Volume 7, Issue 1, Fall 2010

The Fall 2010 issue begins with an editorial and announcement from KB Journal editor Andy King. Essays in this issue include Charles Blair "Breakfast with Two Kenneths: Kenneth Burke and Kenneth Fearing," Zac Gershberg "Existentialist Literature in the Burkean Parlor: Exploring the Contingencies and Tensions of Symbolic Action," John M. McKenzie "Reading Resistance to Kenneth Burke: 'Burke the Usurper' and Other Themes," C. Wesley Buerkle "Cynics, Hypocrites, and Nasty Boys: Senator Larry Craig and Gay Rights Caught in the Grotesque Frame," Brett Biebel "Standing Up for Comedy: Kenneth Burke and The Office," Nick Bowman and Jeremy Groskopf "Appalachia: Where the Squids hate the Chalkies."

Fall 2010 Editorial

The view from Andy's Camera Obscura
By Andy King

In the October 2010 issue of Harper’s Magazine Terry Eagleton notes that, “Like any other human system, market societies need a skilled and trained workforce in order to survive. Yet because they tend to treat education as a commodity, they also devalue the kind of humanistic culture that makes us responsible citizens. The result is a glut of knowledge and a paucity of wisdom”

These sentiments were also Kenneth Burke’s, who worried that a constantly accelerating science would soon leave us without the intellectual resources to control the genie of technology. In the New Harmony Conference in 1990, Burke expressed the fear that we had passed a point of no return. 

“I have to say that Agent has been subordinated to Agency. Agency is now the dominant lever of the pentad. Big business and big Science are in bed together,” said Burke as we all gazed out of the enormous conference room window onto flowery green meadow fringed by Indiana sycamore trees.

Later at a solemn supper, Burke talked more doom and gloom.  But this time his target was not “techno-industrial civilization” but the “techno-literary establishment.”  For Burke, American intellectuals themselves were the betrayers.  The American liberal arts establishment had surrendered without firing a shot.

Burke’s narrative angered his mess mates.  It was not the intellectual condescension but the moral condescension that stung like a frozen lash. Burke blamed the humanists for cutting the heart out of humanities. We had taken the advantages of the Humanities and flung them away with a curse. In our quest to imitate the Sciences we embraced the famous metaphor of strapping a poem to a table, etherizing it and then interrogating it savagely, cutting up and labeling its parts.  We catalogued imagery, invented the most complex and arcane methodologies, and adopted double-barreled vocabularies that gave our analyses the pseudo-scientific flavor of advertising. We reified the categories of social science, bludgeoning texts with smarmy ideology.

Burke condemned the mechanics of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, what he called “the political tests” of Sydney Hook, and the little wars of literary critics and the “bureaucrats of the composition book industry.” Burke believed our eyes were on our professional dignity as scholars and not on the treasures of great literature.

And thus it was that we neglected all of the strengths of the old humanistic enterprise: embracing the secret drama of the human heart, pursuing visions of the good life and the good community; or listening for the footsteps of God with Dostoevskey. When Burke predicted that the arts and letters would disappear from American education in favor what President Obama recently called “the things that really matter in higher education,” we chided him. 

“Old people always think the best things are coming to an end when they face death,” said one of our diners after the meal, “the younger generation is always weak and soft.  Arts and Humanities will be there for our great grandchildren.”

Now, twenty years later, we see Burke’s “saving mission of the arts” in peril and as Eagleton has warned:  “Our social orders are driven by greed, crippled by a crass utilitarianism and callously indifferent to education in anything but the most bloodless, technocratic sense of the term.” Recently President Obama talked about the important things in education and it was obvious that he was talking about math and science. When he spoke of abandoning the things that don’t matter, it was apparent from the full context of his speech that he meant the humanities.

Burke’s nightmare seemed silly in 1990. With the arts and sciences under savage attack in the universities, his vision was merely premature. The age of Brutalism is dawning. As Burkeans we must become dog-faced soldiers of the arts and humanities; we must put the heart back into education. 

Breakfast with Two Kenneths: Kenneth Burke and Kenneth Fearing

Charles Blair

IN 1955 AS A twenty-one year old junior at Harvard, I had brunch with Kenneth Burke, and the well known poets Kenneth Fearing and Alan Tate. This delicious meal was consumed at the old Automat on Broadway.  At a gap in the conversation I remember looking out across the street to the old Lexmark Theatre where the movie Picnic starring Kim Novak and William Holden was playing.  As we sat eating twenty five cent automat sticky buns and seventy five cent egg, and bacon dishes (and free single English muffins) we talked about modern poets.  Bruce Fearing, Kenneth Fearing’s son, introduced me to his father and Tate and KB as someone he just happened to have brought along to the breakfast.  I remember Tate making some very funny remarks about “Red” Warren as a “border state personality” although he himself had been born in Southern Kentucky.  I had heard of Alan Tate and the fugitive poets but not of Kenneth Burke. Tate and Burke did almost all of the talking. Bruce Fearing who knew everyone at Harvard and every literary figure in New York made a few remarks, but I was utterly silent.  I do remember that during the meal Tate borrowed a large number of cigarettes from me.

“I bet you thought you were safe smoking Kools?  Well you are never safe,  not with a man  as mad as I am to pack a blue coil of smoke against his belt buckle and blast it up into the stratosphere,” said Tate.

That line is burned into my memory but alas, I remember almost nothing else of what struck me as a brilliant conversation.

The two Kenneths did almost all of the talking until late in the breakfast when Burke turned to me and asked what I thought of Dylan Thomas.   I knew almost nothing about Thomas but I was an asinine Harvard Square bohemian who had picked up a lot of stories from the Hayes Bickford intellectuals and so I repeated the one good story I thought I knew about him.

“Well, you know that he made a big scene at Radcliffe on his American tour in 1954,” I began and went on to relate the following tired and probably apocryphal tale:

“It was a very hot night in a theatre without any air conditioning.   In a donnish bray a visiting English scholar gave a tepid introduction in which he compared Thomas to Owen Glendower, the Welsh Wizard and Ab Gwylim, the great Welsh bard.  Thomas rose, strode to the microphone and recited four or five of his poems to an audience of about two hundred and fifty young women.   His voice seemed thick and a bit slurred. He stumbled over an occasional consonant and repeated several of his lines, correcting himself as he went. After that he paused and mopped his brow with the tip of his filthy ascot.  He looked about and asked if there were any questions. 

“What does your poem Fern Hill really mean?”  This question from a young woman in the back in a powerful penetrating voice.

Dylan Thomas tore off his ascot and mopped his face.  He began an impressive series of throat clearings and harrumphs.  Finally he walked to the apron of the stage and peered out into the audience.

“I guess it means what it means.  It means I would like to screw you all,” he said.

Then Thomas straightened himself, dropped his script to the floor and walked rapidly into the wings.

Burke looked at me and the corners of his mouth twitched a little.  He was not amused. 

“That man wrote that ‘song is a burning and crested act, the fire of birds into the dodged night’.”

“At Harvard they call him a great minor poet,” said Fearing coming quickly to my aid.

Burke disagreed with the sages of the Harvard English Department and argued that he was a great poet.  I don’t remember his arguments but I recall that Tate nodded vigorously in assent.  I remember feeling wired from three cups of strong coffee and worried that Burke would engage me again when he finished his soliloquy. 

After Burke’s speech of praise, Bruce stood up and excused us both on the ground that he had important business with a landlord in the village and we left them to their talk of modern poets. 

“You really should read this Kenneth Burke guy.  It is great exercise for your mind if you put yourself out to understand him,” said Bruce as we walked to the subway. 

Existentialist Literature in the Burkean Parlor: Exploring the Contingencies and Tensions of Symbolic Action

Zac Gershberg, Ashland University


Existentialism is known as a philosophical construct, but one consistent theme in its canon is a critical exploration of the ontological aspects of communication. Drawing the connection between this and Kenneth Burke’s understanding of symbolic action, this paper considers the Burkean parlor a representative anecdote of existentialism and analyzes two works of existentialist literature, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot and Fyodor Dostoevskey’s Notes from the Underground. The purpose is to consider existentialist literature as rhetorical acts which provoke a Burkean discussion of communication that emphasizes the contingencies and tensions inherent to symbolic action.

EXISTENTIALIST LITERATURE is often referred to as a function of absurdity, alienation and nihilistic despair since the works of this genre are inhabited by unsavory protagonists and gloomy subject matter. The idea of existential dread often dominates our understanding of existentialism, and this is not only unfortunate, but terribly flawed. It is as if the decision to pick up and leaf through any novel by Franz Kafka or Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, Albert Camus’ The Stranger or Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting For Godot, is not just an exercise in leisurely entertainment, but a statement about how one is feeling—and that feeling might be summed up, in the popular imagination, as meaninglessness. Viewed through a Burkean lens, however, one may re-consider existentialist literature as rhetorical acts that provoke the ontological difficulties with which persons negotiate their social environment equipped with only the resources of symbolic action. Instead of viewing this genre as advancing the desolate egoism of individual consciousnesses, applying the Burkean Parlor described in The Philosophy of Literary Form and Burke’s notion of the representative anecdote re-figure these works of fiction as animating a particular orientation and worldview—the point of which is to create a vocabulary that reflects, selects and deflects reality (Grammar of Motives 59). Burke’s method of literary analysis suggests that literature should be organized “with reference to strategies” in “active categories” (Philosophy 303). By adopting Burke’s methodology to analyze existentialist literature, I’d like to move away from the popular reception of the genre and reveal its preoccupation with the ontological struggle of communication which fits squarely within Burke’s dramatistic notion of symbolic action. These works of fiction should not be evaluated aesthetically but as rhetorical acts whose purpose is to intensify the exigencies that arise in human interaction. In this essay I conceptualize the Burkean parlor as a representative anecdote for existentialism and then analyze two works of existentialist literature through a Burkean lens: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes From the Underground. I’ve chosen these two works because Beckett and Dostoevsky did not write philosophical essays explicating existentialism to accompany their fiction—like Beauvoir, Camus, and Sartre—but instead sought to articulate the ontological tensions of symbolic action through the presentation of dramatic situations in literary form.

Authorial invention and the act of reading, which initiates an intersubjective communicative process, would seem to preclude the foreboding landscape that existentialist literature is said to possess. As early as 1931, with the publication of his first critical work, Counter-Statement, Burke declares “all competent art is a means of communication, however vague the artist’s conception of his audience may be” (73). For Burke, a symbolic act functions as “the dancing of an attitude” (Philosophy 8-9). Taken from a Burkean perspective, then, our understanding of the purpose and style of existentialist literature changes. Rather than a stamp of approval for egotistic conduct, the literary works of existentialism are presentations of situations that individuals face and the corresponding attitudes with which they face them. As one scholar writes of the rhetorical texture of these works of fiction, existentialist literature “begins with a complex gesture on the part of the author [who is] inviting an audience to consider the nature of the universe” (Kaelin 131). In What is Literature?, the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre describes how literature only comes into being through the “joint effort” of the author and the reader: “The creative act,” he writes, “is only an incomplete and abstract moment in the production of a work,” adding, “There is no art except for and by others […] realized through language” (51-52). If we take an expansive view of rhetoric as Burke does, whereby symbolic acts impress an attitude from one to another in any communicative exchange, the scope of existentialist literature is altered such that it does not function as a descent into the bleak depths of one’s singular consciousness. Rather, it activates a forum of meta-communication that describes the sheer difficulty of living in a body that, as Burke says, learns language in a world where only our symbolic resources bring us together. Existentialist literature activates this intersubjective process, alerting readers to the necessity and struggle of consciousness as intertwined and compromised by other consciousnesses through communication. If there is anything absurd about existentialist literature, it is the dominant perception that it represents the hopeless despair of individuals living in an otherwise ambivalent world.1

The writings of one of the few self-declared American existentialists, the novelist Walker Percy, are instructive in this regard. First, in a very Burkean manner, Percy suggests, in his non-fiction writing, that humans should be viewed as man-the-talker or man-the-symbol-monger. “Language, [or] symbolization,” he writes, “is the stuff of which our knowledge and awareness of the world are made, the medium through which we see the world” (The Message in the Bottle 17, 150). In Signposts in a Strange Land, Percy sizes up humans as “homo symbolificus” (120). What this implicates for existentialist literature is that the movement of such art “achieves a reversal through its re-presenting. To picture a truly alienated man, pitcture [an existentialist] to whom it had never occurred to write a word” (93). The act of writing and reading is thus a communicative endeavor which quashes the idea of existentialist alienation or, for that matter, art for art’s sake. Albert Camus considers such a distorted view of the literary process to be the invention “of a factitious and self-absorbed society” since, as he writes in Resistance, Rebellion and Death, “art cannot be a monologue” (255, 257). Burke shares a similar distrust of pure art in the pages of Counter-Statement. He finds the expressiveness of the author “is too often confused with pure utterance” when it should more properly be seen as “the evocation of emotion” projected to the reader (53). Whether they know it or not, authors of dramatic fiction, adds Burke, use their “expressiveness as a means of making people seek what they customarily fled and flee what they customarily sought” (67). To size existentialist literature up more properly, as Burke might have us do, I propose that it be seen as the presentation of rhetorical situations which emphasize the contingency of social experiences brokered by intersubjective encounters between consciousnesses that are not isolated in the Cartesian view but mutually dependent and compromised by one another. “Existentialist literature [is] social action,” writes Kaelin, adding, “It intended to produce change by offering its audience a conception of the human individual consistent with (ironically enough) its true nature: man in face of his coefficient of adversity, a given individual working out his destiny within an unfriendly environment” (103). This is the pervasive, active category, I propose to argue, that binds the genre of existentialist literature together.

I continually stress the focus on intersubjectivity because it must be established that existentialism does not endorse an autonomous, unitary subject free to impose her will as she pleases.2 What may be considered an existentialist struggle is the subject’s recognition that she is not alone, that her consciousness necessarily projects, via communication, with and toward others. As Percy writes, to fully understand existentialism, it is vital to see consciousness and intersubjectivity as “inextricably related; they are in fact aspects of the same new orientation toward the world, the symbolic orientation” (274). What existentialism—existentialist literature, in particular—rebels against is the danger of what Burke might call pure identification: fleeing from one’s being to merge the self into either a process of scientific rationalism, a determinism set in advance by a god, or losing oneself in a public crowd. It posits intersubjectivity as a dramatistic interaction of the self’s being-with-others which should never degenerate into negating one’s own being or freedom. This is often taken for an endorsement of fluid egotism, but it most assuredly is not. While his novella, The Stranger, features a man condemned for his indifference, Camus warns readers from identifying him, as an author, with his characters. In The Rebel, Camus describes the radically contingent situatedness of the self that is emphasized in such works of fiction: “I have need of others who have need of me and of each other [….] This individualism is in no sense pleasure; it is perpetual struggle, and, sometimes, unparalleled joy when it reaches the heights of proud compassion” (297). Existentialist literature asks and attempts to answer the following questions: How can we live authentically when we have a need to identify with others? That is, how can we symbolically act when we have such a tendency to either lock up our consciousness within itself or to yield it all-too-willingly to others? Contrary to accepted opinion, existentialism does not permit the refuge of solipsism, but nor does it, for that matter, allow the perversion of communion Burke so eloquently warns against.

Unfortunately, the present critical enterprise is not without difficulty since the characters that inhabit existentialist literature, taken individually, are, to begin with, unlikeable fellows. They are often selfish and preoccupied with only themselves. For instance, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and Camus’ protagonist, Meursault, from The Stranger, fail in their ability to possess any empathy for, or reach out to, others. This should not, however, be construed as encapsulating the projected ethos of their authorial creators. What we find over and over in existentialist literature, on the contrary, are situations where individuals have the possibility of the ability to act with others, morally or unethically, or do nothing. The authors of existentialist literature intensify the constraints and the freedom of contingency in the predicaments and situations individuals face. Some characters rise to these challenges with honor, others fail to act at all; others make poor choices for unspecified reasons. Milan Kundera has written that while some may consider Kafka’s works to be preoccupied with the solitude of consciousness, on the contrary, his writings feature “[n]ot the curse of solitude but the violation of solitude” (The Art of the Novel 111). Kundera’s observation can be extended to the entire genre of existentialist literature. As Burke demonstrates, the literary transaction itself negates the possibility of lapsing into solipsistic despair. Each literary act of existentialism is a rhetorical enterprise and cannot be judged merely by the admittedly pervasive failure of its characters: Estragon and Vladimir, who never find Godot in Beckett’s play; the final pages of Antoine Roquentin’s diary in Sartre’s Nausea, which shows a man yielding to unjustifiable resignation; Meursault’s acquiescence to his own execution; and the conclusion to Kafka’s The Trial, where Joseph K. is inexplicably killed before a fair trial is conducted. There is, true enough, very little triumph in the narratives of existentialist literature.3 Its pages are inhabited by anti-heroes who, as Dostoevsky’s Underground Man recognizes in himself, “produce a most unpleasant impression” (296). While existentialist literature may seem to possess, on the surface, a pessimistic scope, it is important to move beyond mere character assessment and consider the dramatistic situations in existentialist literature. The world of human relations in these books is not governed by reason but rather a contingent space where the tissue of human communication is disruptive, fragile and unavoidable. It offers a world in which only the exercise of symbolic action is at one’s human disposal, highlighting the ontological aspects of communication. For far too long, however, many have evaluated existentialist literature with a focus only directed toward the feelings its characters evoke rather than the situations or attitudes the author presents. It is thus appropriate to apply some critical energy from a Burkean perspective to analyze the orientations of the works taken holistically.

While all literature may be said to function as acts of communication, existentialist literature, in particular, highlights a two-fold aspect of it: the author is communicating to the reader and the consciousness of the characters are haunted by their need to communicate with one another. The violations of solitude which Kundera describes reflect the total will-to-communication, which, for the existentialist Karl Jaspers, is impossible to deny. Kaelin expresses existentialist literature in terms of “creative communication”: an author exercises the rhetorical tool of invention, which necessitates a communication situation (98). I would add that, as in the Burkean parlor, the fundamental theme to existentialist literature is about the process of communication itself, which is why I have described it as a form of meta-communication. Its characters experience the need to communicate and the difficulties that arise from this perforce requirement. They can neither escape themselves with a flight into pure being nor break free of others; if they fail, it is because they attempt one or the other. The fact remains they exist precisely because they communicate. That they communicate entails absolute contingency within the particularity of their situations, the constraints that compromise the ability to choose, and the responsibility that stems from such choices.

Abandoned in the Burkean Parlor

Burkean scholars such as Wess (“Pentadic Terms”) and Brock (“Kenneth Burke’s Philosophy of Rhetoric”) find within his works a collapse of the traditional dividing line between ontology and epistemology.  In a Burkean frame, knowledge is dictated by the drama of human relations fortified by symbolic action. Language, for Burke, can never be transformed into a pure domain of objective facts. As such, knowledge takes on a secondary role to dramatism, which, Burke writes, is concerned with the problems of action and form rather than methods employed to isolate kernels of knowledge (Language as Symbolic Action 367, The Rhetoric of Religion 38-39). Knowledge, or the process of knowing, is seen as a function of our ability to symbolically interact with one another, which renders epistemology as inextricably tied to ontological considerations. As Wess writes, Burke moves away from positing any final epistemological program, preferring, instead, the open-endedness of drama whereby knowledge “is not [expressed by] an individual in permanent possession of a knowledge fixed once and for all, but, rather, in symbol-users equipped to converse today better than yesterday and maybe even better tomorrow” (“Pentadic Terms” 168). Existentialism rebels against epistemology in a similar way by enfolding it as, or into, an ontological understanding of communication.

This rebellion begins specifically with Soren Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegelian system-building, a distrust that can be traced all the way back to Plato, who elevated reason as the hallmark of human greatness. The faculty of reason had been celebrated as “the distinguishing mark of man,” according to Miguel de Unamuno, but for existentialism, he writes, all reason, all knowledge, becomes a social product that owes its origin to the use of language (Tragic Sense of Life 25). Privileging language by accepting its rich ambiguities, Unamuno considers any “purely rational philosophy” to have been constructed from “an inhuman language—that is to say, one inapt for the needs of life” (144). His thoroughgoing critique of the myth of pure language and pure knowledge resembles Burke’s own criticism of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian calculus of a neutral vocabulary, which Burke describes as “a patient labor of hate” (Permanence and Change 191). Just as existentialists such as Unamuno, above, and Jaspers, who considered all truth and reason to be a function of communication (Reason and Existenz), Burke likewise reduces knowledge to the exchange of our symbolic resources. Burke is explicit about this in The Rhetoric of Religion, distinguishing his method of dramatism and logology as ontological compared with “scientism,” which is epistemological. In drawing these distinctions, however, Burke is apt to point out that we be “reminded that each ends by implicating the other” (39). For this reason, it is better to say Burke and existentialism collapse the epistemeological/ontological breach rather than necessarily privileging the latter over the former. Both Burke and the existentialists could be seen, from this vantage point, as forerunners to postmodernism or the rhetorical turn in the humanities, which is said to have heralded a devastating critique of Enlightenment thought and its preoccupation with discovering objective knowledge.4

Burke’s idea of symbolic action is the central theme that binds his corpus together because it suggests that all language use, manifested as communication, functions ontologically. Symbolic action is essential to Burke because his other main concepts—dramatism, identification, and logology (among  others)—are implications that draw from the belief that we are the symbol-using animal or, as he later put it, bodies that learn language. All verbal acts, as Burke writes in The Philosophy of Literary Form, are to be considered as instances of symbolic action (8). Grounding Burkology, as Stanley Edgar Hyman calls it, in symbolic action is, admittedly, a thesis that could be (strenuously) contested. The justification here is that symbolic action functions as not merely a theory but an orientation to the world itself—one that locates Burke firmly in the existentialist camp. As Bertelsen points out, “The realm of symbolic action, then, is the realm of social existence [….] Thus, all of our talk embodies a statement about existence—an ontological statement” (233). Recognizing symbolic action as fundamental to Burke’s project provides a window into how he viewed the world. After all, Burke’s ingenious ideas do not play out in a theoretical vacuum. By teasing out the implications of symbolic action and all that Burke shares in its wake, an existentialist warrant surfaces that suggests we, as humans, are abandoned on earth with only our communicative resources available to negotiate existence. Burke’s entire career was spent investigating what I consider the central tenet of existentialism: exploring the meaning in life as opposed to the meaning of life.

Declaring that humans are abandoned does not necessarily entail an affirmation or negation of God or religion, either. Burke stresses over and over that this is not even within his critical ability. In the introduction to The Rhetoric of Religion, for instance, he writes: “It is not within the competence of our project to decide the question [of God] either theistically or atheistically, or even agnostically” (2). Later he would declare, as a demonstration of logology, “Linguistically, God can be nothing but a term” (Language as Symbolic Action 456). And in an interview conducted in the early 1980s, Burke adds: “You can’t have religious doctrine unless somebody tells it to you. Theology is a function of language” (On Human Nature 380). This is precisely the stand Kierkegaard, a devout Christian, and Sartre, a committed atheist, make. Asking the question whether God exists or does not exist is beyond the communicative resources humans possess. Belief itself occupies a spatial realm that transcends the faculty of discourse. As a result, communicative interaction arises as the most significant aspect to our existence and should be the locus of human inquiry. Human abandonment, for existentialism as well as Burke, is but the point of departure for beginning critical explorations. An illustration of this is worked out in Burke’s Permanence and Change:

I do not see why the universe should accommodate itself to a man-made medium of communication [….] Perhaps because we have come to think of ourselves as listening to the universe, as waiting to see what it will prove to us, we have psychotically made the corresponding readjustment of assuming that the universe itself will abide by our rules of discussion and give us its revelations in a cogent manner. (99)
  This sentiment reflects existentialism such that, as Jaspers writes, communication is considered “the universal condition of man’s being” (Reason and Existenz 79). It is, that is to say, all we have—or all we can be sure of. The world does not find us; rather, we carve out our projects of discovery through symbolic action. This view, however, provides little comfort. Privileging symbolic action necessitates a view of human life awash in abandonment warded off from pure logical or religious truth. Positing communication as the fundamental, perhaps only recognizable certainty in existence lacks any secure ground since it is a wholly slippery enterprise. Burke’s theory on humans as the symbol-using animal finds its fullest expression with not only the statement that we create and use symbols but, more importantly, we necessarily misuse symbols. That we coerce or disagree with one another allows for life to unfold as primarily dramatistic rather than scientifically knowable or theologically determined.

In the section of The Rhetoric of Motives where Burke establishes identification, “The Range of Rhetoric,” there is a productive display of this existentialist worldview. Our understanding of rhetoric, writes Burke, “lead[s] us through the Scramble, the Wrangle of the Market Place, the flurries and flare-ups of the Human Barnyard.” He concludes the section by asserting that “[r]hetoric is concerned with the state of Babel after the Fall” (23). The necessary corollary or unspoken warrant to Burke’s view of the fall of Babel, or, as he would work out in The Rhetoric of Religion, man’s fall expressed through original sin in the story of Adam and Eve (172-272), is the inauguration of a world where humans are abandoned but have need of one another through communication. According to Burke and the existentialists, we are abandoned in the world except for the properties and possibilities of symbolic action. Biesecker recognizes this existentialist warrant in Burke’s corpus, suggesting that he “is quite correct from the existential purview” such that Burke “claims the human being is always already estranged” (27, 46). The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty supports this existentialist-Burkean nexus as well, writing, “We are in the world, mingled with it, compromised with it,” and adding that communication is our “way of being” through this world (Sense and Non-Sense 147, 93). While Burke articulates how symbolic action functions in a human life-world governed by contingency rather than reason, his writings critically dwell on the effects or implications of such a state of affairs. Existentialism, on the other hand, works from the inside out: its major thinkers continually describe the individual’s supreme difficulty in negotiating a world with no a priori legitimization. They lack a facility with rhetoric which would otherwise provide more rich explorations of how to negotiate one’s existence with others. Both, however, share a frame of acceptance that acknowledges the possibility of an extra-human dimension but focuses more introspectively on human-interaction. “We start out,” Camus confirms, “from an acceptance of the world” (The Myth of Sisyphus 64). Thompson and Palmeri clarify this Burkean frame in a comparable way: “Acceptance,” they write, “means dealing with the drama of human action as it is but allows one the freedom to ‘thunder against’ it” (277). A frame of acceptance, as Burke describes in the opening to Attitudes Toward History, entails abandonment—one accepts the world as it works from within rather than determined from without.

Abandonment, in this sense, should not be seen as a terrifying encounter with nothingness or pure relativity. It merely expresses that while we cannot be sure of any truth that can deliver a teleological meaning of life or an objective set of determined values, we can profitably concentrate on analyzing and devising the means of our all-too-human encounters through a focus on communication. Existentialism would indeed be a thoroughly pessimistic enterprise if it left us standing alone without any recourse to deal with such a state of affairs. Camus, in particular, addresses these charges of pessimism, suggesting that such a philosophy would be one of “discouragement” whereas existentialism explores the problem of civilization thus: “to know whether man [sic], without the help of eternal or rationalistic thought, can unaided create his own values” (Resistance, Rebellion, and Death 57-58). From this vantage point, existentialism does not merely throw up its hands in nihilistic resignation; it paints a poetic, Burkean view of life that galvanizes our ability to communicate in order to recognize that values and actions are thoroughly creative in scope and open to chance, flux, and purposeful commitment. “We believe,” Camus adds, “that the truth of this age can be found only by living through the drama of it” (59). Recognizing our collective abandonment is merely a point of departure upon which one can begin to more profitably negotiate the symbolic activities of an all-too-human life-world.

To take it a step further, let me assert that Burke’s unending conversation presented in The Philosophy of Literary Form serves as a representative anecdote of the existentialist notion of abandonment in a world that necessitates communication.5 A representative anecdote, according to Burke in The Grammar of Motives, stems from the human need to create “vocabularies that will be faithful reflections of reality” (59). He adds that it is reductive in scope that can be understood in terms of drama “in the realm of action, as against scientific reduction to sheer motion” (61). Here an opportunity arises to stand Burke on his head. His relaying of an unending conversation in a parlor evinces the rhetorical texture of existentialism and reveals what I consider Burke’s existentialist warrant more clearly. In writing this little sketch, Burke, of course, is not attempting to define existentialism but make an account for the source of his dramatistic view of human relations. Its retelling betrays the existentialist implications that underscore Burke’s work, however. Dramatism, he begins, starts with “the ‘unending conversation’ that is going on at the point in history when we are born” (110). Burke then invites the reader to imagine herself entering a parlor, arriving in the middle of a heated discussion in which the participants neither pause nor inform the newcomer about what the discussion entails. After listening for awhile, you, the reader, decide to “put in your oar” and start participating in the discussion. The vicissitudes of the Burkean parlor are such that one person may argue against you while another may defend you while someone else may take a completely different approach altogether. “However,” Burke concludes, “the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress” (111). While this certainly serves as an accurate description of the drama of human relations, it also encapsulates existentialism better than any pithy statement, essay or story I know of.

Notice that Burke provides no epistemological grounding that explains why you, the reader, should show up at just such a parlor; who the other persons that inhabit the parlor are, or why they are there; and there are no descriptions of, or explanations for, the parlor itself. All we find is an abrupt ontological manifestation of communication between persons who spontaneously come and go. All sense of time and truth exists outside the contingencies of the parlor. The participants of the discussion are equipped with no resources to negotiate the parlor except for engaging what is being said and trying to find ways to engage the arguments at hand in order to interact with one another. Communicative acts are granted a primacy above the questions of how the parlor came to be and who the participants of the discussion are. As mentioned above, it rounds out a frame of acceptance to the natural world. Burke points out, a few pages later, that “[w]hatever may be the character of existence in the physical realm, this realm functions but as scenic background when considered from the standpoint of the human realm” (115). The objective of this representative anecdote is to bring the discursiveness of the parlor into sharper focus because the process of symbolic action is the only dominant, pervasive aspect of existence we can be sure of.

Whereas a scientist or theologian might encounter Burke’s parlor and then attempt to discern why it was there and what the meaning behind it was, someone with an existentialist orientation would accept the terms of the parlor and, as the reader is instructed, gauge where the discussion is flowing and put in an oar. In Sartre’s lecture, “Existentialism and Humanism,” he asserts that “man [sic] first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards” (28). In Burke’s parlor, you, the reader, are summoned to the parlor without any a priori cause reason: you show up and are disciplined to recognize the flurry of symbolic activity going on around you, and are thus compelled to join in. Imagine, however, someone demonstrating Sartrean bad faith in the Burkean parlor—perhaps a person with either a scientistic or theologically-deterministic orientation. Pretend, for a moment, this person is in fact able to imagine themselves, as Burke instructs, entering a parlor. In keeping with Burke’s anecdote, that person first recognizes her own tardiness. Next, she realizes that a discussion, well-advanced already, is continuing without her. These two factors of the situation immediately arouse feelings of inadequacy, shame and vulnerability. At this point, you can either accept the parlor for its dynamic, or rebel against it. Recall that a Burkean, or, in my reading, an existentialist, sizes things up and decides to put in an oar, reveling in the odd contingency of fate that should locate oneself in such surroundings. But would everybody? I think not. The person of bad faith, whom I hypothesized above, would halt the discussion immediately and demand to know whence the parlor came. The discussion would not be permitted to continue unless a satisfactory account of the parlor’s origins and make-up had been formulated. If no factual reasoning for the parlor could be assessed or divined, the newcomer would not permit the previous discussion, or a new, spontaneous one, to ensue. The person of bad faith would demand an inquiry and instruct the other participants to never again impulsively converse until the parlor’s constitution was ascertained. Rather than enjoy the meanings that multiply within the parlor, this newcomer would want the participants to discover the meaning of the parlor. The Burkean parlor, that is to say, does not work for everyone. It takes what I consider to be an existentialist frame of acceptance in order for the parlor to continue on in the Burke imaginary. Since the parlor, in my reading of it, can be seen as a representative anecdote of existentialism, the remainder of this essay pivots to demonstrate the degree to which existentialist literature creates Burkean parlors.

How (Not) to Wait for God(ot)

Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting For Godot, is an illustrative example of the two-fold element of communication in existentialist literature. Beckett’s work can be seen as but an extension and exploration of the parlor itself. In Burkean dramatism, the statement, “all life’s a stage,” is not considered metaphorically, but literally: it serves “as an aid for helping us find answers to the question ‘What related observations follow from the proposition that humans are people who can act, as distinct from things that can but move?’” (“Rhetoric, Poetics, and Philosophy” 29). Burke adds, moreover, that dramatism should not be seen as merely drama in and of itself. Rather, he considers it “the systematic use of a model designed to help us define and place the nature of human relationships and of the relations among our terms for the discussion of such matters” (29). It is important to keep this in mind since technically, there is very little drama in Beckett’s play—if drama is considered as the coherent structure of a narrative detailed with character trajectory and plot devices. Beckett’s play is dramatistic, as opposed to dramatic, such that it reflects the perforce demand of negotiating our contingent existence through only the resources of symbolic action. Waiting for Godot functions as an intensification of the tensions that result from being bodies that learn language—or, otherwise put in a Burkean vocabulary, the symbol-using animal.

Vladimir and Estragon show up on stage without any a priori justification. While they attempt to figure out their purpose, they are abandoned in this Burkean parlor equipped only with their potential for symbolic activity. They know they are waiting for someone named Godot, but they do not know why this is the case or when, if ever, Godot will come. They think, however, that should they find Godot, their purpose will be finalized—that is, all will be well. Beckett, of course, does not permit them to find Godot—or allow Godot to find them—but this wont of purpose or justification on the part of Vladimir and Estragon represents the Sartrean bad faith and/or the drive towards pure identification. Godot, for them, represents a purposeful cause by which, in their minds, they can escape the pure contingency of their situations. They symbolically interact with one another and Pozzo, who intermittently appears on stage, because they have to, not because they want to—ultimately, they would like to flee from being in order to be with God(ot). The God/Godot link is so obvious as to perhaps not even warrant mentioning, but it demonstrates the wish to escape being through pure identification. Whether Godot is an authoritative figure such as a general or political leader or captain of industry (a boss, if you will), or, for that matter, a god, he represents Vladimir’s and Estragon’s hope to lose themselves. If they find God(ot), they will then be able to finally abandon the world of talk to which they are already assigned.

Beckett’s play serves as one long exercise in communicative frustration for Vladimir and Estragon. They are not permitted to escape themselves or their symbolic action. Vladimir cries out, at one point, “Let us not waste our time in idle discourse!” (51). It betrays Beckett’s attempt to call attention to our condition, which is always situated in the particular, not the abstract, and governed by the resources of symbolic action within the Burkean parlor. It is why Vladimir continues in the following way:
But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate cosigned us! [….] The tiger bounds to the help of his congeners without the least reflexion [sic], or else he slinks away into the depths of the thickets. But that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come. (51-52)
Notice how Vladimir recognizes the fundamental contingency and pervasiveness of symbolic action but ultimately rejects it. He wishes to be like an animal of the wild, or function through the properties of sheer motion, as Burke would say. If only, for Vladimir and Estragon, they could react like animals and not have to think or communicate with others. Vladimir fails to realize that there is no such thing as idle discourse. All language is purposeful in and of itself to a particular end through its intersubjective, rhetorical texture. The act of communication necessitates a world pregnant with meaning, but Vladimir and Estragon, despite their verbal flurry with one another, cannot recognize this. They have bad faith because they want to negate their own ability to talk with others.

As the play unfolds, it becomes clear Vladimir and Estragon want out of this Burkean parlor, but Beckett denies them this possibility. It is why, in the final pages of Beckett’s play, the two main characters contemplate suicide. They cannot abide by the meaning in life without some greater purpose coming into focus. “I can’t go on like this,” says Estragon in the conclusion to the play, indicating his exasperation with being a symbol-using animal (61). “We’ll hang ourselves to-morrow,” Vladimir responds, adding the caveat, “Unless Godot comes.” “And if he comes?” asks Estragon, to which Vladimir answers: “We’ll be saved.” A couple of lines later, the play ends with Vladimir asking if they should go; Estragon agrees, “Yes, let’s go,” but Beckett’s final word before the curtain is the stage direction, “They do not move.” The stage, or Burkean parlor, is inescapable. The characters are suspended in communicative flux on stage as the curtain draws to a close. They cannot escape the dramatistic stage of existence.

To understand this play as an exercise about communication divorces Beckett, the dramatist, from his characters. The conditional situation of the play is what is significant, not the fact that Vladimir and Estragon do not find Godot. While it is necessary that the characters fail in their attempt to erase their being in order to find a purpose or the purpose that God(ot) promises, they still have one another as well as the ability to communicate. This, I think, is the lasting impression of Beckett’s play, and it is why we have seen performances of this work staged in bleak or hostile landscapes. A performance was staged in San Quentin prison in 1957, Susan Sontag directed it in Sarajevo in 1993 amidst a civil war, and the artist Paul Chan orchestrated a performance of it in New Orleans’ 9th ward in 2007. The point of each performance was not to emphasize the hopelessness of each situation but reflect the common bond of vulnerability, which can only be met with symbolic action as it is existentially understood. Ultimately, all we can be sure of are the possibilities of symbolic action that we share despite the fact we cannot compute it mathematically. “Life totters,” writes Jaspers as an illustration of this theme, “not really understanding the speech it is itself using” (Man in the Modern Age 79).  While our abandonment is thus stark, it possesses that binding aspect of our nature, symbolic action, which ties us together and upon which a better future can be actualized. 

Communicating from the Underground

While Beckett’s play is meant not just for an isolated act of reading consumption, but public performance, existentialist novellas and novels suppose a greater difficulty.  Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground is an interesting case study in this regard. Walter Kaufmann, who helped frame the existentialist canon with the 1956 publication of his reader, Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre,6 included only the first section of Dostoevsky’s novella in his reader. While quite obviously Kaufmann, serving as an editor, has page limits and structural constraints prohibiting the inclusion of the entire work, it is curious that he dismisses the second portion of Notes as unnecessary to Dostoevsky’s work as a whole. I draw attention to this prior to discussing Dostoevsky’s book in order to demonstrate the purposeful disregard of any social interaction within the text by the protagonist with others, which happens only in the second part. To read the first portion of Notes is to witness a long, polemical digression from a singular consciousness. It is a quite fascinating soliloquy, but by reading only the first installment of the text one fails to witness the narrator being rendered vulnerable by others—and that, ultimately, is our situation—his situation—in existence. After being embarrassed by a group of associates—it would be a stretch to call them friends—the Underground Man returns to his previous isolation and decides that while he only likes playing with words himself, “what I really want is that you all should go to hell” (290). This sentiment would later be reflected in Sartre’s play, No Exit, whose conclusion finds the antagonist exclaiming, “Hell is other people!” While this may be construed as support for an egotistic view or solipsism, the point of these works is to demonstrate the inability to wish away other persons. A more fundamental question arises as well: who can the reader believe—Dostoevsky, who is writing the book as an act of public communication, or the Underground Man, who is mired in his contempt for humanity?

This question ultimately surfaces when considering any work of existentialist literature. We have no choice but to communicate with others. Even if our interpersonal communicative efforts fail, as in the case of the Underground Man, we must exercise the will-to-communicate and symbolic action in some manner, and, in this case, it is the composition of “notes” for a reading public. It is why, despite his evocation of solitude, the Underground Man continually peppers his writing by addressing his readership as “gentlemen”. This betrays Dostoevsky’s attempt to speak through his protagonist, who considers himself a coward but is aware that, in the act of writing, he is reaching an audience: “If it is not for the benefit of the public, why should I not simply recall these incidents in my own mind without putting them on paper?” asks the Underground Man (214). The answer is simple: despite himself, the Underground Man cannot escape his total will-to-communicate and symbolically interact with others. By evoking a sense of personal feeling, Dostoevsky’s narrator is thus provoking his audience in a rhetorical act. Even though, as a character, the Underground Man rejects his opportunity to be with others, calcifying his criticisms with self-righteous disgust, this does not amount to a mere surface endorsement by Dostoevsky of a retreat into solipsism. In fact, Dostoevsky is demonstrating the impossibility of the position in which such a character adopts by virtue of writing as a communicative endeavor.

While the Underground Man is contemptible in his concern for others, he is not without justification for his opinions. Like much of existentialist literature, the Underground Man rejects the rationalist account of human nature prevalent in the nineteenth century, just as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche critique Hegel and Plato, respectively. In particular, the self-assurances of scientism are Dostoevsky’s target; he imbues the Underground Man with both distrust and hatred for the wish to rationally codify the universe. The existentialist texture of this book is reflected in Dostoevsky’s unwillingness to permit any finalized, teleological account for human actions and motivations:

[S]cience will teach man […] so that everything he does is not by his willing it, but is done of itself, by the laws of nature. Consequently we have only to discover these laws of nature, and man will no longer have to answer for his actions and life will become exceedingly easy for him. All human actions will then, of course, be tabulated according to these laws, mathematically, like tables of logarithms up to 108,000 and entered into an index […so that] everything will be so clearly calculated and noted that there will be no more deeds or adventures in the world. (200)
Dostoevsky teases out scienticism as resulting in a nightmare where our very humanness is erased—being as such is collapsed into a mathematical model of exactitude. The will to calculate everything by scientific or religious decree is an illustration of bad faith; it reflects the wish to flee being as such and reduce human interaction to the re-activity of sheer motion. Dostoevsky approaches human rationality as does Unamuno and other existentialists as well as Burke, where it is considered but one aspect of our human capabilities. “You see, gentleman, reason is an excellent thing, there’s no disputing that,” says the Underground Man, “but reason satisfies only the rational side of man’s nature, while will is a manifestation of the whole life, that is, of the whole of human life including reason and all the impulses” (203). Now Dostoevsky is not explicit about the primacy of communication as Burke is, but consider the above passage by adding “the will-to-communicate” as a manifestation of the whole life. This is what Jaspers does in discussing existence in terms of the manifestation of communication—or the self’s “communicative manifestation” in the world (Philosophy 92). As it has been remarked above, though, manifesting communication as ontologically grounded provides a slippery ground for which to evaluate and negotiate our human life-world. It reflects our fallibility and the inability to perfect human interaction or relations. This is why existentialists such as Dostoevsky can admit through his Underground Man that although life “is often worthless, yet it is still life and not simply extracting square roots” (203). The above statement captures the existentialist orientation to life such that there is no a priori justification for the meaning of life, but at the same time a totalizing frame of relativity is avoided because life itself, pregnant with meaning from our symbolic activity, is lived with others in an interaction of meaning in existence. While on the one hand Dostoevsky could be interpreted as being pessimistic here, a Burkean frame allows us to consider Dostoevsky’s Underground Man as presenting life as dramatistic in scope. A human being, writes Dostoevsky, “is a frivolous and incongruous creature, and perhaps, like a chess player, loves the process of the game, not the end of it” (208). Yet many people, as it was hypothesized when considering the Burkean parlor, reject a dramatistic or existentialist view of life. It is why Vladimir and Estragon want to enfold themselves in God(ot) or flee being through suicide. Science and religion are not to be eliminated, but their goal to discover a complete account of all human actions and motivations can be seen as misguided. Existentialism proposes that we negotiate the hand we are dealt, moving our chips forward without certainty as to whether we will win the hand. As Dostoevsky writes in the conclusion to Notes from the Underground, “It’s a burden to us even to be human beings—men with our own real body and blood; we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and try to contrive to be some sort of impossible generalized man” (297). This sentiment reflects Beauvoir’s claim that “[u]niversal, absolute man exists nowhere” (The Ethics of Ambiguity 112). We are ashamed of ourselves as symbol-users, that is, and thus we drive toward a state of perfection or entelechy instead of accepting the ambiguities which being the symbol-using animal presupposes. Existentialist literature attempts to move us toward accepting the insecurity of our contingent situations without bad faith, which would be the self’s acquiescence to the temptations of pure identification.


Existentialist literature can be actively categorized as representative anecdotes that exhibit an orientation to the world which highlights the contingency and non-reason, beyond-reason and the irrationality of such a place where we have only recourse to symbolic action. It directs us toward the maze of meanings within the human universe which operates in a natural world that it is distinct from but inextricably linked with. The situations which appear in the pages of existentialist literature present uncomfortable aspects about our condition: the inability to secure any prima facie cause or final, teleological goal to life; the difficulties involved in our interactions with others; and the temptation of acquiescing to bad faith or pure identification. All persons, in their particular situations, must negotiate the meanings in life, and this is where existentialist literature directs us. Reading these works, one is disciplined to consider the Burkean parlor to which the chance of circumstance has assigned her. It is the rhetorical ploy and hope of these authors to convince the reader to begin concentrating on the maze within the parlor rather than getting caught up and exasperated with the meanings of it. Don’t fret for God(ot) to allocate a sense of purpose for you, is the coherent message of these works. For, truly, hell is other people, as Sartre’s antagonist concludes in his play, but they are also, as Merleau-Ponty writes of Sartre’s play, “indispensable to our salvation” since “[w]e are so intermingled with them that we must make what order we can out of this chaos” (Sense and Non-Sense 41). We can but communicate in a world fraught with peril, but we can do so patiently and with generosity if we try. Resisting the urge to lock up consciousness in solipsistic bad faith or purely identify the self with a cause or public is the very foundation not just of existentialism as a philosophy, but a thoroughly Burkean perspective grounded in the ontology of symbolic action.

I am hesitant to assert Kenneth Burke was an existentialist since he critiques the philosophical positions of the movement in A Rhetoric of Motives, but our understanding of existentialism should, at the same time, move beyond the identity of the propositions we associate it with. As Beckett and Dostoevsky demonstrate, existentialism is grounded in an orientation or worldview demanding greater focus on the ontological aspects of symbolic action. Burke’s influence in communication and rhetorical studies owes to his own insight that more careful intellectual study regarding the relationship between communication and human interaction is warranted. Existentialism, as both a literary genre and a philosophical position, lacks the Burkean vocabulary to explicitly make clear its interest in communication and rhetorical theory, but the works themselves, as I hope my analysis has made clear, offer a profitable consideration of the tensions inherent to a world where symbolic action governs our ability to interact within it. *Zac Gershberg, PhD is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Rhetoric at Ashland University. This essay was developed from his 2008 dissertation, A Rhetoric of Existentialism, which was advised by Andrew King at LSU. An earlier version of this essay has been accepted for presentation at the 2010 NCA Convention in San Francisco, CA. Persons wishing to contact Dr. Gershberg about this essay will find him at zgersh@hotmail.com.


1. While absurdity and existentialism are related in particular to Camus, it is important to note the context in which he invoked absurdity. By absurd, Camus merely suggests there is no rational explanation for our being or existence, but importantly, beyond that, he writes: “the absurd can be considered only as a point of departure” (Lyrical and Critical Essays 159).

2. For a critique of existentialism from a post-humanist rhetorical perspective, see Gunn’s “Mourning Humanism.”

3. In an explicit connection between Burke and existentialism, Kaelin writes how the failures found in the pages of existentialist literature are because they serve as “novels of reaction of which Burke had spoken: to depict its pathetic shortcomings and abortive justice” (103).

4. Implicit in this pre-postmodern connection is the chronological trajectory of the works of Burke and existentialism. Besides the contributions of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, existentialism plays out in the same time period as Burke’s written career, extending from the 1930s to the 1960s.

5. I owe to Robert Wess, “Pentadic Terms and Master Tropes” (168), the idea that the “Burkean parlor” functions as a representative anecdote, but he sees it as a microcosm of Burke’s methodology writ large whereas I am attempting to adapt it to existentialism.

6. On the stature of Kaufmann’s text, which is still in print, and its contribution to shaping public conceptions of existentialism, see George Cotkin’s Existential America, 134-35.

Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. New York: Grove Press, 1982.

Biesecker, Barbara A. Addressing Postmodernity. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.

Brock, Bernard L. “The Evolution of Kenneth Burke’s Philosophy of Rhetoric: Dialectic between

Epistemology and Ontology.” Extensions of the Burkeian System. Ed. James W. Chesebro. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993. 309-340.

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. 2nd ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1959.

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

- - -. Counter-Statement. 2nd ed. Los Altos, CA: Hermes Publications, 1953.

- - -. Language as Symbolic Action. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

- - -. On Human Nature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

- - -. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill
Company, 1965.

- - -. The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

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

- - -. The Rhetoric of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

- - -. “Rhetoric, Poetics, and Philosophy.” Rhetoric, Philosophy, and Literature: An Exploration.
Ed. Don M. Burks. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1978. 15-34.

Camus, Albert. Lyrical and Critical Essays. Trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy. New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, 1969.

- - -. The Myth of Sisyphus. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage International, 1991.

- - -. The Rebel. Trans. Anthony Bower. New York: Vintage International, 1991.

- - -. Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage International,

- - -. The Stranger. Trans. Matthew Ward. New York: Vintage International, 1989.

Cotkin, George. Existential America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

de Beauvoir, Simon.  The Ethics of Ambiguity. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Citadel
Press, 1976.

de Unamuno, Miguel. Tragic Sense of Life. Trans. J.E. Crawford. New York: Dover Publications,
Inc., 1954.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from the Underground. Trans. Constance Garnett. Garden City, NY:
Anchor Books, 1960.

Gunn, Joshua. “Review Essay: Mourning Humanism, or, The Idiom of Haunting.” Quarterly
Journal of Speech 92 (2006): 77-102.

Jaspers, Karl. Man in the Modern Age. Trans. Eden Paul and Cedar Paul. New York: Doubleday
Anchor Books, 1957.

- - -. Philosophy, Volume 2. Trans E.B. Ashton. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

- - -. Reason and Existenz. Trans. William Earle. U.S.A.: The Noonday Press, 1966.

Kaelin, Eugene F. An Existentialist Aesthetic. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1962.

Kaufmann, Walter. Existentialism from Dostoevsky To Sartre. New York: Meridian Books, 1956.

Kundera, Milan. The Art of the Novel. Trans. Linda Asher. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Sense and Non-Sense. Trans. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen
Dreyfus. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

Percy, Walker. The Message in a Bottle. New York: The Noonday Press, 1995.

- - -. Signposts in a Strange Land. Ed. Patrick Samway. New York: The Noonday Press, 1998.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism and Humanism.” Lecture from 1945. Trans. Philip Mairet. Jean-
Paul Sartre: Basic Writings. Ed. Stephen Priest. New York: Routledge, 2001. 25-46.

- - -. Nausea. Trans. Lloyd Alexander. New York: New Directions Publishers, 1964.

- - -. No Exit. Trans. S. Gilbert. New York: Vintage International, 1989.

- - -. What is Literature? and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Thompson, Timothy, N., and Anthony J. Palmeri. “Attitudes toward Counternature (with Notes on
Nurturing a Poetic Psychosis).” Extensions of the Burkean System. Ed. James W.  Chesebro. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993. 287-308.

Wess, Robert. “Pentadic Terms and Master Tropes: Ontology of the Act and Epistemology of the
Trope in A Grammar of Motives.” Unending Conversations. Eds. Greig Henderson and
David Cratis Williams. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001. 154-175.


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"Existentialist Literature in the Burkean Parlor: Exploring the Contingencies and Tensions of Symbolic Action; by Zac Gershberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

Reading Resistance to Kenneth Burke: “Burke the Usurper” and Other Themes

John M. McKenzie, University of Texas, Austin


Randall Jarrell writes in a letter describing a public lecture given by Kenneth Burke in 1952: “It was so bad it was almost feeble-minded; so extravagantly mechanical and verbose and senseless and full of absolutely irrelevant free association that you felt a band of robbers had made up the speech and were making him deliver it, to his own disgrace, with a machine-gun trained on him.” Following this vein, this essay considers scholarly resistance to the work, theories, and person of Kenneth Burke. Burke has become a central figure in rhetorical scholarship, so much so that some have come to consider his contributions as a dangerous form of undiagnosed “received wisdom” (Jameson 1978). The extent of the contemporary inducement to resist Burke is great enough to warrant discussion of resistance to Burke as an intellectual movement in rhetorical studies, and as such further warrants a discussion of what effects this movement may be having in our field. Finally, the essay considers whether rhetoric has something to gain by making such a divestment from a Burke-centric view of its own foundations, and investigates the disciplinary stakes such a debate lays bare.

“Heresies and orthodoxies will always be changing places, but whatever the minority view happens to be at any given time, one must consider it as ‘counter.’ Hence the title—which will not, we hope, suggest either an eagerness for the fray or a sense of defeat.” – Kenneth Burke, preface to the first edition of Counter-Statement (1931)

KENNETH BURKE IS undisputedly one of the most influential figures in the last century of rhetorical studies. His vast textual corpus has over time established the very bedrock and lexicon upon which much of the discipline has been built. Despite his death and the decades that have passed since his last major publications, Burke remains today a widely well regarded cultural critic and rhetorical theorist. The plainest evidence of Burke’s lasting influence in rhetorical studies is the rate at which he continues to be cited; between the 1970s and 1980s, the number of articles citing Burke nearly quadrupled (from 119 to 400), and this rate has continued to steadily increase since then (Rountree “By the Numbers”). For example, since 2008, far more articles have been published about or using Burke in Rhetoric Society Quarterly than any other rhetorical theorist or figure.1 Burke is also the only rhetorical theorist to have his own journal.2 I mention these data only to highlight Burke’s continued and lasting significance for rhetorical scholarship.

Nevertheless, one consequence of sustained intellectual importance is the inevitability of critique. Burke’s work has always endured critique from a variety of perspectives. A number of rhetorical theorists have questioned the continued relevance of Burke for the new directions rhetoric has taken since the mid-twentieth century, and have begun to question why common critical practice often treats Burkean theory as received wisdom, or what Fredric Jameson referred to in 1978 as “received idea or unexamined presupposition” (“The Symbolic Inference” 508). My goal with this essay is to explore this resistance to Burke in its full spectrum and to bring the major sources of this resistance together in one place. In doing so, I identify three main themes resistance to Burke heralds. The first of these is Burke the usurper. Critiques in this vein highlight ways in which Burke has (allegedly) usurped and transformed the work of other theorists in ways that appropriated, distorted or unnecessarily reduced their claims. A common variant of this argument is that some or many Burkean scholars are guilty of using Burkean theory to commit the same crime. The second theme is Burke the outdated/uncritical. Much of the work revolving around this theme notes the need for rhetorical theory to move past Burke either by rejecting him or revising him in productive ways that take into account various developments in rhetorical theory over the last century. For example, authors exploring this theme tend to note the variety of ways Burke’s theories have (allegedly) ignored important social dynamics such as ideology, gender, ethnicity, or class (to name the most common few). Finally, the third theme hinges on Burke’s relationship to postmodernism: Burke the modernist/postmodernist. While there is considerable controversy over whether Burke should be read as a modernist or a postmodernist, critiques of Burke that enter this debate tend to consider his work to be too modernist (or, perhaps more specifically, not postmodern enough). I’ve chosen these themes because they are represented in a diverse range of work on Burke, and broadly represent commonplaces of discontent. In many cases, these resistant themes overlap, and one often finds writers employing more than one of them in their scholarly criticisms.

I see this article as in some ways an inverse counterpart to Brummett and Young’s 2006 article “Some Uses of Burke in Communication Studies.”3 Whereas the authors in that article describe their work as a study of the uses of Burke by rhetoricians in communication studies, one might characterize this essay as a study of the various disuses of Burke (or at least attempts to disuse, dislodge, distort, or disorient Burke from rhetorical studies). It will, I think, also become apparent how the “disuse” of Burke is itself but another way of using him. Thus far, there has been no extended examination of the body of work that resists Burke in one form or another. The extent of the inducement to “resist Burke” is great enough to warrant discussion of resistance to Burke as an intellectual movement, and as such further warrants a discussion of what effects this movement may be having in our field. Finally, I consider whether rhetoric has something to gain by making such a divestment from a Burke-centric view of its own foundations, and investigate the disciplinary stakes such debates lay bare. In the following section, we start with some reactions to the early Burke, and establish the context in which Burke ultimately found his footing with rhetorical scholars.

A Context for Resisting Burke

Burke was no stranger to harsh criticism in his early career. In the 1930s, a number of unfair and intellectually questionable appraisals of his work were written. Burke faced criticism from the academy for violating or ignoring what were considered standard approaches to understanding form, judgment, and poetry, and in some cases from the political left for his attempts to combine literary criticism with Marxist politics. Allen Tate notes that at the American Writers’ Congress in 1935, Burke was “attacked for describing the class-struggle as a myth competing with other myths for supremacy in the modern world” (63). I have chosen to consider several sources of early criticism of Burke (what we might call pre-canon criticisms) separately from the later criticisms mainly to tell a story of the early Burke’s rise to disciplinary importance, as a crucial historical element of what has led us to the point at which we now find ourselves again considering the need to challenge something of what Burke brought with him to the parlor.

Many of the early criticisms of Burke were ripe with misreadings, ad hominem, and vitriol, but were sometimes tempered by a nod toward theoretical concerns (some valid, some baseless). For example, in an early review of Counter-Statement, Harold Rosenberg writes that “Mr. Burke has accepted a too naïve form of the artist as craftsman and communicator idea; and this is related to the even greater ingenuousness with which he treats certain philosophical problems” (29). After quoting a passage in which Burke suggests that Plato’s divine forms can be translated from the metaphysical to the psychological, Rosenberg continues: “It would be unfair to Mr. Burke to quote this absurd passage were it not at the root of his misconception of the poetic problem” (29). Rosenberg goes on to argue that Burke “impugns” just about everyone with his arguments about the nature of form and its relationship to art, and in so doing reveals not just the narrowness of his own views on but also many of the limitations undergirding academic theories of literature, art, and criticism in the early 20th century generally. Rosenberg’s review ironically ends up giving a great deal of evidence for Burke’s importance in introducing a degree of complication to literary and art criticism in a time dominated by the New Critics.

In 1937, Allen Tate wrote a review of Burke’s paper “Symbolic War” in which he argued that the only way to make sense of Burke is to recognize that he “must obviously be an opportunist” (67). Tate doubts Burke’s sincerity of belief in his own theory of literature: “I cannot imagine why Mr. Burke ridicules his own theory, but I should like to guess why: he does not believe in it, but he cannot allow himself to think up any other because he has previously subscribed to a theory of the relation of the human and the economic environments…” (65).4 In two articles published in 1937 and 1938 (tellingly titled “The Technique of Mystification” and “Is Mr. Burke Serious?”), Sidney Hook couches similar criticisms of Burke’s blending of theory and politics with an onslaught of personal ire: “It is difficult to name the mode in which Burke writes. It is not comic; nor is it humanistic. But whatever its name, it is in the style in which weak men of minor talent make a bid for acceptance to the side they think will win” (Hook 1937, 96). In describing Attitudes Toward History, Hook writes

The greatest difficulty that confronts the reader of Burke is finding out what he means…The result is that there is neither beginning nor end to his argument. Its course meanders into all fields of knowledge where due to Burke’s wide but not very discriminating reading its force is weakened by a lore more quaint than precise… Even for an unsystematic writer, the organization of the book is extremely bad (89-91).

Hook’s criticism ultimately develops into a critique of relativism, which he considers the key to understanding Burke. Hook argues that Burke’s call for “ideological homogeneity, to be corrected by a methodology of latitudinarianism” is a defense of a form of Stalinism in which “[a]ny major policy or action sanctioned by the official interpreters of communist ideological homogeneity must be accepted[, b]ut it need not be defended or justified in the official way” (Hook 1938, 100). After promising to give Burke credit for “not scalping his grandmother” if he asks him for it, but not for his socialist intentions, Hook concludes that “[t]here are some social and political perspectives to-day which a critic cannot take without doing great harm to his craftsmanship. We have a right to expect more from Burke than from people like Granville Hicks whose intellectual reach, by a divine charity, extends no further than their nearsighted piety” (100-101). Hook’s argument about Burke’s ultimate relativism—allegedly demonstrated by his “meandering” into “all fields of knowledge”—is one of the few examples of early critiques that still surfaces in what we might call the post-canon period of Burkeanism in which we find ourselves today.5

Even as Burke’s influence began to grow in literary and sociological circles, this aggressive breed of criticism would not wane so easily. By the 1950s, Burke was a radical insofar as he was not quite an Aristotelian, not quite a New Critic, and not quite a Communist. Burke was neither pure rhetorician nor pure literary theorist. His theoretical writings offered new ways through which to approach language, but weren’t yet the foundational grail of theory and criticism many would consider them to be in years to come. In 1952, after listening to a public lecture given by Burke, poet Randall Jarrell wrote a letter to his fiancée Mary von Schrader. In it, Jarrell wrote the following:

Burke’s speech was just like a parody of everything in “Age of Criticism”; Robert [Fitzgerald] and I looked at each other in mute awe. The audience shifted and yawned and half of them, even, saw how bad it was. It was so bad it was almost feeble-minded; so extravagantly mechanical and verbose and senseless and full of absolutely irrelevant free association that you felt a band of robbers had made up the speech and were making him deliver it, to his own disgrace, with a machine-gun trained on him.

Brummett and Young note that in the early 1950s “[Burke] turned to Communication Studies at about the same time that Communication Studies turned to him.” In the same year as Jarrell wrote his unflattering letter, Burke found himself introduced to Communication Studies as a serious force in contemporary rhetorical theory in Marie Hockmuth Nichols’ article “Kenneth Burke and the ‘New Rhetoric’” in the Quarterly Journal of Speech. In commentary on the article, William Rueckert wrote that “Burke’s two major spheres of influence up to this point had been among the literary critics and sociologists; Marie Hochmuth Nichols’ essay marks the beginning of a long and essentially healthy relationship between Burke and students of modern rhetoric” (286). Only an issue later, Burke published his first article contribution to QJS. It was from this point forward that Burke began gaining the theoretical traction that would eventually make him a major player in Communication Studies.

Many of the early attempts to assimilate Burke into rhetorical studies—like that undertaken in Nichols’ article—relied on strategic misreadings to equivocate Burke’s rhetoric with Aristotle’s. Michael Leff writes of this reading of Burke as “an almost irresistible temptation to chart the new in terms of the old” in a time when rhetoric was dominated by neo-Aristotelianism (115). Leff describes teaching a classical rhetoric seminar on Cicero’s De Oratore which turned at one point into describing parallels between Cicero’s concept of form and Burke’s, but then “[t]here was an uncomfortable pause and then the boldest of my students blurted out: ‘But Burke is an Aristotelian’” (115). Leff’s story illustrates the challenge Burke faced in being read as Burke, rather than as simply another figure within an Aristotelian lineage.

Despite an overall increase in the attention given to Burke in the late fifties and early sixties, the neoclassical paradigm would remain dominant roughly until Edwin Black published Rhetorical Criticism in 1965, in which he identified and questioned many of the assumptions underlying the approach.6 Another critical element of Black’s text is that he did not use it to advance a new singular model of rhetorical theory or criticism but rather encouraged the broader exploration of both.7 In many ways, by opening the door for new modes of rhetorical thought and inquiry to proliferate, Black made it possible for Burke to gain wider acceptance on his own terms.8

After Black, we can identify two simultaneous and contradictory anxieties that emerged, both of which contributed to Burke’s ultimate transformation into the most influential figure in the field. First, Black clearly issued a call for “imaginative criticisms” working outside of the existing neo-Aristotelian system, a call that emphasized the need for the field to grow and develop new approaches which may at some point become their own systems (Black 177). This impulse toward expansion emphasized the potential breadth of both what could be considered a rhetorical object and what could be used as a rhetorical method of criticism, and led to a more inclusive understanding of rhetoric. Black’s concluding remarks were a clarion call which found their underlying theme repeated in several influential essays by Douglas Ehninger and Robert Scott, among others.9

On the other hand, by identifying the shortcomings of the neo-Aristotelian approach to rhetoric Black left in his wake a glaring and urgent absence. As Thomas Benson wrote in a 2001 tribute to Black, “In naming neo-Aristotelian criticism, Black forever changed the grounds on which rhetorical criticism would be conducted… We woke up one morning in 1965 in a new discipline. One could disagree with Black, but one could not get back to the old context” (Benson 536-537). By undoing Aristotle, some felt the discipline had lost not only its system but also its most heralded figure. Thus, the second anxiety to emerge from Black’s Rhetorical Criticism was the need to find a system—or at least a figure—that could replace the newly defunct neo-Aristotelian model.

Without a doubt, Burke benefited from both of these conflicting anxieties. What Rosenberg, Tate, and Hook had called a lack of organization and intellectual meandering was re-interpreted as inclusiveness and breadth of focus, illustrative of Burke’s capacity for encompassing the variety of rhetorical experiences Black made clear we needed to consider. In the same moment, Burke was a singular figure who could be identified as rhetoric’s new giant and who offered a developed system called “dramatism.” I am undoubtedly glossing over the complexities of the moment here, but there was certainly a sense that Burke could substitute for Aristotle as a father figure for the field, and that having such a recognizable giant added institutional legitimacy (and recognition) to the discipline much as Freud once did for psychology, Saussure did for linguistics, and Mills did for sociology.

Of course, this is hardly the end of the story for Burke—indeed it is perhaps better understood only as an end to the prologue. It is to Burke’s credit as a writer that one can read the grooves and striations through which Burkean discourse has traversed so clearly through his famous parlor metaphor.10 Burke’s metaphor is especially poignant when considering its implications for the future of rhetoric. If Burke has undergone the initial trials, the initial bouts of debate, and entered into an era of chief discussant, at what point will the hour grow late? Burke needn’t be present for discussions about his contributions to go on, yet eventually new interlocutors will enter (indeed they have already) and the atmosphere of the parlor changes. With the explosion of new methods, orientations, and philosophies of rhetoric since Burke first became part of the rhetorical canon, it is neither unusual nor unexpected that many have found new reasons to react against something of Burke. Indeed many who recognize Burke’s importance to our discipline nevertheless feel that he was but a man of his own era (as we are all limited by our fleeting appearance in the relentless march of time) and therefore offers a system inadequate to the challenges rhetorical theory and criticism face today. The remainder of this essay will explore these newer sites of resistance to Burke.

Because this essay is ultimately about resistance, I feel my use of the term requires some explanation. Resistance includes a wide range of behaviors, thoughts, and impulses that need not always be intentional. In other words, I mean to include the implicit resistances of misreading (whether deliberate or not, or productive or not), transforming, revising, and stretching in my definition along with more explicit elements like the expressed hostility and disdain of many of the early critics we have already examined. Acts like “extending” on Burke’s theories or transforming one of his tools to better fit a new object do not operate only by implying a utility in Burke’s work but also by expressing some fundamental lack, partialness, or inadequacy which the critic is to address. Such extensions of Burke function dialectically by, on the one hand, preserving something of Burke, but on the other by pointing out an obsolescence within his work. Thus, while I have often heard it remarked that critique is the sincerest form of flattery, I do not believe we should conclude that scholarly engagement is always about locating pockets of consubstantiality with the work of the one who has been engaged. Just as often, engagement implies a relationship of resistance. Burke’s own view of identification as compensatory to division supports such an understanding (Rhetoric of Motives 22).

Now, in the following sections we will explore some of the themes surrounding more contemporary resistance to Burke and Burkean scholarship.

Burke the Usurper and the Usurped

One of the most common objections from those with an unsympathetic view of Burke’s project (or, of those who adopt Burkean concepts for their own uses) is that he interprets and reduces the theoretical foundations provided by other thinkers. For example, in Brian Vickers’s 1988 In Defense of Rhetoric Burke is described as a usurper of Giambattista Vico:

Vico seems to be the source—typically, unacknowledged—behind Kenneth Burke’s adding to one of his books an appendix discussing ‘Four Master Tropes’, namely the same four, metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. Burke also subordinates them to his own concerns, free-wheeling, allusive, unhistorical philosophizing, a system that rearranges the components of classical rhetoric so idiosyncratically as to be virtually unusable (440-441).
Thus, in Vickers view, not only is Burke derivative of Vico, but he usurps him by not acknowledging his influence on his work, and in reducing Vico for his own “concerns” makes his work idiosyncratic and virtually unusable. Vickers’ short paragraph succinctly identifies the kernel behind all of the ‘usurper’ criticisms of Burke—not only that he uses the work of others, but that he does so with inadequate acknowledgement of the source and in a manner that dilutes the original material.

Barbara Biesecker confronts Burke with less direct hostility than Vickers, but with a similar critical touch in her discussion of A Grammar of Motives and Burke’s pentad in her own book Addressing Postmodernity:

At this juncture Burke stops theorizing and begins reading philosophy. For nearly two hundred pages he assumes the perspective of the disinterested morphologist, deciphering “the various schools as languages,” using the pentad “as a generating principle that should enable us to ‘anticipate’ these different idioms” ([A Grammar of Motives] 127). In this way Burke reads Hobbes, Spinoza, and Darwin; Berkeley, Hume, and Leibniz; Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Santayana; Aristotle and Aquinas, appropriately situating each philosopher’s discourse on his terminological grid. However, it is in the process of reading Marx that Burke unwittingly exceeds the protocols of his own method and in so doing brings his morphology and, by implication, his theorization of the human being to crisis (34).
Biesecker’s critique mirrors a commonly held anxiety about what Arthur DuBois referred to as Burke’s “intellectual larking” and “rococo manner” of analysis (DuBois 83, 89).11 The argument is that Burke tries to “reconcile too much” in his fleeting accounts of what a number of giants of literary theory, philosophy, sociology, and psychology have said before (DuBois 86). While such reconciliations are sometimes plausible, at other times Burke simply overreaches. One cannot, for example, give a reasonably developed account of the trajectory of philosophy by covering Berkeley in four and a half pages, Hume in three, Leibniz in one, Kant in a handful, and Marx in a handful more as Burke does in the middle of Grammar of Motives. To do so excludes too much, and virtually concedes to the conclusion that his perspective on these thinkers is reductive, at least insofar as it is expressed within those pages. What Biesecker chose to explore are those places where she feels he has taken one step more than may be justified.

Biesecker gives comment on her own critical approach to Burke, framing the perspective from which her analysis comes. Biesecker leaps out of her critique for a moment to describe, almost as an authorial aside to the reader, why she makes the arguments she does:

About the task of this book and the use of a deconstructive strategy of reading in order to accomplish it, two more points must be stated. First, a deconstructive critique does entail a critical gesture… [T]here can be no doubt that the project does challenge the authority of the text; that the critic does confront the text with an eye out for its limits. In terms of my reading of Burke, then, all of this means I will move into his writing with the attitude that “this is not it, that is not all.” I suspect that such an approach to Burke will not sit well with a great many scholars who will diagnose my approach as a sign of clandestine disrespect for the father of modern rhetoric or perhaps even as a symptom of failure on my part to appreciate the delicate workings of a mind whose capacities far outstrip my own. In anticipation of such charges I simply say that I only demand of Burke what he always demanded of others: that we engage in persistent critique, that we refuse to forget that it is always “most complicated than that” (18-19).

What Biesecker reveals with this passage is that her act of deconstruction operates dialectically. On the one hand, she describes her critical act as displaying a rigor which Burke’s work demands—a description which clearly grants due respect to Burke’s corpus—but on the other she acknowledges that her effort ultimate challenges “the authority of the text” itself, suggesting that, like with all scholarship, Burke’s work will be found wanting. Biesecker, then, is describing a willingness to resist Burke on his own terms, to identify the places he “exceeds the protocols of his own method.” Biesecker’s list of philosophers Burke works through is given to us flippantly, in a way that suggests Burke’s approach to each of them was equally flippant or superficial. Burke, in Biesecker’s view, is interested not in understanding these thinkers, but in situating them within his own grammar.

The common theme of Burke as usurper pervades a number of other texts, most frequently citing appropriations of Marx and Freud. Robert Wess takes a more optimistic view than Biesecker of Burke on Marx, writing that “He took Marx seriously without taking him as gospel” (59). Wess cites a revealing letter written by Burke to Malcolm Cowley on his own “literary” communism: “I can only welcome Communism by converting it into my own language… My book will have the communist objectives, and the communist tenor, but the approach will be the approach that seems significant to me” (qtd. in Wess 60). Combining Wess’s and Biesecker’s perspectives one might formulate the argument that Burke appropriates thinkers into his mode of thought without the intention of necessarily preserving their philosophical discourses in precisely the ways the original thinkers might have intended for them to be read.

Diane Davis’ “Identification: Burke and Freud on Who You Are” is one of the most recent and compelling examples of the “usurper” critique of Burke. Davis’ article is largely about the ways in which Burke’s theory of identification is an oversimplification of Freud’s own theories of identity and identification. Davis writes:

I’m not the first to observe that Burke spent much of his career, in fact, tweaking, applying, and extending Freud’s ideas. Ellen Quandahl, David Blakesley, and others have demonstrated that Burke, in Freud’s footsteps, set out to expose human motivations by analyzing language, and that he lifted several of his own key terms, such as “identification” and “motive,” from The Interpretation of Dreams (124).
Davis then remarks in her first footnote (thus setting the tone for the critique that follows):
There was no clean break, no moment at which Burke suddenly turned against Freud. What I hope to demonstrate here, rather, is that according to the subtle registers of the Freudian ambivalence machine, Burke’s love harbored within it a desire to take out his teacher, to take his place, to re place him and his theory of identity (124).

Davis’ critique goes beyond just pigeonholing Burke as a warmed-over Freud. Her essay takes on “[w]hat gets deep-sixed in Burke’s articulated revision,” which Davis summarizes as “a more radically generalized rhetoricity, an a priori affectability or persuadability that precedes and exceeds symbolic intervention” (125). One can catch snippets of the resistant overtones just by grabbing a few key rhetorical constructions throughout the article: “[Burke’s] anxiety of influence did take a parricidal turn” (124); “digging up something of what Burke buried” (125); “[Burke] repeats it over and over like a refrain, as if it were deflecting a traumatic insight” (130-131); “Freud also had the guts” (in context, this line seems to imply that Burke did not) (133); “we witness Burke bring up but then very quickly drop the ‘rhetoric of hysteria’” (140); “Burke’s truncated rearticulation of Freud’s theory” (144); “what Burke censored in Freud” (144). Davis includes Burke scholars in her criticism, too: “Burke scholars rarely challenge his claim that the ‘centrality’ of the nervous system is intrensically [sic] divisive” (128). Ultimately, Davis persuasively proves her point about the shortcomings of Burke’s understanding of Freud, but includes a healthy dose of academic ire along with it.

One could point to Burke’s breadth of philosophical influences as well as his wide influences on others, both of which are often ambiguously readable, as a major reason Burkean theory has gained such high standing in many circles of rhetorical scholarship, his lexicon perhaps having reached the status of “received wisdom” for some. Burke’s growing dominance in the field enabled a new comparison between Burke and Aristotle: like Aristotle in the first half of the 20th century, so was Burke by its end. Such an obvious comparison between the treatment of the two in rhetorical scholarship in part led Bernard Brock to write the following in his opening to a special forum of Quarterly Journal of Speech:

A brief examination of current communication journals will reveal that today Burke has become the most popular rhetorical theorist in the field, but with this popularity comes a problem. Kenneth Burke is in danger of becoming the modern-day Aristotle. Most communication scholars have now read some of Burke’s work and are aware of the flexibility of his rhetorical theory. Burke himself even argues that he has a general theory. So the danger is that scholars will use Burke’s concepts for anything they want to study. Some people act as if there is no research question that his method cannot answer, no data to which it cannot be applied. This is essentially what happened to Aristotle’s rhetoric... However, a theory that is required to do everything does very little in practice because it becomes too general. It does not make the fine distinctions necessary for sophisticated analysis. It ultimately is reduced to conventional wisdom (347).

We can read Brock’s statements in two different but compensatory ways. The first interpretation of Brock’s introduction is that there is simply too much Burke floating around. By inundating the field with Burkeanism, we limit the scope of what we can do with criticism by pretending we can do it all with a single approach. The second interpretation, to which I think we should lend significant weight considering Brock’s own forays into Burkean theory and criticism, is that by doing too much with Burke we hurt Burkeanism by diluting it. By pretending Burke’s methods are universally applicable, one may inadvertently forgo the opportunity to make a case for their unique applicability to anything in particular. Consider the relative disappearance of neo-Aristotelian criticism today (at least compared to its status a few short decades ago), and one can imagine Burke’s methods becoming similarly historicized rather than used. This anxiety may be the more important component of Brock’s critique.

Reticence toward dominant theories and narratives is a more-or-less consistent theme in the study of rhetoric. If the discipline has come to the point where one could neutrally label Burkean theory as a dominant force without causing considerable controversy over the claim, then it should not be surprising that some might suggest that a reconsideration of the state of the parlor is in order. This leads us to the second major theme in reading resistance to Kenneth Burke: the need to move on.

Burke the Outdated and/or Uncritical: Arguments for Rhetoric Contra-Burke and Post-Burke

In 1978 Fredric Jameson published "The Symbolic Inference; Or, Kenneth Burke and Ideological Analysis," which was in many ways the first considerable scholarly broadside upon Burke that wasn’t marred by the kinds of anti-Burke ad hominem employed by Jarrell and the other early critics. Nor was it marred by the fundamental reductions of Burkeanism to Aristotelianism or other wide-ranging movements in attempts to “read the new in the terms of the old.” Jameson’s critique was levied equally at Burke and critical scholars of Burke, whom he argued found in Burke “wider latitude for the exercise of personal themes and the free play of private idiosyncrasies” (508). His critique, then, is in part against the genealogical study of Burke described by Brummett and Young. Jameson writes:

[W]e thereby instinctively designate bodies of criticism in which the practice of peculiar and sometimes eccentric textual interpretations is at one with the projection of a powerful, nonsystematized theoretical resonance, and this even where the critic himself… misguidedly but compulsively submits his materials to a rage for patterns and symmetries and the mirage of the meta-system (508).

In other words, Jameson read Burke’s latitude as wide enough to vaguely encompass nearly any of “the older philosophical systems,” which in turn led to free association and play on the part of the critic rather than serious theory. Jameson questions Burke’s corpus, “to which lip service is customarily extended in passing,” for not being uncompromising enough in his apologia for the “active power and social function of the aesthetic,” arguing that we need instead a theory strong enough to approach the criticism of the ideology of form (508, 510). These concerns come in part as a precursor to Jameson’s own book The Political Unconscious: Studies in the Ideology of Form which was to be printed a few short years after the essay in Critical Inquiry. Jameson was concerned with placing ideological criticism at the forefront of the study of symbolic forms, and ultimately tells us of the lesson he wants his reader “to learn and then to unlearn from Burke”: first the notion of strategy and second the theory of dramatism (“The Symbolic Inference” 513-514). Jameson writes that thinking of the strategies of linguistic discourse in the terms Burke does formalizes critical discourse and leads one to sense its inner ambiguity, “to suspect it of harboring some secret strategy in its own right” (514). Thus a discourse of strategy ends up dividing the act from the interrogation of the social and ideological purposes that first constitute it as an act.

Burke responded to Jameson’s attacks three issues later in the article “Methodological Repression and/or Strategies of Containment.” One could read his response either as a comprehensive and devastating rebuttal to Jameson’s criticisms, nearly line by line pointing out the shortcomings of Jameson’s reading of the Burkean corpus, or alternately as a polemic response which largely misread the point. Burke borrows Jameson’s language and flips it back onto him, arguing that Jameson employs a “strategy of containment” in citing only particular passages of Burke’s books that fit his agenda, ultimately aiming for a critical “methodological repression” (“Methodological Repression” 401-404). He accuses Jameson of having not read several of Burke’s books (including ones Jameson cites in his own essay), pointing to places where he discusses “ideology,” “the unconscious,” “mystification,” “perspective by incongruity,” and a number of other ideas that directly rebut Jameson’s concerns. Yet I’m unconvinced Burke adequately refutes Jameson’s larger meaning. Jameson seems concerned in part, of course, by Burke’s incomplete treatment of ideology (to which Burke thoroughly responds), but also and especially to the ways in which the effects of Burke’s discussions of strategic and ideological symbolic meaning in themselves reify capitalist ideology. Jameson argues in particular that what were at Burke’s time avid ideological criticisms of the New Deal, Deweyan liberal democracy and “the competitive use of the cooperative” in The Grammar of Motives and The Rhetoric of Motives should be reconsidered under the present conditions of capitalism to recognize how they yield different legimating effects on the ideology of capital than they did before (Jameson, “The Symbolic Inference” 520). Jameson writes:

The very forms of legitimation have been dialectically transformed, and consumer capitalism no longer has to depend on conceptual systems and abstract values and beliefs to the same degree as its predecessors in the social forms of the immediate past; thus what tends to strike us today about the Grammar and Rhetoric of Motives is less their critical force than Burke’s implicit faith in the harmonizing claims of liberal democracy and in the capacity of the system to reform itself from within (“The Symbolic Inference” 520).

Through this statement we can understand what Jameson means when he argues Burke is uncompromising, but not uncompromising enough. Jameson gives us an angle by which to understand what would prompt Brock to write of Burke as the new Aristotle – Burke was being appropriated to become a tool for a continued political and intellectual hegemony. Thus, while Jameson was certainly critical of Burke, much of his discontent seems also characterizable as an ire toward the power of capitalism to recover and incorporate critical methods as evidence of its own superiority as a system. That Burke’s own heated response speaks past these issues is due to the nature of the ideological just as much as to Jameson’s potentially incomplete knowledge of Burke’s work.

The ways in which the Jameson-contra-Burke debate is written about now speaks much to the importance of understanding ideologies of theory. In David Smit’s “Burke Contra Jameson on Ideological Criticism,” the author writes of the conflict as if it were somehow a “pure” contest of cultural theory and criticism, two equal minds facing off together in “the paradox of cultural critique put in its strongest terms” (81). Such a characterization of the debate, while likely not intended to do so, resituates the theoretical struggle in safe terms that offhandedly dismiss any challenge to Burkean theoretical dominance posed by Jameson. Other notable texts that include consideration of the Jameson debate include Stephen Bygrave’s Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric and Ideology, Robert Wess’s Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, Subjectivity, Postmodernism, and Bryan Crable’s article “Ideology as ‘Metabiology’: Rereading Burke’s Permanence and Change,” all of which do considerable and valuable work in addressing the role of ideology and ideological criticism within a Burkean framework. Nevertheless, all three work primarily to answer the question of how Burke treats ideology, rather than Jameson’s second question of how Burke reinscribes (or is used to reinscribe) dominant ideologies. While Burke himself would understandably reject any characterization of his work as a tool of ideological hegemony, Jameson compellingly illustrates ways in which it may be read primarily through “our old friend ‘false consciousness’” (“Ideology and Symbolic Action” 417-418).

If Jameson is characterizable as “contra-Burke,” Celeste Condit and James Chesebro are decidedly “post-Burke” in the sense that they seek major revisions (or “extensions” as Chesebro frames it) to Burkean criticism that would “extend its usefulness” (Chesebro, “Extensions” 356). The extent to which their offerings can be considered resistant to Burke are not immediately obvious from the summary the authors give of their motivations, but comes out more clearly in the texts of each of their articles. In general the arguments circulated in this forum primarily had to do with treatments of Burke and his allegedly simplified visions of culture, though such a portrayal rings especially true for Condit’s arguments more than for Chesebro’s.12

The post-Burke debate emerged out of a special forum series in Quarterly Journal of Speech, spanning issues from 1992 to 1994. The decided goal of the forum was, as Bernard Brock writes in introduction, to answer the question, “Are there limits to the Burkeian system?” (Brock 347). Condit and Chesebro both answer in the affirmative, while Phillip Tompkins and George Cheney later reply in defense of Burke to rebut and deny the allegations. Condit identifies three loci around which she argues a post-Burke framework must re-align: sex and gender, culture, and class. She writes that “In Burke’s writing there is basically one gender – man” (“Post-Burke” 350). Condit indicts Burke’s definition of man not just for semantically leaving women out of the equation (or more specifically for allowing for women’s “inclusion under the sign of ‘man.’”), but for failing to recognize how privileging the “spirit of hierarchy” and negativity do not allow for understanding across the wide ranges of non-essentialist gender deconstructions, and cannot merely be understood by association with masculinity and antagonism (350-352).12 She offers a post-Burkean definition of people as:

Players with symbols
Inventors of the negative and the possibility of morality
Grown from their natural condition by tools of their collective making
Trapped between hierarchy and equality (moved constantly to reorder)
Neither rotten nor perfect, but now and again lunging down both paths (352).
This adaptation of Burkean themes clearly indicates the extent to which re-evaluation and “extension” of Burke is plausible in Condit’s frame.

Condit further indicts Burke for a failure to engage critically with multi-cultural texts, using as example his discussion of victimage in Language as Symbolic Action and Permanence and Change. She argues that he reads “almost exclusively what he openly describes as the texts of ‘Western’ civilization” (352). So too does he assume, “without any questioning of that assumption, that Christianity is a representative anecdote for all religion” (352). Thus rather than reaching a universal description of how humans are symbol using animals, Condit argues we receive only a vision of how Westerners use symbols. Condit argues that by Burke’s failure to use “multi-cultural materials,” he “leaves us with insufficient evidence to claim that [victimage] is the dominant motive of all cultures,” which “threatens to blind us to… the multiplicity of different motive structures available in language” (352). A post-Burkean model, then, would engage non-Western rhetorics in ways that would not diminish their forms so as to situate them within ill-fitting Westernized equivalents.

Condit’s third contention on class is much more a critique of Burkean critics rather than Burke himself. She argues that it has become typical practice for Burkean critics to engage in the tragic perspective, while Burke himself advocated the comic approach. The result is that, when dealing with class issues, Burkean critics end up merely participating “in the oppositional processes that lead to a dialectic in which we indict the powers that are ‘in,’ urging that the ‘ins’ become the ‘outs’ and the ‘outs’ become the ‘ins.’ In the end, we still have ‘ins’ and ‘outs.’ We still have tragedy and victims. We still have the excesses of capitalism” (353). Condit’s discussion of class is her most developed argument of the three, and also the most directly Burkean. She argues that the rhetoric of tragedy that pervades rhetorical criticism only sets in motion the cogs of capitalism, and leads to the scenario in which “the capitalists win and the critics become the tragic victims” (354). Thus, Condit contends that only by adopting irony and a “tragicomic attitude” can the critic (a) be more faithful to the spirit of Burke, but more importantly (b) resist capitalism without falling prey to immediate reinscription.

Chesebro’s “Extensions of the Burkeian System” focuses on four biases of the Burkean literature in need of reevaluation for Burke’s methods to extend their usefulness “in the years to come.” Chesebro labels these the monocentric bias, logocentric bias, ethnocentric bias, and methodological bias. He finds suspect in particular that “Burke has made claims for the universality of his system, and many of these claims have direct implications for how human communication is understood” (356). Chesebro argues that Burke’s project of finding a single, coherent center by which to understand human communication is a kind of monism, which is “a form of reductionism which de-emphasizes diversity” to promote a uniform perspective via overgeneralization (357-358). In other words, the idea of identifying a universal framework for formal analysis is always reductive if used without identifying alternate contexts and frames. While Chesebro himself doesn’t make this step explicitly, I think it’s safe to infer that his point isn’t to fully discredit the study of form, but rather to suggest that using the analysis of form broadly and uniformly is itself only a first step of study, and that good rhetorical criticism must be willing to step beyond the general into the specific. It is not enough to locate vague patterns; one must recognize also the points of formal difference arising out of contextual specificity. Such a move represents a shift, as Burke might frame it, from the grammatical to the rhetorical criticism of motives.

Chesebro also describes Burke as overly interested in “the science of words” (logology), by which he means an interest into fitting words into schemas of symbols (358). Burke displays a bias for logological or scientific approaches to word use in that his methodologies frequently depend on categorization, structuration, definition, and a host of actions meant to shelter the forms of language use into an analytic in the same way scientists attempt to quarantine extraneous variables in an experiment. Though Burke’s analytic is hardly rigid (else it would be ridiculous to simultaneously discuss the sheer breadth of study Burke’s methods have been used for), even its fluidity is measured by a “fluid dynamics” so to speak when Burke introduces, for instance, a discussion of how the pentadic elements function in “ratios” with one another. Burke’s scientism, thus, implies a favoring of scientistic or logocentric modes of analysis: the need to identify “‘key terms’ initially to be isolated, the ‘bridging terms’ creating interrelationships among the key terms to be identified, and the points of departures, transitions, and terminations of the relationships between key and bridging terms be noted” implies a specific philosophy of language which is not on its face a neutral starting point from which to build all other methods (Chesebro “Extensions” 358-359). A bias toward logocentrism, Chesebro argues, isolates language from its societal contexts and masks its sometimes privileged origins (360-361). In other words, from Chesebro’s perspective a scientistic bias both decontextualizes rhetoric and masks one’s ability to recognize ideological discourses.

Chesebro’s description of the Burkean “ethnocentric bias” reads the most similar to Condit’s arguments. He argues that the “older, white, Anglo, heterosexual, Western, male” perspective Burke employs is restrictive and potentially destructive, and gives  his definition of ethnocentrism as “a habitual disposition to judge foreign peoples or groups by the standards and practices of one’s own culture or ethnic group” (361). He notes as did Condit, however, the profound societal changes with which Burke as critic had to deal, and notes that “Burke’s longevity has functioned as a double-edged sword, allowing him to promote his system for a protracted period of time but also dating specific reference points which rationalized the system” (361-362). In other words, Chesebro sees many of Burke’s limitations as a function of the social and scholarly environment from which he emerged.

Chesebro’s contention of a methodological bias in Burke reads similar to the critiques leveled in his description of the logocentric bias, but deals more explicitly with the troubled notion of “frameworks” in general. Methodology in general (i.e., not just in Burke’s approaches) lends itself to ‘toolbox-ism,’ or the treatment of “any scheme of concepts” as a means through which to create “pre-fabricated ‘cookie cutter’” criticism that fails to be particularly insightful in any way. Chesebro doesn’t just indict Burke’s followers for this ill-advised activity, but cites Burke’s own use of the pentad to reduce radically different philosophical schools of thought (Hobbes, Spinoza, Darwin, and Stoicism) to having “substantial relationships” with one another by virtue of, for instance, a shared emphasis on the pentadic “scene” (363). Chesebro agrees that there may be ways in which the treatment of scene by these thinkers may be formally alike, but the analogs between them should require “more than the forty pages Burke spends” (363).

Chesebro’s account of the biases culminates in the argument that Burkean scholars should not be religious in their devotion to Burke’s methods, and must be willing to recognize the limits of the Burkean system and use the knowledge of those limits to choose between “rejection, selective use, or modification” as strategies for maintaining the continued relevance of Burkean criticism (364-365). A subtext of Chesebro’s argument is that those who use Burkean methods for everything do not see the same Burke as he and others of the early adopter generation of Burkeans did. He argues especially persuasively that “The outcome turns, I think, on how Burkeian scholars employ Burke’s works in the years to come” (356). This impulse is especially relevant for the consideration of how Burke engages and has been engaged with the discourses of postmodernism. Responses to Burke from the “postmodern camp” have been especially varied and interesting, and considering some of the trends rhetorical theory has taken recently may best represent where we must look to determine precisely what the years to come for Burkean scholarship will look like.

Burke the Modernist/Postmodernist

Postmodern responses to Burke tend generally to fall into one of two categories: either they rejoice in Burke’s apparent postmodern tilt or they reject Burke for being a modernist and a foundationalist. Generally, those who have resisted Burke in print since the first Jameson debate emphasize his failure to include the breadth of critical theories and approaches emerging out of the ideological and deconstructive turns. Theoretical resistance to Burke tends to come largely out of a fidelity to (piety, perhaps, if we wish to use a Burkean term) or sympathy with the project of postmodernism.

Nevertheless, there are a number of scholars who discover an implicit postmodernism within Burke. For one exceptional account of the relationship between Burke and postmodernism, see Robert Wess’s Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, Subjectivity, Postmodernism. Wess closely analyzes the Burkean corpus and puts it in conversation with postmodern thought, ultimately concluding that, while there are many different Burkes to be found in his work, Burke is undoubtedly postmodern in his arguments for the rhetorical constitution of subjectivity. Other notable postmodern takes on Burke include Cary Nelson’s “Writing as the Accomplice of Language: Kenneth Burke and Poststructuralism,” which asserts that the image of Burke as “guide to the efficacies of communication” is false and sees Burke as thoroughly poststructuralist, and Frank Lentricchia’s “Reading History with Kenneth Burke,” which argues that Burke anticipates deconstruction and locates it in a dialectic with structuralism (Nelson 158; Lentricchia 232-235). Another notable essay is David Cratis Williams’s “Under the Sign of (An)Nihilation: Burke in the Age of Nuclear Destruction and Critical Deconstruction,” which asserts that there are notable “margins of overlap” between Burke and Derrida, and that critics should convert the points of “oppositional thought” to difference rather than wage an all out war on Burke (197).

There is a sense in which postmodern, poststructuralist, and/or deconstructive interpretations of Burke’s theories and criticism are forms of resistance themselves. While there is considerable room to debate the issue, and while I frequently discover some postmodern theme beneath the surface of something Burke has written (for example, in his treatments of identity and identification, in his arguments for the primacy of language in the construction of social life, in much of what he wrote in The Rhetoric of Religion), I do not believe one should conclude that Burke was himself a postmodernist unless one does so in order to distort what Burke actually wrote. For one, to call Burke postmodern is to ignore his own affinity for dialectics and historical materialism. Permanence and Change and Attitudes Toward History are both distinctly about exploring Marxist themes within the rhetorical framework that made sense to Burke.14 Second, the organizational logic of much of Burke’s work clearly indicates a modern and pragmatic attitude toward rhetoric and argumentation. One would not, for example, ever find a Lexicon Rhetoricæ such as Burke’s in Counter-Statement in a postmodern work (CS 123-183). Burke’s lexicon is Burke at his most Aristotelian, and that is something to find value in without misreading it as postmodern. One of Burke’s interests, made particularly obvious in Counter-Statement and A Grammar of Motives, is in categorizing the variety of ways rhetoric can work on a person or through a person. Burke achieves this categorical clarity through the development of vocabularies for the critic such as those established in the lexicon, the five terms of the pentad, and his frequent use of descriptive binaries (tragic and comic frames; permanence and change; container and thing contained; etc). Such an interest in categories reflects a modern sensibility, not a postmodern one.

Finally, some of Burke’s own public remarks give strength to the non-postmodern interpretation of his work. At a meeting in New Harmony, Indiana, when asked for his thoughts on postmodernism, Burke referred to “Dumb Ass Derrida” and made comments about “Wonder Boy Frenchie” (the wonder boy in question was Michel Foucault) (King “Interview with David Williams”). While we should avoid going so far as to make the intentional fallacy—that the author’s interpretations of his work are the most important—his colorful descriptions do suggest that Burkeans ought to be cautious in how far they are willing to go to find a fit between Burke and postmodernism.15

Ross Wolin speaks to the implicit resistance to Burke one finds in much contemporary Burkean criticism in the introduction to his book The Rhetorical Imagination of Kenneth Burke:
Unfortunately, throughout his career—and even today—Burke has been largely misunderstood by even his most ardent admirers… Burke is misunderstood in large part because of two coextensive desires: (1) to explore the great complexity involved in understanding the roles of language and agreement in human relations, and (2) to try to make his case in a new way, in the hope that his ideas would have more impact. (Burke has said that “everything” he wanted to say found its roots in his first book of criticism, Counter-Statement.) Put otherwise, Burke is misunderstood because the very themes he hoped to reinforce and make more persuasive are actually obscured by his series of rearticulations and extensions in new intellectual idioms… Influenced heavily by the intellectual currents of the 1950s and 1960s, scholars have sought within Burke theoretical and philosophical systematicity that is not there. Worse yet, because of the profoundly fertile observations Burke makes about the nature and characteristics of language in general, many readers have largely ignored the social and political arguments that infuse his work (Wolin xi-xii).

This argument from Wolin is a biting critique of those who would interpret Burke through the postmodern “idiom” for essentially distorting the meaning of Burke’s work. Ultimately, with the postmodern interpretation of Burke we unearth the same problem Leff’s students had when they described Burke as an Aristotelian: charting the new in terms of the old. At the same time, we also discover the opposite problem: charting the old in terms of the new. Postmodern interpretations of Burke not only misread postmodernism through the lens of Burke (the new by way of the old), but also Burke through the lens of the postmodern (the old by way of the new).

Chesebro’s 1995 essay “Kenneth Burke and Jacques Derrida” seeks to take focus away from potential similarities between the two thinkers and emphasize the considerable differences between their philosophies of symbol use (166-167). Chesebro’s implicit goal is to anticipate and reject analyses that would seek to align Burkeanism and deconstruction, and follows up on his description of Burke’s logocentric bias laid out in his 1992 article. Though Chesebro makes no explicit polemic here, the implication is clear: the genealogical linking of Burke with Derridean deconstructive modes of thought generally relies upon the selective reading of both. Whereas Biesecker (in Addressing Postmodernity) makes the genealogical link as a strategic move toward getting Burkeans to think about postmodernity, Chesebro denies the genealogical link as a strategic move to prevent Burkeans from co-opting deconstruction within a reductive terministic screen.

Nevertheless, the postmodern turn within rhetoric has opened up new directions both for rhetoric as a discipline and for the study and application of Burkean theory. At this stage, it is important to evaluate our disciplinary allegiance to Burke and weigh the intellectual stakes these debates have laid before us. Thus:

Conclusions, or, Resistance to Burke as an Intellectual Movement

The critical and resistant attitudes toward Burke I’ve described in this essay have overwhelmingly been about his scholarship and theory. However, because Burke was also a poet and novelist we ought to—with tongue firmly planted in cheek—also identify at least one example of disdain for his fiction. As David Beard notes, Yvor Winters was a contemporary of Burke’s “affiliated with the same literary critical movement” (Beard 2007). Winters describes Burke’s novel Toward a Better Life as “befogged by unexplained feeling” resulting in “diffuse lyricism” (In Defense of Reason 64). Winters writes that “One feels a discrepancy between the detail and the form; the detail appears labored, the form careless and confused” (64). Burke’s novel is “aphoristic,” and reflects his apparent desire to be quotable more than to develop a plot (37). Beard’s essay on Winters and Burke reveals the depth of Winters’ ultimate derision for Burke in an analysis of Winters’ collected letters. As Beard writes, “his disdain for Burke becomes a trope for criticizing others” (Beard 2007). Winters’ vilification reached its zenith in a letter he wrote to Burke, which Beard made into the titular quotation of his essay: “You are undoubtedly a man of remarkable mentality, but I feel that you are, at times, misguided; and unless you mend your ways, and that at an early date, I shall, with the greatest of ease and the greatest of friendliness, scour you from the earth” (Winters Letters 66). Unlike Winters, ultimately I don’t see the need to scour Burke from earth or from the realm of rhetoric.

Though I agree with Wolin that Burke is not a postmodernist, one can hardly deny the productivity of this particular misreading. Resisting Burke either by calling for changes (or extensions) to his system, like those typified by Condit and Chesebro’s perspectives, or by reading him through the lens of the new (e.g., postmodernism) is not so very unlike scholarship in general. As scholars, we tend not to read key thinkers in exactly the ways they would want to be read, and in so doing sometimes fundamentally change the meanings those thinkers would want us to take away from their work. But in the end this productive misreading is often just how intellectual change, progress, or development happens. Perhaps it is in this sense that we should understand what Burke was doing in A Grammar of Motives when he marched through the history of philosophy in roughly eighty pages. Thus we come to a point at which it becomes necessary to ask whether the move to resist Burke – to revise, extend, reject, deconstruct, or harangue – could be productive.

Wolin writes, “There is a big difference, I think, between saying ‘Burke makes me think…’ and saying ‘Burke says…’ I hope that greater clarity about what Burke said will improve both the extensions of Burke’s thought and our understanding of Burke himself” (xii). There is no better exemplar of one who writes in awareness of the difference between “Burke makes me think” and “Burke says” than Biesecker in Addressing Postmodernity. In Biesecker’s read of Burke, the potential for postmodernity looms, but only once the “trivium of motives” has been thoroughly deconstructed (Biesecker 74). She refers to the recovery of Burke’s limitations as “the productive possibilities of failure,” and uses his work as a starting point from which to build a postmodern theory of agency and the subject (88). Consider the attitude expressed by Biesecker, Davis and others of Burke and some Burkeans as usurpers, and Brock’s note that Burke is in danger of being inappropriately applied to all systems of thought. The image of the usurper Burke, wildly appropriating philosophy for his own methods and encouraging others to do the same, gives a sense in which the postmodern scholar may justifiably identify Burke as an intellectually dangerous force within rhetorical studies, and may resist Burkean appropriation out of the natural need to open spaces for other theoretical discourses. Biesecker, after noting this danger, in a sense reverses the image of the usurper Burke to instead claim the deconstruction of Burke for the postmodern project. In other words, Burke can be used as a productive starting point even for the resistant scholar.

As a discipline, we must be willing to ask whether there is something to be gained by divesting in a Burke-centric view of our own foundations. There have been a number of compelling defenses of Burke’s ongoing influence in the discipline, such as Bryan Crable’s “Kenneth Burke’s Continued Relevance” and Andy King’s “Disciplining the Master.” Yet if such perspectives are used, as Brock suggests they sometimes are, to support the idea that there is no research question Burke’s method cannot answer, and in turn to establish the habit of reducing other critical viewpoints to a monistic Burkean lens, then such a privileging of Burke is dangerous. If, however, Burke continues to be a useful foil against which and lens through which new explorations of the realm of rhetoric are made possible, then there is no need to deliberately resist—or avoid resisting—Burke more than we have.

*John M. McKenzie is a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas, Austin, Department of Communication Studies. He can be reached at jmckenzie2@gmail.com


1. This is no doubt due not just to the prevalence of Burkean scholarship in the field, but also to editor Carolyn Miller’s own interest in Burke. In any case, as the flagship journal of the Rhetoric Society of America, Burke’s recent disproportionate representation within its pages should be taken as significant evidence of his continuing influence and disciplinary importance.

2. It’s worth noting that although Plato and Aristotle both have journals dedicated to their work, none of them are exclusively about their rhetorical theories.

3. Brummett and Young’s description of “genealogical” studies of Burke in their article is particularly helpful. The authors describe genealogical works as those that position Burke “as coming before or following on a particular scholar, theme, or line of scholarship” so as to “theoretically situate a number of issues: race, gender, culture, ethnocentrism, class, religion and social hierarchy.” The notion of the genealogical study of Burke is useful in considering the kinds of resistance this paper examines especially given such texts as Barbara Biesecker’s 1997 Addressing Postmodernity: Kenneth Burke, Rhetoric, and a Theory of Social Change and Bernard Brock’s edited volume Kenneth Burke and Contemporary European Thought, both of which focus on “showing links, connections, and influences between [Burke] and influential poststructuralists” (Brummett and Young).

4. In regards to Tate’s portrayal of Burke it should also be noted that Tate includes an extremely callous and offensive use of racial epithet as part of a (fortunately) long-dead southern colloquialism, which he uses to analogize his perception of Burke’s insincerity surrounding his own theory.

5. For a detailed exploration of Burke’s relativistic tendencies (especially in his early work), see: Heath, Robert. Realism and Relativism: A Perspective on Kenneth Burke. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1986.

6. For a more detailed account of the growing body of work surrounding Burke’s theories in this period, see Brummett and Young’s “Some Uses of Burke in Communication Studies.”

7. Black concluded his book with the following call: “We have not evolved any system of rhetorical criticism, but only, at best, an orientation to it… If his criticism is fruitful, he may end with a system, but he should not, in our present state of knowledge, begin with one. We simply do not know enough yet about rhetorical discourse to place our faith in systems, and it is only through imaginative criticism that we are likely to learn more” (177).

8. This makes it interesting that Black’s book includes a criticism of Burke’s interpretation of T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral. Black remarks of Burke’s account that “one can question how much it really reveals about either Murder in the Cathedral or T.S. Eliot. We can doubt, as a psychologist probably would, that a quest for ‘elegance’ is ever in itself a very profound motive to action, and we can suspect that such a quest, if it exists in a particular case, is never any but the most superficial expression of motive. More broadly, we can doubt that Eliot’s inner life bore quite so simple a relationship to his play as Burke alleges. We are certainly entitled to doubt, since Burke has not cited evidence for his interpretation” (26).

9. See, for example, Ehninger’s 1968 “On Systems of Rhetoric,” Scott’s 1973 “On Not Defining Rhetoric,” and their 1975 exchange “A Synoptic View of Systems of Western Rhetoric.” Though this is not the place for an in depth analysis of the influence of these articles, perhaps the most important argument of these essays is that we needn’t have a restrictive view of what constitutes rhetoric (and what is constituted by rhetoric), and that systems of rhetoric ought to always be considered as a plurality of “different but not competing” approaches (Scott 1973, 95).

10. Burke’s parlor metaphor: “Imagine that you enter a parlor. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress” (Philosophy of Literary Form 110-111).

11. DuBois’s comments were made as part of a review of Burke’s paper “Acceptance and Rejection” published in The Southern Review and included as the first part of Attitudes Toward History.

12. Ed Appel, in an online correspondence with the Kenneth Burke Society e-mail listserv, comments on Chesebro’s shift in terms of his Burkeanism around the time of this forum debate. Appel’s notes seem to support the idea that though Chesebro is and was an established Burkean scholar, his forum essay indicated more of a resistant approach than his previous work on Burke. Appel writes: “Jim [Chesebro] was my mentor in Burke at Temple U. I heard him say at a Burke panel at ECA in Washington, spring 1994, ‘Now that he's gone, Burke will be disappearing from the scene.’  Those Burke-negative articles (no pun intended) by Chesebro and Condit followed soon thereafter… Subsequently, Jim seemed to disappear from the Burkean scene himself. I didn't see him at Pittsburgh in 1996, Iowa in 1999, or New Orleans in 2002. Jim did attend the conference at Penn State in 2005, and presented a paper. I know he attended the Burke Society business meeting in San Antonio last year.  I was pleased to see him back in the Burkean fold” (Appel 2007).

13. It is certainly worth mentioning that not all feminists are opposed to Burke. For a good example of a feminist use of Burkean theory, see Japp, Phyllis. “‘Can This Marriage Be Saved’: Reclaiming Burke for Feminist Scholarship.” Kenneth Burke and the 21st Century. Ed. Bernard Brock. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999. 113-130.

14. Granted, there is much more to both of these works than the exploration of Marxism and Marxist themes, but it features prominently in both—explicitly in some parts and implicitly in others.

15. David Williams responded to a question from Andy King about these names and Burke’s attitude toward the French by writing, “By the time Derrida and Foucault came along, Burke was attending to other things. They did not engage his theories, and I don’t think they much attracted his interest. When Burke finally got around to dabbling in some of their writing—and I don’t think he did much more than that—he was quite old and I suspect not really at all interested in major new projects that would pull him away from the projects he still had at hand, his ‘unfinished business.’ Besides, these weren’t the French of his youth, the French he loved. They were mere poseurs in the forever unreal image the artistic milieu of Paris in the 1920s that had burned so radiantly in the imagination of Burke as a young man” (King “Interview”).

Works Cited

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Crable, Bryan. "Ideology as "Metabiology": Rereading Burke's Permanence and Change." Quarterly Journal of Speech 84 (1998): 303-319.

Crable, Bryan. “Kenneth Burke’s Continued Relevance: Arguments Toward a Better Life.” Argumentation and Advocacy 40.3 (Fall 2003): 118-123

Davis, Diane. “Identification: Burke and Freud on Who You Are.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 38.2 (2008): 123-147.

DuBois, Arthur. “Accepting and Rejecting Kenneth Burke (1937).” Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke 1924-1966. Ed. William Rueckert. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969. 80-89.

Ehninger, Douglas. “On Systems of Rhetoric.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 1.3 (1968): 131-144.

Ehninger, Douglas. “II. A Synoptic View of Systems of Western Rhetoric.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 61.4 (1975): 448-453.

Heath, Robert. Realism and Relativism: A Perspective on Kenneth Burke. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1986.

Hockmuth Nichols, Marie. “Kenneth Burke and the ‘New Rhetoric’ (1952).” Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke 1924-1966. Ed. William Rueckert. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969. 270-287.

Hook, Sidney. “The Technique of Mystification (1937).” Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke 1924-1966. Ed. William Rueckert. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969. 89-97.

Hook, Sidney. “Is Mr. Burke Serious? (1938)” Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke 1924-1966. Ed. William Rueckert. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969. 97-102.

Jameson, Fredric. "The Symbolic Inference; Or, Kenneth Burke and Ideological Analysis." Critical Inquiry 4.3 (1978): 507-523.

—. “Ideology and Symbolic Action.” Critical Inquiry 5.2 (1978): 417-422.

—. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Jarrell, Randall. Personal letter to Mary von Schrader, 1952. Reproduced online in KB Digest, 19.6 (December 6, 2007) by Miriam Clark, Associate Professor, Auburn University.  https://lists.purdue.edu/pipermail/kb/2007-December/002737.html

King, Andy. “Disciplining the Master: Finding the Via Media for Kenneth Burke.” American Communication Journal 4:2 (Winter 2001): online. http://www.acjournal.org/holdings/vol4/iss2/special/King.htm

King, Andy. “Burke Distinguished Scholars Series: An Interview with David Cratis Williams.” KBJournal 6.1 (Fall 2009): http://www.kbjournal.org/david_cratis_williams

Leff, Michael. "Burke's Ciceronianism." The Legacy of Kenneth Burke. Eds. Herbert W. Simons and Trevor Melia. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. 115-127.

Lentricchia, Frank. "Reading History with Kenneth Burke." Landmark Essays on Kenneth Burke. Ed. Barry Brummett. Davis: Hermagoras Press, 1993. 232-240.

Nelson, Cary. "Writing as the Accomplice of Language: Kenneth Burke and Poststructuralism." The Legacy of Kenneth Burke. Eds. Herbert W. Simons and Trevor Melia. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. 156-173.

Rosenberg, Harold. “A Review of Counter-Statement (1932).” Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke 1924-1966. Ed. William Rueckert. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969. 26-30.

Rountree, Clarke. "Burke by the Numbers: Observations on Nine Decades of Scholarship on Burke." KB Journal 3.2 (2007): http://kbjournal.org/node/177

Rueckert, William, ed. Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke 1924-1966. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969

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—. “Colloquy I. A Synoptic View of Systems of Western Rhetoric.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 61.4 (Dec. 1975): 439-447.

Smit, David W. "Burke Contra Jameson on Ideological Criticism; or How to Read Patricia Hampl Reading Whitman During the Vietnam War." Rhetoric, Cultural Studies, and Literacy: Selected Papers from the 1994 Conference of the Rhetoric Society of America. Ed. John Frederick Reynolds. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1995. 79-88.

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Vickers, Brian. In Defence of Rhetoric. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Wess, Robert. Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, Subjectivity, Postmodernism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Williams, David Cratis. "Under the Sign of (An)Nihilation: Burke in the Age of Nuclear Destruction and Critical Deconstruction." The Legacy of Kenneth Burke. Eds. Herbert W. Simons and Trevor Melia. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. 196-223.

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"Reading Resistance to Kenneth Burke: “Burke the Usurper” and Other Themes"; by John P. McKenzie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

Cynics, Hypocrites, and Nasty Boys: Senator Larry Craig and Gay Rights Caught in the Grotesque Frame

C. Wesley Buerkle, East Tennessee State University


In 2007 US Senator Larry Craig plead guilty to soliciting sex in an airport men’s room, a notable irony as he has a consistent record of voting against gay-rights. Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart sought to punish Craig for homophobia by hoisting him with his own homophobic petard, using homosexuality as a punch line. Turning to Burke to untangle this rhetorical knot, we see The Daily Show providing a grotesque response to Craig’s troubles. As a transitional frame, the grotesque has received relatively little scholarly attention, due in part to the fact that this particular response to social and political strife does little to resolve the conflict at hand. As analysis shows, by punishing Craig as a grotesque figure while using a strategy of prejudice he, himself, would employ (i.e., homophobia) the social and political struggle over gay-rights becomes mired in cynical mud rather than providing either defense for homosexual acceptance or potential for Craig’s personal redemption. By contrast, we can see that a comic response focusing on Craig’s seeming repressed homoerotic desire would redeem Craig as lost, not hopeless, and gay rights as a logical course.

US Senator Larry Craig (Republican, Idaho) appeared on Meet the Press in January 1999 to speak of then-president Bill Clinton’s publicly-known sexual misconduct: “The American people already know that Bill Clinton is a bad boy, a naughty boy. I’m going to speak out for the citizens of my state who, in the majority, think that Bill Clinton is probably even a nasty, bad, naughty boy.” A scant eight years later, in June 2007, Senator Craig had his mug shot taken after being charged with soliciting sex in a men’s restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport during a sting operation meant to catch just such activity. It should go without saying that when the story of Craig’s arrest and guilty plea broke some two months later, it had all the necessary ingredients for rich, late-night television comedy: a US senator, charges of sexual misconduct, denial, hypocrisy, and—the pièce de résistance—homosexuality. For the more cynical corners of television comedy, epitomized by Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (TDS), the story came as a delicious cross between Laud Humphreys’s Tearoom Trade and Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men. Here, a sitting US senator, on record against gay rights and critic of politician’s sexual misconduct, plead guilty to soliciting sex in a men’s restroom. The ensuing responses from TDS capture the existing tension in discourses regarding popular media discussion of gay-male sexuality: a progressive tendency for gay rights amidst a persisting stigma toward homosexuality.

Hosted by the acerbic Jon Stewart, TDS describes itself as a fake news show, reporting political news stories with biting, satirical commentary from the host and correspondents. A person like Craig, a politician who opposes gay rights and pleads guilty to soliciting sex in a men’s room, becomes an easy source for low-brow jokes against personal hypocrisy and the conservative politics TDS despises. For TDS’s viewers, finding humor in the behaviors of political figures represents what Kenneth Burke calls “equipment for living,” a means for an audience to make sense of and strike out at politicians who may not always seem to serve their constituents well (“Literature” 304). By using Burke’s poetic frames we can better understand the arc of TDS’s commentary and the effects it suggests, the extent to and means by which they embrace dominant ideologies or actually seek change, here, the degree to which they actually reject the homophobia they protest to so despise.
Not surprisingly, TDS treats Craig’s arrest and embarrassment as just deserts for condemning homosexuality. I argue, however, that TDS’s attempts to hoist Craig by his own petard inadvertently slur homosexuality by using same-sex desire as a punch line for jokes about intolerance and hypocrisy. The irony of the situation lies in the TDS’s reputation for challenging those who express homosexual intolerance or thwart the efforts of gay rights.[1] Finding humor in Craig’s alleged homosexuality muddies the waters of a pro-gay rights message, cementing a queer stigma amidst the efforts to erode exactly such an assumption. In this manner theirs represents a grotesque response that, as a transitional frame, cannot fully divorce itself from one ideology and therefore limits it from moving to new ways of thinking and doing. Reflecting on TDS’s treatment of Craig provides an opportunity to examine both the complexities of using humor as part of a gay rights discourses and the function of the grotesque frame which has received relatively little scholarly attention. 

The Grotesqueness of The Daily Show

A graduate school mentor of mine often said that Burke wants to do for society what Freud does for the individual.[2] By that, he meant Burke studies our symbolic activity to understand how we define and resolve the conflicts we experience in our personal and community lives. To that end, Burke suggests attitude as the organizing term for our (re)actions to life (“Dramatism” 446). In Attitudes Toward History, Burke arranges various attitudinal postures into three broad categories—acceptance, rejection, and transition—that define our discursive responses to human misdeeds by figuratively destroying, banishing, or merely reprimanding the wrongdoer. For its part, TDS processes the day’s political news, bringing attention to political figures’ missteps and then deciding whether the behavior warrants the person’s destruction, banishment, or reproof. Looking at the TDS’s responses to the Craig scandal in terms of the attitudes adopted helps us to understand the implications of their discourse, how they accept and reject components of that which they critique. Looking first to the literature concerning the grotesque frame, I discuss below the nature of the grotesque attitude as a mode of discourse that seeks change despite being unable to let go of the familiar. Then, turning to scholarship on TDS, I make the case that Stewart and his collaborators process political news for their audience, rather than merely seeking cheap laughs, thereby providing a sense of order and accountability to politicians’ behaviors. Understanding the grotesque response and TDS’s role in public discourse sets the scene for the predicament of gay rights in popular discourse and the extent to which TDS’s responses to the Craig scandal matter to larger socio-political discussions.

Burke discusses the grotesque as one of eight poetic categories, or frames, that represent the ways in which we cast our experiences in relation to the status quo (Attitudes 34). As a transitional frame, the grotesque perspective wishes to shun the present system but is either unwilling or unable to let go and, therefore, cannot move forward to a new order. Much scholarship on the use of Burkean frames has concentrated on acceptance and rejection frames. Acceptance frames (epic, comic, and tragic) respect the current system and confront problems or challenges in a manner that remedies the difficulty without having to make any serious changes to the established order. By contrast, rejection frames (burlesque, satire, and elegy) seize upon a moment of disharmony as demonstrating the system’s fatal error and need for some new organization. Analyses emphasizing the presence of acceptance or rejection frames often indicate that audiences find resolution to social and political unpleasantness through either rejecting the current order or accepting it by remedying some troublesome component (Appel; Bostdorff “Making” and “Vice Presidential”; Brummett; Carlson “Gandhi”; Hubbard; Moore).[3] Still other studies note that responses to unrest may move through or concurrently exhibit characteristics of acceptance and rejection of the status quo (Buerkle, Mayer, and Olson; Carlson “Limitations”). Relatively little scholarship looks to what happens when conflicts arise that receive neither clear acceptance nor rejection (Boje, Luhman, and Cunliffe; Chesebro and McMahan; Olbrys).[4]

In the case of TDS’s treatment of Craig, we find a response that neither accepts the status quo as TDS abhors those who do not give full respect to queer-identified men and women, yet invokes homophobic humor to punish others’ intolerance. The internal conflict between denouncing and engaging similar behaviors signals the presence of a transitional response, here the grotesque. Burke identifies the grotesque as one of two frames (grotesque and didactic) that occupy an overlapping space between acceptance and rejection. These occur when the response to a rupture within the expected order neither fully defends nor expels the dominant structure. In the case of the grotesque the response typically seizes upon an individual to punish as emblematic of a failed system 

Burke cautions that no response to social conflicts exists in its “chemical purity,” but instead with a degree of “free play” between categories of responses (Attitudes 57). TDS itself often relies upon comic and burlesque attitudes, especially the latter when responding to a perceived lack of support for gay rights. Both comic and burlesque responses can become difficult to distinguish from each other and the grotesque. The comic response, which need not be humorous, features a clown—someone acting in error not malice—who is rebuked, thus creating an opportunity for repentance that restores both the order and the offender to it (Burke, Attitudes 41; Appel; Brummett; Bostdorff “Vice Presidential”; Carlson “Limitations” and “Gandhi”). A segment on TDS from July 29, 2008 teases John McCain for a lack of charisma and ease, at one point picking on McCain’s seeming discomfort with holding the Dalia Lama’s hand: “Boy, McCain does not look comfortable there. . . . Here’s what you’ve gotta love about McCain: The guy’s got no poker face” (“Indecision”). The sentiment expressed emphasizes that McCain is not ridiculous, merely awkward, giving him the potential to improve himself.

Unlike the comic, a burlesque treatment shows no mercy to the accused. The burlesque’s central character, the buffoon, receives no mercy from assailants, who seize upon every flaw as a fatal error thereby dismissing the offender and entire system as imbecilic (Burke, Attitudes 54; Buerkle, Mayer, and Olson; Carlson “Limitations,” Bostdorff “Making”; Moore). In both the comic and burlesque cases the individual is flawed, but in a burlesque, over a comic frame, the offender and the system itself are regarded as beyond hope rather than worthy and capable of redemption. Responding to Congressional hearings on the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, Stewart mocks an army ranger who testifies that the need for men to huddle for warmth could create an awkward moment for a gay man: “If nighttime patrol gives you a hard-on, I think you’ve got bigger problems than being gay” (“Don’t Ask”). In this instance the wittiness, his ideology, and the existing military code seem to have no chance for repair.

Burke recognizes that the fields of acceptance and rejection do not enjoy harsh delineations and some responses to social struggles may fall between the two. These transitional responses, including the grotesque, neither clearly point toward acceptance or rejection but exist in a conflicted state, dissatisfied with the current practices yet unable to dismiss them altogether (Burke, Attitudes 58). As a transitional frame, the grotesque expresses confusion by emphasizing the symbolic over the objective (Burke, Attitudes 59-60). David Boje, John Luhman, and Ann Cunliffe emphasize the grotesque’s irony and its departure from the “Public Frame that people accept as commonsense.” This departure from the strictly logical, or forensic, encourages a scrappiness—both in terms of bricolage and feistiness—in which individuals make sense of their world by taking whatever they can from conflicting systems. Though Edward Watson cautions that “Burke does not define the grotesque; his comments are offered merely for their suggestive value,” Watson goes on to attempt a codification of the grotesque as “merging incongruities in keeping with the principle of the oxymoron; its ultimate purpose is . . . the achievement of a new ‘transcendent’ perspective” (35). While I agree that the grotesque manages incongruities by allowing for the oxymoronic, I take issue with the latter part of his definition, for though the grotesque brings together conflicting elements, its goal remains survival rather than a great enlightenment or new religion. Burke writes of the pull between acceptance and rejection frames that persons confronting social conflict find “good and evil elements intermingled. But [they] cannot leave matters at that. Exigencies of living require [them] to choose [their] alignments” (Attitudes 106). In the case of transitional frames, those alignments are not made and turmoil continues.

The distinctions between central characters in this transitional frame versus the central actors in acceptance and rejection frames provide more insight into what makes for the grotesque. The grotesque’s key actors are those whom we disdain because they act illogically and without any source for sympathy, thus allowing us to write them off, even as we are yet uncertain what to make of the mess left behind. Hugh Duncan finds the grotesque character unique from others because the person “is not disobeying commandments he (sic) understands and can will freely to obey or disobey” (391). The grotesque figure’s incomprehensibility may provoke laughter or disdain. In the case of laughter, Burke says, “The grotesque is not funny unless you are out of sympathy with it” (Attitudes 58). Therefore, laughing at a grotesque figure indicates something or someone we seek to reject. Where in the comic frame humor—though not necessary—acts as a corrective to bring the fool back into the fold by laughing with the errant member, the grotesque perspective laughs the person out the door. The laughter from a burlesque response also ejects the wrongdoer, but does it in a manner entirely rejecting what the person stands for whereas the grotesque cannot quite decide what to do with the existing order. In this way grotesque victims are the saddest of all, for their sacrifice comes with no greater gains than their own destruction. Comic and burlesque targets, by comparison, endure punishment as part of a corrective action of themselves and/or society.

As a self-proclaimed “fake news show,” TDS takes to task those in the day’s news, primarily politicians, who have taken part in or engaged some sort of social tension. A growing body of scholarship on TDS consistently recognizes that rather than being “fake” news, TDS demonstrates an alternate mode of journalism that engages the news itself rather than merely reporting it. Some findings demonstrate that TDS provides at least as much reportage as network-television news if not, in fact, more in-depth coverage of topics while also creating broader connections between events than mainstream news reporting (Fox, Koloen, and Sahin 222; Baym 264).[5] Noticeably different from traditional news reporting, however, TDS provides “dissident interpretations of current political events” thereby challenging corporate, traditionally produced news (Warner 19). As Lauren Feldman argues, part of the attraction of TDS to younger audiences lies in the show’s suggestion that the audience, like the TDS itself, may participate in challenging dominant modes of news reporting and production (422). As such, TDS offers satirical commentary on the shortcomings and blunders of those in politics, providing an opportunity for the audience to share in their processing of the news. The responses to political events regularly demonstrate either a comic or burlesque approach, depending upon whether or not TDS invites their audience to identify with whomever Stewart and company are ridiculing at the moment.

While some recognize TDS and its often scathing critique of the day’s news as an alternate mode of journalism, others question the larger social benefit it presents. In debate over the political value of TDS, some suggest the show offers mere mockery of political/public wrongdoing rather than contributing to needed political dialogue. In their mock-trial of Stewart for criminally intense cynicism as TDS host, Roderick Hart and Johanna Hartelius acknowledge the accused’s liberal bias that seeks to always challenge the establishment: “an emblem of the subversive, take-no-prisoners attitude needed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” (264). Against Hart and Hartelius’s accusations of unproductive cynicism, Robert Hariman and W. Lance Bennett, respectively, defend Stewart and friends for providing comic—in the Burkean sense—responses to political strife and tools for the public to engage with the harsh realities of the political process. These defenses are predicated upon the assumption that TDS contributes to the discussion in some positive manner, indicating how change might occur. Indeed, that is often the case, yet moments arise when the TDS gets so caught up in its own clever retorts to others they fail to reflect on their own culpability. Hart and Hartelius are especially critical of such hypocritical posturing that makes an essentially Marxist cynicism profitable (i.e., generating ad revenues) (263). To their criticism we might note Jane Blankenship, Edward Murphy, and Marie Rosenwasser’s description of one’s orientations (i.e., acceptance, rejection, or transitional frames) as both enabling us to gauge behaviors but also limiting us in our perspective (5). As a show that trades in smart-ass humor, they cannot help but see any embarrassing act as potential fodder rather than a potential moment for intellectual discourse.

With respect for Hart and Hartelius’s concern that TDS profits from its own smugness, I argue that TDS participates in a mode of journalism that enables the audience to create order out of a political process, which they cannot directly influence, by engaging in the public reprimand of errant political figures. Sarah Mahan-Hays and Roger Aden stress that young audiences sometimes take part in a strategy of “being with while looking down”—joining with television satires in mocking the foibles of others—as a means to assert superiority over others and thereby feel control in their own lives (47). To that point Lance Holbert and associates finds that those who feel disconnected from politics have greater attachment to the satirical messages of TDS (34). In the case of TDS it seems the host/correspondents enable the audience to regain a sense of control in a political context in which citizens have limited, immediate impact upon legislative behavior. We can then describe TDS as a kind of “equipment for living,” which helps its audiences to recognize, process, and potentially resolve the inevitable guilt of our democratic republic (“Literature” 304). To that very point, Jody Baumgartner and Jonathan Morris find that though college-age students (i.e., TDS’s key demographic) come away from watching TDS more cynical toward politics, news media, and the US democratic process they also feel more confident in their ability to intellectually process politics. Because of TDS’s potential to train/empower its audiences Don Waisanen defends TDS as a moment of rhetorical criticism that brings attention to issues concerning public welfare (120).

The danger of a grotesque response in the context of helping audiences bring order to political chaos lies in the logical conclusion of a grotesque approach, nothing really changes save expelling an errant member for a behavior otherwise not remediated. The futility of the grotesque response reverberates with Hart and Hartelius’s frustration that TDS partakes in a deep cynicism of political activity without substantive contribution (267). Cynics or not, TDS does regularly call for their audience to the seek redemption or expulsion of political actors and systems. In a case like Craig’s, however, their response falls toward the grotesque, offering no direction for societal betterment. 

A Cynic’s Hypocritical Cry of Hypocrisy

TDS broadcast several segments devoted to mocking Craig in the weeks following the news of his arrest and guilty plea. The details of Craig’s case are well-suited to TDS as they involve the opportunity to both cry hypocrisy at a staunchly conservative US senator and make salacious jokes. Even Stewart admits stories like Craig’s “[are] the only reason the show exists” (“Trapped . . . Men”). Invoking a grotesque approach, TDS seeks to punish Craig for intolerance by forcing him to endure shouts of homosexuality, understood as a terrible slander to Craig. Attempting to use Craig’s intolerance against himself has the unfortunate effect of replicating a discourse of intolerance, the very discourse TDS otherwise finds so odoriferous. To sift through the complexities of Craig-based humor that cries homophobia while chuckling at homosexuality, I apply Burke’s notion of the grotesque, considering how TDS neither completely rejects nor accepts Craig and a homophobic mindset he is made to represent.

Larry Craig began his service in the US Senate in 1990, after a ten year stint in the US House of Representatives. A cursory examination of his record demonstrates a consistent pattern of conservative, Republican partisanship, including a stance against gay rights.[6] Much of the media attention to Craig’s arrest in the summer of 2007 stemmed from both the nature of the accusation and his record on issues affecting sexual orientation. As was widely reported when the story of his June arrest got out some two months after the episode, Craig allegedly signaled a request for sexual favors to an undercover officer in the neighboring stall of a men’s restroom at the Minneapolis International Airport. The basis of the charge alleges Craig tapped his toes suspiciously, touched feet with the officer, and gestured to the officer under the stall divider, all of which airport authorities maintain indicates a desire to sexually engage. Craig plead guilty in August to soliciting lewd conduct from an undercover officer and accepted a fine and probation sentence in lieu of a ten-day jail sentence. Soon thereafter, the news of the arrest and guilty plea became widespread. Craig then announced his intent to retract his guilty plea, which he explains he had only signed in the futile hope the matter would simply go away. To defend himself, Craig protests he is not nor ever has been homosexual and that the incident at the airport was a misunderstanding, in part, due to his naturally wide stance whilst sitting on the toilet that caused him to bump feet with the officer. In the following weeks the court denied Craig’s request to rescind his guilty plea, Craig announced his resignation from the US Senate, and Craig then retracted his statement of resignation vowing to fight the insinuations made against him.

The details above provided late-night comedy monologues with ample material for bawdy jokes. For their part, TDS broadcast five segments on three different nights based on the details of Craig’s case.[7] One would expect TDS to seize upon the Craig scandal not only for the seemingly inherent sexual humor but also the obvious contradictions of a politician standing in the way of gay rights legislation while pleading guilty to soliciting sex in a men’s room. Taking aim at Craig, TDS bases its jokes on accusations of hypocrisy and remarks about sexual confusion and homoerotic desire. Across the Craig segments on TDS we see a tangled logic in which TDS’s host, correspondents, and R. Kelly impersonators simultaneously base jokes on same-sex sexual acts—primarily anal sex—and Craig’s apparent sexual confusion while they punish him for the seeming hypocrisy of legislatively condemning homosexuality. Their response, mired in the grotesque frame, punishes Craig with ridicule for his homophobia as they themselves use queerness as a punch line.

The first of the Craig segments, “Trapped in the Men’s Room,” aired September 10, 2007, featuring the return of former TDS correspondent, Rob Corddry. The Corddry segment neatly captures the essence of TDS conflict between seeking queer tolerance yet describing it in such a manner that male-male sexual behavior to produce laughter. Seated in a restroom stall, Corddry reports that he has staked out a Minneapolis airport men’s room just as airport security had. Corddry justifies spending copious amounts of time in a bathroom stall explaining, “How else to stop tortured souls ashamed of their uncontrollable sexual longings from finding a few minutes of desperately needed victimless relief?” (“Trapped . . . Men”). The comment needles authorities for targeting homosexuality in their sting operation while also enforcing homoerotic desire as highly volatile. On the one hand Corddry defends “tortured souls,” those dealing with repressed homoerotic desire, suggesting the personal struggles individuals endure in a homophobic society. Also, Corddry’s description of the behavior as “victimless relief” implies that the acts may be tawdry but not menacing. Even still, in the joke lies the suggestion that homosexual desire, more so than heterosexual desire, prompts “relief” through any necessary means. As the case involves men it also signals the cultural understanding of men’s sexuality, rather than women’s, as a hydraulic force that always bursts forth despite efforts to bottle it.[8] Here, then, Craig and the homoeroticly driven men he is said to represent become over-sexed creatures who cannot control their sexual impulses, as Corddry describes them, men with “uncontrollable sexual longings.”  Corddry delivers his lines so wryly you cannot help but hear the insinuation of pathetic-ness that he supposes pent-up male-male desire causes.

Corddry goes on to score laughs at the men accused of cruising restrooms, without distinguishing between humor that merely chides from that which scorns. Explaining the alleged cruising ritual with witty flourish, Corddry explains foot tapping as a means of sexual solicitation:
Corddry: You tap your foot, the guy in the next stall taps back, you move your feet closer together, you swipe your hand underneath the stall, the other guy shows you his merchandise, and, boom, you’re off to Candy Land.
Stewart:  I’m sorry, “Candy Land”?
Corddry: Yes, “Candy Land,” Jon; it’s a gay thing. (“Trapped . . . Men”)

Corddry’s jokes exploit supposed tactics of solicitation as strangely codified and marking them as foreign to normative sexuality, taking one to “Candy Land,” a phrase only explained as a foreign experience: “It’s a gay thing.” The humor creates a division between heteronormative behaviors and the “improper” behaviors of anonymous encounters in public restrooms, which itself becomes confused with all same-sex sex acts, after all this behavior is “a gay thing”.  Here Corddry pokes fun at the practice as comical, ridiculing men who cruise restrooms but not actually indicating any means to process the situation, either to defend men in a homophobic society by laughing off the event as a lapse in judgment or condemn the behavior as symptomatic perversion of homoerotic desire. Unable to dismiss or denounce, Corddry’s response becomes neither comic nor burlesque but grotesque.

Lastly, Corddry dryly muses on the meanings of men’s shoes, providing taxonomy of men’s shoes as indicative of their sexual status in anonymous restroom trade. The humor used to describe solicitors’ footwear walks a delicate line, much like the grotesque perspective itself, of creating a xenophobic image of gay-male sexuality so inane that it crumples from lacking substance while still enunciating contempt for non-normative heterosexual practices. Speaking in the manner of a condescending anthropological study bordering on the zoological, Corddry classifies men soliciting anonymous sexual encounters according to their footwear: “It’s a complex language. Wingtips mean you’re a married man. Socks with sandals means this is your first time. . . . Anyone in those brightly colored plastic Crocs, that means anything goes; we’re talking hardcore ass to [bleep] stuff, scat play.” Again, the humor marks the men who participate in solicitation as odd, inhuman, and curious. We cannot be certain the extent to which Corddry marks all gay men as interested in such distinctively non-normative behavior as that involving feces.

Corddry’s contribution to TDS coverage of the Craig scandal provides a framework for the remaining four segments by seemingly wanting to defend non-heteronormative desires, or at least homosexuality, but seeing male-male sexuality as a moment for humor. The analysis of the “tortured” souls produces them as sexual aliens, with foreign customs and untamable impulses. In the spirit of satire we can see this as exploding the silliness of homophobic understandings of gay men as sexually bizarre and animal like, allowing us to reject sexual intolerance. Even still, in describing men’s homoerotic impulses as uncontrollable Corddry confuses the line between mocking a false, hurtful image of gay-male sexuality and endorsing it. Further, even the extent to which Corddry mocks the notion of gay men as foreigners as a means to hurt Craig by counting him among those sexual strangers, Corddry keeps the image alive for its hurtful function.

Where Corddry lampoons sexual solicitation in men’s restrooms, the remaining TDS segments use Craig’s seeming sexual confusion as a point of ridicule. The idea that Craig is gay and refuses to accept/admit so runs through the remaining four Craig segments. Positioning Craig as an enemy of the show for his stance against gay rights, TDS punishes Craig for homophobia by mocking him with the label “gay.” The explanation Craig offers in his defense to explain his restroom stall behaviors delivers laughs for their odd nature (e.g., he bumped feet with the officer because he has a wide stance whilst sitting on the toilet). To play up the sense of intrigue TDS includes in two segments, impersonators of hip-hop star R. Kelly—titled “Trapped in the Closet”—mimicking Kelly’s rap opera chronicling a web of sexual deceits and liaisons, including male bisexuality.[9] Taking Craig’s homosexuality as a foregone conclusion, Stewart mockingly protests Craig’s innocence to R. Kelly impersonator #1:

Stewart: He still says he’s not, nor has he ever been gay!
Kelly #2: [sings] That’s not how gay works. (“Trapped . . . Closet, Pt. 2”)

Between the two men, TDS dismisses any other explanation of Craig’s restroom behavior or sexual orientation. The audience laughter and applause that immediately follows the exchange only makes sense if they crave categorizing Craig as homosexual to punish him. Of course, the strategy here means to hoist Craig by his own petard, using something Craig finds objectionable (i.e., homosexuality) as a means to censure his intolerance. Because Craig announced he would not leave his seat as senator, after having promised he would do so if he could not retract his guilty plea, Stewart comments, “Hmmm. It’s almost as if he’s confused to who he is and what he wants” (“Trapped . . . Senate”). The jest further needles Craig for repressed homosexuality, an odd response for show with a pro-gay rights agenda even if punishing someone they call a “hard core, right wing, anti-gay GOP Senator” (“Trapped . . . Senate”).

This strategy continues when correspondent Samantha Bee’s discusses the Minnesota court’s dismissal of Craig’s request to rescind his guilty plea. As Bee dryly chides, “now that his petition of ‘not gay’ has been thrown out, it’s official: Larry Craig is gay in the eyes of the law” (“Trapped . . . Senate”). TDS does not confuse the ruling with Craig’s actual sexual identity—the exchange between Stewart and Bee overtly establishes as much.[10] Rather, the court ruling is taken as another opportunity to raise Craig’s escapade and mark the supposed hypocrisy of allegedly being gay while opposing gay rights. Recognizing the absurdity of what she suggests, Bee adds that the higher the court ruling against Craig the more intensely gay he will be rendered, a ludicrous notion for sure, but meant nonetheless to laugh at Craig for potentially being gay when he has spoken against gay rights.

The last of Craig’s public events of note concerning his arrest, an hour long interview with Matt Lauer broadcast in primetime on NBC, provides the richest fodder for TDS to make jokes about Craig denying his homosexuality. Stewart describes the interview by using clichés of gay-male behavior: “Senator Craig’s conversation with Matt Lauer, who’s totally cute but turned out to be kind of bitchy” (“Larry Craig’s”). Two other incidents from the same TDS episode further describe Craig as attracted to Lauer and unable to control his impulses. Cutting from video of Lauer listing earlier rumors suggesting Craig’s homosexuality, Stewart interrupts with his own items: “There was fleet week in 1985, your still active profile on Mandate.com, and what appears to be your loafer slowly traveling up my calf” (“Larry Craig’s”). The segment immediately following includes R. Kelly impersonator #2, who adds the musical flourish, “Face to face with Matt Lauer, the whole time wondering what he looks like in the shower” (“Trapped . . . Closet, Pt. 2”). Both instances make Craig’s alleged homoeroticism its own joke. R. Kelly impersonator #2 takes other shots at Craig’s concerning his sexuality:

Craig: I know here, I’m innocent
[Cut back to TDS studio]
Kelly #2: [singing] Yes his heart is innocent, but his penis had to throw itself at the mercy of the court. (“Trapped . . . Closet, Pt. 2”)

In the post-Freudian tradition of sexual repression as a source of humor, this joke revives the theme that Craig merely refuses to admit to his natural, homoerotic implications while also laughing at the idea of uncontrollable impulses by referencing his penis having to beg for mercy. Further admonishing Craig for denying his assumed homosexuality, the joke continues:

Craig: I don’t agree with the lifestyle.  Have I viewed it as awful?  I viewed it as a lifestyle I don’t agree with.
[Cut back to TDS studio]
Kelly #2: [singing] I like the gay part without the lifestyle. (“Trapped . . . Closet, Pt. 2”)

Here the humor reemphasizes why TDS targets Craig, to rebuke him for his anti-gay rights position by using the suggestion of his homosexuality as both a point of ridicule and inexplicable intolerance.

The series of jokes TDS offers in response to his arrest primarily chuckle at Craig for his potential homo/bisexuality. More than the salacious nature of the scandal, the alleged homosexual exploits of an anti-gay rights senator seems provokes TDS to respond. The response tendered, however, confuses TDS’s goals. Jokes which use homosexuality as their punch line hardly seem appropriate to advancing the gay rights TDS so regularly promotes. Burke reminds us that identifying the existence of one frame rather than another is “the qualitative matter of emphasis” (Attitudes 57). Reading the Craig affair, one can certainly find elements of the comic and burlesque poetic categories. Following a comic trajectory, responses to Craig would laugh at him for his mistakes and welcome him back into the fold once he demonstrates remorse. To do so, however, Craig would have to evoke a sense of sympathy, that his hypocrisy stems from foolishness rather than malice. Whether one laughs with or at the fool provides a useful litmus test for the comic frame, as Burke’s comedy seeks humanity and compassion (Olbrys 246). Giving Craig a burlesque treatment by reducing him to the absurd—admittedly a short order given the facts of his case—would toss Craig and his stigma toward homosexuality into the cold. Because we see nothing in him we can recognize as human, we would congratulate ourselves for eschewing from society an unsavory element.
The responses of TDS, however, neatly perform neither of the foregoing options. As such TDS adopts a transitional frame, the grotesque, in an attempt to reject the reprehensible though unable to divorce itself from current tradition, namely finding benefit in using homosexuality for humor’s sake. Ironically, Burke describes the grotesque frame—in one of his more Freudian moments—by discussing “the homosexual,” whom he finds navigates a conflict between allegiance to mother and father symbols that parallel the struggles of personal identity and the “public, historical situation,” better known as heteronormative and homophobic culture (61).[11] Though Burke’s dated use of the example has its issues, TDS’s depiction of Craig’s fits well in such a description, especially given Burke’s oft cited reminder that the “grotesque is not funny unless you are out of sympathy with it” (Attitudes 58). Stewart and the rest of TDS cast clearly have no sympathy for Craig, so his believed sexual conflict becomes a target of humor rather than compassion. The slights made against homosexuality in the process—contradictions to their own goals—demonstrate an uneven approach to TDS’s politics, an unclear allegiance to either advancing queer acceptance or boosting rating at any cost that further suggests their grotesqueness.

Whither Larry Craig (and The Daily Show)?

The case of Craig’s treatment by TDS provides the opportunity to discuss the grotesque’s knotty nature, the TDS’s role in political discourse, and potential responses to Craig that challenge his anti-gay rights position without assaulting homosexuality itself. Duncan describes the grotesque character as “beyond reason, a creature of demonic powers. He is mad, but not evil or comic. Our fear of madmen stems from being unable to communicate with them” (391). Unable or unwilling to provide a path for Craig to redeem himself, TDS attacks Craig at all angles. Such an approach to a homophobic figure like Craig means endorsing his own brand of disgust. As seen in TDS’s treatment of Craig, grotesque frames emerge when we find ourselves unable to fully divorce ourselves from that which repulses us. For TDS this means attempting to reject Craig’s homophobia even as they find it difficult to punish him without using homosexuality as a joke or slur. Burke notes that laughing at a grotesque figure “serves as an unintentional burlesque” (Attitudes 58). That said, by its nature, Burke also says the grotesque frame “uses a passive ‘frame of acceptance’” (emphasis original) (Attitudes 68). James Chesebro and David McMahan add that the grotesque upholds the “dominant social system” if by reminding us “what not to do” (422). For TDS this means adopting some of Craig’s prejudice even as he receives punishment for the same.

Especially given TDS’s pro-gay rights bent, the obvious question becomes, “Why use queerness as a punch line?” Craig’s outspoken homophobia presents gay-sex jokes as an ideal petard to hoist him, yet it is queerness that serves as the spear against homophobia in such a scenario. For this reason Hart and Hartelius criticize TDS’s cynicism as unproductive of anything greater than themselves, which is to say a (sometimes) cheap laugh: “Stewart’s performances become ends in themselves rather than ways of changing social or political realities” (266). As seen here, TDS creates tension between its own sense of decency (i.e., a consistent defense of the GLBTQ community) and the need to generate ad revenue through invoking laughter. The casual manner in which TDS takes up the Craig scandal, trading in a loose logic that sees fit to defend homosexuality through homophobia, misses the opportunity to suggest change and instead takes up cynicism as a kind of public service that identifies vice and makes those who can spot it feel a touch more superior. In so doing the show offers nothing to start a productive discussion of the dynamics of partisan politics, human sexuality, and how our responses to one another move discourse. Instead, the sides in the debate become more intractable.

In large part, TDS treats Craig in a manner consistent with treatment they customarily offer wayward politicians, biting cynicism. Of trained incapacities, Burke cautions that when “One adopts measures in keeping with his(sic) past training—and the very soundness of this training may lead him(sic) to adopt the wrong measures” (Permanence 10). For their part, TDS has a clear pattern of focusing on political figures’ “personal foibles and character flaws” (Baym 263). It seems reasonable to say that Stewart and his cast so regularly approach politicians, especially Republicans, with utter disdain that they merely paint Craig with the same brush as so many others, exploiting to its fullest any potential for ridicule. Unable or unwilling to make refined distinctions, we see in the Craig case TDS throwing out the baby with the bath water, as it were, scoffing at same-sex desire as much as hypocrisy. TDS’s strategy seems to result from placing the need to increase market share above its own principled politics of humane treatment for all. Rather than a moment for social progress Craig’s affair becomes grist for the mill.

At most, TDS only seems to offer the admonition that one ought to at least be consistent in their prejudices. Two different Craig-related segments cast hypocrisy as Craig’s underlying problem. When Stewart asks Bee why Craig will not leave the senate after saying he would do as much, she responds flatly, “Well, Jon, he’s still a politician. Just because he’s really, really gay doesn’t mean he’s gonna keep his word” (“Trapped . . . Senate”). Likewise, R. Kelly impersonator #1 sings the question, “Is there any mother f–[blank]–r leading the family values movement who doesn’t want to give dudes a [blank] job in the men’s room?” (“Trapped . . . Closet, Pt. 1”).[12] The criticism here sidesteps issues of sexuality as the issue but targets Craig’s hypocrisy as an advocate of the ineffable “family values” movement, which typically blocks gay rights, while also allegedly soliciting gay sex.

Falling back to the cynically accepted position “politicians lie,” may seem to offer little if anything new to the discussion, yet the move toward hypocrisy presents the greatest potential to reject Craig’s homosexual intolerance without denouncing homosexuality. Assaulting Craig as a hypocrite for blocking gay rights while allegedly engaging in same-sex liaisons suggests he should change his attitude toward homosexuality by looking to his own proclivities. In this strategy homosexuality escapes contempt, and gay rights becomes a matter of logical extension. In addition to TDS’s efforts at lampooning Craig, Saturday Night Live’s (SNL) October 6, 2007 broadcast included their own fake news sketch, “Weekend Update,” in which anchors Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers engage in a segment called “Really!?!: with Seth and Amy,” reciting facts of a case with patented incredulity: “Really!?!” To Craig they offer the following shaming:

Poehler: You know, I’m not creeped out that you tried to have gay sex in an airport bathroom; I’m creeped out that you tried to have any sex in an airport bathroom. I don’t even like going to the bathroom in an airport bathroom. I mean, really!?!
Meyers: Really!?! And, really, you oppose gay marriage. What, you think marriage takes the sizzle out of it? I mean really!?! Or are you just afraid that if gay marriage is legalized, there will be fewer single gay guys trying to have sex in airport bathrooms? I mean, really!?!
Poehler: So, in conclusion, you’re gay but a married Republican; you’re gonna vote for anti-gay legislation, but you solicit gay sex in an airport bathroom. Wow, you do have a wide stance. (“Weekend”)

SNL’s response to Craig’s problems, like the latter examples from TDS, reprimands Craig for hypocrisy. More than a mere attack on a politician as untrustworthy, this particular case of hypocrisy demonstrates the unnecessary and unjustifiable nature of anti-gay rights legislation. Showing that even the very people who denounce homosexuality—as Craig, himself, did during his scandal—find themselves engaging in non-heterosexual acts proves the need for accepting all sexual orientations as natural.[13] This particular moment extends the promise for Craig to accept homosexuals and his own potential homosexuality.

As a case of delicious irony/hypocrisy, TDS enjoys that Craig may have solicited sex in a men’s room. In defense of TDS’s humor, like the excerpts provided here, Bennett defends Stewart’s bitterness, arguing that “Cynicism, when properly targeted, can redress the corruption of a political order that is widely and perhaps wisely held suspect by the public” (280). Using grotesque responses, TDS exists in the pull between accepting a social order by redeeming the clown and lashing the buffoon to reject a flawed system. Not sure what to do with Craig they seek to punish his homophobia but play by the rules of his disgust, using the label “homosexual” against him. In reflection we learn about the limitations of a grotesque response and the necessary boundaries of pro-gay rights discourses in correcting those who oppose them. As subjects of TDS’s attention both Craig and gay rights—one, an object of scorn, the other, an object of significance—suffer under a grotesque treatment, trapped between the worlds of acceptance and rejection. As the grotesque’s madman, Craig must pay the penalty without having the chance for personal reformation or social transformation. Ground up in the machine of cynicism, he can do nothing right for anyone.

In their quest for retribution and salacious humor, TDS lends Craig no compassion as a man potentially struggling with his sexuality in an attempt to foster support for gay rights. Missing the opportunity for community change, TDS chooses to make jokes about homosexuality rather than defending it, as SNL does more pointedly in strictly condemning Craig for being insensitive to his own presumed nature. In SNL’s response we see both TDS’s missed opportunity for change and Craig’s lost chance for salvation. Following Burke’s admonition to redeem others whenever possible, a comic response focusing on Craig’s inability to accept himself would take queer acceptance as a norm Craig must be returned to. We get much of this in the response offered by SNL as they focus on the absurdity of denying the naturalness of homosexuality that seems so plain to them. Surely a change in TDS’s response to Craig would have no sizeable impact on the current status of gay rights, yet it would have contributed to framing the broader social discourse on homosexuality. The challenge for Larry Craig, TDS, and gay rights is for each to shrug off the stigma attached to homosexuality. Unfortunately, for Craig and gay rights, a grotesque response only serves to maintain the status quo while claiming more casualties. Cheree Carlson reminds us that the use of humor can only effect change when we have a path out of our current distress (“Limitations” 319). As a means for TDS to salvage its place in political discourse and foster gay rights, the show’s comedy will have to become more . . . comic.

* C. Wesley Buerkle (PhD, Louisiana State University) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at East Tennessee State University. The author wishes to thank Christian Izaguirre for his research assistance and David Cecil for his support to keep the project on track. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Southern States Communication Association in Savannah, GA, April 2008.


1. A small sample alone includes three segments from the year preceding the Craig scandal. On July 17, 2007, TDS mocks James Holsinger, a US Surgeon General nominee, for writing a document that attempts a “scientific basis for [his] irrational discomfort around gay people” by referencing the names of pipe fittings (i.e., male and female) as a universalized imperative against homosexuality (“You have”). A segment from March 19, 2007 giggles over the strategies used by sexual re-orientation courses, including men cuddling each other and sleep tapes that encourage “you enjoy ejaculating in a woman’s vagina” (“Diagnosis”). TDS also ridicules the military on September 18, 2006 for admitting “the old, delinquent [convicted criminals], and borderline [mentally] retarded” but not homosexuals (“Tangled”).

2. Minimally we see this in Burke’s “Freud and Analysis of Poetry.”

3. In comparison to these Kaylor and Smith and Johnston both use the frames to sort political messages without deeper consideration of the implications of these choices.

4. Of those listed here, only Olbrys provides a discussion of any depth on the grotesque frame, the others make brief references.

5. The National Annenberg Election Survey also finds that TDS viewers are more politically aware and consume more news content than the general public, suggesting that the TDS may both attract more politically educated viewers and provide them with benefit of the same. Additionally, Brewer and Marquardt document that TDS frequently discusses political issues of a domestic and international nature suggesting that the program is more substance than the show lets on.

6. Specifically, Craig twice voted against expanding hate crimes legislation to include sexual orientation (2000; 2002), supported a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage (2006), voted to prohibit same-sex marriage (1996), and voted against prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation (1996).

7. TDS broadcast two segments on 10 Sep. 2007 (“Trapped in the Men’s Room” and “Trapped in the Closet, Pt. 1”), one segment on 8 Oct. 2007 (“Trapped in the Senate”), and two segments on 17 Oct. 2007 (“Larry Craig's Matt Lauer Interview” and “Trapped in the Closet, Pt. 2”).

8. Understanding sexuality using a hydraulic model implies that sexual desire exists as a material force that increases and builds in pressure when damned up or that can be reduced through channeling to other outlets. For a discussion of a break from such a model see Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, esp. 103.

9. Kelly, himself, was accused of sexual misconduct, and ultimately acquitted, for allegedly having sex with an underage woman and videotaping the event, which included the male urinating on the female.

10. In their exchange Stewart, acting as the straight man, corrects Bee, who accuses Stewart of being naïve.

11. Salvaging insight from Burke’s psychoanalysis of homosexuality, we see a description of internalized homophobia, the experience of some queer identified persons who carry within themselves the vestiges of homophobia taught to them for many years (Fone 6).

12. This most likely refers to the scandal a year earlier in which Ted Haggard, a nationally known evangelical preacher, who became mired in a scandal involving drug use and an affair with a male prostitute.

13. Craig’s alleged men’s room behavior, itself, brings to light the assumptions implicit in our cultural understandings of human sexuality. Contemporary western practice describes sexual identity according to object affection (e.g., straight men desire women and gay men desire men). Many media outlets challenged Craig as untruthful as Craig insists he is straight, wanting to use potential evidence of male-male sexual contact as proof of his bi/homosexuality. Against the rigid categories defined by object affection, Michel Foucault offers the ancient Greek tradition of defining a person’s sexuality by its application: excessive or unnecessarily restrictive sexual practices defined the nature of the person not the sex of the person with whom they engaged (Foucault Use, 187-8). In the case of Craig, Foucault might encourage us to not see his personal identity as a matter of straight, gay, or bisexual but exemplification of the artificial divisions of sexuality entrenched during the Victorian era.

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Standing Up for Comedy: Kenneth Burke and The Office

Brett Biebel, University of Minnesota


Scholarship addressing Burke’s ideas about acceptance and rejection frames is commonplace in modern academia. Often lost in the discussion, however, is the sheer power of Burke’s description of the comic frame. Using the first season of the American television program The Office as its object, this essay hopes to explore the implications of Burke’s vision of the comic for the modern, white-collar, corporate work environment. In highlighting Burke’s notion of comedy as essentially humane, it attempts to demonstrate, through The Office, the importance of this underlying attitude with regard to public discussion, debate, and critique. The essay highlights the tension between corporate tedium and financial necessity and grapples with the consequences of acceptance and rejection frames. It seeks to place to the attitude behind Burke’s notion of the comic at the forefront of public debate and offer a specific example of the relevance and power that such an attitude can possess.

While the aisles of the local video store might indicate otherwise, comedy, at its best, is far from frivolous. As evidenced by the popular refrain “It’s funny because it’s true,” comedy, whether in stand-up or sitcom form, offers many of us a new perspective on daily life. The stars of Seinfeld, for example, made their mark by offering audiences a new way of looking at (and even a new vocabulary for talking about) common, everyday occurrences. When it comes to television, comedic series have been and continue to be wildly popular. A 2002 TV Guide list ranked the top 50 television shows of all-time. Eight out of the top ten shows ranked are classified as comedies (“TV Guide Names Top 50 Shows”). Of course, mass appeal does not automatically illustrate importance, but it is clear that many viewers find comedy compelling. Even beyond popularity, however, the literary canon of western culture contains important, landmark comedies. Dramatic giants like Shakespeare and Aristophanes are well-known for their comedic work. Jane Austen’s comedies of manners and Cervantes’ Don Quixote are both comedic works praised for their literary value. No matter how one slices it, comedy has been an enormous force in both the history of literature and performed drama. It may seem strange to compare today’s television writers with such literary giants as Shakespeare and Cervantes, but comedy’s assessments of our daily situations offer up frames through which we can view ourselves. They provide a widely-accessible look at the intricacies and complexities of modern existence, and, because of that, many comedies warrant reaction beyond simple, reflexive laughter.

The Office, a popular show set at the Scranton, PA offices of fictional paper company Dunder-Mifflin, is one example of a modern comedy that offers a sophisticated take on the economic realities of modern capitalism. Fitting into a genre best described as “workplace comedy,” the series pokes fun at corporate bureaucracy while still seeming to view it with a sympathetic eye. Examining the first season of The Office through the lens of Kenneth Burke’s ideas on the comic frame as expressed in Attitudes Toward History provides insights into the show’s complexity and willingness to treat its flawed characters in a humane, sympathetic manner. Jeanette Castillo, elaborating on Burke’s ideas, writes, “The comic perspective is the one most conducive to productive deliberation between opponents who hold values that are conflicting” (27). Because of its humane treatment of its characters, according to Castillo, comedy is best able to encourage healthy debate between opposing sides. Her views, in conjunction with Burke’s, help illustrate the importance of The Office as it relates to everyday life. A general attitude of acceptance and sympathy is on display throughout the show’s first season, creating an atmosphere that highlights its characters imperfect goodness. Its content helps undermine the destructive us vs. them worldview and illustrates the important differences between individuals and the often oppressive institution that run their lives. If Burke’s views are used a baseline for quality, then The Office is a popular and significant modern comedy.

Kenneth Burke spends much of Attitudes Toward History (1959) discussing comic frames and taking great pains to differentiate them from those frames that emphasize the tragic, as well as mere humor. Still, Burke categorizes both comedy and tragedy as “frames of acceptance,” defining the phrase by writing, “By ‘frames of acceptance’ we mean the more or less organized system of meanings by which a thinking man [sic] gauges the historical situation and adopts a role with relation to it” (Attitudes Toward History, 5). Such frames are distinguished from those that emphasize “rejection.” Burke explains, “[Rejection] takes its color from an attitude towards some reigning symbol of authority, stressing a shift in the allegiance to symbols of authority” (21). In other words, acceptance-based frames encourage acquiescence to a given order while rejection-based ones encourage the overt transformation of the same order. By situating comedy and tragedy within his discussion of acceptance frames, Burke implies that they are useful in that they allow people to cope with or function within a given set of historical circumstances. Often complicated, Burke’s conception of the comic provides critics with a sophisticated analytic tool for viewing popular comedies. Applying his ideas to the first season of the American television series The Office provides insight into the dilemmas and paradoxes associated with contemporary capitalism.

Why The Office? The answer to that question lies in the show’s setting. Taking place within the confines of the Scranton, PA branch of fictional paper company Dunder-Mifflin, The Office exemplifies one of Burke’s favorite themes. Throughout his discussion of comic frames, Burke never loses sight of the economic factors that operate within historical contexts. The characters depicted within the first season of The Office clearly recognize the importance of the economy, as possible downsizing due to a tight budget is a major theme of the first season. Like Burke’s work on frames, The Office is rife with tensions, paradoxes, and complexities. The characters and situations that the show depicts emphasize the oddities, outrages, and opportunities embedded within the capitalistic system. As a result, the first season of The Office is a clear example of what Burke meant by his definition of the comic. It is a humane depiction of people faced with an inflexible situation and the ways in which they struggle to accept it and find its moments of joy.

Burke’s Frames: Comedy and Tragedy

In order to understand Burke’s notion of the comic in Attitudes Toward History, one must situate it within his discussion of tragedy. Both are frames of acceptance because they promote a sense of resignation with regard to the given social order and historical situation. Burke views comedy and tragedy as largely similar, and sees tragedy as responding to some of the problems of the epic, as well as changing social conditions (34-44).

Burke writes, “The resignation of tragedy is based upon this same sense of personal limits; but the cultural materials with which the tragic playwright works are much more urban, complex, sophisticated than those that prevailed at the rise of the primitive epic” (37). Another key term regarding tragedy is “the fear of self-aggrandizement” (37). Perhaps as a response to the weaknesses of the epic, the tragedians used their plays to condemn the sin of pride (39). Tragedy and the epic are thus similar, although tragedy is more intricately designed.

Additionally, crime becomes a central theme in Burke’s description of tragedy. He writes,

The rise of business individualism sharpened the awareness of personal ambition as a motive in human acts, but the great tragic playwrights were pious, orthodox, and conservative, ‘reactionary’ in their attitude towards it; hence they made pride, hubris, the basic sin, and ‘welcomed’ it by tragic ambiguity, surrounding it with connotations of crime. Their frame of acceptance admonished one to ‘resign’ himself [sic] to a sense of his [sic] limitations. (39)

The idea of crime as a central theme is vitally important with regard to The Office. To imbue characters with an essential criminality creates a sense of inherent evil, placing human actions within a larger, universal struggle. The Office eschews this kind of absolute judgment, taking to heart Castillo’s assertion that, “A truly democratic discourse focuses on the attribution of motives rather than using the terminology of absolute power such as the labeling of motivations as ‘evil’ rather than ‘mistaken’” (41). The importance of this shift in terminology will become especially apparent as the content analysis of The Office unfolds.

It is on this note that Burke launches into his discussion of the comic frame. He begins his analysis by noting its main weakness. He writes, “Not all the significant cultural factors are given the importance that a total vision of reality would require. Class interests provide the cues that distort the interpretive frame, making its apparent totality function as an actual partiality” (40). Burke argues that there is an element of class involved in comedy, claiming that comic writers, not knowing how history will proceed, are unable to accurately judge all the factors that make up their social and historical contexts (40-41). As a result, these writers tend to underestimate new ideas and new attitudes, distancing themselves from them based solely on their newness (41). Burke writes, “A frame becomes deceptive when it provides too great plausibility for the writer who would condemn symptoms without being able to gauge the causal pressure behind the symptoms” (41). Comedy is therefore capable of misunderstanding a given historical situation.

After pointing out the weakness of the comic frame, Burke begins to describe its functioning, highlighting major themes and concepts. He writes, “Like tragedy, comedy warns against the dangers of pride, but its emphasis shifts from crime to stupidity” (41). The idea figures prominently in Burke’s analysis, as he contrasts the “villains” of tragedy with the “fools” of comedy (41). Burke details the implications, arguing,

The progress of humane enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious but as mistaken. When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools…you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy. The audience…is admonished to remember that when intelligence means wisdom…it requires fear, resignation, the sense of limits, as an important ingredient (41-42).

Comedy is forgiving. It asks its audience to remember that its characters are not inherently evil, and it encourages identification with “fools.” Audiences are asked to look upon comedic characters with a generous eye, and Burke applauds the request.

The distinctions between comedy and tragedy are emphasized further as Burke closes his discussion. He writes, “Comedy deals with man [sic] in society, tragedy with the cosmic man…Comedy is essentially humane” (42). Both frames emphasize humility and a recognition of limits, and both frames struggle to deal with newly-arriving attitudes within a given context. Tragedy, however, condemns, while comedy misunderstands. If, as Burke believed, art is a guide to more informed living, if it is indeed “equipment for living,” then both comedy and tragedy must correspond to human situations on both institutional and individual levels. Tragedy may not be an inferior frame, but Burke had high praise for comedy thanks to its ability to deal in human rather than absolute terms. In a world of pluralism, skepticism, and debate, comedy can provide a coherent articulation of difficult-to-reconcile tensions. The Office strives to accurately gauge a complicated, white-collar corporate setting, thereby transcending mere humor, which Burke argues can often “gauge the situation falsely” (43), and becoming a sophisticated modern comedy.

As Attitudes Toward History progresses, Burke’s preference for the comic frame of acceptance becomes apparent. According to Burke, frames that emphasize rejection attempt to “debunk” existing social structures, but they “do not equip us to understand the full complexities of sociality” (93). Acceptance frames are preferable because they give audiences a means for dealing with existing power structures without causing them to question their various corporate identities (94). That is, rejection frames tear down without rebuilding, while acceptance frames encourage modification and coping. They encourage functioning within an established rather than hopelessly struggling against it. The comic frame in particular provides the best means for understanding historical situations. Comedy is able to convert complex matters of existence into simple, human terms. Of all the frames, comedy best blends “both transcendental and material ingredients, both imagination and bureaucratic embodiment, both ‘service’ and ‘spoils’” (166-167). It takes into account both ethical and economic motivations. It appreciates the complexity of human activity by recognizing the multiple impulses that underlie human behavior. It encourages audiences to recognize their own complexity. As Burke writes, “In sum, the comic frame should enable people to be observers of themselves while acting. Its ultimate [goal] would not be passiveness, but maximum consciousness. One would ‘transcend’ himself [sic] by noting his own foibles” (171). Rather than condemning the evil of others, the comic encourages individual audience members to locate the fools within themselves.

As he closes Part II of Attitudes Toward History, Burke ruminates on the value of comedy. He claims that the comedy cannot change capitalist imperatives such as the struggle for wages and the various alienations that come with the current economic system (174-175). He argues, “Its value should only reside in helping to produce a state of affairs whereby these rigors may abate” (175). Burke recognizes that the comic cannot promote radical social change. It is a “frame of acceptance,” after all. It can, however, aid citizens in understanding the complexities of capitalist existence. It can provide a coping mechanism and a method for understanding the current social order and one’s place in it.

The Office as Burkean Comedy

Before moving into a specific analysis of the first season of The Office, it is important to note the overall form of the show. It is not presented as a typical situational comedy with a laugh track and a single main character or family. There is no narration present throughout the entirety of the first season, and the show never depicts the lives of its characters outside of the office setting in which they work. Such a depiction gels with Burke’s definition of comedy as focusing on “man in society,” as the show’s characters are never shown outside of a social, public context. Viewers do not get internal monologue from any single character. In fact, The Office is comic in a particularly Burkean sense in that it sizes up a given social context by depicting a given social context without any real interpretive filter. The show is presented in documentary style with an unseen camera crew capturing the ongoing office activities. Character feelings are presented in the form of one-on-one interviews with the camera, but attempts at complex character psychologies are limited. Some characters are ascribed romantic or advancement motives, but no one person is given an opportunity to explain his or her actions in any real detail. In fact, it is extremely difficult to choose a main character for the show. The boss, Michael Scott, receives the most face time, but overarching subplots encompass secondary characters Jim (salesman), Pam (receptionist), and Dwight (salesman). As a result, The Office is as much about the setting and the hierarchy within that setting as it is about its characters. Michael is the misguided boss who struggles with the implications of power, unable to discern between working relationships and friendly ones. Meanwhile, Jim and Pam struggle to sort out office friendship and interpersonal romantic chemistry. The show’s setting depicts a corporate, capitalist social order, and the personal lives of its characters are secondary to that depiction, at least within the first season.

The sheer number of characters depicted by the show adds to its appraisal of the workplace environment and keeps it from focusing too much on a main protagonist or antagonist. Television critic Nathan Rabin has praised the show for its use of a large cast, writing, “The Office has a cast so deep and rich that it can keep things lively and fresh by simply pairing off unexpected members of its cast” (Rabin, “The Meeting”). The Office takes a collective approach to comedy, depicting a broad array of characters and how each copes with the burdens of work. Some (Jim and Pam) joke. Others (Stanley) find ways to avoid actually doing work. Still others (Dwight) become competitive and lust after what are shown to be dubious accolades. The diversity of focus allows the show to achieve a kind of dramatic magnetism without resorting explicitly to battles between good characters and evil ones. In both its overall form and its portrayal of multiple, varied characters, The Office stays true to Burke’s conception of the comic frame.

On display throughout the show, then, is the dynamic tension between necessary institutions and caged, stifled individuals. Hierarchy permeates The Office, with Michael Scott constantly striving to add a element of humanism to a system of rigidly defined organizational roles. Misguided though he often is, his attempts at running a hierarchical social order are contrasted with the more mechanical approach of his boss, Jan. Yet even Michael’s human attempts at office leadership are unable to free individual employees trapped within an economic imperative. Each of the show’s characters have jobs to do, and, though they are often boring, the prospect of unemployment is menacing. The Office, then, is an expression of the multiple tensions that characterizes the relationships of individuals with the institutions that run their lives. The show does not present easy answers, but it does offer a window into a human struggle that many confront during every working moment of their real, occupational lives.

Tedium and Tension: Analyzing Season One

The show’s portrayal of several main themes and tensions is especially important in terms of Burke’s ideas about the comic frame. The show’s complex look at modern capitalism pokes fun while simultaneously provoking thought. In examining the first season, the following ideas are most relevant: 1) The show clearly ridicules the corporate environment, especially various business rituals, but it also recognizes the economic realities that make it impossible for many workers to simply quit in the face of absurdity. 2) The complexities of relationships are explored, as several characters fumble and flounder in their attempts to sort out the differences between working relationships, friendships, and romances. 3) The show depicts corporate advancement as simultaneously desirable and meaningless. 4) Class elements are touched on, though not fully explored, as viewers are shown the difference between the white-collar office employees and the blue-collar warehouse workers. All of these themes speak to the idea of institutional hierarchy as simultaneously necessary and stifling. Even Michael’s expressions of Dunder-Mifflin as a “family” fail to completely remove the shackles that institutions place on individual freedom. Still, throughout the entire season, characters are portrayed humanely and in a three-dimensional manner, allowing viewers to sympathize with the individuals who keep what is depicted as a ridiculous institution afloat. An acceptance frame through and through, The Office is content to highlight the humor within a given social context without undermining its value to those who function within it.

An undercurrent of tediousness runs through nearly all of the first six episodes of The Office, with Jim often playing the role of practical joker, especially in relation to Dwight. The tediousness theme is counter-balanced, however, by the overarching theme of downsizing. In spite of all the practical jokes and humorous moments and in spite of the often meaningless nature of “work” as depicted by The Office, the first season makes it clear that economic considerations are important to many of the show’s characters. As a result, the absurdities of capitalism are juxtaposed with pragmatic considerations and an important tension is highlighted.

The pilot episode puts the tension between boredom and wages on screen from the very beginning. The idea of possible downsizing is introduced by Michael’s boss Jan, a corporate Vice President. Despite being sworn to secrecy, the news slowly leaks out to the rest of the office (The Office, “Pilot”). In one-on-one camera interviews, Jim and Pam each respond to the possibility with marked indifference. Pam says she would not be too upset about being let go, explaining, “I don’t think it’s every girl’s dream to be a receptionist” (The Office, “Pilot”). Jim possesses a similar lack of concern. An incident occurs during which Jim surrounds his desk with pencils, all them pointed, graphite-up, at the neighboring salesman, Dwight. Dwight, a safety nut, scolds Jim about workplace rules, after which Jim deadpans, “This is why I don’t really care about downsizing” (The Office, “Pilot”). As the show progresses, Jim illustrates the tedious nature of his job with several pointed lines. He offers the description, “I spend most of my day talking to clients about copier paper…I’m boring myself just talking about this” (The Office, “Pilot”). Later, he discusses the “tonnage price of manila folders” and characterizes his workplace knowledge as “useless information” (“Pilot”). Perhaps the most memorable moment of the episode comes when Jim places Dwight’s stapler inside a Jell-o mold. It is a glimmer of outlandish humor set against a bland, bureaucratic backdrop. It is a moment of individual creativity, of gelatinous, time-consuming tomfoolery that clashes with the institutional framework surrounding it. Throughout the pilot, it is clear that working at Dunder-Mifflin is often a mundane experience, and the employees, most notably Jim and Pam, spend much of their time struggling to deal with the boredom.

Yet the pilot episode also focuses on the importance of employment to each of the show’s characters. During a meeting called to address the possibility of downsizing, many employees demonstrate concern (The Office, “Pilot”). Even supposedly indifferent Pam has a frightening experience. Michael Scott, the boss, is desperate to demonstrate his practical joke skill in front of a new, temporary employee. In order to do so, he calls Pam into his office and pretends to fire her, citing the invented charge of “stealing office suppliers” as a justification (“Pilot”). Holding back laughter, he pours salt in the wound by claiming that, because she was stealing, the company is not obligated to give her any kind of severance package. Pam, visibly upset, bursts into tears. Later, upon finding out about the prank, she shouts, “You’re a jerk,” and storms out of the office (“Pilot”). It is clear from the fake firing scene that, no matter how boring working at Dunder-Mifflin is, the show’s characters still value their jobs.

Throughout the first season, there is a kind of hate-it-but-need-it attitude felt by some of the show’s main characters towards their jobs. Many episodes poke fun at corporate rituals. For example, in “Diversity Day,” a character named Mr. Brown is sent in by corporate to conduct a sensitivity seminar regarding race and ethnicity in the workplace. Michael, unhappy with the seminar’s content, conducts his own exercise in which employees are made to wear various ethnicities on their foreheads. Then, in a give-and-take with other employees, they are made to use stereotypes as a means for guessing which ethnicity they are carrying (The Office, “Diversity Day”). Viewers later find out that the initial training session was ordered solely because of Michael, who has a tendency to be racially insensitive. In fact, as it turns out, the sole purpose of the first seminar was to acquire a signature from Michael as means of removing corporate liability for any potential harassment lawsuit. Michael then makes a mockery of the entire ordeal by signing the form as “Daffy Duck” (“Diversity Day”). The events of the episode turn the standard workplace training session into a fiasco, ridiculing the nature of the ritual.

A subplot of “Diversity Day,” however, finds the usually jovial Jim concerned about cash flow. The diversity seminar is scheduled during Jim’s most important sales call of the year, one that nets him 25 percent of his annual commission (“Diversity Day”). Because of the multiple seminars, however, Jim’s call is repeatedly interrupted. As the episode closes, Jim finally gets a hold of his client only to find out that Dwight has stolen his sale. The episode closes with Jim mournfully placing a bottle of champagne on Dwight’s desk. He had anticipated making the sale and then celebrating, but he realizes that he has been outmaneuvered by his office nemesis (“Diversity Day”). The subplot illustrates that even Jim, the office prankster, is not fully insulated from economic concerns.

Another episode, “Health Care,” finds Dwight in charge of selecting a benefits plan for the rest of the office. The responsibility originally fell to Michael, but instructed to cut costs and terrified of fielding complaints, he decides to give the responsibility to someone else (The Office, “Health Care”). When Dwight asks employees to anonymously write down their diseases so he knows what needs to be covered, Jim and Pam write down exotic and even invented afflictions in order to mock the process. The list’s entries include things like “Ebola,” “Hot Dog Fingers,” and “Spontaneous Dental Hydroplosion,” which involves teeth that turn to liquid and slide down the back of one’s throat. Dwight, unhappy, calls a meeting in which employees are forced into admitting which diseases they wrote down (some of them quite embarrassing), in violation of health confidentiality. The scenario is both ridiculous and hilarious, but the frustration felt by employees upon receiving an unsatisfactory plan at the end of the episode is genuine (“Health Care”). Even as the process of selecting a health care plan is mocked, the episode recognizes its importance.

Finally, “The Alliance” lampoons the office party. In order to boost morale, Michael decides that everyone needs a party. He and Pam then pick the closest upcoming birthday and plan a party to celebrate it. The party is given in honor of a woman named Meredith, who happens to be allergic to dairy products. Still, Michael insists on ordering an ice cream cake (The Office, “The Alliance”). At the party itself, he makes several inappropriate remarks about both Meredith’s age and her recent hysterectomy (“The Alliance”). The party is a mild success otherwise, but possible lay-offs remain at the forefront of employees’ minds. Dwight in particular is concerned, and he attempts to form an “alliance” with Jim, who uses it as an opportunity to involve Pam in an invented conspiracy in order to put Dwight on edge (“The Alliance”). Dwight has the last laugh, however, when Pam’s fiancée, Roy, walks into the office to find Jim and Pam laughing somewhat flirtatiously. Jim tries to explain that they are laughing about Dwight’s “alliance,” but Dwight denies its existence (“The Alliance”). He explains his strategy to the camera with the line, “Throw him to the wolves…That’s politics, baby” (“The Alliance”). Along with “Diversity Day,” “The Alliance” highlights the rivalry between Jim and Dwight. Dwight is more concerned with power and prestige, but Jim is not immune from economic and status concerns. The twin subplots of Meredith’s party and Dwight and Jim’s “alliance” once again highlight the tedious necessity of office work. Much of what goes on in connection with office camaraderie is depicted as awkward and forced, but the episode also recognizes the presence of genuine feelings, both joyous and painful. Meredith is clearly hurt by Michael’s rude remarks, and Jim is clearly threatened by Roy’s anger regarding his office relationship with Pam (“The Alliance”). Office relationships are shown to be banal and farcical, but they are also depicted as possessing an element of authenticity.

In keeping with Burke’s definition, The Office recognizes the important factors involved in a corporate, office setting. It points out absurdities while acknowledging their necessity. Its characters struggle for individual freedom (Dwight seeking to assert authority, Jim and Pam joking and conspiring) within an environment inhospitable to such creativity. Its characters are depicted humanely and given an individual face while the office environment and the power of corporate ritual (mocked though it is) is put on full display.

The complex motivations of Dwight offer viewers an especially clear example of the tensions that inhere within a capitalistic structure. At first glance, he is the coldest, most Darwinian member of the office, justifying a health care cut by claiming that he “never gets sick” (The Office, “Health Care”). He lusts after power, insisting on calling his “temporary work space” an “office,” and deliberately omitting the “to the” in his made up “Assistant to the Regional Manager” title (The Office, “Health Care”). Yet Dwight is also depicted sympathetically at various moments. The episode “Hot Girl,” for example, finds him genuinely crushed after being turned down for a date (The Office, “Hot Girl”). Believing that he has been cuckolded by Michael, he practically begs his boss to back off and let him have the girl just this once (“Hot Girl”). It is a misguided, comedic attempt, but Dwight’s pain is genuine. The Office is quick to complicate even one of its most unflinching, pro-profit characters. If comedy is about fools more than it is about villains, Dwight is a clear example of the former. He is commonly the target of pranks and is overly concerned about dubious office distinctions. He cannot understand that, in order for his “office” to be a symbol of authority, it must be recognized as such by his fellow employees. Still, he is not robotic. He possesses authentic emotions, and he is at times portrayed sympathetically. Dwight, along with Michael Scott, exemplifies Burke’s notion of being mistaken rather than vicious.

The character of Michael Scott is arguably The Office’s most complicated. Many of the episodes find Michael engaging in obnoxious, boorish behavior. He is rude, offensive, and often harassing (The Office). Yet he also possesses a burning desire to fit in and has a tremendous amount of trouble distinguishing office relationships from personal ones. In the pilot episode he states, “I am a friend first, boss second, and probably entertainer third” (The Office, “Pilot”). In “Health Care,” Michael tells the camera that he wants people, and especially employees, to look at him and say, “He’s cool. He’s a great guy” (The Office, “Health Care”). Michael is, in fact, terrified to upset his employees. In “Basketball,” he sets up a game between the office workers and the warehouse workers, placing a bet that requires the losers to come in to work on Saturday. When the office wins, the warehouse workers intimidate Michael into forcing the office workers to come in on Saturday. Yet, faced with complaints, he backs off of even that edict (The Office, “Basketball”). Michael does not want to be the “bad guy,” and “Health Care,” provides another, already cited example of him deferring responsibility because of such fears.

Still, in his desperation to be liked and accepted, there is something endearing about Michael. When Jan asks him to slash health care, he cannot bring himself to do it. In the pilot, he discusses people being the most important part of the company (The Office, “Pilot”). In the final episode, “Hot Girl,” Michael asks an attractive woman for a date but is rejected. At the end of the episode, however, he claims that everything is fine because he would rather spend time with his employees than with girls (The Office, “Hot Girl”). Perhaps he is kidding himself, but whereas Jan comes off as representing the culmination of the profit motive, Michael provides a refreshing foil in that he is clearly concerned about the human side of downsizing and benefit cuts. It is true that he may be concerned for the wrong reasons, but he is concerned nonetheless. Michael Scott is clearly flawed, but he possesses redeeming qualities. He, like Dwight, is the epitome of Burke’s comic fool. He is not a villain, and he is not a criminal. He is merely guilty of stupidity. He is well-intentioned but confused. He is so desperate for approval (specifically in the form of laughs) that he is willing to cross the line of social acceptability in order to get it. His offensive jokes and outlandish behavior are all meant to ingratiate him to his audience. Perhaps the best example is found in “Basketball” where Michael awkwardly imitates the celebratory dance of warehouse worker Daryl after making a basket (The Office, “Basketball”). Daryl’s dance is smooth and effortless. Michael’s is forced and clunky. In the same way that a puppy barks for a treat, Michael models his own actions on those of someone he perceives as “cool” in an awkward attempt to gain approval. Throughout the first season, Michael admirably, often hopelessly attempts to bring an element of human interaction and individual creativity into an institutional environment, bumbling all the while. As a comedic character, he is an expression of the tension between individuals and institutions, between dynamism and rigidly defined social and organizational roles.

As fits Burke’s definition of the comic frame, none of the characters in The Office clearly jump out as villains. Even the warehouse workers come off sympathetically as they attempt to fend off Michael’s insensitive remarks and attempts at camaraderie. The season’s most unlikeable character, Roy, is only unlikeable because of his engagement to Pam, whom clever, attractive Jim clearly has a connection with. Yet Roy’s role as roadblock to romance is not substantial enough to make him a true villain.

In fact, the role of the warehouse characters in the first season of The Office emphasizes another important aspect of Burke’s discussion of the comic frame. Burke is keenly aware of class interests, and he believes comedy’s inability to be fully aware of them is a significant weakness of the frame. The Office, however, attempts to incorporate class elements into its form. The most prominent example of this is the aforementioned episode “Basketball,” in which the members of the office compete in a basketball game against workers from the warehouse (The Office, “Basketball”). The office workers are depicted as being mostly, clean-cut, nicely-attired, and soft-spoken. They are also younger and thinner than their warehouse counterparts (The Office, “Basketball”). Their office environment is clean, computerized, and above ground, whereas the warehouse workers’ environment is cluttered with boxes and machinery used for lifting and moving (“Basketball”). The basketball game presents viewers with what seems to be a natural, harmless conflict. It provides dramatic tension while also seeming like a realistic kind of corporate ritual. Yet the episode makes clear that tensions exist beyond the basketball court. Jim and Roy feud, and Daryl is clearly uncomfortable around Michael. Whereas the office workers largely accept his antics with a grain of salt, Daryl takes them more personally. He agrees to the “loser works on Saturday” bet with a sneer, and it is clear that he very much wants to beat Michael (“Basketball”). The tension is perhaps most clear after the game, when Michael is intimidated by Daryl and company into letting them off the hook for weekend work (“Basketball”).

Still, the episode’s depiction of the office-warehouse rivalry is in no way utterly hostile. It is acknowledged that both sides work for Dunder-Mifflin, and Michael’s status as boss must be handled delicately (“Basketball”). Class-based conflicts are certainly not explored in full during the show’s first season, but they do make appearances. The point is that The Office is an office-centered television show. It revolves around mostly white-collar salesman and does not focus on the nuts-and-bolts work that is done by the people in charge of moving shipments to where they are meant to go. It centers on computers rather than forklifts. In some ways, it falls victim to Burke’s criticism of the comic. Its depiction of the white-collar, office environment is often spot-on, but it loses strength when it attempts to size up the employment situation of the warehouse workers. The warehouse crew plays only a bit role in the unfolding drama.. The show remains focused on the white-collar work environment. The more blue-collar aspects of corporate capitalism are only explored insofar as they impact this larger theme. The Office’s attempt to include other dimensions of the capitalist economy is admirable, and the show does depict the tensions that exist between white-collar and blue-collar environments. It does not, however, fully account for the dilemmas and paradoxes involved in working in the Dunder-Mifflin warehouse. Burke’s class-based criticism of comic frames does apply to The Office, but the show at least makes an effort, unsuccessful though it may be, to take a full view of the modern economic situation.

The real strength of The Office lies in its complex, sophisticated depiction of modern, white-collar, corporate employment. It attempts to view the situation accurately and thoroughly, and it largely succeeds. Paraphrasing Burke’s notion of frames, Beth Bonstetter writes, “How people define situations will also define how they react to them” (63). She adds, “No one in comedy is above being a fool” (66). Sarah Mahan-Hays and Roger Aden agree, writing, “The stories humans use reveal an attitude toward other people and other practices” (36). Fiction provides audiences with a lens through which everyday existence can be viewed. In the same way that comedy is more than that which makes viewers laugh, fiction is more than just stories. According to Bonstetter and Mahan-Hays and Aden, it creates a worldview. It creates an attitude that extends beyond the screen, whether that screen be small or silver. The images that play themselves out on our television sets and in our movie theaters become a kind of filter through which we view the world. Kenneth Burke believed that comedy, thanks to its humane nature, provided an effective kind of frame. The first season of The Office takes his advice to heart. In sizing up a social situation in all its complexity, The Office strives to provide the most accurate view of the modern condition.

In some ways, the humor of The Office comes from the violation of expectation. One would not expect to find abundant and blatant harassment in a corporate setting. Thus, seeing such harassment is humorous. Its very outlandishness provides a laugh. It also depicts discomfort, which often results in a corresponding nervous laugh. Yet there is more going on than simple incongruity or awkwardness. Michael Scott is not the ideal capitalist authority figure, but he is warmly contrasted with the often cold, profit-motivated Jan. Taken together, the two of them present a kind of double-edged critique of capitalism. Jan shows viewers the inhuman side, while Michael illuminates the absurd side. Jan gives audiences lay offs while Michael gives them laughs. With Jan it is all benefits and bottom lines whereas with Michael it is all birthdays and basketball. The show’s other characters avoid endorsing either system. They all want to keep their jobs, but they all find Michael’s behavior inappropriate. If Jan epitomizes the mechanical rigidity of the capitalist hierarchy, Michael might symbolize the need for institutional control. His employees, most notably Jim, Pam, and Dwight, struggle to express themselves in ways that do not clash so dramatically with the given workplace order. In fact, it is Michael’s enshrinement atop the appointed workplace hierarchy that make his actions more than just outlandish. They become something that must be tolerated because they come from a source of legitimate authority. In this way, the show demonstrates the tensions between individuals, institutions, and economic imperatives.

The Office’s illustration of the capitalist workplace is a complex one. Jim, perhaps the show’s most likeable character sums it up best, saying, “Right now, this is just a job. If I were to rise any higher in this company, it would be a career. And if this were my career, I’d have to throw myself in front of a train” (The Office, “Health Care”). Yet quitting is not an option either, and downsizing is a real threat. The Office has captured the capitalist dilemma. On one side it is cold and unfeeling and on the other it is tedious and bureaucratic. There is no way out for the show’s characters. The Office exemplifies Burke’s view of the comic precisely because it examines a social order in all its complicated glory. Michael is the obnoxious but likeable boss whom employees must deal with simply because he has power. There is no changing it, and The Office is in no way revolutionary. When it is not utterly ridiculous, work is tedious and boring. Still the situation is not hopeless. The show’s characters are somehow able to find the joys present in their difficult situation. They find room for individual expression even as the environment is designed to choke it off. An exchange between Jim and Pam sums it up best. Jim asks Pam if she is playing Minesweeper. She responds, “No, Freecell.” He tries to point out a possible move. She is quick to reply, “No. I’m saving that because I like it when the cards go [imitates reshuffling noise]” (The Office, “Diversity Day”). It may not be much, but it summarizes the goal of the comic. Point out a situation’s faults, accept them, make them bearable. It is “equipment for living” at its most useful and most simplistic. Jim and Pam, along with the show’s other characters, are able to retain their humanity within an often dehumanizing environment, finding ways to cope with inherent contradiction.

The Office is a comedy that matters. It identifies problems while finding joys. It looks at a complicated situation in a complex way, and it does so humanely. It presents characters who are well-rounded but not perfect. Even Jim is made a fool of by Dwight (twice). No one is immune. None of its characters are exempt from humane ridicule. The show knows its characters’ limitations, and that is the concept that is at the heart of Burke’s notion of the comic. Its characters are not heroes. They are simple people at the mercy of history, searching for a way to cope. The Office’s characters are stuck in a corporate, capitalist setting, but the show finds ways to humanize them in spite of it. Exploring modern capitalism in an often light-hearted yet still insightful way, The Office does not shy away from complexity. Its characters are placed within a difficult environment, and they are shown both sympathetically and unflatteringly. The show is able to exemplify the best qualities of Burke’s description of the comic frame by emphasizing absurdities and tensions. The Office provides a sophisticated look at modern capitalism with scenes of bureaucracy, tediousness, and ridiculous behavior, all depicted in a humane manner. It may not be revolutionary, but it is a comedy with bite and sophistication.

Comic Power

The Office presents a worldview that emphasizes fallibility and collectivity. None of the show’s characters is immune from error and none of its characters are portrayed as villains. Its depiction of the modern situation has much to offer viewers as it presents a productive “frame of acceptance.” Jeanette Castillo’s dissertation, titled “Agonistic Democracy and the Narrative of Distempered Elites: An Analysis of Citizen Discourse on Political Message Forums,” explores the ways in which various frames impact political discourse. Building on Burke’s notion of the comic, she writes, “Burke’s ‘comic corrective’ prevents closure in moments of conflict. Perhaps more importantly, it emphasizes the quality of the process and the individual interactions that constitute the process over specific outcomes” (182). For Castillo, employing Burke’s comic frame allows for a discussion that moves away from a dichotomous “Us-and-Them” approach by refusing to frame things in absolute terms. Rather than being about right and wrong, the comic frame is about the ways in which individuals interact with each other and the system. It asks the discourse be built upon an understanding foundation, paying less attention to the final result. The Office exemplifies this kind of approach. The prevailing order is never questioned, and “the outcome” is always that corporate capitalism continues on unimpeded. Yet within an often oppressive, often banal structure, individuals act, react, and interact in ways designed to ease the burden of the system. The Office has little room for absolute heroes. Instead there are moments of subdued heroism combined with moments of supreme foolishness. Its characters make mistakes, but they are portrayed sympathetically as they do so. Their fallibility is evident, but is so is their resilience and their humanity. The Office is able to differentiate the individual from the structure, in the process presenting a worldview that emphasizes fallibility and collectivity. It expresses the need for individuals to find room for dynamic creativity within rigid systems, and it does so by pointing out the potential for foolishness among all of its characters. Dwight, who lusts after dubious power, can be foolish. Michael, who constantly pushes the boundaries of institutional acceptability, can be a fool. Even Jim and Pam, who play games and pranks to amuse and express themselves at work, can be fools. All are depicted with a necessary element of human and authenticity. For The Office it is not “Us vs. Them.” It is all “Us and more Us.”

Of course, this is not to say that the show is wholly relativistic either. Clearly, some aspects of corporate capitalism are pointed to as flawed. The Office is, however, quick to recognize the fallibility of human judgment. It does not shy away from declaring wrongs, but it is careful not to couch those declarations in absolute terms. To err is human. And perhaps to judge is human. What The Office, or more precisely, Burke’s comic frame in general, helps to illustrate is that sometimes to judge is also to err. It is this tendency that is placed front and center in the truly comic, and it becomes the basis for its productive, sympathetic worldview. Villains are not always as they seem, and, neither for that matter are heroes. It is this essential human truth that the comic strives to uphold.

In an article titled “Villains, Victims, and the Virtuous in Bill O’Reilly’s ‘No Spin Zone’: Revisiting World War Propaganda Techniques,” Conway, Grabe, and Grieves, argue that the “Us vs. Them” approach underlies most propaganda (201). They write, “In political speech, the ‘devil-angel interpretation’ is employed to label the enemy as sinister and our government as open and trusting” (201). It is a destructive approach, designed to place one side fundamentally above the other. And, while Conway, Grabe, and Grieves focused on Bill O’Reilly’s use of the binary, they also point out that it is not unique to the right. They write, “Future studies should act on another…suggestion to look at left-leaning communicators. In a post-modern media environment, every communication zone—from opinion to hard news—has a spin” (218). In a world where MSNBC has become the left’s version of Fox News, The Office, as an example of the comic frame,holds special importance.

Where the satire and humor of John Stewart and Steve Colbert can add fuel to the “Us and Them” fire, The Office allows for a recognition of the collectivity of modernity. Capitalism is a major target in the modern academy, perhaps rightly so. Yet the barbs lobbed at it can still to uphold a people vs. the system underpinning. The Office is well-taken in this environment in that recognizes that the system itself is made up of people. It is made up of individuals who, rather than promote revolution, struggle against its oppressive qualities. Critiques of the system itself, from left and right, are especially prone to emphasizing the destructive “Us and Them” dichotomy that separates the world into revolutionaries and oppressors. The Office is a sterling reminder of a worldview that refuses to engage in such absolute judgments. It is a reminder that people who make up the system, even the powerful Managers, the Michael Scotts and corporate VPs of the world, are no more heroic and no less foolish than the rest of us. Indeed, they are merely us. The Office promotes acceptance of the given capitalist order without whitewashing its faults or vilifying its contributors. It provides a reminder of a difficult lesson. We cannot whitewash our own faults in pointing out those of others. Abstracting perceived villains into unknown “Thems” is both easy and destructive. The Office provides a compelling example of an approach that avoids such simplification, becoming in the process a powerful illustration of the virtues of Burke’s comic frame.

*Brett Biebel will be graduating from the University of Minnesota with a Master of Arts degree in Communication Studies. He’s lived in the Midwest his whole life, spending time in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. He loves all things athletic, especially Major League Baseball and small college basketball. Favorite authors include Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut. He can be contacted at bieb0030@umn.edu

Works Cited

“The Alliance” The Office. NBC. 12 Apr. 2005.

“Basketball” NBC. 19 Apr. 2005.

Bonstetter, Beth. "An Analytical Framework of Parody and Satire: Mel Brooks and his World." Diss. University of Minnesota, 2008.

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. Berkley, CA: University of California P, 1984.

Castillo, Jeanette. “Agonistic Democracy and the Narrative of Distempered Elites: An Analysis of Citizen Discourse on Political Message Forums.” Dissertation. Department of Telecommunications, Indian University. August 2008 <http://www.toofunproductions.com/CastilloDiss.pdf>.

Conway, Mike, Maria Elizabeth Grabe, and Kevin Grieves. “Villains, Victims, and the Virtuous in Bill O’Reilly’s ‘No Spin Zone’: Revisiting World War Propaganda Techniques.” Journalism Studies 8, 2: 197-223. April 2007. Communication and Mass Media Complete. Web. 19 October 2009.

“Diversity Day” The Office. NBC. 29 Mar. 2005.

“Health Care” The Office. NBC. 5 Apr. 2005.

“Hot Girl” The Office. NBC. 26 Apr. 2005.

Mahan-Hays, Sarah, and Roger Aden. "Kenneth Burke's "Attitude" at the Crossroads of Rhetorical and Cultural Studies: A Proposal and Case Study Illustration." Western Journal of Communication 67 (2003): 32-55. Communication and Mass Media Complete. EBSCOHost. University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis, MN. 14 Mar. 2009 <http://www.ebscohost.com>.

“Pilot” The Office. NBC. 24 Mar. 2005.
Rabin, Nathan. “The Meeting.” AVClub.com. The Onion AV Club, 24 September 2009. Web. 23 October 2009 <http://www.avclub.com/articles/the-meeting,33332/>.

“TV Guide Names Top 50 Shows.” CBSNews.com. CBS News, 26 April 2002. Web. 3 May 2009 <http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/04/26/entertainment/main507388.shtml>.

Appalachia: Where the Squids Hate the Chalkies

Nick Bowman, Young Harris College and Jeremy Groskopf, Georgia State University


In November 2004, [adult swim] previewed an animated show about a family of quasi-anthropomorphic, endangered land squids living in the Appalachian region of northern Georgia. This show, Squidbillies, is typical in its portrayal of the Cuyler family as an impoverished, uneducated and fiercely xenophobic family of hillbillies reminiscent of other Hollywood representations of the Appalachian region. Although on its surface the show appears to be yet another satire about hillbillies and rednecks, further investigation into the show’s narrative reveals an emergent concept of otherness in how the writers portray non-Appalachian groups, specifically suburban whites (referred to as “yogurt lovin’ ‘Chalkies’”). In these depictions, the writers use satire to express a sense of self-depreciating humor toward their own culture. This paper examines the concept of otherness emergent in Squidbillies, specifically focusing on how the priming of the hillbilly stereotype is used as a literary device to introduce and comment on Chalkie culture.

[to Durwood]: “You were smart enough to get your GED and get the hell out, you don’t have to prove a thing to these…people!” ~ Fiona, on her first impression of the squidbillies.

The stereotype of the hillbilly – sitting on his front porch, barefoot, unkempt, unemployed, and unencumbered by the trappings of the modern world – is common in motion pictures and television. Its presence extends from early silent era film shorts like 1905's Kentucky Feud, to 1960s television success The Beverly Hillbillies, to the recent-albeit-aborted reality television series The Real Beverly Hillbillies (since made into a documentary film called The True Adventures of the Real Beverly Hillbillies in 2007).[1] Comic strips and animation have also engaged with the hillbilly stereotype. The 1930s comic strip Li’l Abner was one of the first successful comics to feature hillbilly portrayals exclusively. Animators at Warner Brothers were also particularly fond of the Appalachian backwoods bumpkin, making several cartoons with hillbilly characters from the early 1930s to the late 1950s.[2] The apparently aggressive use of humor surrounding the image of the hillbilly certainly ranks as one of the most common disparaging images of the American southerner.

In November 2004, The Cartoon Network late-night programming block [adult swim] previewed an animated show about a family of quasi-anthropomorphic squids living in the Appalachian region of northern Georgia: Squidbillies. This show, written by Jim Fortier and Dave Willis, is reminiscent of other Hollywood representations of the Appalachian region in its portrayal of the Cuyler family as an impoverished, uneducated and fiercely xenophobic family of hillbillies. However, much like the Warner Brothers cartoons fifty years earlier, the 'otherness' of the hillbilly stereotype is rendered in complicated fashion in this animated series. Although on its surface, the show appears to be yet another satire about hillbillies and rednecks, further investigation into the show’s narrative reveals an emergent concept of otherness in how the writers portray non-Appalachian groups, such as suburban Whites. The final two episodes from the 2009 season – “Reunited, and It Feels No Good” (Episode 49) and “Not Without My Cash Cow!”(Episode 50) – display the contentious relationship between the hillbilly Cuyler family (Granny, Early, Rusty, and Lil) and the inter-'racial' Chalkie family (Durwood, Fiona, and two unnamed children) as the two families fight over possession of the squidbilly son, Rusty, and the “government money checks” that are to provide for his care.[3] In the nested depiction of 'otherness' that occurs with these two families, the writers use satire to express a sense of self-depreciating humor towards their own suburban Caucasian culture.

Our paper examines the concept of otherness emergent in two episodes of Squidbillies, specifically focusing on how the priming of the hillbilly stereotype in these episodes is used as a literary device to invite the audience into a humorous and revealing critique of the white, suburban status quo that challenges the perceived superiority of one culture (upper-middle class whites) over another (hillbillies). First, we discuss the concept of ‘otherness’ and its meaning to the current study, as well as our understanding of the Burkeian concepts of identification and dramatism as they relate to ‘otherness.’ Related to this, we introduce our understanding of the benign scapegoat as a rhetorical method of offering social criticism without solution, and how humor can be used as a talking cure to alleviate the mental pain stemming from such criticism. Then, we present evidence in support of our assertions regarding the use of the ‘hillbilly’ stereotype as a commentary on the suburban white subculture, using both exemplars from the highlighted episodes as well as interview notes with the show’s creators and writers.

Otherness, identification, and Burke

In our understanding of otherness, we refer to Burke’s (1950) discussion of identification; that is, the notion that the interests of one party ‘A’ are joined with the interests of another party ‘B’. To us, otherness is the extent to which we can distinguish the other ‘B’ as something separate from our own reflective ‘A’. We feel that this understanding is in line with Burke’s (1950) explanation of consubstantiation, which explains that while A and B might be united in some substance (i.e., some common idea or attitude), they are not united in corporeal form. In application to the current study, we conceptualize the squidbilly characters – the ‘hillbilly’ land squid characters in Squidbillies – as distinct others, while we (as well as the show writers, as is revealed later in this manuscript) identify with the “Chalkies” – the Caucasian caricatures who are the subject of tendentious commentary throughout both of the presented episodes. Presented in the form of Burke’s pentad, we can begin to understand the ultimate motivation of the writer’s (and, to the extent that one identifies with the writers as we have stated, our own) metaphorical creation. While a complete rehashing of the Burkeian dramatistic pentad is beyond the scope of this paper[4] , we will use the pentadic structure of explaining the Act, Agent, Agency, Scene and Purpose with a specific focus on the ratio between the Purpose (dominant) and Agency (non-dominant) to further explain the show’s goal using the tragic hillbilly stereotype as the literary device for purposes of highlighting the banality and absurdity of the white suburban status quo.

Scapegoating and the ‘talking cure’

Typically, when one discusses the role of scapegoating they are referring to a rhetorical device that is employed to expose, demonize, and eventually force the removal of a perceived societal cancer. This tactic, according to Braden’s (2000) interpretation of Burke, is used by those in positions of authority to heap the blame and guilt of in-group failures onto a third party in hopes of marginalizing this third party and driving them from societal prominence[5] . While the notion of a scapegoat has been well-documented, a rather unique off-shoot of this practice is the benign scapegoat, in which the rhetor continually attempts to identify a scapegoat of which they have no real plans of destroying. Braden (2000) offers an explanation of the benign scapegoat – the notion that a group might be made a scapegoat without actually being removed. An application of Braden’s assertion is the 1980 presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan, who often attacked the then-current government as being liberal and intrusive into the lives of private citizens. Reagan’s use of the benign scapegoat is one of misdirection more so than maliciousness – claiming to be against ‘Big Government’ as code for Democrats and/or liberals rather than championing for the actual removal of government – and he used these rhetorical devices to gain favor with the larger population, eventually securing himself eight years as the 40th President of the United States by carrying 44 states and a 440-point Electoral College margin. The concept of the benign scapegoat as explained by Braden (2000) can be applied to some extent to help us understand the hillbilly portrayals present in Squidbillies not as an attempt to disparage and purge Appalachian people from society, but rather to introduce a comparative anxiety in need of deeper thought and consideration.

The introduction of any sort of anxiety, of course, brings with it the need for a cure, as individuals are motivated to preserve the self by obtaining and sustaining an optimal level of emotional and experiential homeostasis (cf. Zillmann & Bryant, 1985; Bowman, 2010). In this case, as the social anxiety is induced through rhetoric, rhetoric might also be the tonic. Indeed the notion of rhetoric as a talking cure is not a novel one, as it was first introduced by famed psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, who championed the use of language and rhetoric as a psychiatric cure. Simons (1989) further explains Burke’s application of the talking cure to the field of rhetorical analysis:

In any attempt to achieve an understanding of the unconscious, the unconscious functioning of language is a strategic point of departure. The fact that language compels its speakers to articulate structures largely unconscious to them provided an important window through which to view the much larger sphere of unconsciously followed patterns of social activity (pp. 80)

For Burke, talking through rhetorical dilemmas was more than simply a way to alleviate individual anxiety but, in fact, was also a useful way of achieving greater social and mental health (Woods, 2009). The notion of the talking cure is especially prevalent in studies of comedy whichconceive ofhumoras a form of 'carnivalesque': thepalatabledelivery of social critiquein an isolated, humorousevent (Bakhtin 1941).

Hillbilly identification

Explorations of 'otherness' are common place in scholarship on media portrayals, but most rely on a rather straightforward interpretation of the 'other' as the negative half of a binary (the group with which one does not identify), or the group from which the rhetoric alienates us as Kenneth Burke would have it. Frierson (1998) is typical of this approach, in which he argues that Warner Brothers cartoons:

reinforc[e] a negative image of mountain life...[which] fits neatly within...broader...stereotypes of the South, which teach us that in addition to talking funny, southerners generally are slow, lazy, and quick to become violent. (pp. 99)

Cooke-Jackson and Hansen (2008) are even more strident in their claims about the negative impact of stereotypes. In their discussion of Appalachian women, they write:

Entertainment media, for the sake of a laugh, depicts poor Appalachian women as barefoot and pregnant. This humor based on stereotypes leads media consumers, who are unfamiliar with the culture, to believe that all poor Appalachian women are indeed barefoot and pregnant. (pp. 187)

This type of one-sided assumption that any media stereotype must ipso facto be negative, damaging, and utterly unquestioned by the audience is the typical reading of hillbilly imagery. However, a few articles on otherness have taken an alternate tack, arguing that the 'other' is a position not necessarily devoid of goodness and positive value. Magoc (1991) argues that clear critiques of modern society exist in programs like The Beverly Hillbillies in which, in one episode, Jed is thwarted in his attempt to donate a massive amount of money to the government for environmentalist research by his banker, who represents “the inertia of modern institutions and the power of structure...[to] keep environmental problems from being solved” (pp. 29). Though much of the series was simple hillbilly humor, the program had an edge to it which allowed for a critique of the modern urban lifestyle as well. It is along these lines that the present essay with move. For the balance of this paper, we will argue that while Squidbillies certainly devotes a substantial amount of time chiding hillbillies for their perceived backward ways, this chiding is used as a narrative device in order to bring the audience along on a critique of a far less often maligned population: themselves.

Squidbillies defined

So, what is a squidbilly? Show writer Dave Willis explains simply that “they’re rednecks…they huff and they scratch lottery tickets; they’re hillbilly squids” (Willis, 2010). In the third season of Squidbillies, a squidbilly is explained as an “ignorant land squid”; a protected endangered species native to Dougal County, a fictitious county supposedly located in northern Georgia (Fortier & Willis, 2008). Although their diet often consists of little more than “mud pies and turpentine” (Fortier & Willis, 2008), squidbillies are quasi-anthropomorphic[6] and live relatively typical Western lives, driving large trucks and living in (comparatively) modern homes. So far as the audience knows, the Cuyler family and their progeny are the only remaining living land squids.[7]

The show itself is an exercise in surreal humor, using a juxtaposition of the hillbilly stereotype placed upon the fictitious land squid. According to both Fortier (2010) and Willis (2010), one benefit of this approach is that it allows for the use of relatively specific and topical humor – such as jokes about race relations and bigotry – while avoiding the complications of addressing such topics in a more traditional, more blunt fashion. However, it breaks from typical surrealism in that the show is nearly void of non-sequiturs; that is, the narrative progresses rather smoothly from start to finish. The show is broadcast on Turner Broadcasting’s Cartoon Network channel during their [adult swim] lineup, which is a collection of adult-themed cartoons, surrealist humor programming (both animated and live-action), and Japanese anime programs that airs from 10:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m. EST. [adult swim] is routinely a ratings boon for late-night programming, consistently earning the largest cable television audience numbers for adults 18-34, 18-24, and men 18-34 and 18-24 (Seidman, 2010), with Squidbillies itself ranking as one of the 10 most popular telecasts for all four of these audience segments (Gorman, 2009).[8]

Figure 1. Enter Squidbillies.
Title screen for ‘Squidbillies’. The show is currently enjoying its fifth season of programming on Cartoon Network’s [adult swim] late-night line-up.

Summary of analyzed episodes

The two episodes of Squidbillies analyzed for this study are the final two episodes of season four. These two episodes – “Reunited, and It Feels No Good” (Episode 49) and “Not Without My Cash Cow!”(Episode 50) – are selected for analysis specifically because of their specific focus on the dialectic between the native land squids and the ‘Chalkie scourge’ which provides ample fodder for our investigation. In Episode 49, Early’s cousin Durwood (who appears in whiteface, wearing a polo shirt, cargo shorts and a Bluetooth headset clipped behind his left ear) brings his family – including his Caucasian wife Fiona and his two mixed-race children – to the country. Notably, the motive for their initial visit is not revealed to the audience until later. Upon their arrival (they pull up in a red SUV listening to soft rock a lá Kenny G), Early immediately gropes and grabs Fiona, telling Durwood that he’d like to “put the wood to [his] wife” (see Figure 2). Horrified by Rusty’s maltreatment, and prompted by an art project Rusty presents Durwood – which is clearly a call for help – Durwood convinces Fiona and their children to take Rusty back to the city for a few days; later, it is revealed to the viewer (but not to Rusty) that he is being kidnapped. At first, Early is far from upset about the loss of his child. However, when Lil proclaims that without Rusty, the family will “stop getting those free government money checks”, Early breaks down and sobs: “It’s wrong that they took you from your daddy!”

Figure 2. Early Cuyler is introduced to Fiona.
Early Cuyler (left) is introduced to his cousin Durwood’s wife, Fiona. Durwood is pictured with his whiteface disguise, polo shirt, smartphone, and other decidedly ‘Chalkie’ regalia.

Episode 50 begins with a visit from The Sheriff, who has come to the Cuyler home to deliver the government money check. After discovering the boy is gone, The Sheriff launches an investigation into his disappearance (after first launching a flare gun in the Cuyler’s living room that destroys much of the home’s interior). The scene changes to Durwood and his family, who are driving back to suburban Atlanta with Rusty in the car. Meanwhile, Early and Granny hold a press conference where it becomes obvious to the audience that they know little about Rusty, explaining only that “the boy did exist…he did have interests” and, with tearful remorse, Early asks for his government money check. This press conference is picked up on all major television networks, which Durwood discovers when his family and Rusty (who appears with a newly-groomed haircut) gather around their large, flat-screen television. Back in the mountains, Early and Granny continue to discuss their woes - and to plead for more money – on the television talk show circuit. Granny exclaims that “we will not rest until our baby Rusty is found…but we will pace ourselves, because we do not want to step on the golden goose” (at which point, Early shows off his new riding lawn mower and Granny promotes an energy drink as part of her new endorsement package). Shifting back to Durwood’s home, we see that he has left for work, leaving Rusty and Fiona at home while the kids are in school. At this time, it is revealed that Durwood has actually been terminated from his job as an insurance adjuster, and rather spends his day at a male strip club “Flesh Dudes”; dressed in a suit and tie, we see Durwood on the phone with child services inquiring about whether or not his forced adoption (re: kidnapping) of Rusty Cuyler will qualify him for a “government money check”. Back at home, we see Fiona drinking heavily from her box of wine and sexually soliciting Rusty, asking him if he’s “ever inked on a grown woman before”. Fiona and a hesitant Rusty retire to the bedroom, when Durwood comes home early from work to find them in a sexually compromising position. Durwood and Fiona argue, beating Rusty savagely in the process, before sending Rusty back to the mountains in a burlap sack. Early and Granny are setting up for another photo shoot and television interview – by now, they display a very informed and knowledgeable understanding of media production techniques (including taking a pause in responding to Rusty’s return home to wait for the noise from an airplane flying overhead to dissipate), and the family is happily reunited. [9]


Chalkies in the pentad

In placing the show’s narrative into the dramatistic pentad proposed by Burke (1948), we are asked to answer five questions: “What purposeful act has taken place?” (act), “Who took this action?” (agent), “How or with what did they do it?” (agency), “Where, when and in what context did the act take place?” (scene), and “Why did they do it, or what was their intention?” (purpose). Notably, rather than applying the pentad to discrete, exemplar situations from our Squidbillies episodes, we present a ‘meta-pentad’ of sorts that attempts to provide answers to the above questions drawing from overarching, emergent themes in the two episodes discuss in the current paper. This pentad is applied under the interpretive frame of satire, fitting in line with the expressed creative intentions of Fortier and Willis.

Act. Throughout the program, the “Chalkies” are lambasted for their perceived normalcy; that is, their ultimate flaw of being a (stereo)typical white suburban family is under constant scrutiny from Early and, by extension, the show writers and the audience-at-large. While no one act is described here per se, we refer to all tendentious units of humor directed at the “Chalkies” as a single act for purposes of argumentation; that is, the constant derision – or the act of deriding – of the white suburbanite is constant and ever-present in these two episodes.

Agent. The constant “Chalkies” derisions are perpetrated by the Cuyler family qua the show writers' semantic constructions.[10] If we understand Early Cuyler as the protagonist and the focus of Squidbillies, we can conceptualize him as the writer’s primary voice in response to the temporal nature of the ’Chalkie scourge’; in this case, Durwood and his visit to the Cuyler mountain home. At the onset, Durwood and the “Chalkies” are originally portrayed as saviors of baby Rusty’s malnutrition and thus constructed as the antithesis of what one would expect from the morally and socially inferior hillbilly Cuyler family. However, as the narrative progresses, we see Fortier and Willis turn the tables on Durwood, showing him and his Chalkie family as increasingly absurd. Between their reliance on digital media for family entertainment, the sexual unfaithfulness between Durwood and Fiona, the disrepair of their family unit (including one instance where the Chalkie son screams at his mother, “I’m going to get a tattoo on the back of my neck that says Fuck You”) and their eventual lack of compassion for Rusty, it is the Chalkie family that becomes morally and socially inferior. In the end, the Cuylers are shown to be at least equal to Durwood and his Chalkie brood, and at most the Cuylers appear in some respects to be even more genuine and sincere. As Fortier explains:

“As we were building the scripts for these shows – especially the second episode [which largely takes place at Durwood’s home] – we wanted to viewer to realize that, in the end, Durwood and the ‘Chalkies’ differ little from Early and the hillbillies. The only difference between Durwood and Early is that Durwood wears a suit and tie. (Fortier, 2010)

Agency. The ”Chalkies” are chided for their chalkiness with sight gags and verbal jabs directed at their actions and circumstances (i.e., Early’s comments about Durwood’s consumerism, and the numerous sight gags involving Durwood’s Chalkie wardrobe and his pathetic attempts to hide his own squidbilly-ness, see Figure 3), as well as the manner in which their family dynamic is presented in subtle-yet-satirical form (i.e., the antagonistic relationship between Durwood and Fiona, driving him to frequent male strip clubs and her to a regimen of muscle relaxers and wine-from-a-box). In the end, the hillbilly humor one would normally expect in Squidbillies is turned into a series of puns directed at chipping away at the presumably perfect Chalkie façade.

Figure 3. Durwood revealed.
Durwood in Chalkie disguise (left) and in natural form (right).

Scene. While the physical setting of the show shifts from Cuyler’s meager mountain home to Durwood’s suburban ‘McMansion’, the semantic scene of the ‘family portrait’ is ever-present; the acts and actors mentioned above are always made in relation to the larger family dynamic. One example of this – perhaps one of the most prevalent – is the similarity of the relationship between Early and Rusty as well as Durwood and Rusty (the ‘government money check’ relationship). The semantic scene of the family unit becomes increasingly important as the show’s focus shifts from hillbilly chiding to Chalkie derision, as Fortier and Willis use this scene to show the dysfunctionality of Durwood, Fiona, and their children’s interrelationships (as mentioned earlier). As the Chalkie family crumbles into dysfunction, the Cuyler family comes together, however fleeting the feelings of goodwill might be.

Purpose. In the end, the two Squidbillies episodes to which the afore-mentioned pentad are applicable serve to remind us of the absurdity of the white suburban status quo. With nearly 80 percent of Americans living in suburban and urban areas and 77 percent of American’s self-reporting as white or Caucasian (nationmaster.com, n.d.), there is a large audience for such commentary and, arguably, a need to remind oneself about the dangers of this hegemonic self-satisfaction. While hillbilly and ‘other’ humor aimed at minority or so-called fringe populations abounds in popular entertainment media, often the assumed dominance and superiority of the ruling Chalkie class is not open for discussion. Fortier (2010) explains that:

[in the Chalkie episodes] we’re making fun of suburbia. We’re making fun this notion of how the ‘saviors’ next door – the white, well-to-do suburbanites – will come and save everything. In the end, we see that Durwood’s ‘saving’ of Rusty is a sham. (Fortier, 2010)[11]

Having this pentad allows us to perhaps understand more clearly the substance of Squidbillies narrative, but it also allows us to examine certain important ratios, or relations, between separate pentadic elements. Although any combination of the above pentadic elements can be used to construct different permutations of our arguments, we focus specifically on the relationship between the Purpose as a dominant element influencing the Agency of the satire; specifically, how the Purpose (deconstructing the assumed white suburban status quo as a flawed assumption more so than a natural truth) influences the Agency (constructing and implementing a series of puns directed at ridiculing them as “Chalkies” by showing their equivalence or subversion to a commonly-accepted buffoon group of hillbillies). This ratio is of particular importance, because it is the platform by which the rest of the show and, in the end, the commentary is based upon; moreover, it is a ratio not apparent at the onset of the narrative arc but painfully focused at the conclusion.

As the first episode begins, we see Early and his family literally eating dirt and celebrating their family dynamic outside of their dilapidated mountain home. As Lil prepares the dirt pies, Early appears to blow off the entire shindig for a sit on the front porch when he spots Durwood driving up in his shiny red SUV. Durwood and Fiona discuss how the children should behave around the Cuylers – including applying antibacterial “everywhere” – and, before they can even introduce themselves Early promptly attaches his tentacles to Fiona’s face and chest. As the first episode continues, we see the standard Squidbillies lineup of hillbilly puns and humor (see earlier discussion of episode 49, “Reunited, and It Feels No Good”). However, as previously stated, this rather pedestrian plot line is used to draw the audience into the true focus of the “Chalkie scourge”; that is, the intensified chiding of the triteness of the white middle class that reveals the true Purpose of these episodes and the Agency with which it is achieved. Willis explains:

To us [Willis and Fortier], this collection of Squidbillies episodes was one of the more unique episodes. The first episode was really just a bunch of puns on and about hillbillies, nothing unusual there…the second episode was much more surprising – even to us. It was more about who we are…it was more about us [as ‘Chalkies’]. (Willis, 2010).

Indeed, our analysis follows from Willis’ assertions regarding the different tact of the latter episode, as it is in this episode that we see the true Purpose of the show revealed. From the show’s onset we see Early in the car with his adopted brother and sister, tentacles glued to their portable electronic devices and attitudes derisively primed against their progeny. While Early appears increasingly genuine and sincere, his adopted siblings appear increasingly shallow and bratty. While Fiona has always appeared to be equally shallow, we see Durwood’s true intentions for saving Rusty from the Cuylers (to cover his own unemployment using the free government money checks that would result from adopting the baby Rusty). By the time the narrative has been concluded, we see that the “Chalkies” have been devolved from a position of moral and tangible superiority at the start of the first episode – appearing as saviors to a clearly neglected baby Rusty - to a position of moral and tangible corruptness that places them equal to or even below that of the lowly hillbilly stereotype. In fact, the show’s reliance on the accepted and anticipated string of “puns on and about hillbillies” successfully sets up the eventual Purpose of these episodes – to cause the audience to question the white suburban status quo.

About hillbillies, or about ‘us’?

Rather than using hillbilly humor as an endpoint for tendentious humor in which the laughs come at the expense of the moronic actions of the rural poor, Squidbillies uses its hillbilly stereotype in these episodes as a starting point for a more reflective form of what we call 'self-othering'. That is, Fortier and Willis use the familiarity of the classic Appalachian typecast to introduce the audience to a much wider critique of predominant white suburban culture that comprises much of the show’s constituency. Seldes explains that, in typical humorous images of the hillbilly constantly drinking and feuding with his equally moronic neighbor, “the American humorist...jeers at the stupidities of the stupid, and seems not aware of the fact that a prime object of satire is the stupidity of the intelligent” (as cited by Frierson, 1998, pp. 89).

In the Chalkie episodes, the Squidbillies writers seem to be answering Seldes' critique by playing both sides – the 'stupidities of the stupid' share equal billing with the 'stupidities of the intelligent,' or, to be more accurate, the stupidities of the hillbilly share space with those of the city dweller. Instead of a blood feud between rural families, the squidbillies in these episodes are feuding with an urban, wealthy family which proclaims itself as a different race (or species), but which shares more than a passing resemblance to the squidbillies themselves; this is made especially clear with both Early and Durwood’s desire for a free government money check as a motivation for showing affection toward Rusty.

The wind up for such a delivery is long and complex, and deserves lengthy attention at the outset, as it is the foundation upon which the self-critique rests. Rather than take the hillbilly as an inherently humorous symbolic image of the rural poor perpetually feuding with each other, writers Willis and Fortier overlay numerous other symbolic identifiers onto the squidbillies, turning them into a remarkably complicated rhetorical image that, though ‘othered’ via the still very apparent hillbilly stereotype, actually directs the bulk of the show's persuasive venom at the white male suburbanite – more explicitly, at the suburbanite who denies his heritage amongst the rural poor[12] . Most overtly, this happens through inexplicable media savviness and racial coding; the latter is pursued from two angles: racism and 'passing'.

To start with the simplest first, the Cuylers are not simply backwoods hillbillies; they are, in fact, preternaturally aware of the media and how it is used and abused. Despite being so poverty stricken that, when showing off their house, they say things like “here's that room I was tellin’ you about” (the entirety of their home’s interior consists of one room) and “this is our window” (in both episodes, the home is shown with only one visible window), they have a deep knowledge of both television and the Internet. In typical fashion, the hillbillies are portrayed as not only lazy and unemployed but willing to leap at the chance to sell their image to the media (see Figure 4).[13]

Figure 4. The Cuylers address the media.
Early and Granny Cuyler address the media, pleading for the safe return of their baby Rusty…Early: “the boy did exist…he did have interests”.

The father figure, Early, calls Nancy Grace in attempting to have their plight televised for an audience. When Rusty is 'taken', they start a website for his return: “Find Baby Rusty dot Love” (findbabyrusty.luv). They also have an intense awareness of manipulative media practices; while shooting a television interview on their front porch, “the archetypal stage for hillbilly culture”[14] , they pause for an airplane to pass overhead (so as not to disturb the sound), airbrush a 'six-pack' onto Early's chest, and discuss the editing structure of manipulative documentaries (such as “whenever the v.o. [voice-over] says 'mired in poverty,' they just love to cut to that dead chicken,” and “look at that deflated snowman; that is symbolic as hell!”). Though it is never clear how they know these things, their sensitivity to media turns the Cuyler family into decidedly modern bumpkins.

The squidbillies are also deeply racist, but in order to get around the taboo subject of Southern racism, they are coded as non-white (in this case, they are literally cast as land squids, and are acutely aware of their species), with the object of the racist language being whites, or in the show’s parlance, “Chalkies”.[15] In this way, they are able to scatter derogatory, racially-inflected phrases like “creamy white sign-up sheet” and “yogurt lovin' chalk-hole” throughout their dialogue. Show writer Jim Fortier explains that while the dialogue and narrative are inspired by a satirical look at the world surrounding the Cuyler family (that is, the perception of Georgia – and specifically rural Georgians – as racists), the transgression are being perpetrated by squids, and not any one recognizable human character (Fortier, 2010):[16]

You have to ask yourself, who are the characters in this show? Are they supposed to be white? Black? Hillbilly? Some other race or ethnic group? Nope…they are squids! They don’t identify with any other group, and this opens up the possibilities for us to make commentaries about real-world perceptions. If we simply had black characters criticizing white ones, or white characters rallying against black characters, the humor just wouldn’t work. (Fortier, 2010)

Interestingly, the “Chalkies” themselves are not represented purely as white (or, for that matter, purely human). In fact, only one white human exists in the family – the mother, Fiona. The father, Durwood, is actually a member of the Cuyler family (relationship unspecified) married to Fiona and 'passing' for white; on several occasions, he is shown touching up his 'whiteface' make-up. Durwood and Fiona have also produced two 'mulatto' offspring, one with a squid face but a human body, the other just a squid with human hair. Effectively, then, Durwood is engaging in 'passing'; by concealing his land squid body in Chalkie clothing and altering the tone of his skin, he is able to construct a marginally convincing impression that he is, in fact, a Chalkie rather than a squid. This image of Durwood engaging in the traditional act of a racial other 'passing for white' (in this case, 'passing for Chalkie') normatively accomplishes two things. First, it brings the racism of the hillbillies out of the stereotype of the Appalachian backwoods squids and into the city. Durwood's need to 'pass' implies that the racist behavior of the squidbillies might simply be the unvarnished version of pervasive racism in the cities as well – and a racism that works both ways, as in the cities it is the squid who hides his identity. In fact, when Granny refers to the children as 'mixed nuts' and ‘pistachios’, Durwood politely chastises her with the phrase “the kids have enough trouble at school without having to hear it from family.” The racism thus leaves the realm of convenient stereotype and permeates the world. Secondly, however, it also allows for the racial theme of the program to cross over into class distinctions. From this perspective, it is less his race or species that Durwood is attempting to conceal, but his origin in a rural family that is poor, uncouth, and stupid. As a class distinction, the whiteface is emblematic of a more personal form of shame.

It is Durwood's complex 'passing' that the show then begins to treat as the more worthy of critique, as he is putting on airs of suburbanite 'normalcy' that not only artificially separate him from racism and his own family, but leave him somewhat powerless to engage in any sustained critique of misbehavior. Rather than the Cuyler family, it is Durwood who begins to seem like the negative pole of several binary constructions, even in cases where we might be tempted to claim that he comes out ahead: squid vs. white, rural vs. urban, rich vs. poor, and honest vs. 'politically correct'. Willis refers to this passing in the construction of both episodes, explaining that:

while the first episode really did presents a bunch of puns on hillbillies – not at all unusual for any episode of Squidbillies – the second episode is much more about us, about ‘Chalkies’ and about that critique. (Willis, 2010)

Fortier adds that:

while Squidbillies is an affectionate-yet-amplified portrayal of the folks around us [in Georgia], in these episodes viewers see that ‘Chalkies’ look just as ridiculous. For example, Durwood is uptight and preoccupied about just about everything around him, and this comes from different neurotic aspects of my personality and other ‘Chalkies’ that I know. (Fortier, 2010)

There are several playful jabs scattered throughout the episodes which imply that the squidbillies, for all their backwater stupidity, might still have some valid points to make about the absurdity of modern city life. One of the most overt is Early's line about the car air conditioner, which begins as simple hillbilly humor – with the uncomprehending line “payin' for air...; they got you comin' and goin' boy!” – but ends as a subtle attack on rampant consumerism when Early says “you probably payin' for water too!” As if to rub it in, moments later Durwood asks them if they recycle, and winds up putting what appears to be an empty plastic water bottle in the pocket of his cargo shorts. Likewise, the media manipulation performed by the Cuylers in service of their own interests does not just display their own awareness of contemporary technology, but also performs a not so subtle critique of the modern love of images of violence and poverty. For all their backwardness, sometimes the squidbillies can mount a valid critique of modernity.[17] Fortier’s above comments about the uptight and pre-occupied nature of Durwood and his family speaks to this point as well, as while the Cuyler family dynamic seems unencumbered by the trappings of modern life, Durwood and his brood consistently bicker over everything from the number of headphone jacks in the family SUV to the number of muscle-relaxers Fiona should take with her wine.

In fact, there seem to be no distinct behavioral or moral differences between the “Chalkies” and the Squids. Both Durwood and Early want Rusty for the sake of receiving the “government money-checks”; Early because it forms the bulk of his income (he can't wait for the arrival of “Rusty Money Day”), and Durwood because he has recently lost his job. Secondly, the 'moonshine' drunkenness that usually accompanies the hillbilly image is distributed evenly, in these episodes, to both sides: Early may sniff turpentine and take drinks from the same bottle while calling himself an “al-kee-holic,” but Durwood's wife is a heavy drinker, pounding down a “box of wine” and getting aroused. Finally, both the Squids and the “Chalkies” are sexually untrustworthy. Early aggressively flirts with Fiona upon her first arrival, culminating in the line “I'm gonna curl them toes in time (repeated twice)”, while Durwood spends his days (since he has no job) in a gay strip club called 'Flesh Dudes' (in which a pair of legs 'dances' while wearing boots, chaps, gun holsters and a thong with visible dollar bills protruding from the buttocks); and Fiona gets drunk and actually has sex with Rusty while Durwood is away, prompting the angry return of Rusty to the Cuyler family.[18] Ultimately, despite the show's continuation of the “clear visual dissimilarity between the mountaineers and city folk” (Frierson, 1998, pp. 93), in this case the distinction seems to be a mirage, as Durwood's 'passing' for white becomes a metaphor for the concealment of vast similarities hiding beneath the white suburban facade of intellect and 'culture.' Again, this is supported by Fortier’s earlier comments regarding the similarities between Early and Durwood that are eventually revealed in the course of the show narrative.

As such, the squidbillies, who had initially seemed like an outmoded, vicious stereotype of the uneducated rural poor, become something of a positive; in fact, their very 'stereotyping' renders them comically unreal. Meanwhile, it is the “Chalkies” who seem all-too-real and, therefore, in need of critique, as the moral rot underlying the mask of suburbanite superiority is equal to that of the stereotype. [19] The “Chalkies” then, simply become squidbillies in disguise, and it is the very disguise which goes under the gun. Stupidity may be real, but acting superior is not a response to it, as it simply evades the deeper issues. Rather than using the hillbilly image for its own sake and simply reveling in derisive hillbilly humor, Willis and Fortier drag the suburban whites into the common hillbilly plot device of the family 'feud'[20] , resulting not in a divisive Burkeian binary that serves to highlight differences between each group, but rather a binary in which one group critiques the other in the same breath as it critiques the self. Squidbillies, then, joins in the tradition described by Magoc (1991), of “Rural-based television...level[ing] well written...attacks of comic irony and wit on the prevailing doctrine” (Magoc 33).


In Squidbillies, Fortier and Willis use classic images of the Appalachian hillbilly as part of a larger statement about their internal Chalkie selves. By presenting the typical white suburbanite as an object of ridicule, Squidbillies effectively challenges the status quo of the superiority of the upper-middle class lifestyle. By drawing parallels between the classic hillbilly bumpkin and the yuppie trapped by his or her own mediocrity, Fortier and Willis provide a largely “yuppie” audience with a cleverly-crafted mirror that uses an expected otherness of hillbilly humor as a self-reflective truth.

In a ‘regular’ episode of Squidbillies, there is an expectation that the Squidbillies will serve their literary role as scapegoats for the plagues of a modern society: stupidity, poverty, racism and other crimes of ignorance in an otherwise-progressive world. However, for these two episodes, the Squids are in fact benign scapegoats. While initially the Cuyler family is presented as an unkempt social cancer, unwilling and/or unable to overcome their stupidity and backwards ways and in need of social extraction and eradication, we learn over time that they are not the problem. Rather, it is the arrogance and contrived nature of the elitist Chalkie culture that is placed under the microscope for further scrutiny. As we see their interactions with the righteous Chalkies, we focus less on the faults of the Squids and more at ourselves as the status quo. Through this comedy, we are in a way tricked into a revealing and engaging critique of ourselves with the false promise of mocking the hillbilly other. In fact, closer examination of Squidbillies reveals the use of a far more complicated notion of a benign scapegoat – one in which the benign, culturally acceptedscapegoat (the hillbilly) is used as rhetorical sleight of hand to get the audience to be critical of normative culture. This is a variant of Braden’s (2000) discussion of the benign scapegoat, which is more concerned with a political victory (Reagan) through hollow rhetoric. To us,the use of the hillbilly in Squidbilliesis not simply benign, butis also what might betermed a transitional scapegoat: a sub-cultural scapegoat which isempty of significancebut acts as a bridge to a critique of the dominant culture.

These two episodes of Squidbillies provide the series as a whole a sense of overt meaning and truth. They serve as a talking cure, a ‘mea culpa’ of sorts, where members of a supposed superior social strata are able to talk through their own insecurities and faults by placing themselves – if even only for a moment – at the reverse of the normal social order.

* Nick Bowman (Ph.D., Michigan State University) is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Young Harris College. His research focuses on the psychological underpinnings of entertainment media. He can be contacted at ndbowman@yhc.edu

*Jeremy Groskopf (M.A., Emory University) is a doctoral student in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University. His research focuses on the history of animal representation in fiction, film and television. He can be contacted at jgroskopf1@student.gus.edu

NOTE: A previous version of this manuscript was presented at the 2010 Southern States Communication Association in Memphis.


See Cooke-Jackson and Hansen (2008) for information on this program and the reaction by Appalachians themselves.

2 Frierson (1998) lists six such programs: When I Yoo Hoo (1936), A Feud There Was (1938), Naughty Neighbors (1939), Holiday for Drumsticks (1949), Hillbilly Hare (1950), and Backwoods Bunny (1959). Frierson's list is almost certainly not exhaustive.

3Note that an early episode from season one – “Chalkie Lover” (Episode 4, Season 1) – also makes reference to the existence of “Chalkies” as a separate species from the squidbillies. While this episode is not the part of the story arc involving Early and his brother Durwood, it highlights the dialectic between the land squids and Caucasians. Beyond this, few references are made about ‘“Chalkies” in any of the other 47 episodes of Squidbillies.

4 See Burke, 1945, Foss, Foss & Trapp, 2002, and Golden, Berquist, & Coleman, 2003 for a more exhaustive explanation of Burke’s pentad.

5 Perhaps one of the most prominent examples of the rhetorical use of scapegoating as a means of subjugating and removing a particular group or social class is Adolf Hitler’s use of the Jews as a scapegoat during the rise of the National Socialist party in Germany (cf. Schmidt, 2004).

6 Baker (1993) would describe the squidbillies as a very slight example of 'therianthropic' anthropomorphism, in which the character is a physical combination of beast and man. In the case of the squidbillies, only the face is given human traits, while the rest of the body is completely animal. In Baker's work, this contrasts with 'theriomorphic' anthropomorphism, in which animals which are completely bestial in appearance are given the intellectual faculties of a human being. See Baker (1993, pp. 108) for further information on this distinction.

7 The only other “land squid” characters in the show are a large purple squid physician named Dr. Bug (an abandoned grandson of Granny Cuyler, whom she "never meant to flush down the toilet") and occasional visions of Squid Jesus and a squid Devil by Granny Cuyler; the former of which seems particularly embarrassed by Granny’s devotion to him and often suggests that she “consider Satan” as her new savior.

8 Both Willis and Fortier have collaborated, created, and written several other popular programs for [adult swim], including Aqua Teen Hunger Force (Willis), Space Ghost: Coast to Coast (Willis and Fortier), Sealab 2021 (Willis) and The Brak Show (Fortier).

9 Although it should be mentioned that, in the closing frame of this episode Early comes to the realization that his days in the media spotlight are numbered. Facing this realization, he kicks Rusty down a well on his property line and places a prompt call to “Nancy Grace’s people.”

10 Recall that Fortier and Willis identify themselves as more Chalkie than hillbilly, although both are quick to point out that they are Georgia natives and are not distinct from their Southern heritage.

11 Although perhaps not as cynical and directed, Fortier and Willis' commentary on the notion of white paternalism has been highlighted in other popular media, such as the 2009 Oscar-winning film Blind Side. This film, which centered on the story of a homeless Black child who is adopted by a upper-middle class white family, was lambasted by some critics for its supposed support of the “long, troubled history of well-meaning white paternalism” and portrayal of the "blinkered middle-class pandering at its most shameless” (Fear, 2009; Tobias, 2009). A similar critique of the ‘white savior’ bias in entertainment media was raised recently by University of North Carolina media critic James Trier, who – in reference to movies about education and teachers – criticizes the "standard teacher-savior clichés" in which white teachers cleans up dysfunctional urban schools (as cited by Toppo, 2009).

12 During our interview, Willis talked about his own identification: “While I’m way closer to a ‘Chalkie’ than a hillbilly, I still feel a good deal of Southern pride…sometimes an embarrassing amount.”

13 See Frierson's (1998) discussion of A Feud There Was for another example of this type of “cynical” commercialism in which the hillbillies “prostitute their music for commerce.”

14 Frierson (1998), pp. 90.

15 Animal characters are frequently used in animation in order to either broaden the representational ability of individual characters by disassociating them particular human traits, or distract the viewer from the fact that a taboo line is being crossed. Frierson (1998) argues that “[b]y 1959, the use of human characters as dumb hillbillies had perhaps gotten too touchy” for Warner Brothers, resulting in a return to animal characters in the hillbilly roles (pp. 99). The choice of squid here obviously joins in that tradition, as it allows for racial commentary without the problem of needing one of the characters to be a recognizable form of 'minority.' In this version of Appalachia, instead of white and black, we have white and squid. This is not a completely original concept; Frierson (1998) discusses the black and white ducks in Naughty Neighbors as a clear racial overtone.

16 In expanding this discussion, Fortier references an earlier episode from Squidbillies (Episode 4 of the premiere season) in which the Cuyler family holds 'anti-chalkie' rallies clearly modeled after the Klu Klux Klan. In response to the rally, the white sheriff character sits the Cuyler’s down to explain some of the many important contributions Chalkies have made the world (including former Boston Celtic Larry Bird’s invention of the slam dunk in professional basketball). This scene presents a humorous rather than a disturbing edge by turning the white, middle-class ‘norm’ into the object of intense racism and bigotry.

17 Though Frierson (1998) largely ignores his own observations along these lines in favor of an essentializing psychoanalytic critique, he does make the very accurate statement that “cartoon...hillbill[ies] can be used to hold up a mirror to...modern industrial society” (pp. 90), and further claims that “[e]ven while these [Warner Brothers] cartoons look down at...hillbillies...[they] highlight the mountaineers' rejection of urbanization...as an anarchistic antidote to...more patriotic images” (pp. 100). Squidbillies is clearly functioning in the same way, as the Cuylers are simultaneously the object of humor and the vehicle for satirizing urban life.

18 The sex scene is a variant of the equally taboo 'jungle fever' joke – the notion of white women having a desire for sexual relations with Black men – which in turn underlies her marriage to a squid in the first place.

19 This is strikingly similar to the portrayal of Archie Bunker, the ‘lovable bigot’ and focal point of the 1970s sitcom All in the Family who was famous for browbeating his “dingbat” wife Edith and displaying a superior acumen for racial slurs (Vidmar & Rokeach, 1974).

20 Frierson (1998) remarks that the 'feud' between rival families is one of the central structuring motifs of film and television representations of the hillbilly - especially animated representations. Two families, usually impossible to differentiate by any means other than the color of their hair, would traditionally fire weapons at each other regardless of their having forgotten the reason for the blood feud. This type of permanent family feud has been twisted in Squidbillies into one in which the feud partners are the Cuyler family, who have retained the hillbilly lifestyle, and the “Chalkies” who have abandoned it.


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