’s a “dubious kind of `profit’ that exports two dollar wheat and gets in exchange a Dust Bowl” (1984a, p. 150).
From the standpoint of this ecology efficiency problematic, what is resonant about the transformed Cuban agriculture system is the realization of the interdependence between long-term ecological balance and structures of short term efficiency. After turning over the previously state-owned and managed land to the thousands of denizens in rural areas of the country, the nation’s leadership began to recognize that this decentralized system of food production was actually more efficient in the narrow sense of being more productive (Zepeda, 2003). In this new system farmers have an incentive to be productive because after filling their quota, they are free to use or sell whatever surplus they produce. At the same time, the farmers cannot sell their land but instead have it rent free in perpetuity. Legal ownership of the land remains with the state. Consequently, farmers have incentives not only to be productive in the short term farmers but also to be good stewards in the long term, that is, to be efficient in an ecological sense. Rosset (2000) concurs with this logic: “it is crucial to recognize—and the Cuban example can help us to understand this—that modest-sized family farms and cooperatives that use reasonably sized equipment can follow ecologically sound practices and have increased labor productivity.”
As we saw earlier, Burke advises that the damaging effects on ecological balance due to an oversimplified notion of efficiency will be remedied only when “collectivistic” measures are taken (1984a, p. 150). By preventing the sale of the land and encouraging good stewardship, Cuban agriculture creates incentives to “ethicize” the earth, which has a collectivist value beyond its value to any individual. Burke never denied the individualistic, competitive dimension of human beings but he criticized capitalism for failing to provide incentives “by which the combative equipment of man is made ethical—or social. It tends to leave man’s capacities for `force and fraud’ too purely capacities for force and fraud” (1973, p. 317). The Cuban model suggests the possibility of combining incentives for self aggrandizement with incentives for benefiting the collective so that the competitive can be channeled into the cooperative. Keeping with his “Marxoid” sympathies, Burke contends in “A Dramatist Grammar for Marxism” that whether a social practice succeeds depends on whether it transforms “the passion of class antagonism . . . into the action of general cooperation” (1969, p. 212).
The incentive for ecological efficiency in Cuba’s reformed agricultural system fostered enhanced farmer to farmer training and communication among its various domestic organizations. Cooperation among universities, the government, farmer organizations, and NGO’s has led to “rapid blossoming of agroecological consciousness” (Garcia, 2003, p.107). Cooperative action between symbol using humans and the “nonsymbolic” soil proliferated with the experimentation of agroecological (e.g., organic) practices. Linking the productivity of the land/farmer with minimal commercial and chemical input as a response to the crisis circumstances of the Special Period promoted a stewardship relationship between the farmer and the land. In other words, heightened, more frequent, and more harmonious communication practices among humans, social groups, and non-humans, can be derived from an ecological attitude toward the social/ earth nexus. As Dewey (1958) recognized, “Significance resides not in the bare fact of association, therefore, but in the consequences that flow from the distinctive patterns of human association” (p. 175). How human beings interact communicatively with each other, as well as with the earth, makes a difference. The consequences resulting from the distinctive patterns of association during and after the Special Period in Cuba have functioned to enlarge the circumference of the communicative principle among individuals, social groups, and the earth. By contrast, the narrowing of circumference in advanced, industrialized America (Burke, 1969, p. 91) has resulted in an overly reductive concept of efficiency that does not take into account the full range of socioecological relationships. The manifestations of this mindset can be readily discovered in industrial, “chemicalized” agribusiness, or the burgeoning industry of genetically engineered food technology, which can lead to ecological disharmony and imbalance through inter species gene transfers.
Future Burkean socioecological research could be extended to critique unique or representative social organizations in terms of the impact on the ecological system(s) with which it interacts. Such research would further our understanding of Burke, as well as the mysterious intersections between the symbolic and the earth, and help us to understand what difference differing human symbol-using configurations can make to the physical base of our being. The communicative principle herein is seen as ideal cooperative action because it approaches a purified mode of perspectivism, one that takes into account a wider spectrum of perspectives and challenges a reductive focus on exclusively human systems oriented towards conflict or competition with the earth. But it also helps account for the powerful ways human systems of communication and cooperation—the social in this essay—can spell out different consequences for non human systems. If the unending conversation continues in that direction, it is conceivable that we may
forestall (if it can be forestalled!) the most idiotic tragedy conceivable: the willful ultimate poisoning of this lovely planet, in conformity with a mistaken heroics of war—and each day, as the sun still rises anew upon the still surviving plenitude, let us piously give thanks to Something or Other not of man’s making. (1984a, Introduction, penultimate paragraph)Let the “thanks” include the ground (literal and figurative) of our being: the living, dynamic soil.
*Joshua Frye is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication at Purdue University. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2005 annual convention of the National Communication Association in Boston. The author would like to thank Bryan Crable and others participating in the convention panel for their valuable feedback. The author would like to thank Don Burks for the exemplary tutelage he has provided into the life, mind, and spirit of Kenneth Burke. Thanks also to Robert Wess who provided good council and through his able stewardship helped this essay become what it is. Lastly, the author would like to thank Christiana Frye for her patience, support and inspiration during the writing process.
1. Soil jeremiads are texts that bemoan the historical phenomenon of humans engaged in poor tillage practices and soil stewardship. In the generic rhetorical tradition of other jeremiads, these texts see destructive agricultural practices with regard to top soil loss, contamination, and other agriculture-based soil problems as primarily a moral problem and admonish such practitioners, policies, and social systems to discontinue their depravity. See Beeman and Pritchard (2001) for a broader theorization of soil jeremiads.
2. For example, according to Funes (2002) Cuba has developed and maintained above a 95% literacy rate and an average life expectancy of 75+ years.
3. The section in Attitudes toward History from which this quote was extracted is entitled “Good Life” and is discussing the need for a physicality that is markedly different from the reductive, repetitious, physical movement of the industrial factory. Burke calls for something similar to Aristotle’s peripatetic philosophizing. Helen and Scott Nearing, east coast intellectuals and prominent figures in the “back to the land” movement,” have published a book entitled The Good Life. It is interesting that the invocation of this term by both Burke and the Nearings, originally associated with Socrates, has remarkably similar content. That is, the proper combination of physical and mental labor is productive of health and perchance Aristotle’s eudemonia.
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Beeman, R. S., & Pritchard, J. A. (2001). A green and permanent land: Ecology and agriculture in the twentieth century. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
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Burke, K. (1984a). Attitudes toward history (3rd ed.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Burke, K. (1984b). Permanence and change (3rd ed.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Burke, K. (2003). Counter-Gridlock: An interview with Kenneth Burke. In W. H. Rueckert, & A. Bonadonna, (Eds.), On human nature: A gathering while everything flows, 1967-1984, (pps. 336-389). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Burks, D. (1991). Kenneth Burke: The agro-bohemian “Marxoid”. Communication Studies, 42/3, 219-233.
Chambers, N., Simmons, C., & Wackernagle, M. (2000). Sharing nature’s interest. Sterling, VA: Earthscan Publications.
Coupe, L. (2001). Kenneth Burke: Pioneer of ecocriticism. Journal of American Studies, 35, 413-431.
Cowley, M. (1951). Exile’s return: A literary odyssey of the 1920’s. New York: The Viking Press.
Dewey, J. (1958). Experience and nature. Mineola, NY: Dover.
Funes, F. (2002). The organic farming movement in Cuba. In F. Funes, L. Garcia, M. Bourque, N. Perez, & P. Rosset, (Eds.), Sustainable agriculture and resistance: Transforming food production in Cuba (pp. 1-27). Oakland, CA: Food First Books.
Garcia, L. (2002). Agroecological education and training. In F. Funes, L. Garcia, M. Bourque, N. Perez, & P. Rosset, (Eds.), Sustainable agriculture and resistance: Transforming food production in Cuba (pp. 90-109). Oakland, CA: Food First Books.
Hawken, P. (1993). Ecology of commerce. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Jonas, H. (1966). The phenomenon of life: Toward a philosophical biology. New York: Dell Publishing.
Lovelock, J. (1979). Gaia: A new look at life on Earth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mollison, B. (1996). Permaculture: A designer’s manual. Tyalgum, Australia: Tagari Publications.
Naess, A. (1973). The shallow and the deep, long range ecology movement. A summary. Inquiry, 16, 95-99.
Nearing, H., & Nearing, S. (1989). The good life. New York: Schocken Books.
Pfeiffer, E. (1940). Bio-dynamic farming and gardening: Soil fertility, renewal, and preservation. New York: Anthroposophic Press.
Rossett, P. M. (2000). Cuba: A successful case study of sustainable agriculture. In F. Magdoff, JB. Foster, and F. H. Buttel (Eds.), Hungry for profit: The agribusiness threat to farmers, food, and the environment (pp. 203-213). New York: Monthly Review Press.
Rueckert, William H. (1994). Encounters with Kenneth Burke. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Sears, P. B. (1935). Deserts on the march. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
Seigel, M. A. (2004). “One little fellow named Ecology”: Ecological rhetoric in Kenneth Burke’s Attitudes toward history. Rhetoric Review, 23, 388-404.
Smuts, J. C. (1926). Holism and evolution. London: Macmillan. Trainer, T. (1985). Abandon affluence! London: Zed Books.
Zepeda, L. (2003, December). Cuban agriculture: A green and red revolution. Choices: The magazine of food, farm, and resource issues, 4th quarter. Retrieved December 8, 2004, from http://www.choicesmagazine.org/2003-4/2003-4-01.htm
William H. Rueckert, SUNY, Geneseo
Abstract: This essay is a 1982 sequel to the 1978 essay in which Rueckert coined the term "ecocriticism" to define a critical approach focusing on literature's place in the ecological web of life, with special attention to literature's power to energize community, as theorized by Burke's dramatism. This energizing of community must be combined with ecological realism to advance the ultimate cause of ecocriticism. The 1978 essay ended with the proclamation, "Free us from figures of speech," later revised to "Free us from false figures of speech." Attempting to mediate between man, nature, and words, this 1982 sequel is much more an explorative inquiry (a la Burke) than a standard academic essay. Scrutinizing the ways of metaphor, it concludes that metaphor's essential value resides in its creative capacity to discover new ways of thinking. Then, in its second part, it explores both (1) the metaphors needed now to save the planet, and (2) the metaphors that are false because of their catastrophic effects on humans and nature.
METAPHORS ARE ONTOLOGICAL RIDDLES. They cross and join different kinds and categories of beings which, in reality, cannot be joined. Hence, they always present us with ontological riddles, which we must partially solve if we are to understand the metaphor.
I am a rock. Unless we have personified the rock and made it speak, as we often do in cartoons, this is a metaphor and will always be something of a riddle. We may share atoms with rocks and have in us substances that have come from rocks, but we cannot be a rock.
Metaphors initiate a deriddling process. He is a rock. He is hard, tough, unmoving, unmovable, passive, inert; what kind of rock, hard rock, soft rock, big rock, little rock: incapable of self locomotion, at the lowest order of being, incapable of speech (even though he says he is a rock).
Metaphors do not exchange being both ways or do they? Is Whitman's "There Was a Child Went Forth" all metaphors? When he lists and names and randomly catalogues, is he not making metaphors, saying I am what is outside of me over and over again, in a series of ontological interchanges?
Metaphors transfer being. No question about that. They are ontological crossovers, though it is not always so easy to figure out which way the crossover goes. I am a rock. Does the I share being with the rock, have in himself some of the qualities of the rock or vice versa? Is this a negative or a positive statement? You have to be careful with your metaphors.
Similes are fundamentally different from metaphors. He is a cannibal. He is like a cannibal. No one would be confused by the simile. If the first statement is true, however, you had better watch out. If it is a metaphor, you had better try to deriddle it. We often say that students are cannibals. This is clearly a metaphor. How do we know that? Well, because they have not really killed, cooked and eaten us. They might like to. They have only cannibalized us. That does not help much either. More deriddling is necessary. Cannibals kill, cook and usually eat other human beings. How do our students metaphorically kill, cook (usually) and eat us? Better come back to that one later.
You can make metaphors out of any two things for which there are words. Metaphors are made of words because the word is not the thing it stands for, or names. Question: I saw a painting of a flower which halfway up the stem turned into a bird. Is that a visual metaphor? Flowers are birds. Birds are flowers. Flowering birds. Birding flowers.
Image, simile, symbol, analogy metaphor is none of these others and metaphors are not necessarily, as the definitions suggest, based upon analogy, or indirect similes. A transfer of some kind certainly takes place in metaphors, but it is not always clear what is being transferred to what, and the worst thing you can do is oversimplify a complex metaphor, or, the conception of metaphor itself.
Every metaphor alters or modifies an existing reality- at least at the verbal level. Charlie's girl is a real dog. The girl is a dog and Charley is something of a dog for going with her. The girl is not really a dog nor is Charley. The metaphor lowers the girl from human to animal, and lowers Charley to the level of the already lowered girl for choosing her. This metaphor may in fact transfer being, but more accurately, it takes away being unless you belong to a dog cult, and mean it as a compliment.
The interesting question is how you can alter or modify an existing reality without really modifying it. Are we made of words? By words? You can kill people with words. Men have died from metaphors. Men still die from them. Animals, left to themselves, would never suffer from metaphors. Domesticated, bred and absorbed into the human world, animals are transformed by metaphors into what they are not: children, bar companions, sexual partners, best friends.
Kenneth Burke says that perspective is another word for metaphor. Yes and no. Perspective is an epistemological term. Originally, it was an optical/spatial term until it was transferred to the inner eye, as "vision" was and referred to the way in which one's mind looks at or views things. What is your perspective? What are your master metaphors? Tell me your metaphors and I'll tell you your perspective. Maybe. What if your perspective is to have no metaphors, as William Carlos Williams does in many of his poems. Images are not metaphors. The thing itself is free of metaphors. If you make poems out of pure images of things and their attributes, as Williams often did, you are trying to perceive the thing without metaphors, as it is, in terms of itself. The only human concession you make to it is to transform it into words in order to make a poem. The poem has its own verbal being and honors the being of the thing.
There are no metaphors in nature. Burke says that there are no negatives in nature. For that matter there are no words in nature, either, or similes, or symbols. Nature is all analogical, by its very nature, whether we discover, describe and codify these analogies or not. The basis for many similes is in nature itself, and depends upon our ability to perceive similarities, resemblances, analogies and the great analogical matrix that is intrinsic to nature itself. Not always so with metaphors. Metaphors transcend nature. The analogies would be in nature, and relationship among all the things in nature, whether there were humans and words or not. Without humans, there would be no words and no metaphors and, if Burke is right, no negatives. A black hole is not negative space. There could not be anything such as negative space. But think of the metaphors we can make out of black holes. Things simply are, in nature.
Burke says that man adds the negative, especially the moral/ethical negative, and irony to nature. Man also adds negative numbers and the concept of negative being. And metaphors. What does it mean to add metaphors to nature. Or, prior to that, what does it mean to say that there are no metaphors in nature. Metaphors are ontological riddles because they crossbreed to produce an unnatural, but all too human, offspring. You can literally make anything or make anything happen, with words, as William Gass is always reminding us. And you can do it by fiat. Every metaphor is a new fiat. Metaphors create new being and meaning. They create new realities.
Queen Mary and a few others in the world can truthfully say, "My daughter is a queen." The rest of us have to make a metaphor, if we happen to have a daughter. Metaphors are a wonderful source of wish fulfillment. But why limit them to this function. You can do anything you like with metaphors: increase or decrease being, demonize, animalize, avianize, elephantize, empower, depower and so forth. And you can do this with suppressed metaphors as well. Say you write about birds but never make any overt bird metaphors; or say I write a whole book about the poetics of flight. Am I not really being metaphorical without using actual metaphors and saying I am a bird (a patent realistic, empirical absurdity); I want to share being with birds; I want to fly; I want to enjoy the freedom of flight.
Metaphors give us a lot of dream-being. Who thinks about the parasites that plague birds when he makes bird metaphors? Metaphors are anti-empirical by their very nature and often suppress one reality to create another. With words and metaphors (almost a redundancy), we are free to become birds if we like. And not free. Metaphor and reality instruct us almost better than anything else in the ways of freedom and necessity.
Metaphors do not follow the laws of logic. In fact, they are often illogical and remind us that man does not and cannot live by reason alone. "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain." Absurd you say. "And Mourners to and fro, / Kept treading—treading—till it seemed / That Sense was breaking through—" Impossible and nonsensical. Not really, though this poem by Emily Dickinson is so completely and densely metaphorical one hesitates to force it out of its metaphors toward the clarities demanded by interpretation. One yearns for a pure unmediated intuitive experience of the poem; but this is never—or seldom—possible.
The metaphors of this poem tease us into thought. What they actually did for Emily Dickinson is not really our concern, since we can never verify the psychological validity of the experiences which this sustained funeral metaphor renders. We can imagine a hypothetical "I" and realize that the sustained metaphor renders something which happened to this I. We first think that the poem is about the loss of someone else: a friend, a lover, a parent, a sister or brother. But the more you read the poem, the less this seems to be true. For it to be true, one has to assume that there has been a complete internalization of the external event which ritualizes and mediates the death and loss: the funeral service, the mourners arriving, the service itself (stanza two), the removal of the casket, the exit from the church toward the graveyard (stanza three), the tolling of the funeral bell (stanza four); and then, in stanza five, the casket being put into the ground as the service is completed. Here is the whole poem:
I felt a Funeral, in my brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading—treading—till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through—
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum—
Kept beating—beating—till I thought
My Mind was going numb—
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again
Then Space—began to toll.
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here—
And then a Plank in Reason, broke
And I dropped down, and down—
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing—then—
The easiest thing one can do with this poem is work out the metaphor; the hardest thing one has to do with the poem is understand or interpret the metaphor; that is, reduce it, and the poem, to what it is not. Burke has called this the paradox of substance (the paradox of interpretation?) and it means here that we must destroy the metaphors in order to understand them, for though we may intuit the fact of the metaphor, we cannot often intuit more than a fragment of its meaning. Sometimes it seems that we should follow the dictum that what the poet has joined together, no critic should take asunder. But if we did that, there would be no criticism and the dialectic of creation and interpretation would be broken. Metaphors would remain a secret language. The critic would be unemployed.
Metaphors add new being to reality and we do not commit infanticide when we subject them to careful, thoughtful actions of the critical mind. Emily Dickinson was always imagining and then writing poems about her own death. It was one of her ways of exploring her own range of being, usually beginning with the finite and extending into the infinite. It could only be understood as a form of hypothesizing. Much of this poem, for example, is hypothetical and cast in "as if" terms. She feels a funeral in her brain—that is, something in her mind dies—and she thinks (somewhat paradoxically) that some illumination is taking place, that she will finally understand the great enigma of death, and the crossover from the finite to the infinite. Her mind goes numb and after her body is put in the coffin, she feels them carry it (her) across her soul. Actually, she feels them "creak" across her soul, as if she were being transported in a wagon of some sort. The metaphor has carried her through her own death, funeral and burial. Her soul—or that part of her that is immortal and infinite—is left behind, or rather just left.
The terrible, terrifying conclusion to the poem now begins. Space-¬ the whole cosmos—begins to toll like a funeral bell, and she is contracted now into pure absolute being, is an ear hearing this terrible tolling. That is, she is not there, in the beyond, in heaven, but here, on earth, infinity stuck in the finite, hearing the heavens ring. The last line of stanza four leaves her "wrecked, solitary, here" on earth, in the wrong place, incomplete, helpless and in despair. The funeral in the brain, then, is surely some kind of "rational" doubt, some loss of faith; the mind saying to the whole self that immortality and the ascent into heaven are logically, rationally impossible. The metaphor imagines this possibility to the end of the line in the final stanza. There, the funeral is completed with the lowering of the casket into the grave; the soul, or all that remains of the self in the poem, dropped out of being or, in slightly different terms, is dropped into total nonbeing. It would be bad enough to miss Heaven; but the metaphor takes the self beyond that and with a kind of brutal truthfulness, takes it beyond knowing, which is into nothingness. We might say here that the last stanza plunges the self back into the finite world from which it came and that the metaphors of the poem tell again the final part of every individual human story that is unredeemed by a non-confirmable belief in the personal immortality promised us by Christianity. The end of the line is nothing, going out of being. The poem explores this unknowable but imaginable reality.
Everything in this poem is heavy and depressing. The mourners keep "treading, treading," the service keeps "beating, beating," the mind goes numb, the boots are of lead, space and all the heavens toll the bell of their own funeral. This is a poem about the possibility of a kind of absolute alienation and nonbeing. I stress the word possibility, because the very opposite possibility is worked out by means of the same funeral metaphor in "Because I could not stop for death," and in so simple a poem as "I Never Saw a Moor."1
And I, and silence, some strange race,
Wrecked, solitary, here.
The metaphor has led her to these stark lines and possibility, and beyond. Metaphors are a way of exploring unknown realities.
Poems are not just made of metaphors, as we used to think. Metaphors are ubiquitous. Poems are made of words, just as metaphors are. Whether or not metaphors can be made of anything else besides words is another question. Is the plant, in the painting, growing into the wings and head of a bird, a metaphor? Is the mountain in the same painting whose peak is a bird's head a metaphor? The flower is a bird; the mountain is a bird. Are these visual metaphors or simple juxtapositions? In both cases, one category of thing flower and mountain grows into another, asserting, it would seem, exactly what all metaphors assert: the ontological riddle of double being, or, at least, shared being. Is, then, a collage multiple metaphors simultaneously, something never possible with linear language? Could we not make something similar by destroying the linearity of the sentence language and arranging words separately, non-syntactically on a page to create a kind of metaphorical matrix, more or less random in nature, depending upon which way your eye traveled? Robert Duncan has tried this. Anybody could do it somewhat mechanically, to be sure, by constructing a non syntactical rectangle of nouns, five across and five down; or more conventionally, since it is the shape of most poems, a rectangle of words, three across and five down, which could be read across, down, up, diagonally and randomly.
All of this may not seem useful except that we keep remembering how we can make anything out of words that produce metaphors, for metaphors create what never existed before, and the continuous creation of new metaphors is one of the wonders of the human mind, especially the minds of creative writers and creative thinkers who write. Metaphors die like all other beings but stay around to plague and haunt us. We have to learn to bury our dead metaphors. Otherwise, we will bury our minds instead. Hard as a rock is a Stone Age metaphor. The newspaper, especially the sports section, is a graveyard of dead metaphors, ghost-ridden, ghost-written. But every discipline is half-paralyzed by dead metaphors. Criticism: A poem is a well-wrought urn. Advertising, for example. Almost too moribund to think about. No poet or novelist would ever think of using another poet's metaphors. Why? Because the poets are always pushing onward in their imaginations toward new realms of being, new combinations of words, new metaphors. A poem full of dead metaphors is like a political speech. Politics and poetry don't mix. Politics is plagued by dead metaphors, many of which are extremely dangerous because they make thought unnecessary.
Riddles are meant to be solved. Poets do not write in unbreakable code. Even the most difficult and obscure poets write to be read or they would not send their precious poems out to be published and go around reading them to the public. If their metaphors are hard and obscure, it may be that their perceptions and/or their perspectives are radically different from ours. Sometimes it may take many years to learn how to read a poet's metaphors. Metaphors create ontological riddles which are meant to be solved, even though, as Oedipus discovered, the solving of the riddle may bring terrible knowledge with it. The riddle of the sphinx was only partially metaphorical, but it took metaphorical perception to realize that arms and a cane could be referred to as legs. Oedipus is the paradigm of the riddle ¬solver, including the mystery of his own origins and being. He finally deciphered all of the riddles sent to him by the Delphic Oracle and learned what it meant to be your own mother's husband and the father of your brothers and sisters. He discovered realities not made with words which no metaphors could riddle away. He discovered ontological riddles which had nothing to do with metaphors. He discovered what Emily Dickinson only imagined and feared when she felt the metaphorical funeral in her brain. But his ability to read metaphors set it all in motion.
Let's make a metaphor out of Oedipus. Freud did, after all, when he named the Oedipus complex and identified one of the most basic of all the many triangular relationship that exists between parents and children. O'Neill studied this triangulation—this metaphorical morass—in great detail in Mourning Becomes Electra, a play that is full of buried metaphors and ontological riddles. I am Oedipus, you assert; I am Oedipal. That may give us an ontological riddle, but in fact, it describes the most terrible kinds of ontological confusions because it says that you do not know who you are or what you are. But metaphors do not always do this and one has to be careful. Sometimes metaphors say I know who and what I am (I am a rock), but you don't; or I know what and what you are but you don't. The riddles actually state an ontological certainty in riddling form. Keats says that the Grecian Urn is "The still unravished bride of quietness." There's no uncertainty here, just a rather peculiar and complicated in-between state of being which happens to be immensely appealing to Keats.
It is always tempting to translate metaphors into similes so that one can deal with them more readily. But there is a kind of lazy critical immorality in this procedure: metaphors are not similes; they derive from a different epistemological, even metaphysical base and they make entirely different kinds of assertions about the ontology of the things involved. "I felt a funeral in my brain." I felt as if there were a funeral taking place in my brain. The simile is a hypothetical statement which immediately causes one to start thinking analogically: what is happening inside her head is like what happens at a funeral. The metaphor is not hypothetical at all: it asserts that she feels a funeral in her brain and this causes us to wonder how that is possible. The metaphor is at a much higher level of reality and intensity than the simile. Instead of bifurcating our vision so that we think in double columns, going back and forth between them on the basis of similarities, metaphors present us with a unified or consubstantial vision in which two are one; or, perhaps a bit more accurately, two are brought together to create a new one, to give us a total of three.
Consider Dylan Thomas's "Light Breaks Where no Sun Shines," which is mostly all one paradoxical metaphor explored and ramified through four of the five stanzas. There is only one simile in the poem, and the whole poem really explores the ontological riddle of the compound paradoxical metaphor. No one line ever states the master metaphor of the poem, though many lines state part or versions of it: "Where no sea runs, the waters of the heart / Push in their tides"; "Dawn breaks behind the eyes." "From poles of skull and toe the windy blood / Slides like a sea" gives us the only simile in the poem and tempts us toward an analogical reading based upon the old macro/microcosm idea. But such a reading leaves the poem in shambles, a jumble of comparisons between man and nature which do not work out to anything.
Here is the first line of the poem, which is also the first assertion of the metaphor: "Light breaks where no sun shines." Without the rest of the poem, this would be an unsolvable riddle in the sense that you could not say for sure which of many possible answers would be correct. But line two gives us "the waters of the heart" and makes it possible to say that the place where "no sun shines" is inside the human body. Terms from nature and from the human body (or human being) are found all through the poem. The terms from nature are drawn from the five conventional elements of nature: earth, air, fire (light, sun), water (sea) and sky. The human terms are drawn from allover: heart, flesh, bones, thighs, youth, man, hairs, eyes, skull, toe, smile, tears, eye sockets, thought, logic. The majority of the natural terms are light/sun terms. The usual procedure in the poem is to apply specific terms from nature to man, leaving the exact application of the natural term to man something of a riddle.
The first line is a good example because we do not know which of the possible "meanings" of sun and light are meant to apply to man. Maybe all are implied. What we do know is that the poem moves back and forth from nature to man establishing a series of paradoxical metaphors which make a complex statement about humans in particular and man and nature in general.
If one had to state the master metaphor of the poem one would say, somewhat lamely, Man is Nature. The poem moves—almost seems to rock¬ back and forth from light to dark, life to death; but it also moves through the life/death/life cycles of nature and the way in which man is born, lives, dies and is absorbed back into ever-living nature. The master metaphor of the poem, in other words, cannot be reversed to read: Nature is man. And either attempt to state the master metaphor must, finally, fail because one is too reductive and the other is false. Neither can acknowledge the paradox—or as Burke would have it, the ironic negative—that is repeated over and over in the poem. The metaphor in all its variants, in fact, is a negative which asserts a positive. "Light breaks where no sun shines" might be used to describe the very secret of all metaphors, for do they not assert a positive by stating a negative, a riddle, a categorical absurdity, something that cannot be ("a funeral in the brain") but is? The poem is a kind of dazzling display of metaphorical (and formal) virtuosity by a youthful master of metaphors. It explores what words, and their creations (metaphors, ironies, paradoxes, rhymes, verbal, forms, sounds) can do, and it explores, as Thomas does over and over in other poems, the riddles, mysteries, paradoxes and ironies of the relationship between the word man and wordless nature. A riddle can usually be solved; a true mystery remains mysterious. This poem ends as it begins, but with a difference:
Light breaks on secret lots,
Oh tips of thought where thoughts smell in the rain;
When logics die,
The secret of the soil grows through the eye,
and blood jumps in the sun;
Above the waste allotments the dawn halts.
Nothing is resolved here except an individual life, but life goes on in a different form and the poem could begin allover again, as life does, and has for millions of years. You can solve a riddle without resolving it. If metaphors do anything for us, they teach us how to feel more at home with the ambiguities, uncertainties and paradoxes of human life.
In a great line from one of his westerns (Yellow Sky), Gregory Peck, fleeing from a posse, comes to a desert and says, in reply to one of his more negative-minded companions: "A desert is just a place. A place can be crossed," and sets forth. Taking a similar pragmatic view, we might say that a metaphor is just an ontological riddle. Riddles can be solved. We could then all pretend that we were Gregory Pecks of the hermeneutic world and would make it across to Yellow Sky, as he did.
Names, especially those we encounter in literature, are often metaphors. We frequently refer to characters we encounter in poetry, fiction and drama as personas, but this is a very misleading term because it is anti-metaphorical and suggests that these characters are just masks, facades, put-ons and takeoffs, mechanical contrivances, instead of profound symbolic identifications. When Walt Whitman writes of himself as Adam, he has not just created a persona; he has created a metaphor, an ontological riddle. He is not just "like" Adam, he is a new Adam who will engender the children of Adam with his metaphors and poems, his spermatic words. And, of course, he did. If we treat Adam as nothing but a persona, a role Whitman is playing in these poems, as if he were just play acting, we have a fundamentally different conception from Adam as a metaphor for the self. We approach the very essence of what metaphor is here, the mystery of metaphor itself. Consider the last poem in the sequence which, true to the spirit of metaphor, begins with an ambiguity: "As Adam early in the morning." The line could be read as a comparison, a simile which would mean that Whitman like Adam, appears early in the morning "Walking forth from the bower refreshed with sleep." But the whole sequence has made it clear that we should read the "as" literally or (that is, metaphorically, ontologically) because Whitman means that he appears as the re embodiment of Adam, as a new Adam. He not only is like Adam; in some ways he is Adam, he shares being with him, as the metaphor asserts. The metaphor is magical, or perhaps less menacing, generative, because it invokes the being of Adam and calls it into Whitman. For Whitman, at least, poetry had not yet lost its magic. And as history has confirmed, Whitman got a lot of that magic into his own poetry. His metaphors continue to be the most potent ever created by an American poet. And when we invoke him or write poems to him, we are not invoking the persona of Whitman: we are doing to Whitman what he did to Adam, calling up the ever living presence of Walt Whitman embodied, incarnated in his poems. We are using him as a metaphor.
Metaphors invoke the powers of Proteus, not just the ability to change form, but to become another being, or two beings simultaneously. Words can only invoke and describe this power, but films can actually show it, and often do. Gertrude Stein's assertion that a rose is a rose is a rose is a denial of metaphors.
Walt Whitman is only Walt Whitman, logic asserts—that is, Walt Whitman is Walt Whitman is Walt Whitman—but of course he wasn't, and he knew better than we do. He changed beings more readily and more rapidly than any Greek god, but he was never in disguise—not even in "The Sleepers." When he says that he is a "kosmos," he means it. He has arrived at the ultimate all-inclusive metaphor, not just for the self, but for everything. Though few of us can be a kosmos, like Whitman, most of us have an extraordinary plenitude of being, even in a single day, but especially over the years (as Whitman's child who goes forth does). I am not talking about role-playing here, but about the ontological truth of metaphor when we apply it to ourselves.
As studies of the formative stages of the brain have shown, we are in fact unique and individual. We knew this before scientific studies of the brain confirmed it, but the study showed how it comes about. No two brains ever respond to the same thing in exactly the same way, not even in the case of identical twins. Only robots, presumably, could be programmed to respond to the same thing in the same way, and even then, there might be, there probably are, slight variables in the identical circuitry which would produce slightly different results. So what does this have to do with metaphor and reality: Metaphors are a function of this uniqueness and individuality, of the amazing inventiveness and creativity of different human minds. We see this in Whitman's poetry and especially in the extraordinary way in which he was always both himself, Myself, and all those others. He was a metaphorical cornucopia generating ontological riddle after ontological riddle out of the mystery of his copious being.
What a maker of metaphors! They surge into us still, bearers of his generous copious being. He "inhales great drafts of space," he "straddles continents," he "harbors for good or bad," he is "nature without check with original energy"; he sets us again on the great metaphorical "open road" and tells us to "sail forth—steer for the deep waters only" on our "passage to India."
Quite by accident, I pick up a text book on language and writing and encounter this quotation from Roger Sale's On Writing: "Metaphor is how we live because it is the way we relate what we see to what we know: this is like that." With all due respect to Roger Sale, he has it mostly wrong, not only once or twice, but also thrice. He starts with metaphor and then defines it as simile; he describes the movement of metaphor as going from the visually perceived or external to the cognitive certainties inside our head, or the internal. Metaphors, then, would all be simple confirmations and an additive cognitive process. There would be no discovery in them, no riddling, no pushing outward toward new discoveries, new realms of being. Metaphors, finally, are certainly not how we live. If we lived our metaphors, we would all be crazies. But I'm being a bit unfair here. "Metaphor is how we live," Sale says, and he means by this that we live by relating what we see to what we know. But for this to be true, we would have to know everything to begin with, as if we were born with total innate knowledge, and grew by accrual, getting fat in the head with more and more comparisons. It is a very safe and mechanical definition of metaphor based upon the assumption that some sort of analogical matrix is at the base of everything. There is no way to be creative in this statement, no way to take risks or risk new discoveries in metaphors, no way to get out of the box of what is already known.
This definition of metaphor cannot stand too many empirical tests: it will not apply to Emily Dickinson's funeral in her brain nor, really, to Dylan Thomas's explorations of the mysterious, paradoxical relationships between man and nature. It is useless for Whitman. More often than not, in our time at least, metaphors explore the unknown rather than bring new experiences (what we see) into the safe circle of the known. Sale's two basic terms here—never stated—are experience and knowledge: what we see and what we know. To these two, he adds a third to dignify metaphor, which is action, or how we live. And finally, the whole process is hung on recognition and confirmation, which is at best, a very static state of affairs.
What do we do with all of the "this is not like that's" which we encounter. There aren't enough "that’s" in the world for all the "this’s" we encounter to be like. It is in fact the perception that this is not like that, or this is not like anything I know or have ever known, that accounts for so much new knowledge. There is no room for imagination in this definition of metaphor, and no acknowledgement of the fact that you can create anything you like in a metaphor including something you have never seen and do not know.
Well, so much for Sale. I don't really know him at all and I think I only saw him once so I can't be accused of making a metaphor of him—at least not by his own definition. I could pun a lot on his name and offer up his definition For Sale at a flea market, or tell it to sail away—all in good metaphorical fun, of course, on the grounds that it has taken the riddle and mystery out of metaphor and is too thoroughly grounded in empirical reality and cognitive certainties.
If we merely absorb each new experience into what we already know, how can we possibly change and grow. How can "light break where no sun shines"; how can "dawn break. . . . beyond the eyes"? How can we accommodate the mysteries we know to be everywhere around and within us, how can we learn to live with the ironies, paradoxes, and ambiguities which are intrinsic to the human mind and language itself.
Metaphor is not how we live, unless we live by continuously creating and exploring new possibilities atop and beyond existing realities, modifying what we do know by relating it to what we do not know, saying this is not quite like that.
Borrowing a metaphor from Lewis Thomas, let us push the discussion of this topic "to the end of the solar wind," which is a far piece from its rather homely beginnings among the rocks of reality. If we are ever going to be truly fit to fit into the evolutionary scheme of things, Thomas says, we must take our special species gift, which is our great capacity to "learn" and put it to constructive planetary use. Learning and creating are what we do best, he says, because of our capacity for language and other symbol systems. Nobody is going to argue too much with this statement. But then Thomas lays two terrible burdens on us. We are, he says, whether we like it or not, "the planet's awareness of itself"; and "if we are to become an evolutionary success, fit to fit in," it is up to us "to become the consciousness of the whole earth."2 Some of our poets, critics and ecologists have assumed this burden: Burke, Whitman, Gary Snyder, W. S. Merwin, Rene Dubos, Barry Commoner, Charles Olson, Ian McHarg—to name but a few. And others have assumed parts of the burden, like Adrienne Rich and Robert Duncan, Barry Lopez and Gregory Bateson. Lewis Thomas, like the old poster of Uncle Sam, turns to us and says: We need you, pointing a peremptory human finger at us, fixing us in the riveting stare of the ancient mariner, telling us that we have a species duty to perform. And furthermore, he has sent this charge to us in a metaphor. If we are the planet's self-awareness and the consciousness of the whole earth, then we humans have to be the head and all the rest has to be the body, and together we have to be a whole interdependent organism. In other words, we have to make a planetary metaphor out of ourselves. Let us say we are the consciousness of the whole earth and that we get sick in our heads, or go a little crazy, or a lot crazy or abuse our bodies. Planetary disaster. If we are the consciousness of the whole earth, then we are a collective consciousness, billions strong, and we must somehow learn to control what Barry Commoner calls our self-destructive, suicidal motives. To be the planet's awareness of itself, we must be open to everything, as Whitman was, and able to tolerate everything, as Whitman did in “Song of Myself” and “The Sleepers.” In fact, we would do well to study Whitman if we believe in the awesome charge Thomas lays on us. Thomas's metaphor is very different from Buckminster Fuller's technological spaceship/earth metaphor—a metaphor also used by biologist Garret Hardin. Thomas is much closer to the metaphors of the poets and reminds us that if we are to become the consciousness of the whole earth then we better tend to our metaphors and perhaps even institute a metaphor watch to make sure that some part of this consciousness has not fallen victim to dangerous metaphors. The metaphors of the Reagan administration, for example, bear very close watching. They acknowledge only a fragment of the whole earth, seem to derive almost entirely from an economic view of planetary reality and are combative and warlike to a terrifying degree.
How can we act on Thomas's noble and necessary metaphorical charge: what is a planetary self and what sort of consciousness does the whole earth have? What metaphors can express these riddles and mysteries, what ontology could accommodate the reality of a planetary self, what psychology could account for a whole earth consciousness? If our metaphors only confirm what we already know, it is hopeless. Our metaphors must do some of our thinking and discovering for us. They must create new realities we take as a matter of course but about which, as Thomas points out, we know next to nothing—yet. We should take our poets more seriously. We should learn to think ecologically, eco-poetically.
The body does not make metaphors, the head does. The body is a source of metaphors: the arm of God, the heart of the matter, the ass hole of the earth, the ear of the president, the eyes of the nation, smell out trouble, a splenetic person, a pimple on the ass of fate; he is a shithead, the head of state, the navel of the earth, this place is an armpit. It would be hard to do justice to the thoroughness and inventiveness with which the head has made metaphors out of the body, including the diseases of the body and all of its functions. Fart blossom, my young son shouts, toe jam. I'll leave my metaphorical self there.
If we are the head and nature is the body, we have made nature into a metaphor. There are no metaphors in nature. Nature is not our body. We constantly make metaphors out of nature, mining it with our metaphorical minds as we do with our real tools and machines. The metaphors we use for nature are crucial. They tell our story: Planet steward, pilots of spaceship earth, planet's consciousness, rulers of the earth. Everything we do to the earth has metaphorical implication. Strip mining ravages the earth. If we are the planet's consciousness and the whole earth's self ¬awareness, then strip mining, air pollution, water pollution, oil drilling, oil spills should all cause us pain and sickness since we are doing them to our own body. They would be forms of masochism, a kind of self-flagellation. Some parts of our body would already be sick unto death and maimed beyond restoration. Thomas's metaphor bears thinking on, because we like to think of nature as other, so that when we do something to nature we are not doing it to ourselves but to the other, to something that is not us, and is insentient anyway. Poets, hunters, primitive peoples, naturalists, ecologists have been telling us differently for years, especially in the metaphors.
Acts are often metaphors, or at least metaphorical. The people who shoved Jews into ovens had turned them into garbage first. All metaphors are identification: This equals that. Jews were garbage. You changed their reality with a metaphor, with some word magic. You pick up the garbage and dispose of it in the most efficient way possible. You transport it in boxcars like cattle. You go through the garbage to make sure nothing of value is being destroyed by mistake. You maximize the use of the garbage—turn it into soap and lamp shades, for example. Sometimes you burn the garbage, sometimes you bury it. If you don't bury it, it is unsightly and smells. Burning is the most efficient: the soap made out of the ashes can be given to the prisoners of war. You would not want to use Jew-garbage soap on yourself. This garbage is the waste product of humanity. What is wanted is an efficient disposal system. In Africa before WWI, the Germans disposed of a hundred thousand pieces of black garbage when they threatened to become too human. Human garbage has been plentiful everywhere: there is American Indian garbage, black garbage, Chinese garbage, Russian garbage. All have been disposed of by the word killers, by the slaughtering metaphors created so readily by the human mind. We remember the Jews because the event is still close to us. We forget the Indians because we turned them into garbage ourselves when they got in our way, and anyway that was a hundred years ago.
If you have seen one redwood, you have seen them all, so you cut down all but one redwood, or authorize others to do so. In this way, never having really looked at a redwood, since no two redwoods are the same, you turn redwood trees into Xerox copies and justify their slaughter by the chain saws. You do not alter the reality of the redwood trees with this buried metaphor, which transforms an organic tree into a mechanical thing. The trees are still as organic and unique as ever. The head that views the trees and gives the orders has been altered inside; the hands that guide the chain saws have responded to a metaphor. A metaphor has prepared the way for action. Metaphors do in fact alter reality. When the trees are gone reality is not the same. A clear-cut area has reduced trees to their own tombstones. The rights of trees have been abrogated by a metaphor. One metaphor has been stronger than another. A completely different metaphor is necessary to even conceive of the idea that trees have rights and the right to a lawyer to defend them. Human law has always been for humans, their pets and domesticated animals. Dogs have more rights than trees. If we were to act on Thomas's charge, we would have to re-conceive the law and change our metaphors for the natural world.
Dolphins are called the gangsters of the sea by Japanese fishermen because they eat the fish upon which these fishermen depend for their livelihood. (The dolphins, in fact, are only eating the fish upon which they also depend for their own livelihood.) You can't really put these gangster dolphins in jail, so you make them pay the ultimate penalty for their crime, as humans usually do with natural predators who get in their way. You catch them and punish them for their crime by putting them through a shredder and turning them into pet food. There are no gangsters in nature except human ones. The conflict between human law and natural law is a conflict between metaphor and reality. We have created many monsters out of natural creatures with our metaphors: out of sharks, ants, bears, birds, rabbits, bees, snakes, coyotes, wolves, alligators. Should we conclude from this that the head is terrified by the body; or that the head, is not really "connected" to the body. If this were so, we could hardly be the consciousness of the whole earth or the planet's awareness of itself. An implacable dualism would pervade everything and there would be no way to resolve the agonistic relationship between man and nature. But it is worse than that because man has been killing man for as long as he has been killing nature. Jews and Indians turned into garbage; dolphins turned into gangsters; sharks turned into monsters; trees turned into anonymities; words, words, words, metaphors, metaphors. We are not going to resolve mankind's ferocious dualism here. The world of words is filled with death-dealing metaphors and our minds are sick with them: Moslems and Christians, Jews and Arabs, Whites and Blacks, Radicals and Conservatives, Sheep Ranchers and Coyotes, Humans and Insects. We make metaphors out of our antinomies. Joe Christmas did not create himself. We created him—or rather, Faulkner did—out of insane hatreds, and demonic, pestilential metaphors.
The topic is clearly endless, but we must come to closure. We write for contemplation and discovery, for tolerance and understanding. We should be merchants of peaceful ideas, like Kenneth Burke. We should all strive to purify war. Especially the war of words. Metaphors are more dangerous than handguns. They are everybody's concealed weapon. The metaphors of advertising foment continuous discontent by always promising more with this product rather than that one. The make us crazy with acquisitiveness. Their wars are endless, Vietnam forever. Only the political and ideological religious wars are worse. Move on, move on. Let's end up on the rocks of reality where we began.
Pure metaphor; pure reality. Before there were humans and words, there were no metaphors. Now reality is clogged and befouled with them. God himself is nothing but a metaphor. The different Gods are all metaphors fighting with each other. If there is any such thing as a pure metaphor, God must be it—my god, your god, his god, their god. Poor God: look what has happened to him. Pure once, he has been fouled by the Babylonious human mind that first created Him. God as a pure metaphor, as pure ontological riddle, as pure human creation, as pure words. God is the father/mother of us all. God is the father/mother/son of us all. Here we have arrived at pure perfection, not pure reality but pure perfection, pure metaphor. We have created ourselves.
Pure reality is the world without metaphor. It does in fact exist, but we can never perceive it directly, unmediated by words or technology. Science tries: physics, chemistry, biology, geology and ecology—all try. We try constantly to photograph it, paint it, render it in words, record it in other symbols. But in a sense it is all metaphor, this in terms of that, Burke's old paradox of substance, something in terms of what it is not. A photograph is all optics, mechanics, electronics, and chemicals 125th of a second here, 1000th of a second there, ASA 64 or 200 or 400; Ektachrome or Kodachrome, nothing but a fragment of reality brought to us by high technology. The reality science presents us with is almost entirely symbolic in the most literal sense of this term since it is presented to us in symbols that represent physical, chemical, biological or ecological realities. It is good to remember the old cautionary formula Gregory Bateson repeats so often in Mind and Nature: the map is not the territory it charts (the words are not the things they name; the symbols are not the physical realities they identify and codify). In a sense, all of these "representations" of reality are metaphors and riddles written in the various languages or symbol-systems man has invented. One says reality is words, another says reality is pictures, another says reality is mathematical formulae, another says reality is chemical formulae. Reality is all of these and none of these. It is easier to say what pure metaphor is than it is to say what pure reality is.
Metaphors create their own reality while attempting to explain some part of the other reality—our origins, the origins of the earth, the mysteries of creation, the riddles of being. Nothing is more real than the fact that we mediate every reality with our metaphors, and often create realities more real and powerful than reality itself with them. It is tempting to say that metaphors are too much with us and prevent us from having direct contact with reality. But that is absurd. Metaphors cannot be too much with us because we do not have any choice in the matter. They are intrinsic to symbol-using. The worst thing that can happen to you is not to know when you are dealing with metaphors, to mistake metaphors for reality, or fail to understand how reality is being mediated by a particular overt or covert metaphor. Metaphorical naiveté is not charming, as some other forms of naiveté are; it is dangerous, just as naïve verbal realism is.
*William H. Rueckert is Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York, Geneseo. Robert Wess wishes to thank him for sharing this essay and Barbara Rueckert for her help in making possible its publication in KB Journal.
1. Poems that one thinks of when reading about Emily's metaphorical funerals: E. A. Robinson's "Credo" and "Luke Havergal"; Whitman's "Passage to India"; T. S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday." And perhaps, more jocularly, Steven's "To a High Toned Old Christian Lady" and, less jocularly, "Sunday Morning."
2. Page 52 in Thomas’s “Are We Fit to Fit In?” Sierra 67.2 (March/April 1982): 49-52.
Kenneth Burke once noted that he has no particular field, unless it be Burkology. Nevertheless, those of us who do have field-specific professional homes have drawn upon Burke for our own disciplinary purposes. One gets a glimpse of how specific fields draw on Burke at the Triennial Burke conferences, whose featured speakers have included Donald McCloskey (now Deirdre) from Economics, Dell Hymes from Linguistics, Denis Donoghue from Literature, Joseph R. Gusfield from Sociology, and Celeste Condit from my own field of Communication Studies. KB Journal accepts papers from all of these fields and more, providing an interdisciplinary crossroads of Burke studies. In light of this aim, we have developed a new series, Burke in the Fields. The idea is to review how Burke has been used in various fields, both for the benefit of those working in those fields, and for those who have little idea of how Burke has been used by others.
The series kicks off in this issue with a review of “Burke and Communication Studies,” where Burke has had his broadest influence. The essay is authored by Barry Brummett, long-time Burke scholar and Charles Sapp Centennial Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Texas-Austin, and his colleague, Anna M. Young, Assistant Instructor of the same institution.
Clarke Rountree, Series Editor
Barry Brummett and Anna M. Young, Department of Communication Studies, University of Texas-Austin
THE SENIOR AUTHOR OF THIS PAPER began his study of Communication as a fresh faced freshman at the end of the 1960s and into the early 1970s. It was an exciting time in the discipline. Social and cultural ferment fostered by the civil rights and the antiwar movements seemed to give a moral high ground to new ways of imagining persuasion and cultural dialogue. Edwin Black’s Rhetorical Criticism and Lloyd Bitzer and Edwin Black’s report on the Wingspread Conference, The Prospect of Rhetoric, were helping scholars to imagine alternatives to traditional, especially Aristotelian, ways of understanding rhetoric. Our colleagues in the social sciences were strengthening the new fields of Interpersonal, Intercultural, and Organizational Communication. Oh, and this new fellow Kenneth Burke in the not too distant past had discovered and had been discovered by a discipline that was still forming itself from out of English and other departments in a long organizational process.
Of course, Burke and Communication Studies had both “been around” since the early years of the twentieth century, but the discipline needed to develop organizationally and intellectually to a position where it could make use of Burke. During the first half of the twentieth century Communication was slowly evolving out of Departments of English, predominantly, as scholars pursued methods for the study of public address. Neither the subject matter of public address nor the dominant methods of the time were entirely welcome among the New Critics and poetasters of the mother discipline. Departments of Speech began to emerge, sometimes including teachers of theatre and the oral interpretation of literature. Communication scholars were rhetoricians, and nearly without exception they studied the great orations and written literature of the past and present. A “neo-Aristotelian” model of inquiry ruled, in which rhetoric was understood as strategic responses, in the form of orations or essays, to historical exigencies. This method was grounded in methods of archival research into important texts and their historical contexts. Such studies appeared regularly in the tellingly-named Quarterly Journal of Speech (QJS), written by such pioneering scholars as William Norwood Brigance, Herbert Wichelns, James Winans, and Charles H. Woolbert. This traditional model imagined rhetoric as an agonistic exchange of reasoned, expositional discourse based on the Aristotelian canon.
It was into such a context that the first essays on Burke appeared in “speech” journals. Without exception, Burke was presented as facilitating new ways of studying and conceptualizing rhetoric, beyond the traditional public address model. Marie Hochmuth Nichols published “Kenneth Burke and the ‘New Rhetoric’” in QJS in April of 1952, and as Marie Hochmuth, “Burkeian Criticism” in the Western Journal of Communication (WJC) in Spring of 1957. Charles Daniel Smith published “From the Discipline of Literary Criticism,” making adaptation of Burke’s approaches to written literature for application to public speaking, in Communication Quarterly in November of 1955. And L. Virginia Holland published “Kenneth Burke’s Dramatistic Approach in Speech Criticism” in QJS in December of 1955. Studies using Burke began appearing with more frequency in the 1960s (Leland M. Griffin’s “A Dramatistic Theory of the Rhetoric of Movements” , Walter R. Fisher’s “The Importance of Style in Systems of Rhetoric” , James W. Chesebro’s “A Construct for Assessing Ethics in Communication” , and so forth). The Griffin article in particular had widespread impact in animating the young field of social movement studies, which took off on a vigorous program of research using both Burkean and non-Burkean methods. An early critical application of Burke was David Ling’s pioneering pentadic study in 1970. By the mid 1970s, Burkean scholarship in Communication was on an upward trajectory, with new ideas mined from older Burkean writings appearing on a regular basis. Much of this early Burkean scholarship, and discussions of it in meetings and conventions, was carried on with a self-conscious feeling of breaking new ground, establishing new paradigms, and clarifying the identity of rhetorical scholarship in Communication as distinct from other disciplines.
Of equal interest is Burke’s own contribution to the scholarly literature in Communication Studies. He first appeared in QJS in October of 1952, in the issue after Nichols’s seminal essay, with the first in a three part series: “A Dramatistic View of the Origins of Language: Part One.” These were followed by “Postscripts on the Negative” in the QJS of April, 1953, and “Comments,” a contribution to a symposium on “speech criticism” in WJC in the summer of 1968. Other articles and commentaries have appeared in Communication Studies journals since then. Although the foundation of Burke’s scholarship was certainly not published in this discipline, it is interesting to note that he turned to Communication Studies at about the same time that Communication Studies turned to him. Realizations in the 1950s that the study of rhetoric in Communication Studies might be transformed by Burke dovetailed with his own direct contributions toward precisely that end. And that shared realization of mutual interests was occurring at a time when “rhetoric” was still a term in disrepute with the wider academic community, and certainly with the parent discipline of half a century before, English.
Those early studies of Burke were at some level of generality, and tended to make use of the same limited group of key terms. Nichols’s first QJS article features the key terms of rhetoric, identification, substance, dialectics, motivation, and of course the pentad. Holland’s slightly later QJS essay unpacks dramatism, from which center she gets to the pentad, form, and strategy as key concepts in “speech criticism.” As the discipline slowly awoke to Burke’s potential, his work was taught and shared at a similar level of generality. Great structures of scholarly discussion were built on the slender reed of identification which, although a profound and seminal insight, has benefited from later pairings with other Burkean concepts so as to enrich our understanding of different and complex ways in which identification might occur (Day). The pentad was eagerly seized upon by some for its deceptive simplicity, and some poor, early studies were churned out that treated it as a “who, what, when, where, how” sort of checklist to be filled in by naming objective entities. A limited set of key Burkean terms formed the foundation for this early scholarship, terms repeated among scholars like incantations, markers of the special nature of the emerging sub-discipline of “Burkeans.”
The 1970s and 1980s saw the emergence of a few narrower studies that developed focused Burkean concepts in greater depth with the specific purpose of critically analyzing actual texts. S. John Macksoud and Ross Altman published a critique of the play Saint Joan in QJS in April of 1971. Carol A. Berthold developed and applied a Burkean “cluster-agon” method in an essay in Communication Studies (CS) in Winter of 1976. Barry Brummett used Burkean theory of substance to publish “Presidential Substance: The Address of August 15, 1973” in the WJC of Fall, 1975. That essay critiqued a Watergate defense speech by President Nixon. But by and large, Burkean criticism lagged behind Burkean theory in the Communication Studies literature, as widespread application of Burkean methods to actual texts began occurring only in the 1980s and 1990s.
Laying the foundation for later critical work, the largely theoretical explication of Burke proceeded apace during these middle decades. Among examples of this far larger theoretical literature: Laura Crowell published a feisty study of Burke’s use of the term “sheer” in QJS in April of 1977. Robert Heath published an essay on Burke’s use of form in the same journal two years later, and in 1984 in QJS he published a study of Burke’s break with formalism. In the same journal with Heath’s earlier essay is a study of Burke’s own history as a scholar, exploring his development of dramatism, by Michael Feehan. Phillip K. Tompkins and his colleagues suggested the viability of Burke for the study of organizations in Communication Monographs (CM) in June of 1975. Three years later, Gerald D. Baxter and Pat M. Taylor compared Burke’s theory of consubstantiality with Whitehead’s concept of concrescence in CM. Richard B. Gregg published “Kenneth Burke’s Prolegomena to the Study of the Rhetoric of Form” in Communication Quarterly (CQ) in Fall of 1978. Weldon B. Durham explored Burke’s concept of substance in QJS in December of 1980. David Payne explored Burke’s theoretical concepts of “adaptation, mortification, and social reform” in the Southern Communication Journal (SCJ) in Spring of 1986, and a year later Richard L. Johannesen published “Richard M. Weaver’s Uses of Kenneth Burke” in the same journal.
The scholarship during this period was marked by increasing complexity in its choice and treatment of Burkean concepts, but also by a continued focus on theoretical development more than critical application. The trajectory of Burkean scholarship in Communication Studies was in fact, in its first four decades, one of heavy theoretical exploration and explication pushing a rather thin edge of critical and methodological applications of Burkean ideas to texts. As we move to a review of some more recent studies, it will be clear that critical studies of texts are on the rise in our use of Burke, and in recent years have surpassed the largely theoretical works.
Of course, we have only provided a few examples of a literature that began growing steadily in the 1960s, then explosively into the 1970s and 1980s. A complete bibliographic review of Burkean scholarship in Communication Studies is not our aim. Rather, we turn our attention to selected examples of more recent scholarship to assess where we are now, and how Burke appears and is used in Communication Studies. We focus on journals that are clearly in that discipline, such as those sponsored by the National Communication Association and its related regional organizations, or on studies done in other journals by scholars who are in or associated with Communication Studies (Speech Communication, Communication Arts, Communication, etc.) departments. However, a number of examples are ambiguously placed between disciplines, or were written by people sometimes identified with other disciplines, and we include them here because they illustrate the uses of Burke that we want to identify.
We contend here that the place of Burke in Communication Studies may be understood through a scheme of “three Burkes.” We propose three broad categories for understanding the different, yet related, directions that Burkean work in Communication Studies is now pursuing: The Extratextual Burke, The Textualcentric Burke, and the Seminaltextual Burke. What can we mean by such an antic array of terms?
Studies developing The Extratextual Burke are largely historical/biographical studies of Burke as a person of his time. These essays and books show the effects of events and ideologies of different eras on the development of specific Burkean ideas. The nature of his daily work environment, the characteristics of 1930s Marxism, the social and cultural milieus in which he moved, and so forth are shown to influence the evolution of Burke’s thought.
The Textualcentric Burke includes those essays that explain key concepts within Burke, taking his own work as the chief object of study. Connections, contradictions, and missing links are studied as scholars turn inward to focus on the corpus. Key terms are explained, and connected to other central ideas in Burke. As noted above in our brief historical survey, these are the sorts of essays with which Burkean scholarship in Communication Studies largely began, and they are still strongly with us.
The Seminaltextual Burke is comprised of studies that look outward from The Master. We propose two subdivisions of this category. First, Critical Studies: Typically such studies appropriate a focused idea from Burke that is used as, if not transformed into, a method for the critical analysis of texts occurring in politics, popular culture, the media, and so forth. These works are characterized by “real world” textual applications. A second subdivision we call Genealogical Studies: These works treat Burke as an ancestor or descendant in some sense of important or fashionable theories and theorists in rhetorical, philosophical, literary, cultural, or postmodernist studies. Sometimes the claim is simply that Burke “got there” first, sometimes a more causal link is made as to his influence on the development of later scholars or on the influence of earlier theorists on him. Think of Genealogical Studies as embodying Burke’s famous parlor metaphor from The Philosophy of Literary Form (110-111). The remainder of this essay uses those three Burkes as a scheme for arraying some examples of the vigorous scholarly literature in Communication Studies now being produced that collectively bears the name of Kenneth Burke.
Certainly, it would not be hyperbole to suggest that Burke’s time was one of massive social, political and economic upheaval: two World Wars and countless smaller struggles, the Great Depression, communism taking root in Eastern Europe and Asia, fascism and its devastating consequences in Europe, the formation of labor unions, the rise of radical social protest, equal rights, and rock and roll. Not surprisingly, then, The Extratextual Burke is a holistic theorist who was influenced to write on a wide range of topics in his historical context.
This holistic, man-of-his-time Burke is found in Philip C. Wander’s “At the Ideological Front.” Wander delves into the decade of the 1930’s to uncover how McCarthyism and the American Communist Party, in particular, influenced Burke’s Permanence and Change. Originally published in 1935, the book’s reissue in 1954 deletes much of the historical context indicative of Burke’s position at the ideological front of Marxism. Wander attempts to recover the cultural emphasis of Permanence and Change. In the same vein is James Arnt Aune’s “Burke’s Palimpsest: Rereading Permanence and Change” in which Aune argues that American literary radicalism between the 1930’s and the present breeds three Burke’s: the pragmatic Marxist, the neoconservative Marxist critic, and the unrepentant leftist liberal. Like Wander, Aune strives to locate Burke within a cultural milieu that would give rise to different ideological emphases in his theory. Edward Schiappa and Mary F. Keehner also explore questions of Burke’s historical context in “The ‘Lost’ Passages of Permanence and Change.” Indeed, because the 1954 version of the book omits key references to communism and capitalism present in the 1935 edition, Permanence and Change was altered from an engaged social treatise into a timeless theoretical piece. However, Schiappa and Keehner remind us that the lost passages speak directly to Burke’s foundation and continued development as a social theorist, particularly as a Marxist critic.
In addition to situating Burke in Marxist tradition, scholars contextualize Burke as central to a number of philosophical ideals. This kind of placement of Burke’s work in context is apparent in Andrew King’s “Disciplining the Master: Finding the Via Media for Kenneth Burke” in which King states that Burke’s concerns were not about politics or ideology, so much as what King calls “our over-rhetoricized world.” Via media, then, is literally the “middle way” of maintaining opposites in tension and breaking through symbol systems to recognize the data of everyday experience. The Extratextual Burke is also found in Matthew Seigel’s “One Little Fellow Named Ecology: Ecological Rhetoric in Kenneth Burke’s Attitudes Toward History.” Seigel claims the ecological concerns in the American Dust Bowl created an ecologist out of the ideologist Burke. In support of this claim, Seigel states that Burke’s notion of the comic frame and his critique of efficiency emerge from his growing ecological understandings.
It is interesting that one example of essays on The Extratextual Burke comes from Burke himself. We would so characterize his book chapter “Auscultation, Creation, and Revision: The Rout of the Esthetes,” written in the 1930s but unpublished until it appeared in James W. Chesebro’s book in 1993, which provides some insight into how Burke’s struggles with the political, Marxist environment of that earlier decade shaped Counter-Statement and Permanence and Change. We believe we may also treat Timothy N. Thompson and Anthony J. Palmeri’s essay later in Chesebro’s volume as an example within this category, for they explore the ways in which the changing technological environments during Burke’s lifetime influenced his writing on technology. Finally, we hear rumors of the impending publication of books studying the development of Burkean thought in the 1930s, or the impact of his personal and professional life on his poetry. It is clear from this range of essays that studies exploring The Extratextual Burke have been and will continue to be a strong theme in Burkean scholarship, explaining the influences of his times on his thought and writing.
The Textualcentric Burke applies Burkean theory to the scholarly study of language, ethical action, hermeneutics and rhetorical practice. While it is clear that many of the following articles and books share characteristics common to our third evaluative category, The Seminaltextual Burke, we maintain that this body of work centers around the corpus of Burke’s work, teasing out terms, making links, explaining omissions.
One area where Textualcentric Burkean scholars strive to trace substantial themes in his writing is in the realm of ethical action. Certainly, linking Burke to other theorists makes these articles candidates for Seminaltextual reflection, however, the key here is seeing the links in Burke to ethical philosophy and the “holes” in Burke that other ethical thinkers might fill, thus the focus is on Burke’s own texts. Jeffrey W. Murray’s “An Other Ethics for Kenneth Burke” is a prime example of this scholarly trend. Murray identifies deflections of the Other in Burke and offers Emmanuel Levinas’ philosophy as a restorative augmentation. Murray uses the pentad to note how such ethical theories might be reconstructed. Jeffrey Murray extends his own work in “An Other-Burkean Frame: Rhetorical Criticism and the Call of the Other” evaluating his own critique by showing that Burke is augmented by Levinas through a rhetorical criticism of Ted Kennedy’s “Chappiquiddick” speech. He concludes that an Other-Burkean frame supplements rhetorical criticism and provides a richer understanding of communication. Jo Scott-Coe’s “Canonical doubt, Critical Certainty: Counter-Conventions in Augustine and Kenneth Burke” moves from Levinas to Augustine in search of a “complete” ethical philosophy from Burke. Scott-Coe argues that although both authors’ works have been canonized, modern scholars tend to divorce religious concern from literary-critical vocabulary such that complex books end up as chopped-up versions of their initial whole. By re-intersecting the rhetorical and linguistic, and the secular and theological, a more complete ethic emerges. A theological evaluation of Burke may also be found in Edward Appel’s “Kenneth Burke: Coy Theologian” which suggests that Burke’s dramatistic philosophy is based on fundamentally metaphysical assumptions, making Burke as a “generic” theologian. Appel advances the idea that logology/dramatism are more completely understood if viewed from a theological perspective and that Burke’s philosophies are universally appealing and applicable because of their quasi-gnosticism. In other words, Burke is both Marxist and theologian according to how he is contextualized as a theorist. Finally, in addition to filling in holes in ethical philosophy, Michael Hassett positions Burke’s text as examples for writers in his “Constructing an Ethical Writer for the Postmodern Scene.” Hassett argues that writers following Burkean texts assume a postmodern reader, and therefore, accept a sense of responsibility for an ethical interaction with the reader. Certainly, ethics are central to any philosophical undertaking, but positioning Burke’s ethic appears central to many Textualcentric endeavors.
Aside from Burke-as-ethicist, a major question also at issue in The Textualcentric Burke is whether Burkean philosophy is a hermeneutical method or a theory of practice. For the hermeneuticists, James Chesebro’s “Extensions of the Burkean System” finds four major limitations in Burke: monocentric bias, logocentric bias, ethnographic bias, and methodological bias. He states Burke’s system is an open one and that Burke himself would want his philosophy to adapt and evolve to be used as hermeneutical methodology. Clarke Rountree’s “Coming to Terms with Kenneth Burke’s Pentad” sees the pentad as a universal heuristic of motives. Indeed, Rountree claims the pentad can be extended to critique all areas of human activity. On the theory of practice side, Fredel Wiant’s “Exploiting Factional Discourse: Wedge Issues in Contemporary American Political Campaigns” suggests that political candidates find or create wedge issues to polarize voters and win advantage. Turning to Burke’s “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle,” Wiant argues that Hitler uses a granfalloon to “unify” Germans and tell of their symbolic rebirth. Similar strategies are explored in modern political campaigns. Bryan Crable’s “Symbolizing Motion: Burke’s Dialectic and Rhetoric of the Body” re-reads and amends Burke’s writing on action and motion to provide an understanding of the rhetoric of embodiment and issues of the body centering around racial identity. He suggests Burke’s action/motion dichotomy gives us greater vigilance in examining the body and embodiment. None of these articles answers the question as to whether Burke meant his text to be treated as hermeneutic or theories of practice, but within The Textualcentric Burke, it will likely remain a common theme.
A number of Textualcentric essays are general summary reviews of Burke, trying to cast an organizing net over a wide range of his work. One example is William H. Rueckert’s chapter in James W. Chesebro’s book, “A Field Guide to Kenneth Burke—1990.” Two chapters following Rueckert in Chesebro’s volume is Greig E. Henderson’s “Aesthetic and Practical Frames of Reference: Burke, Marx, and the Rhetoric of Social Change.” Henderson’s essay tracks the transition in Burke’s work of the 1930s from literary critic to social critic, but his focus is more on the work rather than the surrounding milieu. A later essay in Chesebro is Dale A. Bertelsen’s “Kenneth Burke’s Conception of Reality: The Process of Transformation and Its Implications for Rhetorical Criticism,” a highly theoretical and philosophical discussion of the way in which the process of symbolic transformation formed an ontological basis for Burke in his writings. Jane Blankenship’s exploration of Burke’s thinking on ecology, later in Chesebro, provides a lexicon of pivotal terms on the subject to be found in his writings. Also in Chesebro we find Bernard L. Brock’s “The Evolution of Kenneth Burke’s Philosophy of Rhetoric: Dialectic between Epistemology and Ontology,” which teases out the philosophical systems that may be found within Burke’s work, with a special emphasis on his epistemology and ontology.
Herbert W. Simons and Trevor Melia’s The Legacy of Kenneth Burke contains several essays by Communication Studies scholars, all of them working to explain theoretical concepts within the Burkean corpus. Melia’s “Scientism and Dramatism: Some Quasi-Mathematical Motifs in the Work of Kenneth Burke” is a textualcentric identification of some elements in Burke that display characteristics of mathematical or statistical analysis. Melia focuses especially on the idea of logology and on the pentad. In the same volume, Jane Blankenship’s “’Magic’ and ‘Mystery’ in the Works of Kenneth Burke” traces those key terms in Burke’s theories. Christine Oravec’s essay in Simons and Melia unpacks the idea of identification, leading her to feature the concept of identity. Her study contains some seminaltextual, genealogical elements as well, noting as she does connections between Burke and other scholars such as Frank Lentricchia and Fredric Jameson. These grand organizing efforts, whether in the form of books or ambitious articles, are predictably rare but understandably influential. They construct landmark schemes for understanding much if not all of Burke, benchmarks in relationship to which future scholarship may position itself.
In the category of The Seminaltextual Burke resides the majority of current Burkean scholarship. Seminaltextual Burkean scholars do, essentially, two main kinds of scholarship—that which applies Burke to contemporary texts, and that which traces Burke as either predecessor or successor to other theorists. In applying Burke to current texts, we see scholars tackling such issues as collective memory, media, current political and social events, pedagogy and social order.
For instance, Kathryn M. Olson and Clark D. Olson’s “Beyond Strategy: A Reader-Centered Analysis of Irony’s Dual Persuasive Uses” attempts to reconcile rhetorical theories of irony by centering on Burke’s theory of “ordinary” and “pure persuasion.” Through the ironic cartoons regarding the rededication of the Statue of Liberty in 1986, the authors advocate seeking elements of ordinary and pure persuasion in all kinds of texts. Olson and Olson suggest a continued search for rhetoric with great potential for pure persuasion related to Burke’s psychology of form. Another logocentric essay is Brenda Kuseski’s “Kenneth Burke’s Five Dogs and Mother Theresa’s Love” in which she employs Burke’s “Five Dogs” from Language as Symbolic Action to analyze Mother Theresa’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In the “Five Dogs” excerpt, Kuseski points out that only here did Burke structure five levels of meaning for words: primal, lexical, jingle, entelechial and tautological. Taking these, Kuseski uses “Five Dogs” as a critical method to unpack the layered meanings of love in Mother Theresa’s speech. Looking to political language, Mark Moore’s “The Quayle Quagmire: Political Campaigns in the Poetic Form of Burlesque” investigates an unusual case: Vice Presidential candidate Dan Quayle was ridiculed nationwide, yet never was such a liability that he sank the Bush/Quayle ticket. Moore believes the implication of the poetic form of burlesque employed in the ridicule of Dan Quayle in 1988 was a case of the nation identifying with the not-Quayle over the real candidate, thus electing that which was nonexistent. Edward Appel’s “The Perfected Drama of the Reverend Jerry Falwell” applies Burke’s philosophy of dramatism and the pentad to the tragic and symbolic televised preaching of Reverend Jerry Falwell. From this application, Appel advanced nine “indexes of dramatic intensity” that were embraced by Falwell’s true believers. Lastly in this category of language, Josh Boyd’s “Organizational Rhetoric Doomed to Fail: R.J. Reynolds and the Principle of Oxymoron” takes to task the 1995 PR redemption campaign launched by tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds. Boyd contends the campaign was fatally flawed because the principle of oxymoron allows audiences to identify with something much larger and more transcendent than the organization. Because Reynolds failed to take this into consideration, its campaign convinced no one that it was moving in a sound direction.
On the more focused topic of collective memory, Kimberly Harrison’s “Rhetorical Rehearsals: The Construction of Ethos in Confederate Women’s Civil War Diaries” probes Confederate women’s Civil War diaries for evidence of the practice of Burkean self-rhetorics. One particular diary, that of Priscilla “Mittie” Bond, is the primary textual example. In turn, these diaries provide a new way to remember the experience of more marginalized communities during the American Civil War. Lisa Reid Ricker’s “Ars Stripped for Praxis: Robert J. Connors on Coeducation and the Demise of Agonistic Rhetoric” inspects the daily themes written by the women at Radcliffe College as Harvard University introduced coeducation. Ricker contends that women’s writing offers a new way to understand coeducation and her reading of the Radcliffe themes challenges Connors’s conclusion that coeducation led to the demise of agonistic rhetoric.
Among studies which apply Burke to popular texts we find Richard B. Gregg’s “Kenneth Burke’s Concept of Rhetorical Negativity,” in which the idea of the negative is applied to Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical texts. The chapter following Gregg’s in Chesebro’s volume is Arnie Madsen’s “Burke’s Representative Anecdote as a Critical Method,” which develops the notion of the anecdote as a method, and illustrates its usefulness in an analysis of the presidential election of 1988.
Moving to the application of Burke to media, particularly film studies, William Benoit and Dawn Nill’s “Oliver Stone’s Defense of JFK” describes how the film JFK was attacked critically and historically upon its release. Applying Burkean notions of mortification and victimage, Benoit and Nill illustrate how Stone was able to surmount this criticism and renew interest in the Kennedy assassination as well as Warren Commission documents. Barry Brummett’s “Electric Literature as Equipment for Living: Haunted House Films” examines five examples of haunted house films for their potential to illustrate Burke’s notion of equipment for living. Brummett reasons that film and cinema engage issues of anomie in that audiences are subjected to paradoxical realms of time and space. He concludes that this chaotic experience serves as equipment for living. Robert Terrill’s “Spectacular Repression: Sanitizing the Batman” suggests the film Batman Forever seeks to sanitize its main character to resolve problems of psycho-sexuality. The result, Terrill maintains, is that Batman Forever is overly managed and excessively demystified rendering it unavailable as equipment for living.
Because Burke lived through such radical social, political and economic changes, his philosophy often is applied in criticism to current sociopolitical events. Caitlin Wills’ “Debating ‘What Ought to Be’: The Comic Frame and Public Moral Argument” is one such example. Wills makes the case that Burke’s comic strategies can shift public argument from scientific deliberation to shared communal values. She uses the example of anti-nuclear power activist Lisa Crawford. Kara Schiltz’s “Every Implemented Child a Star (and Some Other Failures): Guilt and Shame in the Cochlear Implant Debate” pairs Burke’s work on guilt and Helen Merrel Lynd’s work on shame to determine assessments of cochlear implants in the profoundly deaf. Schiltz claims the cochlear implant debate represents a larger struggle over the role and consequences of technology in modern life. In addition, Burke’s concepts of dramatism and hierarchy are also employed to explain the trajectory from guilt to redemption.
An important Seminaltextual theme is to understand Burke-as-pedagogue and to apply his ideas to specific education issues. Georgiana Donavin’s “The Medieval Rhetoric of Identification: A Burkean Reconception” notes that Burke’s theory of identification becomes a useful approach for teaching Medieval Latin history. She sees the ethical concerns and formalism in Medieval Latin treatises as paralleling many of the concerns in Burkean identification. Ellen Quandahl’s “’It’s Essentially as Though This Were Killing Us’: Kenneth Burke on Mortification and Pedagogy” states that Burke’s corpus provides an essential tool for teaching because it allows students to see language in a new way. Jeffrey Carroll’s “Essence, Stasis and Dialectic: Ways that Key Terms Can Mean” locates key terms as fundamental to valuable classroom activities. These ideas from Burke give students a first dose of creating sound and responsible arguments.
Scholars applying Burke to texts seek to grasp issues of social order, generally advocating a dismantling of current hegemonic systems through Burke. One strong example of this scholarship is Kristen Hoerl’s “Monstrous Youth in Suburbia: Disruption and Recovery of the American Dream.” Hoerl reminds us that Burke stated that hierarchy in society was based on a “killing” of some group of people. She mirrors this statement in the symbolic killing of the American Dream after the Columbine High School. Ultimately, because of the killing, people unlike the literal killers at Columbine become consubstantial with one another as the anti-monsters. Robert Westerfelhaus and Diane Ciekawy’s “Cleansing the Social Body: Witchcraft Accusation in an African Society as an Example of Multi-Hierarchical Victimage” makes use of Burke’s victimage, arising from hierarchical social tensions. The authors maintain this victimage may actually be the result of tensions arising out of intersecting or overlapping hierarchies. To illustrate this, Westerfelhaus and Ciekawy focus on a witchcraft accusation trial among the Mijikenda of Kenya. Robert Ivie’s “The Rhetoric of Bush’s ‘War’ on Evil” presents Bush as a rhetorically seductive devil in the service of demagoguery. Ivie compares Bush’s war to Hitler’s battle as similar bastardization of religious thought and chastises Bush’s strategy of pious extremism to create a “moral majority” and subordinate all who fall outside this “majority.”
Something of an engaged spirit of practical and political critique often seems to move in these Seminaltextual studies, springing from an intellectually empowered position of Burkean thought to show how power and influence work in social and cultural life through studies of specific texts. These essays are often not written with a primary interest in further understanding Burke, but in using an understanding of Burke to illuminate social and political conflict and, often, to intervene in those struggles.
The second scholarly path in The Seminaltextual Burke is Genealogical Study, which positions Burke as coming before or following on a particular scholar, theme, or line of scholarship. Regarding Burke as a work-in-progress, Bernard L. Brock’s Kenneth Burke and the 21st Century categorizes Burke’s notable intellectual stages of development: critical realist, conceptualist, and coherentist. While this work focuses entirely on scholarly understandings of Burke at the end of the 20th century, Brock adeptly explicates the states of thought present in Burke’s work and life. Sarah Mahan-Hays and Roger C. Aden opine in “Kenneth Burke’s ‘Attitude’ at a Crossroads of Rhetorical and Cultural Studies: A Proposal and Case Study Illustration” that Burke exists at the center of an American theoretical crossroad and, ultimately, has opened the door for contemporary cultural studies in the discipline. The authors concentrate on Burke’s notions of representative anecdotes, equipment for living, and frames of acceptance/rejection/transition as intersecting with other cultural theorists in a way that allows for more holistic cultural criticism. Finally, Celeste Condit’s “Post Burke: Transcending the Sub-stance of Dramatism” transcends Burke himself to argue that Burke’s corpus of work is perhaps the most important of any theorist of the 20th century for the Communication Studies discipline. Condit explains that Burke was motivated by the universal whereas we are generally centered on the particular. Because of Burke’s universal focus, he is “used” by scholars to theoretically situate a number of issues: race, gender, culture, ethnocentrism, class, religion and social hierarchy. Condit underscores that, although Burke was clearly a man of his time, his appeal and philosophy are timeless.
Most scholars contend Burke and his work are timeless, yet some scholars trace Burke as a theorist who both learned from and then extended other theorists. In terms of Burke learning from and then extending others, Robert Heath’s “Kenneth Burke’s Poetics and the Influence of I.A. Richards: A Cornerstone for Dramatism” is an obvious example. Heath argues that Burke’s understanding of attitudes as embedded in language and emerging from rhetoric and poetics is derivative of I.A. Richards philosophy of incipient actions. Burke incorporates this comprehension into Counter-Statement. Debra Hawhee’s “Burke and Nietzsche” observes that Nietzsche begets Burke. The linkages include perspective by incongruity, motive, terministic screens, and dramatism. Hawhee points to, in particular, Permanence and Change as Burke following Nietzsche as theorist and rhetorician. James Arnt Aune’s “A Historical Materialist Theory of Rhetoric” traces Marx and Hegel as fundamental to Burke’s materialist ideology. Burke was concerned that people not worship at the altar of perfect symbol systems, but be active participants in social and political life where rhetoric marks a point of mediation between structure and struggle. Jack Selzer’s “Kenneth Burke among the Moderns: Counter-Statement as a Counter Statement” shifts gears somewhat to make ideological claims on Burke’s behalf. Selzer advocates Burke’s work as representative of modernist ideology as critical method. By way of illustration, Selzer suggests Counter-Statement is both contradictory and conflicted, demonstrating a high level of skepticism toward even the systematicity Burke lays out.
Of course, Burke set the stage for many who would come after him, as well. Sonja Foss and Cindy Griffin cite feminist theorist Starhawk as redeeming Burke’s limited vision of rhetorical theory as domination in their “A Feminist Perspective on Rhetorical Theory: Toward a Clarification of Boundaries.” Foss and Griffin assert a more interconnected system out of Burke’s more individualistic one. John Logie’s “’We Write for the Workers’: Authorship and Communism in Kenneth Burke and Richard Wright” paints a picture of contemporaries, Wright following Burke in distancing himself from the American Communist Party. This split, Logie claims, made Burke a Marxoid rather than a Marxist. Barbara Biesecker’s Addressing Postmodernity: Kenneth, Burke, Rhetoric and a Theory of Social Change places Burke’s tensions of structure/subject, history/agency and permanence/change as ideal candidates for deconstruction. Biesecker also suggests that Jacques Derrida’s “double gesture” and Habermas’ “illocutionary/perlocutionary” dialectic follow Burke’s idea of maintaining tensions. Rosalind Gabin’s “Entitling Kenneth Burke” observes that Burke anticipates the work of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man. Gabin’s claim is based on the consideration that Burke reintegrates various linguistic and rhetoric ideas, placing language as a tool for action. Essentially, Burke becomes a vessel delivering a foundation upon which Barthes, Derrida and de Man build.
Genealogical Studies is exemplified in part by Barbara Biesecker’s Addressing Postmodernity: Kenneth Burke, Rhetoric, and a Theory of Social Change. Although much of that volume is also textualcentric, her ordering of Burke’s work is based on showing links, connections, and influences between him and influential poststructuralists. A more explicit attempt to put Burke and prominent poststructuralist, postmodernist theorists into a genealogical order is found in Bernard L. Brock’s edited book, Kenneth Burke and Contemporary European Thought: Rhetoric in Transition. This work connects and disconnects Burke with Jurgen Habermas, Ernesto Grassi, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. Genealogical Studies may be illustrated in a negative way by Robert S. Cathcart’s “Instruments of His Own Making: Burke and the Media.” Cathcart argues for a discontinuity between Burke and McLuhan, a failure of Burke’s work to find a bridge into our hypermediated world. In the Simons and Melia volume, David Cratis Williams shows a “margin of overlap” between Jacques Derrida and Burke, in his “Under the Sign of (An)Nihilation: Burke in the Age of Nuclear Destruction and Critical Deconstruction.”
Generalizations made about an entire discipline are certain to draw disagreement; nevertheless, we offer here some observations about the ways in which Kenneth Burke’s work is used in Communication Studies. An overarching observation would be that for Communication (and allied) scholars, Burke’s work is itself a kind of “parlor” into and through which an astonishing variety of ideas and objects of study have passed. The most remarkable thing about how he has been used in Communication Studies is the broad range of subjects and approaches that his work facilitates. One could not claim that Burke would agree with all of these uses, but then, that is the nature of the parlor metaphor. Consistent with a variety of uses and with the likelihood that Burke would not necessarily sanction all of those uses is our observation that more recent scholarship is more likely to differ from Burke in some sense. From early studies that were largely laudatory in tone we have come to studies that respect Burke enough to challenge him, change him, disagree with him, and put him in his place. We are sure that he would approve.
A clear trajectory that we note in the mix of Burkean works in Communication Studies is a shift from a heavy theoretical emphasis toward more critical applications of Burke’s ideas to actual texts. More recent studies claiming to be Burkean are more likely than earlier studies to show how his ideas might be used to open up interpretive possibilities in film, television, and even good old fashioned speeches. The trend is particularly evident in articles; scholarly books tend to be more heavily theoretical. This is probably to be expected, and may reflect several truths. The greater preponderance of criticism in articles and theory in books reflects an understanding that to get a largely theoretical handle on Burke requires the space of a book; a twenty page journal article is not up to the task at the current level of theoretical complexity.
In general, though, a shift to criticism might be expected. As a scholarly problematic is being developed, exploration and ordering of basic theoretical ideas needs to come before application of those ideas as methods in criticism. Scholars in Communication Studies have needed to work out our basic sets of concepts and terms from Burke first. That task has not been and will never be completely finished, but the number of ideas from Burke that have not had some article written about them is dwindling, if indeed there are any such nuggets left. Now that we have some understanding of Burke’s structure of ideas we can use it as did he, to read texts. Again, we are sure that Burke would approve.
Application of theoretical concepts to texts that are doing real business in the world is an ethical and responsible venture. Criticism, we suggest, is not necessarily better than theory but it is more ethically freighted, as the critic makes assertions and interventions into the world of people and their actions, not only into the world of ideas. Burke himself contains much good theory, of course, but he is at his ethical best when he shows us how that theory can open up actual texts. As we noted above in reviewing Critical Studies, many scholars feel more empowered over recent decades to use Burkean theory as a way to intervene in rhetorical struggles as embodied in real texts, interventions with clear ethical implications. We applaud the implications of this shift to more criticism and engagement in Communication Studies, and we look forward with interest to how this trend might situate our discipline in an academy which is already looking askance at the paradigm of “theory” that has dominated the humanities for so long.
* Barry Brummett is Charles Sapp Centennial Professor in Communication at the University of Texas-Austin. Anna M. Young is Assistant Instructor in Communication at the University of Texas-Austin.
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Rebecca Townsend, University of Massachusetts
Abstract: This essay employs the concept of “circumference of scene” together with ethnography of communication as an orienting framework in an analysis of a New England town meeting land-use debate. I demonstrate how circumference-widening occurs and how limits are created or enforced. The limits of widening are related to cultural norms for interaction and expectations for what counts as legitimate local political discourse. Strategic scene-widening allows participants to act as if they were only moving in response to an imminent threat. These acts also create the links between the local setting and the metaphysical scenes.
HOW CAN WE DESCRIBE SCENES? “Scenes” can “shift” (Huglen and Brock). They “change.” They rarely stay the same; despite human’s attempts, sometimes, to create permanence. “Scenes” have “borders” and “borderlands” (Terrill). Indeed, as Kenneth Burke wrote, they have a “circumference” (22). “Circumference” entails another related term, “widening,” which captures that curious experience that listeners feel when rhetors use new scenic terms. Something has changed; something is different. “Widening” or “expanding” helpfully marks the union between the physical and the metaphysical. “Shifting” scenes is merely a mechanical operation, just as in film where rectangles of scenes move past each other in a linear fashion. When scenes “widen” from the physical to the metaphysical, however, a special sort of action occurs. In their article that superbly illustrates local Mainers’ strategies of differently emphasizing metaphysical and physical scenic terms, Mari Boor Tonn, Valerie Endress, and John Diamond remind readers that “[t]he utility of emphasizing a physical scene in certain contexts and a metaphysical scene in others is suggested by Burke: ‘One knows when to “spiritualize” a material issue and when to “materialize” a spiritual one’” (qtg. Burke, Philosophy 216 at 180 n18). Symbolic scenes involve both metaphysical and physical dimensions.
Here, in this essay featuring ethno-rhetorical analysis of a local Massachusetts town meeting debate, I demonstrate another way to see the relationship between the metaphysical and physical. In a debate on a land-use question, rhetors “widen” the “circumference of scene” in a way that illustrates the flexibility of local tradition, and allows participants to act as if they were only moving. “Circumference of scene” is a valuable concept for rhetorical scholars to use in examining rhetorical events or acts. Rhetors who stretch the circumference too widely, beyond the collective purpose (breaking the bond needed between physical and metaphysical), are marked as having violated the norms for interaction at town meeting. Participants may widen the scene, but they cannot shift it beyond the scope of what town meeting (the scene-agent) has the power to do.
Before describing and analyzing the practice and range of scene-widening in town meeting rhetoric, I must first explain this type of government structure as well as convey the character and characteristics of the town. The theoretical perspective I take toward the rhetoric that constitutes town meeting deliberation starts from a Burkean stance on “scene” and an ethnography of communication orientation toward speech communities and rhetorical interactions. I outline both the theoretical frame and the method for generating, reviewing, and analyzing data. Most of the essay involves descriptive analysis of a debate on land-use, showing how interacting rhetors variously widen the scene and attempt to shift it beyond the permissible bounds of the communication event. Following an exploration of the consequences of scene changes and the scene-agent ratio, I discuss the implications for the local “individual” acting or moving in physical settings and metaphysical scenes of town meeting tradition, community, and democracy.
There is very little scholarship on town meeting and government meetings. Currently, the only three books on New England town meeting are written by political scientists (Mansbridge; Zimmerman; Bryan). Communication has produced two articles: one brief overview of 1964 town meetings (Kerr) and one study of colonial times (Potter). In 1999’s special edition of the Communication Review, Michael Schudson laments the lack of local political studies of any region. This trend is beginning to reverse (Carbaugh and Wolf; Edbauer; Eliasoph; Farkas; Flyvbjerg; Marchand; Tracy and Ashcraft; Tracy and Dimock; Tracy and Muller; Tracy and Standerfer).
Town meeting is not simply a forum, or a public meeting; it is a local legislature that occurs typically twice a year (but more often if demand warrants). Participants have power to appropriate money, create laws, and zone land use. In Massachusetts, approximately 300 towns use town meeting. In the specific case studied here, Amherst, Massachusetts uses a “representative” form, involving 240 elected “town meeting members”: twenty-four representatives from ten precincts. Also present at the town meeting event is an elected Moderator, who, by virtue of state laws and local by-laws, keeps order and calls the votes. Procedure for debate does not follow Robert’s Rules, but Town Meeting Time (Johnson, Trustman, and Wadsworth), in conjunction with relevant by-laws, state laws, and local traditions. Traditions are not simply collections of past practices, but as I will show, get enacted. Town meeting strictly adheres to an agenda that towns (per state law) call a “warrant,” from the root term “warning.” Town residents must be appropriately warned of town meeting’s time, location, and topics that will be discussed. Topics are arranged into separate “articles.” While one meeting may involve several evening sessions, no action can occur on the proposals on the articles unless town meeting completes the warrant. This involves voting each motion on every article up or down, voting to dismiss it, or sending it to a town advisory or regulatory board. Proposals become binding when town meeting is dissolved. Each meeting is its own bound event; no issue may carry over to the next.
Any registered voter of Amherst may speak at town meeting. Participants must “speak to the issue.” This involves asking “questions,” “answering,” “arguing,” making a “board recommendation,” offering “comments,” and making a “report.” Issues are restricted to the topic outlined by the article and the motions participants make (to “approve,” “adopt,” “amend,” or “dismiss”). Issues themselves may call for a variety of actions, including raising and appropriating money, transferring money between accounts, resolving to do some action, or changing or creating a by-law. Participants may criticize individuals’ or institutions’ actions, but are prohibited from criticizing people themselves. They may not insult others, speculate on others’ motives, or advertise. The debate I present includes two violations of the latter two norms for rhetorical interaction.
Only elected members and the ex-officio members may vote. Ex-officio members include the Select Board, the School Committee, the President of the Library Trustees, the Finance Committee Chair, the Moderator (who, as a practice in Amherst, only votes in case of a tie), and the Town Manager. Amherst’s Chief Executive Officer is a five-member elected “Select Board” (in other towns, and in state law, it is a “Board of Selectmen”). In addition to setting policy and deciding liquor licenses, the Select Board hires and supervises a Town Manager, who is responsible for the day-to-day operation of government departments. There are numerous other boards and commissions that have varying degrees of authority and membership criteria. Relevant for the discussion in this essay is the powerful seven-member Conservation Commission, which is appointed by the town manager. It “promotes the preservation of open space through acquisition of land and development rights. It makes policy related to the use and management of acquired conservation land.” The law gives the commission its power: “MGL [Massachusetts General Law] Ch. 131, sec. 40, and Amherst wetlands protection bylaws give the commission broad powers to regulate the use of wetlands” (Amherst).
Amherst is a college town. Amherst College, the University of Massachusetts, and Hampshire College are within its bounds, and Smith and Mount Holyoke Colleges are in nearby towns. Youth predominates. In the 2000 census, 52% of residents were between the ages of 15-24; the college population itself is 26,403. Permanent residents find blessings and burdens brought by the students who flock to Amherst during the school year. Amherst’s web page, part of the Massachusetts’ Commonwealth Communities web pages, describes this feeling:
While the town’s commercial, social and cultural life benefit from the liveliness and diversity stimulated by the colleges and the University, the town suffers financially from the fact that over half its land is tax exempt. Amherst has long supported excellent public schools, libraries and town services; it has also worked hard both to preserve farming and open space and to provide affordable housing. Amherst is one of the few towns in the State to have met the State’s goal of having 10% of its housing stock affordable. (Commonwealth of Massachusetts)
Amherst’s citizens have a variety of political, environmental, and social causes they support; this too is evident as Amherst concurrently supports “farming” and “open space” and “affordable housing” in a delicate balancing act. Non-residents jokingly refer to Amherst as “the People’s Republic of Amherst” for its progressive attitudes and politics. One member of town meeting informed me that soon I would get used to people “and their causes.”
Kenneth Burke’s notion of “circumference of scene” and Dell Hymes’s ethnography of communication guide my study of a practical performance of democratic local governance. Burke, in A Grammar of Motives, drawing from William James, claims that “[t]he word reminds us that, when ‘defining by location,’ one may place the object of one’s definition in contexts of varying scope. . . . [T]he choice of circumference of the scene in terms of which a given act is to be located will have a corresponding effect upon the interpretation of the act itself” (77). To be sure, scenes affect the perspectives with which agents act. But scene does more. Burke outlines the dimensions of scope and reduction in considering the “circumference” of scene. He notes that “[t]he contracting and expanding of scene is rooted in the very nature of linguistic placement. And a selection of circumference from among this range is in itself an act . . . with the definition or interpretation of the act taking shape accordingly” (84). Furthermore, this expansion or contraction of scenic language “may stem from an accurate awareness that one can define human nature and human actions in much wider terms than the particularities his immediate circumstances would permit” (84).
Ethnography of communication [EC] is both a theory and a method. An ethnography of communication orientation to the study of rhetoric draws attention to the patterned, constitutive nature of the system of “customs and values” as they are expressed (at least in part) through communication (Hymes “Models”). Dell Hymes developed ethnography of communication as a way to examine native communities’ own theories of speaking for comparative analysis (see important developments in Philipsen; Carbaugh; Fitch; Katriel; Scollo Sawyer). Two key assumptions are that speech (1) is patterned and (2) is partially constitutive of social life. Rhetoric, the symbolic action present at town meeting, is similarly patterned and partially constitutive of social life. Rhetorical interaction is “culturally defined” (Philipsen, “Navajo World View” 139). Analysis of participants’ use of the social labels for communication is particularly important in understanding the cultural dimensions of rhetoric (e.g., Hymes “The Ethnography of Speaking”; Carbaugh “Fifty Terms for Talk”; and Scollo Sawyer “Nonverbal Ways”).
Hymes’ interest in the culturally rich communication of particular communities developed from Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical orientation toward language. Other scholars have already noted the debt EC has to Burkean dramatism (e.g. Bauman, Let Your Words Be Few; Carbaugh, Talking American and Situating Selves; Jordan). Calls for ethnography of local rhetoric are slowly being answered, and rhetorical studies benefit by a more detailed treatment of culture and context, a “cultural rhetorical studies” (Rosteck). Rhetoric is performed in and through speech communities. Communities have their own topoi that draw upon and enrich the broader culture. Those who study political communication benefit from using these complementary modes of interpretive description.
Rhetorical ethnography, with a focus on rhetorical interactions, is the general orientation that guides this study. I treat the town meeting situated interaction of speaker and listener as a rhetorical process, designed with a vote in view. The end of the event is to complete the town’s business. Speakers and listeners alike are motivated toward that end, and other purposes as well. I treat their interaction, their abilities to move each other symbolically toward that end place, as rhetorical. I study the context and contingency that support much of the interaction in town meeting. I study where norms for speaking create rhetorical opportunities and discuss how participants use those opportunities. My analysis has been “properly admonished to be on the look-out for these terministic relationships between the circumference and the ‘circumfered,’ even on occasions that may seem on the surface to be of a purely empirical nature” (Burke, Grammar 78). Rather than assess whether some ideal conception of democratic deliberation is or is not present in town meeting, I take for granted participant labeling of town meeting as “democratic” and wonder instead what sense this makes to participants themselves and what happens in the event labeled as such.
In order to generate material for systematic study, I conducted the bulk of my fieldwork in Amherst in 1999 and 2000. I began preliminary interviewing and reading about Amherst history and politics in 1998 and attended Amherst’s 1999 and 2000 annual town meeting. I generated over two hundred pages of field notes from nineteen hours of observation and review of videotapes. Part of my participant observation included numerous informal interviews with participants at preliminary committee meetings or at town meeting itself. Hymes’ SPEAKING heuristic (scene/setting, participants, ends, acts, key, instrumentality, norms for interaction and interpretation, and genre) provided a guide for my questions in interviews (“Models” 59). Initially I conducted eight formal, semi-structured interviews (each was approximately forty-five minutes in length, and seven interviews were tape recorded) with participants in town meetings in five towns (interestingly, most mention Amherst’s meeting without prompting).1
From videotapes, interview notes, and my field notes, I observed that participants place a great deal of stress upon “speaking to the issue” at town meeting. My main questions were: what is the rule for “speaking to the issue” and what does its flexibility permit? The 1999 videotapes and the 2000 tapes contain re-playable moments of “speaking to the issue,” which collectively constitute democratic deliberation in Amherst. I chose three sessions of the 1999 meeting for closer analysis, one at the start of the meeting, one in the middle, and one at the end. On separate cards, I wrote down what each person said, with notations about nonverbal actions, as I was able to hear and see from the videotapes. Later I clustered the cards, by similarities and differences. Whenever native terms were used to describe what I saw in these clusterings, I used them as labels for my formulation of a typology of acts that can occur as part of deliberation in town meeting: “questions” (quick question for information, question about an issue, pointed question), “answering,” “arguing” (“for” or “against”), “board recommendation” (“able to make,” “in favor,” “not in favor,” or “unable to make”), “comments,” and making a “report.”
As a result of considering “speaking to the issue” as a style of speaking, this conceptualization provides for analysis of both the act (singular agent) and event (interaction). Phase one of a “terms for talk” analysis (Carbaugh “Fifty Terms for Talk”) involved reviewing the tapes, listening for social uses of the term “speaking to the issue.” I described its invocation, focusing on the act and event sequence of what was said, and how it was said. I also interpreted how the invocation functions. Phase two involved describing the enactment of “speaking to the issue” and how the enactment functions. I then reviewed violations of “speaking to the issue,” like speculating on others’ motives, advertising, and using personal insults. Phase three involved interpreting the meanings and messages that the term (as invoked and as enacted) makes known. I examined moments of co-occurrence, contrast, constancy and variation. I transcribed only key parts of town meeting that evidenced “speaking to the issue.” For a quantitative measure of just how common the enactment of “speaking to the issue” is, consider that there were 274 instances of it on session nights April 28, 1999, May 5, 1999, and June 9, 1999. Each night contained 99, 89, and 86 instances, respectively. I picked a fourth session to check if these other three were typical. On May 19, 1999, there were 89 instances. Invocation of the term “speak to the issue” occurred less frequently than its enactment. On May 5, 1999, there were 25 instances of invoking the term. On May 19, there were also 25 invocations. I could be reasonably certain the analyses would be representative of the other sessions as well.
I focus on the act/event of “speaking to the issue” and how its performance can create scenes for the audiences. This allows the participants to feel efficacious in more places. One type of “speaking to the issue” is “arguing.” I have chosen one issue in a session of town meeting, a “representative anecdote” (Burke; Wess) for a study of the relation between scene and “speaking to the issue:” discussion of an article that would designate a parcel of land for conservation (Article 29, May 19, 1999). Violations of discursive norms can mark boundaries, the circumference of scene, so I attended to those moments carefully. For every instance of “speaking to the issue,” I transcribed the speech (or parts of longer speeches) on a note card. I then examined any related, synonymous or oppositional terms and whether these are acts, events, or styles. Analysis included details about the term’s structure, mode, and meanings and messages. I described the typology items’ attributes, structuring norms, and criteria that legitimated their status as “speaking to the issue.” I examined the social uses of “speaking to the issue” and the ways participants attempted to achieve identification (with a position, with them, or with something else). For my purpose in this essay, I include only the portion of this analysis that bears on what the debate shows about “widening the circumference of scene.” Participants may widen the circumference of scene only so far; otherwise they violate the norms for “speaking to the issue.”
Puffer’s Pond is a special place in Amherst. Trails wind through forested areas around the Pond, a popular place to fish, boat, or swim, and it is always very cold (or “refreshing”). To create a sense of permanence in the landscape, some residents petitioned the town to place the surrounding land under Conservation Commission administration. Analysis of how “arguments” are socially used will proceed as I describe the debate’s unfolding. Alice Allen made the petitioner’s presentation to approve an article that would give the Conservation Commission permanent control of the land near Puffer’s Pond to retain the “terrain’s” “natural beauty.” Since it was informally administered by the Commission, there would be no loss of tax revenue. She concluded that she knew “others would like to speak to this.” Proponents were networked and came prepared. Participants often orchestrate “speaking to the issue” so that it appears that the position they espouse has broad-based support.
First, however, the Select Board had to make its recommendation. A member of that board, Eva Schiffer, noted that they would “not recommend this article” since the land might have a “prospect for future development.” To verify this, they would “need [an] informed decision,” which they said they did not have. Although she acknowledged the “possible good reasons” for “keeping it under current management,” she reminded listeners that the land is in an “affordable housing area.” She widened the scene to include the land’s surroundings. Affordable housing is a topic close to many Amherst town meeting members’ hearts, and she used this to rebut proponent’s claim that there is no loss of tax revenue. Rather than arguing the point abstractly, she specified a source of that potential revenue: affordable housing (as compared with another potential source: high-end developments). Not the land itself, but money, in the form of taxes, was Ms. Schiffer’s “rationalizing ground of action” (Grammar 113).
The Select Board noted that they “aren’t opposed as a matter of principle to conservation” but that the town should want to “keep options open.” Ms. Allen, the petitioner, looked on, smiling. Since the Finance Committee had no position on the article, the attention then turned to the next relevant committee: the Conservation Commission, represented by James Scott. Mr. Scott reported that the “majority . . . support this article.” He gave a history of the land and referred to the history the petitioner had given. The “terrain” provided another reason for “ensur[ing] that it remain in conservation management.” Ms. Allen had discussed this article with that Commission, as is a recommended practice. That link was no surprise. What was more interesting for the purposes of this analysis, however, was the emerging groundswell of support.
The next four non-executive branch speakers (Vladimir Morales, Margaret Gage, Jim Ellis, and Isaac BenEzra) all spoke in favor of the article. The only speakers against the article were Ms. Schiffer and Barry Del Castilho (the Town Manager). The Moderator, Harrison Gregg, was responsible for ensuring that all those who wished to speak got a chance to do so. Accordingly, he asked if a member of the Fair Housing Partnership Committee was present. Vladimir Morales went to the podium. Board members may speak as part of their board, or as independent citizens. They should disclose who they represent, however. Lest his words be construed as the Board’s “recommendation in favor” and not simply as a separate individual making an “argument for” the motion, the Moderator asked Mr. Morales if he represented that Committee. Mr. Morales replied, “I do but I have a different position” than they do—to everyone’s laughter. He said he was speaking on behalf of the motion to approve the article. While it was true he is a member of that committee, he acknowledged, he differed from the majority position. It was important for him to identify with the Fair Housing Partnership Committee (FHPC) here, even though he was not technically speaking for that group’s position. His dual role as someone who appreciates the land and as someone who is active in creating affordable housing imbued his act of “arguing”—his “speaking to the issue” of Puffer’s Pond land conservation—with considerable credibility.
Identifying himself this way created ambiguity for listeners, and lent credibility to the advocates. He spoke as someone who had “visited” the land often and assured the meeting that this was “not our only last chance for affordable housing.” He spoke highly of the “opportunity” this “neighborhood petition” had to “help shape Amherst’s future.” No, he differentiated, this article was “not anti-development”; rather it would provide “safe, attractive pedestrian access to Puffer’s Pond.” He narrowed the scene to that parcel again, to differentiate from Ms. Schiffer’s widening of it. This allowed him to open up a new, wide scope for perceiving what this town action of placing the land in Conservation Commission control would do. His primary support for the article was a narrative of his experience growing up “in a small town on the North Atlantic coast of Puerto Rico” and how walking to the beach with his father instilled in him a “sense of wonder and responsibility.” These walks provided moments for “exploring the natural environment” that were “an important means of developing our sense of our self and our community.” Unfortunately, “access to beaches is blocked and residents are poorer for [the] development.” He did not want that development to happen here. He widened the circumference of scene from town meeting set in the Amherst Junior High School Auditorium, and took us on a tour of the town of his birth. This fell within the general scope of the issue, by arguing by analogy. Bringing us on this tour allowed Morales to “align [his] own experience,” (as Gregory Clark puts it, in Rhetorical Landscapes in America) “at least imaginatively, with that of the collectivity of which [he is] a part” (21). Mr. Morales “walks the area after work”; he wanted others to “benefit from the actions of [a] past town meeting,” a final appeal to town meeting’s sense of history and legacy. Members have a sharp sense of town history and easily invoked it.
Scenes can limit action, as Tonn, Endress, and Diamond point out:
Arguments dominated by “scene” Burke claims, reflect a perspective that is committed to viewing the world as relatively permanent and deterministic. Persons functioning within the scene are regarded as seriously constrained by scenic elements. Immutable factors in the natural or social landscape limit their ability to act on their own volition: free will is supplanted largely by fate, thereby reducing action to motion. (166)
But in this debate, the arguments town meeting members used display another perspective, one that views the world as shapeable, as changeable. In this debate, scenes create new places for action. Within town meeting, they are constrained by democratic rules. Those rules are flexible in that they permit a widening of scene; we enter someone else’s dream or vision of what is possible. The advocates were not moving; they were acting. They argued for a change to the status of the land. The land did not face imminent development prospects. Invoking details of the contemporary physical scene of the Puffer’s Pond landscape, together with a cautionary tale from years ago in Puerto Rico, created a scene that allowed them to appear as if they were moving in response to a push from development’s threatening devastation. They could imagine a bleak future. In widening the scene beyond the circumference of Puffer’s Pond (itself beyond the auditorium), they “spiritualized” the scene. They were now participants in a grand struggle to preserve the community forest.
Widening the scene for action is permissible as long as one adheres to the norms of “speaking to the issue.” The scope of action involved in “speaking to the issue” can be narrow or wide, but there must be a relevance to the purpose of persuading members to vote yes or no. No explicit alternative purposes for speaking are permitted. This occurred during the second half of Margaret Gage’s turn. She first prefaced her support for this issue with a call for a comprehensive plan that would help the town anticipate and solve problems like these. She explained that she was going to “address [the] issue of low-moderate income housing” that Ms. Schiffer was the first to broach, and proceeded to point to a map displayed by the overhead projector. The map showed every apartment complex for low- to moderate-income housing found in North Amherst. Yes, this parcel is located in a wider scene of affordable housing. She listed many, each by name. With Ms. Gage’s naming of each housing complex, the presentation bordered on becoming tedious. Through barraging members with the seemingly plentiful opportunities for affordable housing, attention could be diverted from seeing the Puffer’s Pond area as another potential site for additional housing. This housing “enriches North Amherst” and “families depend on” it. Families also depend on Puffer’s Pond for recreation; that is why they should be proud that “our neighborhood has done a terrific job with [the] resources [they have] to maintain Puffer’s Pond.” She lives there; it is “our neighborhood” (emphasis mine).
The second half of Ms. Gage’s turn involved a physical change as well. As she was about to change the overhead projection from the map to an advertisement for the annual Puffer’s Pond Pancake Breakfast fund-raiser, the Moderator told her she could not do that. Advertisement is not permitted at town meeting. A friendly discussion ensued over what she could say or do that was within the bounds of proper procedure. “You can talk about it but not advertise it,” the Moderator explained. “I won’t,” Ms. Gage responded, with a smile, as she continued:
Although she violated the proscription against advertising (line 1), Ms. Gage and the Moderator negotiated what was permissible. The passive voice the Moderator suggested in line six would allow her to mention that this event is happening, and it would allow her to abandon an advertising orientation. That orientation would “open up a Pandora’s box.” Not only would it be in violation of the rule prohibiting advertising, but it would invite innumerable others to do the same. This gentle correction enabled her to maintain her light tone. She did not storm off; instead she described her neighborhood and explained how residents use the parcel. “Join with me in supporting this,” she concluded. The scene could be widened, as long as it was within the general scope of action that is within the purview of the town meeting event-agent. That scope of action did not permit some purposes, such as advertising.
A third speaker, non-member but registered voter and Conservation Commission member Jim Ellis, praised the Meeting for proceeding “rapidly” through the articles that night. He would address the “minority position” that cautioned “‘let’s not do this immediately.’” He refuted it with an ominous-sounding allusion: “I guess I say why not? A lot of things can happen.” He cited Mr. Morales’ story about Puerto Rico. Returning to the wide scope, the fast-paced Mr. Ellis explained, “We are stewards of the beautiful land as much as providers of affordable housing.” “I urge you, as Meg [Ms. Gage] said,” to support this action. As a non-member, Mr. Ellis was nevertheless able to “argue” in a similar way as members. He could “speak to the issue” as someone knowledgeable about Conservation duties, and spoke with that authority to this issue. Amherst residents play two roles with regard to land, “stewards” and “providers.” The issue of land conservation and their roles as stewards took precedence in this particular case, he argued. “Arguing” involved a reiteration of the claim at the end, a final plea for alignment or identification of positions.
Support was voiced in an organized pattern: first with the Petitioner’s overall argument, interrupted, it seemed, by the formality of Select Board opposition, next with a statement of support from the very Commission who would continue their work managing the land, then a story about the wonder of the environment from someone with the ethos to tell that narrative, followed by an engaging and amusing presentation about the neighborhood where the land is located, and last in the series, a non-town meeting member so concerned about the issue he had to speak to recap what previous speakers had argued. Barry Del Castilho, the Town Manager, sitting as usual at the Select Board table, then asked to speak; he would try to break the developing pattern of support. Referencing Mr. Ellis’ praise for town meeting’s speedy work that evening at the start his speech, Mr. Del Castilho also acknowledged the unusually quick pace: “It is true and fortunate that you have worked expeditiously tonight,” and even though the “rep from the Fair Housing Partnership group isn’t here . . . the question is, can this be used as one or more affordable housing lots?” Mr. Del Castilho excluded himself from the praise; it was not “we” but “you” who have worked quickly.
He proceeded to return to a narrow circumference, to remind town meeting that they had been “very supportive of that [selling land at a reduced rate] three times now. The FHP would like a few more months to see if affordable housing is feasible.” That evening, town meeting had considered three land-related articles. They had voted in favor of Article 21 which concerned the complex deal of purchasing land in South Amherst at a special rate for conservation purposes. Article 22 was to buy land at a reduced rate, but at 90 yes votes and 72 nays, it failed to garner the necessary two-thirds majority. They also had voted in favor of an amendment that would lower the price of some land they wanted to sell for low- to moderate-income housing (the presumed buyer was Habitat for Humanity). Mr. Del Castilho’s words seemed to be an oversimplification of town meeting action; in any case it overlooked the trend toward conservation to balance development. Lastly, Mr. Del Castilho warned them against the “almost irreversible act of turning this [land] over to the Conservation Commission.” This response avoided all arguments about the access to Puffer’s Pond.
It was the centrality of the Puffer’s Pond scene to Amherst residents that the last speaker on this issue addressed. Isaac BenEzra also provided another rebuttal to the argument that those in favor of this conservation designation were opposed to affordable housing. Mr. BenEzra started by saying, “I have a lot of interest in affordable housing,” and gave a short résumé of his activity in Pennsylvania as a homeless shelter board member. He used this other scene to inflect his present discourse. Like Ms. Gage, he cited the need for a comprehensive approach, one that would widen views from only that plot of land to the larger neighborhood. He critiqued the notion of saving the parcel for affordable housing: “[we] need a comprehensive approach. Integrate sites, don’t isolate low income families . . . [they need] to be part of a larger community.” He echoed Ms. Gage’s comment about a comprehensive plan that would guide decision-making. Like Ms. Allen and Ms. Gage, he commented on the “densely populated area” of North Amherst and was glad that “this community has a real treasure.” “That piece of land is like the center of the whole community,” he theorized. He loved to bring visitors there: “that’s one of the great things about Amherst—going over to the pond. Having this land set aside so that we all can enjoy it is an important thing.” He was not about to stop his presentation there, however. He commented on the general debate, referencing an argument a Select Board member had made a week earlier:
Mr. BenEzra complained about the circumference’s failure: the Select Board and “the people” should inhabit the same circumference, but somehow “a gap,” a rift generated two circumferences from the ideal of one. This gap disrupted the Select Board’s ability to see the scene in the terms the town meeting members would have liked them to. Attending to that perceived gap, however, was beyond the scope of the article under debate. He wandered from “speaking to the issue,” and thus the Moderator warned him not to “get off the subject.” The petitioner, Ms. Allen was seated behind Mr. BenEzra and she smiled in agreement with the Moderator. “Ok. I guess I had to say it,” Mr. BenEzra continued, recognizing how the discussion moved him to speak (contrary to Ms. Gage, whom the Moderator had to stop from doing something). “But I really think we ought to be talking to each other more, because we’re not far apart. All of us have good intentions, the intention— [something happened to urge him to stop that sentence] so I urge you to support this.”
He attempted to repair the violation by closing his speech with an urge for the merging of circumferences via reflection on the positive aphorism that “all of us have good intentions.” It is unclear whether that speculation on motives—intentions—was still a violation; he avoided speculating on a particular person, so one would assume that it fell within the scope of “speaking to the issue.” Burke describes the problem that we saw Mr. BenEzra face:
In confronting this wide range in the choice of a circumference for the location of an act, men confront what is distinctively the human freedom and the human necessity. This necessity is a freedom insofar as the choice of circumference leads to an adequate interpretation of motives; and it is an enslavement insofar as the interpretation is inadequate. We might exploit the conveniences of “substance” by saying that, in necessarily confronting such a range of choices, men are “substantially” free. (Grammar 84)
Mr. BenEzra was constrained by the town meeting setting and the bounds of the issue under debate. Yet his membership in this community of agents, that the scene of town meeting demarcates, created another bind on his freedom: he “had to say” something, even though he would violate the norms for speaking there.
Following Mr. BenEzra’s final remark someone “called the question,” a motion asking to end debate, which was approved. Members then voted on the article. A standing vote was needed and the vote totaled 110 voting yes, 34 voting no. A two-third’s majority approved the article. With the non-town meeting members in attendance, and the victory of a controversial article, the Moderator admonished, “no demonstrations, please.” Since this was the last article the meeting would handle that night, and since they had considered many articles, the Moderator closed the meeting with “good work!”
Evidence of non-government funded neighborhood efforts and support for the area, evidence of emotional ties to that land, and evidence via ethos of affordable housing supporters supporting this measure created a strong cloth of collaborative argument in favor of the article. In this discussion, town meeting participants who spoke to the issue wove aspects typical of casual conversation in with formal debate: as in conversations, people spun lines off of other people’s content. As in debate, rebuttals were presented. Unlike conversations, however, the topic range was much more limited. And unlike formal pro-con debate, the participants sought to implement real answers to concrete problems and issues. What they said mattered. Land would, or would not, be put under Conservation Commission control. Reputations were made, lost, or enhanced through the act of “speaking to the issue”; for, after all, neighbors do remember what fellow neighbors said and did at town meeting.
One action that members perform involves choosing which scene in which to base their attempts at “arguing.” In that arguing, choices of scene are made available by the norms within the community’s culture.
[O]ne has a great variety of circumferences to select as characterizations of a given agent’s scene. For man is not only in the situation peculiar to his era or to his particular place in that era. . . . He is also in a situation extending through centuries; he is in a “generically human” situation; and he is in a “universal” situation. Who is to say, once and for all, which of these circumferences is to be selected as the motivation of his act, insofar as the act is to be defined in scenic terms? (Burke, Grammar 84)
Rhetors in town meeting must “speak to the issue.” While each issue’s circumference may be relatively limited, their agency, the way people “speak to” that issue, can be wide or narrow, depending on the purpose.
Some speakers will attempt to widen or narrow the scope of action in town meeting, or even make present a new setting as they speak to the issue. Frequent scene changes involve a classroom setting, not surprising since many participants have links with the colleges in the area and since the physical setting is in the Middle School auditorium. Other scenes can include a business boardroom (where the “bottom line” is stressed), a family dinner table (where talk of “economizing” and relating participants’ family budget discussions to how the town should run are common), or a far-away country (where participants are to imagine themselves). The virtual context helps to shape the content’s meaning. Clark points out the relationship that context has to symbols:
The context in which any symbol is encountered shapes what it means. . . . [Burke’s] point was that any symbolic act is rendered “different” in its meaning and rhetorical function by its placement in a different scene: “Obviously, the nature of a term as an ‘act’ is defined not just by its place in the context of a certain language, but by its extra-verbal ‘context of situation.’” (qtg. Burke, Language 359 at 33)
Widening or narrowing the “circumference of scene” finds participants expanding or limiting the capabilities of town meeting action.
Occasionally, as in town meeting, the terms suggest a scene apart from the physical setting. Hymes explained that “[s]peech acts frequently are used to define scenes, and also frequently judged as appropriate or inappropriate in relation to scenes” (“Models” 60). What we hear in town meeting discourse allows the participants to transport themselves to new scenes temporarily, depending on their purpose. The advocates’ verbal description widens the scene to include the natural landscape that forms “the center of the whole” Amherst community. As such, agents are then transformed into tourists in their own hometown. Clark argues that:
When people act as tourists, they leave the land where they make their home to encounter landscapes. Land becomes landscape when it is assigned the role of symbol, and as symbol it functions rhetorically. When landscapes are publicized—when they are shared in public discourse . . . they do the rhetorical work of symbolizing a common home and, thus, a common identity. (9)
Rejecting the article that would place the land adjacent to Puffer’s Pond under Conservation Commission control would have rejected the symbolic import of their “common” home. Amherst town meeting members were political “trustees” for the landscape (Riemer). With participant reference to town meeting such as “town meeting decided,” “town meeting” is not only an event. “Town meeting” serves as a grand, holistic participant, a governmental agent. Participants widen the scene within town meeting and while talking about town meeting. “Distinctions between ‘agent’ and ‘scene’ may become blurred in the concept of a community or social identity, which often includes both personal qualities and literal place” (Tonn, Endress, and Diamond 166). This occurs in Amherst, as members located in the town meeting scene also speak about town meeting as having agent status. When people talk about the decisions the elected members made, they say “town meeting decided.” This speech act transforms a scene circumscribing agents (and allowing those agents to widen the circumferences of their own discourse, within bounds of official rules) into an agent itself.
The debate depicted here provides some insight into the richness of Burke’s conception of “scene” and “circumference,” especially concerning the scene-agent ratio and action-motion, the flexibility of tradition, relations both physical and metaphysical, and local-global orientations. In reflecting upon the Burkean concept of “circumference of scene,” I have also reflected about my choice to examine local political communication. Agents can widen scenes only so far; each community draws the circumference of permissible symbolic action differently. Each community has discursive norms for interaction. In the land-use debate in Amherst, the performance of widening a scene indirectly orients listeners as being swept in a broad environmental movement.
The question of the relationship between widening the circumference of scene and agent status then arises; do agents act, or move? Tonn, Endress, and Diamond assert:
Individuals who comprise a particular community may explain their own behavior as motion because it is controlled by communal traditions or “laws,” norms that they as “agents” nonetheless have devised. Conversely, the behaviors of those individuals in conflict with a community is often construed as action—the conscious or willful violation of rules and physical boundaries. (166)
In Amherst, however, this is not so. The Moderator treats violations of “speaking to the issue” as either motion or action, depending on the situation, the person’s ethos (which is dually present and absent in town meeting discourse), the words, and the tone. The Moderator is not simply an automaton in his application of rules and tradition. He is a rhetorically capable agent whose flexibility in application displays a similarly flexible and rhetorical notion of community tradition.
Tradition is alive in Amherst, and must not be treated as past. The “past” is over, dead. Things from the past do not come alive again. If it is treated only as old, then town meeting tradition of talking democracy is a quaint relic of the past, never to carry on. Town meeting members may use scenes from the past to create a sense of a dangerous future. In their plea to preserve the land near Puffer’s Pond from development, advocates tried to avoid pointing out that there existed no impending development threat. Development was not immediate, but only imagined. So the actions preserving this setting were not necessarily gut-instinct, survival motions. Advocates strategically treated them as such, however, since to be acting out of survival in the face of looming destruction generates an urgency to move—to do something to save the area. So they acted, via a widened circumference (cautioned by what happened in Puerto Rico), as if they were moving.
Scenic argument transcends the physical ground as it uses metaphysical grounds for commonality and community. Burke discussed how scenes, as they grow wider, imply a sense of “‘transcendence,’ a ‘higher synthesis’” (Grammar 85). Rhetors in Amherst moved through the physical setting of the land to the symbolic communal order; the physical setting is connected to the metaphysical scene. In her cross-case study of nonverbal ways of communicating with nature, Michelle Scollo Sawyer claims that “this connection to, or coparticipation with, the natural world ultimately functions to reveal the sacredness within and connectedness between all living things. Such experiences offer their human participants a way of knowing from nature that is not possible in other contexts or through other forms of communication” (227, emphasis mine). Town meeting use of “nature” scenes was a key component in the metaphysical move beyond economic considerations. Hymes’ distinction is important: settings involve “physical characteristics.” “[S]cene implies always an analysis of cultural definitions,” however (“Models” 60). “The first presuppositions of a rhetorical system are metaphysical” (Philipsen, “Navajo World View” 133). Scenic terms tap into this system, and an ethnographically informed rhetorical analysis is a way to see the relationship between the physical present and the symbolic, and metaphysical past or future. Rather than sharp division, continua of difference between physical and metaphysical axes exist, arranged into hierarchies for political purposes.
Town meeting members’ widening of the circumference of scene can also serve to see the concepts of local and global in a new way. Huglen and Brock suggested that “[g]lobal and local cultures are polarized rhetorical communities competing to become the dominant model for the 21st century.” There may not necessarily be opposition, but rather degrees of relation. Rena Lederman’s definition of “political relations” attends to the notion of a transformative social order that is helpful in rethinking global opposition to the local:
“[P]olitical” relations refer not only to the way access to a given set of culturally valued resources is restricted for certain people (or “statuses”) and not others, or the way in which a particular given social order is maintained and enforced; they also refer to the way in which this social order and these evaluations are themselves created and reproduced or are denied and transformed. (qtd. in Brenneis and Meyers 21, emphasis mine)
Perhaps we cannot see the global without the local; understanding other cultures is aided by exploring where and who “we” are. Applications of top-down models for understanding local practices are often poor fits. Some rhetors do something other than “shift” scenes: they widen or narrow the scope of their actions. In their critique of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s rhetoric, Huglen and Brock claimed that “[s]he could have transcended the division between the global and local perspectives by demonstrating that their interests were really joined at a higher level.” We cannot know the global (elsewhere) apart from the local (here). Attending to the movement of circumference allows us to witness the connection. Democracy in Amherst, Massachusetts involves intense rhetorical struggles over particular issues, like whether to put land in Conservation Commission management, whether to build a parking garage, or even how best to protect salamanders as they cross a road. The specific local issue is connected to a wider symbolic order, whether “the environment,” or “our community,” or “democratic political processes.”
If politics has something to do what is said and done, then scholars need to explore the communication on the floor first, then glancing outward, widening the scope of scholarly action toward idealistic notions of democracy or deliberation. This way, those who are concerned about democratic deliberation are better able to assess that practice. I wanted to see what local political democratic deliberation looks like from the ground up. “[I]n a sense, every circumference, no matter how far-reaching its reference, is a reduction” (Burke, Grammar 96). Although he wrote his brief study in 1964, Harry Kerr was right that “[s]elf-government and the oral tradition are wedded as firmly as ever in the contemporary town meeting” (29). The practices of democratic deliberation are highly detailed, yet ordinary people seem to manage.
People in other events and forums in the United States “speak to the issue.” The term has a cultural resonance in scenes and settings far beyond town meeting. The specific use and enactment of this symbol here, however, shed light on this particular version of American democratic deliberation. The structures of collaborative argument are one way to see the “webs” of culture; they signal points where a community or culture reaches an accord (Katriel 1). Participants loosely connect, become “consubstantial” through the town meeting event. By sharing premises (in the sense suggested by Fitch 186) for certain types of political talk, a community signals its adherence to a particular way of being, or acting, democratically. Participants re-create, or transform, their local metaphysics. Part of that metaphysics in Amherst is that civility depends on the fiction that one can—indeed must—separate act from agent. Ethos matters, but if one assumes motivations during public discourse, then one shifts to the private realm, away from what is publicly available to all. In Amherst, “accessibility” matters, both to the land and to politics. To be democratic, deliberation in Amherst town meeting avoids individual psychology and marketplace practices (like advertising) in favor of publicly accessible actions and meanings.
The “common world” in Amherst involves the land, and people’s connection with it (Latour). It involves care for process, organized political participation, and the ability to work from the “way things are done here” to change the ways things are done “here.” This working with a living tradition is important to its practitioners. By widening the scope of scholarship to include the local discourses practiced by everyday people, we learn more about our own backyard democracy as culturally situated. We come to see the big ideas not as abstractions, but as a community’s lived practices, and as the constitution of their, and of our, political identity. Frank Bryan’s work has shown that the smaller the town, the greater the chances for people to have a say in the conduct of their government. How might we think about how democracy itself changes when the scope enlarges from town meeting to another ostensibly democratic communication event? How are the rhetorical interactions structured over time? What can, must, or should be said (or not be said)? In his study of Aalborg, Denmark’s urban reconstruction project, Danish planning scholar Bent Flyvbjerg suggests a way to gauge what components help ensure a better working democracy:
If you want to participate in politics but find the possibilities for doing so constricting, then you team up with like-minded people and you fight for what you want, utilizing the means that work in your context to undermine those who try to limit your participation. If you want to know what is going on in politics but find little transparency, you do the same. . . . At times direct power struggle over specific issues works best; on the other occasions changing the ground rules for struggle is necessary, which is where constitutional and institutional reform come in; and sometimes writing genealogies and case histories like the Aalborg study, that is, laying open the relationships between rationality and power, will help achieve the desired results. More often it takes a combination of all three, in addition to the blessings of beneficial circumstance and pure luck. Democracy in practice is that simple and that difficult. (236)
When people talk politics in Amherst, and they “speak to the issue” (a particular way of saying something), there is also a meta-political, meta-cultural commentary occurring; we learn the local metaphysics by attending to the rhetorically constituted link between the setting and scene. Through individual speeches that coordinate together, through the interaction of participants in widening scenes, they reaffirm the importance of the “individual” in American democracy while placing value on social webs that make a position or an argument audible, and more persuadable, to others.
* Rebecca M. Townsend is an Adjunct Professor of Communication at the University of Hartford and Holyoke Community College. This study was part of her dissertation, “Deliberation and Democracy: Ethnography of Rhetoric in a New England Town Meeting,” directed by Dr. Donal Carbaugh, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, completed in 2004. An earlier draft of the essay was presented at the 2005 Triennial Kenneth Burke Society Conference. The author thanks the editors and reviewers for their helpful comments.
This paper was presented at "Kenneth Burke and His Circles: Rhetoric, Theory, and Critical Practice in and after the Twentieth Century," for the Kenneth Burke Society Sixth Triennial Conference (in cooperation with the Biennial Penn State Conference on Rhetoric and Composition) at Pennsylvania State College, University Park, PA, July 11, 2005. This work was based on part of the author's dissertation, completed at the University of Massachusetts in 2004: "Deliberation and Democracy: Ethnography of Rhetoric in a New England Town Meeting." The author would also like to thank Drs. Donal Carbaugh, Vernon Cronen, and Laura Jensen for their help in their advice and review of the work.
1. These results concern discourse in the public domain. Since this study was of an elected legislative body conducting a publicly held and televised meeting, there was no need to secure permission to use participants’ words or names, as long as the material occurred as part of the town meeting. It contrasts with interview data, however, which I have not presented in the essay. Formal interviews involved the participants’ signing informed consent forms. Interview protocol, informed by the ethical standards of the National Communication Association, required me not to audiotape if anyone felt uncomfortable, not to attach identifying information to the interview transcripts or reports if they wished, and to have some information kept “off the record” if participants asked. Where those issues occurred in the course of my dissertation data collection and analysis, I have honored those requests. None of that data has been used in this essay. All the speakers in this debate were elected or appointed government officials, with special status in Massachusetts General Law. All the quotations that I have included in the essay are publicly available via the archived holdings of the Jones Library, Amherst’s public library and ACTV, the town’s community access cable television station. Additionally, I donated a copy of my dissertation, which uses participants’ real names, to the Jones Library.
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John Lynch, Vanderbilt University
Abstract: Communication scholars have turned to the label “European American” as a substitute for “White” in the hope that it could undermine the rhetorical and political power of whiteness. Unfortunately, the radical potential of this terminological transformation is not realized when the term is used by the lay public. Placing Kenneth Burke’s cluster-agon method into conversation with critical race theory provides a way of assessing this failure to rename Whites and decenter American racial politics. This perspective reveals that references to “Europe” and “European American” are subsumed into the cluster of terms that give meaning to “White.” These terms act in accordance with the logic of whiteness, which places “White” and its associated terms in opposition to “Black” and its related terms: “White” is the empty signifier given meaning by its agonistic relationship to “Black.”
IN THEIR 1995 ESSAY “Whiteness: A Strategic Rhetoric,” Thomas Nakayama and Robert Krizek examine the construction of “whiteness”1 as the invisible, yet influential, center of racial politics in contemporary Western society. Their hope is that “particularizing White experience” and exposing “whiteness as a cultural construction” will destabilize racial—and racist—political and social life to allow for radical change (Nakayama & Krizek, 1995, p. 293, 297). They suggest that communication scholars can assist in this process by reflexively examining “the political nature and discursive strategies of our institutions and institutionalized practices” (p. 304). Whiteness studies have grown since then both within communication studies and in other fields (e.g. Crenshaw, 1997; Dyer, 1997; Frankenburg, 1996, 1998; Jackson, 1999; Jackson & Heckman, 2002; Lipsitz, 1998; Nakayama & Martin, 1998; Shome, 1996).
Communication scholars have attempted to particularize and make visible the operations of “whiteness.” One way of making “whiteness” visible is by renaming “White” people as “European Americans” in order to highlight the political and socio-cultural dimensions of this racial-ethnic category. Some of the earliest uses of the term “European American” were justified on the grounds of its symmetry with “African American.” Hecht, Larkey and Johnson (1992) note:
“European American” is not a label in common use among that group’s members, but we were willing to sacrifice this element for comparability of terms in the realization that other groups have long had to accept names given to them by the dominant culture. (p. 211)
The terms “African American” and “European American” have linguistic similarities, and the use of “European American” forces that group to undergo the same naming process endured by African Americans and other minorities. Larkey, Hecht and Martin (1993) chose “European American” instead of “White” because “this choice of label parallels the African American term by designating both geographical and cultural heritage without reference to skin color” (p. 305).2 Martin, Krizek, Nakayama and Bedford (1999) reaffirm the geographic specificity of the term “European American.” Later works make use of “European American” without finding it necessary to justify its use instead of “White.”3 By the beginning of the new millennium, researchers justify the use of term based on “consistency with previous scholarship” (Martin, Moore, Hecht & Larkey, 2001, p. 2).
Communication scholars have renamed and particularized White experience, but here we explore what happens in the discussions of lay people who use “European American” instead of “White” to see to what degree the term’s radical potential is actualized.4 In a series of focus groups conducted in the summer and fall of 2001, members of the lay public treated any reference to Europe, including references to “European Americans,” as substitutions and synonyms for “White.” A cluster-agon analysis of the focus group transcripts revealed that references to Europe and European ancestry functioned as constituents of “whiteness.” Instead of decentering and making visible the otherwise “invisible center” (Ferguson, 1990; Shome, 2000) of racial politics, references to Europe were incorporated into the invisible center, making the naming “European American” less successful than anticipated in making problematic the current structure of racial discourse with its “White” center.
This essay seeks to explore the continuing permutations and re-centerings of “whiteness” and how “Europe” is incorporated into the structure of “whiteness.” In lay understanding, “European American” is treated differently than “African American.” Emphases on culture and geography lose their priority to an emphasis on skin color and gain an oppositional relationship to “African American,” thus reestablishing an either-or relationship between the two terms. If communication scholars hope to be reflexive and work toward a transformation of status quo racial attitudes, politics and policy, we must critically examine the tools we use to destabilize and decenter current understandings of race, and we must take into account the fact that “race may be more easily demystified on paper than disarmed in everyday life” (Roediger, 1994, p. 1). As engaged scholars, we must examine what discursive and rhetorical operations center “whiteness” and undermine those strategies that maintain it (Crenshaw, 1997). Such an examination can best go forward through a combination of empirical and critical methodologies. One such method that combines empirical and critical/rhetorical methods is Kenneth Burke’s cluster-agon method, which allows one to count the appearance of key terms while also critically describing the relationships between them. After describing the strategies of “whiteness” and further describing the cluster-agon method, this essay will present an analysis of the focus group transcripts based on the clusters and agonistic relationships between terms for races and their attributes.
“Whiteness” functions strategically as the invisible center that structures racial discourse. Critical race theorists have shown how race functioned as property: “the law has accorded ‘holders’ of whiteness the same privileges and benefits accorded holders of other types of property” (Harris, 1995). “Owning” whiteness, like owning a factory, provides material advantages over others, and this property has had long-term detrimental economic effects for those who lack this property (Bell, 2000; Lipsitz, 1998). Other scholars have shown how race has been implicated in class to the degree that “we do not ‘get’ class if we do not ‘get’ race” (Roediger, 1994, p. ix).5
Making “whiteness” the ubiquitous and invisible center of racial discourse involves several strategies. These include linking “whiteness” to nationality, identifying “whiteness” with power and majority status, naturalizing “White” as a racial characteristic rather than a cultural/geographic identifier, and defining “White” through opposition.
Related to the idea of “whiteness” as a valuable property is the crude linkage of “whiteness” to power. When asked to define “white,” some individuals describe “white” as “majority” or as equivalent to social status (Nakayama & Krizek, 1995). Jackson (1999) highlights how this status as majority power creates the assumption “that all non-Whites must idealize their identities to mirror White identities” (pp. 46-47). The practice of passing—where a non-white individual is treated as “white”—is also seen as recognition of “white’s” power (Mullen, 1997). Although this element of whiteness is predicated on the recognition of majority status, the construction of “white” as majority and as a focus of political and social power remains obscured (Crenshaw, 1997; Shome, 2000).
The linkage of “whiteness” to nationality, a second strategy, is epitomized in the act of the first Congress that limited citizenship to white men only (Delgado & Stefancic 2001; Harris 1995; Jacobson, 1998; López 1997b; Nakayama & Krizek 1995). Some form of this race requirement for citizenship existed until 1952 (Delgado & Stefancic 2001; López 1997b), and judges developed a series of tests to determine an individual’s “whiteness” (Delgado & Stefancic 2001; López 1997a; López 2000b). Debates about race, citizenship and immigration still exist in both the United States and Great Britain (Flores, 2003; Gilroy, 1987, 1992). Not only was citizenship tied to whiteness, but the nation itself has been identified as “a white nation allied with other white nations in controlling and policing the globe” (Mullen, 1997, p. 41). This association of nationality and whiteness has been an ongoing element of American culture (Jacobson, 1998). Omi and Winant (1987) note American culture has produced a “color line” around Europe that made individuals who trace their ancestry to that continent “white,” in contrast to the “non-white” continents (p. 65), and Matthew Frye Jacobson (1998) traces out how that color line has shifted over the course of American history. Jacobson notes how the “color line” was drawn so that certain regions of Europe, especially northern Europe, were considered the true bastions of whiteness and how the creation of a geographic region of whiteness is unstable and still open to revision today.
The strategies tying “whiteness” to numerical majority and nationality complement the move to obscure “whiteness” by naturalizing it. As a natural category amenable to “scientific” analysis, “White” merely refers to “what people perceive to be superficial racial characteristics” (Nakayama & Krizek, 1995, p. 300). Race becomes “marked” as natural (Guillaumin, 1997), and science has been used to help uphold this naturalization (Roediger, 1994; Outlaw, 1997). Skin color becomes the primary identifier of the naturalized racial category of “white,” and this allows for the elision of cultural, geographic and socio-political elements from “whiteness.”
Perhaps the most important strategy for centering “whiteness” and making it invisible is the definition of “white” by negation. Someone identified as “white” is not any other “color” or category. “White” indicates a lack of racial features (Jackson, 1999). This lack means “white” depends on the existence of other categories to give it meaning (Shome, 2000). This definition by negation has been given a pejorative cast by some African American writers. “Whiteness” refers to nothing; therefore, there is no white community (Baldwin, 1997). Working from this idea, David Roediger (1994) concludes “whiteness is nothing but oppressive and false” (p. 13). Definition by negation makes “whiteness” a lie.
Because this definition by negation is dependent on the existence of other racial categories, the definition of “White” depends on racial binaries. A white/not-white binary not only provides a foil for whiteness but helps maintain its power as well. Often the binary creates a “prototypical” minority (Delgado & Stefancic, 2001) against which other groups are measured: “other people of color” have their rights established via analogy to “real ones [i.e. real people of color]” (Perea, 2000). This binary and its “prototypical” minority also obscures the fact “that while one group [minority] is gaining ground, another is often losing it” (Delgado & Stefancic, 2001, p. 71). Most often, the prototypical minority group in the United States is African Americans (Delgado & Stefancic, 2001; López, 2000a; Nakayama & Krizek, 1995; Perea, 2000).6
Although “whiteness” is primarily defined by negation, it has associations with status, nationality and skin color. Additionally, “whiteness” is primarily defined by negation: it is defined against another racial category—typically “African American” or “Black”—and that category must have some content against which someone can say, “white is not X.” Yet, in the whiteness strategies identified by various scholars, the role of names and labels is not fully developed. While López (1997b, 2000b) has noted how being named “White” has impacted one’s standing in the eyes of the law and Martin et al. (1999) note the label preferences of European Americans, the meanings and associations that inhere in the different labels for “Whites” and whiteness have not been fully identified. An important area for analysis would be the meanings and associations of “Europe” and “European American.” The relationship of “Europe” to “White” is especially important to elucidate, given the historic fluctuations in how the two terms were associated. Kenneth Burke’s cluster-agon method with its focus on the relationship between various terms and symbols provides a useful means for uncovering the meanings of, and associations between, “White,” “Europe,” and “European American.”
Burke first mentioned the cluster-agon method in Attitudes toward History (1937/1984) and developed it in The Philosophy of Literary Form (1967). He identifies it as his “statistical” means of examining literature, poetry, and rhetoric (Burke, 1967, 20). While not a statistical method in the sense used by the social sciences, cluster-agon begins by providing a descriptive analysis of a rhetorical performance that allows for the application of subsequent critical and evaluative tools. According to Burke, any given literary or rhetorical work “contains a set of implicit equations. He [the rhetor, male or female] uses ‘associated clusters.’ And you may, by examining his [or her] work, find ‘what goes with what’ in these clusters—what kinds of acts and images and personalities and situations go with his notions of heroism, villainy, consolation, despair, etc.” (1967, p. 20). Burke uses cluster-agon method as a means of analyzing literature and, in part, the associations an author spontaneously constructs. This psychological aspect of the method is amplified in Rueckert’s (1963) assumption that a key purpose of the method is to trace out a poet’s “symbolic autobiography,” which is embedded in every poem he or she writes (p. 68).7 Such amplification overly restricts the use of the method that Burke never fully developed (Berthold, 1976, p. 302). One element that is underdeveloped is the extent to which all symbolic action has a public component: “There are respects in which the clusters (or ‘what goes with what’) are private, and respects in which they are public” (Burke, 1967, p. 22). The degree to which all symbolic action is public is underplayed, and almost entirely absent is any sense of how the public elements of symbolic action determine what symbols and associations are used. Qualitative research methods, like focus groups, are one way to access the public component of symbols and their associations. While focus groups and other qualitative methods for acquiring everyday discourse place that discourse at one remove (i.e. no matter how naturalistic the setting, the setting for the study is not a part of an individual’s routine), focus groups provide the critic with access to the language and resources lay people use to respond to a wide variety of issues.8 Furthermore, the interactive nature of focus groups—the interplay between individual participants and between participants and the moderator—means that discussion will be oriented toward those symbolic acts that are considered acceptable in public: focus groups provide access to the public aspects of terms, names, and symbolic acts.
Since Burke first developed it, the cluster-agon method has been used to examine feminist literature (Marston & Rockwell, 1991), institutional/establishment rhetoric (Foss, 1984), painting (Reid, 1990), the rhetoric of American and Korean presidents (Berthold, 1976; Lee & Campbell, 1994), and eating disorder therapies (Cooks & Descutner, 1993). The method has four key steps. First, the critic must identify the important or key terms of the study either a priori or through an organic reading of the text (Berthold, 1976; Burke, 1967; Rueckert, 1963). Next, the critic identifies terms that appear in the same context as the key term(s) and ranks them according to frequency of appearance and the intensity or power of the term (Rueckert, 1963). After discovering all the pertinent terms and concepts that appear near the key term, the critic identifies clusters, “the verbal combinations and equations in which the speaker tends to associate a key term with other terms” (Berthold, 1976). The association of terms develops through conjunction, the attribution of cause-effect relationships between terms, the consistent use of imagery associated with the key term, proximity, and an indirect relationship through a third term. Finally, the critic identifies agons, those terms in opposition to the key term that provide symbolic conflict. Agonistic relationships develop through some form of “contraposition” (Berthold, 1976), which includes direct opposition and negation, description of a potential competition between terms, imagery portraying opposition or struggle, indirect opposition vis a vis a third term, and enumeration. Enumeration refers to times when terms are placed side-by-side, and either through explicit identification or through the context of the comments, the speaker identifies the terms as distinct and potentially opposing. Examples include answers to the question “What are some different races?” that list Black/African American and White/European American as different races. While previous cluster-agon criticisms do not address enumeration, a consideration of the distinct and separate identification of concepts or groups is key to understanding the relationships—whether positive or negative—between categories of race, gender and sexual orientation. This differentiation represents a contraposition that can lead to negation and complete opposition of the terms.
A number of strategies work to make “whiteness” invisible while still maintaining its dominance in the ongoing dialogue of race relations. These “formal” strategies will leave specific and concrete traces in the language used by people in everyday settings to discuss race—words and concepts that shape and define what it means to be “African American,” “Black,” “European American,” or “White.” This is especially true in our contemporary context where race-based differences in health and a number of other arenas are emphasized and a genetic basis for these differences is implied.9 The cluster-agon analysis enables the critic to examine these conceptual relations—to see “what goes with what.”
In the summer and fall of 2001, 15 focus groups were conducted.with 120 total participants. Seven groups consisted of people self-identifying as “Black” or “African American,” seven groups consisted of people self-identifying as “White” or “European American,” and one group consisted of people self-identifying as Latino/a or Hispanic. Moderators were matched by self-identified race. Sessions lasted slightly over two hours.
Participants were recruited by nomination and by snowball method from community advisory boards in three areas in the southeastern U.S. (a large urban area; a regional hub, formerly devoted primarily to agriculture, but currently in transition; and a university town). Community advisory boards were first asked to discuss what constituted their community. Then they were asked to nominate individuals who would represent the breadth of perspectives in their community. The research team then called those individuals, invited them to participate, and screened to ensure they only had “lay” knowledge of genetics. Also, they were told who had nominated them and offered $50 to compensate them for transportation, childcare costs, and time. Where needed, volunteers were asked to nominate additional participants, especially in order to increase representation from under-participating groups such as men. Approximately 50% of the nominees were reached by phone, and of those reached approximately 200 agreed to participate (contact with all nominees was not attempted where sufficient numbers were recruited before their name was reached on the list). Of those who agreed to participate, 66% attended the focus group meetings.
There were 120 participants. They included 67 women and 53 men. Broken down by race, the focus groups included 60 African Americans, 52 European Americans, 7 Hispanic/Latino persons, and 1 self-identifying as Tamarean/Native American. Ages ranged from 18-51, with an average of 32.6 (our target range for recruiting was 18-45). Reported family income ranged from $7500 to $700,000 with a median of $50,000 (average median family income in this state is $36,372). There were 15 participants with family income equal to or less than $25,000, 41 participants with family income between $25-50,000, 22 participants with family income between $50,000-75,000 and 25 participants with family income over $75,000. Seventeen participants did not to provide this information. Participants reported a broad range of “highest level of education.” Overall, 3.5% had less than a high school degree, 15.7% were high school graduates, 23.5% had some college, 37.4% had bachelor’s degrees, 4.3% had some graduate education, 13% had master’s level degrees, and 1% had a law degree (1.7% elected not to answer this question).
The focus groups dealt with questions about health, race and genetics. They employed a common set of stimulus materials and questions. The first portion of the focus group centered on three different messages concerning genetic testing for disease. The first two associated ancestry from specific regions with certain diseases: “west African ancestry” was linked with sickle cell disease, and “northern European ancestry” was linked to cystic fibrosis. The third message was a non-race specific message urging listeners to undergo genetic testing. In the second portion of the focus group session, moderators asked focus group participants to identify what groups they considered races and then asked a series of questions concerning where participants saw differences between races (e.g. medical history, behavior, emotions, mental or physical skills, etc.) and whether they perceived those differences as culturally or biologically based. Moderators were encouraged to include follow-up probes or to revise wordings in questions to seek full exploration of the issues by as many participants as possible.
For this project, the key terms for the cluster-agon analysis were determined a priori: they are the typical names given to African and European Americans: “African American,” “Black,” “Caucasian,” “European American,” and “White.” Using QSR N6, a qualitative data analysis program designed for examining texts such as focus group transcripts, every use of these race terms was identified. Terms that appeared near the key terms were marked. Any term had to appear in at least 5 different talk turns to be included in the final list. Then, using the QSR N6 software, a matrix was developed that indicated how often the identified terms clustered with each other.
Thirteen terms cluster around “White,” but seventeen terms cluster around “Black.” The terms associated with Black include references to place (Africa, location in the U.S.), references to activities (crime, sports, music/rhythm/dance), and references to conditions the group must endure (poverty and discrimination). “Black” also has physical determinants in “genes/heredity,” “skin color,” and diseases such as “heart disease” and “sickle cell.” “Culture” plays an important role as well. Sometimes focus group participants make direct reference to “ancestors” or “ancestry.” In these cases, it is not clear whether they are referring to genetic or cultural ancestry. Terms associated with “White” parallel the terms for “Black,” with the exception of cystic fibrosis and dominance. “Dominance” represents a cluster of terms indicating that “Whites” are the “majority” or have financial, political, or social power in American society. “Black” has a larger number of associated terms that provide it with meaning.
In addition to the greater number of terms, the number of mentions for each “Black” term is greater than the number of mentions for “White” terms. The most frequently mentioned “Black” positive (i.e. non-agonistic) term of “skin color” appears 74 times, compared to 33 mentions of “Europe” for “White.” On average, each “Black” term was used 27.6 times, compared to the average 14.5 times for each “White” term. Both “Black” and “White” had four agonistic terms. The most frequently appearing agon term was the other race: “Black” was agonistically associated with “White” and vice versa. On average, each "Black" agonistic term appeared 47.25 times, compared to 39.75 for “White” terms.
Most of the “Black” terms cluster, and those clusters have several terms (Table 3). The terms that cluster with “White” do not cluster as often and those clusters are minimal and consistent primarily of a single agon (Table 4). With the exception of the term “Europe,” every term positively associated with “White” has an agonistic relationship to “Black” or “African-American.” In some cases, as with the terms “culture,” “dominant,” “genes,” and “intelligent,” the term does not cluster with anything except “Black” in an agonistic fashion.
The cluster-agon analysis allows us to identify two patterns in the attributions associated with “White” and with “Black.” First, the pattern of clusters highlights that use of the term “European American” and references to “Europe” are made equivalent to “White.” In addition to recentering whiteness, the patterns of clusters and agons for “White” and “Black” reaffirm the discursive and rhetorical strategies of “whiteness,” thus recentering and making invisible whiteness’ power.
The first and third terms most commonly associated with “White” are “Europe” and “Northern Europe.” These two references to Europe are also part of the only substantive cluster of terms connected to “White.” This connection reinforces the claim by some scholars that color and Europe have been inextricably connected (Jacobson, 1998; Omi & Winant, 1987). References to geography by themselves do not appear to be sufficient to destabilize and make visible whiteness. Examination of specific comments in the focus groups highlights that the relationship between “White” and “Europe” is one where “Europe” is reduced to a component of whiteness. Focus group participants reassert that references to Europe really mean “White.” One European American male indicated the audience for the message was White: “This is pretty much White people.” An African American male said, “I think White would be alright. Because, when you fill out the forms, the ethnic background, they’ll say White; they probably want White.”
Both “European” and “northern European” cluster with “White,” and this highlights the historical oscillation of the color line across Europe, specifically the fact that whiteness was often limited to northern European ancestry instead of pan-European ancestry (Jacobson, 1998). Since both terms are positively associated with “White” and exist as part of the same cluster providing meaning and context to whiteness, this shows an awareness of the historic variability of whiteness in the United States and an awareness of the revival of European ethnic identities in the United States (Gresson, 1995; Jacobson, 1998). This recognition appears in a European American focus group that debated the choice of “northern European ancestry” before saying the term was identical to “White.” After being read a message linking “northern Europe” to cystic fibrosis, participants immediately respond:
Female #1: [The message is] very vague. I mean the only reason it’s vague is Northern European ancestry.
Moderator: What does that mean to you, northern European ancestry?
Female #2: White.
Female #1: Yeah. I think everyone’s included in northern European.
Female #3: Except people that are from West Africa.
This exchange highlights the interaction of terms within the cluster of White-Europe-northern European. Use of “northern European ancestry” is initially criticized as causing the message to be “vague” yet the term is almost immediately translated into contemporary racial vernacular. The simultaneous resistance to and acceptance of this term highlights recognition of northern Europe as a traditional geographic bastion of whiteness and as a traditional terministic “anchor” providing stability to an otherwise empty term. Alongside this translation exists a desire to expand the geographic range of whiteness to include all of Europe as in the comment “everyone’s included in northern European.” The final comment in this section—“Except people that are from West Africa”—contributes to the second pattern apparent from the cluster-agon analysis, the recentering of “White” and its subordinate references to Europe.
By reading “Europe” and “European ancestry” as another reference to “White,” lay participants undercut the radical potential hoped for by scholars who suggest the move to the more geographically and culturally oriented term “European American.” Furthermore, the term is absorbed into the clusters of positive and antagonistic terms that give meaning to “White.” Scholars were correct to emphasize the geographical component of “European American,” but instead of being the lever by which structures of power and racism are moved, it represents the anchor that helps hold the otherwise content-less term “White” at the center of racial discourse. As noted above, the average number of positive terms and the average mention of each term are significantly smaller for “White” than for “Black,” and the number and quality of clusters for terms associated with “Black” is greater than those for “White.” “White” is defined by negation with a relative paucity of meaning that stands in contrast to the richer definitional resources for “Black.” That binary definition by negation is often mediated through terms that embody the other strategies of whiteness, specifically the tying of whiteness to social power and the naturalization of whiteness.
References to “dominance,” while rare due to the social unacceptability of articulating it, represents the relatively crude strategy of tying whiteness to social power. As one African American male noted, “White man rules. He rules in America anyway.” In addition to being positively associated with “White,” dominance is agonistically associated with “Black.” Those who are White have privilege or power, but only in contrast to those who are Black.
Second, the naturalization of whiteness and racial categories is embodied in references to skin color and genes. “Skin color” represents the first or second most important term for positively describing “Black” and “White,” respectively, and it is also agonistically associated with the other race, so that when individuals use “skin color” to define “White,” that definition automatically excludes individuals who are “Black.” As one African American participant noted, “Most think that white is White and that’s all it is. And as soon as you step away from that, you’ve got some Black in you.” While references to white skin color primarily serve as a mediator of the agon between Black and White, references to “Black” skin color exist as part of a rich cluster of terms including genes, culture, ancestry, location and Africa. Terms in this cluster can indicate causation—genes and ancestry cause one to have a certain skin color—or act as a signifier for one’s culture or location. This contrast in the associations of skin color reemphasizes the paucity of White’s definition and highlights the entire process of definition by negation.
The term “genes” also works to naturalize whiteness, and it is one of the terms associated with “White” that does not cluster with anything except “Black” in an agonistic fashion. The term mediates the Black-White binary. Through it, the definition of White as “not Black” is performed, as can be seen in comments like “I’m Black all the way, I don’t got no White genes.” “Black” and “White” are antithetical in this view. While the association of “genes” with “White” works to mediate the overall agon, the association of “genes” with “Black” exists as part of a cluster of positive terms. As with skin color, “genes” and its cluster serve as a counterpoint for the definition of whiteness by negation.
Some agons, like those discussed above, appear indirectly through a third term. “White” stands in contrast to “Black,” which, because it exists within a set of rich associations, provides meaning to under-defined “White.” A third term provides the medium for definition by negation. “White” does not receive positive content through the clustering with terms like “dominance,” “genes,” or skin color. Rather, these terms are the location where the opposition between the “White” and “Black” is reaffirmed. The only positive content that “White” contains that does not lead to an indirect agonistic relationship with “Black” is references to Europe. Europe becomes the anchor that helps prevents the term “White” from drifting with any prevailing wind. Except for Europe, terms associated with “White” provide the means for definition by negation: those terms provide more scenes for the articulation of the difference between the two terms. This means “White” is not related to the genetic inheritance of “Black.” It also means “White” has more social power (i.e. “dominance) only in relation to “Black.”
The term “White” is linked to a number of political and social strategies in American racial discourse. These strategies keep those identified as “White” at the center of racial discourse and political power, while masking the processes that make this possible. Communication scholars used and recommend that others use the term “European American” in order to disrupt strategies of whiteness by specifying and making concrete the cultural and geographical background of those normally identified as “White.” This terminological transformation may not provide the desired results when used with lay people. By using cluster-agon analysis to examine lay discourse as it appears in focus groups, one sees that lay people treat “European American” as though it really means “White.” Europe is subsumed into the cluster of terms that animate, and give meaning to, “whiteness.” Focus group participants redraw the “color line” around Europe, but the line of color is also a line of negation that empties “White” of meaning and defines it in opposition—in agon—to others, specifically African Americans. All the strategies of “whiteness” examined earlier—especially definition by negation—appear in the clusters of positive and agonistic terms.
Despite the concerns enumerated here, it is too early to despair of the use of “European American.” As engaged scholars move forward with critical interrogations of whiteness, two issues must be addressed. First, the agon between “Black” and “White” is essential for providing “White” with meaning. Except for references to “Europe,” there is no terministic association that does not result in an agon with “Black.” These agons exemplify the “negative difference” critiqued by McPhail (1991, 1998, 2002). Creating the black-white agon, or binary, is part of the process by which racial categories become essentialized. McPhail examines the formation of these essentialized, negative differences and offers as a palliative for this divisiveness a vision of rhetoric as “coherence.” In other words, the Black-White agon based on difference and negation must be disabled.
Three tactics for disabling the agon are immediately apparent from the analysis above. First, definition by negation is made easier with the creation of a White/non-White binary where one prototypical minority—usually “Black”—fills the “non-White” role. Recognizing the plurality of racial and ethnic groups that contribute to contemporary and historical life in the United States is an important element in disabling this agon. With only the options of Black or White, either-or thinking becomes viable, but as we expand our racial vision and include more groups in our discourses on race, dichotomous practices of negative difference become more difficult to enact. Second, the creation of more positive (i.e. non-agonistic) associations with the term “White” could make definition by negation more difficult. Currently, “Europe” is the primary positive content for whiteness. The lay uses of “Europe” might provide an example or template against which one can craft new positive content to add to “White,” but scholars first need to carry out examinations of the term “Europe” and its semantic content to see if lay individuals perceive “Europe” as being “distant,” “dissimilar,” or loaded with racist connotations.11 The nature of lay response will determine whether uses of “Europe” become a template or a point of contrast for engaged scholars.
Third, criticizing simple or essentialist notions of “Black” would also contribute to the decentering the Black-White agon. In “The Spectacular Consumption of ‘True’ African American Culture: ‘Whassup’ with the Budweiser Guys,” Watts and Orbe (2002) examine one specific construction of “authentic” Blackness in Budweiser commercials. Through their critical examination of the commercials and their highlighting of the constructed nature of this “authentic” racial identity, Watts and Orbe provide an example of how to render problematic the construction of “Black” in a way that further destabilizes whiteness. The work of Herman Gray has also critiqued portrayals of “blackness” on television. He shows how elements of African American life are organized into the cultural signifier of “blackness” (1995). “Blackness” most often operates “squarely within the boundaries of middle-class patriarchal discourses about ‘whiteness’ as well as the historic racialization of the social order” (p. 9). This privileging of “whiteness” at the expense of “blackness” occurs in most televisual discourse, but “blackness” as it is used in television remains for Gray a contested signifier that provides an “entrée into America’s multicultural future” (p. 163). Through his interrogation of television here as well as in other work, Gray (1986, 1989) highlights the construction of “blackness” and problematizes the belief in—and the search for—an “authentic” or essential blackness in commercial culture and television. Problematizing the move to essentialize blackness will undermine its use as a point of contrast for whiteness, and along with the moves to pluralize racial discourse and create more positive content to the descriptions of Whites or European Americans, it will help disable binary, agonistic rhetoric about race.
In addition to tactics that operate on the level of names and symbols, attempts at decentering strategies of whiteness must also operate on the level of the social structures and the level of psychology (Gresson 1982, 1995, 2004; McPhail, 2004). Gresson examines how tensions between self-interest and group-interests shape individuals. Sometimes the tension becomes inexorable and leads to the dissolution of group bonds that is embodied in acts of betrayal (Gresson, 1982). Social pressures have exacerbated these self-group tensions and led to the creation of “recovery rhetorics,” where both “Black” and “White” become the focus of attempts to recover group identity and power (Gresson, 1995). Gresson’s examination of African American recovery rhetoric has highlighted the complex relationship between race, gender and class that has made problematic previous visions of Black group identity, and he calls for using the emotion of compassion as the impetus for working through heterogeneous identities (Gresson, 1995). Gresson’s study of White recovery rhetoric as a response to America’s increasing pluralism reveals a more insidious process: “the anxiety pluralism creates for whites has stimulated whites to talk increasingly to each other about race and racism even as most seem to deny they play any major part in American life” (Gresson, 1995, p. 210). In other words, the recovery rhetoric of European Americans reinforces whiteness. These recovery rhetorics portray European American males as victims of the success of African Americans and other minorities while ignoring European American’s social and political power. Such stories undercut the possibilities for healing and reconciliation. Both Gresson and McPhail argue that racial healing and reconciliation require an act of atonement by Whites: “they must relinquish the power and privileges conferred on them by virtue of their race” (McPhail, 2004, p. 401; see also Gresson, 2004). For these scholars, the power of whiteness must be simultaneously eliminated at the levels of rhetoric, psychology and socio-economic structure. McPhail recognizes this goal is difficult and unlikely to occur in the near term (McPhail, 2004, p. 401), but the development of cross-group identification based in ethos and pathos—identification across racial lines grounded in compassion and empathy—will play a role in creating this atonement and eventual reconciliation (Gresson, 1995, 2004; McPhail, 2004). This radical goal will require a great deal of effort along a variety of rhetorical and psychological paths.
Renaming “Whites” will increase the possibilities for racial reconciliation, but decentering whiteness will require social and economic tactics as well as rhetorical attempts at renaming race. The exact nature of these tactics will change depending on which strategy for centering whiteness is attacked. Discussion of genetics is one place where strategies of naturalizing race and defining whiteness by negation come together. These scientific and lay debates about the genetic basis of race and the genetic basis for health disparities between ethnic groups represent one area where rhetorical naming, social structure and economic incentives can produce progressive change. Researchers have noted that members of racial and ethnic groups in the United States are more likely to suffer various poor health outcomes; for example, African Americans experience increased rates of heart disease and diabetes than other groups, especially European Americans (Institutes of Medicine, 2003). Some scientists have turned to genetics to explain these health disparities. An equal number of scientists, though, dispute the genes-race connection, and most studies claiming a genes-race connection have not been confirmed by subsequent research.12
Claiming a genetic basis for race reinforces and naturalizes our racial categories. This is especially troubling since a substantial body of medical research highlights that environmental factors—ranging from substandard housing in minority neighborhoods, toxic waste sites near minority neighborhoods, exposure to toxins in agricultural and industrial workplaces, to the ongoing psychological stress of racism—have a substantial effect on health.13 Despite an awareness of these environmental factors, science focuses on genetics because of financial concerns: grant money for research in the area of race and genetics is increasing (Foster, Sharp, & Mulvihill, 2001; Daar & Singer, 2005). In this area, the strategy of renaming is not enough by itself. Social and economic pressures must be redirected to affect the living and working conditions of minorities that end up harming them. Scientists must also have the financial inducements to look somewhere other than genetics for the explanation of health disparities between ethnic groups. These social and economic issues, along with attempts at renaming race that de-naturalizes socially constructed differences and makes visible the political structure that harms so many, can lead to improving American racial politics in the specific contexts of science and medicine. In contributing to a combination of rhetorical, social and economic efforts in this area as well as others, attempts at renaming “Whites” as “European Americans” and decentering whiteness can help in overall anti-racist action.
*John Lynch is Senior Lecturer at Vanderbilt University. Research for this paper was supported by grant #1-R01-HG02191-01A1 from the National Institute of Health. The author would like to thank Celeste Condit, the editors and anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on this paper. An earlier version of this essay was presented at the sixth triennial conference of the Kenneth Burke Society at Pennsylvania State University in July 2005.
1. In this essay, “whiteness” will refer to the rhetorical construction of an invisible center to racial discourse as identified by Nakayama & Krizek (1995). “African American” and “European American” will be used to refer to the respective groups throughout the body of the text. “Black” and “White” appear as terms for “African American” and “European American,” respectively, within material taken from focus groups and other texts. When either term is used outside of a quote from another text, it will be placed in quotations itself—“Black” and “White”—to indicate they are being used as terms within a cluster of associated terms and meanings not as a referent to a group.
2. Martin, Hecht and Larkey (1994) also emphasize the element of culture and cultural heritage in the use of “African American” and “European American”.
3. See Baldwin (1998), Bernhardt, Lariscy, Parrot, Silk & Felter (2002), Harris & Donmoyer (2000), Hecht (1998), Hecht, Collier & Ribeau (1993), Lindsley (1998) Patton (1999), Rockler (2002) and Shuter & Turner (1997).
4. Previous scholarship has indicated that European Americans prefer the label “White” over “European American” (Martin et al., 1999). This fact represents resistance to the radical potential of the term, instead of failure. As Martin et. al. note, European Americans confronted with multicultural and increasingly diverse contexts will have to reevaluate how they think of themselves racially, thus problematizing the power and invisibility associated with “whiteness.”
5. The critical race theory developed in law has also considered the intersection of race and gender (Caldwell, 2000; Crenshaw, 1995; Delgado, 2000) and the intersection of race and sexual orientation (Hutchinson, 2000; Valdes, 2000).
6. Other examinations and criticisms of the Black-White racial binary include Chang, 2000; López, 2000a; Martinez, 2000; McPhail 1991, 2002; Nakayama, 1994; and Nakayama & Peñaloza, 1993. For a study that emphasizes the importance of race but centers on Mexican immigrants to the United States, see Hasian & Delgado (1998).
7. Although he describes cluster-agon method as a means of identifying the psychological connections between author and text, Rueckert notes that cluster-agon analysis “can be used by anyone for any purpose” (p. 96).
8. For example, Watts & Orbe (2002) use focus group methods to highlight the ambivalence lay individuals feel toward the “consumption” of images of authentic blackness.
9. Recent social scientific and biomedical moments in the debate on the relationship between race and genetics are found in Risch, 2006; Condit, Parrott, Harris, Lynch & Dubriwny, 2004; Sankar et al., 2004.
10. While noting the different valences that can adhere to “African American” and “Black” (Larkey, Hecht & Martin, 1993), this discussion will use “Black” because, although participants use both terms, participants use “Black” four times more often than “African American.”
11. Some lay concerns about “European American” are highlighted in Martin et al, 1999. Also, some racist groups like David Duke’s “European-American Unity and Rights Organization” use the term “European American” to identify themselves. Racist uses of the “European American” have the potential to challenge the radical and progressive uses of the term, depending on how much knowledge lay individuals have about these racist organizations.
12. For an overview of the scientific debate, especially as it relates to the creation of race-based medication and related medical technologies, see Lynch & Dubriwny, 2006, pp. 61-62.
13. For an overview of this research, see Sankar et al., 2004.
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Table 1: European-American/White/Caucasian Terms
(Terms are listed by frequency of appearance.)
• Europe (33)Agonistic Terms:
• skin color (31)
• Northern Europe (19)
• cystic fibrosis (11)
• intelligence/academic (11)
• dominant/privileged (8 )
• location/ancestry (7)
• genes (6)
• culture (5)
• next to African-American (123)Table 2: African-American/Black Terms
• next to other races (22)
• not sickle cell (8 )
• not basketball (6)
• skin color (74)Agonistic terms:
• culture (47)
• genes/heredity (41)
• sickle cell (40)
• sports (31)
• Africa (26)
• location (18)
• ancestry (16)
• crime (10)
• music/rhythm/dance (10)
• poverty (8 )
• discrimination (6)
• heart disease (6)
• next to European-American (123)Table 3: All Clusters of African-American Terms
• next to other races (30)
• not intelligent/not academic (26)
• not West Africa (10)
|Central Term||Positive Associations||Agonsitic Associations|
|Africa||Sickle cell, Culture, Skin color||West Africa, Next to European American10|
|Ancestory||Genes, Skin color, Sickle cell||Next to European American, West Africa|
|Crime||Culture, Location, Sports, Sickle cell||Next to European American, Intelligence|
|Culture||Skin color, Location, Genes, Crime, Poverty, Africa||Next to European American, Intelligence, Next to other races11|
|Discrimination||-||Next to European American|
|Genes||Skin color, Culture, Ancestry, Location, Music/Dance/Rhythm||Next to European American, Intelligence|
|Intelligencec||Culture, Genes, Sports, Crime||Next to European American, Next to Other Races|
|Location||Culture, Crime, Genes, Skin color, Music/Rhythm/Dance||Next to European American|
|Music, Rhythm, Dance||Sports, Genes, Location||-|
|Poverty||Culture, Sickle cell (tied)||-|
|Sickle Cell||Africa, Ancestry, Crime, Poverty||West Africa, Next to European American|
|Skin color||Genes, Culture, Ancestry, Location, Africa||Next to European American, Next to other races|
|Sports||Crime, Music/Rhythm/Dance, Heart Disease||Next to European American, Intelligence|
|West Africa||Sickle cell, Ancestry||Africa|
|Central Term||Positive Associations||Agonsitic Associations|
|Culture||-||Next to African American12|
|Dominantb||-||Next to African American|
|Europe||Northern Europe, Cystic fibrosis, Location/ancestry||-|
|Genes||-||Next to African American|
|Intelligence||-||Next to African American|
|Location/Ancestry||Skin color, Europe||Next to African American, Next to other races13|
|Skin color||Location/ancestry||Next to African American, Next to other races|
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