Taking Burke Public: Perspectives on Burke's Connection Between Language and Public Action (Review Essay by Ryan Weber)

By Ryan Weber, Purdue University


Smudde, Peter M. “Implications on the Practice and Study of Kenneth Burke’s Idea of a ‘Public Relations Counsel with a Heart.’”  Communication Quarterly Fall 2004: 420–32.

Stob, Paul. “Kenneth Burke, John Dewey, and the Pursuit of the Public.”  Philosophy & Rhetoric 38.3 (2005):  226–47.

Tonn, Mari Boor.  “Taking Conversation, Dialogue, and Therapy Public.”  Rhetoric & Public Affairs 8.3 (2005):  405–30.


In his book The New Public, sociologist Leon Mayhew relies heavily on Burke to analyze emergent modes of public discourse. Burke’s ideas are so productive for theorizing publics, Mayhew argues, because for Burke “rhetoric is not merely instrumental, not just a way of tricking an opponent with a flow of words, but a means of entering public life. Rhetoric integrates culture and eloquence by providing enhancing vocabularies for active social participation” (35). Mayhew picks up on what many scholars have realized – Burke’s expansive scholarship develops an entire world. In exploring language, Burke explores the terrain of human society, finding that “Language, of all things, is most public, most collective, in its substance” (PLF 44). It should come as no surprise, then, that many scholars like Mayhew have employed Burke in investigations of public discourse and participation. Three recent articles tackle Burke and the public sphere from different perspectives, providing among them a vast scope for examining Burke’s notions of public discourse.

Paul Stob’s article, “Kenneth Burke, John Dewey, and the Pursuit of the Public,” takes up the issue most generally by arguing that Burke and Dewey “establish a model of the public based on the problems and possibilities of language” (229). Stob’s essay intends to “explore how language can solve problems and build communities” by placing Burke and Dewey in something of a “postmortem dialogue” (228) to compensate for the minimal interaction recorded between these men. Though Burke and Dewey ran in similar leftist social circles, and though Burke reviewed Dewey’s The Quest for Certainty and Liberalism and Social Action, they never directly engaged one another, largely because of political differences over their varying shades of leftist thought. In spite of these political differences, the two thinkers arrived at very similar conclusions about the nature of the public formed by language, so Stob is shrewd in devoting the first portion of his essay to tracing and then transcending these differences. By doing so, he demonstrates concretely how theories of civic engagement may trump particular politics.

These theories are explored by juxtaposing Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems with several Burke works, such as Attitudes Towards History, A Rhetoric of Motives, and Permanence and Change. Burke himself would be proud of Stob’s dramatized parlor conversation, which highlights Burke’s theories as inherently social. Language thoroughly inundates the public sphere, forming for Burke a foundation of the public. Likewise, “social language permeates the individual” (236), allowing public language and public grammar to transform “the individual into a specific type of social being” (236). Stob latches onto the concept of “transformation” to explain the “operative potential” of language, the ability of language to shape and change society. This move effectively develops Burke’s “equipment for living” idea beyond the realm of literature by connecting it to the operations of the public as a whole; Stob deftly manages this delicate concept by applying it to both Burke and Dewey while keeping the practical and aesthetic implications intact. As Stob writes, “for both Burke and Dewey, language is a tool, though neither reduces language to instrumentality alone. Indeed, the aesthetic dimension of language for Burke and Dewey is unmistakable. Language as a tool means language must become operative, practically and aesthetically, in a number of diverse contexts, seeking to accomplish specific tasks and imbue experience with meaning” (239).

The language-as-tool perspective supports a fruitful conclusion advocating societal reconstruction and amelioration. Burke has always been refreshing in his refusal to simply expose and demolish the pieties of language without developing something new in their place, and Stob wisely highlights this view through Burke and Dewey’s insistence that public life can gradually improve through concentration on the operative potential of local discourse. Despite a belief in the transformative power of language, Burke and Dewey do not come across as naïve here; discourse will never be perfect, problems will continually arise, and the public must always continue the arduous work of discourse. But excerpts from Burke’s review of the play Run, Little Chillin! provide a somewhat obscure example of his resolve to pursue gradual improvements for social ills such as a fading sense of spirituality. Though the review is a somewhat perplexing choice of evidence, the point it supports is clear – Burke, like Dewey, believes that a public vested in language can use that language for continued growth and renewal. As Stob writes “Success may only come in small steps, but those steps are enough to begin sharing the words that ameliorate our interconnected world” (245).

Whereas Stob’s excellent article explores public discourse generally, Peter Smudde’s “Implications on the Practice and Study of Kenneth Burke’s Idea of a ‘Public Relations Counsel with Heart’” occupies itself with a subsection of that discourse:  public relations. It is always exciting to see Burke’s theories directed towards rhetorical practitioners, and Smudde aims his analysis directly at a public relations audience. The article draws heavily from Attitudes Towards History, getting significant mileage from Burke’s suggested alternative title for the work, “Manual of Terms for a Public Relations Counsel with Heart.” Following Burke’s own re-reading of his text, Smudde acknowledges that PR spokespersons are viewed through a negative terministic screen that could be altered through Burke’s more humanist conception of public relations. Smudde writes, “within the context of Attitudes Toward History, a publicist is not a positivist who merely reports on social situations, but a humanist whose focus is on inducing cooperation between an organization and its publics” (423).

This bit of perspective by incongruity assigns public relations personnel with several Burkean tasks. First, they produce and interpret the symbolic actions that help order society. As “coaches of attitudes” (423) and writers of “secular prayers” (423), they possess keen insight into the symbol structures of society. Second, they are dramatists who “enact an issue’s drama in specific kinds of public relations texts that present that drama in the best ways for publics and emphasize key messages about it” (427). Public relations issues are viewed as dramas unfolding before various audiences, and the flexibility of the pentad is presented as the key to visualizing the myriad enactments of this drama. Smudde even introduces a clever chart that reveals how press releases and conferences can shift along pentadic lines depending on which ratio the spokesperson emphasizes. Third, as dramatists, public relations personnel also work to foster identification between organizations and audiences. PR spokepersons must therefore become experts in genre and audience analysis in order to best create consubstantiality by catering the appropriate documents to the appropriate audiences. This careful targeting increases opportunities for identification because “members of each audience receive the same message in the appropriate language and form that suits them collectively” (428).

Though Smudde’s article discusses only implicity addresses the “public” in public relations, there is much to glean from the article concerning Burke’s theories of public interaction. Here we see a society organized around the texts of symbolic action. Smudde quotes Burke: “Obedience to reigning symbols of authority is in itself natural and wholesome. The need to reject them is painful and bewildering” (423). While this coincides with the language-oriented public Stob discusses, the public here is defined far more around textuality. Even “social movements can be thought of as texts – the symbolic action of individuals either individually or collectively” (425). Smudde’s own emphasis on the texts of public relations, and their final authority in the discourse between organizations and audiences, reinforces this textual focus. It also creates an image of the public which is a bit too malleable in the face of corporate documents. Smudde writes, “public relations professionals can measure and nurture identification with publics through audience analyses, that the right messages are in the right discourse at the right time” (426). Support for audience analysis and kairos is always encouraging, but Smudde may be neglecting the recalcitrance rhetors face and the competing terministic screens and god-terms they must overcome. The very complexity revealed by multiple configurations of the pentad also underscores the competing agents, vocabularies, and motives that prevent any one discourse from dominating the public sphere.

Smudde’s article, while interesting on the whole, contains a few other minor disappointments. First, he recontextualizes many Burke quotes, replacing original sentence subjects like “writer” or “poet” with “publicist” to facilitate his argument. Given Burke’s own playful renaming of his manuscript and his belief in the irreducible presence of propaganda and word magic within language, he may not be bothered by this bit of metonymy, but it is worth noting. Second, it is unfortunate that the article does not include any real-world illustrations of Burke’s theories operating within the public relations field, especially because Smudde “has found Burke’s ideas to be useful in his career as a public relations professional, consultant, and educator, and these experiences provided the inspiration for the ideas in this article” (421). Readers are given one example of Senator Edward Kennedy manipulating the pentad to unethically shift blame for the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, and the appeal to ethics here and throughout the article is laudable. Still, examples of rhetorical and ethical successes through Burke’s method would solidify the author’s point that humanist public relations practitioners can foster identifications between the corporate and public realm.

Where the first two authors are interested in the public founded on language and text, Mari Boor Tonn’s article “Taking Conversation, Dialogue, and Therapy Public” analyzes specifically the discourse the public uses to construct itself. The article takes on the recent tendency towards “conversation” over “debate” and the current obsession over transporting personal therapeutic language into the public sphere. Using Burke as a continuous touchstone, Tonn argues that this seemingly gentler approach to public deliberation, often exalted by politicians, scholars, and psychologists for moving beyond acerbic argument, actually causes additional harm by re-inscribing the oppression and groupthink that it aims to avoid. Furthermore, the very openness of conversation often works to squelch conclusive solutions. She writes, “because conversation has no clearly defined goal, a public conversation may engender inertia as participants become mired in repeated airings of personal experiences without a mechanism to lend such expressions direction and closure” (408). Once the personal becomes political, people ramble on ad naseum about the personal without ever resolving the political.

Initially, this comes off as mean-spirited criticism against those trying to salvage public discourse, and the thesis is a jolt after so many articles have pushed for a more communicative, postmodern discussion model. At first impression, Tonn seems to possess the Modernist instincts that so many have struggled to overcome. Ultimately, though, the article is worth considering for two reasons. First, Tonn provides copious, detailed, and well-researched examples of moments where conversation fails to deliver its promises. For instance, Clinton’s Conversation on Race, which was meant to be an open dialogue between diverse voices concerning America’s prevailing racial issues, was according to Tonn a rather insular and single-minded affair. Only supporters of affirmative action participated, and the dialogue was limited to black–white relations while omitting alternate political or racial perspectives. Tony Blair’s Big Conversation displayed similar groupthink by allowing only carefully chosen and tightly scripted monolingual citizen voices that reinforced government policy. Bill Moyer’s Genesis: The Living Conversation and the University of New Hampshire’s replacement of the Academic Faculty Senate with a conversational University Forum also marginalized voices in the spirit of inclusion. Again, though it is somewhat shocking to see such well intentioned conversations criticized, Tonn’s analysis is intriguing, especially because it accounts for a variety of excluded groups, including academically unpopular demographics like affirmative action detractors and religious fundamentalists.

Tonn’s other saving grace is a foundational trust in the power of language to improve society. This is not just another “talk is cheap” article. The very problem with conversation is that it hijacks more structured, conclusive deliberation because “an open-ended process lacking mechanisms for closure thwarts progress toward resolution” (418). Conversation focused on personal confession and amelioration does not often translate into measurable political change that alters power distribution. And while personal discussion may promote an ethic of care, it rarely generates an ethic of justice. The problem, then, is not symbolic action but ineffective symbolic action. To make this point, Tonn quotes Burke from The Philosophy of Literary Form. “As Burke maintains, while some symbolic forms contain ‘a way in,’ ‘a way through,’ and ‘way out,’ others ‘lead us in and leave us there” (421). It is refreshing to find an article that criticizes dialogue without assuming that discourse is inherently impotent. Tonn writes, “because public argument and deliberative processes are the ‘heart’ of true democracy, supplanting those models with social and therapeutic conversation and dialogue jeopardizes the very pulse and lifeblood of democracy itself” (424). For Tonn, discourse is too important to be left to conversation. Certainly, she attacks non-deliberative symbolic action too forcefully.  But there is an important lesson in her piece:  those who value rhetoric must differentiate between generative and unproductive forms or risk undermining the whole enterprise by defending the worst that discourse has to offer. While many readers may not end up agreeing with Tonn, they should not recoil immediately.

As for Tonn’s use of Burke, it is somewhat surprising. A scholar like Habermas who focuses more on rational civic discourse would be the more conventional choice. And Burke is not the organizing principle of the essay but instead a figure who pops up repeatedly to endorse particular points. Often, this works well, especially when Tonn relies on specific Burkean ideas, like the “Cathartic Principle,” which argues that personal confession places a burden on its witnesses, or the notion of “incantatory imagery,” “wherein rhetors invites persons to see themselves in an idealized form” (Tonn 420), the future self-healed by public therapy. Yet, like Smudde, a few of her quotes reappropraite specific conversations about poetry or music to make them apply to all language generally (this reapplication is mentioned in the footnotes). Branching out beyond Philosophy of Literary Form to use other Burke texts, as Stob does, would have deepened the discussion in the article. Ultimately, Tonn is too quick to claim Burke for the side of efficient dialogue. Burke, whose notion of success was muddling through, who wrote in Counter-Statement that “inefficiency is the one thing [democracy] has in its favor” (114), who championed the unending conversation in the parlor, would not have so quickly dismissed any conversation whose goals were not readily apparent.

Certainly, there is something valid in Tonn’s perspective. Burke rejects dialogue that crushes symbolic action. A few pages after the quote Tonn uses about symbolic forms providing a way “in,” “through,” and “out,” Burke chastises a critic who advocates an inert perspective: “One reviewer, intending to praise the book, hit upon the most damning line of all, in calling it a ‘challenge to the right, center, and left,’ which is pretty much the same as saying that it is a ‘challenge’ to any kind of social action” (PLF 126). The conversations Tonn critiques seem guilty of the same offense. And Tonn definitely should have quoted Burke’s argument in A Rhetoric of Motives that some rhetoric can be divisive in its very inclusiveness, that universal dialogue is ironically exclusionary.

In ways of its own, [rhetoric] can move from the factional to the universal. But its ideal culminations are more often beset by strife as the condition of their organized expression, or material embodiment. Their very universality becomes transformed into a partisan weapon. For one need not scrutinize the concept of "identification" very sharply to see, implied in it at every turn, its ironic counterpart, division. (23)

In Tonn, as in Stob, the public is engaged in a symbolic construction project. But we must return to Stob and Smudde to retrieve the elements Tonn is missing. Stob emphasizes the aesthetic function that language must fulfill. As he writes, “language tries to accomplish practical and aesthetic purposes by infusing objects and events with significance and directing the course of experience” (239). Because of this meaning-making power, Burke considers aesthetics “‘sociological’ in that it can usefully employ coordinates bearing upon social acts in general” (PLF 102). Public engagement relies on metaphors, proverbs, and other stylized answers to civic problems just as it relies on practical or legislative solutions. And Smudde accentuates the role of attitudes in shaping discourse. Whereas Tonn criticizes Clinton for framing the problem of racism as “essentially attitudinal rather than structural” (420), Burke argues that whenever people “name a process or condition, they name it from a meditative, or moralizing, or even hortatory point of view” (ATH iii). Racism cannot be eliminated by merely turning frowns upside down, but it cannot be eliminated absent an attitude adjustment either, because without the corresponding attitude, the public “can’t see the class struggle. It is an interpretation of an event” (ATH 322–23). Changing attitudes often involves symbolic action that seems sluggish and meandering because there is no legislative body over the public’s heart and mind. For Burke, aesthetics and attitude are an inherent part of the public project of discourse, and those forces inspire and shape both sober deliberation and the enormous realm of discussion beyond it.

It is encouraging to find three scholars who believe in public amelioration, and it is further encouraging that they believe in language as the vehicle of this change. These articles also serve as a thought-provoking reminder about the constant public orientation of Burke’s scholarship. Taken together, they sponsor Burke’s public project of using productive symbolic action to enact social change. If rhetoric wishes to expand its civic function, looking to Burke is an excellent place to start.


Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

---.  Counter-Statement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

---.  The Philosophy of Literary Form. Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1941.

---.  A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Mayhew, Leon. The New Public. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.